Activist Teaching




I

’ve been having these
flashbacks recently while I’ve been teaching. Not really acid
flashbacks (well I guess they could be), but vivid split-second
memories of where I was and what I was reading  between 1964
and the mid-1970s. The iridescent quality of the images is sometimes
startling—the acute memory of being on an uptown train with
friends discussing Shulamith Firestone’s

The Dialectic of
Sex

in November of 1971; the visceral sensation of hearing about
the first TV reports of the riots in the mostly Black, Central Ward
of Newark, New Jersey (where I was slated to go to college two months
later); being at an SDS meeting in mid-September 1970 discussing
Angela Davis’s possible whereabouts after she fled California
with the FBI hot on her trail. The emotional power they carry is
weirdly out of proportion to the meanings I usually ascribe to the
actual events. 


Maybe this isn’t that surprising—these past two months
I’ve been teaching (for me) two new courses: “Introduction
to Women’s Studies


at Dartmouth” and “Power
to the People: Black Power, Radical Feminism, and Gay Liberation”


at Harvard. In each course I’ve relied not only on a vast
amount of texts, films, music, and images that would be useful,
but also on my own experiences of the period. I haven’t been
teaching a long time (I came to it late in life after years of writing
and activism) so this is probably not a new feeling for people who
have combined activism and teaching. But for me it is slightly unsettling,
but in a nice way, sort of. 


What is curious, is that these memories are quite different from
those that I have when I teach gay-themed courses—“Introduction
to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies” or “Queer


Marriage, Hate Crimes, and ‘Will and Grace’: Contemporary
Issues in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies”


in which we cover a great deal of history. 


It occurred to me that there are two curious aspects to what I was
experiencing. The first is the general oddness of teaching events
that are so central to my own experience as “history.”
To me they feel like “a while ago,” not “history.”
But that is probably the nature of what we end up calling history;
it takes a while to transform itself from something that happens
to people to being historical record. 







Of course, my first thought was “this is perfect, this is material
I really know.” But I never took into consideration that “what
I knew” was, by nature of my experience, an often limited view
of the material. I have visceral reactions to much of what we have
been discussing—I read Kate Millett’s

Sexual Politics

the month it was published, and followed the complicated fighting
and maneuvering of early second wave feminist community formations.
While an invaluable starting point, this is a small fragment of
the larger picture. I can, and have, easily filled in the larger
framework with other materials and narratives, but the fact remains
that in the classroom my view takes precedence. This has meant that
I’ve actually had to work twice as hard to convey a more accurate
historical picture and analysis of the times. The process has been
a complicated one as I need to (psychologically and emotionally)
locate myself in this history and then simultaneously view it from
the outside. 


As a progressive, I have always seen these experiences as transformative;
they are embedded in my core identity and refiguring them is disquieting.
But the flip side of this is that these acts of disengagement can
also be liberating as I lose track of my “self” and begin
to see my friends and I as minor players in this amazing, larger
tapestry. There is something bracingly good for the ego to realize
that, in the larger Works Progress Administration mural of social
change, you are a small speck in the left corner. 


I never have these vivid flashbacks in my LGBT courses, which is
odd since in class we sometimes read about specific meetings at
which I was present. But what has become clear to me is that, although
I’ve worked within the gay liberation movement since it’s
inception in 1969, my central political commitment has never been
as radically formative to me as those early years of the black power
movement and radical feminism, of which I was never a central player.
And it is true that when teaching “Power to the People,”
the material that really excites me in the classroom are works such
as Eldridge Clever’s

Soul on Ice

and Firestone’s

The Dialectic of Sex

. This is, I think, because the thinking
and the theorizing of the gay liberation movement, while vitally
important almost all emerged from the early work of the women and
men dealing with race, gender, and sex. 


My own history with this was that the radicalism of black power
and early second wave feminism—from self-empowerment to consciousness
raising to disruptive social actions—were completely transferable
to the needs and the aims of the gay liberation movement. By 1969
and 1970 my work in gay liberation felt like a simple extension
of what the other groups had started several years before. 



A

s I have been teaching these
courses, I’ve been amazed at how much the students, some of
whom were born in 1988, do not know. But also, more satisfyingly,
how eager they are for this information. To a large degree this
is all new to them: many students have never heard of the Black
Panthers, the concept of Consciousness Raising Groups, the involvement
of the gay liberationists in the anti-war movement and any of the
coalition work (successful and unsuccessful) that occurred during
this time. The students who sign up for these courses usually have
progressive politics, but they often have no sense of history. I
feel as though I am bringing this past to people who want and need
it, but who experience it at a distance. I wonder what it means
to them? Is it like my hearing about World War I in grammar school,
a distant echo of events that have only some vague relationship
to today? But I also know that when I am teaching ideas and events
that occurred 40 years ago, I feel there is a link beteween the
past and the present to the future. 


I am not quite sure what it is or what it means to the students,
but it is there. And it is important. 


 







Michael
Bronski teaches  at Dartmouth College. His latest book is

Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps

(St.
Martin’s Press, 2003).