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February 5, 2009 / JV

raise your hand if your grandfather was a slave.

this is my thursday post. i’ll be more likely to write on thursdays, because that’s when i sit at a desk and stare at a computer. so i can write blogs when i’m not small talking about stocks, or hernias, and eating bacon flavored chocolate with coworkers. oh, coworkers.

this is partially a venting post. this is me seeing if other people share my frustrations. or have something to say about them.

the course is about music, race, class, and identity. (i don’t want to get too specific, so as to not inadvertently pop up in a google search and have to be revealed by an aspiring peer. part of the beauty of blogs anyway is the degree to which you control your own anonymity. in my opinion.).
so the course is about race.

we’re talking about how berry gordy’s grandfather was born a slave. born a slave. wow. slavery was so recent. who would have remembered?

the classroom is mostly white, but seemingly “diverse” by our standards. of about thirty students, there are a few colored faces present. five of which are black. four of which are either dominican, hapa, south asian, or puerto rican. ask me how i know.

the professor is raving about how unbelievable it is that berry gordy’s grandfather was a slave. how surprising, almost. he was the son of a white planter who made sure he knew how to read and write, then he was free, then he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. the original american dream.

the professor addresses the class: “how many of you have grandfathers who were born into slavery?”

no one raises their hand.

he looks around the room, scanning the faces, truly only scanning the faces of people who could possibly answer the question. like me. like her. or her. or maybe her.

“are there any people here who have slave stories that they can share?”

you are asking me.

you are asking me to tell you the story that i don’t know. about my grandfather, or my great grandfather. my grandfather and great grandfather that i never knew. i’m sorry, professor, but i have no slave stories for you and your classroom of white faces. no slave boy narrative to whet your appetite for normalizing tragedy. to authenticate your blackness. to legitimize your authority to even teach this class about black people and poverty and music.

he’s not satisfied.

“ok,” he says. “i love doing this. especially in a classroom with so many different people.” he turns to the white boy next to him. “what’s your ethnicity?” he smiles. so excited and so curious and hungry. “where is your family from? what’s your background?”

and so his game begins. we go around the classroom figuring everyone out. discovering if we were right about what we assumed when we looked at their skin color, hair texture, facial features. by the end, we know how to judge properly. oh shit, girl you haitian? i thought you were black.

we go around. and white people just love when they get to be ethnic. ever since they were told by their parents in fourth grade that they could dedicate small pieces of their heritage pie chart to different places in europe, they’ve rejoiced in their diversity. they’re not one thing. they’re “mutts,” and proudly so. they’re not just white, oh no. surely, you thought that when you saw them. but in fact you were fooled. they are actually hungarian, irish, slovakian, russian, armenian, swedish, and of course — cherokee.

in the midst of white people getting a kick out of themselves and how their spoken identities somehow trump their whiteness, we get around to me. the first black girl to go.

“and you, what’s your background?”


“ok. wow. do you know where they were from before that”


“ok well, do you know when they came to america?”


i don’t. i have an idea. but even if i knew, the point is that i don’t. i’m one of the two people in the room with no answer to your question. (i’m not sure about you.). and i’m one of many people who doesn’t know. we know virginia. we know georgia. we know mississippi. we know black and white photographs. we know resorts named after plantations. we know the lineage of violence that is our own skin. we know our reflections. we know the same stories you know. the same mythologies you were taught. and probably more. but i’m not going to sit here and tell you and your white pets about my family as some sort of casual testimony to living pain and buried history. as some real life example and reminder that slavery did in fact happen. and wow, it wasn’t so long ago after all.

and now that you’ve really got me feeling black, i just admitted to myself that i don’t like this class. with its organized consumption of black culture that you so comfortably moderate. how easy you make it for us to face ourselves, professor. for us to sleep and laugh and shit without shame.

look at the way they just feel so much with the world. look at how they’re so much in their skin. how they move their feet, shake their bodies. how they gyrate their hips. how carnal they are. they learned most of that in the church, you know. or from those long days in the field when they had a moment to themselves. oh, just look at their smiling eyes. and their grins. it’s almost… funny. black people were picking cotton outside of the studio where wilson pickett recorded mustang sally? wow. they were still picking cotton at that time in alabama? who would believe it? hehe. how ironic and … well, funny.

i’d like to climb down from this ride while it’s slow. i don’t wish to participate in the telling of this story. to carry the burden of having to educate this class almost single-handedly. to become part of this black spectacle. in-house posterchild. you’ve made that your job, professor. so dance.



