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According to many political pundits, college students today are fragile snowflakes, quick to stifle difficult conversations and even quicker to dismiss white men who might presume to teach them. It is, we are told, a “scary time” for white men.
In 12 years of teaching in my white, cisgendered male body, I have never met such supposed knee-jerk know-nothings. My students are typically open-minded learners and empathic teachers. But I confess that the judgments of Gen Z as thin-skinned got into my head as I stepped into the classroom last semester.
My Introduction to Historical Thinking class, which I have taught many times in the past decade, focuses on the notorious Scottsboro rape trials of the 1930s.
In March 1931, nine young black men were pulled into a nightmare by the hands of the Alabama court system, which sent them to death row based on the rape accusations of two young, poor and frightened white women. The rape did not happen, as the defense team proved in court repeatedly. But since the defendants were black, the accusers were white women, and the lead defense counsel was a New York Jew supported by communists, racist Alabama authorities forced the young men to suffer in some of the harshest prisons in America for years.
In 1976, in a great twist of historical irony, Alabama governor George Wallace formally pardoned Clarence Norris, the last of the living Scottsboro defendants. In 2013, the State of Alabama finally acknowledged that all of the Scottsboro Boys, as they became known, were innocent.
The history of the case brings together difficult questions of gender and sexuality, race and racism, and politics and class in U.S. history. It provides an incredible landscape to walk students through the pleasures and pains of studying history.
But I was nervous this year. Donald Trump, a man who has bragged about his assaults on women, is the president of the United States. In the last few years, American women have elevated their long-standing demand for an accounting of the sexual violence and harassment they face daily. The Me Too movement has forced open many eyes to the prevalence and persistence of sexism and violence against women.
How, I wondered, would my Gen Z students react to a course based on a false rape accusation? How would I ask them to think like historians and see the Scottsboro case in all of its complexity? How would I teach, simultaneously, that the data shows that women very rarely lie about rape and that these two women did in 1931? And how would I, a white man, earn the trust necessary to guide our discussions?
As I finished the semester and read my students’ powerful final papers, I saw that nearly all of the students embraced an intersectional vision of history: they reached beyond simple categories of race, gender or class and thought about how identities, power and place combine to create complex human experience.
I was wrong to be so anxious, and I realized that the experience offered four lessons about teaching in the age of Me Too.
No. 1. Center women. I always taught about sexism, sexual violence and what historians call “the cult of white womanhood” using brilliant articles by leading historians like Nancy MacLean and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. But I had not always centered the voices of women from the past, or offered the perspectives of many different women.
I realized that the voices of black women fall out all too easily from this story of black men and the white women and men who prosecuted them. Scholars have done remarkable work to recover the voices of the mothers of the nine Scottsboro defendants, women like Ada Wright and Viola Montgomery who not only defended the good names of their sons but traveled the world advocating for social justice generally. The voices of these women deepened our conversations about racism and sexual violence and kept us from falling too easily into woman-blaming. We were able to see the women in this story as central historical actors and agents of their own, not merely the objects of men’s fears and projections.
No. 2. Race still matters. My students, in particular black students, made it clear that the racism of this case is a story that must be told. Trump’s presidency is not only an offense to feminists; Trumpism has surfaced American racism and furthered its capacity to inspire violence and terror, from Charlottesville to El Paso. And, as the work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative has made terribly clear, our justice system is still defined by racism and inequitable outcomes for people of color, especially black men. A focused analysis of racism still matters, and the Scottsboro trials remain a signal event in the struggle for black freedom and citizenship.
No. 3. Own your humanity. I made mistakes this semester. I used the wrong words; I mixed up students’ names; I sometimes failed to seize the “teachable moments”; I didn’t always effectively monitor when male students were dominating discussion or when I was talking too fast. But I found that my students were willing to accept my humanity if I was willing to accept theirs. I am an expert on U.S. history, an author of a book about American racism and the student of many black and women scholars. I know some stuff. But I am, as a student once described me with a warm smile, “a goofy white man,” and I could never pretend to be anything else. Owning my own version of humanity allowed my students to own theirs and, just as important, accept the humanity of our subjects.
No. 4. Trust students. I teach my students to interrogate stereotypes, but it is they who have reminded me not to accept the caricature of today’s college students. When we present students with the truth, in all its complexity, they rise to the occasion. My expectation in my course on Scottsboro is that they can handle the story’s many twists and turns and absorb its many lessons. For example, when we read historian Dan T. Carter’s wonderful book on the trials, I make a point of giving students many of the primary sources Carter used. I want them to see what’s behind the “magic” of the clean, authoritative narrative. They see the interpretive decisions Carter made and consider how they might have done it differently.
They have rarely disappointed me. They ask hard questions about the motivations of the accusers and of the Communist defense lawyers. They read sources against the grain to recover the humanity of the defendants from the underlying racist social structures and bad history. With few exceptions, students see the ways in which the accusers themselves were victimized by American patriarchy and poverty, even as they did a very bad thing. In short, they get it.
My students made crucial distinctions, avoided easy stereotypes and struggled with their own biases, as well as those of their sources. They took intellectual risks and refused to create easy categories of good and bad. Instead, they engaged the much harder challenge of trying to understand the lived experiences of those who have come before us. They took the full measure of the people we studied and empathized with them, including those with whom they could not sympathize. They learned to think like historians -- even about a subject that touches some of our rawest and most relevant issues today. My students, it turns out, don’t melt.