Why I Teach

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Anne Moody (1940-2015)

Friday night, before I went to bed, I saw a tweet that said veteran civil rights activist Anne Moody had died at the age of 74. I shed tears as if someone in my family had died because I felt as though I knew her. We were both born in the “Great State of Mississippi,” and I have assigned her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi to my American history classes many times. Her story seems to resonate with college students, perhaps, because she was close their age when she wrote the book.

Although I was sad about her death, in a strange way, my thoughts about Anne Moody made me realize why I teach after a week during which I needed some reassurance. This week had been a difficult one at the small southern college where I teach.

A student in my American history class, angry that I had assigned three books, in addition to the textbook, had complained to me in person and by email about having to purchase the books. Then, last week, she angrily confronted me after class. She reiterated that she could not afford the additional readers–two of the three which can be found online for free, while the third is less than seven dollars. She was also displeased with my teaching methods. It was clear that she liked nothing about me or my class.

In retrospect, I know that the student’s anger, although directed at me, had little to do with me. But I was not thinking of that during “the confrontation.”

This incident made me question my career choice. Sometimes the resistance to me, my classroom instruction, and my assigned readings is almost too much to bear. I asked myself, Why am I doing this if the students don’t appreciate it? Even though other students who witnessed the student’s verbal attack reassured me that her critique was not indicative of how they felt, I was discouraged.

Interestingly enough, this is where Anne Moody comes back in. The next morning I woke up thinking about her and all of the times that I had assigned her book. I also thought about the history that I had introduced to my students over the years–through lectures, discussion, readings, photographs, documentaries, and audio recordings.

I know there is value in learning about the past and its connection to our present. There is value in learning about people and our common humanity. So, I am here for the students in the “Amen corner,” who engage in call and response because they are feeling what I am saying. I am here for the students who have come to me in tears after a documentary on Wounded Knee. I am here for the student who seemed disinterested but then surprised me when he wanted to to talk to me about a website I recommended on Goreé Island. I’m here for the non-traditional student in my class who came up to talk about monopolies after I discussed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. I’m here for the student who said she actually enjoyed my lectures. I’m here for the students who had not read Coming of Age in Mississippi before my class but ended up thanking me for assigning it.

Yes, that is why I am here. Thank you, Anne Moody, for reminding me of that. Rest in Peace.

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When I Think of Home. . .

When I think of home, I think of a place

where there’s love overflowing~”Home,”~performed by Stephanie Mills

What do you think of when you think of “home”? Not the place where you currently live. I mean the place where you grew up. For me, the best way to explain it is: It’s complicated.

I have some lovely memories of home. Most often they involve my grandparents who watched over me–making sure that I always had everything that I needed, even when times were lean; making sure that I attended church; and making sure that I was a “good girl” and “got my lesson” (finished my schoolwork).

But all of my memories are not warm and fuzzy. For many years, I lived with my mother and a stepfather who was an abusive alcoholic. This, of course, was not conducive to a normal mother-daughter relationship. He was volatile; we never knew what would set him off. His appearance always made my stomach churn, and I avoided him like the plague. Unfortunately, there were also others in my extended family whose lives were often out of control because they abused alcohol. In spite of–or maybe because of–the love and support for my grandparents, I knew that I had to leave home to create a different life for myself. I could not be what I wanted to be–even though I didn’t quite know what that would be–if I stayed home. I infamously told my mother when I was a junior in high school that I could not wait until I finished high school, so I could go to college and never come back.

I was unable to keep that promise/threat, nor did I really want to. But I returned for only one summer while I was in college. I was usually working–trying to get my hustle on. Afterwards, I visited once or twice a year. Following the death of my grandparents, it became easier just to pay for my mother to visit me. So, now it has been four years since I was “home.”

