I, Too, Am a Southerner

by Eric M. Washington.
People walk past a bunch of flowers left in memorial on the ground as they take part in a "Black Lives Matter" march past Emanuel AME Church on June 20, 2015

People walk past a bunch of flowers left in memorial on the ground as they take part in a “Black Lives Matter” march past Emanuel AME Church on June 20, 2015 (Image source: Reuters)

I, too, am a Son of the South, but of a different sort than Dylann Roof, the accused murderer of nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to an op-ed published in The Chicago Tribune, one of Roof’s classmates stated that Roof “had that kind of Southern pride.” I, too, have Southern pride. I’m proud of my deep roots in southeast Louisiana. I have learned that my maternal grandmother’s family were slaves in Ascension Parish, Louisiana as far back as the 1830s. On my father’s side, my slave great-great grandparents migrated from Virginia after emancipation to settle in the bayous and cane fields of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. I’m proud of my Afro-Creole heritage. I will identify myself as a Louisianian quicker than I would an American. I, too, am a Southerner.

As an Afro-Creole Southerner, there are some things I distance myself from in the broader stream of Southern identity. I distance myself from the “fried-in-wool” racism that has pervaded Southern society historically. Though I hate Southern racism, and American racism for that matter, I have no inclination to destroy racists. My purpose is to help in their repentance through my vocation as a historian. This is the difference a Christian mind makes in this. Allegedly owing to his Southern pride, Dylann Roof decided to snuff out the lives of innocent people who welcomed him into their church. Christians. African-American Christians. Southerners, like him, but African-American Southerners; therefore, not like him. In his mind, he had to kill them. If we accept the story line that has emerged about what motivated Roof, he killed nine African Americans to uphold Southern pride. This is sinful pride. It is idolatry.

This horrific incident is just the latest in the history of violence against African Americans in the South. We historians of African Americans have long labeled such violence as terrorism.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners re-shaped their narrative of African Americans. During the days of antebellum slavery, pro-slavery apologists in the South exclaimed slavery’s moral good. It taught untutored Africans the virtues of hard work and industry, they claimed. With the advent of the plantation missions movement during the 1830s and 1840s, proponents of that movement asserted that slavery brought pagan Africans into the bosom of the Church. By becoming Christians, slaves would become better slaves, obeying their masters in all things.

artist depiction of buildings burning and lynchings

Memphis Riot, May 1866

With slavery’s end, unreconstructed Southerners began to sing another tune. The happy slave who labored hard while becoming more virtuous had become “idle and shiftless.” This prompted the passing of Black Codes throughout the South in order to control African-American labor. In my home state of Louisiana, St. Landry parish in the southern part of the state west of Baton Rouge, passed the following code in 1866: “Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner, who shall be held responsible for the conduct of said negro.” In another code passed the same year: “No negro shall sell, barter, or exchange any articles of merchandise or traffic within said parish without the special written permission of his employer, specifying the article of sale, barter or traffic.” This was just one way white Southerners dealt with newly freed African Americans. In May 1866, former Confederates went on a rampage in Memphis that culminated in the killing of forty-six African Americans. The white men who perpetrated the murders targeted Union soldiers. Not only did these men kill African American men, but, in at least one case, they raped an African American woman. Mrs. Lucy Tubbs testified to the House of Representatives that a group of white men burst into her house looking for her husband, who had left. Asked by one House representative if she had been raped, she said, “Yes, sir.” As one man raped her, others stole money.

Compare this testimony with what Roof is claimed to have said to the lone survivor of the massacre at Emanuel AME: that blacks were “taking over” and “have raped our women.” This statement rings familiar. White terrorist groups that sprouted during Reconstruction apologized for their existence, in part, to preserve the virtue of white Southern women. That language indicated the white Southern men desired to protect white Southern women from the perceived sexual deviance of African-American men. This was a pretext for white Southern terrorism. During the 1890s, renowned African-American journalist Ida B. Wells wrote that lynchings and other forms of terrorism in the South perpetrated against African Americans were to preserve white Southern economic dominance and political supremacy. According to Wells, out of the 1,115 African Americans lynched between 1892-1894, there were only 348 charges of rape. These charges of rape were dubious at best with no shred of evidence. According to the reports about Roof’s ideological motivations, it is clear that he accepted an Unreconstructed Southern view of Southern society, which included the use of violence to suppress African-American rights and upward mobility. Like those of the 1890s, Roof used the protection of white Southern women’s honor as motivation of his murderous actions, which is an unsubstantiated claim that objectifies both African-American men and white women.

