by Sarah Austin ’21

Senior Copy Editor

“What does it mean to face history as we watch another Black body crumble under the weight of racial injustice?” 

Steve Becton, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at Facing History and Ourselves, posed this question to educators and students when he introduced the webinar discussion, “Working for Justice, Equity and Civic Agency in Our Schools.” A global organization committed to “[using] lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate,” Facing History and Ourselves hosted this conversation via Zoom on June 3rd with Dr. Clint Smith ‘10 as the featured speaker.

Such questions are becoming increasingly relevant to Davidson students, faculty, and administrators as the need to examine the institution’s collective history remains imperative. As Dr. Smith emphasized in the webinar, education without comprehensive historical examination can become dangerous. 

Dr. Smith, an Emerson Fellow at New America who recently received a Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University, is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and How the Word is Passed (forthcoming in 2021). A poet as well as an educator, Dr. Smith interspersed his speech with poetry, books, and essays. He opened by referencing an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2017 on James Baldwin’s 1963 speech “A Talk to Teachers.” Grounding the rest of the webinar, both Dr. Smith’s article and Baldwin’s speech revolve around the dangers of remaining apolitical in the classroom, as well as the cognitive dissonance students deal with when they must face historical reality. 

There are times in our country when a racist event occurs that motivates schools and workplaces to contribute to a national conversation about race, Dr. Smith remarked. However, that conversation is missing “an astute sense of the historical context that created the conditions for the communities that exist today.”

He went on to provide the following timeline in order to contextualize this current historical moment: “The first enslaved people came to the British colonies in 1619. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. The Civil War ended in 1865. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were 1964 and 1965, and the Federal Housing Act was 1968.” The primary purpose of basing any national conversation about anti-Black racism around historical moments is to emphasize how such racism is ingrained in both United States history and the present. 

Such conversations are futile and often damaging without a working knowledge of this history. As Dr. Smithsuccinctly put it, “If you were to kick somebody for 350 years, and then ostensibly stop kicking them for a seventh of the amount of time you have been kicking them, it would be both morally and intellectually disingenuous to then look at that group of people and be like ‘What’s wrong with you?’”

Dr. Dan Aldridge, a professor in Davidson’s History Department, also stressed the importance of centering discussions of anti-Black racism around the above timeline, as well as recognizing the intergenerational trauma that comes from systemic oppression. At the same time, he said, “We should emphasize Black people’s resilience. […] We just don’t want to have a tale of victimhood and woe in Black history.” 

Later in the webinar, Dr. Smith discussed his time as an educator, stating that when he contextualized the literary works he was teaching within the current political climate, he felt as though he was “inundating students with his perspective, and also sacrificing the intellectual rigor of the classroom to engage in politics.” Yet by presenting his students with a full spectrum of historical documents, they were “able to make holistic and informed decisions about our past and history.” Faced with multiple competing truths, students approached this learning with greater intellectual rigor. 

There are many ways this level of intellectual rigor can ensure that every member of the Davidson community has the capacity to confront and correct their own biases. One such opportunity is the Justice, Equality, and Community (JEC) distribution requirement. According to Davidson’s website, courses that fulfil the JEC requirement “address the manifestations of justice and equality in various communities, locales, nations or regions, and focus on methods and theories used to analyze, spotlight, or remedy instances of injustice and inequality.” However, some students and faculty believe that it is not an effective tool on its own to help dismantle systemic racism at Davidson.

Phoebe Son Oh ‘22, an Africana Studies major, believes that professors of color should review all JEC classes to determine whether they are “actually meeting the requirements of what the JEC credit is supposedly representing.” This would help ensure that no students take a JEC class and “leave with the same ignorant mindset that they already had before they started the class.” Son Oh also suggested, “It should be mandatory for every single non-Black student at Davidson to take some sort of Africana or Anthro[pology], [or] Soc[iololgy] class that is revolved around the Black experience.”

Alternatively, Dr. Rick Gay, a professor in Davidson’s Educational Studies Department, suggested over email that it is “better to ‘stretch’ the disciplines from within,” instead of making more required courses. “Rather than a new course titled something like ‘Dismantling Systemic Racism,’” Dr. Gay contended, “topics such as this could be incorporated within existing courses.”

Dr. Joseph Ewoodzie, Jr., a Sociology professor at Davidson, took a more skeptical stance. He maintained that while Davidson does a lot for its students, the administration does not make deconstructing racism a priority. “What is the priority,” Dr. Ewoodzie said, “is making sure that we pump out really smart undergraduate students, […] but if we really want to train students who enter the world and are ready to be on the frontlines of combating inequality, we’re just not doing it.”  

A recent collective letter to the Davidson community written by members of the class of 2020  recommended the creation of a class called Davidson History 101 as one of many tangible steps the college could take in order to push for recognition of its Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students and commit to dismantling structural racism on campus. Dr. Aldridge indicated that a Davidson History 101 course would be a way to “make history local, personal, and real to people” for a town “that had slavery, that had Jim Crow, that was a poor community […] not an affluent suburb.” 

The letter questioned, “When will white students at Davidson be required to reflect on their own whiteness, especially if they do not take time on their own to reflect?” The answer, as Dr. Smith offered, is in an education that is grounded in fact, holds competing truths, and forces students to face their own history.

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For the reader’s convenience, the following is a list of books and media Dr. Smith recommends in the webinar:

  • A Talk for Teachers by James Baldwin
  • When Affirmative Action was White and Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of our Time by Ira Katznelson
  • The collected works of David Blight
  • Pod Save the People — a podcast created and hosted by DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Sam Sinyangwe, and Dr. Clint Smith
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson