Facebook memories are (sometimes) great, y'all. I was recently reminded that last year, while teaching a course I'd prepped called "Grit Lit: The Dirty and Ugly From the Rough South to the New South"I'd worked in an autobiographical short from Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader, the anthology we'd be reading a lot from, in which the lynching of Emmett Till loomed large. My Facebook post read thusly:
We're discussing Lewis Nordin's "Body in the River" tomorrow in Grit Lit class, his autobiographical piece that centers on his memory of, and consequent haunting by, Emmett Till's lynching in Money, Ms. My students are reading the sections on Lynching and Lynch Law from the Companion to Southern Literature to enhance our understanding of the literary and historical contexts. The section on Lynch Law opens with a discussion of two cases from the late 90s, revealing the fact that this is not some far gone phenomenon that we need not be concerned about in contemporary times.
Inevitably, we'll be making parallels to yesterday's church shooting in Charleston, because the truth is that this type of terrorism also has a long history that isn't only "history." This is rough y'all/ The weight of history is so pressing. Faulkner ain't lie when he wrote, "the past isn't history, it isn't even past."
The story was called "A Body in the River," and in this work, Nordin recalls the locker room response to Till's awful murder, and the way it followed him throughout his life. This was a sophomore level literature course in which we discussed cultural and historical contexts all semester. This class session was also on the heels of the Charleston, South Carolina shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which resulted in the death of nine black people at the hands of a racist gunman. (This was also the summer that, maybe a couple weeks after this, a gunman would wreak havoc in our very own local movie theater, with misogyny being a strong undercurrent of the attack.) We had several moments of silence and some tears in class that summer.
Let me give you some context on the makeup of my class: mostly local students, overwhelmingly sophomore to senior level students, mostly white presenting, with maybe 5 black students out of a group of 21, and a couple of Latino identifying students. Most of the undergraduate population of my university are from a 30 mile radius of the campus, a few in my class were from other areas of the gulf south region. Many of my students were unaware of the significance of the church that the Charleston shooter had targeted. This led to a lot of questions about historically black churches; whys and wheres, and why stills? I let the students with some insights and family experiences and connections answer their peers, and helped out with historical facts.
We kept coming back to the importance of tradition - a theme which resonated through many of our readings that summer. Many of my students were able to thoughtfully unpack the symbols that the Charleston shooter wore on his oft circulated social media picture, and to suss out the ways that the symbols combined to reveal a story of hatred and terrorism with very deep roots. I was committed to meeting them where they were at in these discussions, letting them lead with what they know, and facilitating filling in some gaps as we went along. I modeled the use of the good old Google on the projector a lot this summer, and also came prepared with images and video clips that pertained. I was slowly building a case that these incidents are not isolated, but part of a long historical pattern (a tradition) of racist violence in this country.
Before we got to this piece that featured the haunting memory of a lynching, we had a good group thang going on. It was summer, so we were chill (while sweating), the readings were unapologetically Southern and we loved discussing the ways in which this was constructed, and we had definitely formed a relaxed rapport. I felt pretty confident that this was a group that would let me wade with them through some difficult waters, but I knew that I also needed to let them take the lead on how an where they would enter. In the thread of comments under the above Facebook post, I had also written this:
"I'd like them to do most of the talking, and they're pretty good about it. I'd like to know what they know, what they'd heard, what they think anew after reading these readings [on lynching]. One of my students is a go getter and read the companion piece a couple days ago. He told me he'd never heard of lynching before. Born and raised in Louisiana. It's a reminder this work is extremely timely and important."
So, I'm not going to get into my thoughts and feelings about the things that my students come to class at my public university not knowing. I want to reiterate that (after burning a considerable amount of calories on frustration in my first teaching years) I make the conscious decision to meet students where they are at. We must make the best use of our time and energy doing the work that we all show up to do together. Students do know a lot of things, and what they teach me helps me refine my praxis. My plan was to gather up supporting documents in the form of other brief readings and video. I hoped they'd understand, from holding and viewing the number of resources I'd quickly gathered, that this significant part of national history and literature has garnered public and academic attention, and that there are opportunities for further research. The entries "Lynching" and "Lynch Law" from the Companion to Southern Literature, I had asked the students to read with Nordin's story. The other pieces we would pass around or view and discuss together in class. I also wrote this:
"I'm very willing to believe that [lynching, the history or present] is not addressed in many high schools, and I'm thinking that perhaps he's heard of such a thing, but didn't know there was an official name for it, or that it was more than just an isolated incident or a few incidents . . . I'm bringing Witnessing Lynching to pass around so that they can see the different genres of literature (newspaper reports, anti-lynching appeals, political cartoons, poems, etc.) that address it. We will also watch Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit."
The day that we were to discuss "A Body in the River," my students came in and dragged their chairs into the usual circle, and I detected some squidging around in the seats. When most everyone had arrived, I opened with my usual open- ended, "So, what happens in this story, y'all?" icebreaker. Everyone seemed to identify with the way that the central character is reluctant to offer a dissenting opinion in a large group about whether "the body in the river" had deserved his murder. We took a few moments to discuss the way the author portrays this difficulty, and then I nudged them toward the awful fact of the prevalence and legitimization of lynching in this country, in our not so distant past. (By the end of the class, we'd be discussing the way that lynching persists in our culture in various forms today.)
It's important to note that this was a class discussion day for which I'd already determined close reading and formal issues would take a back seat. This group was made up of mostly faithful readers, and they'd come with uncomfortable questions, and had anticipated that I'd brought some resources to view. When I asked what they were surprised about or interested in while reading the entries "Lynching" and "Lynch Law," they had thoughtful answers that allowed me to gauge how to proceed. We needed to see the reasons why it seemed an impossible feat for the young Nordin to speak out, and his amazement, which he sat with for years, at the bravery of his classmate for doing so. We needed to see the way that dominant discourses of racism had shaped a culture in which lynching was an acceptable response to many accusations, real and imagined, leveled on black people in the United States.
I passed around Witnessing Lynching: American Writers Respond while I showed Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit on the big screen. We sat in our discomfort, some students flipping through more difficult images and passages than other in this text, choosing the level of their engagement with them. When everyone had had a chance to hold and flip through the collection of responses to the awful American spectacle in various genres, I focused the projector on the text so that we could examine a 1916 Crisis Magazine political cartoon that was an example of a religious argument against lynching, and also read and discussed the poem "If We Must Die," by Claude McKay.
A lot of questions about the cultural contexts for Nordin's story were prompted by the various resources we looked over and discussed that day. Allowing students room to engage with materials prompted new questions about the text, and also underscored the ways that literature, though crafted in response to a cultural moment, reflects cultural concerns that are (often unfortunately) timeless.
There's no right way to work with difficult subject matter in the classroom. Or to work through this material during difficult times. Some of how I approach teaching during difficult times has been influenced by Elaine Showalter's Teaching Literature, in which she addresses teaching in the wake of 9/11. I suppose some of the way that I buffer myself from student resistance to the way I teach difficult subject matter is to: 1) allow them to take the lead in teaching themselves through a variety of material; 2) by modeling (using technology to access information, thinking and responding out loud) finding, approaching, and engaging with material, as well as producing a variety of questions as a response to that engagement, 3) and to provide narration of classroom discussion and support with factual information. Keep doing the difficult work, y'all.