Black Religion in America: Resource Request

I have proposed to my head of department a course for next Fall with the somewhat sterile title “Black Religion in America”. I am very excited to teach the course for a number of reasons. Since coming to this post, I have been trying to correct my lack of learning from black scholars and organic intellectuals. My experience in Philadelphia brought home to me that, if I was to be anything like an effective teacher and a teacher that aimed for something transgressive (à la bell hooks) in my pedagogy, I had to bring myself under the conditions for theory set by the blackamerican experience and blackness as such. I do not mean this in an instrumentalist way, I mean very seriously that the immanent conditions for thinking through some of the most important aspects of reality for me required that I listen to this particular manifestation and that my work had to be shaped by it without in anyway seeking to speak for or even about that experience. So, as one should, I’ve read a lot of really important theoretical work in the black tradition. I am, as in all my intellectual pursuits, utterly amateurish here and I have noticed that the few times I have come across professionals in Black Studies they are unimpressed with the sources I have found inspiring. Importantly there is no single black tradition, there are debates there, and there is reality but no necessity. All of this I take to be important philosophical conditions.

Much of what I have been reading, unsurprisingly, relates to questions of religion. And, while I am very aware of the trap I may have set for myself in terms of falling into unconscious forms of white supremacy, it seemed in our current environment that putting this research to use in a classroom setting would be good for our students. As a campus we are, relative to national averages, very diverse in terms of our students. We do not quite reflect the demographics our city, something that some of us continue to push for, but we are far closer than many of the other universities. We have a lot of work to do to make the faculty reflect even our student body, to say nothing of our city, but until we are given the resources to hire a black scholar I feel like risking failure may be worth it. Especially as I have cultivated a pedagogical method that helps get me out of the way and, if students are willing to take the lead, may be student directed in a way that would offer a corrective to any mistakes I may call into. My hope is that if I can’t reflect for our students what having a black professor would, I can at least provide the framework and platform to engage with the work of important black thinkers, communities, and problematics.

I have a number of ideas for how to organize the course, specifically with regard to readings, but I am hoping to tap into the hive mind of our readers for their thoughts regarding 1) texts they have used or think would be good for a course like this and 2) pedagogical methods for disempowering as much as possible the whiteness of the professor.

Some remarks on how I want to present the class. I think it is vital to spend some class sessions on the religious/theological construction of race, specifically with regards to the Slave subjectivity that both conditioned and was reciprocally underpinned by the middle passage (I am very curious about suggestions here). I want then to look at ways in which resistance via religion manifested. So obviously discussions of mainstream forms of black religion will be there (Black Christianity and the move to Sunni Islam), but I want to look at those other inventive, syncretic forms of resistance and survival. Blackamerican Islam strikes me as particularly important there as it plays out from the Temple Moorish Science to the Five Percenters, but I may also include those groups that push the identity of religion like MOVE.

What thoughts do you all have?

25 Responses to “Black Religion in America: Resource Request”

  1. David Kline Says:

    Anthony Pinn’s, ‘Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion’ and ‘Varieties of African American Religious Experience’ are both good in terms of getting beyond the standard narrative of black religion=black Christianity. Charles Long’s ‘Significations’ is a must for any bibliography of black religion and really good in terms of encounter, syncretism, and resistance. A few others: Baer and Singer, ‘African American Religion: Varieties of Accommodation and Protest’; William Hart. ‘Afro-Eccentricity: Beyond the Standard Narrative of Black Religion’; Gayraud Wilmore, ‘Black Religion and Black Radicalism’ (although this one is pretty Christianity centered).

  2. amaryahshaye Says:

    DuBois, Vincent Lloyd has a great piece on paradox and black theology, Evelyn Higginbotham is great too,

  3. amaryahshaye Says:

    Also, Eddie Glaude’s Exodus

  4. Mohammed El-Sayed Bushra Says:

    ‘Islam and the Blackamerican’ and ‘Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering’, both by Sherman Jackson

  5. liamface Says:

    Yolanda Pierce’s HELL WITHOUT FIRES

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Thanks folks.