It has been many years since I boarded a Greyhound bus, with my money hidden in a handkerchief (can’t tell you where) and a box a chicken to eat on the 18-hour ride to the University. And now I have a job opportunity that is taking me back home, not to the same city but the same state. Ironic, isn’t it? I’m going back to the place I’ve been running from all these years. Will be difficult? Can I make peace with the ghosts of the past and the realities of the present?

I don’t know, but I wonder where this road will lead.

 

 

Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Revisiting a Civil Rights Icon, Daisy Bates

DaisyBatesThe recent Supreme Court ruling invalidating Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has 2dopesistahs thinking about the sacrifices of activists who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. For my current research project, I revisited (re-read) The Long Shadow of Little Rock  by civil rights icon, Daisy Bates.

Daisy Bates became a national figure in 1957 when nine black students, known as the Little Rock Nine, were chosen to integrate previously all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. As the president of the Arkansas State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bates had been actively pushing the school board to implement and stick to a plan of desegregation to comply with the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In this memoir, Bates chronicles her experiences as she coordinated the activities of the students and documented the attacks on the students while in school.

In a show of massive resistance, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on the first day of school to prevent the Little Rock Nine from attending classes. Eventually, the Nine were able to attend school after Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and dispatched 1,000 Army paratroopers to protect the students, but not before an angry, anti-integration mob had threatened the students’ safety both individually (Elizabeth Eckford) and collectively.

Adult Daisy Bates

Daisy Lee Gatson Bates (1914-1999)

Little Rock residents who supported the integration plan were singled out for harassment by those attempting to maintain the Jim Crow status quo. Supporters received threatening calls, and others lost their jobs. Daisy Bates had crosses burned in her front yard, and gunshots pierced her living room window. Finally, in 1959, she and her husband L.C. were forced to close the State Press, the weekly newspaper they began publishing in 1941, because of lost advertising revenue. (Daisy Bates was able to begin publishing the paper again in 1985, but this was after her husband’s death.)

In the foreward to the first edition (1962), Eleanor Roosevelt writes that she wishes Daisy Bates “had been able to keep from giving us some of her sense of her bitterness and fear in the end of the book” (xvi). However, I thought it was remarkable that a person who had endured the loss of her livelihood, threats to her safety, and attempts on her life remained so hopeful. Bates had a right to “question America.”

I had forgotten how compelling this book is, and I highly recommend it. It is an excellent read. And if you have an interest in books written by members of the Little Rock Nine, both Melba Patillo Beals and Carlotta Walls Lanier have written memoirs.

Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), 1934-2014

A young Amiri Baraka

A young Amiri Baraka

In 1965, immediately after the assassination of Malcolm X, LeRoi Jones moved from Greenwhich Village to Harlem and started the Black Arts Repertory Theater School.

The Black Arts Movement was born, providing a vehicle for writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Ed Bullins, Hoyt Fuller, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez,Haki Madhubuti, Ishmael Reed, and many others. This very important literary movement inspired writers like Toni Morrison and Ntozake Shange who came later.

Amiri Baraka I value the work of Baraka tremendously, and appreciate his ability to usher in an entire movement of black writers who challenged racial oppression in such a way that they had to be heard by the elite black literary establishment (e.g. Ralph Ellison), middle class African Americans, white liberals, white supremacists, or anyone else who felt the need to silence their voices. Like other black feminists, however, my scholarship challenges the ways in which some of Baraka’s early work silenced black women’s voices. I stand by that challenge. I also stand by my appreciation for all that he has done for black liberation.

I celebrate Baraka the activist, Baraka the writer, and Baraka the scholar. Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka. May your voice live on.

Racism in the Classroom: I am Shannon Gibney

Cheryl Harris's "Whiteness as Property" is published in this anthology

Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” is published in this anthology

I remember the first semester that I decided to teach Cheryl Harris’s “Whiteness as Property,” my students were completely resistant to reading it. They read the first few pages and realized that the essay was about white privilege and decided that they would read no more. Harris’s essay is complicated, but her argument is solid. They disagreed with it in its entirety, but were incapable of saying much more. They were done with the subject -matter and angry that I required them to read it. This protest to my teaching occurred in an African American literature class.

