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Inauguration Day

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When I was a child, my father used to take us to Florida every winter for three months.  That is, he’d take us, come back north himself, and then see us on the week-ends or whenever possible until April, when we’d all come home.  We had a house there.  He would make arrangements with our schools.   Sometimes he would hire tutors when the schools insisted, although that tended not to work that well.  I always thought I was smarter than the tutors.  In at least one case, I was absolutely right.

This was before the interstates went through, so in order to drive from Connecticut to  Florida we had to take a lot of those two-lane blacktops people thought of as “highways” before we had real ones.  On one of these trips, going South, we stopped at a small gas station-cum-convenience store in Florence,  North Carolina.  I was standing in the convenience store part, straining to find some suitable kitschy stuff to talk my parents into buying for me, when my father appeared at my side, grabbed me by the wrist, and said, “Come with me.”

I came.   We went outside and around the back of the station.  He turned me so that I faced the building’s back wall, pointed at it and everything that was there, and said, “Look at that.”

What I was looking at was a fountain next to a toilet with a door that would not properly close.  Both of them were marked with big printed signs that said, “COLORED.”

I was seven years old.

It’s inauguration day, and I’ve been sitting around all morning thinking about the day after the election.  On that day, I went looking for a copy of The New York Times. a copy with  The Headline on it, just to have.   Every newstand in three towns was sold out, so I headed for the one place I was sure would have copies untouched:  my campus, where close to half of the students are African-American, and where nobody seemed to care.

Nobody did, either.  I found a huge stack of the things in the free bins in the classroom building where I teach, and I picked up a couple just for me.

I have a class today just after the swearing in ceremony.  The university has brought in several large-screen TVs and put them in strategic places on campus, including in the dining hall, so that people can watch.   I will watch, but I’m willing to bet that that cafeteria will be half empty, that almost nobody would notice.

I know, I know.  I was in the middle of a stream of consciousness thing about characters and whether they’re “invented” or not (I don’t think they are, in the sense Robert seems to mean it).  I’ll get back to it later.

Right now, what I can’t seem to wrap my head around is the fact of what I’m sure is coming, a campus full of African American students the majority of whom will not be willing to rouse themselves from their usual lethargy to see the first African American in history be sworn in as President of the United States.

I’m not saying my African American students are particularly lethargic, mind you.  My white students are equally lethargic, if not more so.  They just express it differently.   My white students whine that they’re “bored.”  My black students just shrug.

Back to the victims and victimizers thing here–I’m sure that there are places where students are taught to think of themselves as victims, and where African Americans and other minorities are especially given reason to focus on the historical wrongs done to their ancestors because of race, but that really isn’t what I’m about to go into here.

My minority kids seem to be taught nothing.  I taught a section of Literature and Comp a couple of years ago.  L and  C is the second semester course on the program that leads to regular admission to a four year degree.  It consists not just of learning how to write, but learning how to write English papers specifically.  Which means we have to assign some actual literature for the students to write about.

I often assign a lot of poetry by Langston  Hughes, both because he’s a good poet and because he’s an interesting man, and that year I fave them a poem called “Theme for English B.” 

“He’s living at the  YMCA,” I said.  “He’s doing that even though Columbia has dorms.   Why do you think he’s not living in the dorms?”

Blank stares.  Lots of shrugs.  Several people looking out the window.  I tried it again.  And again.  And again.  Finally, I just told them. 

“He’s living in the dorms because he’s black,” I said.  “He’s the only black student at Columbia in his year and they won’t let black students live in the dorms.”

There was a stirring at the back of the room.  A kid, a black kid, poked his head up.  “Wait,” he said.  “They wouldn’t let him live in the dorms because he was black?  Just because he was black?”

I could go on at length about this particlar scene, because it stretched through long minutes, but the upshot is this:  this kid, eighteen years old and the product of twelve years of public education, had no idea that there had ever been a time when black people in the United States were prevented from doing things because they were black.

Oh, he’d heard about “segregation,” sort of.  He’d heard about the  Civil Rights Movement, too.  He’d really heard about “racism.”  The problem was that none of these things connected to anything solid for him, or at least anything solid in history.

And he wasn’t the only one.   I had one young woman who had really managed to look into all this, who knew something not only about the standard history but about the history of ideas, who had read not only Hughes before but W.E.B. Dubois and Frederick Douglass and  Alice Walker.  She went on to graduate from a four-year degree program at the top of her class, and I sent her a card on the occasion.

But the rest of my students, and definitely the rest of my African American students, didn’t have a clue about any of this.  “Racism” was when I gave them a  D on a paper two pages too short for the assignment and having nothing to do with it, or when their math professors had them administratively removed from her course after they’d missed seven classes in a row.

I said this at some point near the beginning of this blog, but this seems a good occasion to say it again:  sometimes I wish some of these kids had been given the kind of “victims education” that drives conservatives wild.  It’s not that I think such education is necessary, or even accurate, but at the very least it would have acquainted them with the history of what is going on here. 

My kids know so little of the history of their own country, or of the world, that they don’t see anything remarkable in the fact that we are about to have an African American President of the United States.  They know so little of the history of their own county, the history of the world, or the realities of human nature that they don’t realize that this event is so unqiue on so many levels, it’s mind-boggling. 

So I’ll go in today, and I’ll ask for a writing sample, and I’ll use the inauguration for a prompt because it’s going to b what’s on my mind.

And I’ll get back twenty essays out of twenty-two that say, “I don’t like politics.  It’s not interesting to me. It’s just boring.”

I will go to those big bins where they put out copies of The New York Times for free and make sure I get myself one.

And  I’ll go back tomorrow and get one with the picture of the swearing in on it, because the Times will do that.

Sometimes I think that that passivity I’ve been talking about goes a lot deeper than just not doing anything.

And tomorrow I’ll get back to business, and why Theodore Dalrymple is not an example of me going to nonfiction for how people think and feel.

Written by janeh

January 20th, 2009 at 6:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Inauguration Day'

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  1. Ignorance of history is sad.

    But not having any real acquaintance with racism? I can’t see that as a negative. Your African-American students may mistakenly use it as an excuse for why they can’t have what they want without working for it, but the fact is, they haven’t encountered the real thing, or they’d know.

    Your students can’t conceive of treating someone differently because of their skin color. Isn’t that what we all want?? It’s a big deal to us older folks that Obama got elected. It’s not to the younger ones because he’s Just Another Guy. True color-blindness, where we all put down Human for the “race” question on the form, is the only way to kill things like affirmative action.

    Ignorance isn’t bliss…but sometimes it’s very revealing about what is *not* at the forefront of people’s minds. Learning about the past is necessary, but reliving old battles isn’t.


    20 Jan 09 at 12:51 pm

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