    Just so people know what I’m thinking of using already:

    For Islam: I had planned on using some sections from Islam and the Blackamerican for Sunni Islam, a bit from Dannin’s Black Pilgrimage to Islam, and then considering using a few pieces from Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X for NOI primary sources and maybe some pieces by Five Percenters and a short section from MMK’s scholarly book on the group. Not quite sure yet how to organize that section.

    For Christianity: I was thinking a piece from Howard Thurman and James Cone (too different visions, but both interesting, I think), a section from William’s Sisters in the Wilderness, maybe some of the work from Willie Jennings book to explore the very complicated nature of Christianity in relation to the experience of racism that is navigated by Black Christians?

    Amaryah, what DuBois were you thinking of?

    I’m going to go get a bunch of these now and think about framing texts, so thanks everyone.

  7. amaryahshaye Says:

    Anthony, his book Darkwater and also several essays from The Souls of Black Folk such as “Of the Coming of John”

  8. Grue Says:

    So…how many black churches have you gone to and how many black church communities have you been a part of? If you’re white and the answer is “none”, I find it difficult to convey how strange and…creepy I find this post. I almost never go to this blog, I’m not very familiar with the tone and substance of the writers/community here. But wtf? I have so many reactions right now. I have no idea how the “whiteness of the professor” can be disempowered when adopting the pose of a black radical (with none of the attendant experiences, insights or disadvantages) is your stated prerogative. If such a thing were possible, it certainly wouldn’t be done by reducing an ongoing community organ to a research topic where your only point of reference is…books. There’s something vaguely dehumanizing about your approach and I’m struggling to put my finger on it. I don’t see the value in absorbing caricatured and very likely misunderstood fixtures of blackness while substantively separating your approach (and some of your students) from actual black people and existing black communities.

    I grant that I’m likely overreacting, and perhaps there’s an element of unfairness here but again, wtf? These are real people, in real places that you can easily drive to. Getting paid to mine their efforts and history for countercultural cred (but without ingratiating yourself or being useful to them) is shockingly tacky.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Grue,

    Thanks for your message. I was going to email you a response, but a public reply seems maybe useful and I know lots of people just tend to type in any email address to get through the annoying wordpress screen. I do not think you are being unfair, but you are rushing to judgment and I think some of the misunderstandings could be common since this is not an activity lacking in danger. First, I am white and I’ve attended a few black churches in my life, but I have never been part of a black church community (again, I’m white, have you attended many black churches?). But I am not part of any church community, white or otherwise. I’m a scholar of religion, not a priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam. And I am not an anthropologist or ethnographer and so my research takes place usually with the intellectual tradition of whatever particular religious tradition I am studying. This is true when I teach courses on anything, I teach the texts of those traditions and their intellectual history as well as various theoretical works on those traditions. That may strike you as dehumanizing, people have made this complaint about religious studies before, but I don’t think that is the case at all.

    I wonder if you would have “so many reactions” if I was teaching a course on Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, or even Christianity since I am not in a meaningful way a part of that tradition? As when I teach those traditions I always ground our work in the fact that none of these traditions are singular, that we are never going to encircle them and find the underlying truth of these lived traditions in the course of a 14-week course. And, as in those courses, I am not planning on “adopting the pose a black radical” (I don’t think I adopt the pose of a white radical either, for what it is worth, I’m just a teacher). Aside from being pathetic, it would be disgusting. What I meant by “disempowering my whiteness” was to follow a different kind of pedagogy than the standard power relationship of professor who “knows everything” and students who passively receive knowledge. My hope for the course, which could end in specular failure, is that our large black population of students will want to take this course as a way to engage with the academic study of a part of the culture of Black america. And so the class should be a collaborative effort, precisely because I am not going to pretend to have the same “experiences, insights or disadvantages”. It means assigning books by black thinkers only and finding as many opportunities as structurally possible to shut up. And I hope to bring in guest speakers from the different traditions (I am not limiting our study to Christianity). But I have spent a lot of time studying religion generally and can offer some theoretical tools that the students may learn to use and deploy in their own way. I’m really looking forward to seeing how they use it in the scope of the course.

    Admittedly, I have no idea what your last sentence really means. This is an academic course, I will receive no countercultural cred from it. My goal is to bring our students something that is of interest to them to study and engage with voices and ideas that are not normally given the platform of the university classroom. At least not ours.

