One student in my class this semester, a teenager, an African American, happened not to have this typical demeanor. He didn’t make an effort to hide his lack of knowledge or to downplay that it mattered. Astonishment, disturbance–you could see him working things out. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, though often, by the time he got around to asking one, so much time had passed that I had to backtrack a ways to supply an answer. As I talked about Hemings and Jefferson, I saw these operations going on across his face. We were almost finished and moving on to the next bit, when he frowned and raised his hand. “Did he rape her?” he asked.
I repeated the fact of their age difference. I reminded that Jefferson owned Hemings. Then I said, “That’s a complicated question that I can’t answer satisfactorily. But the question you ask is the right one.”
From the other side of the room came another question, again from an African American, this time a young woman. She was more sophisticated than her classmate. She entered into the class with clearer concerns and seemed to be in some early stage of politicization. “Why don’t they teach us this?” she said. She was speaking low, almost muttering, but I heard her and had the impression that the rest of the class did, too.
“I am teaching it to you!” I said with a chuckle, answering maybe too quickly and defensively, having felt a tick of tension rise in the room.
“No, I mean,” she said, still speaking low, “before now.”
This time I let the comment have its full weight. “Why do you think that’s important?” I asked.
“It could make some people angry,” she said.
–Anthony Chaney, The Realest Moment of the Semester