Last semester I taught a course in African-American Expressive Culture at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Thirty-five students registered for the course; 33 stayed through the term. In all, we had nine African-Americans, three Latinos, two Japanese Americans, and a lot of the rest of us. I was pleased that a quarter of the students came from the culture we were studying. I wish it had been more, but nine was a good number.
Over the months, we read Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison. We listened to gospel music, jazz, the blues; we studied dance, basketball, hip hop, and barbershop quartets. Students shared herbal cures, recipes, folklore, and jump-rope rhymes. Most important, we read a book by Chester Himes titled "If He Hollers Let Him Go."
Students were alert the day we discussed Mr. Himes's quasi-autobiographical 1945 novel about race, power, and the rage of a college-educated shipyard worker in 1940s Los Angeles. I opened with a routine question along the lines of, "What is this book about?"
"Reality," said one African-American tensely, and others echoed his appraisal. "I haven't trusted white people since I was 7," one San Antonio native said. "I got hit by a car riding my bike to school. The guy who hit me said, 'That'll teach you to look where you're going.' My teacher drove by without stopping and asked me in class if that had been me she had seen lying on the street that morning."
Non-African-Americans were just as strongly affected. "I can't believe things were really this bad back then," one said, meaning she didn't want to believe it. A disgusted African-American student responded, "I can't believe you don't believe it. Things are still this bad." Another shook her head, bewildered: "Are black people really this angry?" To which the only possible response was: "How can we not be this angry?"
Yet this was not an angry discussion. "Relief" comes as close as any word to describing the emotion that dominated that day's talk. Relief at finally being able to talk about the elephant in the living room. Relief at getting the rage, disbelief, and frustration on both sides out in the open. Relief at discovering you could talk about it, there wouldn't be a riot, and when it was over, you could go have lunch together.
Anyone who has worked with small groups, anyone who has ever taught, knows that each group has its own personality. Some are boisterous from the beginning and have to be continuously roped in. Some are terminally dull and need to be prodded, cajoled, reprimanded into shape. Some never jell. The ones that do are special. They make you feel as if you belong to something. We call that something "community," and as the semester passed, this class became one.
Two students belonged to the Nation of Islam, mostly silent observers. It was when we studied Islam that these men came alive and spoke with conviction about separatism, as distinguished from segregation. By the end of class, one woman was in tears. "I had no idea people in this country felt this way," she said. Yet through this discussion of separatism and separation, our community grew.
The last day of class, we all brought food to share as we joined in a final group meeting. The assignment was to offer an idea, passage, or character we studied that semester that would stay with us after the class was over. Many students talked about a new sense of cultural identity, and how they had been inspired to learn more about their Irish, Japanese, or Jewish heritage. A white-haired, blue-eyed grandmother read aloud a powerful sermon from Zora Neale Hurston's "The Sanctified Church," because she found the language beautiful. One of the Muslims showed a tape of Malcolm X, and the other added a few words of qualification. "Don't get the wrong idea," he said quietly. "We don't distrust all white people. If what we're saying doesn't apply to you, ignore it."
One of the last to talk was a freshman, the best writer in our group of mostly juniors and seniors, but a quiet young man who had avoided speaking in class. His voice held some urgency, and a lot of intensity.
"What I'm going to remember is Chester Himes," he said. "That is the first book I've read that talks about how I feel." He paused and looked around the room. "There's no place for black rage in American culture. Everyone is afraid of it. Even the CDs in the stores have labels warning you not to buy them. Everywhere I go, what I feel is censored. This was the first time in my life that I was in a white institution and it was OK to speak the truth."
The day of the Million Man March, President Clinton gave a speech on race relations in Austin, on the campus of the University of Texas. Among other things, he said that if we Americans are to grow in community and nationhood, we need to continue the conversation on race. At the same university, there's a quotation carved in stone above the doors of the main building. It reads, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." The truth can make you free; it can also forge community, culture, and nation. We are not, any of us, free, unless is it OK for all of us to speak the truth.