  10. Grue Says:

    Much as I wish I could effectively summarize and pinpoint the source of my misgivings, the core of my issue eludes me. All I can say is that, speaking personally, I would hate being in your class. By your own admission, you’ve only recently started acquainting yourself with the subject, you have limited personal experience with the subject matter, you have a scholarly knowledge that, also by your admission, falls short of what people actually in Black Studies would be impressed by and…you’re a white dude. While your status as a professor may ostensibly allay the antagonism inherent in that, I find the idea of participating in discussions about an existing black communal artifact with people who are in no way a part of or invested in that community or political struggle unseemly at best. Pretty much every defensible reason for white professors to touch on black topics (demonstrable expertise, earned goodwill, experience – personal or professional – an entry point for objective research etc) doesn’t seem to apply here.

    The primary fixture of the black church and many black religious traditions is intraracial expression. That intraracial expression is afforded by the creation of a segregated haven for an oppressed class inside of a deeply and violently segregated society. Or, to put it differently, that expression is afforded by the general absence of an empowered white presence in those spaces. Just as I have difficulty separating the theology of black religious expression from the experience of being black in America, I have just as much difficulty separating the institution of the church from a social and communal function that marks its vibrancy by an empowerment that requires neither white assent or white observation for exercise. Unless you’re involved, unless you’ve been involved, unless there’s a body of material that provides an astoundingly accurate lens of this dynamic, I don’t know how you can comment on it without projection (much less trust that your projection won’t reflect the white supremacy you’re trying to avoid). What’s more, I don’t know how or whether you can make a relevant and responsive course without highlighting and potentially centering that facet of it.

    I suppose it comes down to me viewing the black church as a deeply communal/social institution and discussions of it as personal/familial. Your engagement with it seems separate from that function and rather distant from – and thus disrespectful to – the human and political dimensions of that function. It makes your wish to create a public forum where you, a white professor (as opposed to a black one) can shepherd discussions about it feel like a species of interloping and imposition; one that only works because its academic obscurity gives limited penalty to the tone deaf qualities of your engagement. There are ages of oral tradition and family ties wrapped into many black churches. I can’t imagine an atmosphere where even indirectly touching on that with a white professor would feel comfortable to me (and I wouldn’t want to speak openly in such an environment either). Furthermore, I don’t know how I’d feel about such a tradition being reduced to some guy who found it interesting because of some arresting theoretical work he’s discovered through a book.

    Again, I’m speaking personally and I’m not necessarily trying to cast aspersions. But the dangers aren’t yours and the “risk for failure” wouldn’t really be affecting you. This looks way more like hubris than help to me, especially without deeper immersion and skin in the game, as it were. Why should you be trusted to do this? Why would you trust yourself to do it? The whole thought process behind your proposal is completely alien and troubling to me.

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    For someone who admittedly does not engage with this blog often you sure make a lot of very bold claims about me that are either totally false or misconstrued. The biggest assumption you have made is that I haven’t already touched on these issues in my classes for years. And that I haven’t discussed the possibility of this class with former students who are black to get their opinion on if this course should be offered. The trust you cast aspersions on is something built locally. How would you ever hope to evaluate it in such an ad hoc way and from a comment box? I would point out again that many of your points, which are rooted in reality I do not deny, apply to any student who is asked to study their traditions history and texts with a professor who is not part of it or spiritually invested.

    While I feel that many of your assumptions are off base, I think the suspicion you express here has a real basis and I do appreciate you presenting this challenge. If you take the assumption that white supremacy is the air people breathe on college campuses and that many of our black students are tired of hearing about white privilege and want to engage in an intellectual way responses to white supremacy, then offering such a course seems a good thing to do even if on a very small level. Our students have to take religion courses and, for a variety of reasons, none of our scholars of color are in the humanities here. That’s a huge problem and one that we keep bringing up. But until we get that fixed, this is what we have to work with. I do not pretend that I have this all figured out, so aside from simply cancelling the course (which is not in my power to do anyway), do you have suggestions for how to make the space safer for black students? What would you want to hear from a white professor teaching this course on the first day that would make you feel like you could challenge them?

