Teaching Under Trump: Historicizing the Present

Mary Mullen

Villanova University
June 5, 2018

Two days after Trump’s election, a group of white men assaulted an African American woman student at Villanova University, where I work, while walking in the underground SEPTA tunnel on campus. They surrounded her, yelling, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” and pushed her to the ground. The incident made the news, and prompted many on-campus conversations. The day after the assault, students painted “You are Never Alone” on the walls of the tunnel. When this message was quickly painted over, they painted new messages, including, “Read James Baldwin.” These messages were also white-washed. A month later, the student withdrew from the investigation of the incident. The men who committed this assault have yet to be identified.

I am still processing this incident and the conversations that resulted from it, as I think about what it means to teach under Trump. It shows how teaching is local and institutionally-located: the strategies for teaching under Trump vary based on the many, diverse needs of our students, and are shaped by the ways in which our particular institutions enable and constrain us. But this incident also demonstrates how Trump’s election shapes the way in which we teach about institutions, race, and power. For instance, it becomes natural to narrate his election as a singular event—a historical rupture—rather than as a continuation or intensification of ongoing racial and settler colonial violence. For although news sources narrated the assault of this Villanova student as an example of “post-election tensions,” the site of the assault is an apt metaphor for how racism on campus has long worked: it is underground. Indeed, the student’s decision to withdraw from the investigation of her assault extends the claims of other minority students at Villanova who, just a year before the election, insisted that the Campus Police did not represent or protect them as they protested the decision to arm public safety officers on campus.

Precisely because Trump’s election is both a new event and the part of a long history, it creates challenges for historicizing the present: how do we acknowledge the spectacular and extraordinary violence of this present moment without erasing the ordinary, everyday, naturalized violence that precedes, animates, and continues at this moment? How do we respond to calls to “Make America Great Again” in ways that don’t reinforce the nostalgic, ahistoric premise that America once was great or imply that America is the framework through which we think about making political change? I ask these questions because they are legitimate questions for me: I don’t have answers. But I do have a few readings that I use in the classroom so that I can think through such questions with students.

First, in a senior seminar on Institutional Fictions, my students and I address the problems of historicizing the present by considering how institutional memory is often a form of forgetting. We read literature in this course, but also think about the kind of language and forms of narrative that institutions produce as we question what it means to speak in the voice of an institution: to declare, with institutional authority, “such actions have no place on our campus,” or to write mission statements or even learning objectives. Sara Ahmed is our guide here, suggesting that institutions rely on “non-performative” speech acts. Unlike performative speech acts, that do what they say they are doing, non-performative speech acts “‘work’ precisely by not bringing about the effects that they name.”[1] For this reason, textual production within institutions—mission statements, diversity statements, even official procedures—become a way of masking how the institution actually functions. Ahmed allows students to think about language in a new way, and, just as importantly, shows that how we use language shapes how we historicize. The problem with “non-performative” speech is that it is a mode of forgetting people’s lived experiences within institutions: in her words, “any racism within an institution is explained as not really ‘going on,’ even when it is ongoing.”[2]

I teach Ahmed in a class entirely shaped by questions about institutions. However, I can also imagine pairing her account of “non-performative” speech with Victorian genres such as dramatic monologues to highlight the politics of performative as well as non-performative speech. Many dramatic monologues also consider institutions (“My Last Duchess” famously interrogates the institution of marriage), but just as importantly, they, like institutional speech acts, require a double reading: what is said and what is brought about through saying. Just think of Augusta Webster’s “An Inventor” in which the speaker expresses the difficulty of realizing his ideas through an invention, declaring, “It must perform my thought, it must awake” or the famous final line to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” where the speaker declares, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” as the poem ends.[3]

In turn, in a literary methods course for English majors, my students and I read Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake as we think about historicism and its limits. Moving between autobiography, history, and theory, this book begins with Sharpe reflecting on growing up in Wayne—a Main Line suburb just west of Villanova. The political, social, and remembered geography of Sharpe’s text allows students to rethink Villanova’s campus, which is often naturalized to them as a self-contained entity, in relation to local suburban space. In turn, her careful and powerful use of pronouns—she uses “we” and “our” to conjure a shared Black experience that my white and non-Black students and I don’t have access to—shows how her experiences are both specific and shared, particular and general as they unsettle the often unstated assumptions of universal whiteness. But, most importantly, her stunning theory of wake work offers a new model for historicizing the present. In her words, “Living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality in, and on, our bodies while even as that terror is visited on our bodies the realities of that terror are erased.”[4] History, for Sharpe, is not simply a narrative, it is embodied and lived. But the record of this history—of what it means to live in the wake—is always being over-written, whited out. Although it is discontinuous, it is repetitive: an experience of “endlessly reinvigorated brutality.” Slavery is a past that lives on in the present.

Sharpe’s work could help illuminate how nineteenth-century texts like The History of Mary Prince or Wuthering Heights help theorize slavery and its afterlives. I would pair In the Wake with Kris Manjapra’s recent essay on the afterlives of slavery in Britain, which builds on Sharpe’s argument while demonstrating how “the process of emancipation marked a new phase of British atrocities and the terrorisation of blacks.”[5] Mary Prince’s narrative reinforces such arguments by highlighting how slavery persisted in the British Empire long after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807. It is at once a record of “the history and present of terror” and a site through which “the realities of that terror are erased.” For although Mary Prince tells her own story, Thomas Pringle, the white editor, heavily mediates this story first by “pruning” it and then working to authenticate it through a mass of supplementary materials.[6] Taught alongside Wuthering Heights, Sharpe could help clarify the political stakes of the novel’s gothic temporalities, its reflections on memory and forgetting. Scholars have noted that this 1847 novel reflects on the afterlives of slavery in Yorkshire, in part by setting the novel in 1801, a time before the abolition of the slave trade. The novel’s ambiguous ending—where Heathcliff and Cathy both haunt the moors and quietly slumber in the “quiet earth”—thus could suggest the ways in which violence, like slavery but also everyday terror, naturalized racism, ends and does not end, how it is buried and reinvigorated.[7]

Outside of the classroom, Villanova students are doing their own work to try to confront the devastating realities of the present without forgetting about or actively erasing the violence of the past. Painting the walls of the tunnel with messages that they know will be over-written, they suggest that the tunnel is not only a metaphor for racism pushed underground; it is also a site of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call “the undercommons”: “where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”[8]

[1] Sara Ahmed, On Being Included (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 117.

[2] Ahmed, 48.

[3] Here, I am indebted to Cornelia D. J. Pearsall’s reading of “An Inventor” in “The dramatic monologue” The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 67.

[4] Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 15.

[5] “When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity?” The Guardian (March 29, 2018): https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/29/slavery-abolition-compensation-when-will-britain-face-up-to-its-crimes-against-humanity

[6] As Thomas Pringle explains: “It was written out fully, with all the narrator’s repetitions and prolixities, and afterwards pruned into its present shape; retaining, as far as was practicable, Mary’s exact expressions and peculiar phraseology.” The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 3.

[7] Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights Ed. Pauline Nestor (Penguin: London, 1995), 334.

[8] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26.

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