When I left my job as director of a multicultural social justice center and became a writer and teacher, I worried I was abandoning my commitment to social justice and turning a strength (my identity) into a liability. As it turns out, I’m still doing the same work.
I teach memoir, the intersection between story and reflection. What I love about memoir is that it democratizes storytelling. Official history is penned by power brokers, but the real stories are lived on the ground by ordinary folks. Memoir is the ultimate multicultural act.
The minute I enter a college classroom, my students make a judgment based on my body. But my true identity isn’t visible until I tell my story—my Nigerian-Nordic immigrant roots or the fact I was raised by a white single mother in small-town Washington, where we were the lone non-Christian Democrats and I the sole black girl.
It’s the first day of class at the University of Pittsburgh, and I explain the big project we’ll be spending weeks on—a personal history timeline I use to demonstrate memoir. “Your presentations will be graded on honesty and risk-taking,” I tell them.
One of my students, a college junior who introduced himself earlier as “white trash,” immediately launches into a story. He recalls a roller skating party where, during the “Sadie Hawkins” girl-ask-boy round, he was picked by the only African American girl. It’s not clear from his story if there was something “wrong with her,” like a learning disability. A few students start choking, but he plows ahead, telling us how he had to skate with the girl and how the entire student body laughed. By the time he got home, his grandmother had heard the news and teased him, winking, “So, you and the black girl, huh?” He chuckles, either channeling his grandmother or reliving his own embarrassment.
The silence in the room is palpable. The girls in the front row stare saucer-eyed at me, clearly concerned for my feelings. The boys at the back stare open-mouthed at him, clearly concerned for his life. I blink rapidly. This is one of those dreaded moments where the teacher-me requires more than the personal-me thinks she can manage. It doesn’t help that in my town, I was that girl.
Then suddenly I realize what has happened. In this student’s rural Pennsylvania town, where his former classmates spend days working in the factory and nights in the local strip club, he probably never met a black female authority figure. Am I the first? In his surprise and discomfort, he has blurted out his only other experience with female blackness.
“Um, exactly!” I say, fighting the urge to hug him. He has just embodied one of my fundamental goals for the class—creating an environment where we feel safe taking artistic risks and expressing different, but not necessarily “politically correct,” points of view.
“And if this is any indication of your honesty and risk-taking, it looks like we’re in for quite a ride!” I laugh, shaking my head. The room breathes; shoulders soften.
A few weeks later, the students’ presentations shine. They share their racial struggles, private goals, religious crises, family shames, class insecurities, personal falls from grace.
Each week they arrive early. They greet each other joyfully, laughing and arguing until the sound of the bell ushers them out again. The young man from Pennsylvania becomes a favorite, an eccentric honors student whose fanaticism for R&B earns him the nickname “Slow Jamz.”
Four years later, he still sends me more e-mails than any other former student, always witty, updating me on his post-graduation adventures.
Coming of Age
I am asked to design a literature course, my first. I model it on an anthology that members of the social justice center gave me when I left: Coming of Age in America. I name the class “The Literature of Multicultural Identity.” The students at Framingham State College are primarily working-class, first-generation-college whites who, I’m told, aren’t enthusiastic about multiculturalism.
On the first day we brainstorm questions they have about “the Other.” “Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?” is a favorite.
“Keep this list,” I advise, “to revisit at the end of the term.”
I create a four-page survey that quizzes them on the accomplishments of some famous queer and non-white Americans. “Don’t feel dumb,” I say once they’ve exhausted their individual and collective knowledge. “There’s a difference between ignorance and intelligence. How do you feel about your ignorance?”
“Angry!” they shout. “High school didn’t teach us anything!”
“Good,” I reply. “Let’s get to work!”
Their first assignment is to work in groups to deconstruct an American cultural myth. My teacher-self thrills, and my personal-self cries as I watch students realize how psychologically violent these myths can be—how shamed they feel for not achieving up-by-their-bootstraps middle-classdom; the perfect nuclear family; thin, white beauty; perpetual happiness through shopping.
When we start reading the literature, I realize my students don’t know the most common racial and cultural stereotypes. Thirty miles outside Boston, and so-called minorities and their histories are invisible. Why does this Chinese writer scoff at laundry? Why does this black author poke fun at switchblades on Friday nights? I find myself in the bizarre position of having to teach stereotypes in order to un-teach stereotypes. The students catalogue the stereotypes they’ve learned from children’s books, television, magazines, games, or online. For Arabs, everyone cites Apu, the Indian owner of the Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons.
Each class ends with a short imagining on an index card. “I wouldn’t have the strength to endure as a queer woman,” a straight man declares. “If I were a black man,” a white woman writes, “I’d be stronger than I am now, but America would try to crush that out of me.”
As the class progresses, formerly silent students become classroom authorities. A gay student comes out, then starts the first LGBT support group on campus. On Election Day, the class goes to the polls together, many for the first time. The class abandons old cliques, and new configurations of students sit together in the cafeteria.
Had they permanently rewritten their lives?” Fourteen years later a student e-mails to say that he uses what he learned “nearly every day.”
I visit my Anglo-Chicana goddaughters in their small college town. One of them books me a “show and tell” gig in her fifth-grade class. My topic: travel writing.
“I hope you have questions,” I announce as I take a stool at the front of the room. I’m unprepared for what my request unleashes. At every desk, children wave their hands wildly. One boy raises his quivering arm so high it looks like it could pop off.
“Where exactly on the world map have you been?” they want to know. “How many islands have you visited? Have you taken a boat trip? What is your favorite place?”
Many questions are what my father calls “Nigerian style,” merely opportunities for askers to testify about themselves. The fifth-grade version goes like this: “Have you been down the Nile?” Micropause. “I have!”
“Have you been to Michigan?” Arched brow. “I’ve been twice!”
“Tell me about you,” I respond, impressed.
They reveal international lives: “I was born in Mexico City.”
“I speak Farsi.”
“We’re taking a yacht to Brazil, where my dad is from.”
“My uncle adopted two kids from Ethiopia, and I got to see them. They’re really cute!”
“I didn’t know those things about the other kids,” my goddaughter will marvel afterward. “That’s not what we usually tell each other.”
They speak in short-story form, complete with the dramatic hooks and concrete details I beg my college writers to provide. “On November 20 at midnight, my family and I are setting out in a 12-passenger van for Seattle.”
“Every December we get out the box of decorations, and when we take off the lid, it smells like Christmas.”
“My dad visited Java, and they fed him a meal, and he threw up.”
My scheduled 20 minutes stretches to more than an hour. As I gaze out at the sea of hands, I imagine this is what it feels like to be a sports idol or rock star.
“Are you going to write about your visit to this class?” one kid inquires. I laugh, but why not? These kids embody the new multicultural story. My job is to show up and confirm that their narratives are part of the collective memoir we are writing.
As I inch toward the door, they rush toward me with autograph requests. I leave the class with their stories in my head, and they with my name scrawled on their notebooks. One boy asks me to sign his sneaker. Later, I smile as I think about a white kid from Northern California, strutting around with my Nigerian-Nordic-American name on his shoe.
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