Tag Archives: Racism

Writing Literature, Writing Race: Syllabus

Below is the description and course reading list for a writing class I designed and am teaching in Spring 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: Black and White and Read All: Writing Literature, Writing Race

Race is read all over: thinking about race and, especially, thinking that is shaped by ideas about race, is global and constant, from college campuses in the United States, to Paris, Brazil, South Africa, just about everywhere. Though each location and social situation is unique in its thinking about race, race is something we think we “see”; it can shape what we think we know about particular human beings; it can shape our behavior and treatment of others; it can affect our life circumstances, opportunities, and hazards. But what is “race”? We often use the term “race” to refer to groupings of humans who share (or seem to share) distinct physical phenotypical traits. And in practice race is also often used to refer to cultural traits. But in both of these cases, after scratching the surface there are many complexities and contradictions that make simple categorizations quite problematic. Why? Race is a social construction, meaning simply that “race” is an idea created by humans to explain or understand the world. So some scholars argue that racism—as expressions of how people are thinking about race—is not only a useful way to understand “race” as a socially constructed idea but perhaps its defining characteristic: racism makes race. Race (and other social constructions) is a flexible concept that change over time and place, and can differ depending on the society in which they are used. As a social construction, we can look to an unlikely place to better understand race: literature and culture, expressions human experience and human thought. The creative expression of literature shows us what people see, think, and imagine about their world in particular places and times. Importantly, literature is not simply about recording knowledge; literature makes new knowledge that shapes society. So literature also creates understandings of race. Thus, to write literature is also to write race.

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Literature and Citizenship: Syllabus

[Image from Mine Okubo, Citizen 13660 (1946)]

Below is the description and course reading list from the syllabus for a writing class I designed and taught in Fall 2015 and Winter 2016 in the English Department at UC Davis.

English 003: Introduction to Literature: “Go Back to _____!”: Literature and Citizenship

In the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump told Univision reporter Jorge Ramos to “Go back to Univision” (i.e. “go back to Mexico or X-Latin-American country”) he used rhetoric and expressed ideas that are neither new nor uncommon. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. Even in the few months since then, debates about who belongs where, what they should look like, sound like, worship like, think like, etc.—who they should be—are everywhere in this country and world. In a globalized world, questions about citizenship and belonging are of the highest importance, not only in the technical sense of laws but also at a very deep philosophical level. Who are we? And how is this shaped by our relationships to other human beings? What are those relationships? How are they formed, perpetuated, dissolved, and transformed? In this class, we will examine how writers have used literature to represent and think the meaning of citizenship, belonging, nationhood, movement, migration, inclusion, and exclusion.

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Policing and Race in the Black Humanities: Syllabus

Below is the description and reading schedule from the syllabus for a class I designed and am teaching during Summer Session 2015 at UC Davis, through the Humanities Program.

Humanities 002B: American Humanities Forum: Justice or “Just Us”: Policing and Race in the Black Humanities, from Slavery to the Present

Course Description and Objectives:

Protests that began in the summer and fall of 2014 (and that continue) over the killing of black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner by white police officers in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY have made the intersecting issues of police conduct and race relations highly visible. But the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter does not announce a new problem or movement—indeed, it follows a much longer history of anti-black racial discrimination by law enforcement that ranges from disrespectful misunderstanding to brutality and homicide. And current activism follows a much longer history of protest and resistance to racially discriminatory law enforcement.

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1 Year Later, Same Shit: Oscar and Trayvon and Mike and…

July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in for the murder of Trayvon Martin I wrote this and read it on the air for the KQED Perspectives segment. 2014, same shit. The original with audio is here.

“The Weight of Race”

One of the tragedies of racism is that many Americans, most of them white, talk about it as an issue facing African Americans exclusively-and sometimes other ethnic groups — but not white Americans. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, I have heard it said again and again that “African-Americans are angry;” “African-Americans are fearful for their safety;” “African-Americans are disheartened by what this says about the value of their lives in this country.” This phrasing, again and again: that this case matters only to African-Americans.

