At the end of Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow (1946), Stephen Fox thinks about his son Etienne. The Civil War has just ended, and Stephen ponders what the racism and hate that Etienne carries within himself will bring for the future. Etienne’s feelings and ideas will lead to more bloodshed, more dead bodies, and a stunted progress towards equality. The events in Charlottesville, VA, under the watchful eyes of Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, bring Stephen’s fears to life.
Stephen Fox, like Thomas Jefferson, is an ambiguous character in regard to his feelings on race and slavery. He does not whip his slaves, yet his son does. He does not rape his slaves, yet is friend Mike Farrell attempts to. His views change, and he begins to see the problems with the slavocracy he lives within. None of this excuses his actions. I mention these things because Etienne appears completely counter to Stephen. He does not want to even consider emancipating his property. He beats his servant, Inch. He rapes Desiree, a free quadroon. Stephen’s example, and the rest of the environment, leads to Etienne becoming a racist. I have written about this before in regards to Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, so I will not elaborate on it here.
After Stephen and Etienne encounter Inch, who is now the Commissioner of Police in New Orleans after the Civil War, Etienne becomes furious because he must adhere to the decisions his former slaver makes. Etienne’s outburst makes Stephen think about the future. He muses,
Now I must begin again, . . . and I am old. It must be left to the young men—‘Tienne and the rest. And I fear that they will look forever backward to what was. Ye can’t turn the world back again, ye must go forward. If they try to shape the world again in the image of the past, they’ll waste generations and mountains of blood and treasure in something that cannot succeed because of its very nature. If there is any one thing upon the face of the earth that is unconquerable ‘tis human freedom. And if they try to take it away again from the blacks they will end by losing it themselves.
History tells us that this is what happens. Ernest Gaines makes the same argument with his white characters like Frank Laurent in “Bloodline” and Jack Marshall in A Gathering of Old Men (1983). Marshall didn’t ask for the land and the people; he inherited them. He did not want them; however, he does not know how to change the system that perpetuates his existence.
The history we live with has led us to “mountains of blood” that we cannot easily scrub away. As Bryan Stevenson noted, “In this country, we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. Worse, we’ve created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed.” We must talk about these systems that created the inequality and vitriol we saw on display as white nationalists marched into Charlottesville. I’ve wondered how to accomplish this. I’ve wondered how to present these ideas to my students, some of whom push back against any discussion that may challenge their positions.
In my literature survey courses, I normally have about 50-60% of the readings dedicated to African American, Native American, Asian American, and women authors. When students choose to push back, they meet with me after class, typically the first or second class, and ask, “Why is everything we are reading by Black authors?” I respond by pointing out that only about 50% of the texts are written by POC. With that said, even the texts by white, male authors usually deal with race, gender, and ethnicity in some manner. However, this does not seem to placate the questioner. At this point, one or two things usually happens. The student drops the course, or the student remains but does not say much throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, a comment may appear on my evaluation arguing that we should move past discussions of race and racism.
The above interactions are few, about one a semester. The majority of students do not say much in regard to what we read or do not read. However, a number of students express appreciation for opening their eyes to points of view that differ from their own and that challenge their preconceived perceptions about our history, our present, and their fellow citizens. Students tell me that they didn’t know about Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory thoughts on equality and race. They didn’t know that the horrors of slavery were as bad as they were. They didn’t know that Native Americans fought back rhetorically challenging the benevolence of white Christians.
Seeing events like Charlottesville makes me question if I am doing anything to change and challenge the hate spewed by white nationalists and those emboldened to cast venom because they believe they have carte blanche to say and act out their racist and xenophobic ideologies . When students tell me that what they have read and talked about during the semester has challenged their worldview and caused them to actually reconsider their position within the structures that gives them privilege, I realize that what I do does have an impact.
Some may not change their minds, and those are the ones that hurt. What will happen to the student who pushes back? Will that students’ ideas morph into something sinister? Will that student think about what we discussed in class? I don’t know, and that is what worries me. A former high school teacher of domestic terrorist James Fields talked about how he wished he had done more. For every student that opens his or her eyes, there is one whose eyes close tighter and tighter, refusing to let any light enter. These students, to me, look to the past. A past we can’t, and should never, repeat. A past that has rivers of blood flowing through it. A past that we can never scrub clean.
At the end of last semester, I had a student email me, and the student commented on the changing views that occurred within the student’s mind over the course of the class. This recognition, from the student, is the beginning, and as teachers, we are important in this process. The student wrote,
I truly enjoyed studying the time period that we did in your class. I believe it gave me a new outlook on and sympathy for current racial issues in our country as well as a different outlook on our founding fathers. Unfortunately, they are not the blameless heroes to me now as they were portrayed in grade school. But I believe that has inspired me to have a better understanding of our founding documents that I will soon take an oath to defend.
As educators, we need to recognize that we are a very important part of the fight against white supremacy, white nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. We have the ability to teach students the past and have them think about the present. We have the opportunity to challenge our students and get them to understand the social construction of race. We have the means to show them that some of them benefit from white privilege while some of their peers suffer because of it. We must do these things. We must teach. We must fight back.
If you are looking for resources, there are multiple places to find historical information and current articles to help spark conversation with your students. Here is a short list:
- Charlottesville Syllabus
- Walter Greason’s Twitter thread on a course he taught on racial violence
I know that this post does not necessarily answer the question that appears in the title. Truth be told, I struggled with what title to give this post. As I wrote it, I began to think about those students who actively resent the information I present in class. I do not have an answer to this quandary. All I have, really, is questions.
What are your thoughts? What have been your experiences in the classroom? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Note: The student gave me permission to use the part of the email that appears in this post.