- "Where I Come From It's Like This"The African American Lens and the Critical Role of the Local South in Teaching Social Justice
In 2016 Memphis protesters stormed onto Interstate 40 as the spontaneous part of a larger protest of the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Instead of the military-style policing that characterized Ferguson and Baton Rouge, the protest, which held up traffic for hours, ended peacefully with the interim police chief literally walking arm and arm with protesters to deescalate rising tensions between police officers, motorists, and protesters. The next two days involved a contentious open forum with the mayor, protests outside Elvis Presley's Graceland, and, almost two years later, the removal of the statue of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest. As we help students understand the events in Charlottesville, Ferguson, and Baton Rouge in the South's ongoing identity struggle, it is crucial for them to begin to understand their own towns as hotbeds of racial conflicts or as sites still negotiating the tensions between the South's mythic past and a dynamic future. Despite the privileging of ritual and tradition that often seem quaint if not outdated, the South has remained in a perpetual state of crisis since the founding of the Union.
My class discussions seek to display the primary role slavery plays in both the political and cultural life of nineteenth-century America in order to help students understand the depth of the South's influence on the United States. Securing the white South [End Page 212] has always been critical to political success and so has maintaining a cohesive vision of the country. Thus, when discussing slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, we see the influence of the South and slavery over the entire nation in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced citizens in the free and slave states to participate in recovering escaped slaves on penalty of fine or imprisonment. As an African American professor, I am well aware that some students can be resistant to extended and explicit references to race, especially in classes that are not explicitly identified as being about race. This fact becomes an opportunity to challenge my more privileged or apathetic students who avoid social justice work or claim to have no opinion about sociopolitical questions. I ask my students what they would do if they were deputized and forced to participate in capturing slaves: would they help and become an accomplice in the "flesh" trade, or would they refuse and risk imprisonment or severe fine? Some immediately say no, they would not help while others wrestle with the public imposition on their private moral codes, while others are virtually silent, surprised by the notion that they could still participate in racist practices even as they actively avoid taking political and ideological positions. Many of my students believe that they can avoid engaging in activist or social justice work, and that by individually being a "good person," they will not be implicated by being considered racist or risk being alienated from their family and friends or have to confront their own biases. Our discussion around slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act serves to inform my students that noncommittal positions do not exempt them from participating in and benefiting from the system of white supremacist hegemony. This becomes critical throughout the semester as we get closer to the present and my students express a similar ignorance of the white South's explicit racial backlash over the last forty years.
In discussing the events that have garnered national attention, we are often led to ignore the ways in which similar narratives exist locally, accepting them as merely "just how things are." My students, then, might be best served by beginning our discussion of the South's post–Civil War transition with an inclusion of Memphis that involves the 1866 Memphis Massacre in which whites killed 46 African Americans, raped 5, and injured 285. The initial attack on black soldiers expanded to include all blacks and reveals that the South's attempt to undermine black progress was almost immediate after the end...