Below is a recap of a class session taught by Mike Phillips and Katherine Contess for Prof. Cathy Davidson and Prof. Michael Gillespie's course, "Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom" at the CUNY Grad Center. All class materials are available for download at the end of the post.
Katherine: We decided to assign our group a short article that we would put in conversation with our co-teacher Michael Gillespie’s book, Film Blackness. Paul McEwan’s “Racist Film: Teaching The Birth of a Nation” is a discussion of the potential risks and rewards of teaching an overtly racist or problematic text to undergraduate students. McEwan carefully considers possibilities for encouraging students to engage with these texts in a meaningful, but cautious, way. Since everyone in our class has experience being a student and/or teacher, we hoped that this would be a way for everyone to draw on personal experiences in the classroom. We decided to ask our peers to write on the class discussion blog so that we could begin this dialogue and connect to each others’ personal experiences prior to our class session.
The prompt for the discussion blog was as follows:
McEwan discusses the risks and opportunities inherent in teaching racist texts, as well as how the ratio between those two factors can vary according to the demographic compositions of our classrooms and the instructor’s own identifications. How do you weigh these considerations as you choose texts for your syllabus and then engage with them in the classroom? Are there other racist, misogynistic, heterosexist, etc., texts that you have assigned (or have been required to assign) and struggled with/through or found particularly useful in your own teaching practice?
You can find excerpts from the discussion posts here. Many people wondered if choosing to teach a text was an endorsement of that particular text, as McEwan suggests. Others wondered what to do when told by a higher-up what to teach. Some even debated the role of “trigger warnings” in the classroom. Interestingly, many of our peers posted questions of their own in their posts. We were able to work these questions into our discussion, allowing them to inform its direction and set the tone for the rest of the class session. If we were to teach the class again, I think we would leave more time for these so-called “existential” questions at the beginning. It is important that we honor differing opinions on racist and controversial texts because they impact not just educators, but also students, in ways that are difficult to anticipate. How do we deal with these historical artifacts -- in the contemporary moment, and in the classroom? These are weighty questions indeed.
Mike: After discussing McEwan’s essay, we proceeded to model techniques for teaching texts that engage with antiblack stereotypes, whether their uses are explicitly racist, uncritically complacent, or satirically subversive. Our lesson plan was framed by the first chapter of Film Blackness, which concerns Ralph Bakshi’s 1974 hybrid live-action/animated film Coonskin. The film literally reanimates several of the ugliest antiblack stereotypes that have flowed through American culture at least since Reconstruction, but in the interest of exposing the contemporary persistence of white supremacy. The salient question here is whether it is better (or even possible) to efface these stereotypes or to confront them and potentially repurpose them for antiracist aims.
We provided the following quotation from Film Blackness in a handout:
In Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, Glenda Carpio questions whether the possibility exists for contemporary artists to untether stereotypes from their fetishistic moorings, even as she remains wary that such work risks ultimately reinforcing the lure of stereotypicality: ‘As the prominence of stereotype-derived art in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries attests, the idea of forever cleansing the American psyche of its racial fetishes may be not only a futile project but one that might fuel the power of the fetish all the more by making it taboo and therefore seductive.’ The dilemma Carpio speaks of serves as the foundational question for this chapter and its examination of some of the ways Coonskin courts this risk of redirecting the force of antiblack iconography. (Gillespie 21)
Carpio’s question engages with the pedagogical issues raised by McEwan, though applying them to a broader context. We asked our colleagues to keep this question in mind throughout the rest of the session.
In order to contextualize the subversive use of stereotypes in Coonskin, we first turned to a clip from Song of the South (1946). Unlike Birth of a Nation, this Disney film does not traffic in overt pleas to white supremacy but rather presents the deceptively benign-seeming mythology of the plantation as utopia, most famously expressed in Gone With the Wind (1939). In the musical number “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” Uncle Remus appears not to have a care in the world as he traipses through an animated wonderland and sings along with the bluebirds. While many of our classmates were already familiar with this song, seeing it in its original context dramatically reframed it, making plain its utilization of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype, as our colleague Damele Collier observed. Prof. Cathy Davidson raised important questions about the identity and biography of the actor featured here, James Baskett, which she subsequently explored in a blog post. We also briefly discussed Disney’s decision never to release Song of the South on home video while continuing to employ “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” out of context as a key aspect of its brand.
We then turned to Coonskin’s theme song, “Ah’m a N***** Man,” written by Bakshi and performed by Scatman Crothers. Similarly to the Disney tune, it hearkens back to the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, but here the genre is critically reworked to express resistance to the racist stereotypes and performance practices that underlie it. By placing this clip in its context as a response to Song of the South, we attempted to show how it uses the discursive toolbox of racial stereotyping in order to subvert it, through what Prof. Gillespie calls the “racial grotesque.” This is an extension of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notions of the carnivalesque and grotesque, practices whereby social hierarchies are temporarily upended through satire.
While it is important to place texts like Song of the South and Coonskin within their historical contexts, this should not suggest that the issues of racist representation that they broach should be consigned to the past. On the contrary, “the racial grotesque is never simply the anachronistic revival of a dead phenomenon but is also a creative practice attendant to the continued impact of racialization and white supremacy” (Gillespie 22). To illustrate this, we then turned to a piece of contemporary art, Dawolu Jabari Anderson’s Gullah Sci-Fi Mysteries, in which Reconstruction-era plantation stereotypes are imaginatively transformed into intergalactic comic-book superheroes. (For more on this and other contemporary uses of the racial grotesque, see Gillespie, “Dirty Pretty Things.”)
While our colleagues generally acknowledged the subversive intent of the racial grotesque, and many were struck by the power of Crothers’ performance and Anderson’s artwork, they largely remained skeptical about the generative possibilities of these creative practices in the classroom. We knew that we were “court[ing] risk” by asking our classmates to journey with us into potentially painful territory. Following McEwan, however, we feel that the benefits can outweigh this risk as long as we approach these texts responsibly and make our pedagogical intentions plain. Much in the same way that Ava DuVernay’s 13th draws parallels and identifies legacies between Reconstruction and current juridical policies and practices, we feel that it is important to understand how modes of racist visual representation that we would rather forget continue to inform contemporary discourse. As Prof. Gillespie writes, Coonskin and similar works have “much to say about the Age of Obama, postrace, radical white (e.g. Tea Party, birthers), or perhaps Third Reconstruction times of the early twenty-first century. Perhaps this is the perfect time for the majestic indignity of the racial grotesque to startle and thrive” (Gillespie 48-49).
Gillespie, Michael B. “Dirty Pretty Things: The Racial Grotesque and Contemporary Art.” In Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity after Civil Rights, ed. Derek Maus and James Donahue, 68-84. University Press of Mississippi, 2014.
---. Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film. Duke University Press, 2016.
McEwan, Paul. “Racist Film: Teaching The Birth of a Nation.” Cinema Journal 47.1 (2007), 98-101. JSTOR.