Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Few Poems that Might Be Useful for Educators Who Want to Talk about Charlottesville with Their Students

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.
At the top of this week, the Washington Post published this piece by Valerie Strauss: The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help.

Update: another good link: There is No Apolitical Classroom: Resources for Teaching in These Times via the National Council of Teachers of English.

Those links contain more links to resources, readings, and lesson plans, and may be a good place to start for educators who know that current events matter, and that not talking about Charlottesville makes a statement to your students that's just as loud as any conversation or critical exploration.

In that spirit, and because my background is in using spoken word as a tool for narrative-building and opening up spaces for authentic dialogue, I wanted to share a few poems that have been on my mind lately. As always, list-making is tricky. This is not a list of the "best" poems about this topic; it's a list of poems that might be useful for educators looking for artistic work that can prompt some critical thinking about hate, white supremacy, and the recent events in Charlottesville.

I'm also thinking about this list in terms of what work needs to be done in educational spaces. Understanding the motivations of-- and contextual factors that cultivate-- white supremacists is one angle, but so is making connections between the explicit hate espoused by neo-nazis and the more subtle, implicit ways that white supremacist ideology pops up in everyday life. I think these poems, in different ways, explore those connections.

Of course, not every poem is appropriate for every audience. Be sure to review before presenting, both in terms of language/accessibility stuff and relevance. Also of course, "talking about racism" is a first step, not a last one, and we should challenge ourselves to find ways to embed anti-racist approaches and policies into our schools and institutions in more concrete ways as well.

Patricia Smith: Skinhead - video
A classic poem that seeks to explore the motivations of hateful bigots, without ever making excuses for them. There's so much in here about empathy (in a critical sense), perspective, and what lenses people use to see the world.

Jared Paul: 5 Times My Skin Color Did Not Kill Me - video
Storytelling can communicate information in ways that facts and statistics can't. In this poem/Tedx Talk, Jared Paul simply tells five stories from his life that illustrate how whiteness works in context, even for people who would not consider themselves privileged.

Christy NaMee Eriksen: If Racism Was a Burning Kitchen - text
Talking about racism involves *talking* about racism, and this piece has always been a favorite of mine because of how it illuminates how those conversations so often go. It's absurdist, and even funny, but it points to something deadly serious and can be a useful entry point for talking about how we talk about racism.

Guante: How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist - video
I wanted to write something about how "white supremacy" is bigger and more insidious than just literal white supremacists marching around with torches. But this is also about highlighting the *connection* between those people and the everyday acts/attitudes/policies that make them possible. Pushing back has to happen at multiple levels too-- denouncing and disrupting specific acts of terror, but also uprooting their worldview in the classroom, the office, the church, the comment thread, the home, and everywhere.

Anthony McPherson: All Lives Matter (1800s Edition) - video
I can't think of a better deconstruction of the excuses and rationalizations that white people use to distance themselves from white supremacy. Obviously, this won't work for every audience, in every situation, but it can be a very powerful exploration of how rhetoric can be used to mask racism. See also: T. Miller's "Ten Things You Sound Like When You Say AllLivesMatter in Response to BlackLivesMatter."

Two explorations of the mythical idea of "reverse racism"
These two pieces cover a lot of the same ground, but they're both worth sharing here, especially since so much white supremacist ideology is rooted in victimhood-- and that feeling of victimhood is so common among white students, even ones who don't identify with hate groups. These two pieces (one is a prose-oriented poem, the other a stand-up comedy bit) also explore the limits of talking about identity without also talking about power.
Hope those can be useful; feel free to share more in the comments.

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