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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates

Mary Wood is teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates' memoir, Between the World and Me, in her AP English Language and Composition class in Chapin, South Carolina, reports Hannah Natanson in the Washington Post.

Last year, two students complained the book made them ashamed to be white, violating a state rule against causing students “guilt, anguish or … psychological distress” on account of their race, she writes.

"Lexington-Richland School District Five officials forced Wood to stop teaching the book; later, they sent her a letter of reprimand." Some wanted the teacher fired.

This year, following school policy, Wood got permission to teach Coates' book from the new principal, a Black man, writes Natanson. She gave parents a chance to review the curriculum and offered to opt out any child whose parents objected to the book. Finally, "she had assigned a conservative voice pushing back on Coates."

Superintendent Akil E. Ross, who is black, wrote in a statement that teachers can assign controversial material as long as they “expose students to all sides … in a fair and unbiased manner” and adhere to “content standards.”

(Wood) told her class they would spend the next few days listening to a recording of the book, while each student took notes. After that, they would conduct independent research to develop their own arguments. They could agree with Coates, disagree with him or land in the middle.

(I wonder why the students can't just read the book on their own. Isn't listening to a recording a waste of class time? Or is the goal to avoid giving them copies to take home?)

Anyhow, the teacher's approach seems sensible enough. However, I suspect Wood could have done better in finding countervailing opinions. She countered Coates, a very powerful writer, with a clip titled Systematic Racism: A Myth by the Institute for Youth in Policy, which is made up of 18- to 25-year-olds. There are much stronger voices.

As a 23-year-old philosophy student at Columbia, Coleman Hughes challenged Coates' case for reparations at a Congressional hearing on reparations in 2019, notes the New York Times.

A writer and podcaster, he's just published a book, The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America. (Yes, he's black.) Here's a review.

Erec Smith, a black professor at York College, is a much more powerful critic of Coates' racial essentialism. George Leef's reviews Smith's new book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition, which argues against adopting a victimhood identity.

Thomas Chatterton Wiliams' 2019 memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White, explores his biracial identity. He's an eloquent writer.

As a teenager, convinced that "one drop" of black ancestry made him wholly black, he writes, “I consciously learned and performed my race like a teacher’s pet in an advanced placement course on black masculinity.” He grew up, married a white woman and has blonde children. Here's a review of the book.

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