Tell the truth about race but tell it slant

Upward Bound Language Arts Class title page

I just finished teaching a new two-week course for Upward Bound this summer. It was called “Amazing! Finding Identities in Fantasy and Reality,” and it involved visits to the Rare Books Room and the Snite Museum of Art, as well as readings of Margaret Mead and Herman Melville. What a joy to teach such talented youth; this summer was the best ever. All 8 did their homework on time, and the grades ranged from 91-98 (and you know I am not an easy grader).

Race was woven into the choice of rare books at the Hesburgh Library. We looked at books such as Moby-Dick (1851, 1930, 1943), focusing on the three chapters (10-12) where Queequeg and Ishmael become bosom friends. It was also fun for the students to realize where “Starbucks” comes from! We enjoyed the sexy cover of Coming of Age in Samoa (1928; repr. 1960), which features two islanders dancing. The kids appreciated The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex (1935) and 19th-century works of natural history too. The Wreck of the Whale-ship Essex includes a very odd list of crew members. It takes students a minute to realize what it is that bothers us about the list. It is the word “black” noted next to some men, of all status and rank, dead and missing. Why bother?  Also odd are the cultural presuppositions of the naturalists in question. They write assertively about issues such as the “Chinese” accents of the Sioux Indians, and the pragmatic ambition of the “American race.” “L’Américain est chercheur,” writes one savant, before admitting the simple needs of the nation, that is, preaching. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the American is a church-goer.

Also fabulous was our visit to the Snite Museum of Art. We began by reading my model story, “The Summer of Wendy,” and talked about what makes a “golden detail.” Then they set off independently in search of something in a work of art that could serve as a “golden detail” to add to their own story. Amazingly, two of us chose the same thing! Here is the sentence I wrote: “On her arm I glimpsed a greenish-black metal bracelet of a lion facing a sheep; although I couldn’t remember it exactly, the figures conjured up vague memories of some ancient myth.” (This was in relation to a bronze bracelet, 6BC.) Their theme was to write an essay, viz. Queequeg and Ishmael, about two people from very different cultures who become friends (fiction), and to interview another person and write an anthropological analysis of that person a la Margaret Mead. The results (5-6 pp) are astonishing.

So this is not an article about the French Revolution, but rather something quite American. But it needs to be said. Kids need to talk about race.

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