Jennifer Harvey, Drake University
I spend less time in the classroom these days than I do working with students of color. As the Faculty Director of the Crew Scholars Program most of my hours in a given week are devoted to supporting community-building among a relatively small group of young people, and in countless one-on-one dialogues with these students.
Professionally, then, I’ve experienced the current political climate through this context: immersed in the devastating implications of this election for students who are already underrepresented on a predominantly white college campus. My campus has seen the same increase in public expressions of hate as have many other campus communities across the nation.
That context has been incredibly clarifying. For the stakes and impact of these times are manifest in the lives of students with whom I am and have been on a long and intense journey.
So, how to teach since November 8th is not an abstract pedagogical question. I realized as I sat to write this reflection that I spend far less time worrying about how to “get through” to my relatively class-privileged white students than I used to. And, my focus has become even clearer since the election. Students of color, Muslim students, immigrant students, queer students are my priority. It’s that simple, that easy, that difficult.
To that end, I have found solace in teaching “the classics.” The work of James Cone has been a particular spiritual and emotional go to. I’ve taught Cone’s work many times over the years—but here’s what I love about his work right now (especially about: Black Theology and Black Power).
First, Cone’s work is a reminder. As horrifying as things are right now and as violent as the climate has become, the reality is that the horror and violence is not new. Perhaps it has been unveiled and nationally sanctioned (in an election) in a new-ish way.
But, it just isn’t fundamentally new.
Why is this a comfort? I’m not sure I can put it into words. Please know it has nothing to do with downplaying the severity of political realities right now. But it does have to do with the acknowledgment and even insistence that, in fact, these times are not unprecedented.
It’s obviously critical to acknowledge this so we don’t render invisible the lived experience of many communities for whom this violence was already day-to-day life. But it’s also to recognize that we have all been living in this kind of violence for a long time. That doesn’t mean anything about the future is guaranteed—I am as frightened as anyone. But it does mean the wisdom of so many who have given us the gifts of their witness, lives, writing, poetry, and activism are there, are here, for us to draw on. That is a comfort.
Second, I love Cone’s ability to make almost any white student squirm. I always find that Cone’s prophetic words create an environment where I can say to my white students, “Can you notice what you are feeling? Can you see how we are spending so much energy trying to figure out if his vision of justice and salvation include you? Do you feel how stressed your body is?” When they nod, I point out that they are (like me) reading something that wasn’t written for them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries. I point out that they are having an experience that for many students of color at Drake is a daily one—encounters with books and teachers not written and not teaching for and to them, nor to address their questions or fix their worries.
I tell my white students what a rare gift this is in higher education. And it’s especially a gift right now.
And at the same time, Cone flips the script of so much of higher education’s “normal” experience, that his work creates a radically new point of departure for students of color. Whether they agree with Cone’s analysis or not, the lived experience of being made the touchstone and the center is a sacred and powerful gift he gives to them.
In these times, when violence is literally knocking on the door of students in my classes who are DACAmented or undocumented, of Black students, of Muslim students, Cone’s word of righteous prophetic outrage is a gift we all need. His refusal to “make it better” or pretend the United States of America is anything other than what it has always been is spiritual fuel.
And, I find myself needing this fuel. I am taking great comfort in it as I seek to sustain my ability to be present for and with my students, and to continue to move forward when I have no sense of what the future holds.
Jennifer Harvey is Professor of Religion at Drake University. She is the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation and Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice Through Reparations and Sovereignty. See also Harvey’s March 14, 2017 op-ed in the New York Times, “Are We Raising Racists?”