Racism in the Liberal Arts, Part 2: Teaching the Not So Obvious

In the first part of this series, I shared some personal things that I have experienced as a graduate student in the English department. As an adjunct instructor an Associate Professor, there are ways that I have had to teach and grapple with the racism/sexism/classism that fills the pages of our canonical texts.

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First, let me apologize, reader for my long hiatus. My sinuses have been under attack since June! I HAVE NOT felt my best down here in the sunny South.

But, here I am. I have been reading some of my peers calling for an overhaul of the liberal arts curriculum. I say “nay.” I say we do not overhaul the entire liberal arts curriculum. On the contrary, I feel that we are not teaching enough of the racism that has informed and was legitimized by the liberal arts curriculum in our institutions of higher learning.

We are not teaching the racism/sexism/classism encoded in our canonical liberal arts material enough! For example, many students do not know and will not ever know that Adolf Hitler’s eugenics plan was one adopted from American think tanks. While Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, first articulated eugenics in 1869 as a way to select only “desirable” traits in living beings, by the time it filtered to America, it went negative. It became a way to eliminate “undesirable” traits. I guess, since we are a racist society, one can figure out what “undesirable” means: those with dark skin, physical/mental deformities,criminality, laziness…any other discernible race than Anglo-Saxon. Yes, those were “undesirable.” Under America’s programs, thousands of people underwent forced sterilization and babies were allowed to die to spare society of one more “undesired” citizen. In America, this became more than a notion. Laws were passed in American states that used sterilization for everything from punishment to qualification for federal food assistance. Data collection systems were set up in order to maintain records of who was to be sterilized. Hitler used America’s data collection system and even exterminated tens of thousands of “undesirable” Germans in addition to the Jews that he systematically killed. Sadly, this is a side of the Holocaust that many students will never learn, because there simply isn’t enough diversity (or quite frankly, desire) in the academy to teach it. If anyone out there is interested in teaching this subject, there is a great introduction:

In the English Department, one of our canonical texts is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This book is still being taught today as a genius accomplishment of the English language. On the surface, and I mean on the surface, this book is racist in every way. First of all, Africa is a “blank space on the map,” waiting for white men to fill it with their names. Second, the Thames is majestic while the waters of Africa are “greasy” and “slimy.” The mud of Africa is “primeval.” The people of Africa are inarticulate. They are full of grunts and sounds. And at long last, one of the cannibals says, “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.” The women of Europe are dignified and given voice while the woman of Africa says nothing, but is draped in “superb savagery.” It is a contrast of civilization versus frenzy. England is civilized. Africa is savage. Period.

This, “fact,” put for by Conrad, is accepted a priori by most Westerners and one that is most difficult to explore and deconstruct in the college classroom. One would think in the age of television, Internet, and cell phones that centuries’ old stereotypes would be no longer in existence, since we can use Google to find out just about everything we want to know about one another. On the contrary, though, technology has made the liberal arts curriculum even more racist than it once was 20 or 30 years ago as new technology simply recycles old stereotypes in order to legitimize itself and familiarize users with its interface(s). One of the most difficult tasks that I had was to teach this text in a majority white setting. The students really, REALLY could not see how calling an unfamiliar space, which is populated with people, a “blank space,” could be considered condescending at the least and racist at the most. In order to get the point across, I have to use North Korea as an example. I ask them how many of them have ever or plan to ever see North Korea. None of them raise their hands. I ask them if North Korea would be a “blank space” on their maps since they have not and do not plan to ever see it. Of course, someone volunteers, “But at least some one has laid eyes on it before.” I come back and say, “Well, if no one white had ever seen North Korea before, would that mean it simply did not exist? The people of North Korea knew and knows that it exists and they would know that if a white person never found out about it. White people not knowing something doesn’t mean that such thing doesn’t exist.” The class is stunned that I, a rather large Black woman from Mississippi would say such a thing. So, I go further in the example. “If some folk from New Jersey came here today and said, ‘Wow! There is a university in Mississippi. We didn’t even know that Mississippians could read well enough to form a school. Let us now fill this blank space on our map with this school,’ wouldn’t you be offended?’” And oh, then I get some understanding.

But what if I were not there to point that out? What if my voice is silence through an arbitrary tenure system that looks more and more like a Fortune 500/political vetting system every year? What if this text were simply being taught as an artistic achievement, because of the trends of the publishing houses simply stop publishing any articles/books that say otherwise and folks who need tenure dare not buck that trend? What if the majesty of the Thames were simply the majesty of the Thames against the stench of the primeval mud of the Congo, because we all accept that Congo’s mud is somehow smellier than the Thames? What if Americans never learn of the role that our eugenics movement played in the Holocaust, because those of us in higher education simply decide that teaching that part of our history is simply distasteful and offensive? What if we never learn that our FBI was born from white men harassing Native Americans and actually killing them in order to take money from land that they were restricted to in the first place because their land was stolen? How can we keep moving forward if our institutions of higher learning never face/deconstruct the narratives that anesthetize us and keep racism alive for yet another generation?

This comes directly from my World Literature II binder. If you like it, clapback. Or, you could enroll in class. See you in the Fall (I hope. I don’t know. Maybe via Zoom?).

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.