I, too, am a Southerner. Yet a different kind of Southerner than Roof. In Roof’s mind, I cannot lay claim to being Southern. If Roof believed everyone born or reared in the South could claim Southern identity, then he would have never entered Emanuel AME Church on the evening of June 17. His conception of Southerness excludes over 21 million African Americans who call the South home. For Afro-Southerners, they will always refuse to identify with Southerners who persist in waving the Confederate Battle flag as a badge of “heritage.” Afro-Southern identity includes musical traditions like the Blues, and Jazz. Food like Greens and Black-eyed peas. Most importantly it includes a cherished Protestant faith, even Methodism. It will never, ever include hoisting the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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Princess Mononoke and History

by Jonathan Hielkema.

No. When you talk about plants, or an ecological system or forest, things are very easy if you decide that bad people ruined it. But that’s not what humans have been doing. It’s not bad people who are destroying forests.

–Hayao Miyazaki

Title art of Princess Mononoke film featuring girl on a white wolf and prince on an ox.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke follows a young native Japanese (Emishi) prince named Ashitaka. In the opening sequence, a dying boar demon curses him, leaving him exiled from his dwindling tribe and seeking the source of his affliction. He discovers that the demon was in fact a transformed boar god, shot by a bullet made in Iron Town, a new industrial city in the midst of Muromachi Japan run by Lady Eboshi.

Eboshi is a proto-bourgeois revolutionary who provides dignified labour for lepers and prostitutes while laying waste to nearby forests to feed the forges and waging a war of attrition against the nature gods guarding the trees. These gods––gigantic wolves and boars with the gift of speech––are joined by a human raised by wolves named San, AKA Princess Mononoke, who tries to assassinate Eboshi. By the end of the film, Eboshi’s town is wrecked but the nature gods are dead for good, lying in heaps of corpses or dissolving into the ether. Nature, the film implies, is now open season for exploitation by humans who no longer have anything to fear from forests.

All that said, what does this have to do with history?

For our final session in HIST 356 (US Social and Cultural History) this year, coincidentally my last-ever Calvin class period, Professor Du Mez asked us to participate in some intellectual show-and-tell. Our assignment: present a text that contained meaningful commentary on “Christian history.” I chose a different tack, presenting the film Princess Mononoke because it embodies my core historical commitments. Because it’s a film, and animated at that, it’s not a manual about the mechanics of writing history––I read plenty of those at Calvin––but it gave me an ethos.

Translated to sturdy English, Princess Mononoke taught me the emotions and ethics of my chosen discipline. And those two are rarely ever apart because emotions are always at the core of ethical motivations, for better and for worse.

Very well, but what kind of ethos does Princess Mononoke have to teach the eager history student? Luckily, Hayao Miyazaki himself, the director and writer of the film who also drew thousands of images for its animation, provides it in the epigraph at the top of this post. “It’s not bad people who are destroying forests.”

Lady Eboshi accompanied by armed soldiersWhat makes Princess Mononoke a great piece of historical fantasy is that it studies interlocking systems in motion without a transcendent moral reference point. Ashitaka, the forest gods, and Lady Eboshi act rationally according to their flawed perceptions, with their bodies being the pivot points of their motivations. Eboshi is motivated by saving lepers and prostitutes, but whole natural systems suffer immense pain and degradation because of her actions.

Ashitaka wants to heal a poison in his body, to purge the mark of death on his arm. The forest gods are likewise attempting to purge, in a suicidal last charge, the smoke-belching tumor eating away at their forest. Humanity under capitalism, with its unquenchable growth imperative and heedlessness about the health of the natural body it lives on, is animalkind gone cancerous.

But then again: Eboshi gives her people a better life. She is not a tyrant, neither duplicitous nor rapacious. She values life––but only human life, which she believes to be separate from nature. Princess Mononoke dramatizes the real struggles that drive history. I dare not say drive it forward, but the forces of class struggle, of gender struggle, and of struggle against depredation and land theft by indigenous movements are what is foundational. These are not moral struggles in the simple sense we see in Captain Planet. “Ordinary” people destroy forests all the time.

Ashitaka on his mount fleeing an angry demon.What is true in history is systems in motion, hungry systems that need energy to stop themselves from disintegrating into pure entropy, not to mention space to export all the waste and chaos they produce. And, at this moment in time, it’s capitalism in particular that lacks the parasitic smarts to not actively destroy its food source, literally and figuratively.

When I was writing my honor’s thesis on American-Iranian relations, this point came home to me more strongly than before. The Americans, Iranians, and Russians were not, individually, more or less moral than their antagonists. They were all members of state systems and an international system, all in ruts of their own making, predisposed to believing convenient illusions, or what Spinoza calls inadequate ideas.

But because of the specific structures in the world system, the way that benefits and suffering are distributed, the Iranian people suffered far more than anyone else. Their own bodily autonomy, their right to self-preservation as a nation, was compromised by invading Russian soldiers and well-paid diplomats just following the rules. Not by accident, of course, but not because of outright villainy either. To say that “evil” or “bad people” was responsible for destroying Iran’s democracy would be what theorist Robert Biel calls “bagging the mess,” drawing a line around what we don’t understand, labeling it “Here be Dragons.”

