Teaching ‘America’ and Bringing Home Gender and Race

Giovanna Covi, University of Trento, Italy

Keywords: Race, Creolisation, Critical and Transformative Pedagogy

I have worked at the University of Trento since 1990. I do not teach Feminist, Women’s, Gender Studies—officially. I have taught English Literature, English Language and Anglo-American Literature; my research area is labelled American Literature. While all my courses have always included a large portion of feminist theory and a wide selection of women authors, only in the 2004-05 academic year, and for the first time, I started teaching a Gender Studies course; it is addressed both to university students in the humanities and social sciences and to outside participants—such as teachers, public employees, and cultural mediators—who wish to update their curricula. Although the course is supported by the Provincial Equal Opportunities Committee and is advertised as a course in Gender Studies, the University of Trento lists it among its course offerings and registers it on student transcripts as Anglo-American Language and Literature.

Why is this the case? The 5th European Women’s Studies Conference held in Bologna in 2000 marked the acknowledgment of Women’s Studies by the Italian academy, but the university reform launched in 2001 forbids the activation of subjects not included in the ministerial curricula, and the ministry has not included Feminist, Women’s or Gender Studies (FWGS) even as an elective subject, neither in the humanities nor in the social sciences. Thus, only if the University of Trento were to offer a degree program in FWGS could the subject be activated and taught as such.

Clearly, until that time, the solution is to continue working undercover. Whether I teach FWGS unofficially as I have been doing for 14 years or semi-officially as I recently started doing, I teach an invisible subject. Nevertheless, my experience has been fruitful and empowering; I would even underline one advantage of teaching FWGS under these conditions: like the burqa that hides the woman’s body but also protects her skin from wind-blown sand, institutional invisibility has protected the feminist political agenda of FWGS from being subsumed under mere intellectual activity.

As a teacher of American Literature—indeed the teacher of the one and only course on the subject in my students’ careers—I do not teach only FWGS under a veil; I also teach Race Critical Theories. The discipline is defined by multiculturalism—the foundational feature of ‘America’ (1) being the encounter and collision of three continents. The joint emphasis on gender and race is an unrenounceable and primary approach to this discipline and complexity (2) is its constitutive attribute. Critical theories of race break through disciplinary and geographical barriers both conceptually and methodologically (see Philonema Essed and David Theo Goldberg, 2002); race critical theory and gender critical theory break through each other to reveal influences, affinities, diversities infinitely more complex than the binarisms imposed by sexism and racism.

For instance, in telling the story of the ‘discovery’ and Christopher Columbus’s first voyage, I make sure that aboard his caravel my students can see the African slave Pedro Alonso Niňo on the way to The New World and that, on the return trip, they regard the 25 Amerindians kidnapped to be sold as slaves in Europe as exemplary of his plan to capture 4,000 more in Haiti on his next voyage. Likewise, I never omit to put Ann Hutchinson aboard the Mayflower and talk about her expulsion from the Massachussetts Bay Colony for an excess of ‘masculine behaviour’; I always include Sojourner Truth in the picture of the Western Frontier; and I simply cannot present writers like Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, without placing them in the company of Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, and Paule Marshall and including the Caribbean when accounting (3) for the African Disapora. This approach is not a mere addendum to the subject I am paid to teach; I argue that a gendered and racialized critical discourse is unquestionably essential to teaching American Literature responsibly (4).

I am less certain, however, when I evaluate my capacity to embrace a critical and transformative pedagogy (5) and assess whether my teaching takes responsibility and can be deemed accountable for bringing home ‘American’ gendered and racialized diversity to the different diversities my students inhabit. When I struggle to ‘activate difference as a critical tool,’ (6) I am faced with the following dilemma: if my institutional task is to teach ‘America’, am I supposed to teach race and gender as they have been articulated in the USA only? Is it also legitimate and desirable that the epistemological knowledge of this ‘other place’ is employed to account for my feminist ethical concern, demanding that I translate cultural concepts in order to give my students empowering tools to transform their own reality, to fight the different manifestations of sexism and racism in Trento through their understanding of struggles in ‘America’? (7)

This alternative brings my main concern into line: how can I translate this knowledge of the other (8) for the ‘here and now’ of my students? What words ‘of ours’ match the words of the racialized and gendered discourse produced in ‘America’—i.e., how do I relate race (9) to razza, and gender to differenza sessuale/genere? How do I teach creolization (10) and mixed races when the only words I find in my language are mulatti and bastardi? Can I possibly (and in an institutionalized module of 20 hours) teach my students the concepts of ‘American’ racism and sexism as well as the concepts of ‘American’ anti-racism and feminism, and at the same time give them the tools to relate this situated knowledge (11) to their own locations and thereby to transform it into a differently-situated knowledge and practice? What mostly matters to me as a teacher is marking the thin but significant gap dividing the imported politically-correct slogan from the empowering cognitive tool.

