Teaching African-American Literature While White

 By Christopher Thompson

I’ve been teaching English in selective private high schools for almost 25 years at this point. During my first 13 years, teaching often mixed-race classes at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., I started thinking about what my whiteness meant, as a teacher and as a general citizen. Most of us white people don’t “know” we’re white, just as fish don’t know they’re wet. But a fish out of the water soon gets the idea of what “wet” is.  

I went to college in Washington DC, which at the time — the early 1970s — was about 75 percent African American. My political and musical adventures got me off campus a lot, which meant I was a skinny, very white kid with long red hair in a mostly black town. The result of these forays off campus was that, at times, I was forced to really feel my white skin, although I didn’t know what to make of it at back then. In the casually racist logic of the day, I was supposedly of this dominant race, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Everybody African American, from the nurse DJ whose show came after mine on the campus radio station, to John Wilson, later a DC councilman but then a radio show host whose program I engineered, to the bass player in my band and his two buddies who were our roadies (they preferred the term “valets”), seemed to know more about everything — or at least, everything that mattered — than I did. After college, I was living in Old Downtown DC at 11th and E Streets, NW, and a whole day could by without my seeing a white face. What was remarkable about those days was that when I’d get home from work and go to wash up, I’d see this white face in the mirror and be startled at the pale stranger before me. I seemed to have forgotten that I was white. I wondered if the same would have happened had the races been reversed.

My wife and I moved to California ten years ago (a career move for her, with me as the trailing spouse), and I, at 55, found myself the new guy at a tony all-girls private school in Los Angeles. We taught a lot of African-American literature back at GDS, so I offered to teach a senior elective on this topic, to which my new school gave the OK. So I found myself teaching a class on African-American literature to a class of nine African-American girls, all savvy, going-places seniors. And then there was very white, new-guy me.  

I had learned something interesting back at GDS about teaching African-American literature while white. I had been teaching a section of Senior English also taught by a female African-American colleague. We were both teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved at the same time, and as I had taught it a few times before, I gave her my notes and lesson plans and quizzes, etc. Since we had adjacent desks, we had plenty of chance to talk and debrief about how a day’s classes went. At one point, she was getting frustrated with some of the white boys in her section. She felt they were resisting or undermining her ideas and interpretations of the novel. I had taught two of them the previous year, and we had good rapport, so with her permission I had a word with them. What they told me was that they felt attacked in the classroom, that the anti-white rhetoric in the novel, and particularly the anti-white-male rhetoric, made them feel singled out and defensive… that when the teacher teased out the class’s moral observations of the white male characters, she was inviting the damnation of every white male in the room. Luckily, I had something in my repertoire of responses to address this moment. It was left over from an earlier encounter I’d had with another student, a white male, a few years earlier. Let’s look at that first, and then we’ll get back to Beloved

We had been reading and discussing Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno, about (spoiler alert) a cryptic slave rebellion on a Spanish ship, a rebellion unnoticed by a naïve American ship captain who stops aboard to chat with the Spanish captain. Eventually the rebellion re-erupts under the American captain’s nose, a fight ensues, and the African “rebels” are suppressed by American reinforcements. The novel is useful in that it is told from the point of view of the American captain, and thus when the rebellion re-erupts, we find ourselves taking his side, which was Melville’s little trick with the story… to catch us out. In our own implicit racism, those of us who are white could forget that we abhor slavery, losing track of our moral bearings in the comfort of our whiteness. However, before the class could dig into the interpretive riches of the story, a white male student (we’ll call him Jason), pronounced, “What a mess. It would have been better for everyone if we had sent them all back to Africa.

The class, which was racially mixed, came to a stuttering halt. Heart pounding, I managed to think fast and asked Jason, “When did your ancestors come to the U.S.?” Turns out they were Russian Jews who arrived around 1900. 

“So, Jason, who is this ‘we’ you refer to? Your people showed up on this continent centuries after most African Americans, and certainly weren’t in a position to send anyone anywhere in 1799.”  

Jason was actually a pretty timid and kind boy. He admitted that he guessed he was identifying with white Americans because he was white, too.  

“Even though the white Americans with whom you are identifying are ethnically and religiously unrelated to you and hold beliefs that you find pretty horrible?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Well, that was what Melville sets up with that story, so it should be no surprise. But it led to a rich class discussion about identification and an exercise at listing and prioritizing those things with which we “identify.” Most of the kids at that very liberal school found themselves not far off from Jason’s identification hierarchy: race first, then religion, ethnicity, politics, morality, and gender. Then we came to the notion that we can check the depth of our identification(s) by what makes us feel defensive, makes our face heat up and urges us to say ‘Hey! Wait a minute!” when someone makes an offensive comment. With that in mind, for Jason, the ordered list became: religion, politics, race, morality, and ethnicity. For the African-American kids in the classroom it was race, religion, morality, and politics (their “missing” African ethnicities buried by history in their racial identity, at least before DNA testing).  

A year later, the question of identity arose again with Beloved. I asked the disgruntled white boys in my colleague’s class why they felt the novel and discussions were about them. Did they identify with the slave owners and other white sadists that show up in the novel just because they are white?

“Well, no,” they said.  

“Well, it sure sounds like you did. Yet, I’m sure you condemn what those characters believed and did. It’s easy to put your race, or some other tribal affiliation, ahead of your morality. Maybe take a lesson from this?”

“Uhhh, yeah.” 

“Does the class and your teacher know that you find the behavior of the whites in the novel hideous, and that you, and anyone you would call a friend, should seek to stop any such behavior?”

“Uhhh, probably not.”  

“Well, maybe you need to make that more clear, first to yourselves, and then to the others in the room, because if you feel “attacked” because you do identify with those white characters, that’s telling you something, isn’t it?”  

During that first semester I was first teaching African-American literature to African-American girls here in California, we came to the realization that a white teacher can “own” the past sins of white America while denouncing those sinners, but it takes work. As we — the nine girls and I — came to see it, these novels are not about us, per se. We may identify with a character demographically, but our sovereign moral compasses should point us back toward true north. Schoolteacher in Beloved was a middle-aged, white male schoolteacher with an inquiring mind, just like me. But I’m not Schoolteacher, just as my young, African-American, female students were not Morrison’s Sethe. The characters’ choices are not our choices. We may identify demographically, which might help us understand where a character is coming from. But morally? We need to calculate who we are. If we feel ourselves identifying with someone “like us” who we know to be morally corrupt, that’s a self-teaching moment. Some moral introspection may be necessary.  

Literature is about trouble. No one over the age of eight wants to read the story of the day everything went fine. And in African-American literature, much of the trouble comes either directly or indirectly from white power. Teaching African-American literature while white invites the peril of identifying, even unconsciously, with the bad guys, so a white teacher needs to be sure of their moral compass, even while rejecting the “otherness” of the racist, recognizing the “usness” of their whiteness — and to be honest with one’s self about it. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent a lot of hours in workshops and training and classrooms where my anti-racism reflex has, of necessity, been tested, and I believe, strengthened.

I’m not done yet — maybe never will be — but I’m getting there.  

Christopher Thompson teaches English at Marlborough School, an independent, all-girls school in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at chris.thompson@marlborough.org.