  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Not sure anyone is checking in on this thread, but Grue’s concerns are, as I have tried to say, rooted in concerns that I think arise out of the reality of the structures we’re all a part of. I think there are good reasons for teaching this course, namely that many of our students of color have expressed that they already know about white privilege, the structures of racism, and are interested in studying responses to them. As I have tried to say, there are obviously major threats here, specifically because as a white professor I won’t have the same sense of the lived experience of this religious tradition (as Grue points out). This is of course true for most of the courses I teach since I am not a part of any Christian, Jewish, or Muslim community but regularly teach their history and texts. But I think part of Grue’s inability to put his/her finger on what is troublesome about this course is that there is something different at play here precisely because of the structure of American racism that will structure the professor/student relationship and how we read that material. Any attempt to render myself innocent of that structure will doom such a class to failure. So, aside from the kind of recognition of that structure, I am wondering if there are things I can do to at least disempower my whiteness in this structure.

    My plan has always been to make the course collaborative. That is, students will take turns presenting on the material (I’m hoping to use a seminar room for this) and I will find as many opportunities to be quiet as possible, only trying to add some of the critical tools that philosophy and the study of religion may offer to sharpen and deepen the discussion. And I plan to reach out through my various networks to leaders in the Christian, Muslim, and political communities to invite speakers to the class. But I am wondering if there would be a point in taking away the only institutional power I have in the course: grades. Say something like, if you show up and you complete the assignments then I give you my professorial A. Then have peer grades/comments for the papers so that the evaluation of quality is coming from fellow classmates (I suspect this will be a mostly black course, but I could be wrong about the demographics and if so would need to adjust this). Do readers think that would be a positive thing or would it be fraught with some traps for the students I am not seeing?

  13. amaryahshaye Says:

    I think the cautions Grue articulates are real and important to confront. I do think there’s an important need to think about context. That is, Anthony is not trying to position himself as a scholar of black studies, he’s not trying to publish in black studies journals, he’s not trying to write a book on black religion, he’s not trying to “take” the position of people who *do* black studies in a sustained way. However, he is someone who has been following conversations in black studies, trying to learn himself. He’s a white dude, yes, but he’s also in an all white department of religion. Who else is going to teach a course on black religion? Do you think the ideas of black studies and black religion are important and need to be encountered? Even by non-black folks? If so, it doesn’t make sense to me to try to articulate him teaching this course as if he is taking an opportunity from a black scholar or taking something away from black scholarship.

    As an undergrad English major in a predominately white school and a classroom with only one other black person, a white professor taught on gender and literary theory and included a lot of black women in the course because she didn’t think we could think about gender and lit theory without thinking about women of color, especially black women. I read one of the most important texts in my life, Toni Morrison’s Sula, in that class. While I don’t think she was the best teacher of that text, she was clearly practicing a level of care in how she taught it. Regardless of if she was a good teacher or not, I needed to encounter that text and I appreciated greatly when white professors had syllabi with black authors. I was also a minor in religion. All throughout, I wished there was a course on black religion, not because I thought my white professors would be amazing at teaching it (though they could be), but because I wanted to encounter those texts. She was also a straight woman teaching Judith Butler, etc. But again, those texts are important to be introduced to even if the professor isn’t the best at teaching them.

    It seems reductive in the worst kind of way to use “well, you’re a white man” as a reason not to encounter these ideas in black religion. The whole point of black studies is that more people need to encounter them and see the world newly by unlearning a white supremacist religiosity. I don’t understand how we expect that to happen in contexts where black professors aren’t there (because of larger structural issues of course!) or spaces where POC aren’t present. Of course the work should be accompanied by working to get those people into positions where they can teach, but that in the present what we have is what we have, and black studies is all about making something out of the shitty conditions you’ve been given.

    Finally, as someone who is a black scholar of religion and training to be a teacher, the kind of pressure placed on black scholars is ridiculous. My teaching will be informed because I’ve spent years learning this, partly because my being black engendered the need to encounter these kinds of radical ideas. However, the practice of reading and engaging is something all teachers are supposed to do. If teachers devote themselves to reading and teaching with care, I’m not going to say they can’t teach something they don’t identify as. Also, as teachers, we are continually learning and reteaching ourselves. This idea that one can or should have some complete storehouse of knowledge about a topic before teaching it is just so troubling to me. I don’t know that I would be where I am if not for white teachers who taught black people (sometimes very badly! but that gave me the launching point for my critiques), and reading white people who engaged with black thought in a careful way while also having my own experience to act as a kind of filter and questioning things that seemed off to me. There’s no non-risky site of learning, we all risk failing and being failed by others. I’ve been failed by black professors in numerous ways. Anthony’s probably going to fuck up, but that’s why it’s good the texts are there. They probably exceed his understanding in a way that will help students recognize him fucking up and also show why the texts are important. They are able to contest his position, too. This is what black studies does to me all the time.

