Image credit: Notes of a Native Son by Dr. Fahamu Pecou (2020), Acrylic on Canvas.
“Are you sure?”
It is a question, in some form or another, that white students educated in white supremacy frequently ask me as a Black, open, and out gay professor. The question usually follows some critique, some unraveling of the logic of white supremacy in the courses I teach at Bates, a selective liberal arts college. One of those courses is about Hollywood cinema, “White Redemption: Cinema and the Co-Optation of African American History,” a collection of white films that I teach from a Black perspective, and that asks students to see classic American cinema from the silent era to the end of the twentieth century differently.
The inspiration for the course was Michael Rogin’s mind-blowing observation about the revolutionary use of synchronized sound in the film The Jazz Singer (1929). In his 1992 essay “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice,” Rogin wrote that “Each transformative moment in the history of American film has founded itself on the surplus symbolic value of blacks, the power to make African Americans stand for something besides themselves.”
In evaluations students frequently describe this course as “transformational.” Yet, those transformations are difficult ones. It takes a lot of labor, emotional and intellectual, to get students to question assumptions they make about the innocence of American cinema when it comes to race.
I believe that “Are You Sure?” questions—ones in which white students exhibit a disturbing lack of confidence in my intellectual authority—erupt in the “White Redemption” class for two reasons. One is that the so-called Lost Cause—the view that an innocent, idyllic South was the victim of northern aggression in America’s Civil War—is a prevalent theme in American history and cinema. In this false version of history, slavery and the subordination of Black people had little to do with the Civil War according to the Lost Cause narrative.
The second reason is related to this larger myth, and adds complexity to its survival. Lost Cause cinematic narratives are intergenerational bonding experiences and exemplify the fact that white supremacy is learned in a context of love. Many white students, and occasionally some students of color, report histories of bonding with grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles by watching 1930s films like Gone With the Wind (1939), or Shirley Temple vehicles created primarily for children. Even more recent films, especially ones about interracial friendship, are often steeped in nostalgia for Lost Cause narratives.
We see this Lost Cause nostalgia often in “magical negro” and “white savior” films. For instance, in Robert Redford’s notorious The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) a “magical” Black caddie (played by Will Smith) restores the playing ability of an alcoholic Southern white, former golf champion (played by Matt Damon). The caddie, grateful for the camaraderie of the golf pro, asks as payment for his job “five dollars guaranteed” and a pair of the champion’s worn golf shoes.
Thus, asking white students to see these films, with their docile, loyal Black servants, as vehicles for white supremacy can be an unsettling experience. For example, thinking about the possibility that the pairing of Temple, a white female child star, with the adult African American Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in the famous staircase dance in The Little Colonel (1935), had sexual undertones can be a stretch for my students.
Think about it: this scene featured the first interracial dance couple in Hollywood cinema. As the brilliant critic James Snead astutely noted in White Screens, Black Images (1994), the dance occurs because Temple is reluctant to go to bed. Robinson initiates the dance with a question: “Would you go upstairs to bed, if I showed you a new way?” Snead encourages us to grapple with an even more difficult question: “What does it mean that American cinema’s first interracial dance sequence is about a Black male dancing to get a white female to bed?”
“Are you sure?” white students ask when I point this out.
Yes, I’m sure. But it takes a lot to get contemporary white students to understand the depth, commitment, and practice of American racial segregation. This transformation is a necessary first step for them to see, not only how radical this interracial pas de deux was, but more importantly, how it might lead them to question white innocence—in the movie and in their own lives.
But telling students I am right isn’t a way to teach them. I answer, “Are you sure?” with more questions: Why are you invested in innocence? Why are you unwilling to imagine Temple as a vehicle for unspeakable white desires? What does this say about the white, and mostly male, creators of American cinema?
Of course, what I want is for them to learn to ask these questions themselves. Of course, Temple is a child, I tell students, but as bell hooks observed in Black Looks (1992), she is also a source for America’s “white female in charge” archetype, in which white female performers get an added spice when they appropriate and commodify Black culture. So I ask my students “How can one simultaneously be innocent, yet fully in charge as Temple’s characters always are in her films?” My pedagogical task in a situation such as this is to encourage students to recognize how devious, yet seductive, white supremacy can be when it erroneously conflates innocence with wisdom.
Responding to, and answering, the question “Are you sure?” can be emotionally taxing and precarious: white students can be quite resistant to having their ideas about white supremacy exposed and challenged, particularly when those ideas were delivered through cherished artifacts of their own childhood. And white students can strike back in surprising and unexpected ways when their white supremacist ideas are exposed by a Black professor.