Structural racism, a topic discussed by Shannon Gibney at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, is one that could have easily been discussed in any of my classes, especially in the context of white privilege. In her Communications course, Professor Gibney was interrupted by two white males who did not want to hear about structural racism. They verbally attacked her in her own classroom and claimed that the discussion of structural racism made them feel like they were being attacked personally.

Professor Gibney’s students, a lot like my students did not take the time to read and understand the material being presented to them. Had they attempted to understand the lecture, they would understand that structural racism analyzes systems of racism, and not individual racism or how specific people are racist. That was of no matter to the students or to the college that eventually reprimanded her for the way she chose to teach her class.

People in support of the students argue that her discussion of structural racism had no place in her class. I find that a problematic assertion, considering none of them had seen her syllabus. And, that does not necessarily have to be the case, considering my white students did not want to talk about it either in an African American literature class.

The real problem is that the discussion of race and racism is an unsavory conversation in any context in America.

Da Realist 1 discussed this in “Teaching and the Power to Disrupt” in Tuesday’s post, where she states,

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

This way of thinking is acceptable in the sciences, but less so in regards to the humanities. And, to be honest, these same critical thinking strategies are deemed unacceptable by our own colleagues in liberal arts, when it comes to our courses in Ethnic and Gender Studies. The students’ and college’s response to Professor Gibney represents the country’s larger issues with engaging in productive conversations about race.

When I first heard Gibney’s story it wounded me deeply because I understand how easily it could have been me. I know what it is like to have spent more than a decade of my time on research, scholarship and teaching, to only be dismissed by students who do not believe that I deserve to be in the classroom. I wish Professor Gibney did not have to experience this and I send her positive energy, wherever she may be.

Teaching and the Power to Disrupt

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these ideas of discomfort and disruption since December when I read about Shannon Gibney, an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was disciplined by the college for making white students feel uncomfortable. Gibney’s discussion of structural racism in her Introduction to Mass Communications class was interrupted by students, three young white men, because they objected to the subject matter and did not want to discuss it. Although Gibney attempted to explain the importance of the topic within the context of the course, the students were unsatisfied with her response. Finally, after repeated interruptions, she explained that the students were free to file a complaint if they desired. And they did. Then, in an ironic turn of events, Prof. Gibney received a formal reprimand which asserted that she had created a “hostile learning environment” and ordered her to attend diversity training, thus modeling and reifying the very structure that she had attempted to discuss in her class.

When I read about what happened to Gibney and watched the video of her response, I was sick to my stomach. It was a familiar uneasiness, a queasy feeling that is fueled by experience. My research on the structural violence of American medicine has often made people “uncomfortable” whenever I present academic papers. Discussions of race and critical race theory have elicited hostile responses from students in my American and African American history classes. Therefore, I could see myself–and quite frankly all of the other black women professors I know–in Gibney. How many times had students like hers disrupted my class? How many times had I complained on the phone to my mentor and friends about the naked disrespect shown towards me in my own classroom? How many times have students questioned me about whether I have a PhD or not (as if not having one would discredit me), sometimes while I was sitting in my office, at my desk, directly under my Doctor of Philosophy degree hanging on the wall.

If the college experience does no more than reaffirm the ideology that students already hold, they haven’t truly been educated. The actions taken by MCTC undermine Prof. Gibney’s authority and expertise in the classroom, making it impossible for her to tell “the most dangerous, and therefore liberating kind of truth.” The college has taken the power to disrupt minds and create critical thinkers and turned it over those who only wanted to interrupt and interfere with the successful running of the course.

Related Posts

Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Discomfort Zone, 3 December 2013.

Katie McDonough, Three White college Students File Racial Discrimination Complaint against Professor over Lesson on Structural Racism, 2 December 2013.

