I just completed my 5th week of teaching and this Friday we began our second unit on gender constructions, misogyny, masculinity, and feminism(s). Although I was very excited to move into our second unit I was also fearful and didn’t know what to expect from my students. The first piece we read was Audre Lorde’s Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. The night before I also had my students attend the Africana Studies open forum on protest and policing in the U.S.
Friday morning finally rolled in and I was interested to hear what the students thought about the forum and Audre Lorde’s piece. Many of the students felt that they understood why the Black Lives Matter movement was necessary and yet one student argued that Lorde’s piece was irrelevant today. You can only imagine my confusion and frustration- BUT since I was wearing my teaching heels and not my student shoes I didn’t want to lecture my students. I wanted them to guide the conversation and own their learning experience.
The one student – let’s call him Carmichael – had a problem with Lorde’s critique on Western European society. He felt that she was wrong for critiquing a society that has “come such a long way, I mean we have a Black president now”. When he spoke these words my body cringed and I wanted so bad to stop the class and take control BUT I kept my composure and asked other students if they felt the same. Fortunately another student spoke up.
Student 2: “I know what you’re trying to say but we were at the forum on Wednesday where Black students and teachers opened up and talked about fearing for their lives. Obama is a great triumph but we still have issues with police brutality, so this reading is still necessary even in 2016”
Carmichael: “ But it’s America, why does she blame Western European society? I mean we’re not living in the Eastern part of the world where women and gay people get murdered. It’s better here, we’ve made progress.”
At this point hands shoot up left and right and many students intervene. Thank God!
Student 3: “If America wants to be the leader of the free world then we need to set a good example, you can’t have police murdering people based on prejudice but point fingers at some other country for their own issues. The whole world has issues and we need to start addressing them at home.”
Student 4: “You also have to understand that she is speaking as Black feminist lesbian poet in America and she’s really talking back to the oppressive history that Black people have faced in this country. She writes from her perspective about her experiences and they are valid. I mean we have Sandra Bland, how can you say this is not relevant?”
Carmichael: “I just don’t think it’s realistic to talk about these issues because nothing is going to change. People will be racist and homophobic. Things are way better now and she’s (Audre Lorde) not giving America credit for its progress. Like I said, women have it better now, so she should be grateful for where we are now as a country”
Student 5: “Well actually you’re wrong. I wasn’t born racist or sexist. None of us are, these are things we are taught and hate is learned so I do think we should keep talking and writing about these issues because that’s where change happens.”
Although I had many students who made my heart full I couldn’t help but think about Carmichael. Class ended and we didn’t have time to “wrap up” our conversation. I left class a bit disappointed because I wanted so bad to teach him everything in one period. To my surprise Carmichael emailed me after class and asked me to read an article arguing the right of free speech and ultimately the right to culturally appropriate others for the sake of creativity. He felt that this article addressed what we discussed in class and it really didn’t but I could see where he was going with this.
Mind you, I have a paper due on Monday, a presentation to complete for work, and drafts of my PhD applications due this week (so I am biting my nails and I’m overwhelmed). And yet I decided to read this article and reached out to my teaching cohort for help. Meanwhile the student sends a follow up email backing up his stance and I decided to take this moment to ask him to close read the article and explain to me why he was drawing these connections. We kept emailing back and forth for about 20 minutes and to my surprise his final response:
This brought me a great deal of joy! I realized that in 50 minutes of class 3 days a week for 15 weeks I will not be able to inspire consciousness in my students (or send them out as social justice agents). But I can challenge them in the classroom and use it as a space of reflection and transformation (even if they don’t fully evolve during their 1st semester of college LOL). And as a product of Lehigh’s Africana Studies program I can encourage them to further their education by searching for the classrooms and scholars who can guide their intellectual development – Africana Studies. I feel like this was a beautiful gift and it was worth every minute I didn’t spend working on my essay (but now back to that essay).