I'm white. Male. In my 30s. College Educated. From Iowa. I also teach African American Literature at a public high school in Los Angeles.
Telling that to people I have just met usually gets a second look.
I try to reassure them that I'm fully qualified, studied, and prepared to do the job. It sometimes takes a few days and lessons to convince all of my students, but eventually I think most of them get on board. I'm lucky because I love what I teach and I teach what I love. I've done a lot of self-reflection to understand why I love teaching African American Literature as much as I do, but honestly, it doesn't matter. It only matters that I'm able to teach it well and I believe that if you asked the majority of my students, they would hopefully be able to tell you that I am passionate and dedicated to what I teach them. Every year I hope my graduating seniors enter the real world with a knowledge behind them that will help them navigate and understand the real world that awaits. Every year I secretly hope that the themes and discussions we have will have become less relevant. Every year I sadly realize that is somehow, inexplicably, becoming further from happening.
My second year teaching the course I made arrangements for my students to study and see a performance of the play The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza. I had hoped it would serve as an understanding of what ignited the Civil Rights Movement and of the progress we have made. A week before we started reading the play, Trayvon Martin was killed. Instead, most of our discussions focused on the eerie parallels between the two deaths. The play has stayed in my curriculum and each year a new case has sprung up that makes its way into our discussion. Instead of the play serving as a sign for how far we have come, it serves as a reminder that it still happens today.
As we read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and look to the narrator's struggle for an identity in America, our discussions turn to African American unemployment rates and how they have historically been double that of whites. As we read Native Son by Richard Wright and dissect the theory of Urban Naturalism, my students are confronted with the harsh realities of the expectations and stereotypes that are associated with being an African American male. As we recount the slave narratives, analyze poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, and research the Civil Rights movement, everything we discuss can be found in the news today. The class I had always dreamed of being a study of the socio-historic context of the African American writer remains a current events class. Watching recent events unfold in Ferguson makes me wonder what the hell I am going to say to my students as we begin the new school year. While I am emboldened by the challenge, I am saddened by the implications. Is this who we are? Is this really what I will have to continue to teach my students as I send them off into the world? That is a scary and disheartening thought for me. And remember, that often means little for me considering I am a 30-something white guy from Iowa and dealing with racism is not a part of my daily reality.
The last line of the play The Ballad of Emmett Till comes from the ghost of Emmett. He asks his mother, "It is done?" She doesn't answer. Unfortunately, she still can't.