Princess Mononoke teaches that historical ethics start with, in Brian Massumi’s words, “the real monism of matter…one world, one nature…one unified field.” (A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1992). If historians’ words are to be the light of (partial) truth, and not the whispers of modern court magicians, we cannot pretend we have charmed spectacles that tell us Good from Evil. We need to be physicians, understanding that our patient, the totality of human society through time, is a body with its own dynamics that needs to be understood on its own terms. For my part, the broad and straight road to transcendent moral judgment is closed, leaving open only the winding and arduous work of investigation and often uneasy political judgments. Princess Mononoke teaches this viscerally by giving us characters so organic that they short-circuit simplified moral questions of Good and Evil and force us to ask: but what is good for nature and for humans?

Jonathan Hielkema graduated with honors in history in 2015.

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To Teach Is To Learn

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

This address was written for and presented at the Calvin College Teacher Commissioning Ceremony on May 22, 2015. You can watch the ceremony online; Bob Schoone-Jongen’s address begins at about 40:30.

President Le Roy at podium, Professor Bob Schoone-Jongen (seated), with seated audience.

Calvin College Teacher Commissioning Ceremony
May 22, 2015
(Photo via Calvin College Facebook stream.)

At the risk of jumping the gun a bit, let me address you as “fellow teachers.”

Consider this: Students tend to be most excited when the class ends. The only thing more exciting is the end of the day. Then they became positively giddy–down right exuberant. The bell rings, and like Pavlov’s dogs, the pack sprinted for the exits. And, over the panting and baying of the hounds, sounds the smack of the crash bars on the exterior doors. A beautiful sound those bars make–part muscle, part metal. But before you take a flying leap into those metal bars tonight, listen to me splutter a few of those panicky end of the period statements/thoughts/incoherencies you so often bellowed as the students stormed the doors.

You have a right to eye the exits tonight. It’s been at least seventeen years since you started kindergarten, and that’s a long time. 1998: there was a Clinton in the White House, an obscure lecturer named Obama at the University of Chicago Law School, the Tigers were more woeful than the Minnesota Twins, and the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers dominated the New York skyline.

Since then you have endured hundreds of classes taught by dozens of teachers. And either because of them, or in spite of them, you want to stand on the far side of the desk as a teacher. Well, good for you. But if you expect to thrive on that side of desk, live by this one truth: as a teacher you need to remain a student. You are trading a cadre of formal teachers for a host of informal ones. In the long run that host will be the most profound set of teachers you will ever encounter.

Indulge me in a little reminiscing here. The year is 1954: the year that the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools. Baseball’s Giants were in New York, the Dodgers were in Brooklyn, and all was right with the world because Dwight Eisenhower was the President. The scene: Room 2 of the North Fourth Christian School in Paterson, New Jersey. My first formal teacher: Miss Van Melle. She had a first name, but well-behaved five year olds would not dream of speaking it. She taught important lessons: “Sit still, be quiet, write your name (properly capitalized) on the line.” Also, more practically: “Don’t shove a crayon up your nose.” (An admonition prompted by one of my table mates, Jack.) Miss Van Melle’s boss: Mr. Pettinga (again someone with a first name I dare not voice). He drove a two-tone olive green Chevrolet with big fins, wore rimless glasses and three-piece suits, individually reviewed our report cards before the entire class, and condemned the criminal element to his version of public execution: to stand in full view in the hallway by the office under a gigantic picture of President Eisenhower. But as scary as Mr. Pettinga seemed, he taught me two things: 1. there is forgiveness in the face of penitence, and 2. that he loved us with a love so deep that he, this formidable taskmaster, cried when we graduated at the end of 6th grade. There have been dozens of other formal teachers over the decades.

But there have been thousands of informal teachers who kept–and keep on–teaching me about life and education. You might remember one from your “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” phase, someone who appeared on the same channel, Fred Rogers. I’d like to borrow a page from Mr. Rogers’s public speaking routine, and have us pause for ten seconds to silently remember those people who helped us become who we are, who cared about us, and wanted what was best for us. I’ll time it…

Professor seated on stage, addressing audience of future students.

Professor Bob Schoone-Jongen addresses student teachers at their commissioning ceremony, May 22, 2015
(Photo via Calvin College Facebook stream.)

Thanks be to God for his gift of teachers, both the formal and informal ones. We all owe them deep debts of appreciation and gratitude. My list includes my wife, my sons, my colleagues here at Calvin, the principal who gave me the chance to be a full time teacher in 1975. Then there are about 1,600 high school students who graced my classes during a span of twenty-seven years. And more recently, 129 student teachers over the past twelve years–several of them here tonight. They have molded me as much, or more, than I have influenced them. During the 650 odd classes I have watched them teach, they have taught me many things about teaching. Just briefly, I want to mention some of them. And what better way to do that than to pirate a device from another TV instructor, David Letterman.

