Image credit: Don’t Think I’m Not (aka The King in I) by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2019), Acrylic on Canvas.
In 2007, three years after I’d been granted tenure at Macalester College, I made an unusual decision: I postponed my sabbatical and enrolled in William Mitchell College of Law.
Law schools routinely ask their students to engage with the world beyond their campus, and William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline College of Law), where I spent three years earning a JD, was no exception. As a result, I not only learned the law, I arrived at a theory and practice about how to have the classroom learning experience matter to my students back at Macalester. Now, not only do we study incarceration as one of the most critical ways the state engages with Black communities, we engage the carceral society in all its complexities.
Let me explain. In my third year of law school, I became a student attorney certified by the Minnesota State Supreme Court. This meant that I provided civil legal services and other assistance to inmates leaving the Women’s Correctional Facility in Shakopee, Minnesota, for women preparing to reenter society. This experience inspired me to develop several courses that involved students traveling with me to places where they would learn history in situ. Our discussions about the realities and limitations of rehabilitation were informed by my connections in the penal system and by my desire to teach students how to situate their learning beyond the classroom.
These courses were also very much in keeping with how American studies, as a field, has evolved as an engaged, activist field. For example, I designed the American studies seminar “Race and the Law” around visits to the Dakota County Jail and Lino Lakes Prison. There, students saw firsthand the difference between jail (typically for lesser offenses and shorter sentences) and prison (for more serious offenses and longer sentences).
Students expected to sympathize only with the incarcerated. Yet I pushed them to consider the perspectives of prison employees too, often also people of color. My students saw themselves in “Emily,” a young AmeriCorps VISTA worker at Dakota County Jail, who admitted she had tried to do everything she could to help all inmates at first but understood that she could only help a smaller number.
Learning outside of the classroom is not just about physically moving students beyond campus, or into places where they aspire to help others. It is also about teaching them to look for complex stories, and people, that have yet to be canonized in undergraduate curricula because of how history has been written. Sometimes those unheard stories present themselves unexpectedly. On August 9, 2014, I woke up to the news that Michael Brown had been killed in Ferguson, Missouri. I was slated to teach “Introduction to African American studies” and “Race and the Law” just three weeks later, and I was terrified to think of the anger, confusion, pain, and ignorance I might face at the start of the new semester. How would students be expected to respond critically to horrific events in real time if they lacked the critical context and analytical training to do so?
I hurt for Michael Brown, for his family, and for my students, but teaching was my job. Merging my legal training and my expertise in political science and American studies, I switched gears to create a course that introduced students to the long history of African Americans and the law. From learning about the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, which established that the Black man had no rights the white man was bound to respect, to twentieth-century sentencing discrepancies between crack and powder cocaine, students moved beyond media-driven narratives.
This course allowed me to continue my commitment to be a scholar and an activist, producing a book, written alongside Sue Bradford Edwards, about the Black Lives Matter movement. As importantly, it moved my focus as a scholar and a teacher back to the communities most directly impacted by racialized events like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Students who were not well-versed in race and policing can use my book to extrapolate Black historical and structural inequality without being overwhelmed with academic jargon.
Black faculty generally do not just teach Black students: like white faculty, we teach everyone who shows up. Thus my classroom is an opportunity for students with different perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, affinities, and biases to grow into a learning community. Being part of such a community serves them well once they leave college. And they need to know how to keep learning when I am no longer around to teach them. Beyond integrating legal components of my scholarship and teaching, I pass on law school’s final lesson to me: invest in, and commit to, your own education.
This isn’t easy: students arrive on campus, and particularly at selective colleges, mostly driven by tests and the desire to succeed on other people’s terms. Often, they perceive their most important thoughts as too personal to be significant in the classroom. To get students to “invest” in a text, I ask them to connect to it by writing an intellectual autobiography, keeping in mind that the term “intellectual” should have a flexible definition. How have significant experiences, challenges, events, and people influenced their own sense of racial identity? These questions have helped me connect my “Race and the Law” class to subsequent crises, such as the trial of Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd, as well as Texas banning four of my own books in November, 2021.
Why did I become a student again when I could have more easily turned my attention only to the research and writing that would have advanced my chosen academic career? The answer is simple: I felt it was time to apply my political and theoretical beliefs to action-oriented work that expanded rights, opportunities, and privileges for marginalized people, especially women and people of color. As a result, my teaching now combines the methods that ground my practice as a Black feminist scholar with crafting highly contextualized learning experiences for my students outside the classroom. That teaching has, in turn, driven my writing.
And the more my students see me grow, and change, the more they will learn how to meet the challenges of their century on their own.
Duchess Harris is a scholar of Black feminist politics and chair of American Studies at Macalester College.