Yesterday I put up a post about the challenges of teaching the history of race as a white professor in classrooms that are mostly populated by students of color. In it, I discussed the fact that white people — particularly white progressives — are given far more guidance and encouragement about how to listen when other people speak about race than about how to talk about race themselves, and noted that when a white professor is put in the position of teaching people of color about race, it can be uncomfortable, even scary.
I closed yesterday’s post with a promise that I’d talk more today about my own classroom experience, and I’d like to start by telling a story out of history.
George Wallace is best remembered today as a fierce segregationist. A four-time governor of Alabama and two-time presidential candidate, Wallace defined white opposition to racial integration for many Americans in the sixties. It was Wallace who, in his first gubernatorial inaugural address in 1963, coined the phrase “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” It was Wallace who physically blocked the door of an auditorium at the University of Alabama later that year to prevent two black students from entering to register for classes.
But when Wallace first ran for governor in 1958, it was with a very different approach. Then, Wallace emphasized economic improvement — better roads, better schools — not white supremacy. He supported segregation, as every major white politician of his time and place did, but did not make it the centerpiece of his campaign. In 1958 Wallace received most of the few black votes cast for governor, while the Ku Klux Klan threw its support to his opponent, a virulent and vocal racist.
Wallace lost that election by a wide margin. When a supporter asked what he thought had turned the tide against him, he said simply, “I got out-niggered. And I’ll never be out-niggered again.”
This is an important story about race and politics in Jim Crow America. It’s a story about the ways in which racism served as a calculated tool for motivating white voters. It’s a story about the pressure that public figures felt to exaggerate and intensify their own attitudes. It’s a story about the ways in which black Southerners, stripped of their legal rights, became pawns in the white community’s political disputes — political disputes with profound and vicious consequences for blacks’ safety and well-being.
This is an important story. And it’s a story that can’t be told without uttering a racial slur.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I’ve thought about whether you could say that Wallace said “I’ll never be out-n-worded again,” or whether you could say “he said ‘I’ll never be out -blacked again’ — but he didn’t say ‘black.’” But you can’t. The word itself is central to the story. The word itself — the use of a racial epithet not as a noun, but as a verb — gets to the heart of how white supremacy operated in the segregated South. At that time in that place that word wasn’t just something you were, it was something that was done to you.
I don’t include this story in my standard lectures on American history. But every once in a while there comes a moment in the classroom when — in response to a question, or a comment, or the flow of a particular discussion — it comes up. At that moment, there’s something relevant, something important that I have to say about our American past and this story is the best way to say it. At that moment, doing the work I’ve been hired to do as fully and honestly as I know how involves telling that story.
So do I tell the story?
There are good reasons not to. I know the power of that word coming out of a white person’s mouth, and I know the power that a professor has in any classroom — a power that is heightened and magnified when the professor is white and the students are mostly not. I don’t want to lose any of my students, I don’t want them to mishear or to misunderstand — or to legitimately disagree with my choice — and not be able to speak up and make the wrong that they see right.
But at the same time, the power of that word isn’t a unique power. The dilemma it poses isn’t a unique dilemma. The trauma that it causes isn’t a unique trauma.
I’m a historian. I’m a historian who believes that most Americans have no idea how vicious, how brutal, how pervasive the horror of American white supremacist violence was in the era of Jim Crow. And I’m a historian who believes that you can’t really understand American history without understanding that horror. So that means that I have to talk about a lot of stuff that’s really hard to talk about, and even harder to hear about.
I have to talk about what was done to Emmett Till’s body, and why. I have to talk about public lynchings in which black men were tortured in front of white parents and their smiling, laughing children. I have to talk about WEB DuBois’ discovery that the charred knuckles of a man who had recently been flayed and burned alive were on display in a storefront window in the city he lived in.
I can’t take any of that lightly. I can’t just talk about that stuff like I was talking about the Taft-Hartley Act.
And I can’t talk about that stuff without recognizing that I, like the perpetrators of those atrocities, am white, and that most of my students, like those targeted, are not.
Next week, part three: So what the hell do I do?