Art and the #FergusonSyllabus

This past summer, I led a seminar inspired by the #FergusonSyllabus movement that Georgetown history professor Marcia Chatelain started back in August of 2014, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, the protests in Ferguson, and the delayed start to school.

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Chatelain wrote an article for the  Atlantic exploring ways to teach students about race, racism, policing, and the events unfolding in Ferguson. She suggested crowdsourcing a syllabus for this and with that, the hashtag took on a life of its own.

During the summer and months to come, I immersed myself in the news and rich plethora of writing coming from both within and outside of the academy. I was in awe at the abundance of seemingly exponential resources coming from sites like Slate, Salon, Mic, the Root, Medium, and the Atlantic. I was also exploring Periscope and other social media sites that were empowering citizen journalists and placing potential in the palm of our youth’s hands.

In the meantime, I had proposed a graduate seminar for the upcoming summer called “The Local Global: American Art & Globalization in the Digital Age.” My goal was to reconsider popular visual culture and digital media, considering how media was impacting and disrupting museums, galleries, and art market via apps like Instagram.

My original course description included the following overarching goals:

Journalist Thomas L. Friedman famously described the world as being “flat” in his analysis of globalization and the more level playing field that emerged from our global economy. In the art world, Instagram has disrupted the global art market, for instance, empowering artists to enter the market from the palm of their hands, rather than through the gallery and curatorial gatekeepers. With increasing social and digital media impacting all facets of our lives, culture, and politics, there is no question that we are expanding in exponential and unpredictable ways…

I had pitched the class long ago, though, and as time continued to pass, it felt like news outlets and my Facebook feed were finally highlighting and shifting the focus to stories about police brutality, rampant institutionalized racism, and the growing power of citizen journalism. I watched as people like Johnetta Elzie and DeRay McKesson grew huge followings on Twitter and how Darnell L. Moore at Mic, and Dr. Brittney Cooper at Salon, were moving me profoundly and regularly with their influential writing online. And, as I considered teaching a class about popular media and the role of digital visual culture, I couldn’t stop thinking about Michael Brown’s death and Rodney King.

I teach in Los Angeles, where I also grew up, and I was fixated thinking about the role of the camcorder in Rodney King’s beatings back in 1991 and the role of cellphone cameras in too many cases now. They felt like appropriate bookends for this course. Then I read Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s A Clear Presence and her words cemented my desire to revamp the class. She beautifully uses David Hockney’s series of pool paintings to tie together a fluid, personal narrative about growing up, experiencing racism and about her relationship as an Angeleno to both Rodney King’s life and death. Her writing is superb, clean, moving, artful, and inspiring. And with it, I knew I had to overhaul everything.

I shifted the focus of the class to examine art surrounding police brutality, racism, protest, and the changing implications of media and film in this digital age. Through a few key readings including Sloan’s essay, Erna Smith’s study of media in relation to the ‘65 Watts riots and the ‘91 LA uprisings, and Anna Deavere Smith’s masterful one-woman play Twilight, I began the class with the Rodney King beating, trial, and subsequent uprisings and then shepherded the class through artworks addressing our nation’s history of institutionalized racism, terrorism, lynchings, police brutality, and the continued protests in both Ferguson and Baltimore.

I began adding to my original course description:

Tech writer Faith Merino compared the Rodney King case to Mike Brown’s, saying, “The difference between now and then: social media…as we all know, the tense relationship between police forces and communities of color is not unique to Los Angeles, and social media has helped crystallize that reality. It has globalized the local.” Here, we will explore the role of race and global identities in contemporary arts, visual culture, exhibition practices, and media, investigating how the field of art history and the “local global” is simultaneously expanding and flattening our world, changing the ways we view and study art — and ourselves.

Our class sessions were challenging and even grueling at times, because the subject was heavy, loaded, and raw, but there was simultaneous interest, passion, and engagement; in this way, even the toughest classes were inspiring at times.

An interesting thing occurred as the course went on, too. New events and cases surrounding police brutality kept arising and tying into the class directly. We discussed the pool party in McKinney, Texas, and then ended our course with an eerie movement that took us from the history of lynchings to the murder and terror that left nine innocent people dead at Charleston’s AME church. The course was so relevant to the here and now, that the class felt important, timely, and right.

