University has been wonderful. One of the seminars that I am in is my new favourite place. We are an odd bunch and all the better for it: queer, multi-ethnic and working-class to name but a few. Our group chat is a melting pot of ideas, enhanced by the different areas of interest and life experiences that we bring to it.
It isn’t all good, though.
Our seminar is on a Wednesday. A recurring trend of the chat has been what I call “The Tuesday Dread Thread”. Below are a couple of screenshots from Tuesdays this term:
The module is about American postmodernism and one of the reasons that I chose to study it was because I had little prior knowledge about it. It sounded like it would be a challenge and this, from the booklet, really sold me:
After the culture wars in the American academy in the 1970s, in which students complained about American literature basically consisting of ‘five dead white men from New England,’ Donald Pease in 1990 formulated the concept of ‘New Americanists.’ Feminist, racial, theoretical, new historical, and class criticism apparently destroyed the consensus criticism of the ‘American Renaissance’ (Matthiessen) and the ‘American Adam’ (Lewis, Smith, and others), opening up the canon and manner of critique.
The blurb is excellent. I was baited and hooked. I liked the idea of considering controversial works and discussing how we respond to them in 2018. What has troubled me is that the texts that we have studied have been, at different turns, transphobic, homophobic and racist. That, in and of itself, is not a problem. The problem arises when the people leading the seminars do not address these things. The absence of criticism or even real recognition of bigotry can be seen as an indirect endorsement of it. Our “Tuesday Dread Thread” could have been dismissed as general angst or even a kind of liberal whining.
That is, until we were subjected to the Wooster Group and their performance, L.S.D: (Just the High Points…). Again, I think it sensible to defer to the group chat:
Two of the group left half way through. I left at the racist depiction of Mexicans. The majority of our group went to lunch afterwards to discuss the film and why we were so angry. One of the girls in the group made this point:
my friend martha has a saying about disability activism which is “nothing about us without us” and for the wooster group to be entirely white and to have blackface and for that to be shown to us by white academics is just vile imo
The Wooster Group had been described to us as avant-garde. I struggle to see what is new and experimental about racist depictions of minorities in the 1980s. Maybe their director had something intelligent to say that we as a group missed:
LeCompte (director): I was shocked. I had no idea putting on black makeup would make people call us racist. We were in the theater!
I was so upset when people said you can’t use blackface. I was hurt by that and driven to examine why that was. I found The Crucible, where Arthur Miller had written a black character. Well, if we can’t play a black character, why can a white writer write a black character? That was one of the driving forces behind L.S.D
Putting aside the verbal sleight of hand that LeCompte performs (the idea that playing a black character necessitates the use of black face), the idea that one of the driving forces behind the performance was using black face seems less avant-garde and more self-indulgent.
To be clear, in the correspondence that had been shared about the performance prior to its showing, the focus had been on its uniqueness and how wonderful it was, with nothing about how “problematic” – the verbal academic fig leaf du jour – it was. I am so used to having to laugh at my own abasement out of a sense of not upsetting the applecart. When you’re the only minority in the room and someone uses a stereotype to make a joke about your group, you are often left with two unpalatable options: 1. Laugh along so as not to be “problematic”, or 2. Interject and “spoil” the mood.
And this is where I adore my seminar group, this amazing collection of othered people. Because they went with hidden option 3: Make it clear that they ain’t having it.
They challenged the tutor, asking why texts that seemed to have homophobia, transphobia and racism at their core were deemed appropriate vehicles to discuss the topic of American postmodernism. I felt emboldened to speak up by their interjections and described how demoralising it was to see the depictions of black face with the history that particular art form has. To their credit, the tutor listened, apologised and went away to think about what had been said, which was as much as they could do in the moment. I respect that. When I was asked how I felt later by one of the group, I said this:
I think my overriding emotion is frustration. It shouldn’t [take] us having to point out the homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism and everything else that has been present in a lot of the texts we’ve studied for the lecturers to have a Damascene moment. The lack of awareness of how offensive the Sailor Jerry documentary and this week, for me, leave me questioning how aware the institution is of its responsibilities. Putting these texts on feels like a promotion of them, especially when we don’t start by addressing the offensive elephants in the room first, or, worse, an indirect promotion of the ‘values’ that they espouse. As far as I can see from the majority of texts we’ve looked at this year, postmodernism seems to revel in its ability to engage in bigotry of all kinds whilst using the fig leaf of ‘a higher level of thinking’ as a cover. The fact that The Wooster Group makes no defence or explanation of its work is lazy at best and very sinister at worst. It is the worst, absolute worst kind of ‘liberal intelligentsia’. Rant over
I’m one of the older people in my group, but I feel like the students I’m with are teaching me more than I can ever teach them. They are, whether they mean to or not, creating a new kind of normal, where any kind of bigotry will be called out, even if it means speaking directly to authority figures. For that, I, and the rest of us old people, should be extremely thankful.