On Teaching While Black in the Time of COVID and Emboldened Racism

Hope Wabuke

What is the role of a teacher during a pandemic? I have thought about what it means to be a teacher before, but never about what it means to be a teacher during a pandemic. For a long time, my questions about teaching have revolved around what it means to decolonize knowledge, language, pedagogy, and the creative writing workshop. It is here that my scholarship—the presence and erasure of Africans and Africanist thought in the global African diaspora—and my pedagogy, centering the margins and diverse perspectives, combine in an effort to decolonize the creative and intellectual space of the classroom.

As professors, we know our role is not just to teach subject matter, but also to model how to teach. But the students of color, women, and intersections thereof—they are looking to me for more than that.

I think, perhaps, these questions about teaching and learning began when I was in second grade and looked around at what I was being taught and could not see myself or people who looked like me in any of the books we were reading or histories we were told. Or perhaps these questions began in third grade, when I did a book report on Gone With the Wind because it was the only book in the school library with a Black female character, represented by Scarlett O’Hara’s devoted slave, that the white librarian could recommend, and I wondered why my only choices seemed to be absence or toxic representation.

In any case, decades later I continue to think, write, and speak on these questions of decolonizing teaching and learning—most recently at the Race & Pedagogy Institute’s 2018 conference at the University of Puget Sound and on a panel about working-class writers and the academy at the 2020 Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, events that helped solidify my thinking about what a classroom that centers diverse perspectives looks like.

Because of the intricacies of the job market in our profession, many faculty of color find themselves, like I do, in cities without much racial diversity. I know that for a good deal of the undergraduate students from the state of Nebraska who come to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where I teach, I am not only the first Black teacher they have had but sometimes the first Black person whom they have engaged with who is in a position of authority over them. And in a state that still deeply supports the ideology of the former president who urges violence against people who look like me, this makes for added pressures on the job for Black faculty that our white male colleagues do not have to deal with.

In addition, from the very first day of class, racial bias will discount the validity of our scholarship, whereas white male professors are invested with authority as experts because of their appearance. And yet evaluations from these students determine how professors are rated in merit reviews, often without a standard framework for how statistically proven bias against women, people of color, and the intersection thereof is addressed.

My experience is not unique among people who look like me, but a frequent occurrence. Consider this: According to a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 3 percent of the full-time faculty who teach nationwide at American universities are Black women, and less than 2 percent of tenured full-time professors at American universities are Black women.

For context, of the full-time faculty who teach nationwide at American universities, 40 percent are white males and 35 percent are white women. Among tenured full-time professors, 53 percent are white men and 27 percent are white women.

When I think about how much I wanted a Black teacher my whole life and how that would have been so impactful for me as a Black college student, I understand that this is the need I am filling for my Black students; when I think about how I may be the first Black person that some of my undergraduate non-Black Nebraska students have spoken to, I see my role of simply holding space as the most important thing I do here.

This allows, as Lucille Clifton writes, both a window and a mirror: the window, being an experience for that non-Black student’s mind to grow not just in subject matter but into a new way of thinking, perhaps; a first glimmer of a new way of thinking outside of that internalized racial bias, perhaps. The mirror being my presence that allows that mind of the Black student that is looking for itself to be seen, heard, and valued.

This, too, is teaching, and part of the unpaid labor of faculty of color.

The creative writing class I was scheduled to teach in the fall semester of 2020 was a graduate seminar in poetry. During those mild late-July and early-August days, on long walks with my son as he created elaborate stories about what he discovered in nature, I thought a lot about what would be most productive and useful to my students during that time.

My graduate seminar, which I had originally designed as an experiment in forms, would usually meet once a week for three hours in person during a regular semester. Due to COVID-19, it instead met for three hours remotely over Zoom, a remote work accommodation I requested because of my family’s health issues that leave us particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

The structure I came up with was this: After a short lecture from me, the students would write a poem based on a series of writing prompts I had created in order to explore the specific form we were studying in class. Then they would write the same poem again, changing the controlling metaphor and accompanying imagery and diction.

Then they would write the same poem again, changing the controlling metaphor and accompanying language and diction a third time.

The pedagogy behind this back-to-back repetition was to unlock the unconscious and get past the fossilized language and go-to imagery that we sometimes get stuck in. What goes deeper, or beyond, one’s first way of seeing?

This is not to say that the first way of seeing is not valid; sometimes the first language of the poem is the best. But sometimes we need to move past the surface to get to a deeper truth.

After spending the first hour of class on these writing exercises, we would use the remaining two hours to alternate between workshopping the student’s poems one week and a lecture and discussion of one of the six assigned poetry collections for the semester the next. Because community building is a large part of the energy of a creative writing seminar, I used breakout rooms and other student-led discussion tools to empower the students and create this classroom community as much as possible in the online space.

