The Pedagogical Affordances of Black Lives Matter Elegies

Emily Ruth Rutter, Ball State University

With Tiffany Austin (1975-2018), Sequoia Maner, and darlene anita scott, I recently co-edited Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge 2020), a collection of scholarly essays and contemporary poetry that showcases elegiac, anti-racist responses to the state-sanctioned killings of Black men, women, and children. As we note in Revisiting the Elegy, African American poets have long invested in the elegy less because of its utility for expunging individual grief and more for its capacity to both affirm Black solidarity and resist white hegemony. African American elegists, for example, often subvert the expected elegiac turn toward consolation, echoing instead the poetry of protest: no justice, no peace. As I began co-editing Revisiting the Elegy several years ago, I also began making use of African American elegies in the classroom as a vehicle for engaging students in the kind of active listening, critical self-reflection, and dialogue necessary to dismantle the white-supremacist ways of knowing that, to one extent or another, we have all been taught. My own whiteness and the setting in which I teach African American literature—a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) state university in the Midwest—have also encouraged me to dwell on the moments when elegists implicate myself and my students in the systems that lead to the scapegoating and criminalizing of Black folx. Indeed, while we may entertain the fantasy that the recent anti-Black violence animating our screens and drawing us into the streets is removed from our classrooms and campus landscapes, Black elegists remind us that racism and intersectional oppression have always already structured our learning spaces.

To illustrate the pedagogical affordances of these elegiac engagements, I’ll share my recent experiences teaching two poems included in Revisiting the Elegy: Danielle Legros Georges’s “Poem of History” and Lauren K. Alleyne’s “Poem After the Verdict: For Trayvon.” When I taught Georges’s “Poem of History,” I encouraged students to consider elegy capaciously as a form utilized to mourn not only a singular death but also the pernicious forces conspiring against those on the margins. My students and I were especially captivated by and implicated in these lines:

The University sprawls like a beast. How beautiful

Its lawns, its evening lights. Patrolled by dark

Guards drawn from the dark city’s periphery,

An irony not lost on them, posted in inky

Corners, shielding the people of the University

From others like them. Inside and out.

After actively listening to each other read these lines aloud several times, my students and I responded in writing and then in discussion to the following questions: Where do I situate myself in this poem? In what ways am I vulnerable to and/or participating in the structural conditions that this poem documents, interrogates, and/or reimagines? As we shared our responses aloud, students drew connections between the town-gown divide that characterizes our campus and Georges’s description of the “beautiful / lawns” and “evening lights” of the university, which are off limits to those without the economic means to access them. We also could not escape the ways in which those on the margins are often tasked with reinforcing their own exclusion from the institutions that have long hoarded the privileges of higher education. This poem also generated a necessary conversation about the ways that institutions such as universities propagate fear about “dangerous” neighborhoods (and often the Black and Brown bodies that occupy them) in ways that lead to the endemic suspicion of unarmed Black men such as George Floyd (1973-2020).

In a more traditional elegiac vein, Alleyne’s “Poetry Workshop After the Verdict: For Trayvon” mourns the death of Trayvon Martin and the gutting but familiar feeling of injustice evoked by the exoneration of his killer: “inside your skin—a dead brown boy and his free killer, / his judge and jury of women, the six not guilty bells / clanging again and again in your weary ear.” We will all recall that George Zimmerman’s acquittal catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement that has galvanized large swaths of Americans to protest racial injustice ever since. Yet Alleyne’s speaker is not in the streets or on social media but instead in a creative writing classroom in which “it’s time to poet,” meaning here that it is time to assimilate to the expectations of the white gaze. Reading and listening to this poem, I joined my students in examining in writing and then in discussion: How does the white gaze function in the university setting, including the classroom? My students were especially struck by these lines:

You try to follow instructions: Write what you see.

It’s simple. You walk down the road,

safe in your pack of poets—women, white.

(You do not write this in your notebook).

Compelled by the second person, present tense “you,” we all inhabited, however briefly, the perspective of the only Black woman student in an otherwise exclusively white learning space. Several Black women shared their own experiences with alienation and the feelings of being silenced on campus, while several white students seemed to recognize for the first time that creative writing and literature classrooms—often populated by “pack[s]” of “white women”—were not always a safe space for “writ[ing] what you see,” especially if what you observe is white supremacy. In these discussions of Alleyne’s and Georges’s elegies, I also implicated myself, especially joining my students in probing: What else do I need to learn about how racism shows up in my learning spaces, and in what ways am I not listening or refusing to hear the knowledge that is close at hand? These are live questions that as educators we must continue to address if we want to avoid seeing another unarmed Black person murdered by the state.

To be clear, I am not organizing a political movement in my classes, but I am teaching students how to, as Audre Lorde advises in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” “devise ways to use each other’s difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles.” Whether implicitly or explicitly, I am also asking students to believe that, as Ibram X. Kendi notes in How to Be an Antiracist, “Racial inequities are not inevitable.” Through the painful reckonings that African American elegies stage, my students and I have been investing in poetry not as a diversion from activist struggle but instead as an essential source of knowledge about how white supremacy functions within and without and how, in turn, we may fulfill our roles in dismantling it. 

Emily Ruth Rutter is an Associate Professor of English at Ball State University. She is the author of Invisible Ball of Dreams: Literary Representations of Baseball behind the Color Line and The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry as well as the co-editor of Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era.

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