Audience, Personal Experience and the Teaching of African American Intellectual History

Just recently, an African American student meeting me in office hours surprisingly and enthusiastically commented that my class was the first where the student had encountered so many other black students. Certainly, I teach students who have been taught by many black teachers and learned alongside many black students during their educational careers. However, I have been struck by the racial patterns in my classes. When I teach The American Religious Experience, black students do not predominate. When I teach The African American Religious Experience, black students always make up the majority of participants. There is something about the issues of blackness, race, identity, and politics that correspondingly motivate or discourage student participation. This has lead to an interesting challenge in the teaching of black intellectual history to undergraduates.

Students exercise their powers of historical empathy and analysis by constantly tacking back and forth between personal experience and the imagining of worldviews that are different from or radically counterintuitive to their own. Yet, scholarly pedagogy and writing demand that historians root their evidence in archival research and that they never stray too far in following explanatory paths relying on personal experience or psychological theory. I teach students how to situate and consider various kinds of archival evidence and to assess patterns of change and continuity. However, the discipline of African American intellectual history has arisen as much from formal scholarly methods as much as it has from the personal consideration of existential questions concerning the relationship of blacks to broader social forces.

Undergraduates take any particular course for an array of reasons. They must balance major and minor requirements, personal curiosity and interest, extra-curricular commitment, work and a host of other concerns. Yet, despite the widely varying motivations that push black students to take my classes about black people and race, I think their motivations compare because they hope or believe that they will encounter something in the content and experience of the class that will address, directly or indirectly, and in a personal, intuitive or affirming way, questions of personal racial identity and racial politics.

When discussing the fortunate fall thesis relative to the eighteenth-century black poet, Phillis Wheatley, some students, as some scholars have done, dismiss Wheatley’s On Being Brought From Africa to America as a form of false consciousness.1  Some students ask the insightful but problematic question, “why would the oppressed adopt the religion of their oppressor?” These students imagine that they would have seen conversion as a form of oppression rather than liberation. These considerations lead to a wide-ranging discussion about how the students define power, inequality, and justice. Engaging directly with students’ modern assumptions helps me to show how their understanding of power, religion, and race has been shaped historically. Moreover, a thick description of eighteenth-century Protestantism helps students understand paradox and theodicy in Wheatley’s thought. Wheatley reinterpreted Christianity to challenge slavery. At the same time, Wheatley’s Christianity explained slavery as God’s way of bringing Christianity to Africa; from evil would ultimately arise salvation and good. Moreover, Wheatley understood non-Christian West African cultures in colonial terms. The place of her birth was pagan, but it deserved Christianity given that her abolitionism arose from her belief in the Christian equality between whites and blacks.

Comparing and contrasting how students respond to Phillis Wheatley versus Nat Turner further demonstrates the need to engage, and not dismiss, students’ personal opinion. To those students who see Turner’s violence as a proper response to slavery in contrast to Wheatley, I explain the problems of imaging an archetypal slave experience. To those students who are upset by Turner’s violence, I ask them to remember the every day violence endured on southern plantations. A most important link between these varied responses to Wheatley and Turner is that students are trying to understand these past actors by locating themselves in these past histories. Given historical continuities of race, racism and racial identity students tend initially to collapse the past and the present in an earnest attempt to understand the past.

The student who commented on the number of black students in my class also commented on how refreshing and exciting it was to hear the views and opinions of so many other students who had some sort of personal stake in the class. I understood this enthusiasm intuitively. I will never forget being asked as a graduate student why I choose to study African American history given that my blackness might lead scholars to question whether my abilities of analytical sophistication and nuance would be hamstrung by racial connection to my objects of study. Mind you, the white graduate student who asked me this was of European descent and studied Europe. I readily admit that I have a personal stake in the historical study of black people.

Undergraduate teaching has convinced me that while the research and writing I do shapes our understanding of black intellectual history in one scholarly context, my teaching informs a different dimension of black intellectual history.  That my undergraduates are engaging in the practice of black intellectual thought illustrates that the discipline emerges from everyday experience.  Some students who tend to argue for the continuity of racial ideology and its consequences see themselves as addressing similar questions as past historical actors. With these students, I emphasize how the past was different. In contrast, some students emphasize change at the expense of noting continuing patterns or traditions. I have to ask these students to consider the evidence of similar or recurring themes and problems. Black intellectual history in the undergraduate classroom gives the discipline an important dynamism. Moreover, teaching black intellectual history reminds me that the relevance of the discipline arises not just from scholarly debate but also from the discussions that arise between me and my students given their personal, but also varied and divergent, investments in the study of blackness and black thought.

I do not mean to imply that scholarship of black thought wants to be or is disengaged from current concerns and events. I am also not arguing that only black students should take courses on black people. However, I am struck by how the teaching of black thought to students who have vested interests in the topic creates an invigorating and necessary realm of reflection, debate and discussion that informs my writing and that makes undergraduates better thinkers. More importantly, it is a good thing that my undergraduate student finally found a class where most of the students were black, where the professor was black, and where most, if not all, of the students were motivated by the belief that ideas matter for personal experience and for social change.

  1. Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773)
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Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.