“Professor,” the student said to me, with a look of embarrassment that braced for my disappointment. “I do not understand this poem.”
The student was referring to a poem I had assigned students in my U.S. History I class. It’s a poem I was very excited about. It’s an 1802 poem, published in the New York Evening Post, attacking Jeffersonian democracy. The poem is told from the perspective of a southern slave, seething at the injustices he faces—opportunities denied him that whites get to enjoy. But the poem is not written by a slave, or an abolitionist. It is written by a staunch Federalist, in the newspaper Alexander Hamilton founded.
Written in pantomimed black speech, the poem is meant to underscore how dangerous democratic ideals are by illustrating what happens when black slaves hear them. The poem reads, in part:
Den tell me, why should Quashee stay,
To tend de cow and hoe de corn!
Huzza for massa Jefferson;
And if all mans alike be free,
Why should de one, more dan his broder,
Hab house and corn! for poor Quashee
No hab the one, no hab de oder.
For make all like, let blackee nab
De white womans—dat be de track!
Den Quashee de white wife will hab,
And massa Jef. shall hab de black
Why should a judge (him always white)
‘Pon pickaninny put him paw,
Caus he steal little! dat no rite!
No! Quashee say he’ll hab no law.
Huzza for us den! we de boys
To rob and steal, and burn and kill;
Huzza! me say, and make de noise!
Huzza for Quashee! Quashee will
Huzza for massa Jefferson!
The poem is remarkable for the way it connects the racist underpinnings of slavery in the Early Republic with national politics—two subjects that students often conceptualize as separate topics. It also provides an entry point into great discussions about contemporary politics, where smears against political opponents, despicable as they are, are frequently condemned as antithetical to the nation’s “founding principles.” The poem offers us a way to discuss just how nasty national politics in the Early Republic was, and engage in a lively conversation about whether national politics today, for all we lament about it, is really any better.
But this student could not engage in a discussion of the poem. Indeed, she literally could not understand it. This student had lived much of her life in China, had learned English as a second language, and had no idea how to make sense of the barrage of misspellings and grammatical errors in this masterpiece of racist political vitriol.
I don’t remember if she actually said “I’m sorry” to me, but her eyes apologized for her.
I got the feeling that this wasn’t the first time she’d felt compelled to apologize to a white, American professor because she did not understand the baked-in cultural assumptions of a text or an assignment. It certainly isn’t the first time I’ve encountered students from other countries and cultures who inform me that they don’t understand something by apologizing for being from another culture. It’s a problem that I can do better to address.
To be fair, many students in my class who were born and educated in the United States struggled to understand the poem, as well. But I observed two marked differences between the American students’ responses, and this student who confessed her incomprehension to me. First, when I explained the poem’s context and meaning, my American students all understood the purpose of the poem’s style. After that, they could read the poem and decipher its caustic insinuations about democracy and racial equality with greater accuracy. They were shocked by the poem’s insistence that racial equality was actually a negative result of democracy. But they got it.
The other, even more significant difference, though, was that none of the American students apologized for not understanding. I can’t know what’s in my students’ hearts and minds, of course. But none of my American students’ faces betrayed a sense of guilt or shame that they didn’t understand the poem. Some offered incorrect interpretations of the poem (one student thought a slave had written it, another thought it was actually praising democracy by encouraging slaves to rebel against their masters). But they offered guesses at the poem’s meaning, even if those guesses missed the mark. They weren’t afraid to be wrong, and didn’t appear to interpret their lack of understanding as an indicator of an inherent deficiency on their part.
Their classmate, on the other hand, spoke to me one-on-one, her voice and face expressing not only frustration, but also guilt. She clearly believed that she should understand the poem, and that her lack of understanding reflected a failure on her part. It was mine. Not for assigning the poem, but rather for simply giving it to my students to read and decipher without thinking about what cultural knowledge they would need to be able to understand it in the first place. I still use this poem, but I incorporate it into my lecture, reading it aloud to my students and leading the class as we dissect it together.
But the bigger issue is my student’s confession. It’s not the first time a student from another country or culture has admitted ignorance of American culture like it is a personal failing. True, there will always be a certain amount of knowledge or ability that one needs to have, even in an introductory U.S. history class, to be successful at the college level. But my encounters with foreign students include instances where their lack of understanding is not due to a lack of expected ability or aptitude, but simply due to the fact that they have not been immersed in American society all their lives. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but, as I’ve noted to these students, it gives them a unique and vital perspective on a lot of subjects relevant to the class. They will notice things that American students may not, and question particular assumptions that Americans may let go unchallenged. Their perspective is the opposite of a liability; it’s a positive good for the class, for me, and for the college as a whole. Most students feel better after I tell them this, but the fact that their reaction differs so much from that of American students suggests that students are used to thinking of their backgrounds as some sort of deficiency for which they need to be sorry. There are many overt actions faculty members take that can contribute to this kind of thinking—from deliberately refusing to call a student by his or her given name, to making fun of a student for speaking with an accent. But as I learned, we can also be part of the problem by simply not thinking very carefully about what knowledge our assignments require students to have. Without much direction from the professor, this student assumed she’d be able to at least understand the reading assignment. When she didn’t, she blamed herself.
We talked about the poem, and even though I did most of the talking, she was teaching me, as I was teaching her. It’s a lesson I won’t forget.