Leave a Comment
  1. Nzingha / Feb 5 2009 9:16 pm

    get ’em girl!!

    yr piece reads so well and just makes me wish there were more of us teaching in academia to eliminate such tactless attempts at getting to know yr class…

  2. glory / Feb 10 2009 12:11 pm


  3. mb / Feb 10 2009 7:06 pm

    same situation. 10th grade AP European History. one of two black students and we had to stand up in the front of the class and point to a country (or in my case a continent) on a world map!

  4. Ron / Feb 12 2009 8:44 am

    Great post. Know this drill very well, too. Throws them off when your story doesn’t fit their imagination, much less that you refuse to play along.

  5. lp3000 / Feb 16 2009 10:27 am

    i really really enjoyed this post. I don’t know if you know the story, but when I was in one of my english classes in college we read sonny’s blues by james baldwin. No matter how hard the teacher tried to lead them in that dirction, no one wanted to admit (or even noticed) that the story was centered around racism. the story is set in harlem in the 40s, it’s about be-bop, and the characters keep describing this “darkness” that they felt hung over them….
    but no the class decided that the story had to do with “how life can be hard sometimes.”

  6. nails / Feb 16 2009 10:27 pm

    Outside of the section in italics, im having a really hard time understanding what the problem is, or how it should be taught. ??? I think that someone who asks all the students something instead of telling them what their experience should be is a step in the right direction. I am not sure how the white students are supposed to act in this situation either.

  7. the black scientist / Feb 18 2009 9:16 pm


    first, let me say that this is not an isolated incident. this professor has said a couple of things that i haven’t cared for in regards to race, usually in a joking manner. i don’t find race a particularly funny topic, nor slavery a casual one.

    but in this situation in particular, i think there are a few problems. for one, i don’t consider asking for ‘a slave story’ (like it’s some kind of show and tell) appropriate in a room full of white students. (i’m actually not sure how i feel about asking that question in this kind of academic setting in general, considering how impersonal they tend to be). as 1 of the 2 people in the classroom who could have even possibly answered that question, i felt uncomfortable. that is a rather personal question to be asking your students whom you’ve known no more than 5 hours, and it is a personal thing to ask your (black) students to share with a room full of white kids that they don’t know.
    i would venture to say that perhaps, and only perhaps because i have no experience in another setting, but perhaps it would have been different if we were at an HBCU, or at least if the class had more black people in it (although even then perhaps not because black americans make up so little of the ‘black’ population in higher ed institutions). but to propose that question as though addressing the mass when in fact you aren’t only makes it slightly less uncomfortable than if you were to look straight at the two black students and ask.
    and i mean, the fact is, that we slave-descended folk can’t necessarily place ourselves on a map. so, to kind of.. in my opinion, disregard the fact that none of us spoke up to tell ‘a slave story,’ and to forge ahead with this ‘ethnicity’ game is somewhat trifling. and maybe i’m reading too much into this professor’s motives, but i don’t think he gave a shit which european countries most of the class was from. he wanted to use the 2 black students in the class as examples.
    he wanted the game to come around to us, when we would have to say “i don’t know” or “africa” or “america” so he could show these white students — “see look, they don’t know”. “where is your family from” is not a good approach to teaching a lesson about the devastation of lost histories that have resulted from the transatlantic slave trade. i shouldn’t have to evoke the reality (which is a painful memory for me and only a ‘story’ for my classmates) of my ancestors being transported as cargo across the ocean to teach some white kids about berry gordy’s motown business ethic.