Over the course, we studied artists like Damon Davis and his #allhandsondeck project, Kerry James Marshall’s photographic collages of lynchings, Ken Gonzales-Day’s work with both protest photographs and erased lynchings, and Natalie Bookchin’s video collages. We read seminal essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a reflective essay on cultural tourism from Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Mike Wallace’s work on media and memory, and excerpts from Claudia Rankine’s moving collection of poetry Citizen: An American Lyric.

Students worked on final projects, most of which were lesson plans since the majority are high school teachers. In short, their assignment was to take inspiration from the #FergusonSyllabus movement and run with it. Students revamped lesson plans for literature, history, and anthropology classes, incorporating artists like Noah Purifoy’s post-Watts-uprising assemblage and Howard Barry’s newspaper paintings. Some wrote just one lesson plan, while others rewrote entire multi-month units.

I strongly believe in the power of reflective thinking and the ways in which engaging students in weekly writing eportfolios can encourage this. Throughout the course, my students thought critically and expressively, challenging both my opinions, those of the authors, and their own.

In their own words about and throughout the course, students grappled with their thoughts about the subject, discussions, and readings. Not all were one hundred percent positive reviews, but all were critically reflective in nature and well-worth the time it took me to revamp the course:

  • When I heard that the focus of this class had shifted to address the patterns of excessive force by white police officers on unarmed black men, my first reaction was one of anxiety. My reaction to this anxiety was to think, “Clearly, this class is what I need.” I have been the silent teacher that has ignored Ferguson. And New York. And Baltimore. In a way, I have justified my silence by misapplying Jenee Desmond Harris’ advice; I’ve reasoned that I can’t “attempt to explain it to [my] students before [I] explain it to [myself].” Unfortunately, I have not taken any intentional steps toward explaining these events to myself. As [Rebecca] Schuman says, “we are living history,” and I feel lucky to be in an environment that challenges me to grow in my knowledge of that history both past and present. Now I must shift my focus away from myself and wonder how I can create the same environment for my students.
  • This class has been one of the most difficult I have taken in my career as a student, not because of the workload, but because of the emotional “load” of the work.
  • [M]y understanding of our current place in history has not altered, at best our discussions has caused me, rather us, to shift uncomfortably in our cushioned seats adjusting our weight to a more empathetic position in hopes that by this shifting, but not moving, we can better understand the issues presented by Ken Gonzales-Day or Shawn Michelle Smith. Perhaps in our classroom, that shifting will manifest itself into more tangible characteristics.
  • It may sound trite, but I lost a lot of my innocence (which was really ignorance) during this class. I thought my limiting of students’ hate-speech made me a sensitive, progressive teacher. But it just made me another blind citizen putting a Band-Aid over a bullet wound. That’s difficult to put down in writing, but I’m grateful for the revelation…The new burden I feel to examine myself, my privileges, my biases, my ignorance—I wouldn’t give that burden up for anything. There are so many voices that I have shut myself off from, unintentionally or not, because listening to their stories makes me uncomfortable or feel overwhelmed. But I want to hear those stories, and I want my students to hear those stories; I want us to have the difficult conversations so that, in my small corner of the world, we can do whatever we can to chip away at the hatred that clogs the arteries of the United States.
  • The various works of art we have interacted with during the past few months provide a number of individual voices fighting back against the discrimination they have experienced or witnessed. I feel that an understanding of the importance of these individual voices is the most valuable idea I will take away from this course. While I have always tried to encourage my students to think about history from several points of view, the variety of viewpoints we have uncovered has helped me to redefine what is means to consider multiple perspectives.
  • The high points in this class have been the moments where I suddenly realized new ways of approaching texts that I have taught for nearly a decade. I wrote a lot about new strategies for teaching Holocaust literature such as Elie Wiesel’s Night, specifically by shining the light on American lynchings through Gonzales-Day’s work and drawing parallels between a similar lynching scene in the memoir… Finishing the course with excerpts from Citizen: An American Lyric brought a sense of closure for me. Rankine describes Serena Williams’ tennis career: “Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her onto you” (32). Later, Rankine writes, “Those years of before me and my brothers…accumulate into the hairs inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, the roots our limbs…” (90). Both of these statements beautifully collapse the distance between the nation’s painful past and the present, and serve as a reminder that the nation has not healed. The use of “you” and “us” implicates the reader and at the same time embraces the reader in this shared pain; it is all of our inheritance.

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