    Sorry, this touched a bit of a nerve.

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    (Just one minor point, not everyone in the department is white but no one is Black or Latino.)

  15. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    And thank you, Amaryah. Really vital stuff here for me.

  16. Hill Says:

    This is why we read this blog.

  17. Grue Says:

    “But I think part of Grue’s inability to put his/her finger on what is troublesome about this course is that there is something different at play here precisely because of the structure of American racism that will structure the professor/student relationship and how we read that material. Any attempt to render myself innocent of that structure will doom such a class to failure. So, aside from the kind of recognition of that structure, I am wondering if there are things I can do to at least disempower my whiteness in this structure.”

    Yes. I also think this is part of why I was caught way, way off guard by seeing this post. It crosses a line I rarely see crossed, and it’s not nearly attentive enough to the social and structural dimensions of that line or the social and structural responsibilities that are (or at least should be) conferred by approaching it. If you were a part of or had been a part of a black church or some kind of black religious community, I’d still be uncomfortable, but I could perhaps convince myself to see a defense for this (or at least ignore it). But without an established investment in the kinds of communities that black churches nurse? No, no, no. Seriously, no. I have no reason to trust your engagement, I wouldn’t trust your goals with how even collaborative discussions would be nursed, I wouldn’t trust the areas you focus on, and I wouldn’t trust you. It is, for so many reasons, very much not your place.

    Its function as a space for intraracial expression is driven by the removal of a white gaze and white positional dynamics that would be inescapable in your class. Even moreso if your class ended up being unexpectedly diverse. Under that circumstance, it could become a space for a kind of bizarre tourism if any of the attending black students have my view of the church and shares it with none of the caution and none of the understanding for why that caution should exist in mixed company. I cringe at the idea of some black kid saying too much or subjecting the black church to a topic where EVERYONE can have opinions, input and criticism (when that’s not even sorta the case). Especially since discussions about the black church often become deeply essentializing discussions about black people without using black social dynamics/views/contexts as their frame of reference. You get examples of this when white liberals remark on black religious participation while evidently conceptualizing that participation with the behavior of white evangelicals in mind.

    That said, I do appreciate your hearing me out and I appreciate you seeing beyond any interpretations of your post (and you) that I got wrong, but, again, speaking very, very personally, I would rather the class not exist than have a white person who’s feeling his way through navigating it correctly teach it. Even if you managed it without incident, your presence – and the presence of other non-black people in the class – provides ample incentives for tongue-biting. It’s like talking about family with strangers you don’t trust, in a society where your family was formed because of the hostility of the very same strangers. Much as I hate reducing systemic and historical racial dynamics to pat analogies, I think it communicates the intimacy and the violation of intimacy that you’re breaching. Furthermore, I feel there’s a vulnerability inherent to courting that breach that I don’t trust a white person’s ability to manage, much less observe. The structural and substantive reality of white supremacy is fully with us, and skin color fully marks our engagement with it. Good intentions (and good material, for that matter) aren’t sufficient for correcting that and honesty about it isn’t responsive enough to minimize the implications of pursuing this. You need way, way more, in my opinion.

  18. Grue Says:

    amaryahshaye: Your post and perspective are interesting and your objections are perfectly legitimate. As I’ve said from the outset, I’m speaking for me, on behalf of me, and my reluctance/discomfort with this is mine alone and far beneath my preferred rationale for engagement. That said, I want to clarify and say that my distaste for this on a conceptual and political level is not an expression of distaste for the pursuit of black studies or black religion – not in the slightest. It’s a distaste for approaching aspects of those topics with certain conditions going unmet. There are conversations I just won’t have with white people around anymore, there are thoughts I have that I have no wish to subject to white judgment and there are political and social experiences I don’t really find them equipped to empathize with, much less delegate, so I have difficulty supporting contexts where social power is giving them the authority to have authority in situations where inescapable inadequacy colors their engagement (to ends that could be handicapped at best, and poisoning at worst).