  8. brownblackandqueer / Feb 19 2009 12:37 am

    It’s so insensitive. All of it. And superficial.

    The process by which whites became a blanket group of people, not people from different European countries, is NOT comparable to the process that blacks have become black.

    Black slaves did not claim blackness initially to unite. They were forced to. They were erased of any individuality, not just of course based on nationality (country or region or tribe or family), but that’s a start.

    It’s not enough to just ask where people’s families are from. Why are you here now? What brought you here? Who brought you here? To invoke these stories, migration stories, must be done properly identifying how free or intentional the migration was. This is not to say that Americans with European ancestry all just hopped on over to the states easily, but that these stories must be told with regard to the deeply emotional (even if we’re desensitized or we don’t know how to feel) experiences instrinsic to them. Otherwise, it would be so surface and insensitive, and therefore problematic.

    Okay, fine, the blacks “don’t know” where they’re from. But so what? Where’s the attempt to talk about WHY they don’t know?

    Maybe some of the white folks in the room can tell us why the blacks don’t know where they’re from. Do they have slave stories?

    Kudos, professor, for being so provocative.

  9. nails / Feb 19 2009 11:24 pm

    thank you black scientist.

    I didnt think about the isolation factor, i was thinking about how i cant wait to talk about feminism and such when asked, but i suppose it is a lot easier when there are generally many other women there to discuss it with and i dont have pressure to showcase the idea to a bunch of guys who really wont every be in my shoes on the issue. It will be at least 30% of any class unless i do engineering/IT stuff… the post makes a lot more sense now. thanks again!

  10. daisymae81 / Feb 28 2009 3:11 pm

    it irritates me when academic administration will “split up” the “minority” students (i use quotes because i dislike the terms, but want to convey the mindset of those who make the decisions) into seminar classes so that all the white kids get access to a student who is expected to represent an entire race/history and fill in the “gaps” that their whiteness can’t.

    very few professors are adept at conveying messages about race, class, and gender without alienating students.

  11. public school teacher / Mar 9 2009 10:26 am

    Interesting comments. I found this blog while searching for articles that discuss race and education. As a social science teacher in a public school, I face the issues of teaching about race relations in history… As much as I try to approach the subject in a way that treats all students like Americans (people from the same place with a common culture), I find that black students tend to withdraw from class discussion when the issue of slavery is presented. Perhaps this is because my classess are typically 85% caucasion – it would obviously be difficult to be the single minority voice expected to speak for an entire race of people… Still, the economic and political influence of slavery on American history requires that I teach the subject. While I would never single out students like the prof. in the initial blog, I still face the difficulty of reaching every student. How can education discuss race and still transcend race?

    • the black scientist / Mar 9 2009 5:50 pm

      hi public school teacher, glad you came across the blog :)
      off the top, i would say an important aspect to teaching black history is to not just teach slavery and mlk jr . and this is a challenge that teachers face at many levels of education because most of what we learn is by default white, particularly when it comes to history. but it is important that ‘black history’ or american indian history or chinese american history, or whatever, not only be taught as a one week segment to fill a requirement. if instead we write ‘all other people’ into american history (which is how it happened anyway), then they become a genuine part of the lesson, as opposed to a supplement. i would imagine this to be particularly challenging when you’re given a specific curriculum to get through for the year, as most public school teachers are. but it seems like a plausible way to make race less taboo in the classroom. as it is, students might get uncomfortable because until black history month, (in classrooms) we don’t acknowledge that other races exist. i feel like there is a way to facilitate a discussion that spans the academic year in which there is a constant awareness and inclusion of diverse and complicated narratives in the curriculum. not to say this makes teaching about slavery easy necessarily (and especially not for minority students in a predominantly white classroom), but it might make it less of a specialized event and students may feel more a part of a critical ongoing dialogue, instead of a tangent.

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