• Color Brave

    By Nancy Spitler

Several years ago, finance executive Mellody Hobson presented a TedTalk titled, “Color blind or color brave?” in which she acknowledged that conversations about race make people “extraordinarily uncomfortable.” She called it the “conversational equivalent of touching the third rail,” generally resulting in shock followed by a long silence.
Hobson cited a corporate study that found that the really smart corporations don’t avoid the issue of race, but “actually deal with it head on,” and she urges people to engage in honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about race. “All of us,” she said, “if we truly believe in equal rights and equal opportunity in America, I think we have to have real conversations about this issue. We cannot afford to be color blind. We have to be color brave.”

In our polarized world of incendiary tweets and combative Facebook posts, honest and civil conversations about issues of race are not a common occurrence.
This fall, a group of approximately 60 students in five separate classes — four English and one theater course — were a part of a Race and the University Course Suite. The classes met separately, all engaging with issues of race through different time periods and different genres. Twice during the semester they gathered for a forum to discuss critical issues of race, throughout history and today. It’s an attempt for this group of students and faculty to be “color brave.”
Students read fiction and nonfiction, biographies and autobiographies, plays and race theory. They studied literature and dramas that substantially engaged the issue of race as early as the 16th century and as recent as the 21st. They traced the roots of racism in the United States back to the founding of the transatlantic slave trade and then traced it forward to today.
They read slowly and carefully and closely analyzed texts, digging to find the meaning of words and phrases and ideas. They made connections among authors and ideas and time frames. And for the two forums that brought all five classes together, they read excerpts of works from each other’s classes, so that when they all sat down together, they would be — as much as possible — on the same page and at the very least, have the shared readings in history, literature and theory as a basis for their conversation. As part of the experience, students live tweeted, and one student live streamed the forum on Periscope.

Color Blind or Color Brave? Watch the TED Talk or view an interactive transcript.

  • English professor Garry Bertholf opened the discussion at the first forum by saying, “We’re beginning a conversation that hopefully doesn’t end in this room tonight.”

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-09-38-amThen, with the history and the theory and the literature under their belts, the students began to talk about how all of those things translate and relate to their lives as 21st century human beings in the American South.
Some talked of learning history in which certain subjects had been downplayed and edited by well-meaning middle and high school teachers. Black students shared the uncomfortableness they felt of being black in America; white students shared feeling a need to confront our shared history.

They demonstrated an openness and a willingness to be in conversation — open, informed and civil conversation — with each other.

And as things were wrapping up, English professor Rhondda Thomas posed this question: “How do we take what we are experiencing in the classroom and move it out so that it permeates the campus?”

And the conversation continued.

* The tweets used throughout this article were posted during the first forum in October.

Clemson World recently sat down for a conversation with the faculty members of the course suite.
CW: This is the second year of the course suites. How did the concept come about?

RHONDDA THOMAS: We were talking about trying to create a core group of students who were studying and talking together over the course of the semester, and who would also be encouraged to participate in the Race and the University events that were happening. [In the fall of 2015] we had four professors: Garry Bertholf, Chenjerai Kumanyika, Abel Bartley and I, who scheduled our classes at the same time and met once a month, and then each of us took turns giving a lecture or a presentation to our students followed by a conversation. It worked well enough that we wanted to continue, but this semester our classes meet at different times, so the configuration was to have two critical race theory forums so we could bring our students together, create the Twitter account, have some shared readings and see if this could work in another setting.screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-10-18-am

CW: Why these five courses as the components?

CAMERON BUSHNELL: One reason is to cover literature or dramas that substantially engage the issues of race in whatever time period we are studying. So it didn’t necessarily mean the contemporary period, but often went back to 16th, 17th, the whole gamut of centuries prior to today. So it was a matter of looking at race relations in different genres and different time periods.
GARRY BERTHOLF: We have so many colleagues in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities whose research and teaching interests overlap in tweet2these areas, and we were just kind of excited to make that pronounced and to think together across course materials.

CW: Many of the texts are from earlier decades, early centuries. How pertinent are those texts to current issues of race?

KENDRA JOHNSON: In drama, extremely so. There’s a play called “A Sunday Morning in the South.” And so we talk about racial profiling and the police. And colorism is throughout almost every play we read, and it’s still going on now, and [students] don’t realize it. So we have a discussion about what that means today. And I talk about what colorism was like when I was growing up … the hair changing [texture] and the [babies’ darker] ears, and we talk about the fraternities and the sororities, and so we bring it where they are now.
I think that my students have been surprised at the roots of racism in this country that stretch back not to the founding of America, but really to the founding of the transatlantic slave trade. We’ve just finished reading [W.E.B.] Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, and he starts by posing this grand pronouncement that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. I said, “Is that still a problem in the 21st century, and if it is, why is it?” So we started in the colonial period, and then moved into the antebellum period, and now we’re at the turn of the 20th century, and we’ll end with the Harlem Renaissance.
They have been able to see the roots of racism and how things develop in our country, why we’re still wrestling with some of the same problems that have been with us since the very beginning, and that these are not new issues. If you don’t understand the root of the problem, you cannot have a solution for the problem. We’ve talked about some of the things they see in their own lives, and so now they’re understanding that what they thought were contemporary issues are actually long-term issues we’ve been wrestling with for centuries.
JOHNSON: We also study stereotypes and the origins of them, and they’re fascinated by Sapphire and Jezebel, and they’re still around today. We talk about when you listen to music, and [artists] talk about women in a certain way, when you see certain videos, what does it mean when you still watch it? I want them to be more aware of what they take in or what they read or see.
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-10-48-amBERTHOLF: We teach materials that are pretty old, and some of these questions still linger — the question of whether the problem of the 21st century is the “color line,” or [the question of] what happens after the colony. I think that’s one of the great things about great materials: that some of these questions are really big questions we’re still grappling with in the 21st century, even as people think we’ve moved beyond questions of race or questions of  colonialism or questions of suffering. We’re living in a really interesting political and historical moment. By assigning some of these materials to our students, we’re helping them think through these really historical problems, and about how their own thinking about them in the current moment might change things on this campus, in the Upstate, or more romantically, in the world.

