Over the past few years, I have thought about the transmission of racist thoughts, the myriad ways in which racism gets passed down from generation to generation and transmitted from person to person across the centuries and decades. I’ve thought about how we need to sever this circuit, breaking it in twain so that the information stops before the transmission occurs. If we cannot do this, then we must eradicate the misinformation from the depths of our psyches, pulling it up by the roots so that no aspect remains buried within ourselves. This is not an easy task to accomplish, but it is something that must be done.
As a result of all of this, I have started to think about a class that would explore the ways that racism gets relayed and perpetuated. Today, I want to share what such a class may look like. Of course, this is not a totally comprehensive course, and there is more material that could be added. However, I feel that it is a course that serves as a start for something I have been pondering for a while. It is similar to courses such as those by Benjamin Boswell, courses that look at whiteness and its perpetuation of racism and oppression. For me, I am interested in exploring with students and others the ways that these ideas move from one person to another, from one community to another, and infect our very beings.
In his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), David Walker confronts Thomas Jefferson’s racist thought, and by extension the construction of race that arose during the Enlightenment. He tells his readers “to buy a copy of Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Notes on Virginia,’ and put it in the hand of his son” so that they can be prepared to fight the racism it espouses. Walker understood the ways that racism functions, burrowing into one’s soul, and he understood the various means of transmission, in this case writing. Others during the same period such as Solomon Northup, Hosea Easton, and William Apess understood this as well, and they worked to sever the connections that allow for such a transmission.
Each of these authors wrote before the Civil War, combatting the racist ideas that enslaved millions and portrayed others as “savages” and “uncivilized” in order to take their lands. After the Civil War, the racist thought continued, shape shifted, and sent transmissions in different mediums from literature to newspapers to film to music to . . . These missives fostered both conscious and unconscious bias. As Michelle Alexander puts it in The New Jim Crow (2010), “both unconscious and conscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individuals does not want to discriminate.” That is what the conveyance of racist thought does, it seeps into a person, whether or not the person wants it to become a part of them or not. As such, even when someone fights to be antiracist, it rears its head unconsciously at times.
Alexander explains this when detailing the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Connor Towne O’Neill lays it bare in Down Along with that Devil’s Bones (2020) when he talks about the palliatives that whites use to maintain white supremacy, the lies told to assuage false fears. O’Neill writes, “Whiteness is a void, an emptiness, a lie on which Americans birthed and built a nation.” This lie rests in the lie of race and its transferral throughout generations. It’s subtle at times and explicit at others. One moment a parent dresses a toddler in a Klan robe and the toddler looks at himself in a Black state trooper’s riot shield. Another moment a white traveller fears a twinge of “fear” when she sees a Black man approaching, even though she knows in her head there is nothing to fear.
Lillian Smith lays the latter bear in Killers of the Dream when she relates the story of a white woman who attended an interracial dinner and felt nauseous eating with Black women even though she knew what she was doing was right. The woman’s “childhood training” told her not to eat with Black women, but she knew her “childhood training” was wrong and poisonous to herself and others. Of this moment, George Yancy writes, “This is an incredible example because it demonstrates that having a serene conscience or having an epistomologically correct belief does not ipso facto militate against the impact of one’s white racism.”
In this course, we will look at ways that racist gets relayed throughout time. We will explore both the imparting of conscious racist thought and the absorption of unconscious racist thought. To do this, we will examine texts from multiple time periods, starting in the nineteenth century and concluding in the present. This course will only scratch the surface of this topic, but the hope is that it will give you a basis to begin thinking about the ways that we have all been recipients of racist thought, whether we know it or not.
Along with the readings, you will take part in self-reflection. This process will involve two essays as well as a reflection journal throughout the semester. At the start of the semester, you will write a personal narrative detailing the racist thought(s) that you have imbibed and reflect upon it. Over the course of the semester, you will write short reflections, tying the readings to your own experiences. At the end of the semester, you will return to your initial essay and detail how your thoughts have changed over the course of the semester in relation to how you think about race and the transmission of racist thought.
- Walker, David An Appeal to the Colured Citizens of the World (1829)
- Apess, William A Son of the Forest (1831)
- Easton, Hosea A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States; and the Prejudice Exercised towards Them: With a Sermon of the Duty of the Church to Them (1837)
- Northup, Solomon Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
- Taylor, Susie King Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33D United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers (1902)
- Far, Su Sin “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1909)
- Yerby, Frank The Foxes of Harrow (1946)
- Smith, Lillian Killers of the Dream (1949)
- Johnson, Mat and Warren Pleece Incognegro (2008)
- Walker, David F. and Ivan Reis Cyborg Volume 1: Unplugged (2016)
- Jennings, John Ira and Damian Duffy Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (2017)
- O’Neill, Connor Towne Down Along with That Devil’s Bones (2020)