From Colormuteness to Interracial Dialogue (A Love Letter to My MF Students)
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

Teaching race and media studies to undergraduates has felt to me recently like never before. I began trying to explain this difference in two previous columns, inspired by an incredible classroom community in which I first felt it most intensely. In those columns I focused, respectively, on unfolding and unpredictable historical contexts that profoundly shaped the formation of that community, and some pedagogical strategies that also played a role in the work that brought us together. But if I step back a bit further to reflect more generally on the generation of undergraduates moving through my classrooms at the University of South Carolina in the last couple of years, the simplest way to describe what often seems different from previous generations—albeit different in varying degrees and with significant variations from class to class, and student to student—is that the limits of the ideology of colorblindness seem to be more readily apparent to more students than ever before, white as well as not.

I see at least two signs of this shift across a variety of courses, from introductory courses in media analysis and history to upper-level topics courses of various kinds. First, and due in no small part to the circulation of viral videos of police brutality from seemingly everywhere in the country (as discussed in my last column), I find it easier now to get students to think concretely and seriously about racism as not simply a matter of bigotry (e.g., bad individuals, or “bad apples,” thinking and doing bad things) but as involving a wide range of systemic practices, past and present. The second sign, at times related to the first, contrasts from the way that commitments to colorblindness (for good and for ill) have for so long manifested in the classroom in deafening forms of silence about race, or what has been called colormuteness—be it born of genuine resistance (which also seems on the wane, although this also may have to do with other kinds of silence) and/or just real discomfort, even anxiety, at being invited to discuss a subject students are routinely taught should not matter, which is to say should not be seen (even though they are surrounded by cultural forms that insist upon its visibility, or at least on the visibility of all races other than white), and perhaps above all should not be spoken (at least not in class, with authority figures who will grade you, and so on). In this regard colorblind is a curious misnomer insofar as popular U.S. culture has trained us all to (think we can) see race, but not to speak of it. Put otherwise, we have never been (collectively) colorblind, but we have long been colormute. But this also seems to be changing. Not least because when students (like the rest of us) encounter (yet another piece of) compelling audiovisual evidence of even the possibility of systemic, institutional forms of racial injustice, the fantasy of living in a colorblind society is hard to sustain. Pedagogically speaking, then, the two shifts just described mutually feed each other in the classroom: grappling with the multiplicity and complexity of practices potentially at stake if we want to understand the (ongoing) history of systemic inequity gives us a lot to discuss, and a willingness (and at times even an eagerness) to talk about race obviously facilitates developing such discussions in rich, engaging, and productive ways.

If this attempt to describe the shifting grounds of racial thought and talk in my own classrooms is at all accurate (and I realize my observations, memories, blind spots, hopes, etc. are by no means scientific or representative), there is cause to be excited about new pedagogical possibilities—for developing more substantial and pragmatic conversations about race in undergraduate classrooms, engaging a larger cross section of students, and generating in the process new forms of insight, dialogue, and change.

In that context, I want to stress how vital it was for the remarkable learning community introduced in my previous columns, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015” (MF), that it was made up of not only an excellent group of students (careful readers and sharp thinkers, great listeners as well as talkers, etc.), but also that this group was the most diverse of any class I have ever taught, and in most every conceivable way. In another sign of their generational edge, several of these students arrived to the class already speaking the language of “intersectionality” (which, when I later asked, some told me they first learned from “the internet” and “Tumblr,” as well as “a sociology class”). More to the point, since students routinely spoke from the vantage of their own (multiple) social positions and experiences, we all learned a good deal about things intersectional from each other, and this became a vital dimension of the class. As we discussed a wide range of media histories, forms, and practices, and their intersection with a still wider range of social histories, students astutely linked particular dynamics of identity and difference animating our materials to examples of their own: growing up in particular kinds of places (variously white, black, poor, middle class, rural, suburban, cosmopolitan, etc.); confronting expectations of public schools and private schools, high school cliques, college dorms, and “Greek life”; and navigating assumptions of police, teachers, friends, family, and so on.

In sharing their stories, members of the class gave names and faces we all came to know to social dynamics and critiques that might otherwise have felt distant or abstract. On multiple occasions it made sense for me to call out the implications of my own whiteness, variously in relation to my gender, my position of authority, my openly bigoted relatives, the relatively high quality of public schools afforded to my children by our zip code, and so on. More soberly, an African American woman, who I’ll call Andy, told us on the first day of class that she was taking it because she had a younger brother and was afraid for his life. Over time Andy shared more about her brother, the limited options he faced, and choices made in that context, such that at a latter (relevant) point in the term someone else invoked “Andy’s brother” and the issues she had brought alive for us all in discussing him.

The power of such personal stories in this class was remarkable, enabling many vivid moments of insight and recognition, as well as a larger collaborative ethos of self-reflection, trust, and serious dialogue. At times I could literally see faces in the room learning from one another, across our many differences—be it white students wholly absorbed by black classmates sharing experiences and frames of reference utterly unlike their own, or black students listening and responding to white students, and to other black students with at times profoundly different experiences of class, gender, sexuality, and more. Such exchanges were not always marked by consensus. I have distinct memories of one woman bursting suddenly into tears in the midst of a class discussion, and of another struggling to contain her palpable outrage. But we worked through such moments, which were far outnumbered by more routinely peaceful (if often still intense) ones, as well as many shared critical and aesthetic pleasures, and a lot of good humor.

