I knew that this semester would be different. Unlike many universities that are going fully remote this fall, Boston College, where I teach, reopened with most classes meeting in person. I knew that the energy on campus would be different. But until I arrived in the enormous lecture room for the class I teach with my colleague Shawn McGuffey, I could not fathom how these differences would affect our teaching.
Standing in front of 70 first-year students wearing masks, I could barely make out their facial expressions. I hadn’t anticipated how hard it would be to hear them in the expanse of that room, or how attentive we had to be to the microphone so that they could hear us at all times. The masks muffled our voices, and I wrote a note reminding myself to bring different masks to test at the microphone before the next class. Having missed my students terribly since March, I had anticipated how difficult it would be not to hug them once I arrived on campus. What I did not anticipate was how inhumane it would feel to reject the hand of an eager student who rushed to the front to introduce herself.
Along with these challenges of returning to campus during a pandemic, I was deeply troubled about how to be present for my students in the face of Black and brown death.
For months, we have been hearing scholars, activists, and some politicians say that we are facing two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. The metaphor of racism as an insidious disease afflicting American society has never been lost on us as scholars of Black studies: We think often about what it means to live in a country with violence as its foundation. But for this class in the African and African Diaspora Studies program — “Where #BlackLivesMatter Meets #MeToo: Violence and Representation in the African Diaspora” — recent events like the shooting of Jacob Blake created another difference from the last time we taught the class, in 2018. When we first envisioned our class, we intended to teach students about how racial injustice and gender-based violence intersect, how sociologists have studied these topics, and how writers and artists have represented them. While the shootings of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes are far from new, we know from our experience in 2014, when classes began a few weeks after the killing of Michael Brown, that students are often deeply impacted by waves of protest. Young Black and brown people like my students are part of what Elizabeth Alexander calls the “Trayvon generation.” Few of them can recall a year without highly publicized killings of Black people by police that have been caught on video. But this semester we would have to include Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd in the litany of names we insist that students remember. And we know that students who choose to study Black Lives Matter in 2020 do so in the context of renewed energy around the movement.
So this semester, we began this class with a reading from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in which Baby Suggs preaches about the necessity for self-love in the face of violent anti-Blackness. Although “Beloved” is not on the syllabus (we will read Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye”), the passage felt appropriate and necessary. “They do not love your flesh,” she warns. “You got to love it,” she instructs. “Hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
I hadn’t anticipated how much that reading would offer us something to hold on to in the face of all of the differences this year. We wanted our students to know that despite physical distancing, despite masks, despite fewer in-person gatherings, we plan to bring our hearts to the classroom and invite them to do the same. Although many things will inevitably feel different this semester, why we teach — and why we teach this class in particular — remains the same. We want our students to imagine a world without sexual and racial violence and equip them to work toward it. In 2020, that work is even more urgent.
Régine Jean-Charles is an associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the African and African Diaspora Studies Program at Boston College. She is the author of “Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation.”