Aaron Rupar, Shannon Gibney Controversy: Petition Accuses MCTC of ‘institutional racism,” 9 December 2013.

Rejuvenating My Passion

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.~Confucius

SHAAs I sat down last week to write a post about why I chose to become a historian, I found it extremely difficult. There was so much to say, but I was unable to corral those ideas into a suitable post. Perhaps it was because I have been on the sidelines of the academic world for a while and feeling somewhat isolated. Or, maybe it was because many of the recent articles I’ve read about academia have been quite negative.

Over the weekend I attended the annual meeting of the Southern Historical Association (SHA), and it rejuvenated my passion for history. It’s ironic that I have never been to this conference. It was the first historical association that I joined when I was in graduate school since my research was and is focused on the South.

It may sound silly, but in a way it was like “coming home” for me because there was such familiarity. The conference was held in St. Louis, and I lived in the St. Louis Metro area for four years. I attended the conference with one of my good friends that I’ve known since graduate school. I saw other friends, sorors, and colleagues that I’ve met over the years.

I enjoyed the presentations, receptions, the networking, and browsing the new book titles in the exhibit hall, but seeing my former professor, Theda Perdue, had the greatest impact on me. Her historiography course on the Old South was one of the first courses I took during my master’s program. She is a lovely person, but she is tough. I was petrified but so relieved when she found my writing to be sound. I felt as if all of the other students knew more than me (although they probably didn’t).

I had taken a Native American history course with Dr. Perdue’s husband, Michael Green, and I absolutely loved his passion. My excitement when I teach the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or The Souls of Black Folk reminds me of how he behaved when we discussed From the Deep Woods to Civilization in his class. You could tell he loved what he was doing and that he was in his element. I was saddened to find out that he had recently passed away. Dr. Green was one of the professors who encouraged me to apply to graduate school, and I was flattered that he held me in such high regard.

I wanted to study history, in part, to tell the history of those who were unable to write it for themselves. I wanted to change students’ present and future by introducing them to the past. I’m glad this weekend I was able to attend the SHA and reconnect with the academic world.

HBCUs & Intellectual Elitism: Hawk Pride, You Better Catch It!!

HBCUI distinctly remember several conversations I had my twelfth grade year in high school, regarding my choice to attend the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a Historically Black College/University. My math teacher, Ms. K,  asked me why black people choose to segregate themselves by attending all black colleges, especially when predominately white colleges are giving all of the scholarship money to us anyway. God knows I wish, at 17, I had the vocabulary and experience with racist comments that I have now because maybe then I would have responded. But, I said nothing. It was that type of racist conversation that I was hoping to flee from by attending an all-black institution of higher learning.

I have continued to have some strange experiences over the years engaging people in conversations about attending and graduating from an HBCU. Some of those people happened to be friends who I trusted with my feelings and thoughts, but they did not hesitate to articulate how they thought my degree was inferior to theirs, which was obtained from a traditionally white institution (TWIs). One in particular has offered her opposition to HBCUs every time an opportunity has presented itself, oftentimes at random moments when it was not even a topic of conversation.

Racism, I believe, has succeeded when black people internalize racist definitions of “blackness” that deem us as intellectually inferior and incapable of producing institutions where black people graduate and become productive citizens of this country. When someone cannot conceive of all-black institutions as being able to produce students who can compete academically with white students, then perhaps they do not consider any black student capable of competing with any white student.

JT Williams Building, UMES

JT Williams Building, UMES

The truth about my experience: I attended one of the least funded institutions in the University of Maryland System. Despite the fact that we did not have some of the resources that the TWIs had in the same system, we had great teachers and an administration that was committed to our success. Furthermore, what I gained was a family who continues to support each other in ways that never ceases to amaze me. This blog alone is a testament to my experience, as the majority of my supporters are UMES Hawks. We have students who have gone on to graduate with Masters, and PhDs, and some of those degrees came from Ivy League institutions. The occupations of my fellow Hawks rival the graduates from any institution. Most of all, UMES educated many of the fabulous teachers throughout the Washington, DC and Baltimore metropolitan areas and beyond.