For me, Emily Dickinson’s image of ‘the Loaded Gun’, which I understand through Susan Howe’s inspiring reading, precisely expresses the importance of this divide: it is the same difference that marks ‘the power to kill’ from ‘the power to die,’ which is the power to possess one’s life (Dickinson, ll. 23-4). My pedagogical concern finds in Emily Dickinson’s dashes not only a similar hesitation but also the powerful strength that derives from that moment devoted to breathing. Yes, definitions are only the shadows of meanings. They rest on separations—sexual, racial, geographical, political—and violence must be done to meanings and separations, in order for freedom, ‘American’ liberty and French liberté likewise, to inhabit necessity and proliferate after revolution; Dickinson shows me that cognition must inhabit the humble and hesitant border of interruption, that breathing and pausing are necessary to gain strength and thinking must be allowed to vacillate. Thus, the fruitful doubts of the translator of travelling concepts are fed by her fractured sense of inhabiting intellectual borders —she hesitates (from the Latin to stick), holds back in doubt; her loaded gun looses the power to kill to gain the power to account for freedom from slavery, freedom within emancipation and civil rights, and also freedom within eroticism. Emily Dickinson’s thought dwells in contradiction; she always questions more than one canon of knowledge simultaneously (12). This is one ‘American’ positioning I am willing to import and promote, without apologies and even without translation; it seems to me it points the way towards the creation and articulation of those ‘counter-topographies’ that will, as Mina Karavanta argues in her paper, ‘reconfigure the dynamic between the local and the global’ in order to accommodate ‘a community of alterities, a community of resistance (13) that is open to and caring of difference.’ (14)

In the rest of this paper I would like to illustrate how I position myself on this hesitant border when teaching issues of race—how I try to address difference in order to let it make a difference. Race is an awkward yet necessary concept, I argue; I believe the concept cannot be ignored nor substituted with the term ethnicity if we want to attend to changing modes of racism, even those that use only implicitly racialized terms and images of race (see Paul Gilroy, 2000). Toni Morrison reminds me that the liberal gesture to ignore race enforces the black body’s invisibility through silence to produce its ‘shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body’ (1990: 10). My commitment is to deconstruct the discourse of racism by articulating a gendered discourse aimed at addressing racial complexity and multiplicity. When, in the 1980s, the concept of race started being presented as a social construction, one of the slogans of the feminist movement rallies in Italy in the 1970s— ‘Tremate, tremate le streghe son tornate’ (Watch out, watch out, the witches are back out)—provided me with an empowering proposition as a white European scholar in African-American and African-Caribbean Women’s Literature. I borrowed Kwame Anthony Appiah’s remark that we are not to ignore issues of racialism and racism simply because we are arguing for the constructedness of race; likewise, as he observes, we do not wish to ignore the history of the witch-hunt for the simple reason that we no longer believe in witches. Indeed, the development of a critical theory of race and the emphasis on the irreducible political construction of race as a social and historical category has made it more difficult to support racism by revamping the Enlightenment’s needs for essentialist cultural, biological, and scientific groundings; at the same time, such critique has equally exposed the limitations of a nominalist antiracist discourse (see H. L. Gates, 1996). Rather, it has increasingly pointed the way towards a resistance to racism that requires the conjugation of political agency with social identity and a theorizing which is committed to materialist practice (see D. T. Goldberg, 1990).

Among the numerous articulations produced by this critical commitment, I refer only to a few exemplary positions to approach the question of the relationship between race and gender with regards to the transmission of complexity and the travelling of theories in education practice. In Gayatri Spivak’s terms, I will look at who can and cannot speak under the power of ‘chromatism and genitalism’ (1990: 62) by problematizing the relation of race and gender to language and the body; in Susan S. Friedman’s (1998) terms, I will try to locate it in routes as well as roots, and thus to situate thinking beyond gender, beyond race, and beyond difference. Better yet, and following Eve K. Sedgwick (2003), I want to situate it beside, to locate it on Gloria Anzaldùa’s borderland/la frontera, where the ceaseless negotiation between history and theory compels us to engage a discourse in which history (social reality) and story (lyrical, mythical reality) coexist dialogically, because ‘narrative is not and never has been enough’ (Morrison, 1984: 388) and ‘poetry is not a luxury’ (Lorde, 1984). By considering race and gender from this perspective, I aim at accounting for both symbolic and semiotic knowledge, and at interrogating the negotiations between rhetorical figures and political strategies in the production of agency (15).

