Introductory Spanish. Digital Storytelling Basics. The Black Power Movement.
How I became acquainted with, arguably, one of the most popular courses offered at the University of Texas at Austin, was through intrigue and recommendation. A friend who had taken the class before me, suggested I sign-up. Although, honestly, her description of the course as an "easy A" contributed to my decision, it was her vivid description of the course that ultimately led to my enrollment.
"Imagine Jerry Springer and a Baptist church sermon in one," she said. The images my imagination produced were laughably absurd: students possessed by the Holy Spirit, chanting "Amen!" with raised fists; several bodyguards patrolling 150-plus students, stopping verbal disagreements from becoming physical; and a professor whose fervor for teaching often resulted in him speaking in tongues.
As I would come to learn, however, the professor of this course, Dr. Leonard N. Moore, is passionate but not overzealous. One of many Black professors at UT, he is the pastor of the Soul Movement Church, hence his Baptist-sermon-style lectures. The result is a 90-minute discussion on the timelessness of the Black Power movement that students of all backgrounds were encouraged to participate.
In one semester, Dr. Moore set out to abolish many of our preconceived notions of race and America's gruesome past. It should come as no surprise, then, that Moore doesn't take your typical approach when teaching American history. Slave women treated as breeders for cotton plantations; castrated Black bodies hung over bridges; Emmett Till's burnt body and his mother's cries for justice–Moore's lectures were much different and more in-depth than my high school (and even college) history courses had been.
How many history teachers approach race issues creates the illusion of some post-racial Utopia, as if to say, "The bad stuff happened back then, but today everything's better." Granted, history teachers have the strenuous task of compacting 230-plus years of significant historical information into one course—with the aim of objectivity and accuracy. Though Moore kept it real—as in, factually accurate— with us, he was also unabashedly subjective. There were lessons to be learned from his experiences: people mistaking his White friend for "Professor Moore"; him losing job positions to under-qualified White men; and even having to change his demeanor around White people as to appear less threatening.
No topic went undiscussed: Black males mistreatment of Black women, White privilege, W.E.B. DuBois's "double consciousness," internalized, institutionalized, and even plain old racism.
As I and other Black students in the class empathized with Moore and shared a knowing laugh when discussing our common experiences and pain, the classroom became awkward when other students laughed as these things, as if to say, "People really experience these kinds of problems?"
Of course, not all discussions came without conflict. As I'd imagined, some opinions were, in fact, met with applause and "amen"s while others were met with opposition. On several occasions, students argued with each other and Moore. Some students even walked out during lecture when arguments became unbearable.
But awkwardness aside, the real benefit to the course was that the issues we addressed forced students to ask themselves, "Am I a part of the problem?"
For some, an epiphany seemed to come. "I understand now," one White female student even said during lecture.
Yet still so many of my peers and others are unaware of what Blacks have to endure every day. It is an internal and external dilemma, rooted in the institutionalized racism that reduced our ancestors to being no more than chattel, the effects of which we still feel today.
Society's response is largely to "get over it"—the past is the past and America has (supposedly) atoned for it. (Remember when Obama won, twice, and Congress apologized for slavery? All is well!) Excuse me, but such a nonchalant and naive attitude is difficult to have when you are constantly being judged and victimized due to the color of your skin (and don't let me wear a hoodie on top of it! All bets are off). Or when someone calls you a "nigger" and your grandmother has to give you the inevitable talk. The talk that's just as common among Black families as "the birds and bees." The talk that produces tears in her eyes, aware that the day she's been dreading, the loss of your innocence, has come and nothing will ever be the same for you.
Because now you're fully present, birthed into a consciousness troubled by frustration and paranoia. You're awake to the racist pseudo-compliments such as "But, you don't talk Black," and "You don't act Black." set Blacks up for internalized racism. You're here, inside these false generalizations of how Black people are supposed to be, swimming alongside the overwhelming internal struggles of you actually are. And as much as we would prefer to rid ourselves of these problems, it's not within our power to do so. We are all the inheritors of internalized racism, passed down from generation to generation.
Moore, myself and other Black students commended the student for her moment of clarity, her statement being the beginning of what many Blacks in America seek from their White counterparts: understanding. That's how real racial justice begins, with a sometimes loud, sometimes angry, always passionate conversation. Discussion begets awareness. Awareness incites change.
Deep in the belly of Texas, Dr. Leonard N. Moore has started something.
Elijah Watson is a student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in journalism. His writing has appeared in The Daily Texan, the El Paso Times, Huffington Post, Noisey and RESPECT.Mag. Follow him on Twitter.