Frederick Douglass and Schitt’s Creek: Teaching for Joy and Justice

Three snapshots from a hard year. I promise that they add up to something in the end:

January snapshot: In early 2021, I had a hard conversation with a parent, who told me that she commended me for teaching challenging texts and topics but then itemized the ways in which I had misstepped. Okay, fair enough, and feedback is important; I agreed with some of her points and disagreed with others, and it was a helpful and mutually respectful conversation.

But one thing she said stopped me in my tracks, and I’ve been haunted by it ever since: She said that I seemed “overly invested in Black suffering.” This comment was apropos of the way I was teaching The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), a memoir I have taught countless times in my career and think is a crucially important American text.

After a month or so of thinking “what the hell does that even mean?,” I began frantically reading other 19th-century nonfiction by Black authors, with the thought that I would change my book order for next year’s course. Other than the “frantic” part, this was a fun experience, since I returned to several texts I hadn’t read since graduate school, which is now over 20 years ago. (Mandatory pause to marvel at the passing of time.)

But in the end, I decided that Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is powerful for a variety of reasons and that the response to this parent’s critique was not to stop teaching it but rather to teach it differently. I did switch to a new edition of the book, one that has larger font and wide margins, but the real reason is that the new edition, with a new cover and different page numbers, will be an ongoing reminder to me not to slip into my well-worn paths of teaching this text but to keep rethinking it.

March snapshot: The faculty always returns from spring break a day before the students do for a professional development in-service day. This year, we spent several hours looking collectively and departmentally at the excellent Social Justice Standards put together by Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance).

The framework (here’s a link for the handy .pdf version) has four major components: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action. Not every lesson or even course has to hit all four points, of course, but a student’s education overall should definitely include all four elements of the framework..

The English Department had an excellent conversation that afternoon — building on years of developing conversations — in which we recognized that we are doing increasingly better with the Diversity and Justice orientations but probably fall short in the Identity goals of “positive social identities,” “affirm … membership in multiple identity groups,” “pride, confidence, and healthy self-esteem.”

That is, we tend toward texts that are about miscarriages of justice, about social evils that need to be addressed, about pain and suffering and the wrong done in the world. Now, partly this is because these are areas that literature does really well! And partly it’s because we’re a group of teachers who want to make the world a more just place, and so teaching literature of injustice seems like a good way to do that — educating students and lighting a fire under them while giving them the communication skills to make a difference in the world.

But, we asked ourselves collectively, might that goal mean that we are, to quote that mom from January, “overly invested in Black [and other] suffering”? Are we trying to teach about injustices against so many different groups that our book choices are just depressing the heck out of everyone and leaving no room for positive group identification? Ouch.

An additional complication: We teach Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give in 9th grade — what a novel! so important! — and I think it does a wonderful job of both analyzing racism in complex and nuanced ways AND celebrating Black culture (family! religion! food! community!). But, after that professional development day in March, when I talked with my juniors about the novel (which they’d read two years before), they remembered only the pain and suffering of the novel and not the celebration. Is that memory pattern because, even when we have a text that includes lots of joy, we teachers are focusing so much on justice that we’re ignoring the joy? I think I probably need to plead mea culpa there.

May snapshot: Near the end of the school year, exhausted from pandemic teaching and stressed about final grading and AP exams and the rest, I fell deeply in love with the show Schitt’s Creek. (Okay, yes, that means I didn’t start watching it until after it had already finished its six-season run … but I’m convinced it’s a show for the ages and that it makes no more sense to say that one is “coming late to Schitt’s Creek” than that one “came late to Langston Hughes.” Classics are timeless.)

One of the many wonderful things about this show is, of course, Daniel Levy’s creation of a fictional small town with no homophobia.

I’ve been out for 30 years, with my partner for over 20 in a marriage that is embraced by our families, teach at a school with a critical mass of queer folks, worship in a progressive, queer-friendly temple, and live in a blue state. Basically, I’ve got about as good as it gets. And so I was surprised at just how powerful and moving I found the queer-positive imagined world of Schitt’s Creek.

Reflections on those snapshots: Pride Month is normally something I mostly ignore (in part because the end of the school year always trumps everything else), but this June it was meaningful and politically resonant for me in a way that it hasn’t been for ages. I give Schitt’s Creek most of the credit for this change, although a new presidential administration is undoubtedly helping.

Wait a minute. An experience of queer joy gave me energy to think anew about queer justice? Hmm.

And then I started thinking about an experience I had years ago. I was teaching at an increasingly conservative Roman Catholic college where I was literally the only openly gay employee in the 200-year history of the school. I was the co-advisor of the student LGBTQ group with a wonderful priest, who used his authority to sanction the group, God bless him, but who also kept the message of the club within orthodox limits. So basically the only official message we could give students was “God loves you” and “hatred against gay people is wrong.” (I, of course, said quite a few unorthodox things outside of official club time.) As a result, we spent so much time talking about hate crimes and other miseries, because everyone official could agree only that murdering gay people was definitely wrong. It was SO depressing. If the best that someone official can say is “no one should kill you just because you’re gay,” that is hardly a life-affirming message!

So now I’m wondering: Does sitting in my class, learning about slavery and oppression and racism, sometimes feel to students of color like that student group used to feel to me, that we are focusing only on the grim stuff and not on the wonder and joy of their communities and identities?

I don’t think that our studying the Holocaust — grim as it obviously is — felt quite this despairing to my students, because a Jewish teacher and a critical mass of Jewish students were obviously a testament to Jewish spirit and survival. There aren’t so many openly queer students at my school, but there are so many out teachers and administrators leading obviously happy lives and clearly loved within the community that I don’t think learning about anti-gay history felt so devastating.

But the experience of racism and students of color is very different. We do not have a critical mass of students of color, and we have even fewer adults of color at school. (We’re working on it, but progress is slow.) And of course we are surrounded every day by the racism of American culture. Students need to learn their history, understand the rhetoric that is used against communities of color, and master the art and skills of standing for justice, as well as knowing deeply the necessity of doing so.

So the question before me, as I plan for the next year: How to teach for both joy and justice? How to provide students of color and white students with the learning they need to understand the society in which they live AND help them celebrate the extraordinarily rich cultures they are part of? How to avoid teaching only a single, depressing story about the many vibrant cultures that make up our student body?

I don’t know exactly what this new approach is going to look like, but I know that it requires a multivocal approach. No one voice can represent any culture, and I have to make sure our class is telling multiple stories. In other words, to use my earlier example, I would want to teach perhaps the gay-baiting of McCarthyism (oppression), the Stonewall riots (standing up for justice), and Schitt’s Creek (the joy of queer life).

So guess what the rest of my summer is looking like? Finding examples of JOY! Yes, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative is important to read, but so are texts about Black joy. It’s important that the latter be integral to the course and not feel like a box to be checked.

So this is why I have been thinking about Frederick Douglass and Schitt’s Creek for weeks now.

I have a lot of work to do. I’m eager for suggestions, thoughts, reactions, and text suggestions.

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