    You may find “well, you’re a white man” reductive, and I’ll grant it’s not argumentatively descriptive, but I find it incredibly and usefully pertinent to how race is socialized and to the political gulfs that are inherent to that socialization. What’s more, I find that it clarifies, in a systemic fashion, how that gulf can play out in ways individual engagement and charm can obscure and it allows me to set my expectations accordingly. It’s a reminder, to both parties, of a positionality that’s not exorcised by the acknowledgment that such a disparity exists and it can occasionally communicate and enforce boundaries that wouldn’t be heeded otherwise. Other people are perfectly free to have different boundaries, but again, I’m speaking for me and I’m communicating – perhaps ineffectively – a qualifier that dominates our political standing and can malignantly dominate both our points of relation and the political effects of our discourse/action. This is directly relevant to a classroom environment, IMO, where fascination without positive communal investment and good intentions/knowledge without a human core (something that requires protracted social exposure to black people, IMO) can create an effective minefield of “nope”. Especially on topics like this, where its existence as an interesting topic is directly connected to racist dynamics that are unresolved and ongoing.

    As for some of your other remarks that can be fairly (I hope) summarized as “if not him, then who? and if not now, then when?”. I have no answer for that. They’re good questions and fair questions, and I totally understand your appreciation for helpful white professors, your sensitivity to the structural dynamics that make them an exclusive resource and your gratitude for being introduced to material you wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. It’s not at all impossible for his class to induce positive reactions in other black people that resemble your own best experiences. I suppose where we part ways is that I value the framing and context of that material just as much (if not more) than the material itself (and particularly on topics relating to race). My ability to and desire to learn from others about it is directly connected to and maximized by whether I feel I have have to enter their spaces “armed”, as it were, and this is totally an area where I’d feel that, regardless of what’s said at the outset of the class. I might find some awesome books from it, I might learn something, but would I like the class? Would I want to be a part of it? Nope. Which is substantially different than what my reaction would be if the professor and the class were black.

    It’s not a broad should “teachers shouldn’t teach something they don’t identify with/know”. It’s a “should white teachers in a white supremacist society that communicates white supremacy through anti-blackness be trusted to positively or neutrally handle deeply relevant facets of black social experiences and black culture, for the assumed benefit of black students?” The question is very specific, and responsive to a specific political context and I’ve seen no reason so far to shift my answer away from “no”. As I said, these aren’t resolved questions and political statuses, and our acknowledgment of racial dynamics shouldn’t be so glib that we think being aware of them mitigates them in any way. This becomes truer the further away from actual investment black communities the white party in question is. That’s a distance that’s afforded by an ongoing racism that many whites are purportedly committed to not reproducing. And yet.

  19. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Alright, so you’re totally opposed on the basis of a priori. Since we’re not part of the same community I don’t think more can be done with this conversation. So thank you, but if the conversation is just stuck there then I don’t know that there is much purpose going forward.

  20. CharlesR Says:

    Should the difficulty in crossing the gulf, or the gap, lead us to close off discussion?

    Aren’t discussions like this in the microcosm nothing but the applications of what we are trying for in the microcosm?

    So if we can’t do it here, how can we expect to do it there? Patterns repeat themselves, whether through translation on the same layer or through fractal repetition above and below our current layer.

    I’m saying, hope springs eternal. Instead of closure, hope. Hope to listen. Hope to recognize suspicions. Hope to understand we’re always standing in the place of what it is we are judged by (or else ‘positionality’ means something else entirely for y’all).

    Maybe this is different entirely, but one of the things I learned when I was cop in a racially and socioeconomically diverse department within a very deeply divided but geographically confined racial and economic region (I had to hesitate to write ‘community’ there) was that we got past race and class by sitting, for hours, next to each other, driving aimlessly around and answering calls and watching each other deal with people who looked like ourselves. Amaryahshaye wrote about fucking up, and there is this expectation that we will fuck up, and there was the reality of how we fucked up, and there was always the tension of others interpreting our fuck ups in light of The Fuck Up the larger struggles got us to think were what we should expect of the other.

