Teaching African American History, Update #2

My experience working with the students in African American History continues to be a blast and a dream come true.

This past Thursday I got to the room about 9:22. Class starts at 9:30. And 5 of the 6 students were already there, had already moved the desk in a circle, and were ready to go. One of them even brought breakfast for everyone! Talk about a dream class.

The discussion of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave went very well and gave us opportunity to talk about when and how often his experiences are and are not generalizable to a wider number of enslaved peoples. Douglass’s comments about music being an expression of sadness, not joy were of particular interest at points in the discussion. We discussed Douglass’s comments about the consequences of enslavement on White people and carefully analyzed a number of passages.

This past week we discussed 12 Years a Slave. This was particularly exciting for me because I got to introduce various ways of analyzing filmic artifacts. We discussed how historical memory, how an artifact tells more about the period it which it was produced than the period represented, White Gaze, Male Gaze, extra diegetic music, the historical stand-in, and much more. 

Other interesting and important conversations revolved around discussing whether discussions of racism (and/or particular types of discussions) help or hurt on-going racism and discrimination. Additionally, we discussed if and when and how it is appropriate to compare enslavement with the Holocaust or to use the Holocaust as a metaphor for enslavement or other atrocities. 

This coming week we are reading and discussing The Wind Done Gone – Alice Randall’s retelling of Gone with the Wind from the perspective of Other’s (Scarlet O’Hara) half-sister, Cynara. The novel, told in the form of diary entries, explores themes of  exploitation and all of its cruel manifestations in the Old South. Randall purposely and effectively uses distantiation (also spelled distanciation), a technique to distance readers and kind of leave a bad taste at times. The narrator is torn psychologically between various worlds and feelings and is very educated and articulate. At times her diary entries are very poetic. And times very insightful. We’ll also discuss the legal debates that almost permanently blocked its publication because Margaret Mitchell’s estate claimed Randall was outright stealing Gone with the Wind.      

Having the students blog continues to be rewarding for a variety of purposes and audiences. In blogs, they are exploring historiographical issues (example here), myths associated with enslavement and the so-called Underground Rail Road (example here), followups on questions that came up in class, such as “was enslavement necessary” (example here) or “is Black History month good or bad” (example here) or how enslavement still exists (example here), and discussions of independent research and interesting findings (example here).    

More updates next time! 

See also: Teaching African American History, Update #1