Many years ago I used to teach the introductory course in European history every spring. We began with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and worked our way up to the present. Invariably, it seemed, current events would offer powerful reminders that the historical issues such as war and peace, poverty and prosperity, had deep contemporary resonance. When does isolationism become the callous disregard of the suffering of others? When does intervention on behalf of human rights become a new form of oppression? How can war be avoided, and when is military action necessary to create conditions for long term peace and justice? Each year, my students and I would see how the issues from the past weren’t “merely historical.”
This week I had a similar experience in my spring course, “The Modern and the Postmodern.” I had added an essay by Kimberlé W. Crenshaw to the syllabus this year on the evolution of critical race theory in law schools and the courts. We are currently discussing “postmodern identities,” the issues of performativity, and the complexities of recognizing one another if no one has an essential character to acknowledge. How does race enter in this mix of issues of who we can be and how we can be recognized? How can we pay attention to race without falling into racialist or racist positions? Professor Crenshaw makes the point that contemporary appeals to “color blindness” neglect the ways in which white supremacy is built into our institutions, our educational systems, even our ways of seeing and thinking.
As we began, it seemed obvious that we should talk about the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations and the problematic efforts to jump to “All Lives Matter” as a universal gesture. But Crenshaw asks how we can talk about performing identities without also talking about the way certain kinds of bodies have been subject to violence for much of American history? What are the constraints on performance, and how are gestures and actions read differently in this country depending on the color of one’s skin?
With the death of Freddie Gray while in the custody of Baltimore police and the ensuing protest against both police violence and the conditions of hopelessness in large portions of Baltimore’s African-American community, we had plenty to talk about. The issues in the theory and history we had been discussing were being activated right before our eyes.
As a teacher, these are the moments liberal education feels most powerful to me. The issues we read about are very much part of our world, not just parts of books we assign in class. As a citizen, these are the moments when I recognize the urgency to break out of the cycles of institutionalized violence and despair that plague large portions of our country — and that reverberate on our campus. As W.E.B. DuBois emphasized so long ago, we must use the empowerment of our education to change the conditions that reproduce violence, poverty and injustice.
This is what many of us hope for when we study — that broad, contextual learning can make a difference in changing the world for the better.
Just received this email about an event on campus Monday.
On Monday, May 4th, from 11am- 1pm, the Student of Color community will be participating in #BlackoutUsdan. A movement to takeover and speak out against the injustices and trauma that persist on this campus and in the world. We are standing in solidarity with Baltimore and other marginalized communities to reiterate that Black Lives Matter. Your support and empathy for this blackout is very important to us. We want our stories to be heard, our faces to be seen, and for the Wesleyan community to move beyond “diversity university” and embody a socially conscious, just, and welcoming atmosphere.
We can make Wesleyan a better place for marginalized and underrepresented students. We can be the true agents of change through open dialogue and expressions of philos love that combats systematic oppression. You know they say “we are the future”, so let’s embody it for ourselves.
We encourage all allies to come, listen to and support your peers.
There will be follow up conversations about how to implement change on our campus.
Please wear black on Monday! #blackoutUsdan