By: Jeanne Cameron
My Race, Power & Privilege students and I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations. It took us six 75-minute class periods, 450 minutes in all. We began the essay in the ninth week of classes, after we’d had lots of practice reading texts out loud. Short historical texts like the 13th Amendment, read around the room, with a new voice picking up the thread each time we encountered punctuation –
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,
except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,
shall exist within the United States,
or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Try it the next time you’ve got three other people to help you out. The exceptional clause almost always refuses its subordinate status and muscles its way center stage.
We’d read short essays that shout a truth known but not spoken by some, while enveloping others in sticky, hot discomfort. Essays like Mia McKenzie’s Whack Jobs Are Not the Problem (You Are), which was written for white people and ends with these words –
I am not going to tell you why or how you are racist. I’m not here for your education. If you want to understand, read a book. Read a hundred books. Take a workshop. Read as many books and take as many workshops as you need to be able to stop pretending it’s other white people and not you.
Trust me. It’s you.
We’d read several of Claudia Rankine’s prose poems from Citizen, tiny little pieces layering multiple points of view in the beat of singular moments.
By the time we begin Reparations, our longest and most complicated text, most folks in the room are core-comfortable stopping the reading to ask for meaning, and the questions flow. Sometimes it’s a word exclusive to certain kinds of discourse communities, like kleptocracy. It’s an interesting word, but we’re unlikely to use it in our everyday lives. And sometimes it’s a word we never knew we needed until now. A word like plunder.
And sometimes a word like plunder is nestled within a complex idea, revealed in the concision of a well-crafted sentence – “America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary.”
In Reparations, Coates weaves together the losses of ordinary black people, like Clyde Ross, and the institutional policies and practices that produce those losses. Because of my students’ humanity, these ordinary stories put them in their feelings. But to understand that Clyde’s losses are part of a tapestry intentionally designed, they need historical knowledge that Coates can take for granted when writing to The Atlantic’s audience; an audience with a median income of $82,000 and a 74% rate of completion of a bachelor’s degree or higher.
So we often need to stop inside a passage to talk about what’s not spoken in order to make sense of what is. And that’s okay, because fleshing out this history is my job as their teacher. It’s my job to explain how Roosevelt’s New Deal – considered one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in our history – systematically excluded black people; my job to explain who Aid to Dependent Children was written for; my job to explain the mechanics of redlining, restricted covenants, blockbusting, and contract selling. It is my job to help them connect the losses of ordinary people to the corporate and government policies written to rob them. And it is my job to illustrate how that robbery has subsidized The Dream for white folks, like me.
The questions and observations that stop our reading come mostly from the black and brown students, who make up more than half the class. And that, by itself, counters the story of what usually happens in college classrooms. A page and a half before Coates will begin to speak on it, Nate, who grew up brown in a town both rural and white, stops us – I get how housing segregation happened, he says, but why’s there so much violence in black neighborhoods?
Just after Coates tells us the story of Belinda Royall, a newly freed woman who petitioned the Massachusetts’s Legislature in 1783 for reparations, Joshua, a Dominican from the Bronx, stops us – Did any white person ever go through this?
While reading a passage about restricted covenants, Zhane wonders out loud how her grandma came to occupy the house Zhane calls home in a white community just north of New York City.
450 minutes of reading out loud.
And no one is on her phone.
And no one has his head down.
And no one is talking to their neighbor.
And no one is nodding out.
We are still,
We are present,
The words pulse.