I was in a white clapboard building recently, near one of the many railroad tracks that crisscross central Illinois. The building was part of one of several church properties in Champaign-Urbana and its neighboring towns. I was there to teach a class on modern American poetry at a 12-month Christ-centered substance abuse rehabilitation program. The table dominating the room was being cleared of lunch when I arrived. Most of the men introduced themselves with their full names as I walked around and greeted them, but once at the table they were Brother Jones or Brother Green. Then we sat down, 10 African-American men and me around a wooden seminar table with photocopies of the poems I had assigned. The coordinator of the class -- or reading group -- is a tenured faculty member at a nearby university. Next semester the project will be supported by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, but my time and that of the other teachers was volunteered and will remain so.
I was invited to teach one of the two-hour sessions by a colleague. Some months ago I explained that I would focus on African-American poems about religion, some deeply grounded in religious faith, others critical of organized religion. This debate about religion among African American poets has a long history, as I explained to the participants. It is deeply felt and surely one of the impressive legacies of the last hundred years of our
One of the men soon volunteered that some of the poems made him angry. I said that was exactly right. Some black American writers felt sustained by the church, others felt betrayed, but none were writing merely to reassure us. They wanted us to respond powerfully. We certainly did not have to agree with them. We could take up our place in the debate. I explained that many people assumed poetry was a much milder art form. Not so, I argued, and these poems proved the point. They compressed the writers' views and made them available to us in telling language. The group had read Langston Hughes' "Christ in Alabama" and "Goodbye Christ," Amiri Baraka's "When We Worship Jesus," and Carolyn Rodgers' powerfully pro-Christian poems "when the revolution comes" and "mama's god."
I pride myself in being able to enter these poets' worlds and embody their disparate convictions. But on this December day I did not have a chance. Fifteen minutes into the session the reverend arrived and pulled me aside:
Reverend: "I cannot have these men exposed to this language and these ideas."
CN: "I'm letting them enter into this long-running debate, and I'll be very positive about the pro-religious poems. Let me go through the poems for you and show you what I plan to say about them."
Reverend: "I don't care. These men cannot read things like this. They have to get grounded."
CN: "I'm sure they see much worse on television and saw much worse on the streets."
Reverend: "They only watch the programs I let them watch. They don't read newspapers. Tell me the role of faith in your life."
CN: "Well, I believe in the pursuit of justice and in human decency."
Reverend: "You're not really telling me about your faith."
CN: "I suppose not. Look, this is about academic freedom."
Reverend: "Not here."
CN: "I'm the president of the American Association of University Professors. We've defined academic freedom for nearly a hundred years."
Reverend: "Not here. I decide what gets taught. I approve what they read. I'm ordering you to leave the building."
Since it was a private facility I left as ordered. But the program is to be funded with public money, and the Illinois Humanities Council was assured free speech was guaranteed in the classes. It is not. Indeed others have suggested the students were under pressure not to disagree with church doctrine. This is precisely why the separation of church and state is established in the United States Constitution, though there is reason to doubt President Bush is comfortable with the concept.
Although it was humiliating to be ordered out of a class I was teaching, it was also instructive. Though this local minister was not quite a prince of the church, it was still my first experience of being silenced by church authority. I naively assumed that clearing my lesson plan with the course coordinator was all I needed to do to guarantee my freedom. I naively assumed, adapting Gertrude Stein, that a classroom is a classroom is a classroom. I've not been silenced before or had the experience of being thrown out of the classroom in nearly 40 years of teaching. Other faculty members are not so lucky. Many religiously oriented colleges and universities would never conduct business so crudely. But some do. Any doubters might begin by reading the AAUP's investigative report on Brigham Young University. That is why we remain vigilant.
The reverend made it clear -- though he didn't use the word -- that indoctrination had to precede exposure to the free market of ideas. Students had to have their responses preprogrammed before they could be allowed to encounter secular culture. My own view is that these men -- in their 20s, 30s and 40s -- could read Langston Hughes and still side with Carolyn Rodgers. She concludes one poem with the lines "when mama prayed,
she knew who she / was praying to and who she was praying to / didn't and ain't got / no color." I wanted them to hear the lines read aloud and discussed, because they are lines every American churchgoer should hear. These are lines these men could use in their encounters thereafter. But academic freedom did not carry the day.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.