The burden of power
I was watching White Man’s Burden this afternoon, and though it’s an appallingly shallow film, it reminded me of some issues that have come up in teaching. My classes are about 50% black, and it hasn’t been a problem for me. As the final core course in writing, all the writers I’m dealing with are of a fairly high level, and if I had to make a value judgment about it, I’d say that the black writers are all on the high side of normal when it comes to skills. The university is probably about 25% black on the average, so it was odd to hear from some of the other new teachers that their classes were nearly 70% black. Writing is writing, as far as I’m concerned, though I must confess that the percentages made it clear to me that when selecting essays I needed to make sure that there was a healthy assortment of black writers present. It’s not a matter of setting quotas, but more a matter of making sure that something “connects” with the students in my classes.
I have a fairly broad background in literature so it’s not a difficult task to think of good pieces to use, though I must admit that I fight the temptation to include 18th and 19th century stuff because I’m afraid they just won’t get it. I did use Phyllis Wheatley (the first published African-American poet) in class last week though, because she is just too good to be missed. Another teacher chose Maya Angelou. After reading one of her pieces, she said that a burly white student announced:
She actually felt fear for his safety in the predominantly black classroom. The teacher in question is a very small young white girl, but outspoken. She immediately interrogated his appraisal:
“Could it be that you think that because you’re a rich white boy from Sylvan Hills?”
Sylvan Hills is a privileged white neighborhood filled with private schools, and luckily the guy had a sense of humor, and just said “I guess so.” Many of my black students come from private schools, and it’s just weird to see the dynamics of a large urban University at work. The spread of experiences that comes across in the essays I’ve heard so far is just staggering. A person needs a shotgun approach to reach them all.
There’s just a shock of immersion that all these first year students are dealing with. It’s a different universe, where there is no real power or privilege dynamic other than the usual teacher/student one.
The swap of power dynamics in White Man’s Burden reminded me of the oddity of having more upper class black and lower class whites in my classes, and there is just no such thing as “typical” as far as I can see in the makeup of our classes. I’ve always been a bit of a generalist, and so far that has been a big advantage in trying to hold things together and connect with people. But this also has made me notice a rather scary thing when searching for web resources.
Women writers are well represented on the web. Lots of stuff to choose from, much of it arcane but still, lots of useful stuff. But in looking for some favorite African-American writers, I can’t find anything by Eldridge Cleaver, little from James Baldwin, and most of Martin Luther King’s catalogue is also noticeably absent. I’m sure that when I dig a little deeper I will be able to find some Henry Louis Gates, but even the sites that focus on African-American lit are just shallow puddles compared to the wealth available in other areas. Maybe it’s copyright issues, but this just doesn’t seem right. There is just too much good stuff out there to keep it under lock and key. It bugs me.