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Blues People – Topics in African American Religion and Culture: Course Review

During my time in “Blues People: Topics in African American Religion and Culture,” I experienced tremendous personal and academic growth, perhaps more so than in any other course as a student at Brown. In many ways, learning from Professor Rose, Professor Willis, and my peers, has offered me a new perspective on not only how blackness, whiteness, and racism are expressed in society, but also how the issues associated with these ideas are internalized by the individuals in my community. As a white person, it would be easy for me to keep a comfortable distance from topics like the use of the n-word, the battle over reparations for slavery, and the difficulty of black love. A semester in Blues People, at such an important and pivotal moment in history, opened my eyes to what it means to listen, learn, and practice not just anti-racism, but rather a more grand recognition of and appreciation for black life and culture. On a personal level, the wisdom of the teaching team and my peers have imparted on me will leave a lasting impact on how I act and view the world around me. 

Sometimes, academic settings tend to reinforce preconceived ideas about various topics: climate change is bad, the COVID-19 vaccine is effective, and racism is a serious problem in America. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to learn from the professors that I realized true understanding occurs when one thinks critically about these notions. For example, I found it particularly enlightening when my classmates and the professors would critique the actions of people of color who had been elevated to levels of fame within American society. During one of the first lectures, Professor Rose and Professor Willis voiced their discontent with the musical, Hamilton. As one of millions of fans of the production, I was surprised that they viewed the show as both a glorified history of the colonial period, as well as an exercise in tokenism within the diverse cast. A similar sentiment was expressed for Amanda Gorman, the young, black inaugural poet, who was celebrated unequivocally by white liberals. In contrast, Professor Rose and Professor Willis offered insightful analysis regarding her poem, her place on the national stage, and the complete lack of useful and constructive criticism she offered regarding the state of the country. To me, these moments harken back to the notion of respectability politics. While it might be easier to feel “woke” about ourselves as white people for supporting minorities, whether Lin-Manuel Miranda, Gorman, or even former President Obama, it is undoubtedly more important for those celebrated to actually represent the breadth of black and minority voices. Failure to do so creates our current struggle, where people of color can only be idolized if representative of “correct” and predominantly white values and modes of expression. It is ignorant (and I was guilty of this) to think skin color would automatically tie an entire population of black folks to the ideals expressed by a famous poet and political leader. With the opportunity to learn from the teaching team and the BIPOC members of my community, I believe my understanding of the politics of respectability, black life in popular culture, and critical thought on social issues has been greatly enhanced. 

Perhaps even more important, this course has reinvigorated my own commitment to the fight against racism. During the summer of 2020, I participated in local protests, financially supported causes, and tried to educate myself on anti-racism and its methods. Within this course, however, I found that a selection from the Stanley Fish piece, “Reverse Racism,” was particularly inspiring as the country continues to grapple with gross displays of racial injustice. He writes, “A cancer is an invasion of the body’s equilibrium, and so is chemotherapy; but we do not decline to fight the disease because the medicine we employ is also disruptive of normal functioning. Strong illness, strong remedy: the formula is as appropriate to the health of the body politic as it is to that of the body proper.” This sentiment has energized me, changing my passive approach of rewriting racism in my own mind into a vow to actively fight it – through knowledge and action. Using a Blues People education on topics such as reparations and affirmative action, I plan to follow Fish’s call to embrace the “formula” of change. The most critical observation I have made is that my views have been insulated by my own whiteness for far too long, and, for this reason, I believe Blues People should be a required course for students at Brown). Now, after learning about real issues and raw emotions, I feel equipped to serve as an inspired and well-informed ally to the black community around. While I was raised to accept all people, I now have a more tangible conception of the strength, power, and resilience of these people I have accepted. This knowledge propels me into the rest of my academic and adult life with a newfound desire to recognize evil, demand justice, and support everyone as “brothers and sisters,” above all else.

Maddie is a junior at Brown from Connecticut. She is concentrating in Economics.
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