    Somehow, over the hours to weeks to months, seeing how humanly we were all fucking up and laughing at ourselves and listening to each other explain what we meant or how we were thinking, and learning how to trust each other to “have one another’s back” regardless of whatever unnerves us about one another, someway we ended up friends.

    The job made us not gve up too soon. It took time to learn who were morally corrupt and who were morally learning. Time and listening.

  21. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I am not trying to close off discussion here, but I in so far as Grue has decided upon his or her position I just didn’t see any purpose in pushing back. I do not see the blog as a microcosm of my classroom. As Grue continues to say that s/he does not trust me I keep thinking, “Well yeah, we don’t know each other.” To be honest, while I respect s/he giving her opinions, I don’t really get how there is anyway out of the problem since there are no conditions being explicitly stated I could even meet. While I am told that I need “way, way more”, I am not told what this more is. All the while I’m some disembodied person in a community s/he knows nothing about. And, while it is true that I am not a part of a black religious community, I am deeply invested in the Black student community on our campus. I don’t really think it is wise or respectful to outline how here in a public place. I have reason to believe that with many of my students and I have built trust together. That is fraught like many aspects of these relationships are fraught, but it is real. Admittedly being asked to prove that or having it be put to some kind of trial feels very strange, impossible, and has me flustered.

    So, since I am hoping to surface pedagogical ideas and hear from people regarding the texts they’ve liked, I just thought it was time to acknowledge the feeling that the class should be cancelled and move forward since it won’t be cancelled.

  22. Grue Says:

    The lack of an evident social/substantive connection to black churches is one of the hugest problems I have. I’ve stated that as a direct complaint and a direct problem multiple times and have continually emphasized its communal function (i.e not as a sanctuary for god, but for still-living, perfectly conversant black people). When I said I could have more easily ignored this post if you were a part of one or had been a part of one in the past, I meant that as a possible (but by no means absolute) mitigating factor. It’s not about needing to be a priest, an anthropologist or an ethnographer, it’s about closing a deep – and potentially corrosive – political distance from the subject matter that’s afforded by a similarly deep social and emotional distance from the black people that operate in that context. It’s about tying your own stakes to the stakes inherent to the subject matter. You can do this silently, and it’s probably best if you do, but it’s REALLY something that I feel is necessary before I can even semi-sorta nod my head and stand in “well, let’s wait and see” mode.

    By virtue of being white, you’re not just (and not capable of being) a neutral outsider, you’re in a position of authority about a topic where socialization places you into an antagonistic role. It’s not a role that, IMO, your black students are capable of trusting your way out of. It’s not just or even mostly about you personally, it’s about what you are and where we are when contrasted with what you’re proposing to teach about. When opening one of the only hubs for black intraracial expression up to public discourse and judgment, utility should take a back seat to circumspection. I’m not trying to give you a roadmap for teaching it right, I’m trying to convey how uncomfortable I am with a white person – with no stated community-connections – ushering a topic about something that necessitates community investment for a non-suspect discussion/conceptualization to take place. I’m not being nearly as unfair as you think.

  23. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I didn’t claim you were being unfair, I do not think, and if I am mistaken and I did then I apologize for my memory, recant that statement, and apologize for making it. Again, I think there are many assumptions you’ve made that are incorrect and I have had trouble following the normative implications regarding the claims you’re making about structure (claims about structure I largely agree with). I still feel uncomfortable about mounting a defense on the basis of the certain claims you’re making about me and I’m going to continue to essentially avoid making those claims. Thank you again for your concerns and I will do my best to take them on board along with the advice/comments I am getting from other friends, students, mentors, and colleagues. There is a remarkably range of views on this, so I can’t simply essentialize yours or cherry pick the ones I find amenable to my own. That, I take it, is what living in a community is in part about.

  24. Charles R Says:

    On a different note but an original question, I have taught logic where I did the “professorial A” but had the students constantly working alongside one another doing proofs while I also worked with students who needed more help than another student provide. It was a small class, we all had good rapport with one another, and the students once they figured out how to think through the symbols all began to develop a group consensus on how to approach the same problems, with the occasional novel approach being accepted once they saw it in action. Given there are no grades “out there” once we leave the classroom, fostering an environment of honest group assessment seems good preparation for it.

