EssaysRaceRace/isms

Learning Baltimore

A student asked me whether I had arranged the Baltimore riots to take place now, at the end of our semester. The news out of Baltimore too perfectly illustrates so much of the history I teach. I suspect I am not alone in this odd feeling of validation — at once reassuring yet terrifying — that the patterns identified by historians are also incredibly important to activists. They may have never taken our classes. They live the experience that most historians merely describe in our research and teaching. “Sometimes,” Tom Sugrue declared recently, “I wish my scholarship wasn’t so relevant.”

The Baltimore uprising hit the national media on the same day that my class on California’s cultural history happened to be watching Anna Deavere Smith’s brilliant depiction of Los Angeles’s 1992 uprisings. Watching Smith enact multiple, non-binary perspectives on L.A. in ’92 led my students to talk about the multiple, non-binary perspectives they are hearing about Baltimore now, as if performance art from twenty years a go somehow anticipated their current daily lives. Echoes connect Baltimore in 2015 with Los Angeles in 1992, from the spark of police brutality to the oft-repeated question that completely misses the point, “why are those thugs destroying their own neighborhoods?” Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles 1992 is difficult to excerpt. Every year I wonder whether I should give it as much class time as it takes. But current events in Baltimore convinced me and my students that we need to spend more time understanding Los Angeles in 1992, or indeed Los Angeles in 1965. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King instructed my students, well before the quote circulated all over social media.

I was surprised that Baltimore had such an impact on my Californian students, partly because they often have their own personal experiences with police brutality, the expansion of the prison industry, the widening income gap, the pervasiveness of racism, and the segregation literally built into urban environments and credit systems. They do not need to look to the news out of Baltimore to know these things.

Even so, there seemed to be something revelatory for my students – something both inspiring and depressing to me — about texts like Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California:

This explains why so many of my neighbors back home in Bakersfield work as prison guards. I think half my town would have lost their homes if they hadn’t managed to get prison jobs.

This explains why my uncle was in prison in the 80s and has been unemployed ever since. We thought it was just him, and maybe it is partly individual, but this book shows that he is also part of a whole complicated system.

This explains why my dad lost his job in a shipyard in the 70s and couldn’t find another job without moving away from South Los Angeles. They told him to move to Twenty-Nine Palms, but he wouldn’t.

This explains the Irvine home-owner’s association meeting that I went to last night, that I never realized was racist. It was so odd, like they were just repeating Sunbelt rhetoric of the 70s…

I teach at California State University, Fullerton, which is located in the part of Orange County that does not often get featured in mass media. Many of my students are first-generation college students, many are immigrants, and most are Latino or Asian (sometimes both). Maybe that is why they paid so much attention to Baltimore’s uprising: they are not used to seeing their lives reflected in the news. Although only a small percentage of my students are black, the #blacklivesmatter activism is allowing them to name their own experiences and position them within a larger context. Sadly, I find it easier than ever for my students to recognize the significance and relevance of history.

Last semester, when it was Ferguson, not Baltimore, making daily headlines, I challenged students in my U.S. history survey course to reflect how history illuminates the events that unfolded after Michael Brown’s death. “Mrs. Lewinnek I feel horrible to say this,” one student wrote,

… but in all honesty I have not been keeping up with the news to know exactly what happened in the Michael Brown case. I relied on my older educated sister and with some research I was able to gather enough information to understand the case. I realize that I know a ‘Michael Brown’ and in that moment it struck me — the past definitely connects to the present. My brother passed away almost 5 years ago in a similar incident like Michael Brown and it aggravated me to know that once again, another police officer was getting away with murder. With that being said, I start off my paper with this particular quote [from Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech, 1852] , “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”

I had to pause before grading that, my green pen hovering over the “Mrs.,” tempted to tell her that most professors prefer “Professor” or “Dr.,” as if that mattered at all. This student did not know many conventions of academic essay-writing. But she wrote in her own voice. And she used the course materials to frame her own thinking about Ferguson, which, in turn caused me to appreciate — perhaps for the first time — exactly how radical Frederick Douglass’s words are.

I have taught Douglass’s speech many times. This student made me hear it afresh, just as my current students’ personal connections made me truly see the power of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s work on prisons. Sometimes I wonder what I have to teach them.

For Twilight, Los Angeles 1992, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 300 people, then enacted cleverly-juxtaposed snippets from those interviews, transforming herself into people of varying races, genders, ages, and politics by continually altering her own accent, movements, small props, and posture. My students marvel at how vividly she portrays so many characters, then debate whether this acting is racist, arrogantly taking the power of narration away from her subjects, or actually admirably calling viewers’ attention to their subtle embodiment and shared humanity. Human-ness is a theme in many of Smith’s interviews. The play ends with Smith portraying the activist Twilight Bey, describing twilight as a liminal time of transition and opportunity, while declaring, “In order to become fully human… I must understand more than me and mine.”

I hope that this academic year, my student from Bakersfield understands the student from South Central and the student from Irvine better than before. Ferguson and Baltimore have taught them “more than me and mine,” beginning with the recognition that their personal stories fit into a larger story.

The student who jokingly asked me whether I had arranged for the Baltimore protests in order to give my class more power also told another joke recently in class. Ten years ago, Josue immigrated from El Salvador, partly because he decided it was easier to be a gay man here. Two years ago, when he finished community college in California, he ordered the overpriced graduation robes, paying something like $78 for a flimsy piece of black fabric that, he noticed, bore a little tag inside saying, “Made in El Salvador.” Josue found this hilarious, because he knew, really knew from having lived there, that the workers in El Salvador probably received only a few dollars for making that robe. He considered whether he should have stayed in El Salvador, saved his money, avoided the whole difficult journey north, and simply bought a graduation robe from some Salvadoran maquiladora. He was pretty sure that, if he were still in El Salvador, he could have found a better quality robe than the one supplied by his community college in California.

I can’t stop thinking about the imagery of the “made in El Salvador” graduation robe for my Salvadoran student. What can I teach Josue about transnationalism or neoliberalism or the uprisings in Baltimore now or Los Angeles in 1992? He already knows it because he has lived it, in a way that makes me reconsider my own words about it. Josue does not need our academic robes: he could find them on his own, at home.

But he might need our academic words, naming his experiences. He might need our scholarship to help him discover how his stories connect with others’ stories and to structures, trends, movements, history.

Josue is about to earn his B.A. He has not yet received his new graduation robes to discover if they too are made in El Salvador. He thinks he might want to continue on to graduate school. He thinks he has something more to learn, and he probably does, even as it is he who teaches me anew just how relevant this scholarship is and how tragic, too.

Also for you:

Elaine Lewinnek

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