Monday, June 27, 2011


During the summer of 1989, I taught a week-long fiction-writing workshop at Indiana University. When the students (all white) and I met during a Sunday evening set aside for orientation, I explained what I expected them to do over the next five days---the relentless writing and rewriting, the challenging exercises on craft, and the lectures I would daily give on various aspects of literary technique. When I was done, one student said, "Wow, you teach a really high-powered class."
And so it went for three days of delightful, total immersion in the craft of literary fiction. Then, at the end of the third class, one student raised his hand and said he wanted to ask a question for himself and a few other people taking the workshop. I was fully anticipating---and girding myself for---a question about contemporary and ancestral literary forms, about the different ways to approach viewpoint, or the intricacies of plotting, or characterization or some other matter we'd been so absorbed with for days.  Instead, he said: 
          "We've never had a black teacher before. Can we talk about race?"
I know they all could tell from the expression on my face, and my silence, that I was stunned and, for a moment, disoriented. Race? I thought. This is a workshop on applied aesthetics. Their request blind-sided me completely. I hadn't given their "race" more than a passing thought. My concern had only been to professionally deliver a body of knowledge that was non-racial. Slowly, I said, "Sure. But since we only have two more days left, let's not take up class time with this. We can meet for dinner tonight, if you like, and you can ask me all your questions."       
 I went back to the dormitory room where I was staying, deep in reflection, wondering, "What just happened here?" Then I met with the handful of students who could make it to dinner at a pizza parlor off campus. By that time they were reluctant to ask me questions about "race," probably after seeing my first, stunned reaction. My expression in class probably cast a chill over the whole matter. Needless to say, that dinner was a dead affair, and saddened me considerably.
This is an incident I thought about often during my 33 years as a college professor. And it is by no means an isolated one. Black colleagues of mine have similar (and far worse) war stories they can tell because we were the first generation of young, black professors right after the Civil Rights Movement to integrate in significant numbers formerly white American universities. We were the "shock troops" sent in after racial segregation ended, right after the "long hot summers" of riots in northern cities. And we did have to live through our own racial incidents of "shock and awe" in the late 1970s, '80s, and even into the '90s. Many of our white students (and colleagues) had never known a black person---but suddenly here one was, at the front of the room, talking about philosophy or literature or physics, and so they just had to use that rare opportunity to engage their professor on a matter of national (and for them, personal) interest even though it had nothing to do with the content of the course. Race was a matter, there in their minds, as they sat listening to their professor lecture on prosody or Plato's Myth of the Cave. Some of them just couldn't see past it.
  For a black professor at a predominantly white institution of higher education, who must teach students of all races and backgrounds equally and in a color-blind fashion, this added factor of race consciousness in either the faculty or students is, obviously, not something included in one's "job description" when one is hired. For a black American professor, there is far more to be dealt with than appears on that innocent job description. It is a real and sometimes psychologically draining dimension of the social world black educators must daily train themselves to negotiate with infinite amounts of grace, patience, compassion, generosity, discipline (self-control), equanimity, and humor. (Believe me, as a Buddhist, that situation made me work all the time and even harder on the pāramitās  or "virtues" that are part of the bodhisattva ideal.)
 Yet, for all that, my decades at the University of Washington were good, rewarding ones during which I received the generous support of my colleagues and students. I have no complaints and only praise to dispense for UW. Perhaps for the new generation of black professors at colleges and universities in the 21st century things are a little less racially rough around the edges. But one should never---ever---assume that the daily exigencies, trials and duties on campus (or off campus) for black American and white educators are the same.


  1. Excellent lesson for me; as an Af Am teacher in a multi classroom, the elephant is always race. So, is the answer staying prepared and on task with the lesson plan OR when questions arise, stop and use the space as a teaching tool on race??

  2. maybe consider what is the task and the lesson and how it may always already have race embedded in some creative productive way...?

  3. One of the key factors in the b/w experience in America (and most places affected by colonialism) is that "we" tend to know "them" better than they know us. We've spent generations working in their farms, factories, offices and homes -- 'been there, done that, got the t-shirt' en masse -- learning what Langston Hughes called 'The Ways of White Folk'. Their opportunities to get to know us were limited to the brave, curious tourist; or the (often poorly interpreted) cultural artifacts collected by 'scouting missions' into our clubs, restaurants and communities. It is, therefore, understandable that in the pre-history before MTV, You-tube or Google (not to mention the e-Channel), white college students would jump at the chance to question a Black professor, much as their kindergarten counterparts would beg the only colored kid in the class, "Can I touch your hair?" Wanting to know is a good thing. It's what happens next that is still problematic.