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No Despair of the Soul: Harriett Jernigan on Teaching Counterstory

group of students with teacher
Pictured above: students in fall's PWR 194HT

Dr. Harriett Jernigan is teaching the first course in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric’s new Notation in Cultural Rhetorics: “Telling Your Story as Counterstory: The Rhetoric of Critical Race Theory.” The course plots a generative, challenging series of assignments through texts by Toni Morrison, Derick Bell, Aja Martinez, Richard Delgado, Kehinde Wiley, Harmonia Rosales, Kara Walker, Yinka Shonibare and Chris Buck, among others. Out of this work, students learn to generate a counterstory of their own that has “the potential to inspire and mobilize people . . . to instruct and educate, arouse participation and collective energy” (Bell). In a class built on pedagogical practices of collaborative feedback, intertextual analysis, multimodal learning, and the methodological foundations of Critical Race Theory, Jernigan “reframes for students what it means to feel marginalized.” 

Here are Dr. Jernigan’s responses to some questions about her course:

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an interviewer asks him, insistently, about hope in America and he responds: “I knew then that I had failed. And I knew that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me.” Coates writes in the tradition of Derrick Bell; one of the important quotes you give your students is from his book And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice, where he has his fictional character, the lawyer-prophet Geneva Crenshaw, write: “It appears that my worst fears have been realized: we have made progress in everything yet nothing has changed." How do you inspire students to pursue rhetorical research that activates towards change while affirming their experience in a world where nothing has changed?

When I think about the above quotes, I have to keep in mind the thing that they also both have in common: just because nothing’s changed doesn’t mean you give up agitating for it. Coates tells his son Samori in Between the World and Me that the knowledge that the game is rigged, that systemic racism is part and parcel of American life, does not stop him from resisting it. He writes about what he learned in the streets of his youth:

"None of us were promised to end the fight on our feet, fists raised to the sky. We could not control our enemies’ number, strength, nor weaponry…But whether you fought or ran, you did it together, because that is the part that was in our control. What we must never do is willingly hand over our own bodies or the bodies of our friends. That was the wisdom: We knew we did not lay down the direction of the streets, but despite that we could—and must—fashion the way of our walk…[T]he struggle, in and of itself, has meaning…So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope" (69-71).

Derrick Bell explored the same ideas in his work. In his preface to Faces at the Bottom of the Well, he writes that knowing the hopelessness of a situation is its own form of liberation:

"We identify with and hail as hero the man or woman willing to face death without even flinching. Why? Because, while no one escapes death, those who conquer their dread of it are freed to live more fully. In similar fashion, African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status. Only in this way can we prevent ourselves from being dragged down by society’s racial hostility. Beyond survival lies the potential to perceive more of both a reason and the means for further struggle" (12). 

In short, both authors imply that there are different types of resignation. An intellectual resignation, an acknowledgment of a truth, does not mean an emotional and mental resignation of the soul. Sometimes, simple survival is triumph enough. Ultimately, both Coates and Bell demonstrate through their actions, of engaging with the world, of writing, leaving notes and receipts for others to find and process, that they believe in the fundamental value of struggle in itself. The oppressor will give the oppressed nothing, all while demanding more. And as a result, struggle will continue.  

The conversation, for example, in the taxicab in “Racial Symbols: A Limited Legacy,” does not end with an insurmountable hopelessness, despite all the facts the conversants elucidate. It ends instead with a call to action, to action with even more clarity and intent. No one intends to stop fighting. There is little else left to do.

Critical Race Theory provides students with a space to identify and challenge dominant narratives (or “stock stories”) by studying their rhetoric and developing counterstories in response. CRT has, consequently, become a “political flash point”—something you discuss with your students. You share, for example, its contested place in the American classroom: "This past summer states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism…Nine states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues." Given these attacks on CRT as a pedagogy, I wonder how you’re feeling teaching it at Stanford. Are there other courses like yours engaging with CRT at Stanford, is there a community of Professors teaching this in the classroom--that you can point your students to their classes, their research?

This would take a lot of tracking down. There are other professors who teach or work with CRT. Our own Jonah Willinhganz does a course with a professor in CSRE. There’s the recent problem the Black professor was experiencing online.  But I’d have to research each of them and don’t know if or how they’d want to be mentioned.  

