Michele Norris is an alchemist. She transforms the stories and histories of those who experience and inflict the burden of racism, into the foundation of American individual experience and collective history. The atrocities of our past are not productive as rocks in our pockets that weigh us down, but are instead more productive when taken as pearls of wisdom that contribute to our national wealth. I went into her lecture, "Eavesdropping on America's Conversation on Race," at Carnegie Music Hall this past Wednesday, October 1, seeking strategies on how to more effectively engage discussions of race in the first year literature classroom. I left rejuvenated, teary-eyed from her family's personal stories, and my stomach sore from laughing so hard at some of the six word phrases submitted to her Race Card Project ("It won't matter to the aliens" and "Underneath we all taste like chicken").
As a graduate student who teaches texts from Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," to Morrison's Jazz, Tretheway's poetry, and Wilson's plays, I am invested in developing students' ability to think critically about systems of power and how they operate to privilege some, and disfranchise others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk "The Danger of a Single Story" very much inflects the way I think about and teach literature through the lens of race, gender, and class, as stories regarding race wield the forces to oppress or empower. When I speak with my colleagues about the difficulty of teaching and talking about race to a class that is predominantly white, I always emphasize that it is more productive to talk about systems of power, and how women can perpetuate patriarchy, blacks can perpetuate white supremacy, and that capitalism is alive and well no matter what tax bracket you find yourself in.
Norris' insight helps me to further build upon the strategies that I already enact in my classroom. She emphasized that when she began having conversations with Americans around the country about their experiences and perceptions of race, making them comfortable allowed them to open up about topics that are seemingly difficult to discuss. While comfort food isn't in my classroom budget, providing students with the theoretical and historical framework of race allows them to enter into a conversation regardless of their identity position. Moreover, Norris emphasized the importance of considering all open and honest stories and experiences about race. All those who have experienced racism, those who have been privileged enough not to, and those who have inflicted racism upon others, bring the full texture of the racial fabric of America to the table.
Norris modeled another way to comfortably bring people into an earnest conversation about race: call and response. She asked the audience to respond to "post-racial," a term that proliferated in the American lexicon after the 2008 election of President Obama. Audience members responded with "Utopia," and other positive, although tongue-in-cheek responses, and finally ended with "denial." These exercises, from the six-word Race Card Project responses, to this call and response exercise, allow for a constellation of terms to shape a very productive and multi-faceted conversation on race in America, with no simple answers. Norris' ability to emphasize the value and wisdom, rather than burden, of our collective experiences shapes the way we can effectively teach and talk about race as students, teachers, and citizens.