Please note: I wrote the following post before Emily Owens’ excellent post “‘We have to Make them Feel Us’: Open Letters and Black Mothers’ Grief” two days ago from the perspective of “black mothers who have lost their children at the hands of white racism” asking precisely for empathy. These two posts speak to each other in compelling ways, one from black mothers demanding that whites feel them and the other asking how we teach white students to do precisely that.
Jacob Lawrence, “Play.” He wrote about his artistic viewpoint, “This is my genre…the happiness, the tragedies, and the sorrows of mankind as realized in the teeming black ghetto.”
As many of you are probably also doing, I’m polishing my syllabi for the new semester. I am teaching the African American History survey for the third time. Luther College defines that course from the 1500s to the present. After the first time I taught this course, I realized that my majority white students walked away assuming that black history was entirely depressing and horror-filled. Last year, at the beginning of my second time teaching the course, I decided to add the above image of a Jacob Lawrence painting at the top of my syllabus and my course management website. I hoped that seeing it everyday, along with the attached quote, students might understand that there is happiness and joy in black experiences alongside tragedy and sorrow.
I am wondering now, though, whether that is still appropriate as I plan my syllabus a week after Michael Brown’s murder and while Furguson is still being blown up.
I find that, in general, white students tend to only hear the stories of white oppression in a black history course, while my desire for all students is to come away with an experience empathizing with a diverse group of humans in the past (but mostly the black slaves, not the white slave holders, which is where some of my students go when we grapple with the reality of slavery).
I have read some strong arguments against using empathy as a student learning objective in a history course (not laying my hands on them at the moment–what I am finding now is an argument against Obama’s emphasis on empathy), but I still find it a valuable exercise. How do we enter the mental world of people with very different conceptions and expectations of the world. One challenge I find is fighting against a pure relativism embedded, unbeknownst to the student, in white privilege (students said last year, “Well, it was just the way it was done back then to have slaves.”)
The other challenge of focusing on empathy as a student learning goal is when students enter into the world of complex black people that do not fit the neat narrative I sometimes want them to take away. So, I want them to understand the wide range of resistance that most black enslaved people engaged in. Sometimes that resistance (if we can understand that word to include methods of self-preservation rather than only actions meant to undermine the system) included cooperating with the slave owners. Students tend to want things to be simple, so if a black person ever committed a crime, then my critique of the prison industrial complex is obviously (to them) inadequate. If a black person ever mentioned things being easier under slavery (because the Reconstruction Era was difficult, especially being freed with an empty purse and no land) then maybe slavery wasn’t so bad.
Despite these challenges, I make empathy one of the central features of my African American survey. Perhaps I believe if Darren Wilson had taken time to think about what it was to live life as a black teenager in Ferguson, MO, both as a contemporary reality and as a lived reality of historical circumstances of race and economics in the US, he would have thought before acting on his unspoken assumptions. And perhaps if white politicians had a conception of African American History through black people’s eyes (rather than their own sense of white guilt or white justification/anger), they might be less likely to perpetuate systemic racism. Might be.
I leave you with something I’ve been pondering since it happened last semester. The sociology dept at my college had invited a non-profit out of a nearby major city to come speak as part of a conference. They help black men who have just gotten out of jail build a new life. After their performance of monologues written by the men, they opened the floor for questions. This exchange happened near the end:
White woman: “As an education major what can I do to help?”
Leader of the non-profit gives a few concrete ideas for how to treat black students in her classroom, but also echoes Malcolm X’s advice to the white supplicant to fix her own community first. After he’d finished and before the next question was asked, I spoke out, “And maybe take a black history course!”
The leader replied, “That doesn’t help.”