I'm a bit disturbed right now. I just taught about Emmett Till in my Civil Rights class and showed this video from YouTube:
I almost broke down over it. I felt as if my skin were being peeled off. One student left until we were done watching it. Afterward, they all wanted to know "why?" and "how?" and mostly, "does this still go on?" and "is the Klan still doing this, acting like they did then?" They know that racism is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, but this seemed beyond their comprehension. I'm glad of that.
I thought teaching Civil Rights would be much more uplifting. It's a happy story, right? "We Shall Overcome!" People taking to the street and to the courts to demand their rights and getting the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. That was naive of me to think that the class would not be this upsetting. Changes have come since 1950, but still so much wrong. Every class, every topic, inevitably brings us to questions about the present.
I wonder about my role as a white woman teaching this class, teaching about Emmett Till. White female purity was the excuse for lynching; and bodies like mine became the occasion for -- and participated in -- the destruction and oppression of bodies like my students'. Today I felt as if my body were a guillotine or a gallows, a smoking gun, standing in front of the class. If I were one of the students in the class, I might hate me -- that is, the white lady teacher. Maybe not her personally, but her in general, what she represented. I would want to know why, with all of the black teachers, a white one was teaching the class.
I, as me the white lady, cannot answer that completely just yet. I am a member of the oppressor class and I am teaching the people whom my people oppressed -- whom they still oppress. How does that affect the dynamic of my students' learning? How does that affect the dynamic of me teaching? I questioned that when I began teaching online, but my physical presence was not a factor. Here, it is. Maybe just for me, but it is still a factor.
I wonder too, if in my white guilt, I focus pornographically on the bad as a tool of self-flaggellation. I feel sometimes as if showing such thing is an act of aggression, whether I mean it to be or not. I struggle with the reality of the era and the desire not to crush hope, not to make a class in Civil Rights a class about violence and defeat.
The trick here is to stay focused on the way things began to change and how they changed, to discuss strategies and tactics. With Emmett Till, to ask why this case got national attention, to ask the ways that a society cand change the perpetrators' minds. "That's the hardest part," one student said. The hardest part.