A N N E X   P R E S S    2015 

STEVE BENSON                          03 17 15

 

[AN EDUCATION]

Discussions recently with friends about race relations in our nation and in our communities within it led me to reflect on my personal history of formative experiences of encounters with the diaspora of African-American life in this country.

> 2nd and 3rd grade: I attended a borough (for those two years only, rather    than  suburban [afterward] or nearby small town [before that]) school in Princeton, NJ, and found that my semi-idolized best friend was leader of the white faction on the playground that sort of avoided or faced off against a black faction, exchanging a bilateral innuendo of threat without expressive force or incident I can remember

> the plainly segregated geography of Princeton as a town, blacks seemingly sequestered in a limited precinct, the appearances of which suggested to me density of population and economic marginality,
> Lawrenceville School, a boarding school that traditionally served affluent male youth as preparatory to Ivy League matriculation, where as a lesser-status day boy I recall no non-white day boys, and the only black student was resident in Africa when not at school,
> Yale College, where the contentious and laborious seeming authority of the SDS over the campus’s left-leaning political spaces seemed to me to collapse under the pressure of the Bobby Seale trial and the travails of the Panthers in New Haven, as well as the Vietnam moratorium a year later,
> and where as a sophomore (I think it was) I wrote and mimeographed an anonymous stapled broadside that transposed a current journalistic account of tales and attitudes of soldiers toward Vietnamese peasants on the ground in the Vietnam War by changing all the nouns to represent facts and attitudes of urban American police toward inner city blacks (or perhaps, just as patently, it was the other way around – I haven’t seen this text in many years and may no longer have a copy) -- a cultural intervention that I told no one else about and that felt to me like the most urgent and transgressive alarum against complacency in the student body and that, to my knowledge, no one ever read or commented on,
> and Princeton University, where I spent two summers (home from my MFA program at UCIrvine) as assistant teacher in a photography, writing, and literature class and one as teacher of a literature, drama and composition class in an Upward Bound program for black and Latino high school kids from Trenton and Newark, the program introducing me not only to these edgy, plainspoken, charismatic and unnerving adolescents who might actually enter and stay in colleges but also a variety of African-American controversies and literature from Jean Toomer and Toni Morrison and Sonia Sanchez to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael that I otherwise might have waited many years to reckon with, if at all, much less so vitally and necessarily -- a very fortunate experience I was happy to learn from and hoped the students might as well, though it felt a little strange for me to urge black culture and black power ideology upon them. Fortunately the administration was skillful, dedicated, resilient, and African-American, encouraging me simply to do my best to sustain this opportunity. The racial, cultural and economic backgrounds of the students were deeply significant and intertwined, and to understand this was part of their and my learning through such a curriculum, one which engaged them through creative writing, photography and drama as well as through reading, discussion and volleyball. The questions aroused as well as the learnings internalized are always with me.