I just taught my last class for today as I start my 15th year of teaching. This will be my finest year. I would like to dedicate this year to my former CAC students whom I first taught in Little Rock, as well as Ronnie Sewell who is now the Head at ACA, my high school. He offered me my first job after graduate school. Today we here at Brooks School started the year with an outside chapel convocation on one of the campus lawns up from the lake.
As a teacher who is passionate about the plight of different people — those who are like me as well as different from myself, I have made it my truth, journey, and mission to surround myself with differences. Holding to this belief means that I cannot be in institutions that struggle in their mission of accepting others. I was challenged this summer to think about the folks in my life. What do they look like? Who are they? How do I want my students to see my relationship with others? It takes work to create meaningful and diverse relationships; I am ready for the challenge. I think about the meaningful relationships I created with the above group this summer; I do not want that to dissipate; hence, I am focusing my efforts on creating a bond with people who love and care about other people: Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Gay, Lesbian, Queer, Bisexual, Transgender, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic, and Atheist; it does not matter. This is the kind of diversity that allows people to grow in their intellect, religious briefs, compassion, and mission. Diversity is at the heart of education.
The image above is one of my favorites; I was asked if I am pro-gay recently. I stated NO; I am pro-people. If that means supporting love — so be it. Marriage equality and having LGBTQ friends is about being pro-people. My intellect is driven on the notion that diversity of others allows us to be better people.
I am spending a great deal of time today studying Richard Wright. I cannot help but note how Wright so eloquently defined black alienation in Bigger Thomas — the victim of racism, classism, and urbanism in Native Son. As I tell my students, Bigger represents every emotional anger held by Wright. Both Christ and Bigger were ignored by the communist. There was no Proletarian revolution. Bigger represents Christ in so many ways. Poor, isolated, and seeking meaning in a world that rejected him. Many will argue that Christ understood his role and purpose, but like Bigger, Christ was executed and sought an explanation from God as to why. Bigger was a victim of society. Black folks failed Bigger. Christians and communists ignored him. And, white people killed him. Wright does not care for religion. His relationships with Christians did not permit an opportunity to explore faith. His upbringing in the Deep South only furthered his anger.
I love this note from a mucho awesome former student to me: “In the wake of Robin Williams’ passing, I wanted to thank you for playing a John Keating-esque role to me during junior and senior year. Indeed, teaching me (and many others) to truly suck the marrow out of life, often by exposing us to a viewpoint or work of varying degrees of unfamiliarity, is one of the greatest legacies any educator, especially yourself, can leave on any student who walks through classroom doors (hopefully to a Harkness-style table, not a desk)”. Thank you.
In the past, I have taught that Denmark Vesey, who was a free black man in the South, organized a failed slave insurrection in South Carolina. Until a decade ago, most historians believed that Vesey was the mastermind of this failed coup. In a shocking piece, published by the William and Mary Quarterly, a prestigious history journal, Michael Johnson revisited the court records and noted that Vesey was never present. Further, all testimonies came from slaves — some who were coerced out of fear. Hence, his paper concluded that “…the conspiracy in Charleston in 1822 was not a plan by blacks to kill whites but rather a conspiracy by whites to kill blacks, which resulted in the largest number of executions ever carried out by a civilian court in the United States”.
According to Johnson, the Vesey insurrection was not a slave organized event, but one of hysteria created by political actors seeking office who needed a bit of gravitas to launch their agenda against others. The United States Supreme Court criticized the South Carolina Court for committing legalized murder.(Source: March 11, 2002 issue of The Nation pg. 22)
Why is this important for our students? Black activist in South Carolina have fought to build a statue of Vesey in the city of Charleston. They were met by opposition due to a false notion that Vesey was plotting murder. Vesey was a man of honor and character; he informed others of the inherent wrongs found in America. He discussed God and how America was not a Godly nation due to its actions. There are scholars who disagree with the new interpretation of Vesey and the construction of a public statue. Concord Academy graduate and now Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust, noted that “I have problems with finding heroism as the purpose of history.” It appears that her perspective is one of not turning heroism into history. Though she seems to favor this new interpretation, it is hard to tell if she favors this statue, which you can read about here.
I am most excited about this because I have elected to spend time this fall having my students look at various interpretations of slave historiography. A book that I placed on our summer reading is Confessions of Nat Turner. I will blog about that work and how I intend to use it. This work should create a great deal of debate among my students. If they elected not to read William Styron’s fictional work, I have already edited key points from it as a comparison to the historiography. Also, having students compare the treatment of Vesey in older texts to that in recent ones is a great exercise in how history is not static, but often a changing discipline. As I shared with a few members in my department, our Nation of Nations text (6th edition) paints one image of Vesey on pages 307 and 363, while our new text America’s History (8th edition) paints the most updated historiography on page 401.