By Judah Clayton
Every single year, ever since elementary school, the same thing has broken my heart. For a time every year, usually in February, I’m faced with the same message. Never is it one of hope, of overcoming adversity, or of the resilience of Black people in America. Instead, it is of oppression, of fear and suffering, and of the suffering of Black people. Slavery, that ugly beast, rears its head once more this semester.
I’m taking a class, and the pieces of literature we’re discussing center around narratives of slavery. Dealing with slave narratives is tough enough when you’re Black. The way that people -- human beings -- were treated not two hundred years ago persists to this day, permeating mainstream culture in sinister and subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways that we must deal with nonstop. The way that classmates and professors talk about slavery can also be a detriment to our mental health. The narrative is never about the strength of Black people, or the intensity and determination of the black spirit. It is never about what we have overcome, and how we’ve overcome it. It always goes back to being enslaved. Unless we are specifically taking a class about it, we never learn about Black abolitionists’ free lives. Once they become free, they are relegated to the background of our education. The only notable papers and arguments we read are the graphic ones, books detailing the violent and atrocious pasts that they’ve taken the time and energy to share with us.
To make matters worse, this past year I have heard students say some out-of-pocket stuff about Black people who were enslaved. I heard someone call Frederick Douglass vain and a lunatic because he had several portraits produced of himself. I was shocked that she had just…said that and received no repercussions for saying so. I guess she was allowed to, freedom of speech and all of that, but it still surprises me that people feel comfortable enough to say stuff like that out in the open. I haven’t seen her in class recently, so I guess she dropped it.
I didn’t think I would get so upset at all of this, but it makes sense that I do. The compounding of the horrific history that feels so personal and the ignorant things I hear from classmates weighs down on me, and sometimes it makes it hard for me to want to go to my class. That’s why I want to talk about this. I want to let others who feel the same way know that they aren’t weak, and that they aren’t alone. I also want to talk about some of the things I do to combat the feelings that arise when something goes wrong in a class that discusses slavery.
You’re always allowed to disengage! One of the most important things to remember is that there is no shame in taking a break. Disconnecting from potentially damaging discussions and concepts is something that you might have to do to protect yourself, especially if people expect your input as a Black person in the discussion. If a discussion like this happens in class, I like to ask to go to the bathroom and take some time for myself, or I’ll zone out for a few seconds and passively participate in the discussion. Taking time for yourself while still being engaged enough to understand what's going on is a tricky balance to maintain, and it might take a few tries to get right. However, if you’re in classes that repeatedly have this sort of discussion and you find them upsetting, you might want to spend some time figuring out a balance between engaging and disengaging in harmful discussions.
Talk to your friends! Something I like to do is talk to someone about how I’m feeling. I get really frustrated in class units that center around racism or slavery because someone always says something that I find suspect, and I feel like I can’t say anything in response. I feel like I’m on the defense, and the thing that I am defending is my own history. Of course, if you feel like you can speak out about something that someone says, do it! I personally don’t, because I don’t feel like I’m the best educator nor is it my job to tell everyone why something they say is insensitive. I talk to my friends outside of the class for a fresh perspective. In the case of what someone in my class said about Frederick Douglass, my friends assured me that I had a right to be upset and that the comments were completely out of pocket and disrespectful. Having someone there to validate your feelings can be really affirming and can really help you process why you don’t like something that’s happening in a class.
Self-care after the class is so important. Maintaining a good work/life balance, being attentive to your hygiene, and keeping on top of your mental health are all things that will help you manage your emotions in a class. Think of these as preemptive measures. Of course, not everyone will have the same self-care routine. I’m not really one for the hours-long hair routines and full facials, but if that’s your thing, that’s fantastic! If going to the gym and punching and sweating it out is how you relax, that’s great. If you much prefer to take a walk, read a book, or go out with friends, do those things. The better you take care of yourself in non-stressful situations, the more prepared you will be to handle the stressful stuff.
You can talk to the professor. This isn’t for everyone, and it most certainly won’t work for every professor. I feel like most professors I’ve had have been approachable, and I don’t have any problems telling them that something is making me uncomfortable. Sometimes, professors have even approached me if they thought I was affected by something. Of course, you don’t have to snitch if you feel like you’re snitching, and there’s no guarantee that the professor can or will do anything about something that puts you off. But sometimes, making the professor aware of it can, at the very least, make you feel better. It goes back to point two: talking about it with someone. Just getting it off your chest can be enough.
Remember that it is not your job to educate everybody. There are those among us who can take a deep breath, and say “This is wrong, and here’s why.” But not all of us are those people. Even though you may feel the pressure to, you are absolutely not obligated to educate anyone in or outside of your class. That is work. It is emotional labor that you aren’t getting paid for, and it can be especially hard when the person you’re trying to help gets defensive and won’t try to understand that what they said wasn’t the move. You’re a student. Your job right now is to get a good education and to try and make the world a better place after you graduate. For now, it’s okay to not engage.
Well, that’s my list! These are all the things I keep in mind when dealing with topics like slavery, oppression, and Jim Crow in the middle of my classes. Has anyone else had encounters like this in their classes? What do you guys do to take care of yourself when something angers or upsets you in scenarios like this?