In teaching the move from stock story to counterstory, do you see a place for multi-racial coalition building? I’m thinking here of Bell’s statement that “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites,” but also of john powell’s work on bridging and belonging (through The Othering and Belonging Institute, UC Berkeley) and V. Jo Hsu’s discussion (from September Sessions reading), of a “pedagogy that would look toward reciprocity and relationality  rather  than  an  agonistic  encounter  between  individuals  and (“dominant”)  culture” (“Reflection as Relationality: Rhetorical Alliances and Teaching Alternative Rhetorics,” 147). 

I think there is a place for multi-racial coalition building. But I think we still have a ways to go before that is fully possible for a couple of reasons. Perceived through the lens of Derrick Bell’s concept of interest convergence, advances made in human and civil rights for marginalized and underrepresented people occur at a glacial pace, complicated by the fact that change enshrined in law does not immediately translate into change in real life. Dominant-culture beliefs and assumptions about equality and equity do change, but not always because of goodwill towards the marginalized and underrepresented. Those changes, as illustrated by Bell and other Crits, show us they are often products of campaigns to repair or defend reputation, conceptual arenas in which political and ideological battles are waged. In short, changes enacted by the dominant culture do not necessarily align with a desire to usher positive change into the lives of the people they were designed for. 

With an eye towards Powell and Hsu’s concepts of bridge-building and reciprocity and relationality, I think that people can build bridges and secure reciprocity, but I would argue that the dominant culture more often than not engages in bridge-building and reciprocity for concrete, rather than abstract, reasons. Municipal outreach programs, for example, have outward-facing explanations, but inward-facing motivations that differ. The city wants to help citizens, but it really wants to reduce costs, increase property values, solve fiscal problems rather than human ones. And once again, intention becomes enshrined in law. And once again, the people who are supposed to commit to that law often do not. We have countless examples of this in just about every state in the Union.

The question also makes me think of Langston Hughes’ story, “Coffee Break.” Our hero Jesse B. Semple is discussing race relations with his white boss:

[The Boss says,] ‘Why, boy, I like you. I am a liberal. I voted for Kennedy. And this time for Johnson. I believe in integration. Now that you got it, though, what more do you want?”

“Reintegration,” I said. 

“Meaning by that, what?”

“That you be integrated with me, not me with you.”

“Do you mean that I come and live in Harlem?” asked my boss. “Never!”

“I live in Harlem,” I said. 

“You are adjusted to it,” said my boss. “But there is so much crime in Harlem.”

“There are no two-hundred-thousand-dollar bank robberies, though,’ I said, ‘of which there was three lately elsewhere—all done by white folks, and nary one in Harlem. The biggest and best crime is outside Harlem. We never has no half-million-dollar jewelry robberies, no missing star sapphires. You better come uptown with me and reintegrate.”

“[Blacks] are the ones who want to be integrated,” said my boss. 

“And white folks are the ones who do not want to be,” I said. 

“Up to a point, we do,” said my boss. 

“That is what [Blacks want],” I said, ‘to remove that point.”

“The coffee break is over,’ said my boss.”

The offer/request for equal reciprocity that does not result in the conformity of the minority is often rejected. 

What text do you love, most, to teach in the classroom? 

In this class, I have most enjoyed teaching stories by Derrick Bell, in particular Afrolantica, because it is a perfect summary of the push-and-pull relationship the dominant culture has with Black people in particular, and nicely parses the diversity and ambivalence of the discourse surrounding conceptions about “belonging” in the Black community. I’ve also enjoyed introducing the students to Langston Hughes’ Simple stories for the Chicago Defender, and his history as a radical. I think we’ve also gotten a lot out of other sources we explored, including Get OutBlack Panther--both the graphic novel and the movie--and visual texts by Chris Buck, Kara Walker, and Harmonia Rosales.

Your course takes students through a series of carefully designed assignments, each one aimed at advancing and deepening their rhetorical skills. The second assignment is a digital version of their nuanced counterstory, a project that has students draw on research, personal experience and cultural rhetorical traditions. In a course that takes students through the steps of “speaking their truth,” you provide a space of catharsis and empowerment. What is the most challenging assignment or space in the quarter, working with students towards their final e-portfolio? Why do you think that is?

