Johns Hopkins Gazette: September 30, 1996 Form

Lessons Learned In
And Out Of Class

A Gazette series offering a first-person account of the freshman experience.

Stacey Patton
Editorial Intern

I arrived 10 minutes early for my first 20th-Century African American Literature class. While waiting I envisioned that there would be only a handful of students and they would be mostly black. The professor would be some distinguished-looking black man with white hair and a matching beard.

To my surprise over 40 students showed up for the class and most of them were white. As we all took our seats, the professor, a young white female, made her way down the aisle. Immediately questions began to play on my mind. What could this white woman teach me about black literature? Was this another institutionalized design to keep black students from learning the true essence of their history and culture? As we all got acquainted for the next two hours I realized that this was not the case.

I was struck by this white woman's ability to understand a perspective and culture so different from her own. She did not seem intimidated by the subject nor did she conduct herself in an ignorant fashion. So from that point on I began to see her not as a white woman teaching black literature but as an academic traveling down the same path with her students who were trying to educate themselves.

The tone of the class discussion changed as she asked more sensitive questions. Are African Americans of today the same as African Americans of the past? Do African Americans of today carry some of the same burdens of African Americans of the past? She asked many questions along those lines so that we could wrestle with different issues and feelings.

There were many responses to her questions that were all centered around the same social, economic and political issues. As I sat and listened to many of the responses a thought struck me, so I raised my hand to speak. I made the point that American history has been proved guilty of slavery, racism, lynching, discrimination, Jim Crow and a whole range of other ills. However, one's history and one's past are two separate things.

My past has not been filled with what my ancestors had to endure; therefore, I cannot claim their past. My past was yesterday and 17 years ago when I was seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting and smelling life. When human beings claim pasts filled with so much heavy baggage (for the sake of identity or belonging to a group) we become stunted. In some cases it causes us to reach into the sack and pull out excuses for our own shortcomings or a reason to place blame. I clearly stated to the class that African Americans need to accept the past, come to terms with it and move on. We must not cling to the baggage of history.

Suddenly, almost every brown-skinned hand flung into the air. One female stated that I should never forget history because it has a funny way of repeating itself. Another student emphasized the importance of keeping remnants of history alive by storing them in the back of my head. But I never said that we should forget history, we should learn from it. However, we should not claim it and let it shape the way we look at ourselves, people who are different from ourselves and the world at large.

It seemed that the majority of those students who raised their hands disagreed with me. However, I am an individual, not a spokeswoman for an entire race of people. My experiences in the world and within the walls of the Hopkins campus are my individual experiences not the experiences of black people in America or black students at Hopkins.

The following Wednesday evening I sat in the D-level of the Eisenhower Library for the first time. I opened my notebooks and took out my course packet for Women's Studies and Feminist Theories. I read an article by Barbara Fields titled "Ideology and Race in American History." After reading that article I had to search deep within myself and come to a realization about RACE and its role in my life here at Hopkins and outside the community.

From the reading I learned that RACE is an ideology that was created back in the days of the slave trade. We cannot deny that black and white people are physically different just as males and females are physically different. However, human beings have what is called a race reflex. If I see a white person I may have the reflex of thinking about history behind that person's face. To a black person the history behind a white face may be associated with slavemaster, racist, supremacist, KKK, etc. For a white person the history behind a black face may be associated with slave, inferiority, dirty, criminal, lazy, welfare recipient, etc.

What we must do is control this race reflex so that we don't let it associate a history to an individual. If my eyes meet a white or black person my reflex should just see a physical biological appearance, not a history that causes me to hate, and build barriers, assumptions, stereotypes, prejudices and racist ideologies. We can create a different kind of history that would be based on a conversation, a make-shift dinner or a simple hello.

In just one hour of sitting in the D-level I was able to understand a social aspect of history and an undeniable prevalent issue of today. It changed the way that I will look at white people, black people, all other people along the color spectrum and myself. The surprising thing is that I never expected to learn this in a Women's Studies course. I came to realize that women's studies has to do with race and a whole range of other social issues.

When I walk across the campus or enter a cafeteria here at Johns Hopkins I notice that people tend to stick with their own kind. This is a familiar scene to me because I noticed it at my boarding school in New Jersey. Asians sit with Asians, blacks sit with blacks, and there are about 10 or 20 rows of whites sitting with whites. I ask, Why? Is this a natural thing that just happens? Or are we afraid of reaching outside or beyond racial boundaries to discover or learn about something that may seem foreign or different from us.

I know that I have only been at Hopkins for three weeks. I have not had any racial slurs thrown at me, swastikas painted on my door or experienced discrimination by professors or other members of the community. However, this is my experience and what I have seen so far. An experience is important and beneficial when we are able to learn from it and understand it.

Last Thursday I returned to my 20th-Century African American Literature class of about 25 students. I sat midway in the circle of students. The black students sat on one side and the white students sat on the other side facing each other. I didn't utter a word for the sake of avoiding flinging hands. I shook my head and thought to myself, "We have to get past this so-called natural tendency." We have such a diverse mix of people on our plate here at Hopkins. It is essential that we take all the ingredients and blend them together to learn from each other. That is what education is about.

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