Sunday, November 20, 2011

In a classroom, are there limits to free speech?

Too controversial?    After teaching my class about the history of slavery, about how pervasive it has been, about why anyone would want to enslave someone else, I received a note from one of my white students, a former Marine who sits at a desk in the front row of the small auditorium that serves as my classroom. His message ended with what could be considered a warning: “I feel very offended and am thinking about taking action with the administration.”     
Although it’s not uncommon for him to make wry remarks spontaneously, his quips usually don’t attract responses. Because I encourage free speech, I seldom rein in anyone unless the class becomes disorderly. I stop everything then. “Raise your hand if you’d like to speak,” I say then, sternly.
And they do. Just as they did this past Friday. Two of my black students were having a mini debate about our topic. One, a man in his late thirties, also one to make spontaneous comments, spoke sincerely about slavery as it related to him, to his generation. “It’s in the past,” he said, “we don’t need to dwell on it. We’re all equal now.”
In answer to him, an older female who is one of my more serious students, remarked that the pain of slavery still hasn’t been adequately addressed. “There are wounds that must be dealt with,” she said, then mentioned various groups and organizations she had worked with and created.
To varying degrees, all of my students were attentive, even the one who thinks she is fooling me about the cell phone she never turns off. Just after I described a segment of the movie Amistad that I was about to show the class, she announced that she didn’t want to see the film, that it made her think bad thoughts, thoughts similar to the ones she had when she watched Roots. “I’m not going to watch it,” she said, then returned to her I-Tunes.
For the rest, I prepared them by detailing how global slavery was, how central Portugal and the Islamic countries were to the slave trade, how the trade in slaves was so divisive to the United States and its leaders. I touched on England’s role, its colaborators and Bentham and Wilberforce, a few of its opponents of slavery.
Amistad began. Ms. I-Tunes walked out. No one else did. I skipped through the movie to get to scenes about the drama in the courtroom, to let my class see the nature of those who opposed slavery, those who didn’t believe in slavery as well as more ardent Abolitionists.
At one point, I stopped the movie to read from George Washington Carver’s book, Up From Slavery. Chatter stopped. Carver’s remarkable words held their attention. Emancipated when he was six, he saw clearly the disturbing aspects of slavery, the terrifying challenges of freedom, and the undeniable connections slaves had made with their white (and black!) owners.
Then I returned to the movie, muted it to comment on the nobility of the captured Africans, how they had to struggle to communicate, how they had to relate as strangers in a very strange land.
We watched a little longer until I paused again to read “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea” by Nikki Giovanni. Many seemed moved by its bold lines.
Minutes later the class ended. Although I knew it would continue after our Thanksgiving break, I felt that my students had much to consider before then. Most left the room quietly. My ex-Marine handed me his paper.
As I read it after class, I noticed how carefully written it was. Compared to his work from the first part of the semester, there were very few errors. It was clear, and well thought out even though he was upset.
Another student, a white woman in her late twenties, e-mailed me a day later. Although she suggested other ways to deal with the lingering effects of slavery, she was sympathetic. However, when it came to the woman who left our class, she wrote:
The only other thing that stood out to me that I particularly disagreed with was when the lady mentioned that "Independence Day was not really an independence day for the black people," I find this untrue. Independence Day is not about black people or white people. It is about Americans. We may be able to divide ourselves when it comes to race, but we cannot deny the fact that we are all Americans.
Chances are that I’ll ask her to read those few sentences to our next class. I may do the same regarding the ex-Marine’s note. Fireworks may be unavoidable that day in my Controversial Issues class.
That’s why I may invite a guest to join us, a man I admire, the Vice-President of our community college. Before I begin what I’m sure will be an interesting debate, I will ask for any thoughts about blacks who owned slaves, then will lecture about that. In case you’re interested, please visit this site:
Large numbers of free Negroes owned black slaves; in fact, in numbers disproportionate to their representation in society at large.
Of course, please consider this an invitation to join us for our next class when controversy comes on Friday morning. 
                                                               B. Koplen  11/20/11
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