This post is not about The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, but all of the HBCU graduates who face the elitist intellectualism of others who find the HBCU education inferior. You see, I never thought I was better than anyone because I attended an HBCU, but I am, indeed, a better me for having done so.

Hawk Pride . . . Catch it!

—————————

Note: The University of Maryland Eastern Shore, along with three other HBCUs in the state of Maryland (Morgan State University, Coppin State University, and Bowie State University) have made recent news when a Maryland Federal judge ruled that the state had not done enough to help the four institutions mentioned above overcome segregation-era policies, according to The Baltimore Sun. The lawsuit indicated that TWIs in the state unnecessarily duplicated the programs at HBCUs.

For more information, read the following articles:

A Head Start: Early Childhood Education Takes Another Hit (An Update)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men [and women].”–Frederick Douglass

Despite the fact that we acknowledge the importance of early childhood education, poor

Standing in my grandmother's living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

Standing in my grandmother’s living room in front of her perfectly-preserved, plastic-covered couch, I am wearing my cap and gown from my Head-Start graduation.

children seem to be one of the first casualties of budget cuts. A few weeks ago I saw a news story that broke my heart. A Head Start program was having a lottery to see which children would be able to remain and which children would be sent home, no longer able to attend. Head Start is a federal pre-school program that serves children from low-income families, “enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.” Initiated by Pres. Lyndon Johnson as part of his “War on Poverty” in 1965, it has served more than 30 million children.

The budget cuts (also known as the Sequester) affecting Head Start were set in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, requiring a five percent reduction in the budget in 2013. In addition to holding lotteries for students, Head Start programs across the country have addressed their reduced funding by laying off teachers, curtailing the length of the school year, and completely eliminating some centers.

Education is one of the things that I am extremely passionate about. Being a Head Start alumna, I began to think about Head Start and what it meant to me. Compulsory education for children in my state, Mississippi, began at age six. But because of Head Start, I had the opportunity to go to school at age five.

I can’t remember everything about that school year, but Head Start was important  because it is where I learned to love school.  I eagerly awaited the white passenger van that picked me up every morning. One morning I fell and cut my hand on a piece of broken glass before the bus came, and my only concern was whether I’d be able to attend school that day.

I remember reading, math, art, recess, and singing songs like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”  I remember nap time, after which we had a snack of graham crackers and Hawaiian Punch. (I never went to sleep because I hated naps.) I learned how to get along with other children, which was really important for me because I spent a lot of time alone. I made friendships in Head Start that lasted through high school.

Perhaps my most vivid memory is going to the dentist. We all went–the whole class. I think it was my first time and probably some of the other kids’ first times too. I, unfortunately, had a mouth full of cavities. My love of candy had betrayed me, but it was a lesson learned: To avoid the dentist’s drill, I had to give up the candy and take better care of my teeth.

While there are some studies that question the effectiveness of Head Start, I have no doubt that it was beneficial to me. My classmates and I were ready for first grade the next year. It is unfortunate that the Sequester is hurting some of our most vulnerable citizens. All children deserve the opportunity to learn.

Update: The Impact of the Government Shutdown

Because Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the federal government by September 30, 2013, the United States is currently in the midst of a government shutdown. Almost immediately, we began to see its disproportionate impact on women and children. The Head Start Program had already been forced to cut $405 million from its budget (5 percent), which resulted in 57,000 pre-school aged children being removed.

By the end of the first week of the shutdown, Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, which affected more than 7,000 children. Fortunately, a $10 million donation to the National Head Start Association from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation has provided emergency funding through the end of the October. If the shutdown persists, however, Head Start closures will impact an additional 86,000 low-income children.