I encountered this retaliation most concretely early in my career. During a discussion of the violence white men committed against enslaved Black women, a white male student asked his version of “are you sure”— “Why would a master abuse his property?” I am not sure how innocent the question itself was, but I took it seriously and assigned the class a few short readings that addressed sexual and physical violence against enslaved women. But I assumed incorrectly that this student, and others in the class, would be thankful for my resourcefulness and expansion of their knowledge. Instead, the student publicly accused me of shaming him, and several students mentioned this episode in their evaluations as an example of the “unsafe” environment in my classroom.
I recall this incident because it demonstrates how white students can weaponize their supposed “innocence” against a faculty member of color. When white students weaponize their own innocence, it derails a faculty member of color’s intentions to provide the best education possible by insisting on a pedagogy grounded in the scholarship. Faculty of color teaching against white supremacy open themselves to be hurt not only in the classroom, but also in their career, especially if they are untenured or contingently employed.
“Are you sure?” questions can also be a challenge to the classroom climate because, even in a classroom dominated by white students, they reveal cleavages and unspoken issues in a diverse multi-racial, multi-ethnic, classroom with students of different religious and class backgrounds. One semester, when we were discussing the use of African American spirituals and freedom songs in Lost Cause movies, I pointed out the irony of enslaved African American men singing the spiritual “Go Down Moses” as they prepared to dig trenches for the Confederate army in Gone With the Wind.
It’s an important place to pause in the movie. “Go Down, Moses” discusses the desire for freedom, a common theme in spirituals. Enslaved Black people sometimes associated it with the Underground Railroad, or with Harriet Tubman who, because of her role in freeing Black people, was nicknamed Moses. Gone With the Wind co-opts the meaning of this freedom song and depicts Black men as happily committed to digging trenches to protect Confederate soldiers and halt the Union advance on southern soil—one that would free them, if successful.
A white student raised his hand to ask me a mystifying question: “Are you sure ‘Go Down Moses’ is an African American spiritual?” he asked. “Isn’t this a case of Black people stealing Jewish culture?”
Years of teaching have taught me to pause, take a breath, and turn such a question back around to the student. In a case such as this one, I ask students to amplify and provide more information. The student informed me that he knew “Go Down Moses” was a Jewish song because he grew up singing it in annual Passover seders around his family’s dinner table.
This was good information to have. It interrupted an assumption I had made that perhaps the student was suggesting that African Americans had misappropriated a Jewish story from the Old Testament and were guilty of cultural theft. Instead, allowing the student space to provide more information allowed him to self-identify to the class as Jewish, an identity that was important to him, but probably went unseen by many.
Giving him this space also allowed me to realize that he was referring to a historical experience more recent than the Civil War, or Gone with the Wind, that was unknown to him: the experience of Jewish rabbis and congregants whose participation in the civil rights movement had been so life-changing that they incorporated African American cultural expressions such as “Go Down Moses” into their own religious services. The incident this student described was one of a cultural transfer among people who realized that they had intersecting histories.
But then something else happened in this class that completely surprised me. This discussion of “Go Down Moses” exposed the anti-Blackness that students of color routinely experience in the classroom and that some professors fail to deal with. After I took the time to do a quick Google search on “Go Down Moses” in the classroom to affirm that it was indeed an African American spiritual, and to find references to the experiences of Jewish participants in the civil rights movement, African American and other students of color burst into applause!
What had happened?
After talking to some of the students of color, I discovered they were applauding my willingness to interrupt the flow of the lecture to educate their white classmates about white supremacy. They told me that frequently, professors will let a remark that follows a student’s “Are you sure?” question pass. Worse, they might even affirm the student’s comment with a remark like “That’s a good question, and maybe this is a case of Black people borrowing Jewish culture.”
What is worse, though, the students told me, was that white professors might turn to students of color in the class and ask them “What do you think?” They expressed anger that white faculty often call on them to address and explain these anti-Black statements and inquiries from their fellow students. So, students of color applauded because they saw me doing my job as the professor, and not turning to them to do this labor, sometimes humiliating work that does not benefit their education.
In other words, the students of color applauded because they were allowed, in that moment, to just be students.
I often think that teaching is both a science and an art. Good pedagogy has a series of best practices that can be codified so that the transfer of information from professor to student occurs with professionalism and efficiency. However, teaching while Black helps us understand that there is also a significant part of pedagogy that cannot be so easily codified.
In the context of white supremacy, teaching while Black defies easy solutions when students, whether innocently or with malice, question a Black professor’s knowledge and their reasons for sharing it.
“Are you sure?” they will ask. It’s a maddening question—but one that requires patience, thoughtfulness, and a practice of self-care as I prepare, once more, to engage white supremacy in my own classroom.
Charles I. Nero is Benjamin E. Mays ’20 Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies and Africana Studies at Bates College.