Some Musings on Reparations, Teaching Civil Discourse and Collective Memory.

Blog. It has been a while. The drafts of post that linger for a year, (but not quite years yet..) because of perfectionism ceases for a moment. Forgive the lack of proofreading.

What is the trend line of my most recent thinking? One of my good friends and colleagues often says that I am interested in everything, and he doesn’t know how long I will hold onto an idea until I jump to a new passion or idea. He means this as a compliment (I think). For me, it is a muddled web most of the time. How could my interest in comparing governments connect to my fascination with Gilded Age Boston, and then the politics and history of memory and memorialization? Sitting at the lunch break for the Universities and Slavery Conference at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard is one of those moments where I start to sort out my tangled web of ideas I am mulling over…so bear with me as I jump around a bit.

My junior year independent study at St. Lawrence was on the lack of official public recognition about the French complicity in the Holocaust. This was inspired by a single comment in the Caen peace museum when one of my professors (Bruce Weiner) lauded the fact that the Caen museum actually acknowledges this component of French history. Junior year I took the topic on. Russo’s The Vichy Syndrome became a core part of the way I thought about the role of collective memory. I traveled to France thanks to a research grant to look at the way French museums talk about World War II. (Everyone was in the resistance was the main conclusion, excuse the sarcasm). My interest in this topic was not radical as I picked up a new book in the Logan airport, Sarah’s Key that had invited this topic back into consciousness.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I was teaching AP Comparative Government and talking about the legacy of colonialism for developing countries (a theoretical introduction to the unit before we study Mexico and Nigeria) and I was struck yet again by questions of responsibility. What is the Western World’s responsibility in former colonies where they erased traditional leadership, supported feudal authority and then left? How do those countries “Get to Denmark” (we had just read parts of Fukyama’s Origins of the Political Order) ? I found myself again coming back to the notion of reparations, writing it on the board and asking my students if it applied here as a possible solution? What form would it take in this case, when in a statement that is astounding lack of political correctness one of the Nigerian interviewees says, “the British should come back”. The Director of the Royal African society was our next video, who talked about the profound lack of self-confidence as an important legacy of colonialism. Jury is still out on how I think about these sources….

A few weeks ago in Art History we looked at art theft, and considered the Rape of Europa. Again, reparations to Maria Altmann seep into that story of paying for past crimes as a small attempt to repair several layers of violation of a social contract. When I applied for my MALS program at Dartmouth (which I have set aside for a variety of reasons) I wanted to enter the creative writing program. I wanted to begin to experiment with the role of historical fiction in the history classroom. I was specifically curious what would happen if we made students write from the perspective of Nazis, it is much easier to empathize with the victim, but how do we help students understand the systems and modes of thinking that led to the perpetrators acting the way that they did (without become apologists)?

And now I find myself at this conference. The topic of reparations began the conversation with a keynote address this morning by Ta-Nahisi Coates. As he was queried about his “Case for Reparations” piece, he challenged Universities “to make the language of Reparations respectable”. On Monday of this week, Dr. Eddie Moore visited our school to kick off a student led unconference day on the topic of privilege. In the smaller conference setting he outlined the system of white supremacy for our students and how the “mission statement of the United States” entrenched in the constitution and Declaration of Independence was only a reality 3% of the time. When I probed him about what constituted the 3%, and what would have to happen to shift the bar for him, he said reparations; and that he believed we give too much credit for basic human treatment.

I am reminded of “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace. I am reminded of the debate about the role of media in our society and positionality, how much can the media give the public unbiased facts with which to make up their minds about society, and how much does their experience in the world always color their interpretation? What is the water we swim in right now that we don’t even recognize? Is it mass incarceration? Is it rape culture? Is it the fact that our conspicuous consumption is propped up by workers who have few rights and make less than $1 a day?