So from the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska, here is tonight’s Top Ten Things Student Teachers Teach Me:

  1. To be a teacher is to be a student, a learner. A teacher cannot just pour out knowledge on students. A teacher needs to learn from the students in order to teach them. Your students are the best methods book you will ever read. Listen to what they will teach you every day.
  1. Each class consists of two parts: what went right and what went wrong. Being a teacher and a student means living with both successes and failures. During each class we learn something new about students, subjects, and our selves as teachers.
  1. Each class is another chance to get things right. All our advance planning must be proven in the fiery furnace heated by real students. In our teacherly minds we may have covered all the bases, but the students likely will exhibit different thought patterns. The big question of the day might get the lesson off ground, but the students determine the actual flight plan and landing pattern–be it a smooth one or a swim in the Hudson River. You and I may be in the cockpit, but we can’t control the wind swirling around us. Serendipity is the order of the day in a classroom, not stolid stability.
  1. The students are the most important thing in the room. These individual image bearers of God, his precious jewels in the words of an old hymn, come to us in various grades–some highly polished gems, others very rough hewn. They all have one overriding need: the guidance of a responsible adult, you, their teacher. Despite all the technological doodads and wizardry–the stuff computer companies equate with effective teaching — students still need you, a living, breathing, three dimensional human being, to provide the companionship no silicon chip and flat screen will ever provide.
  1. You and me, those breathing human beings in the front of the room, are not super heroes, but fallible people with limited abilities and vast weaknesses. Chronology and a state-issued certificate separates us from our students. That has its advantages, but also its weaknesses. We may have accumulated more of what only experience can provide, but our age also renders us exotic in the eyes of our students.
  1. Our humanness requires maintenance–both physically and spiritually. Without a healthy you, students will see just a sick teacher. Physical maintenance is not optional. The students deserve our best effort, and we owe them more than mere endurance. My informal teachers, the student teachers, remind me every semester that sleeping and eating and exercising are what keeps our heads on straight, and our feet firmly planted underneath, from the first bell of the day until the last.
  1. Spiritual maintenance constantly reminds us to be humble about running a class. Each time we teach, thousands of words pour forth, and hundreds of instant calculations determine our vocabulary, our inflection, and our reception. A spiritually-maintained teacher prayerfully acknowledges that the torrent of words cascading through the room will carry rocks that can bruise students, and even scar them. We need divine purification to keep that torrent as a clean as possible, for the wisdom to know when a rock flew, and for the character to admit it and make amends.
  1. That never ending prayer should have a second petition–thankfulness for the blessing of being commissioned to mirror Christ’s love to another group of His image-bearers. You and I have the chance to show goodness and love to students, many of whom are unlikely to see those divine traits elsewhere. You can be Calvinistically proud when God entrusts you with being His messenger of light in the classes you teach. It is a precious gift to show students that despite all the wrong we see, the light does still shine in the darkness, even when it is very dim.
  1. That light is more than words and worksheets; it is the presence that students experience in your presence. Your reputation looms larger than your facility with the facts. Presence is the part of a class the students most likely will remember for years. In the end, what students really want from us are two simple things: to be treated justly and to be treated respectfully. The highest compliments–the evaluation that really matters–will come in two short sentences: one direct–“You were always fair”, the other left-handed–“You never made me feel dumb.” If students can say that, they have glimpsed the face of Christ in us.
  1. These student renderings of “Well done, good and faithful servant” are far more important, and more eloquent assessments of our teaching than all the numbers Pearson Corporation can tease from all the standardized tests inflicted upon students. Teaching’s essence cannot be measured by algorithms, formulas, or equations. God, and those image bearers in our classes will evaluate us by our faithfulness, not by the dots on a bubble sheet.

And there you have it, fellow teachers. That pretty much sums up what you have been teaching me again this year. More importantly, I hope these are the lessons your students taught you. So be thankful for the chance to learn while you teach. Being thankful won’t be easy when you’ve been thumped by the class and have rightly concluded that your lesson plan was a dud. Still, in all things be thankful, even if only for that second or third chance to make the lesson better, or just less bad, in the three minutes between classes.

Finally, back to Fred Rogers. In 2001, in a commencement speech at Middlebury College in Vermont, he said this, “I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.” As teachers, students are our neighbors. And those neighbors are our teachers. Appreciate them. You have again been mine. I deeply appreciate what you have taught me and thank God for the faithfulness he has shown me through you. Fellow teachers, in the words of Christ, the greatest of all teachers, “go and do thou likewise.”

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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