American University, Anti-Blackness, AU, Countering Stereotypes, Dinaw Mengestu, Elitism, Internalized Racism, Self-Criticism, Sepha Stephanos, Teaching and Learning, Teaching Mistakes, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007), Washington DC: Life Inside a Monument, White Gaze
Yes, I’m back! After two months of grading, writing, pitching, grading, revising, pitching, and more grading, though I’m not sure I’m ready to be back, but I have things to get down on here anyway.
I have taught eighty undergrad and grad-level classes since 1996, and been a part of more than 90 high school, college, and graduate classes as a guest lecturer, TA, instructor, or professor since 1991. I have definitely made more than my share of mistakes in the classroom. Miscounted the number of students to split into small groups. Occasionally quipped in New Yorker-sarcasm English to my Midwestern or Southern-raised students, not exactly endearing myself to them. I have miscalculated grades, posted an electronic announcement to one class when it was meant for another. But, on historical context, historical content, storytelling, use of materials, the substance and guts of courses, I can honestly say I do not allow myself to make egregious errors.
Now, that does not mean that I haven’t inherited errors from courses that others had taught or haven’t been hamstrung with mediocre materials and textbooks that my previous institutions (and one current one) have said were just fine for my students over the years. This is about my unforced errors.
This semester, in my Washington, DC class (the full title is Washington, DC: Life Inside a Monument, a terrible title, really) at AU, I made one all-time error, one in which I should take 60 percent of the blame. I chose a book for the course based mostly on a couple of recommendations from colleagues, a Washington Post review of the best books on DC and the DMV, and an admittedly quick skimming of the first 15 pages. It was Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, a historical novel about the lonely and isolated experience of one Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian immigrant living in Logan Circle, set some 17 years after his escape from the Ethiopian Civil War (roughly 1996 or 1997).
I picked it ultimately because there are precious few books about any aspect the DC immigrant experience, much less one about the history of Black and Brown immigrants in the area. The problem was, I decided to read the book — one month into the semester, that is. Once I dug in, I started having flashbacks of my AP English class with Rosemary Martino, where we spent the better part of three months reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Mengestu’s Sepha was not lonely, apathetic, and dyspeptic merely because he was a thirtysomething stranger in the strange land of the US, of DC, of Black DC. I’m more than sure that loneliness and isolation are an inevitable consequence of leaving one’s home country and family behind for another country in another part of the world. But no, most of Sepha’s isolation was self-imposed. For 17 years, this man lived in a predominantly Black part of DC, in the midst of a nascent Ethiopian residential and business community within walking distance of his apartment and corner store, during the heart of the Marion Barry years. Yet he only has two friends, one from Kenya, the other from the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Really?
What was worse was once the White character Judith and her biracial daughter Naomi moved into Logan Square at the height of Sepha’s deepening self-loathing and depression. Judith apparently bought a mansion-turned-broken-down-addict hangout across the street from Sepha, and spent a significant chunk of change fixing it up for upper-middle-class habitability. Sepha becomes enamored with the two of them as they began to frequent his falling-apart store. He becomes sort-of-friends with Judith, and sort-of-a-father-figure to Naomi.
There were at least four times between pages 52 and 120 where I put down the book out of sheer frustration with the plot, the characters, and with Mengestu for writing this non-historical, non-realistic historical novel. Mengestu crafted a main character that had serious internalized racism, and was as anti-Black as a drunk Trump supporter at a tiki-torch rally. How can any reader explain a man who owns a store for the better part of a decade and a half in Black Washington, interacting with Black women of all classes and stripes — some presumably who may have struck up a conversation with him, some presumably with a precocious preteen daughter — and it’s this first White women in the neighborhood that raises your spirits?
Mengestu had Sepha do awkward Data-from-Star-Trek: TNG-type things. Like standing in the middle of the sidewalk a block from his place while watching Judith go into her house. Or over-explaining the shabbiness of his apartment to Judith, who invited herself over to his place. Or weird kisses between Sepha and Judith, not unlike ones involving two tweeners unsure of themselves. The awkwardness ultimately stems from Sepha’s elitism, self-loathing, and internalized racism. Judith is too good for me, was what Sepha thought, just like he thought he was too good for too poor and too Black Logan Circle. That’s why this thirtysomething man was acting like a weird homeless stalker, fully befitting a macabre and existential Dostoyevsky work.
But then came the backlash from the Mengestu-reverse-one-drop-rule approach to pre-gentrification gentrification. Somehow, the Black Washingtonians in Logan Circle became so hostile to the presence of one White woman with a kid that they threw a brick through her window and later set fire to her house. In what scenario in any major city in the US have Black folks ever deliberately attempted to forcibly drive out White folks who happened to move into a predominately Black neighborhood? There isn’t one.
My students, for the most part, though, loved the book. They thought it was “so cool” to get a glimpse of the “real” immigrant experience from an atypical perspective. They really liked the interplay between Sepha, Judith, and Naomi. They mostly wrote papers relating the book to the actual relations between Black Washingtonians in Shaw with the Ethiopia community there. They used Mengestu’s book as evidence that Blacks in Shaw drove Ethiopians out of Shaw and across the border into Silver Spring, Maryland, all because Black Shaw residents blocked renaming the U Street strip “Little Ethiopia” in 2005. All these conclusions, despite two full hours of discussion over two weeks about the books and its historical and local inconsistencies and stereotypes.
I haven’t been this beside myself about having inadvertently reinforced racial and cultural stereotypes since the first time I taught World History under Peter Stearns in 1994. But at least I was a 24-year-old grad student then. Now, I’m thinking that maybe 2.5 hours per week with my mostly affluent and White students is not enough time to counteract the idea that an excursion to Georgetown, Nats Park, or Chinatown is peak DC exploration. I also think that me as the little-old-nobody professor cannot overcome a MacArthur “genius” award-winner author whose book libraries possess in volume and school districts like DCPS and Montgomery County (and apparently) all over the country regularly use.
But if Mengestu is a genius, he is such because he has captured the White gaze. A story about Ethiopian migration to the US and the impact of such on that generation between the late-1970s and the turn of the 21st century. It is tailor-made to pull on the heartstrings of White Baby Boomers and loaded with a sense of exoticism. Mengestu’s DC looks more like where he grew up in real life (Peoria, Illinois and in the Chicagoland area — pretty White-bred communities, really) than any part of the DMV I have experienced since 1992. And no, being a Georgetown University student and earning a bachelor’s degree in the process is nowhere near enough time in DC to realistically depict even a sliver of DC, fiction or nonfiction.
I have learned my lesson. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears will not be a part of any course I teach moving forward. I will continue to pick books as I always have before this one. I will rely on my own counsel, and unlike most of my colleagues, will actually continue to read them before I put them in my syllabi. As for this DC course, I am replacing Mengestu’s book of anti-Blackness and elitism with Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls. If I am going to continue to use historical fiction, it should center Black girls and Black women living in DC/the DMV, and not Mengestu’s kinder, gentler version of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Sepha.