I draw my first observation from Nancy Leys Stepan’s (1990) study analyzing the role of metaphors in the construction of scientific knowledge about humans since the Enlightenment. She stresses the social and moral consequences deriving from the confusion between metaphor and reality as she shows how, by the 1850s, analogies between race and gender stemming from culturally endorsed metaphors supported inequality and discrimination by casting apart certain races and the female gender. The inferiority of the Negro and Woman to the White Man was asserted on the basis of the analogy with apes: this was established by the similarity between the jaws and the simultaneous disregard for the similarity between the thin lips which would have associated the White Man rather than the Negro to the ape (16).

As colonial discoveries were rapidly followed by colonial settlements, race (first recorded in the English language as derived from the Italian razza) was soon promoted to a philosophical and scientific concept and racialism produced and sustained racist policies; suffice it here to recall not only the speculations by Kant and Hegel in support of African slavery, but also those by the abolitionist Thomas Jefferson on the inferiority of the Negro and the American races. The history of these discriminations displays an impressive collection not only of tools for physical subjugation such as chains, whips, guns, slave-ships, lynching mobs, invaders’ viruses, etc. but also a wide range of lexical devices aimed at setting apart, at othering entire groups—races—of people.

My second observation regards these races apart. I borrow from the pioneering and initially controversial work by historian William Loren Katz on Black Indians (1986) and from the provocatively inspiring research on race by Jack Forbes, a scholar in Native American Studies (1997). Katz’s books provide effective photographic evidence of the mixing between Negroes and Indians since the early periods in American history and offers powerful ways to deconstruct the myth of the Western frontier, characterized by the racial purity of white cowboys, pioneers, and explorers vs. that of ‘red’ Indians, and the rigorous absence of blacks. Forbes’s scholarship stands as a militant cry on behalf of all those Americans who got lost in censuses and in translations, all those people of American descent imported from the Caribbean or exported to Jamaica and reclassified as ‘black’ as well as all those Africans who joined Native American tribes in their escape from slavery and became classified as Indians. His work is a plea for recognition of both the American and African ‘survivors who have merged together to create the basic modern populations of much of the Greater Caribbean and adjacent mainland regions’ (270) and of over twenty generations (300 to 400 years) of ‘intermixture of a very complex sort’ (271). Forbes shows that the survival of the American is to be found in the historicization of racism (see Spivak’s 1998 review).

The largest part of his study is a challenge to our dictionaries, whose definitions are influenced by a Eurocentric view, whereby relationships between races are described only as occurring between the white and ‘the other race’, respectively the black and the red. By looking at the way Negroes and American Indians intermixed, Forbes dismantles the narrative by which the Africans came to replace the Americans and considers the various ways by which European colonialism displaced the discursive text of racism. A detailed analysis of the many words of racism—loro, mulatto, negro, moro, moor, mestizo, Indian, black, pardo, mustee, half-breed, zambo, colored, etc.—in different times and places occupies 7 out of 10 chapters and questions the definition of each word in its specific context, thus resisting any narrative of heterogeneity. Forbes’s radically materialist focus on language well shows that it is equally a mistake to think of race as a biological essence and as a mere ideological illusion (Stuart Hall similarly underlines that race is not purely ideological or cultural but, rather a discursive system marked both by ‘real’ material conditions of existence and symbolic effects); his taxonomy compels us to question racialism in all its occurrences and makes us fully aware that the denial of race, just like the denial of class, is a strategy of liberalism or what Howard Winant calls ‘liberal racism’ (17).

Walter Benn Michaels provokes my third observation. He remarks that race ‘is not—like class—a social construction; it is instead—like phlogiston—a mistake’ (2002: 246). He discusses the possibility of passing and shows how this is constitutive of racial identity: the mere conceptual possibility of passing proclaims the essential invisibility of race no matter how few people can actually pass; passing changes the colour from being the fact of race into being the representation that constitutes race. Michaels observes that the possibility for race of being performative (even under the American racist one-drop rule which ultimately locates race in the soul rather than the body) ‘inserts race into the field of ethics’ (234). Unlike identities that are identical to their actions (worker or capitalist, for example), and can thus build claims for rights on that basis, race can only be seen as a mistake. While Michaels’ essay lacks the materialist historical solidity of Forbes’ thinking, the distinction it draws between class and race exposes the same limitations of metaphorical classifications denounced by Stepan.

