This term our Learning and Teaching Center is sponsoring a book group on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunning Between the World and Me. On Tuesday, faculty, staff, and students brimming with good will and excitement filled the room. Our conversation began by considering two powerful tropes–the way in which Coates insists on grounding us in black bodies because “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (10) and his persistent framing of individuals and families who “believe themselves white” (throughout). But before the end of the hour, one participant mentioned that they had started writing down the list of all the names (the histories, the writings, the intellectual inheritance) that she had never heard before. How, she wondered, had she gotten through a U.S. high school and liberal arts college education without learning these names? (Coates names and honors important figures throughout, but pp 44-48 are especially dense as he reflects on his time at Howard University.)
My colleague’s long list of names to look up–her Coates-inspired syllabus–simultaneously surprised and did not surprise me. I was surprised because I teach and study within American Studies and Latino Studies, both fields that invite –nay, require–that we recuperate forgotten histories and surface underacknowledged names, and her comment reminded me that names central to my field were unknown. But in the very next moment, I remembered our national collective forgetting and so was unsurprised. This rapid-fire slip between surprise and unsurprise feels familiar. As Lee Mun Wah has taught me in his cross-cultural facilitation seminars, a vital mindful inquiry questions is “what does this remind you of?”, in which “this” stands for emotions that emerge in complicated interrelational scenes. What is so familiar to me is a sense of disappointment as a I slide into unsurprise–not with the person who doesn’t know the names, but with the national narratives that make no space for them.
I’m thinking of this all in relationship to the syllabi that have emerged in the last couple of years, crowd-sourced and continually growing, from #FergusonSyllabus to #CharlestonSyllabus to #islamophobiasyllabus and #refugeesyllabus. The titles of these syllabi make clear what political and educational work they need to do: fill the huge, overwhelming gap in our traditional educational structures that makes our current classes and disciplines unable to understand, know, and respond in mind and body to the contemporary challenges of U.S. culture: police brutality, school to prison pipelines, immigrant rights…all of which converge in the way that the bodies of peoples of color tremble in precarious positions. As Coates says, “the [American] Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50). How powerful then the call to populate these crowd-sourced syllabi, as a way to understand, but also as a way to ensure that we do not forget that our thinking on these issues within communities of color depends on deep, strong roots. These syllabi place DuBois next to Garvey next to Michelle Alexander next to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, illuminating an anti-Dream architecture, a desire to specify and re-member the national body politic.
Coates remarks, “it is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone” (50). It matters that this call to name in a narrative that is so embodied. These names are not just readings, they are bodies, too, and not just in the way we scholars talk about “bodies of knowledge.” Rather, they are bodies in the way that it mattered that I learned to find Chicana literature and myself with María Herrera-Sobek’s guidance or that it mattered that my fellow graduate students and I built a Chicano literature seminar around the visit of Norma Alarcón. It matters that the student who graduated two years ago wrote me a note thanking me for teaching a class that included work by authors of color. It matters that we remember that books and ideas–flat pages with typeface dripping and spiraling and churning upon them–sign back to bodies that deserve to be visible AND read.