Before class even started I just knew. I just fucking knew. We were to discuss Citizen in a majority classroom and I should have prepped myself ahead of time to completely disconnect, because that day especially, I was just too tired.
I’m definitely not the first negro to step foot into a graduate classroom and, within five minutes hear some shit like “racism isn’t real, because it doesn’t solve anything.”
And yes, the context was just like that. Absent. Shit was out there, floating somewhere, but the professor wasn’t prepared to find it, and I certainly didn’t have the energy to excavate that shit from the white imagination. I started jotting notes on other stuff, revising poems in my laptop, but the rabbit hole just widened and I couldn’t un-hear any of the distraction.
“Talking about it just makes it worse by giving it a platform,” another student said.
It’s as if history was abolished and the first ever conversation about race in these here United States was taking place.
“I’ve never met anyone who used the N word, so this doesn’t make any sense,” I heard next.
“Yeah,” another student chimed in. “If you look for things hard enough, you’ll create it.”
I also discovered that another white student was accused of being racist for not giving change to a homeless Black man. It sounded like she was hurt by the man’s hasty conclusion, so she needed to point it out, this “reverse racism,” in order to plain and simply refute the entire American Lyric. Problem is, it essentially worked. The same girl, who is a public school teacher, also charged rap music as the primary issue in impoverished Black and Latino communities–again, as if this has never been discussed, critiqued, dissected, refuted.
Aside from the students with overwhelmingly racist and/or un-critical, un-read opinions, the classroom was silent. While I felt my usual responsibility to say things, to ground the conversation in the text or history or theory or even fucking reality, I was not the teacher. And this is not the first, nor will it be the last time I found myself in such a situation (as evidenced by Amanda emailing me and asking “hey why didn’t you say anything?” Since she did try to fight the good–but inevitably futile, as a student–fight, alone). I just told her I was tired. It is not my, nor our responsibility to set the tone for, and subsequently manage the graduate classroom so often.
To be clear, engaging conversation, debate and textual analysis between the students should be standard, but in most of the graduate classrooms I’ve entered, there isn’t even a solid base to start on. This happens, in part because of an assumption by the professor that we’re all adults, which leads to a less regimented, less lecture based classroom, potentially a great thing–with a plan, and a backup plan–but it can’t completely absolve the responsibility to teach. I welcome the opportunity for people to say dumb shit; that can be lots of fun! But the problem is when the dumb, the racist, the sexist rhetoric are the only things being said, and subsequently remain legitimate in not only the mind of the student who states them, but sometimes the rest of the class as well. And the intellectual gaps, the blind spots, not only remain empty, but there’s nothing stopping them from getting bigger. And it keeps happening.
“There is no racism in the military,” another student began. “Because there are no mirrors.”
For real? I mean, I have a lot to say about that last one, but I’m gonna leave it alone for now since I’m writing a whole damn novel about it already.
We need look no further than every single thing surrounding the last election cycle–and its raw sewage fallout that rises higher by the day–to understand that American adults still need to be taught, a lot.
“Isn’t it exploitative to talk about Trayvon Martin, after having the Hennessey Youngman thing in there?” a student said.
I began by using Citizen as a reference because of its popularity as a recent Black text, that from what I can tell, is being taught in plenty classrooms across the country. It’s also a useful reference because the lack of teaching, of lecture on background, or guiding the conversation, or even using dumb shit as teachable moments in the classroom is much more prevalent when the text(s) in question are not specifically about, or catered to cis White males. This is of course, obvious to some of us. Any time a brown person, or problems that directly hinder brown people are at the center of a text, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of seriousness in the preparation for, and consequently, the deconstruction of said text(s), which in majority classrooms, is the exact opposite of what’s necessary. It is of course, the same lack of seriousness with which my own intellectual ability has been regarded throughout my entire education. The two: lack of seriousness surrounding Black texts, as well as Black intellectual ability, have provided some trolling amusement though, as I’ve looked out into a room of peach-colored frustration while presenting a rhetorical analysis of Afro-Pessimism–which resulted in some very cooling, flower scented White tears, that I bathed in for the remainder of the semester. Make no mistake though, you’re liable to walk into a graduate class and get not taught all kinds of shit.
Sometimes I feel guilty though for not saying anything, especially in the middle of a classroom, but I had already decided that I wouldn’t constantly teach anymore–unless ya’ll offering a tenure track job–at the cost of my own mental health. Aisha kept saying that just because folks need to learn, it doesn’t obligate you to teach. Clearly, that’s true. But I had to get exhausted enough to realize it’s utility, and how it might allow for a more productive, less emotionally fatigued self.