My final observation relies on Gabriele Griffin and Rosi Braidotti’s critique of race from a European perspective. They make a strong argument against the homogenization of groups and categories of people by exposing the devastating discriminations among racial and ethnic differences within whiteness throughout European history. They powerfully argue for a deconstruction of the black -vs.-white binary advocating the adoption of a politics of location, and conclude by claiming an identity for Europe which is ‘open and multilayered … a space of historical contradictions which can be turned into spaces of critical resistance to hegemonic identities of all kinds’ [234]. In addition, they call for the redefinition of whiteness to be situated ‘in the geo-historical space of Europe’, historicized, and demystified, which ‘means understanding biology as culture, and whiteness as a differentiated as well as discriminating position’ (234).

These observations raise the following questions: if racialism and racism must always be materially historicized and if, in order to do so, careful attention must be paid to the language which constitutes and represents racial identities, how do we translate both the words that represent irreducible biological differences and those that indicate ideological constructions from one language and culture into another? Ethnic war rape in Europe, the racial laws enforced by the Nazi and Fascist regimes which resulted in the Shoah and the Holocaust of other dark races—the Africans, the gypsies—and dark identities—the homosexuals, the dissenters— racist violence in the Balkans as well as in the streets of London, Rome, Salzburg, Paris, etc. against immigrants from other continents and from Eastern Europe are expressed by words which sometimes overlap with the racist words belonging to the history of African slavery and the genocide of American Indians and sometimes do not. Translators as well as communicators of culture must be very patient, look for the meanings of words in each context and also be prepared to create new words to express such complexity in order to make sure that no witches are silenced and the witch-hunters do not come back. We must proceed with the awareness that race is not simply and always razza, that negra represents widely different identities when used by Camerunense-Italian writer Geneviève Makaping (2001) in Italy today, by Italian explorers describing Native Americans in the early 1500’s, by Portuguese colonizers in Brazil in the 1500’s, by Jesuits in reference to the American women living with Portuguese men in Bahia in 1549 (Forbes, 1997: 69), by Spanish describing slaves and dangerous ‘others’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (79), by Dutch colonizers referring to slaves in the mid-seventeenth hundreds (80), by Germans referring to dark complexion in the sixteenth century (82), or by English speakers in Brazil and the United States with reference to mixed-blood Africans (92). We must follow the invitation of ‘The Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People’ and ‘create a vocabulary’ in order to give visibility to the unrepresented, because ‘self-labelling is empowerment. It is a proclamation of existence’ (Maria P. P. Root, 2002: 365). This proclamation of existence—for races, genders, and sexualities demanding representation—must surely be uttered in the ‘crossover griot’ advocated by Joan Anim-Addo, which plainly makes us see that ‘Europe becomes blacker / but it was always dark you know … European Black folks … the children of mixture— / die Mischlingen / bambini di sangue misto / the crossover babies. / … number in the millions’ (Cliff, 1985: 108).