    I have adopted a similar pedagogical strategy in the rest of my classes through team teaching in small groups along with feedback on papers the students work on over the course of the semester. Student feedback for one another tends to fall along similar paths: some students, feeling too unqualified to offer any substantial criticism, resort to platitudes of support; some students, feeling (too) assured of their ability to offer criticisms, resort to incendiary remarks of humiliation; some students, feeling too wrapped up in their own extracurricular life, offer no feedback at all; some students, feeling the excitement of doing something different, give the right amounts of criticism and praise. Allowing them the freedoms to critique one another also needs the modeling behaviors the professors, and the institution, provide. If the particular classroom is alien in the context of the larger institution’s pedagogical practices, the experiment in cultivating student interests in one another will have a much harder time of it. But we have to grow with the failures in the classroom of feedback to learn how to do it.

    Every child stumbles on the way to eventually running, or dancing. Classrooms are the same: once we see the collection as itself a living organism comprising you all, the walls and projector and board and desks, and the door that leads outside through which guests can enter and share their ideas within it, the initial stumbles aren’t so bad. Bruises and breaking skin and sprained joints teach lessons as much as words, and preventing words from being shared, much like preventing damage from ever happening, teaches nothing. Hence why I like the emphasis on acknowledging the fuckups are going to happen.

    Plan for them, not to prevent them, but to *allow* them. Sensitivity is not always lessened by having thicker skin. And if the students aren’t going to be given a safe space to explore their way out of the jams we all get into, where else is better?

    Anthony, I took it one of Grue’s concerns was your connection to the communities you’re teaching about/alongside. So, my thought was you could expand more on when you said “And I plan to reach out through my various networks to leaders in the Christian, Muslim, and political communities to invite speakers to the class.” Well, what if not “leaders” alone but people who not only understand what you’re wanting to do with the class but also these very issues of overcoming our human necessity of a trust we must earn? I get that talking about those “various networks” comes close to “My best friends are . . . ” sorts of “defenses,” but why does this have to be a pushing back, a defense, an apologetics of pedagogy? Grue has a concern, one we recognize as legitimate, since it’s one we feel ourselves when whatever communities are our own lifeloves become threatened by an outside narrator explaining our social interactions as life-or-death class struggles for an audience’s edutainment, educational tourism. Having in more speakers, or have them be less “speakers” and more sustained guests, could that help to destabilize the authority or hierarchy of being the professor?

    One summer night, I had to kick a bunch of people out of my apartment complex’s community pool. That was part of my job, kicking non-paying people out once a paying resident complains. A few of the people accused me of kicking them out for racist reasons. This college town has a lot of racial and economic disparity, where the students with means live in huge apartment complexes and the folks with other means live in assisted housing. One way of cooling off in the South during the summer is getting together with a number of your friends and hop from one complex’s pool to another. Nobody vouched for them when I got there, and nobody cared to. Despite my own political and cultural sensibilities, despite all the empathy or sympathy or antipathy that’s part of who I am, I too felt in the situation that having to explain that I am not racist was “very strange, impossible, and had me flustered” until, in the moment, I understood that I was being part of a racist mode of life by doing this thing, at this moment, this way. Having good intentions isn’t enough: on this note I always recommend Ursula LeGuin, the one whose writings taught me to make sense of what happened when power was given me and I used it. One such book is Four Ways to Forgiveness.

    All this is to say, you’re doing good by having this conversation. You know what your troubles are. You know what’s hard about trying to do the right things, the right times, the right ways, with the right people. Trust shouldn’t be given to just anyone, or else we will be always taken advantage of by the well-meaning inept or the competently cruel. I don’t think we want to dissuade you from figuring out a pedagogy that’s resonant with your own ethical sense. The fact that Grue’s criticism stings, I think, shows your sensitivity on exactly that issue, and reading your posts over time shows this consistently. I do think there’s no need to have a “purpose” in “going forward” with a conversation. Let them unfold. It doesn’t cost anything but time and sincere questions to listen to someone, and usually letting someone talk fills in more of what we do not know about how and why people come to us the way they do.

    That’s where I’m sensitive, I guess. Thick skin has helped, but the blisters hurt before they thickened.


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