By Therí A. Pickens
This is part of a blog series related to Therí Pickens’s forthcoming book.
How exactly does one teach a lesson on Trayvon Martin? The emotive difficulty requires one kind of preparation, the intellectual rigor another. I sought to keep the dignity of Martin and avoid the sensationalism associated with merely covering a "current event" in an English class. I took several steps to prepare my class intellectually and emotionally for the discussion.
[Related: Political Flesh V: Teaching Trayvon Martin]
First, it is important to note that this in an introductory course (100 level) designed to expose students to the tradition of African American Literature. It used to be one course for the whole of the tradition, but now I have made it two courses: 1600 - 1910, and 1910 - present. This is the second half of the course which seeks to provide an expansive view of Black literary engagement. The particular focus of this semester is love and politics. As I explained to the students on the first day, when all else fails, you can return the questions about the depiction of love (agape, phileo, eros) or questions about the attention to politics (gender, government, sexual, etc). Telling them the main questions driving the course was step one in our preparation. Since everything we planned to discuss could be subordinated under a specific and named intellectual rubric, I made clear to them that our discussions may coincidental, but they would never be accidental.
Second, I set the specific tone for Grimke's Rachel by giving some intellectual context for the play. Using Koritha Mitchell's Living with Lynching and Soyica Diggs Colbert's The African American Theatrical Body, I explained that they were reading part of a Black drama tradition that sought to revise existing narratives regarding Black domestic life and prosperity. To my mind, Mitchell and Diggs Colbert's work brings to bear the intellectual force of other top notch scholars who invest time and energy into unpacking these ideas. Students at Bates tend to have a healthy sense of intellectual respect and humility when they confront intellectual tradition. Moreover, this allowed them to begin th a sense that there were parameters to the discussion, a place from which they could begin.
I deliberately started off the class with an open ended question, along the lines of "What do you want to talk about?" They began to discuss their opinions of Rachel as a character and a few scenes in which Rachel confronts her suitor. This lead us to a rather rousing set of comments about gender politics. We made it clear that John, the suitor, may or may not be a sexist, but we till had to account for the age dynamic and gender politics in his interaction with Rachel. Here, we made a distinction between interpreting and judging, analysis that opens up and analysis that shuts down conversation. That was during our Tuesday discussion. At the end f that class, I stopped us a 5 minutes before the end to lay out the conversation for the next class including that we would broach the topic of Trayvon Martin. For me, this was the opportunity to do emotional prep work. For the intrepid among them, it was also a chance to look up the reference.
Since they did not go toward the subject on their own, I steered the conversation toward lynching. We examined the interplay of aesthetics and politics. How does the memory recitation function within the play? How does that scene rely on or disrupt intimacy? This was very volatile subject matter. How do the choices in stage direction, positioning, and dialogue engage lynching? How does Rachel's weeping at the denouement of the play strike you as a theater-goer? As a possible director?
I kept the focus on the play as art as well as (indirect) political engagement. The students came up with really excellent ideas about how aesthetics and politics intertwine. As is apropos of most lit students - be they dilettantes or experts - they were a bit flummoxed by fact that they were dealing with drama. I chalk that up to a lack of exposure generally, and an emphasis on specific kinds of putatively contiguous narratives in lit pedagogy specifically.
Before opening up the discussion on Martin, I anchored my rationale for bringing it up in the architecture of the course. I reiterated out that the course had been split into two parts so that we could have wider discussions. I also pointed out hat we have a tendency to view some pieces of literature as circumscribed to their times and analyze them within those constraints. As I said in another post, Rachel is now because there are many Rachels now.
When I opened up the discussion, only the three Black men in the class spoke. They articulated a range of reactions from disappointment, to surprise, to fear. This I think was significant for everyone to hear because it gave clear indication of the wide range of human reaction. It was a very James Baldwin moment for me, as his work captures what was palpable to me in that moment: the complexity of available responses to human beauty and ugliness.
Yet, I was not satisfied. I told them that I noticed that only the Black men spoke. I reminded them that everyone has a stake in this conversation. We are all implicated because this is the world we will accept or change. One student, who has had me before, piped up saying that the situation demonstrates how we have to do the work of being together because otherwise we remain siloed. Otherwise, she implied, we believe someone in a hoodie, carrying candy and a beverage, is dangerous. Otherwise, I add, we leave unexamined the necessity of weaponizing a sidewalk when staring down the barrel of a bully's gun.
I regret that the bell rang during this conversation. (Yes, we have bells.) But, as I remind my students (perhaps ad nauseum), my class is very much an extended dinner party. We will most certainly return to these ideas again.
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.