Taking A Risk: Teaching Slavery & Race to Students 50+ Yrs Old in the US South

I’ve just finished teaching what has been one of my most thought-provoking and soul-stirring classes this spring: a class on comparative slavery & race.

In today’s political climate.

In the US South.

To students 50+ years of age.

I’m glad I didn’t think it through too carefully, when this opportunity came around. I love teaching in a public history context- taking all of my research and writing, and transforming it into a narrative and compelling cast of characters that I present without any presumption of prior knowledge in the subject. It’s a double challenge for me- to ensure rigorousness without overwhelming my listeners. It takes me longer than the traditional lecture format to prepare, but when it works, it’s so worth it.

However, had I thought it through for a moment, I might not have agreed to do this particular class.

Why?

My classroom was full of people who lived through Jim Crow right here in Nashville, TN, the hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement. They remember when whites and people of color had to use separate facilities and weren’t allowed to marry. They read about the Lunch Counter Sit-Ins downtown when they happened.  They were children and young adults in 1960, when one of our city’s most promising civil rights activists, James Lawson, was expelled from the University that signs my paychecks.

And they were different people then, than they are now. They have seen so much more.

In this class, my black and my white students sat next to each other (something they would not have done when they were enrolled in school the first time around) and listened to a whippersnapper (that’s me, I’m the whippersnapper) contextualize that history for them in a broader Atlantic framework and chronology.

It’s been so humbling.

Teaching this class has necessitated some digging, and has pushed me to interrogate my whiteness further. No matter how much I teach about slavery, emancipation, and the bloody aftermath, I am continually amazed at the ways in which living within a white supremacist world cuts me off from my own humanity. I feel demeaned witnessing the dehumanization of an entire group of people, and that for so long, I was cut off from the knowledge of how to fight this. I’m upset that all this has been going on under my nose, and it took studying at the grad school level for me to see it. Meanwhile, black children become aware of this in elementary school as a means of survival. White supremacy ensured that I could live alongside a group of people, assured that we were all equal, while being oblivious to the daily indignities and dangers they face.

And because of that, I demand more of my students. That means that we all have to bring our very best selves to the table in a class like this.

Which means that in order to facilitate that, I had to go first-I had to create an atmosphere where honesty took precedence, and where students could expect me to help them sit with the discomfort this would bring up, and process the feelings that come with re-examining such a personal and terrible history.

Teaching in this way requires a certain emotional exhibitionism that I’ve never been comfortable with. I still am not, but I find there to be no other way. If I’m going to tell my white students that a mass tragedy gives them advantages in this world, and if I’m going to expect my students of African descent to sit and listen through my recounting every bit of terror inflicted on their ancestors, then I have to be honest about my own stakes and emotional investment in this topic. I have to be vulnerable and show them how, even after all of these years studying these tragedies, it still affects me. My job takes a giant emotional toll, and I don’t know any scholars of mass atrocity who can claim otherwise.

And to be frank, nor do I want to. It feels wrong to intellectualize the pain of others, even if they are long dead.

Opening myself up in this way and showing my students that I was also struggling, allowed them to be open about their own struggles. They did the hard work of re-examining their own memories in light of this new information I was bringing to them, and trusting that they were strong enough to sit with the discomfort rather than resist this growth.

They were so generous with me and with one another. One woman proudly brought in the photo of the first freewoman in her family. The resemblance was startling and beautiful. Another student shared stories of his childhood, and the ways in which his grandparents would cavalierly talk about the people they had owned. Another asked me if I could come to her church and help to explain white supremacy and the things they could do to dismantle it. Others shared resources, citations, and local knowledge with me and one another. It was incredibly powerful to allow the space for people to reconcile their memories with my research, and think about current events in light of our brutal past.

Emotional risk-taking isn’t something for everyone, nor is it always appropriate in the classroom. I think it’s something that you do, when it makes sense to do so, when students need it. We like to separate out our rational thoughts from our irrational feelings, but some subjects don’t lend themselves to that. Emotional blockages prevent intellectual development, or intellectual development can come at the expense of the emotional exploration. Being able to sense the temperature of the classroom and adjust the ways in which you teach so that students’ heads and hearts come into concert is a skill that I think will take a lifetime to master.

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