The uproar about Lee Bebout’s course, English 401, “U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness” at Arizona State University, provides the rationale for that course and, I hope, many more like it. Bebout’s course comes, after all, as white people in the United States are, perhaps, finally looking seriously at something they have long turned away from: lynchings. An article, “History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names,” an op-ed, “When Americans Lynched Mexicans,” and an editorial, “Lynching as Racial Terrorism,” all in The New York Times during the past ten days, make it clear that this is something—finally—we whites can talk about—even if there are a few who still resist the conversation (as the reaction to Bebout’s course shows).
Still, it’s a painful topic. I know; I grew up with it, though it was only talked out in hushed tones. For, as I wrote on my personal blog a year ago, my great-grandfather was involved with a lynching.
Not as a participant or victim, fortunately—but involved he was. Seymour Newlin was lynched in Logan County, Ohio in April, 1894. My great-grandfather, the sheriff, was unable to stop it:
Sheriff Sullivan was sent for and after arriving on the scene, soon made up his mind that with his small squad of deputies, he could not cope with the mob which threatened to hang their prisoner. On authority of Gov. McKinley, he called on Co. F (Bellefontaine), Second Regiment, and attempted to take the prisoner from the lockup, when he was informed that if an attempt was made to fix bayonets or fire a gun, a fuse would be lighted and the prisoner and building blown into atoms by dynamite already placed in position.
My great-grandfather carried the guilt the rest of his life. My grandmother felt it, too. The clippings I have of it (the above is from one) were found with others saved by my great-grandmother, about her own mother’s death (she burned in the kitchen, her clothing going up in flames—and it took at least a day for her to die) and about the death of her daughter’s best friend when they were four or five (she and my grandmother were playing jump rope on the covering of an old well; when it was the friend’s turn, the wooden platform collapsed, and the little girl drowned in the water far below). My grandmother never like to talk of any of this, not surprisingly. I didn’t learn the complete stories until my brother sent me the clippings just last year.
Thanks to Bebout, the reaction to his course, the new public discussion and my own family history, I am thinking of designing a new course for me and my own students. It would be different from Bebout’s for my students are different from his. Though I don’t know the demographics of ASU, they certainly aren’t those of New York City College of Technology, our urban, “working class” campus in Brooklyn. African-Americans and immigrants make up the vast majority of our students. Discussing “whiteness” does not make them look inward… nor do they need to be made aware of the damage that racial difference can be used to inflict.
Yesterday, I visited a journalism class taught by Ron Howell at Brooklyn College. The students were reading excerpts from one of my books and I fielded their questions for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Ron walked me to the subway. We commented that both of us had come to teaching late in our lives and we agreed that both of us keep learning, our students teaching us and our courses changing each semester. That’s what makes us keep going. If I do create a new course, it will keep this dynamic as its base, a necessity when teaching about racial issues in a diverse environment. Because of a painful cultural past that includes not only lynchings but the KKK, Japanese internment during WWII and much else, I cannot present the course from a secure or stabilized cultural base. I even have to be careful, as Bebout and President Obama have found, in considering white unwillingness to even consider the possibility that “we” have ever been wrong. I don’t want to be accused of having any sort of “leftist” agenda (though I certainly am among the left) with this—nor do I want to patronize my students. I don’t want to be the white professor telling a diverse student population how things are.
But I do want to teach the course. In part because I am white, and bring all that whiteness means with me into the classroom. Taught by a professor from another racial/cultural background, the course would be a different one. That’s the beauty of the American system of higher education: Much of the learning depends on relationships between individual teachers and individual students. As Langston Hughes wrote more than fifty years ago in that second-most famous poem of his (after “A Dream Deferred”), “Theme for English B”:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
As clichéd as that might well be, it holds a lot of truth.
I hope that Bebout and all of the rest of us considering the content of our courses continue to remember that, even in the face of virulent and threatening reaction. That is, after all, the content of our character.