CW: Why is it important to engage with people from diverse backgrounds?

BERTHOLF: The world is much bigger than South Carolina or than Clemson. This campus is not a microcosm of the world, or even of South Carolina when you consider that 30 percent of the population in the state is black. We all know that it’s so important in this historical and political moment to have compassion and to have empathy — to actually care about folks we’re not in conversation with every day, maybe even folks you don’t even know, whose language you don’t speak, whose gods you don’t pray to, whose food you don’t eat, whose music you don’t listen to, to realize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that it also affects us. We have to be connected to people who are languishing in poverty or suffering any type of oppression anywhere. Those are our concerns as well.
tweet-1We have our campus issues, to be sure, and we have the historical particularity of the American South, which is here every day, but there are folks suffering all over the world. I don’t mean to sound really romantic, but we’re connected to that.
THOMAS: Even as I really urge students to travel widely, I want them to travel widely on this campus too. We don’t have a replication of South Carolina, but we do have black students. We don’t have a cosmopolitan congregation of students from all over the world, but we do have a rather large population of international students. There are students who come to Clemson and never engage with anyone outside of their social or racial group — even here, in this place students love and never want to leave, maybe because they haven’t gotten out of their comfort zones.
I hope they’re not just broadening their world view, but also their campus view, so that what they’re learning here they can start applying here. I would like for our students to become this core group who permeates the campus with these new ideas they’re wrestling with and challenges their friends to engage in these conversations.
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-11-09-amBUSHNELL: I think the course suite provides this valuable experience in how to do that, how to have those conversations, because they’re difficult conversations. You can turn to the literature and see how issues are unfolding in the literature, and how issues are unfolding on our campus, and how they are unfolding in our world. The course suite cannot be underestimated in its ability to provide students a place where they can practice having these conversations, to rehearse these ideas. I’m thinking this. How can I say it? How do I bring it up?

CW: How hard is it on the Clemson campus for students to talk about issues of race?

THOMAS: Even in our classes, students don’t always understand their own racism, and it comes out in ways that surprise them. They think they’re part of the conscious group and the ones who are aware and empathetic, but as the course unfolds, it forces them to face how they have been conditioned and really grown to be racist.
BERTHOLF: That uncomfortability is what being at university is all about. Everything I remember about my own university experience was about the unsettling of everything I thought I knew about the world. We need more of that here — hanging out in these really uncomfortable moments and growing.
THOMAS: I think that’s what these classes allow us to do. Even as a professor, there are texts that make me uncomfortable, conversations that make me uncomfortable. Modeling that for students is empowering. As Cameron said, giving them the space to try out those conversations, but also seeing us wrestle with these concepts and responding to questions that are hard to grapple with in open space with students you are just getting to know is very beneficial.

CW: Why is it important to view the Clemson experience and the American experience through someone else’s eyes?

THOMAS: Having these conversations shows our shared experiences as well as what makes us unique. If I identify as an African-American, I’m not trying to separate myself; I’m just simply saying that I have a way of living in America that may be different from you. But it doesn’t mean I’m separate from you; it doesn’t mean I’m below you. It doesn’t mean that because my ancestors were slaves that somehow I’m “othered” because of the way I look. But when you look at the history, you see the intertwined narrative that is what we’re all about. But if you don’t look, if you don’t talk, if you don’t read, then you don’t know — and you can stay in your comfort zone, and it doesn’t matter.
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-11-11-28-amBERTHOLF: I want to emphasize the reading part. I try to give my students as much reading and as difficult reading as I can. It’s not about reading that makes you feel good; sometimes it’s about reading that leaves you confused, asking questions. Questions are so important for us as scholars, but also for students who are developing ideas of their own — thinking about America, and America for whom. Thinking about Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America be America Again,” where at the end, he’s like, “America was never America to me.” I think about all of the moments Du Bois describes America as an “experiment.” Through even these authors, you get a very different vantage point as to what this country has meant to different folks at different historical moments, and even today.

CW: As classes end each day, do those conversations continue?

THOMAS: It usually happens in my office when students come in, and all of a sudden the conversation is going back to the conversation we were having on Monday. Students have asked me to give them tours of campus or have dinner and talk more. It has helped to confirm that what we’re doing is having the impact we wanted it to have, and they’re not taking these classes just to fulfill a requirement, but it’s actually beginning to change their thinking.
BUSHNELL: One of the things I heard yesterday from a student is that the course suite created a place where ideas could be shared in a welcoming environment. They felt they were empowered in this course suite, particularly talking about the forum as a place where the ideas they had been thinking about will be received well there.

Classes in the Course Suite

African American Literature to 1920, Associate Professor Rhondda Thomas
African American Theater I, Associate Professor Kendra Johnson
Senior Seminar: Black Autobiography, Professor Thomas
Southern Literature, Associate Professor Cameron Bushnell
Special Topics in Language, Criticism, Theory: Theorizing Race, Assistant Professor Garry Bertholf

Read more about Clemson’s history in Professor Thomas’ blog, Call My Name: African Americans in Early Clemson University History.