Friday, 22 November 2019

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Teaching OJ

Twenty years ago Americans were captivated by the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Nicole’s husband, sports icon and movie star OJ Simpson was accused of the brutal slayings and the now infamous trial both fascinated and divided the public, mostly around racial lines.

By the fall of 1995 Americans had been fixated on the OJ trial for over a year and I started my first year teaching in the humanities department at a central Maine preparatory school, oblivious to the divided social turmoil my contemporary issues classroom would come to represent. Most of my students were post graduate basketball and football players, and like on campus, they dominated the tone in my cramped space. This group of athletes, many with weak academic and social skills and some from poor inner city communities, represented strong opinions, prejudices and angst around issues of race that were prevalent in the USA.

The volatile mix of students was something I realized early but I also believed I was there to facilitate the proper examination of issues relevant to them, the country and the world they lived in. We studied many topics including the OJ Simpson trial that was reaching climax that fall. It seemed any topic could touch raw nerves and discussions about the OJ trial drove large athletic young men to become angry and on a couple occasions punches were thrown.

The day of the OJ verdict students showed up to class anticipating the outcome of the trial. In typical fashion they filed in loud, boisterous and primed for the verdict. I had the television set up, and as they squeezed into student desks not designed for many of their large frames, our dean of students came to my room, delaying the start of class. We had a short discussion of matters I don’t remember with the chatter of excited anticipation as our backdrop. “Come on Gerrick let’s do this,” someone said, the dean left and I proceeded to start class. The jury was still out and while some wore their opinions loudly, others kept their opinions close to the vest. There was an uneasy nervousness in the country, and in my small almost all white Central Maine town, in my first year as an educator, in a room more suited to a walk in closet the great racial mix of America, with all the fear and prejudices, was on display. We anticipated the outcome under the enormous weight of society's collective history of mistrust, misunderstandings and wrong-doings.

Suddenly the jury was back, the verdict was read “not guilty” and what took place next was a snapshot of the American racial divide. Without exception every black student in class rose to their feet wildly excited, ecstatic. They jumped up and down, gave high fives and howled “if the glove doesn’t fit, if the glove doesn’t fit,” as stunned white students hung their heads in disbelief.

Today, as pundits debate the guilt or innocence of young men like Michael Brown of Ferguson, I think back to that moment in class. That day a black life mattered and the guilt or innocence of OJ seemed less important than the significance of a black man beating the system that jails and kills blacks at levels we should all be ashamed of. For some in my class it was personal, as they came from neighborhoods steeped in violence and injustice with family members and friends in jail or shot by police. Yes, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman mattered, but my black students appeared numb to the taking of their white lives. I saw in their dismissal a mirror reflection of white culture’s denial of black suffering and oppression. Do we not see each other as human?

Twenty years later we still live in a nation deeply divided by race and the easily quantifiable suffering of blacks still escapes the reality of many white Americans. This denial or unawareness is capitulated by a media more akin to wartime propaganda portraying enemy soldiers as animals. At war with our black brothers and sisters TV crews poured into Baltimore this summer after the murder of Freddie Gray to shed false light on black America. Our national media set up in front of shuttered run down buildings, watched ten thousand people over several days peacefully protest, witnessed countless examples of citizens protecting property, received beverages from protesters but produced nothing more than a false narrative of rampant looting and destruction. Yes, a couple hundred or so angry teenagers caused damage but the general public came away with a propagandized image of outlaw black citizens rioting and looting by the thousands.

This made up story works propaganda magic when it’s coupled with carefully orchestrated dramas about whites, like in the case of the heavily armed criminal Clive Bundy, who threatened violence and incited others to do the same. Juxtaposed to the hype around black violence, the telling of the Bundy story displayed a man standing up rightfully for himself; a hero. Like perfectly executed wartime propaganda the black enemy becomes inhuman and the white champion exemplifies and keeps his humanity.

Many Americans, then and today, are manipulated by these talented image makers, who work carefully to keep us divided into fully human and less than human and my black students twenty years ago, jubilant at the OJ verdict, marginalized and vilified by society, saw their collective humanity finally recognized on the national stage and responded in victory. After all, conditions on the ground and TV propaganda tells the story of us versus them.