This morning my social media news feeds are a mix of reflection, rage, and resolve. Here is what I am seeing: Many of my friends and acquaintances were able to be in Edmonton for the last days of the hearings for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I’ve been reading their reflections and watching videos of speakers like Cindy Blackstock in order to learn and listen from here. This afternoon I’ll be teaching Marie Clements’s play Burning Vision. Here at home, though, I am altering my class lectures to make room for discussion about the editor of the local paper who made the egregious decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface on the cover of the paper.
What do these things have to do with one another? A lot. Specifically, I think that together they model or open opportunities to talk about responsibility, community, and learning. Who are your teachers? Who are mine? Who gets listened to when? Whose voices are consistently and often violently left out of conversations? And how might we–with all the diversity that collective pronoun might mean–start having those conversations.
As most of you know I do much of my teaching and research under the auspices of literary studies, so let me talk about Clements’s play in order to start to unpack what I mean by a model of learning as community and responsability.
Burning Vision is a play in four movements, and it is a play that moves across time and space and between cultures. It has been described variously as a complicated play, as a postmodern play, and play about environmental justice. It may be all of these; I want to suggest it is also a model for learning as community responsibility.
The facts informing the play are these: in the late 1880s a Dene Seer prophesies a burning vision that will come in the future. The timeline in the play depicts how his vision comes to be. Between 1898-1925 radium becomes a valuable commodity. Between 1931-1932 the Canadian government issues a publication that warns of the health hazards associated with radioactive ore. 1930: The LaBine brothers discover highgrade pitchblende stake on Great Bear Lake. 1932 Dene men are hired to carry ore out of the mine and transport it to Fort McMurray. 1938: The Nobel Prize is granted to Enrico Fermi who has discovered the fissurable properties of uranium. 1941: Japanese Canadians are required to carry identification cards. 1941 the US orders eight tones of uranium from Great Bear Lake to conduct military research. 1942: Japanese-Canadians are forced into internment camps. 1945: Atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 1960: the first Dene miner dies of cancer. And in August of 1998 six Dene residents travel to Hiroshima to pay respects on the anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb.
As I said, the play works across time, space, and cultures. It is about Canada’s colonial history and its historic and ongoing violence against First Peoples. It is about systematic racism. It is about ecological devastation and mass violence. And it is about building communities of responsibility.
What I hope to discuss with my students in the comping classes are the ways in which this play models community responsibility and demonstrates the necessity for learning as a life-long process. Here’s what I mean: Burning Vision brings together historical and cultural specificity. As readers (or playgoers) we encounter historic injustice from our own cultural, racial, and gendered experiences. Crucially, Burning Vision does not let us stop there. The play–which draws on fact–requires that readers engage with injustice, historic violence, and reconciliation in the present. Let me be even more direct: as a white reader this play requires me to check my privilege. It does not allow me to relegate injustice, racism, and violence to the past or to something I might want to pretend is in the past. It reminds me that my silence or my limited knowledge is a kind of complicity. It teaches readers–it teaches me–that learning history is an on going process and that teachers don’t always, or even often, stand at the front of a classroom. Burning Vision opens a space to talk about historic inequity in the present. It also opens a space to talk about learning as a collaborative practice.
Let me turn back to the third of my opening examples: what can be gained by talking about the local paper’s decision to run a photograph of a person in blackface? I’m not going to reproduce the photo here because, as El Jones made so clear on CBC this morning, turning the discussion about the racist history of blackface into a single talk about one person and one paper sidelines the bigger, more urgent conversations we need to have. If you are in a position of privilege–when that privilege is unearned (ie. whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness)–it is your responsibility to listen. Listening is responsible engagement. Listening is learning.
Far too often ears are shut. Often, I find myself at the front of a classroom and realize that I’m not the teacher. I don’t have all the knowledge. In those situations it becomes my responsibility to make space for that knowledge to circulate.
I’ll close with an opportunity and an example of learning as a community project, as a project of building communities and of listening. Tomorrow #30daysofprisonjustice will begin. It is a collaborative teach-in happening on social media. It is being initiated by El Jones and is, as she notes, a collaborative project.
Dehumanizing language about prisoners will not be permitted (monster, evil, animal.) Respectful questioning and dialogue is encouraged in order to critique, clarify and understand. Everyone is encouraged to both teach and learn, with the recognition that personal experience, lived experience of prison/racism etc. should be respected and listened to. This list is only my list, others are encouraged to add. Teaching can take many forms as in posting videos, articles, beginning disucssions, asking each other questions, sharing stories, drawing attention to cases of injustice, etc. Grammar policing or classist/racist values of what proper discussion look like is not welcome – all are encouraged to post.