I am a white American man and I say this is an American issue, an American injustice. Many Americans like me are unhappy with this verdict. In a just world people do not judge someone based on skin color and dress; in a just world people are held responsible when they take the life of another; in a just world the victim is not turned into the assailant and the killer the victim of an “assault with the deadly use of a sidewalk.”

But more than this, I feel the way I do because young black men like Trayvon Martin are people I love. The deaths of Oscar Grant and now Trayvon Martin have shown clearly the value of young black men’s lives. And so I have been shown the safety and value of my best friends’ lives, men I grew up with. And the value and safety of their sons’ lives, boys I am watching grow up. As a friend to these men and play-uncle to their boys I cannot be ignorant of the danger. I cannot take my son and their sons to the park without this awareness. Young black men are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our neighbors, our students and teachers, our patients, our doctors, our co-workers.

When I leave the house this morning, I do so white and free from the weight of the sensation, felt by African-Americans like my friends, that “it could have been me.” But I do leave the house with the weight of knowing that “it could have been someone I love.” And that is an American weight. And I pray that it is a weight heavy enough to guide us toward justice.

With a Perspective, I’m Simon Abramowitsch.

5 Years Later, Same Shit: From Gaza to Ferguson

[I posted this on my first blog on January 26, 2009, not long after Oscar Grant’s death. 2014: same old shit, Ferguson to Gaza. And go look at the map of where Boeing Defense Space and Security is located–they work with Israel Aerospace Industries on missile defense systems .]

“Nazi Zombies from East Oakland to Gaza”

Because of the stretch in time and space between the deed and the result, between the work and the product, it is not only usually impossible for the worker to know the consumer; or the investor, the source of his profit, but also it is often made impossible by law to inquire into the facts. Moral judgment of the industrial process is therefore difficult, and the crime is more often a matter of ignorance rather than of deliberate murder and theft; but ignorance is a colossal crime in itself. When a culture consents to any economic result, no matter how monstrous its cause, rather than demand the facts concerning work, wages, and the conditions of life whose results make the life of the consumer comfortable, pleasant, and even luxurious, it is an indication of a collapsing civilization.

Here for instance is a lovely British [or American] home, with green lawns, appropriate furnishings and a retinue of well-trained servants. Within is a young woman, well trained and well dressed, intelligent and high-minded. She is fingering the ivory keys of a grand piano and pondering the problem of her summer vacation, whether in Switzerland or among the Italian lakes; her family is not wealthy, but it has sufficient ‘independent’ income from investments to enjoy life without hard work. How far is such a person responsible for the crimes of colonialism?

It will in all probability not occur to her that she has any responsibility whatsoever, and that may well be true. Equally, it may be true that her income is the result of starvation, theft, and murder; that it involves ignorance, disease, and crime on the part of thousands; that the system which sustains the security, leisure, and comfort she enjoys is based on the suppression, exploitation, and slavery of the majority of mankind. Yet just because she does not know this, just because she could get the facts only after research and investigation—made difficult by laws that forbid the revealing of ownership of property, source of income, and methods of business—she is content to remain in ignorance of the source of her wealth and its cost in human toil and suffering.

The frightful paradox that is the indictment of modern civilization and the cause of its moral collapse is that a blameless, cultured, beautiful young woman in a London suburb may be the foundation on which is built the poverty and degradation of the world. For this someone is guilty as hell. Who?

This is the modern paradox of Sin before which the Puritan stands open-mouthed and mute. A group, a nation, or a race commits murder and rape, steals and destroys, yet no individual is guilty, no one is to blame, no one can be punished!

-W.E.B. Du Bois, “White Masters of the World,” The World and Africa, 1946, p. 41-42.


Recently I played a video game. I don’t usually play video games. At the laundromat they have Ms. Pac Man, which I sometimes plunk quarters into. “Call of Duty: World at War”; this game is based on World War II, and some 50 years later, when most veterans have passed away or are fading, you can move thumbs, press plastic buttons, kill Germans, Japanese, Americans even, participate in a war that seemed to mean something. There are smaller games within the game—situations set up for multiple players and without narrative. We played one: “Nazi Zombies.” Continue reading 5 Years Later, Same Shit: From Gaza to Ferguson