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Teaching My Body by Damele E. Collier

For the fall of 2017, I taught English 2150 at Baruch College. English 2150 is the second semester required writing course at Baruch. The goal of the course is for students to develop their critical reading, and thinking skills, as they learn to deeply analyze texts, while developing and communicating their own ideas and arguments through varying genres. One of the required essays of the course is the Rhetorical Analysis Essay. I taught Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me for several semesters at Medgar Evers College, and I thought that this text would be appropriate as it correlated well with my chosen theme for the semester: Power and Forms of Resistance. Coates discusses the polarizing issue of police violence against unarmed Black men. Sadly, since this has become ubiquitous in American society, I believed that the text would be intellectually (and perhaps even emotionally) rigorous for the students. 

Lisa Blankenship, the Writing Program Administrator in the English Department, scheduled a once a month practicum meeting for incoming students from the Grad Center. During our second meeting, she asked us to share our ideas for teaching the Rhetorical Analysis Essay. When I shared my intention to assign the Coates’ piece, she expressed concern that it might be difficult for students to write a six-page essay on the Coates’ piece alone. Though I had not initially considered that, upon reflection I could understand how Between the World and Me could be a difficult text for students to access, due to its unapologetic and scathing condemnation of police violence against “black and brown bodies”, and its thorough historical analysis of the plight of Black people in America from the time of slavery to present day. Speaking to her concerns, I decided to pair the Coates’ piece with James Baldwin’s “Letter to My Nephew,” an excerpt from his book The Fire Next Time. I thought this would be particularly appropriate as Coates was inspired to write a letter to his son after he read the Baldwin piece. His heart wrenching letter developed into an award-winning book. 

I decided that the assignment would be more generative as a Comparative Rhetorical Analysis essay. The objective was for students to identify which piece would be more persuasive in relating to young men of color the physical and psychological dangers of being Black in America, while additionally discussing the rhetorical choices the authors employed to develop their arguments. I understood that this could be a difficult essay prompt for freshmen students to tackle. The Baldwin piece is a much shorter, and perhaps more straightforward piece than Between the World and Me. While I provided an excerpt of the book, some students, excited about what they read, decided to read the book in its entirety to write their essays. Coates points out that America refuses to take responsibility for the travesties that occurred during slavery and that continue to occur to this day. He also methodically examines America’s social construct of race, and how that construct is both false and damaging. His argument concerning America’s hypocritical relationship with the idea of democracy and its supposed offspring of freedom was of particular interest to me, and surprisingly to my students. Coates states, “Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. … Democracy is a forgiving God and America’s heresies…are specimens of sin, so common among individuals and nations that none can declare themselves immune.”

This lead to a discussion of the controversy that has recently been brewing between President Trump and the NFL (and in wider society) over players kneeling during the singing of the National Anthem. Students questioned the motives of the president in choosing this particular fight. If we truly live in a democracy (Coates would adamantly claim that we do not in fact live in a democracy) then why is it not permissible for athletes to express their first amendment rights by kneeling? Some students speculated that due to the ethnicity of a majority of the players that chose to protest, the president’s impassioned speeches to his base, denouncing the players, and his twitter rants on the subject were evidence of overt racism being played out by the holder of the highest held office in our country. This was an opportunity to ask students if there was any cause they felt strongly enough to protest for. They struggled with an answer. The conclusion that several students came to was that as they matured they would find a cause that would be worth protesting for. I admonished them to remember that when you resist, or more aptly, when you decide to speak truth to power, you must be willing to pay the price. 

Class discussions caused me to ask myself some difficult, and at times uncomfortable questions. Coates in discussing his view of the power of the police with his fifteen-year old son, says “that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” When he learns that the police who killed Michael Brown were found not guilty, and his son begins to cry. He admits, “I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.” While these words seem painfully candid, and perhaps to some, even cruel, I had to admit that I understood Coates’ desperation to explain to his son the daily dangers that he was unknowingly in, as he traveled the streets. He wants his son to understand that as a young Black man, he is coded as criminal and dangerous in the eyes of the police. As parents of color, desiring to protect our children, can we damage them in the process? Can the knowledge of institutional racism and all its insidious implications be too heavy a weight for them to carry at a young age? Do we have the right to put that burden upon them? Can we afford not to?

It was my goal to leave as many of my personal opinions out of the discussion as possible, letting the students lead the discussion and come to their own conclusion about the arguments that Coates posits in the book. This turned out to be an implausible and unrealistic goal. The students asked pointed questions and wanted to know my options about some of the more inflammatory statements in the book. I realized that I was doing them a disservice by trying to stay neutral. I cannot be neutral about a work that so concerns me, my family, and the people in my community. Admittedly, I am very passionate about the subject matter of Coates’ work. He discusses the politics of my body, my son’s body, my husband’s body, my daughter’s body. He warns his son, “this is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” Coates discusses the state of his body throughout his piece. The students wanted to understand my experience. Just as Coates struggles to relate the experience of his body to an interviewer in the text, I found myself in that same struggle, in the classroom. It became my task to relate my experiences in America, in my body.  

Class discussions were honest, painful, illuminating, and ultimately transformative for myself and the students. They in turn shared their experiences in their bodies, relating how their ethnicities, sexual preferences, religious backgrounds, and socio-economic statuses, shaped how their experienced the world, as they understand it. I came to understand how profoundly Coates’ work, and our discussion about his work, touched them because my students fill out what I call ‘Exit Tickets’ at the conclusion of each class. On index cards they express their thoughts, ask questions, and give their impressions of that day’s class. Students revealed that they had never discussed the issues of racial violence and its origins in such a way in other classes, and it caused them to think about race in America in ways they had never thought about race before. 

While the class discussions allowed students to hone their rhetorical skills in verbally expressing their responses to the text, their writing skills also improved, as they did a draft of this assignment after receiving my feedback, and I was pleased to see that the grades were among the highest of any assignment they completed for the course. I plan to teach Between the World and Me next semester. I am now prepared (or at least I believe that I am prepared) for student’s curiosity about my experiences inhabiting my body, while navigating the treacherous terrain of a society who still sees me coded as ‘Other’. It is my hope and my intent that the class discussions will be as generative and transformative as they were in the fall.

 

Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, and Klaus Amann. Between the World and Me, 2017. 

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International Vintage Books, 1993. 

 

 

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