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This is a post about considering histories of spaces and places where teaching and learning unfold, and how work with students might more fully engage those spaces. The post ends with a video of a field trip and a brief photo essay that includes the photos highlighted in the video.
I am thinking about the impact and interactions in the many histories that have occupied a single space. How much does space impact teaching and learning? Put another way, how can space be used in teaching and learning to gain knowledge from the surrounding world.
This semester, I have tried to offer more opportunities for students to take part in research as an embodied experience. Ideas percolated in my head about how we might do a second on-campus field trip after our initial trip to the college art museum. I had asked the students in anonymous exit slips if they wanted another field trip before the end of the term, and they were unequivocally in agreement.
I considered what spaces on our campus might best support the third and final writing project of the course. The point of Writing Project 3, the research/revision essay, was to find connection to a major concept in James Baldwin’s “The Artist’’s Struggle for Integrity,” a source we had been reading and returning to all semester. Then I remembered the on-campus memorials to Freedom Summer, and I watched documentaries and news reports documenting Freedom Summer’s significance to the Civil Rights Movement. The information that follows is from the two sources that we viewed before the field trip, Freedom Summer: Chapter 1 by Stanley Nelson (2014 PBS American Experience) and Remembering the “Mississippi Burning” Murders (2014 CBS News).
In the summer of 1964, college students from across the country took part in Freedom Summer, a voter registration drive in Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws, white citizens councils, and the Klan fought a continuous battle with full force against registering Black voters. 3 of the young civil rights workers were murdered at the start of Freedom Summer, but it took 6 more weeks to find their bodies.
James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were their names. Chaney was Black and Goodman and Schwerner were white. It had been remarked that the catastrophe was made worse by the national hyper focus on the two young white men at the expense of the countless number of unsolved murders and disappearances of Black Mississippians. Indeed, when the bodies of the 3 civil rights workers were found in a dam, at the same time 8 Black bodies were recovered.
One of the white civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman, had just finished his junior year at the college where I teach. 25 years after the fact, in 1989, the clock tower at the library was named after the 3 young people, and a memorial plaque with a brief history of Freedom Summer was placed at the inside foyer of the library. The clock tower can be seen all across campus and is one of the campus’s most noticeable features.
Nevertheless, with the passage of time and the presence of other catastrophes involving people from this campus, Freedom Summer was not as well known by my students. There are newer memorials for 9/11/2001 and for Covid-19. I found all of these memorials on early morning walks through campus, and felt overwhelmed by the enormity of what Walter Benjamin in Theses of the Philosophy of History calls “the wreckage upon wreckage of history … Where we perceive a chain of events, he [the Angel of History] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
Any of the memorial markers bearing witness to “the wreckage upon wreckage of history “ would connect to one of Baldwin’s major concepts in “Artist’s Struggle”: all safety is an illusion.
But then I considered another major concept presented by Baldwin in “Artist’s Struggle”: how artists create light from darkness. I remembered that another classroom building on campus, one of the older ones, displayed a number of inspirational quotes by prominent writers/educators on its inside and outside walls, which had been constructed as part of a building renovation two decades ago.
One of the quotes was from James Baldwin‘s essay “In Search of a Majority” reads, “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in” (Collected Essays, p. 221). This quote captures a major concept from Artist’s Struggle and Freedom Summer: of not accepting things as they are, of working to make the world a better place, of creating light from the darkness of the wreckage of history.
Perhaps in the 2020s this concept remains hopelessly problematic, or perhaps even impossibly idealistic. After all, what unearned privileges might one possess to have the peace of mind to consider the question of making the world a better place? How can anyone processing ongoing trauma begin to consider a better world?
When I arrived on campus the day of the field trip I was greeted by a chalk art installation in front of the classroom building. One chalking posed a question that seemed related to the project of engaging with space and place: “History repeats…What follows?”
This inquiry reminded me of the in-class writing prompt I had prepared as an introduction to the field trip:
When we visit these sites, write down everything you notice. What does each memorial/marker look like? What is the scenery around it? What are your responses to what you see around you? What connections do you find to Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity”?
There are no easy answers to these questions, or answers for which words are sufficient. Instead, I offer my short video of the field trip, and the various photos of sites that comprise the video.
All photos taken by Susan Bernstein in October and November 2023.
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