Once in a while, college teaching breaks out of the staid, authoritative lecturer/rapt audience model and assumes a raw ideal of rapid and spontaneous engagement between teacher and students. The engagement is live and open-ended and the information firing back and forth isn’t necessarily pleasant or encouraging or even obviously related to the topic of the class on that particular day. But it’s education for sure.
I recently presented a lecture at a local university that I thought straightforward and factual, though potentially controversial because it involved race. I’m teaching nonfiction writing and thought it would be useful to discuss the politics behind the first-person “I” narrator that frames so much nonfiction writing, especially memoir and personal essays.
We assume the use of “I” is a simple declaration of the self, the rock-solid point from which every story flows. “I” is also an affirmation of individualism that Americans hold so dear, and in that way a democratic institution in the literary world — I write, therefore I am equal to all other writers. But I wanted to show how the whole concept of “I” and the self-affirmation it’s meant to confer never applied to African-Americans.
For much of our history, the notion of an inviolate black self was not only absent in literature (and everywhere else), it was actually against the law. Law and custom prevented blacks from claiming authority over their own lives. The whole concept of an empowered, inherently worthy ‘I’ was therefore a joke at worst, fragmented at best. That legacy is still with us; for blacks, personal stories almost always have broader social meaning tied to a legacy of white supremacy that has told them in one way or another how they should see and interpret themselves. For nonfiction writing, getting out from under this “narrative oppression” is a rich and complicated subject.
While I hardly expected to resolve ancient racial problems, I assumed the conversation would be provocative and lively. It was that, but much more than that — it was hostile. This happened immediately. Ten minutes into the lecture white students chafed at the very notion of oppression and a vocal few wanted to shut down both the message, and the messenger. Several students took offense to this and subtly and not so subtly accused the doubters of racism.