A Book of Her Own III

The essay The Heart of Teaching found in Leny Strobel's A Book of Her Own echoes many of my experiences with teaching PostColonial Literature to college students.

I taught for only two quarters, a pinch hitter for a professor out on emergency medical leave. I taught one class each quarter, two nights a week, the first quarter using the books the original professor had chosen, the second quarter using texts I chose. Both quarters I taught to a group of about 60 students ranging from precocious Freshmen trying to get their general university requirements out of the way early, all the way to jaded seniors trying to get their last general university requirement out of the way before graduation. In essence, the only thing that brought us together was this external requirement, and given their druthers, I knew they would have rather spent their time/money on something other than PostColonial literature, especially once I started deconstucting their understanding of White Priviledge.

As in Leny's experience, the classes were mostly composed of white middle class students and a handful of folk of color. One quarter I had an Englishman who was incredibly bemused by the class - apparently this 'race issue' was an 'American' phenomenon and he had trouble figuring out what all the hullabaloo was all about. During the first class, I started deconstructing the assumptions about White Priviledge by listing the attributes most desired by US society - male, white, 30s, heterosexual, married w/kids, Christian, making a living in finance or science. This was a list the class generated which immediately made them uncomfortable - I could see the reaction in their eyes You mean I actually have to participate in class even before I've learned anything? . I was setting the standard - I wasn't going to provide all the answers to the complex questions the texts were going to give and they would have to work for their own understanding.

This first exercise immediately Othered the majority of the class. There was usually only one person in the entire group who fit the description of the 'perfect' American. Stage Set.

The rest of the class we wrestled with the concepts of Dominant Paradigm, Alternative Paradigm, Dominant Alternative Paradigm, and Dominant Reactive Paradigm in relation to such texts as A Right to Be Hostile, Palestine and Babaylan. Entering an Othering space where the Dominant Paradigm did not provide the 'correct' answers was world tilting to my students and few survived the class without having to struggle through survivor's guilt and a terrible sense of helplessness. By the end of the class we brought it down to brass tacks - how can we purchase certain products at bargain prices knowing that somewhere, someone was paid a pittance to harvest/sew/assemble the thing we desire/need? How can we survive in an economy built on an ever increasing split between rich and poor? How is it possible to support culturally and environmentally sustainable products that are equitible to workers but more expensive to purchase?

No easy answers, but I saw that as a good thing. They left my class, the ones really engaged in the material, more aware of the complexities of their world and less likely to simply follow White Priviledge because it was the easy thing to do.

Later in Leny's essay, she relates her experience as a member of a mostly suburban, White, liberal, upper middle-class church. She tells of a particular Sunday dedicated to overseas missions and the moment when she realized How could I keep smiling and looking grateful for these good-hearted but complicious projects that reinforced US domination under the guise of evangelical zeal?. She struggled with the good intentions of her church members whose actions and attitudes silenced the political dialogue created by the disjunction between Gospel and Action. She writes To erase such differences, especially in the context of a localized hegemony of Whiteness, was to render my life trivial. And no amount of belonging was enough to offset having my life trivialized. So I left that church, and am still searching for another..

This reminded me of a conversation I had with an Evangelical Christian friend of mine in which I related that my difficulty was not with Christ or even Christianity, but with Christians. To ignore the things done in the name of religion, especially the Catholic Church from the time of the Crusades, through the Counter Reformation, through the progroms, and finally colonization of the 'new world' was to essentially bleach my own skin and commit to gender reclassification. His return argument was unfortunately all too telling, saying that he too felt Othered by the Gospel since Christ was a Jew with olive skin, not a Franco American living in the deep south *ahem*. I have yet to properly respond to this line of thought, mostly because my ire is unbounded whenever I think about the conversation.

It's a difficult thing to be committed to the teachings of the Catholic Church, to have Faith and yet be aware of what has been done to my people, to the indigineous peoples of the world in the name of Christianity, for the sake of "civilizing" and "spreading the Word." But in this process I'm in now, this breaking apart and mosaicking something new, I am realizing that there is space, there is the possibility of decolonizing Christianity, of deconstructing the Master Narratives that have burdened Christian history and created the Whitewashing of Christian thought, because I can imagine that space as existing.

I believe there is space for honoring and celebrating diversity, of creating sustainable cultures of faith that are inclusive, but like my students, we have to be willing to see the possibilities and go forward with hope, using the tools/gifts we have been given, and perhaps to finally beat swords in to plowshares.

I think I'm beginning to understand the shape of my Intent.


Ernesto said...

thank you for a vey interesting post. It's great you had Palestine in your reading list. Have you read Safe Area Gorazde, it's my favorite Sacco. I met him in person in Cambridge, Mass, in 2002, and had a lengthy interview with him. I think he is one of the most brilliant cartoonist/journalists out there.

Ernesto said...

a question mark is missing in my previous comment; sorry about that.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

Thanks for dropping by, Ernesto. Unfortunately I haven't read Safe Area Gorazde, yet. His books are hard to find in my neck of the woods, and I hadn't realize he'd written another!

I agree that he's an incredible writer-artist. Palestine was very eye-opening for me. I'll have to look for Safe Area now!