Dwaine Plaza knew the name of the class, African American Resistance in the Era of Donald Trump, would not go unnoticed.
That was by design.
“I wanted the class to get attention,” he says. “But the class is really about helping students see the historical parallels in African Americans’ current social, economic and political conditions, and how they will figure out how to resist.”
Plaza, who is Afro Caribbean, actually taught an iteration of the class long before Trump filed candidacy papers in 2015, but it had gone dormant in 2012. Plaza and CLA advisor and co-teacher Marilyn Stewart, who is African American, decided to resurrect the class the day after Trump won the presidency in 2016.
“Racial tensions have never disappeared and have escalated recently, but there is an intentional effort not to teach these topics with the hope they will go away,” Plaza says. “The past doesn’t just go away. You can still see evidence of how racism expresses itself today in where people live, what opportunities people have, education systems, health care systems, real estate patterns. American culture tells us to live in the ‘now.’ But when you forget about the past, anything can be repeated.”
CLA Dean Larry Rodgers joined Stewart and Plaza to teach the winter-term class. Rodgers’ academic expertise is in multicultural and regional American literature, particularly the Great Migration of southern African Americans throughout the 20th century.
In addition to literature, Plaza, Stewart and Rodgers built the class to look at African American resistance in sports, art, music, film and policy.
Think Colin Kaepernick, whose controversial kneeling during the national anthem echoes African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. Think Dr. Martin Luther King and Angela Davis. Think millions of African Americans rejecting the Jim Crow South, moving to cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and leaving an artistic imprint that is still bearing fruit.
“Resistance became about ways African Americans would not let the lens of white supremacy define them,” says Plaza. “They found a way of resisting in a situation that seemed hopeless.”
For JoyAnna Virtue, who is white, the class has been a revelation. Injustice was not something that presented itself often in her home-schooled, computer-based curriculum. “A lot of things that are common knowledge are new to me, like lynching or the history of slavery and its relation to the treatment of black bodies in sports,” she says.
Though some of the names and dates are new, the concepts are familiar for Capreece Kelsaw, a junior majoring in political science. Growing up African American in Portland, Kelsaw saw — through her own experiences and personal reading — many of the injustices the class examines.
“Things are more modern now, but the issues are the same: Black people still get killed and disenfranchised, are imprisoned more and portrayed unfairly in the media. They deal with more injustice in the education and health care systems,” she says.
Knowing that some of her classmates are hearing about these issues for the first time can be frustrating, Kelsaw admits. But it’s encouraging, too.
“We spend a lot of time talking about race and the history of African Americans. It’s not really common on campus. This class is one of the better options to do that,” Kelsaw says. “People are more willing to speak compared to the beginning of the class, and that’s cool.”
An atmosphere where students — regardless of race — would contribute in a class about race and racism required Stewart, Plaza and Rodgers to consciously set a stage.
“We very deliberately created a space where all students would feel safe talking. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” Stewart says. “These are not topics we talk about every day. We shaped our environment so students and guests would feel comfortable with backlash regarding what they were saying. We created the class to have historical context, but we wanted students to see and voice other similarities from this era. We wanted students to be able to learn something from someone with opposing views and not try to shout someone down.”
For Brooke Bishop, who is white, and whose goal is to become an English teacher, these conversations are hopeful.
“There’s something really cool about being in such a diverse room, including the teaching team. You’re seeing all sorts of people raising consciousness. Some have lived what we are talking about. Some want to learn. It gives me hope people can have common ground without color blindness — that we can understand differences instead of burying them.”