“The sigh is a pathway to breath; it allows breathing. That’s just self-preservation. No one fabricates that. You sit down, you sigh. You stand up, you sigh. The sighing is a worrying exhale of an ache. You wouldn’t call it an illness; still it is not the iteration of a free being. What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?”
–Claudia Rankine, Citizen
As I reflect back on the fall semester, which has already lost some of its sharpness in my memory, I find myself punctuating so many of my thoughts with deep sighs. I think back to the article I wrote about lynching in the American West and the public lecture I gave about James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates—those thoughts are punctuated with sighs of satisfaction tinged with exhaustion as much mental as physical. I also return to a few particularly heartening moments: the student who began a comment in class with the words, “well, as bell hooks would say…” followed by what bell hooks would say…the book club meeting when a student quite pointedly remarked that so much in her political theory class would have been clarified had they read the Charles Mill book we were discussing…the song a student wrote about weeks one through four of Introduction to African American Studies (and attached to a shy “if you have time…” email) with the Du Bois-Crabtree shoutout, “Crabtree says I may be double conscious.” But my thoughts settle the longest on a few heartwrenching moments I had in the classroom, and ruminating over those moments draws out the deepest of sighs, sighs that curl out of corners of my guts darkened by the shadows of too much to despair over in 2016. I think about all of the carefully prepared notes I penned on yellow legal pads that detailed which passages from which assigned reading I would use to shape discussions of texts with my students, and I start to count how many sets of notes I had to scrap or modify so we could collectively pause long enough to remember the lives of Terrence Crutcher, Tyre King, Keith Lamont Scott, Walter Scott, and others. Three, or was it four, or five?
In place of those discussions, we read poetry—Elizabeth Alexander’s “Smile,” Kamilah Aisha Moon’s “Perfect Form,” Langston Hughes’s “I, Too”—and studied paintings by Emma Amos and installations by Kara Walker, for, in my experience, art has a remarkable capacity to unlock what we otherwise can’t quite express. At its best, art leaves a residue on one’s consciousness and even on one’s face—a furrowed brow, a stunned look of realization, the awestruck expression that comes with a glimpse of the sublime, a devastating shudder, a mischievous smile—and that residue remains, clings to us most stubbornly, when the artist succeeds in illuminating something of human existence we may have seen before but not really understood. From years of writing about representations of lynching and, more recently, from reading Teju Cole’s “Death in a Browser Tab,” I knew better than to replay images of death for my students. I have no interest in joining ranks with CNN and feeding into the media’s sick fascination with turning violence against black bodies into a spectacle to be consumed on loop. Through art, through disentangling the difference between “obsequious” and “safe” as we did when we discussed Alexander’s “Smile,” the rawness of these deaths that touched too many of my students too close to home unleashed, for some, tears, for others, stories of sisters and brothers and cousins and friends whose experiences rhymed too closely with those of the deceased.
My students find few spaces on campus for these conversations, though I know such spaces exist, but I also know that having this discussion in a classroom during a class led by a professor—in place of, but also alongside, the material on the syllabus—mattered. The discussion provided recognition of these experiences, and although recognition remains important, recognition alone, especially if that recognition only occurs in small, marginal pockets of an institution, is insufficient. For, even though all of the students who take Introduction to African American Studies with me come away knowing how to distinguish between the “mere inclusion” of the African American experience and the transformation of master narratives (my everlasting gratitude to the inimitable Nathan Huggins for writing “The Deforming Mirror of Truth”), an institution can render courses and whole academic programs mere tokens when it fails to distinguish between the two. And the space in between is a space no sigh can breach.
The moment from the fall that I return to with the most frequency, however, is from three days after the election. The morning after, I didn’t know what to say to my students, but some wise words from a colleague at Brandeis, Chad Williams, provided the clarity I needed. Just before class started that Friday, I wrote a paraphrased version of his thoughts on the board: “We are on the verge of a Second Redemption. Beware of what you concede in the name of peace and reconciliation.” Placing the election in the broader context of the 150 years since the end of the Civil War, I retraced the political compromises and calls for (white) unity that led to Reconstruction’s demise, and I asked whether the rhetoric of the Confederate “Redeemers”—they were trying to “redeem” the Old South after emancipation and military defeat with terror and death—had a familiar ring in our times. Redemption slashed through that brief experiment in democracy, cutting the path that led directly to Jim Crow: lynching, disenfranchisement, segregation, chain gangs, the indignities of sidewalk etiquette and back doors, and the rest. All the rest.
After a long silence, a student asked, with an earnestness that both tore me up inside and made me feel the full weight of my limitations as a scholar, “What can we do?” The question came from a place so genuine that I faltered because I could hear in her voice the urgency with which she needed an answer. But how could I answer such a question when I had been struggling with the very same feelings of stunned confusion and something between grief and disgust for days? Not that I ever understand my role as a professor to be the source of “the answers”—I ask questions, challenge assumptions, draw connections between texts, shape discussions by fleshing out broader scholarly debates, clarify complex ideas, and help students hone arguments—but I found, as she and the rest of the class patiently waited for my reply and looked to me for clarity and guidance, that I was about to provide a disappointing answer. After a long pause, I looked up at her and told her, “That is a very difficult question to answer. I don’t know. I don’t know…except that we must fight.”
In the weeks since that class, I finished teaching my three courses, organized a teach-in on the United States post-election with some other faculty, and continued to work on my book manuscript, all of which, I hope, constitute a “fight” of a certain kind. But, for self-preservation, renewal, and, most importantly, inspiration, I have returned to art. I have immersed myself in beauty, in Claudia Rankine, James Baldwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Toni Morrison, Paul Beatty, Billie Holiday, Akira Kurosawa, Kerry James Marshall, Teju Cole, Kara Walker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tanizaki Junichiro, Jesmyn Ward, and Marlon James. Artists like these don’t provide an escape or simple answers. (Teju Cole says that “[his] goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think,” and I am inclined to agree with his approach in novels, in teaching, and in life.) Artists provide a reprieve, though often a perplexing one, and maybe, just maybe, through the worlds they create, we can see a way forward in our own.
During this too-brief pause in teaching misleadingly referred to as “break,” I look back, but I also look forward. In the spring semester, I am offering a course, “Remembering and Forgetting: Race, Violence, and Memory in American History,” and I wonder, in this brave new political world—the Memory Studies scholar in me can’t help but ask, how “new” is “new” anyway?—, will the present let me catch my breath long enough to save me from revising my syllabus every couple weeks to accommodate new stories of racially motivated violence? As I teach “Mass Incarceration and Its Roots,” will I have to scrap my carefully crafted notes again and again as the criminalization of blackness grows unabated? Probably. I have already given up writing the epilogue to my book on lynching and memory until the rest of the manuscript has been completed because fresh bodies keep piling up and contemporary representations of lynching return too frequently for me to write cogently. My responsibility as a professor, however, cannot wait for the next iteration of my courses. I have preempted these probable disruptions with Rankine, Komunyakaa, Morrison, Beatty, Basho, Kurosawa, Cole, Walker, Ward, and others already scattered throughout my syllabi, but if my notes must be scrapped—and if the past has anything to tell us, then some will be scrapped—I may let out more deep sighs to open up “a pathway to breath” as Rankine says. And then, with airways freed of bad air, I will again turn to artists to sustain me and to sustain my students too.