This last was signaled by how enthusiastically the class embraced the moniker used in this column’s title, which I unthinkingly gave them upon darting off group emails (via Blackboard, always in haste) addressed (in an abbreviation of the course title), “Dear MF Students.” Only after screening Do the Right Thing one day with another class did I suddenly realize the obvious offense students might have been taking (!) at being addressed in this way. But when I next came to class and profusely apologized for my gaffe, they laughed and collectively insisted that I keep using the nickname. Later, after I showed them some police training films from the late sixties and early seventies, including a hard right film entitled The Riot Makers, which tells a history of mass protest linking hippies and black people to Hitler and Stalin (!), the class nickname expanded with a reclaiming of that crazy film’s title. We even talked about making t-shirts to declare ourselves The MF Riot Makers. (Although t-shirts never materialized, the wish and my ongoing gratitude for all my MF students continue to teach me—far more, in fact, than I have described here—inspired me to doctor the title credit image that accompanies this column.)

Most of all, however, having never experienced anything quite like what I did with this remarkable class in twenty years of teaching and my own education before that (all at public institutions), the experience drives home how much is at stake in the challenges that remain to further diversify our predominantly white academic institutions. Increasing access for students and faculty of color is, certainly, the right, equitable thing to do. What’s more, significantly diversifying the voices in the room can transform the possible conversations all of us can have, and the new forms of knowledge and practice our institutions can produce.

Image Credits

1. Author’s personal collection

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A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Image 1-column2

Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.

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Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

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Mediating Ferguson in Columbia, SC
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Author’s note: In the summer of 2016 I agreed to write a series of guest columns on teaching race and media studies today. I drafted most of this first one in early fall, before having to shelve it for a while to complete a book—entitled, coincidentally by now, Split Screen Nation. By the time I could return to this piece, it was only a week after the results of the presidential election had stunned and horrified millions of Americans. In that context, the challenges animating the piece remained deeply familiar, yet also felt—like most every challenge we collectively face—profoundly more daunting. In a world in which Donald Trump is the U.S. President-elect and Steve Bannon has ascended from the alt-right (white) media “fringe” to the center of world power, few things seem clearer than the limits of confining academic work for social justice within academic institutions. [ (( Anyone who hasn’t already heard Kelly McEvers interview with alt-right activist Richard Spencer, broadcast on NPR on November 17, 2016, should. Hearing this on the radio while driving home from work, I felt the surreality of the present shift into a whole new register. )) ] The column below nonetheless remains much as I first drafted it, in part due to time constraints. In addition, when I returned to it I found the recent (pre-election) histories it attempts to describe to resonate with still more recent events in ways I could never have imagined, even weeks ago.

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

“What is true in the South is true for America.”
-President Obama, Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney,
(Live Streamed from) Charleston, South Carolina, June 26, 2015.
[ (( President Barak Obama, “Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney,” College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, June 26, 2015. The eulogy is also viewable on multiple (local, national, and African American) news websites. I first streamed it live in my office via a local TV station in Columbia, SC. Revisiting it amidst the grief of the election I was deeply moved once more for its understanding of simultaneously national and regional truths. I discuss such links—as articulated in work by Tara McPherson (Reconstructing Dixie), Howard Zinn (The Southern Mystique), and others—as well as a history of screen media that has worked to disavow them in Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017). )) ]

Having taught race and media studies at a public university in the South for nearly two decades, for the first time I find myself with the urge to write about doing so. Two things initially inspired this: intensified national discussions about race in the United States sparked by the seemingly unending emergence and circulation of videos documenting lethal encounters by African Americans and Latinos with the police, and an undergraduate class I taught in response to these phenomena in the fall of 2015, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015.”

Simply put, “Mediating Ferguson” was an experiment on several levels, and more successful than I ever imagined it might be. The students in it were exceptionally engaged and invested, and rigorous thinking and honest discussion—across differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality—became the daily stuff of class, and brought a routine sense of relevance, at times even of necessity, to our work on media both old and new. Indeed, from our first day to our last, we were all well aware that the class was profoundly shaped by our historical moment. So much so, that while I will discuss in a subsequent column some of what occurred within it, and pedagogical strategies (regarding syllabus design, assignments, and so on) that played a part, it seems essential first to sketch how the class emerged, when it did, and where. All of this was, and remains (not least in mid-November, 2016), utterly relevant to the pedagogical challenges and practices at issue.