I am also struck by the challenge of turning the lens inward. How do we have this conversation without alienating people? Coates said some people will be “affirmatively ignorant” and yet the parts of his talk I found most compelling are when he ventured into different territory pondering, “would we cease to function if we had to acknowledge it was THAT bad?” Another scholar on the panel, James Campbell, later talked about PTSD and the notion that societies can collectively experience trauma. Coates said we have to do more than call the “affirmatively ignorant” people “deplorable” as Hillary did, we have to ask WHY they are deplorable?

Most surprisingly in one of his final comments he said something along the lines of: “I am not an activist, I am a writer. ‘The Case for Reparations’ was part of my journey to understand the Civil war. The question about reparations is answered for me. Yes.” He then spoke of how being a writer means he needs to pursue the questions most captivating for him at that moment. I wondered about this, and while he says as a society we have a responsibility to acknowledge this plunder, but at the same time pivots away from calling himself an activist. Yet he also encouraged playwrights and artists to reconsider the images we have of the antebellum South (Gone with the Wind) and change that, to become activists of sorts. I think I can affirm that anyone should pursue the questions they find most compelling, but at the same time how do we have this conversation if people can pivot away from it? Some of the comments from the crowd asked how to we can lead the uninterested to water and “make drinking attractive”? This seems to be a central question: how to convert the ignorant to be less ignorant? (essentially the task of educators)- but on a single way of thinking that is absolute truth… which I am wary of.

Yet I am also teaching American History with the most politically engaged group of students (conservative and liberal) that I have ever worked with. Every day I wonder if I am being true to my belief in free speech and open discourse in education. I am intimately aware of the power I have to direct the way students think, and wonder how much do they parrot my ideas back at me? How much room do I leave them to disagree? How can I be balanced in an age of Donald Trump? Probably a question for another post, but I can’t help but feel the question of how to talk about this is intimately linked to how we invite civil discourse into our classrooms even at the expense of the beliefs that ground our ideas? The University of Chicago’s Statement about Free Expression seems to be the closest thing I can come to supporting, but I still do have questions about the role of power dynamics in free speech even at universities.

Sven Beckart’s is an organizer of the conference and his A Global History of Cotton (which I will admit is lingering on my bedside table beneath a pile of student essays, bookmark starting to impress the pages) inspires a new class we will offer next year, Advanced History of the West. A combination of AP US and AP Euro in a two-year course that rejects the notion of the history of America existing as a topic we can study independent of global events. Textbooks we use have been doing this for a long time, but we still require a year of “US history” to graduate- it seems a nationalistic project to our department we are excited to poke holes in. How will a study of the constitution be enhanced by genuine time to cover the Enlightenment? How will we consider the world that the African Slave Trade made in a more global context?

The lunch break is ending. Natasha Trethewey, Vincent Brown and a panel on “Slavery at Harvard” are up next..

On Storytelling

There are a few things that happen when a new acquaintance unfamiliar to the world of education learns that I am a teacher. Subsequent inquiries are frequently made about what age level and subject I teach. When I respond that I teach high school, it seems to open a neural pathway to a pool of teenage memories. Those who smile dreamily thinking of their high school sagas I often believe were popular jocks, and those who grimace seem to resent me for reminding them of the acne, cliques and heartbreak. When I mention that I teach history, they either light up and state their avowed love for the discipline or confess their lack of aptitude. Nearly everyone shares something about a history teacher. These teachers are characterized as either master storytellers or resented date-drillers. They often cite a renewed adult interest in history courtesy of a Ken Burns documentary. What strikes me most is the detail with which people of all ages remember the storyteller teacher.

See the rest of my reflection on my summer study in Scotland here. It was posted a few weeks ago on The Lamp, Holderness School’s space for sharing ideas about education and the teaching profession.

The sweeping views and cobblestone streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, provided the perfect setting for Kelsey Berry to study the many stories and narrators of history.

