Friday, June 18, 2010

Teaching African American Studies in Russia

Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog has some guest bloggers this week, and I have really enjoyed a couple of posts by Jelani Cobb (who has a blog HERE) on the experience of teaching African American history in Russia. Here are some excerpts:

From "A View From the East":

Jun 17 2010, 1:15 PM ET | Comment
[Jelani Cobb]

Some years back I made a resolution to ignore the second half of any sentence that began with the words "We are the only people who..." Almost always the next clause featured some shortcoming of the race and after years spent drenched in the backwaters of Afrocentrism (the patchouli era), I'd had my fill of black specificity.

"We are the only people," came to be an advance warning that I was talking to someone who probably didn't know much about any people other than (a small segment of) black ones. More subtly, an expression of the speaker's fixation on the values of a wider world they both rejected and envied.

I spent the past spring semester teaching African American history at Moscow State University. People tend to toward a common reaction when I mention this. "What was that like?" The inflection hinting that two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia -- at least in the minds of Americans -- remains foreign in a way that few other places are. There's a lot I could say about that experience but the shorthand version is the we are not the only people.


In the thirteen years I've been teaching African American history, the common theme has been the way in which the black experience has stood outside of, and therefore defined, American democracy. But from the first day in my classroom at Moscow State University, the unintentional theme was the common threads of the past and its weight in the present. Paul Robeson once said that of all the places he'd visited, Russians reminded him the most of Negroes. He had a point.

Russia's serfs were freed just two years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

During World War II somewhere between 20-25 million Soviet citizens were killed, meaning on its most basic terms, that they lost more people in four years than died in the entire course of the Transatlantic slave trade.

I traveled 7000 miles and found myself immersed in a culture that was defined, but not destroyed by brutal history, whose people bore the mark of that past even as they took pride in the fact that other people might not have survived such trials. Familiar.

.......... I was reminded of that blues truth that suffering doesn't recede into the past, it gets handed down through history like an inheritance. What one chooses to do with that inheritance is ultimately the only thing that matters.

So no, we aren't the only people. And the only problem comes with needing to be.

It's great stuff, please read the full post HERE.

And a post "That Russian for 'Hope'":

Jun 18 2010, 12:41 PM ET | Comment
[Jelani Cobb]

If you are a black man teaching African American history in Russia in 2010 you will be asked about Barack Obama. A lot. I began my class by projecting an image of black slaves picking cotton on a plantation alongside a picture of the Obama inauguration and explained that my goal for the semester was to explain how we moved from the picture on the left to the picture on the right.

Yesterday the NYT ran a story on a Pew study of Obama's impact on foreign perceptions of the U.S. abroad. Given the previous administration's antagonism toward the UN and references to "old Europe" it's not exactly surprising that the country's popularity in Western Europe surged post-Bush.

But it was worth noting that Russia was one of the two countries that showed the largest increase in positive sentiment toward the United States since Obama's election.


For it's own reasons, the Soviet Union highlighted the history of slavery, lynching, disfranchisement and Jim Crow. As a consequence, even now the Russian students had more base knowledge of African American history than many students I've taught in the United States.) That said, the election of a black president might have been farther outside their expectations than many other places.

The question I encountered most often was whether or not Obama was actually calling the shots. I initially took that as a matter of racial skepticism—surely the black guy was some sort of racial PR stunt. But at some point I realized that the question also had to be understood in context of who was asking it. Many of the Russians I talked to didn't believe their own president was calling the shots. It wasn't cynical, it was raw experience that made it reasonable to doubt whether Barack Obama was actually in charge.

Read the full post HERE.

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