(1) ‘America’ is used in inverted commas throughout since the discipline refers to the USA only and, due to the limits of my personal language and academic skills, I can redefine it as referring my own redefinition (due to the limits of my personal language and academic skills) to the USA and the Anglophone Caribbean only.
(2) Liana Borghi explains how complexity and its representations have provided a fruitful pedagogical and theoretical focus in her Raccontar(si) Summer School at Villa Fiorelli in Prato, Italy. As a participant in the school, I have profited a great deal from Elena Bougleux’s lecture on the fractal as a representation of scientific complexity and her argument that this figuration can be extended to hybrid subjects (2004); both as a teacher of Raccontar(si) and as a teacher in American literature, but mostly as a feminist scholar, I find it increasingly compelling to search for figurations of complexity capable of doing justice to our political and cultural positionings. Dasa Duhacek’s reflection on pedagogical responsibility in the troubled context of Serbia significantly foregrounds complexity both as a starting point for assessing the elements of her analysis and as its final goal aimed at bringing out differences and diversities.
(3) Dasa Duhacek explicates for many of us the feminist use we make of the concept accountability, when she refers to Adrienne Rich’s Politics of Location as a struggle for accountability; for example, Clare Hemmings deploys this concept with reference to the intercultural curriculum, and Eva Skaerbek calls for ethical accountability by linking the epistemological with the ethical. With specific reference to my teaching experience, when I underline the necessity to account for the African Diaspora in the Americas, I intend to invoke a stance which calls for accountability, responsibility and ethical concerns in the production of knowledge as an instrument of agency for the present.
(4) Responsibility is a fundamental concept for many of us; Dasa Duhacek poignantly relates responsibility and accountability to citizenship thus giving ontological and ethical status to an otherwise epistemological concept. I would like to borrow this meaning in the irreverent attempt to adapt it to the academic context—I think it is necessary to give citizenship not only to ‘the others’ of America but also to the students learning about them and making sense of them in their own local contexts.
(5) Liana Borghi’s phrase ‘critical pedagogy’ taken up by Clare Hemmings’ project to internationalize the curriculum towards a ‘transformative pedagogy’ clearly define the position I wish to share.
(6) Clare Hemmings offers this effective definition of ‘transformative pedagogy.’
(7) I would like to emphasize my affinity with Eva Skaerbaek’s argument regarding pedagogy, when she underlines how important it is ‘to help students identify their experiences as knowledge’. I make it a point when teaching American multiculturalism to help my students identify as knowledge their own experience as Italian- or German- or Ladin-speakers or as immigrants or foreigners living together in the Dolomites.
(8) I find it fruitful here to refer to Elena Pulcini’s definition of the ‘knowledge of the other.’ Pulcini encourages us to pursue the feminist imperative to ‘bring home’ the knowledge that is the object of our teaching and join epistemology with ethics and politics, when she foregrounds as constitutive of our identity the ‘passion for the other.’ as constitutive of our identity—a ‘need for the Self.’ Thus it is by necessity that, as a teaching subject, I transform, adapt and translate the concepts that describe differences in ‘America’ to bring them ‘home’.
(9) The concept race links this paper most directly to Sara Goodman’s and Joan Anim-Addo’s; with the former I share an interest in European definitions of racial/ethnic diversities, with the latter a focus on the Caribbean and American black woman’s body and its translation/visibility in Europe.
(10) I refer to Joan Anim Addo’s essential articulation of the concept creolization. Our research group needs to further probe the extent to which Liana Borghi’s concept of complexity shares an affinity with Joan’s articulation of creolité.
(11) Clare Hemmings’ invitation to conjugate situatedeness with complexity is crucial in this regard.
(12) I feel an important affinity here with Luz Gomez Garcia’s definition of the specificity characterizing Islamic feminism, forced to question always Islamic knowledge and Western feminism at the same time, and to confront a triple consciousness—national, transnational and international.
(13) The concept of resistance requires further investigation. When I read Joan Anim Addo’s, Mina Karavanta’s, Sara Goodman’s and Elena Pulcini’s use of the term, I can see that there is the potential for tracing our connections, but more epistemological work is needed for this possibility to become shared knowledge.
(14) Mina’s definition is fundamental for making my point here. Her commitment to dismantling the dichotomy local vs. global provides the necessary framing of my pedagogical project.
(15) I am pointing in the direction indicated by Chandra T. Mohanty’s suggestion to focus on discoursive contexts when responding to ‘the challenges of race in our postcolonial condition’ and her proposal to build ‘cartographies of struggle’ ( ).
(16) Incidentally, the apish jaw was also used by Francis Galton to explicate the closer relation of the Irish to the Negro, just one example about how groups of people have been made and unmade ‘white’ in different political contexts (see David Roediger).
(17) My attention to Forbes’s study has been generated by my work on Jamaica Kincaid who claims her own African, Carib, and Scottish ancestry (Covi, 2003). In countries less imprisoned than the United States within the black-vs.-white metaphorical thinking, like the Caribbean, I find it is easier to articulate the complex intermixture that Forbes addresses and that is becoming more and more likely to emerge in the contemporary globalized context of migrating subjects, at the same time we cannot lose sight of the racialization of immigrants (see Mohanty).

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© 2005

Questions you may like to consider (added May 2007)

  1. Are you comfortable with using the concept of race as identity category? Do you find that in the contemporary context the concept of ethnicity is more politically correct and a fair substitute for the concept of race? To what extent do you find the binary sex-gender comparable to the binary race-ethnicity?
  2. Given the thin line that divides racialization from racism, as you critically address issues of representation that aim at engaging accountability, responsibility and answerability, what are your main concerns as a teacher or student?
  3. What is your reaction to a representation of Europe that includes plural sexualities and genders as well as a plurality of races and ethnicities?
  4. Are you comfortable with using the term "mixed races" with reference to the Americas and to Europe? Do you think that E. Glissant's theory of creolization can apply only to the Caribbean or to Europe as well?
  5. Would you accept the statement that the concept of creolization is conversant with queer theory?
  6. In accounting for the global while focusing on the local, do you consider issues of sex-gender conjugated with race-ethnicity a priority? If not, what is your priority?

email: giovanna.covi@lett.unitn.it