On self-interrogation and paying attention

by James McCorkle ’76, P’20
Assistant Professor of Africana Studies

It is always a surprise how few students have read a narrative by a once enslaved person — though to be honest, I never had to read the work of Harriet Jacobs or Frederick Douglass or Henry Bibb when I was a college student (at HWS) or in graduate school.

If we begin with that small observation, the absence of historical voices, we find that our understanding — and “our” is a large heterogeneous collective, but most particularly white — of slavery, Jim Crow, the global reach of colonialism as an extractive process mining both materials and humans, and the international structures of segregation/apartheid is at best minimal. When we consider that across Seneca Lake from the Colleges sits Rose Hill Mansion, and that it once held enslaved Africans, or that, as reported in 2017 in the Boston Globe, that the total assets on average of black Bostonians is $8 compared to $247,000 [on average for white Bostonians], we need — should be ethically and imaginatively compelled — to connect these representative conditions. The more we put off trying to find the language and tell the stories, the more difficult it becomes.

The similarities of U.S. segregation and South African apartheid are profound and critically revealed when reading works from each country. How physical space, economic and social space, and cultural space are racialized through the periods of slavery, segregation, and apartheid is reflected in the cities we walk in at the present moment as well as the campuses we teach and study in. Reading work by Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), Sindiwe Magona (Mother to Mother), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), A.J. Christopher (The Changing Atlas of Apartheid), Zakes Mda (Ways of Dying), or Claudia Rankine (Citizen) helps us practice paying attention, of becoming more attentive, and hopefully become more willing to honestly interrogate our language and memory and then to act with critical passion and empathy.

Early on in his Autobiography, Malcolm X described himself as being “brainwashed” as a young person in believing he was inferior to whites, and that ultimately he had to re-educate himself. Each of us has been peculiarly brainwashed — growing up in the South, as a white middle-class kid, I never thought nor was compelled to even reflect on, the ubiquitous presence of confederate flags, racial slurs, and names that bespoke of the antebellum era of slavery. Taking down confederate statues, for example, is a form of breaking apart that regime of brainwashing. The recent “Rhodes must fall” campaign in South Africa, which addressed the legacy of colonial roots of apartheid South Africa, parallels, imperfectly of course, the way we have memorialized our history and through that memorialization, what voices are heard and what values are instated. I hope that my seminar is a critical insurrection and a thoughtful interrogation of where we are. Reading and discussing Harriet Jacobs or Zakes Mda, for example, helps interrogate our received narratives and presumptions; how each of us continues, is our choice, but whatever that choice, it has become unsettled.