Writing with Empathy

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Guest Blogger: Rochelle Spencer is currently a scholar in Dr. Maryemma Graham's Black Book Interactive Project at the University of Kansas. Rochelle is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge 2019) and co-editor, with Jina Ortiz, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 2014). A VONA alum, a former board member of the Hurston Wright Foundation, a current member of the National Book Critics Circle, and co-curator for the Digital Literature Garden and Let's Play, Rochelle recently defended the first dissertation on AfroSurrealism.

How do we demonstrate radical love and trust towards our students, especially when exploring painful or traumatic subjects? If we, as a writing community, teach arguments and logos, ethos, and pathos, then it seems to me that we are left with critical questions: How do we create empathy? How do we decide when it’s “convenient” to care about someone?

These questions point to a community-centered pedagogy. Years ago, a student of color told me about being harassed by police right in front of the campus where I then taught. That student was Asian, and I am Black. I understood the student’s fear because I’ve been harassed by the police too. Last fall, as I prepared to teach a lesson on #BlackLivesMatter, I realized the bullying and intimidation my former student experienced may have happened to other students. Or they may have friends or family who have experienced police violence, perhaps while arrested or incarcerated.

Addressing these traumas while teaching argumentation, I have found that we’re always thinking about representation. I want to suggest to students that they don’t have to fit any particular image to be treated fairly. If someone’s skin is dark, or their pants sag, or if they wear a hijab or speak a language other than English, then should they be subjected to harassment or life-ending violence? It’s more than problematic to decide someone’s humanity based on whether they’re wearing a suit or tie--or a skirt with a slip. (We have a history of telling women and perhaps non-binary genders that sexual violence can be a result of the way they’re dressed. And I realize our brothers are raped and sexually violated but this specific condemnation seems mostly aimed at women.)

At the same time, I understand how people respond to those who [outwardly] convey power, through their dress or speech. We want our students’ voices to be heard and we want them to be taken seriously, especially as they work to create positive changes in their communities.

One lesson plan that grew out of this idea centered on visual arguments. In class, we watched  this video from CNN about Botham Sean Jean, who was killed inside his apartment by an off-duty police officer in Sept. 6, 2018, and Frank Ocean’s Nike 2016 video, which juxtaposed images of Trayvon Martin with sensual and surreal images. Using the following questions, we held a class discussion as a prelude to our writing assignment on visual argument:

  • Botham Jean’s family attorney says Jean “lived his life virtually without blemish,” how is that life portrayed in the video? Do you feel empathy towards Jean? Do you think this video generates empathy?
  • What do you think of Ocean’s incorporation of the Trayvon Martin photograph? Do you think it serves a purpose? Do you think the photograph is used respectfully? Why do you think Ocean juxtaposes so many contrasting images alongside the photograph? Does Ocean’s video create empathy?

In their in-class writings, which addressed these questions, my students helped me to understand the Ocean video as commentary on our emotional landscapes. While a few students viewed the Ocean video as a disjointed arrangement of startling scenes, others argued Ocean‘s kaleidoscopic images make it difficult to view a man of color, such as Ocean--or anyone really--through a one-dimensional lens. These students argued for Ocean’s video, with its multi-racial and intergenerational cast, as depicting a pluralistic society and the ways people must work together and fight for each other’s survival.

If Ocean's work exploits respectability politics, then history's portrayal of Rosa Parks only further reveals their complexity.We know about Rosa Parks’ work as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Movement but, in the 1950s, if a young, pregnant, and unmarried woman  had led the movement, would her sexual history--rather than the cause--have been the topic of discussion?  We create narratives about people that omit details. I think we tend to think of Parks, perhaps, as a silent image; we remember the quiet and dignified black-and-white photo of her sitting on the bus, but less known is Parks’ work as an outspoken and ardent investigator and activist who fought for justice for Recy Taylor, a black woman raped by six white men.

The challenge for our students, and for all writers whose work concerns people and our relationships to each other, is figuring out how to show our complexity, our totality--while helping our readers understand and care about our stories.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.