antebellum · courage · narratives · postbellum

fall 2019, or on the fun and the difficult conversation

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Registration for the Fall 2019 semester begins March 25. On the burner again for me will be teaching “Antebellum America” and “American Civilization Since 1865.” Plenty of overlap will exist between these classes.

How much has changed socially?

Where do we see progress?

Where does history repeat?

How is power consolidated?

Troubled?

Which bodies are called on to entertain? When and why (“His speech came in short, excited bursts. The women laughed hard, as if they had never heard such a story.” These words referencing an enslaved boy’s animated storytelling before two white “mistresses” are in Wench, a novel by The New York Times best-selling author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, an invited guest at an April 16th event at UA’s Gorgas House receiving inspiration from course content in my Fall 2019 Antebellum America class)?

To which historical writings and surviving documents should we look to push our thinking?

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Beyonce’s 2016 Lemonade, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained and Henry King’s 1940 Little Old New York continue to be useful imagined works as the students and I sort through it all. Octavia Butler’s sci-novel Kindred is an amazing read, too, as we zig zag between the past and present.

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I will be looking for new ways this fall to encourage the students to engage uncomfortable conversations and ask questions for which they may never have answers. The rewards, as I often tell them, will be found in merely having the discussion – in and outside of class.

I am reading replies to a “History and Hollywood” handout that I gave my American Civilization Since 1865 class before Spring Break. The film before us was the 2009 “ESPN 30 for 30 Presents” documentary on the University of Miami football program. Some of them nailed how modernity shows up in messy conversations concerning race, sexuality, gender and urban life. Some of the students were more reluctant to “go there.”

Seeing this huge gap in response, I know there is work before me. Lots of it.

I have faith more often than not that we can “go there.” Current tensions between people of varying and similar backgrounds in and outside of this country insist that we do.

We should at least try. No other task in my lifetime feels as urgent (“This story is told from inside the circle,” wrote Saidiya Hartman).

There are openings when I sense real possibility though. Yesterday before class, a student sat down beside me. We discussed what I did over Spring Break.

And then me: What did you do?

Student: I mostly slept and worked on a book.

Me: You wrote a book for a class?

Student: No, I wrote a book for me.

Talk about owning her life.

After class, she ran up to the podium. One of her comments on “The U” History and Hollywood handout ended up on my PowerPoint. She wondered how do stereotypes change. Could they change? What figures into this thing called change?

She’d earlier said she struggled the most with simply asking those questions which were an outcome of me simply asking on the handout: do you have any lingering questions about the content offered in this film (one of them courageously called it a “primary source”… Yes!)?

Typically I show a motion picture like The Great Debaters or Kate & Leopold before Spring Break. I will always remember the student a few years ago who saw the actor Viola Davis in the latter with recognition. She was playing a police officer instructing a Victorian time traveler to pick up dog poop from a New York sidewalk.

No engagement of how an African American woman gets to tell a white man from the late 19th century to do this – without him snapping back at her because she is black and a woman –  is made by the filmmaker.

Or the student (s). “Black” and white ones.

Just laughter. Much needed laughter as they sort through it all with the rest of us.

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Such films are digestible, even when showing difficult images like the ones in The Great Debaters, which is set during the Great Depression and has a difficult lynching scene. But such films also have entertaining moments.

This semester is the first time I showed a documentary for the History and Hollywood handout, which was initially shared by my colleague Jimmy Mixson. Seeing as Alabama is a school where we enjoy football a great deal, I thought the first of three ESPN docs on Miami football, which netted that network a record-breaking audience, would be a good one to share.

Miami is forever on my mind research-wise, too. So, why not?

I’ll be thinking about the students’ comments for a long time to come. Their courage and reluctance are instructive.

We must not give up.

 

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