Although I taught this course in fall 2015, I proposed it in late 2014, prompted by recent events. These included (that summer) the killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson and of Eric Garner in Staten Island; the grand jury decisions in both cases (in late November and early December) not to indict the officers responsible; and the waves of protest and an activist movement, Black Lives Matter, sparked by these and related cases. But what moved me to envision the class was my viewing of the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by police as he begged them to let him breathe. I didn’t watch it until just after the grand jury’s decision in this case came down. But when I did, at home alone one morning, I found myself weeping in disbelief. As I eventually tried to recompose myself, wondering what I might be able to do in response to what I had seen, all I could think to do was write a course description (which in any case was due). As I brainstormed, I realized that the year upcoming, and hence the semester in which I would teach the course, would mark the centennial of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a film not only infamous for its celebration of white supremacist vigilantism (fueled by racist fantasies of black criminality), but also of local note for its (imagined) locations in South Carolina, including the state house that lies just blocks from my campus. Groaning to myself (“Oh great, it’s Birth’s birthday”), it seemed right to foreground the course’s historical dimension in its full title.

My course description pitched the class as a “history for the present”: we would begin with viral cell phone and dash cam videos and the “current national conversation” with the aim of figuring out what questions we thought we most needed to be asking; but we would then turn to look back at the history of race and justice mediated through U.S. film and television, to consider what this media history “might have to teach us about where we are now, how we got here, and strategies for moving forward.” In the spring of 2015 I put up fliers announcing the course with an AP photo by Bebeto Matthews of an African American protestor with his hands up in the air and his mouth covered by a paper mask with Eric Garner’s final words written on it, “I can’t breathe.” After the fliers were up another video went viral, this one shot closer to home by a bystander in North Charleston, South Carolina, in which Officer Michael Slager fires his gun eight times at Walter Scott as Scott tries to run away, and then, after handcuffing the fallen and immobile victim, appears to tamper with evidence.

If video footage such as this was already becoming disturbingly familiar by the time students began enrolling in the course—with the circulation of videos documenting incidents leading to the deaths of Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Sandra Bland (Hempstead, Texas), and Ricardo Diaz Zeferino (Gardena, California)—nothing could have prepared any of us for the horrific mass murder of nine African Americans in their church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. Nor could we have predicted the profound and collective forms of grief and shame that immediately followed the massacre in this state, not least in the capital city where I teach, in which the alleged shooter and avowed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, had been raised. Even before the weight of the tragedy had fully sunk in, when the news had just broken and the manhunt for Roof was still on, I remember reading on my computer screen that he was from Columbia. Suddenly, in a panic, I rushed to open my university directory and type in his name, thinking to myself (a nonbeliever), “Please God, don’t let him be one of ours.” The fact that my brain would even go there seems, in some respects, a little embarrassing. (I have never known of a single student here who draped himself in the Confederate flag or publically spewed hate speech.) That it did, however, speaks to the difference it made for those of us who live here that the suspected killer was homegrown, and that the flag he posed with online was prominently displayed by our state on its capitol grounds, at the literal center of town. [ (( Ed Madden, Columbia’s Poet Laureate, vividly evokes the profound local response in his poem, “When we’re told we’ll never understand.” Written in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, it was read aloud at a mass gathering of mourners at the state house just days later. In that moment, the large, multi-age, mixed-race crowd that had been standing in the intense summer heat for what felt like hours suddenly froze and fell utterly silent. This was a mass experience of poetry, too, like none I had ever experienced. )) ] It was all the more meaningful, then—not least for all who had tried to bring that flag down for decades—when hundreds and then thousands of people gathered together at that very spot: first in deep mourning; then to call for the flag’s removal; and, finally, to cheer en masse with unbridled joy and relief when it finally came down.

Cheering the Removal of the Confederate Flag

It was just weeks later, then, when many here were still reeling, that students and I showed up for this new course that didn’t really yet exist. I had named it, and briefly described a path we might try to map, but I knew I wanted to invite students—needed them—to engage in the process with me of figuring out what questions we should be asking. Their response to this call—the eagerness with which they engaged a wide range of materials to better understand a host of relevant issues, the astute questions they formulated, and their investigation of them through compelling, original forms of critical and creative work—at times astounded me. And our work together, the community we made and the critical passions it seemed to nurture in so many of them, and in me, to continue our work in the course beyond it, became an even more enduring source of hope than the jubilant removal of that flag.

Obama Eulogizes Clementa Pinckney

I feel several risks in writing about this experience, but they seemed worth taking. And I look forward to continuing this story. This much already, though, moves me to reconsider Obama’s insight, cited above, upon eulogizing Clementa Pinckney, and guiding all who mourned the Charleston Nine. The President was inspired by Pinckney’s own wisdom about the failure to recognize others different from ourselves: “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history, [but] we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” In registering this as a national truth, too, Obama’s wisdom now resonates especially loudly as millions grapple with the question of how it has come to pass that white nationalists have friends in the White House. Knowing this question will occupy us for years to come, I take some comfort now in my sense that so many of my students—black and white, LGBTQ and not, from “red” suburbs and small towns as well as “blue” cities—want to understand other people’s history, media, and experience in part because they know about some of the damages of not doing so in the places in which they grew up and to which they are likely to return, or at least visit. This gives them, and students from so many places where people now appear to be comfortable with the rhetoric of white nationalism, the potential to be exemplary agents of change.

Image Credits:

1. Photograph courtesy of Chloe Courtney Bohl
2. “Lowering the Flag,” SCETV
3. President Obama delivers eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

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