The Tidal Pools

Months have elapsed since my last post. I may have to have a re-commitment  ceremony with my blog after New Years to get my lazy brain back in shape. This next piece is my own work on an assignment I posed to my students. They were required to write a historically accurate, yet fictional, short story based off a painting that inspired them from the time period we were studying. Although this is much shorter than the work they produced, and has less of the historical research I required them to do (in the form of footnote annotations), I felt like sharing. I was inspired to write after looking at this painting I had never seen before…..

'Marie Kroyer and Anna Ancher on the Beach at Skagen', a study by Peder Severin Kroyer

‘Marie Kroyer and Anna Ancher on the Beach at Skagen’, a study by Peder Severin Kroyer

This is the very short sketch that resulted from my meditation on Kroyer’s painting:

The Tidal Pools

“Beatrice I think you have misunderstood me.” The tide swished into the folds of Beatrice’s muslin dress. She stared steadfastly, yet remotely ahead. “I do not mean to implore you further, but please consider the situation. It is simply not your place.” Clarice’s voice could not penetrate Beatrice’s thoughts. She could not distinguish between the sounds of the ocean and the high-pitched blather of her companion on the beach. Intently absorbing  the sounds she had yearned for through the cold winter by holding the conch shell James had given her when he was five—-oh, she knew Clarice meant well. They all meant well. Her mind concentrated on the formation of the waves rushing in and the pools of water forming on the strip of the narrow beach she found herself on. She did not want to be appropriate and dignified. In fact, she desired quite the opposite. She imagined herself like the misplaced pools of water on the beach left as the tide retreated. Those pools glared at her, standing apart from the rhythmic, constancy of the ocean. Out of place, blocked by a piece of driftwood or a bulge in the sand of the uneven beach. Eventually the pool would evaporate. Or rejoin the molecules of its parent ocean when the tide rose again in twelve hours. Perhaps a child would disturb it and it would be something new altogether. She wanted to walk into the ocean and swim. She wanted to tempt fate. Edna Pontellier had captivated her. She could not walk along the beach, or even dream about the ocean without pondering what it must feel like to let the ocean tides sweep you into oblivion. It was quite radical, Ms. Chopin’s newest story. Clarice would hate it. Ever since their time together at Miss Porter’s Clarice had been the constant fly in Beatrice’s ear, buzzing with gossip and reminders of the parameters and expectations of well-bred society. Beatrice was surprised Clarice had yet to mention her bare head and loose chignon. Ahh, but even Clarice would loosen her yellow sash of respectable dressing standards in the face of Beatrice’s recent actions. She smiled inwardly, Clarice, for all of her good intentions, remained a blithering idiot. Hoping to marry the her Avon beau, Clarice van der Laan was destined for a life of Newport galas and bland conversation. Beatrice wondered about James. How he would have poked fun of Clarice right now with his fast wit and chivalrous manners. Clarice was the very opposite of innuendo. Quite literal, she believed in Emily Post and little else. Beatrice chided herself again for allowing herself to find joy in her memory of James. Why had she challenged him so? Although he had sought her out for advice since they were children, he had started to become the man their father had designed. Masculine, handsome, and meant to be the next Mr. Carlisle of Carlisle Bros Corp. he looked like James, but sounded more like Clarice’s tiresome beau every day. She had lost him like the sand sifting through her fingers, grain by grain. She was no longer his confidante; now that she had said the awful truth to him, and to the entire occupants of the sun-room at the Wentworth, she was fairly sure their bond was quite severed. Looking out into the ocean she trod into a displaced puddle. “Oh my, you have quite ruined the hem muslin dress my dear Bea. Put your hat on, you look as though you have let yourself go at the young age of nineteen, that just will not do. How do you expect to find a husband when you have no inhibitions in your thoughts? We are no longer in Farmington my dear Bea. You must wear your hat. Do try to dress better tonight, you may borrow my yellow sash if you wish. It will truly bring out the flecks of gold in your eyes.”