By Amy Butcher
June 15, 2020
I have been teaching in the English Department at Ohio Wesleyan for six years, beginning primarily with course offerings that most immediately aligned with my education: creative writing workshops and literature seminars that focused primarily on short forms. When I first began to incorporate English 266: Women’s Literature into my teaching rotation in the Spring of 2017, I made a commitment to myself and my students to select and teach only works conceived and published within the past five years. It is not as though the years preceding are not rich and valuable in their own right; it’s simply that we live in a world where what it means to be a woman is constantly changing, and I wanted to feel as though I was preparing my students—most of whom, in this particular class, identify as women—with the landscape they would find and, indeed, were already finding in the realms outside our classroom.
During that first offering, however, I hesitated against an instinct to teach a unit on Black Lives Matter. It is not because I did not think the ongoing and systematic brutality against Black bodies was not overwhelmingly upending the lives of American women (and men, and children, and families), nor was it the case that I believed the movement born out of that violence was unworthy of prolonged study and examination; on the contrary, one would be wildly delusional to believe the disproportionate arrest, incarceration, and murder of Black men and women did not, indeed, argue a nationalistic belief that Black bodies did not, in fact, matter.
I did not teach the unit because I was scared. I must admit that. I hesitated because I feared complaints of politicizing the classroom and making students of opposing viewpoints feel ostracized and uncomfortable. I was an assistant professor not yet secured by the binds and safeties of tenure, and I worried that to teach a unit on the many ways in which Black bodies mattered and were being failed repeatedly—and at great consequence—by our institutions would be to cause an audience of mostly white Ohioans to speak out, condemn, complain, because the very language the movement embodies—Black lives matter—has been made a chess piece by the opposing party, a pawn of partisanship when in reality the movement is a basic call for humanity. There is an inherent power imbalance in the classroom, and I take my responsibility as an educator seriously; it has always been my policy to make my courses a welcome and open space for students of all beliefs, because I remember well the classes where my beliefs were not respected, and how egregious—how criminal—that felt.
But something changed between that spring and this spring, when I offered the course a second time. And it’s not that I had tenure. It’s that I finally realized that there was a difference between being considerate of those with opposing viewpoints and indulging those who held viewpoints grounded in the direct oppression of other people. There is a difference between respecting one’s political belief and beliefs that are blatantly racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist; these are not opinions worth preserving, because these are positions rooted in hate. I realized, and with great shame, that as a white, educated woman, I was preemptively protecting white fragility, which is in its own right a misuse of privilege. No longer would I allow myself to care more about the security of my position and the comfort of my white students than the safety and well-being of my students of color.
This sort of codling—this prioritizing of pain—is precisely what the resistance of the movement capitalizes on, insisting upon a false dichotomy that argues to discuss the many crimes we commit against Black bodies is to take a partisan, political stance, and it is exactly what I, too, fell for in designing my syllabus. We have to do a better job, and we have to do so despite fear of consequence. Black bodies are being profiled, abused, incarcerated, ignored, exploited, and murdered at alarming rates, and while I have never been one to align with our country’s dogmatic sense of patriotism—you will never catch an American flag about my porch—it seems to me the most American thing one can do to examine the fallacies and failings of our society, and subsequently work to illuminate—and remediate—them.
Our unit spanned six classes. It was woefully insufficient. I won’t pretend that six lectures allowed us to do each matter justice or unearth some great solution, but in the classroom, as most educators know, a single lecture or conversation can become ground zero for empathetic change and for the wheels of ignorance to turn. Over the span of six classes, we discussed the crimes perpetrated daily against Black bodies and the bodies of people of color; we read essays about the villainizing of Black anger, the minimizing of Black intelligence, the expectation that Black women be extroverted, loud, and always willing. We read essays about the exploitation of Black female bodies on dance floors, and at restaurants, and by white American popstars who hire a suite of dark-skinned women as backup dancers for music videos and flashy live performances in an exercise of contrast meant to highlight their own thin, white bodies and the power imbalance it implies.
We read a first-hand account by Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman sentenced to 20 years for firing a single warning shot at a ceiling when her abusive husband lunged forward, threatening to kill her and their newborn baby—this in the same state that exonerated George Zimmerman just several years prior in his killing of Trayvon Martin. We learned about the racist reality of “Stand Your Ground” laws and the “Castle Doctrine,” of which Ohio proudly takes part, and the way the exact same crimes, small and large, are punished unevenly based on the skin color of the defendant.
We read work by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who wrote about what it felt like to be pregnant and bleeding in a hospital lobby, trying despite her panic to sound responsible and educated, trying despite great fear to sound monogamous and committed—because she knew that to correctly demonstrate these characteristics would overtly affect the quality of her care—and we read about what it was to plead and worry about her baby until someone else worried about it, too, though by then it was too late.
And we listened—for over an hour—to Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, discuss what it has been like to lose her daughter to a police force that was reprimanded but never charged, to be told her daughter committed suicide in a space where such an act was impossible, to wait for four long years to witness bodycam footage of her arrest, and to be waiting, still, to receive the bag of personal items surrendered at the time of her intake. We listened to Geneva Reed-Veal weep, we listened to her pray, and then we listened to her call for action, discuss what it has been like to push for legislation meant to honor, memorialize, and protect the lives of Black American women.
Perhaps most importantly, we discussed the blind spots in our culture created by intersectionality, a term coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw that explains why we commonly know the names Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner and George Floyd, but not Erica Collins, Rekia Boyd, Michelle Cusseaux, or Mya Hall. Or why we do not know the names Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, of my hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Riah Milton of Liberty Township, Ohio, less than two hours away from where I’m now writing. These—two Black trans women who’ve been discovered murdered in the past 24 hours alone.
Black Lives Matter. So does Black love, Black grief, Black joy, Black art, Black communities, Black trauma. We need to be able to say this without hesitation, and we need to be able to teach this without fear of penalty. I regret that first semester. There are far greater concerns than my level of comfort in the classroom or any administrative hoops I might have to jump through to explain my pedagogical approach. There is great injustice in this country, great work still to be done, and it is a shared American peril when we politicize a movement that ultimately insists on equal rights, equal privileges, equal safety.
If indeed all lives matter, as the ignorant saying goes, then every American should be outraged.
This fall, I will teach the course again, and you can believe that in addition to donating to Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, and the Columbus Freedom Fund these past few weeks, I have been reading, annotating, and unceremoniously converting to PDF the many brilliant, breathtaking essays, infographics, and memes born from this revolution. The call for action has always been there, and the time has come for us all to hear it.
This fall, my syllabus is expanding. It will no longer be a unit, couched between other topics. It will be a part of our daily discussions, an integral cornerstone in our learning. I am eager for the fall, and I hope new students will enroll and join me.
Amy Butcher is an Associate Professor of English and award-winning essayist and author of the forthcoming Mothertrucker (Little A Books, 2022), which in July 2019 was acquired by Makeready Films for film development with Primetime Emmy-winning Jill Soloway directing and Academy and Golden Globe-winning actress Julianne Moore in a starring role. In February 2020, excerpts of Mothertrucker were awarded an Individual Excellence Award by the Ohio Arts Council, with judges calling the book "well researched," "very well-written," and "a positive antidote to the trauma of violence against women."