The most challenging assignment this quarter was by far the Stock Story assignment. Ironically, I thought the process of identifying a majoritarian story and then finding evidence to confirm it would be the easiest because it is a rather purely academic assignment that does not yet require their full, undivided emotional investment and also validates an experience or phenomenon they’ve always felt, but perhaps never interrogated. Technically, they only had to conduct and assemble research in one of a few written genres. I imagined that they would be partially emotionally invested, since they were identifying a stock story that has had an effect on them. But I didn’t imagine it would be so difficult for them to complete.

First, some majoritarian stories are embedded in larger ones, or are difficult to put into words. And once the students could parse out the actual story they had in mind and then put it into words, a new issue arose. It turned out that this part of the process had a two-fold effect: Once students had put the majoritarian narrative into more concrete terms and found overwhelming proof for what they’ve always suspected, more than they’d imagined they would find, they were even more incensed than before. (Since I’m completing the assignments with them, I could totally identify with the sensation as I worked on my stock story.)

As a result, they wanted to argue with the majoritarian story in the process of walking through it. Since we were simply focusing on the majoritarian story, they felt frustrated, as though the story was taking up space with impunity. But I reminded them that the rest of the assignments would be devoted to challenging and interrogating the majoritarian story in multiple modes and genres, that their counterstories would end up taking up all the space in the room. And I’m glad we stuck to the plan, because it made us all even more passionate about creating innovative counterstories that systematically address as many aspects of the stock story as possible.

Do you have a favorite visual “counterstory”? 

I think right now my favorite visual counterstories are made by Harmonia Rosales. Rosales writes of her work that she “is entirely open to the ebb and flow of contemporary society in which she seeks to reimagine new forms of aesthetic beauty, snuggled somewhere between pure love and ideological counter-hegemony.” Her works subvert standard Eurocentric depictions of cultural phenomena and concepts of beauty. Her reimagining of paintings in a visual cultural rhetoric that invokes her ancestors speaks to my own heritage and fascination with Renaissance Art.

Artist Harmonia Rosales "The Creation of God"

I’m also very fond of Kara Walker. I’d actually never heard of her until a student submitted a rhetorical analysis of her installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, in 2019.  Walker’s installation as well as her room-size series of silhouettes, even her artist statements, most notably the statement she wrote for Look Away! Look Away! Look Away!!directly confront majoritarian stories about slavery. Her work is quite powerful.

I also think “natural” hair is a fantastic visual counterstory. Interestingly enough, in my PWR 1 class, a student stumbled across Laetiita Ky, who does hair art that challenges dominant culture beliefs about and control of Black hair.

Much of the work you assign in class is collaborative and reflective, where students mirror and challenge each others’ deeply held beliefs and then reflect on that experience. For the reading assignments, as well, you ask students not only what they thought but what they felt. This seems a foundational move in CRT, to engage the whole student in the classroom. Do you find that there is a general harmony between these spheres for students or is there often dissonance—where students’ ideas and feelings don’t align, are in tension with each other? 

I think the students are engaged in a process of fine-tuning, reconciling some of their reactions with their feelings, adjusting for what they learn. If anything, the course, the research, the contemplation, has made their feelings more complex, which brings with it an extra layer of emotional labor. When reading certain counterstories, we noticed how they reflected and reinforced some stock stories, which then led us to question other stories, including our own. I think the more nuanced their feelings about their stock stories become, the more nuanced their counterstories become. We consider audience as well, which ideas we most want to convey, and which feelings we most want to evoke in the reader/viewer/listener. When you work with such a constellation, it’s clear that you’ll never have full harmony. But I think the students bring feeling, thought, and audience into alignment pretty well.  

Always a class proceeds in ways we don’t expect, gaining momentum or stalling in places we hadn’t guessed, or taking on a communal life or direction of its own. What has surprised you most about this class?

I think the thing that surprises me most is how we manage to do what Derrick Bell strove for, to “tell what [we] view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair.” The things we talk about in class are “dark,” as the students have remarked, make no mistake. But we do manage to escape disabling despair, to channel the fear that things will not change into creative work, scholarly work, that we do not remain stuck but continue to move forward. Considering the heaviness of our task, that’s pretty impressive.  

I also asked the students what their one takeaway was, what they would say to someone else if they were asked about the course:

“Counterstories can take shape to become stock stories themselves.” 

“There is more to the story than what is being told to you.” 

“You will learn; and the more you learn, the more you learn about how you don’t know anything.” 

“Even counterstories have stock stories embedded into them: be aware.”

“Each day we’re all creating and living our own counterstory.” This is my favorite.

“Question information being presented to you.”