Fall Teaching in a Trump Climate

donald-trump-1269307_640As the summer comes to an end and I begin to think about teaching in the fall, I wonder how the climate of Trump might affect the discussions about race, religion, gender, sex and politics that I am planning. Last spring, at the institution where I teach, students and professors experienced explicitly violent, racist, and misogynist threats that erupted from various social media sources in response to the university’s hosting of a controversial speaker. Various confrontations broke out between student supporters and protestors of the speaker, but tensions had already been simmering. A day before the event, in the university quad, a student spray painted a slur against Mexico. In the days just after the event, a noose was found near an undergraduate dormitory. In addition to these campus events, national police violence caught on camera and the deeply rooted prejudice that has led to and been supported by Donald Trump have intensified debates and conversations about race, class, gender, sex, and citizenship.

Moreover, the varied and growing activism of organizations and communities, like Black Lives Matter, is ensuring that issues of social justice, equality, and citizenship do not become fodder for votes in the current presidential election season. Given this particular political and cultural moment, I wonder how these events will enter into the classroom.

As I think about the upcoming quarter, I am less concerned about introducing new material and more concerned with being prepared for the unexpected. Whether I am teaching new books or classic texts, I suspect that this year more than any other, teaching will produce conversations that I could not have foreseen. Last spring, one student broke down in class and several explained to me personally how events on campus were taking a toll on their abilities to focus and concentrate. These were not just students of color. Students from diverse backgrounds expressed fatigue and stress in dealing with the climate on campus and in society more broadly.

Despite a lack of formal psychological studies that define and address solutions for racial trauma there is a recent and growing literature. At the same time, given that emotional and physical forms of racial violence and marginalization have defined the lives of most black people, an array of historical activists and intellectuals have described, examined and labored against various kinds of racial trauma. These include Sojourner Truth’s public abolitionism, Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign, W. E. B. DuBois’ idea of double consciousness, Carter G. Woodson’s explanation of the Mis-education of the Negro, the research of psychologists Kenneth B. Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark and Malcolm X’s embrace of Islam and critiques of American nationalism and Christianity.

240x240_bio_clark and mammie
Mamie Phipps Clark and Kenneth B. Clark

Managing conflicting responses to class material is where an additional layer of student learning takes place, and this effort demands from me a kind of disciplined empathy. For example, in class, I have students watch the 12 minute short documentary found at withoutsanctuary.org. The website is related to Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack. Allen narrates this short film that depicts the horror of lynching as a normalized ritual of power made almost mundane by being photographed, bought, and sold on everyday postcards. I first showed this film by giving it a brief introduction without explaining that students could leave the room if they found it too explicit and too violent. I figured that viewing graphic violence was not new for my students.

However, after one showing, a black student approached me after the class and explained that, in his case, the clip did not provide anything new. The student had been sickened not from encountering new images of brutality but from being reminded once again of historical racial violence. The student had wished that I had explained that students could leave for the duration of the short film if they found it too difficult to watch. In a different class, after viewing the same film, a white student tried to imagine her life and her outlook if she had been raised in the crowd–an onlooker and supporter of lynching. She admitted the force of ideas and of socialization by wondering who she would have been if she had been brought up as a child in that society. Moreover, another student pointed out the small children in some of the photographs. These are the kinds of varied teaching experiences that make African American history necessary for all of us and that demand that teachers have social dexterity.

A mural near the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, Washington, D.C. (courtesy of https://www.npca.org/)
A mural near the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, Washington, D.C. (courtesy of https://www.npca.org/)

By developing historical empathy and an understanding of the interplay between ideas, everyday practices, and institutional systems, students further their ability to comprehend in multiple ways the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and sex in various political contexts. In addition to learning how ideas, like race, are socially constructed, students slowly begin to gain a broader understanding of how ideas work in ways that are implicit and explicit.

My conversations with students about the historical emergence of racial ideas as a set of beliefs and as a set of practices allow them to better understand the complexity of current debates about defining and confronting race, racists, and systemic racism. Thinking about how black intellectuals of the past, from enslaved men and women to well known writers, thought about and confronted the multiple challenges of racial violence gives some students a new conceptual map on which to locate but also to frame their own responses to our current political moment.

Youth activists led a Black Lives Matter protest around downtown Chicago with over 1,000 participants in Chicago on July 11, 2016. (Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago on July 11, 2016. (Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In a previous post, I wrote about how student’s personal experiences can become a useful pedagogical tool if handled properly, and I remind myself of this now. The classroom should be a very dynamic place of learning for students and for me as the instructor. However, I suspect that this year more than most, my students and I might have to call upon greater amounts of self-restraint, respect, and patience. The study of black intellectual history is by definition also the exploration of racial trauma. To engage with historical forms of racial violence is to invite the spectre of racial stress out from students’ lives and into the classroom. Hopefully, I will balance our critical discussions of prejudice and oppression with explorations of perseverance, defiance, and justice.

My concerns about fall teaching reflect my views on the art and significance of teaching. Teaching is an art insofar as it demands that all the participants, including myself, approach each other with a degree of trust. The problem with this approach is that trust must be given and earned by every individual in a diverse community of learners. The more I teach, the more I find that the study of race, class, gender, and sex in humanities classes provides students with a set of tools to confront implicit aggression and explicit hostility that they encounter. Last spring, my own students were asking me to explain certain controversial administrative responses to volatile campus events.

I realize that many of my students will only have critical and useful conversations and even debates about race, class, gender, and sex in their college classes. Most students arrive to college because they see it as a means on which to build a career. However, whatever that career may be, students will have to engage the myriad factors that will impact them in ways that they could not have anticipated. Developing a career path is not separate from understanding continuity and change in African American history or in United States religious and political history.

As much as the present is different from the past, the past has also shaped the present in significant ways. I hope that I can impress this upon my students. I hope to help students confront and defy racial trauma by making them more familiar with the ways that people have dehumanized others and with the ways that people have always defied this brutality.

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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.