But I realized that I would have to think beyond these concerns of pedagogical logistics. The students would need more from me to survive a turbulent semester. How would I adjust my teaching for a global pandemic? I landed on three things:

1. The most important thing I could do for a class of writers was to hold them accountable to their writing practice. I understood from decades of writing and teaching writing that, in times of stress and emergency, young writers often give up their writing time to do the things of life that must be done—and this is precisely the time when writers need to maintain a regular writing practice to nurture and ground their lives. 

2. Design my class as a place of peace, stillness, and awareness to engage with writing, craft, and intellectual ideas. And think through how to decrease the workload without decreasing the intellectual work of the class. I understood the problems inherent in demanding that my students perform at the same level as they would have without the stress of a global pandemic. I understood that what was reasonable and productive was to teach how we adapt to the seemingly impossible with grace and compassion while still doing what we are supposed to do: in this case, carefully write, closely read, and critically analyze said writing and reading. And while in a regular semester there would have been more intensive assignments to show this work, it was perfectly fine to revise the assignments so that the same learning work was done, but in a version of the assignment that took into account the constraints of the pandemic.

3. Above all, I decided to privilege compassion and humanity. If a student needed to turn off their screen to answer a question from the child that was home doing remote learning, for example, that would be fine.

I began our study of poetry with the ghazal, and with examples of the form by Rumi, Hafez, Agha Shahid Ali, and Patricia Smith. Historically, the ghazal is one of the oldest and most stable poetic forms, and thus shows us what is essential and eternal of poetics. Thematically, beginning with the ghazal allowed us to center the pedagogical conversation around a critical and creative perspective that does not privilege the global West or the global North as is customary in the literary canon.

I asked the students to hold in their minds the idea that every poem is a form. Forms that are accepted in society we call stable forms; forms that are fluid we call unstable forms. And as we moved on to the pantoum, villanelle, and sonnet, with accompanying readings and lectures, I asked them to think about the pantoum as a malleable thing arising from the songs created by working people and then made into a stable form; to hold this knowledge of fluidity in their minds as they approached the villanelle and the sonnet as well.

With this understanding of form as fluid we turned to contemporary stable forms, such as Terrance Hayes’s golden shovel and Jericho Brown’s duplex. We looked at Camille T. Dungy’s revolutionary work with the sonnet and imagistic rhyme and the ghosts of pantoums and villanelles that haunt Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro to talk about formal remixes—opening form in postmodern fractals that make form work for the poet, rather than imprisoning the poet within form. Then we moved to the joy of the line with Wendy Xu, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gertrude Stein, Carmen Giménez Smith, and others, ending with an exploration of the uses of narrative and formal time and space with Arthur Sze and Dan Beachy-Quick.

“Your class is a wonderful mix of intellectual rigor and kindness,” the graduate chair told me after one of our bimonthly graduate committee meetings. “The students appreciate it so much.”

As the semester rolls on, the students are writing wonderful poetry. One student stuns the classroom with the brilliance of his sonnet-turned-golden-shovel. Another student delves into my lecture and assigned readings on the uses of the line and line breaks and emerges with a beautiful art object of scintillating lineation and depth. A third student presents a superbly crafted poem excavating familial ghosts, deeply saturated with profound resonance. Another student writes a long poem for the unit on narrative and formal time and space that is so gorgeous the class is stunned into silence until spontaneous applause erupts. Their poems are rich, emotive, crafted. There is something special in the vulnerability and honesty the students bring each week, doing the necessary and demanding work of artists during a global pandemic that is already difficult during the best of times.

But even with all this good work, the news of each day began to take its toll. The effects of the rising violence instigated by the president, the threat of his political party to overturn electoral votes, the attacks on international students, the racial violence against students of color, cannot be denied. As we get closer to November, energy wanes. The class session before the election of the forty-sixth president, nearly a third of the class is absent. Those in class are subdued. The world is heavy on their shoulders. They are the poets, the ones who allow themselves to feel and see and understand, and times like these are heavy on those of us who believe in empathy and compassion and equality.

I want the poets to see that it is this capacity to feel, think, and search for meaning that is their strength. It may cause them pain now, but it is a strength. I send them on a thirty-minute walk in the sunshine to feel the sun on their faces and write a lyric poem, their assignment for the day, and one many will write was their favorite day of class in their end-of-semester evaluations. Myself? I spin outdoors in the sunshine with my son to the soundtrack of his giggles, a different kind of poem.

Once, in graduate school, I was very ill and disappearing, and a professor whose class I was attending (or rather missing attending) e-mailed me with the words I needed to hear, leading me to get the medical care I needed to begin recovery.

I have thought about that professor and that moment in the years since I graduated and officially took my place on the faculty side of things, watching the pedagogy of faculty at various universities, figuring out what kind of professor I wanted to become. There were the professors who inspired by love, and those who ruled by fear. There were those who made it clear they would rather be anywhere else, even Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell, rather than grade student papers or teach students, and there were those professors who gave so much of themselves to their students that their own work, sometimes lives, ceased to exist; those who fell somewhere in between.

I saw, at some places, how women colleagues were often expected to take on more administrative and busywork than male colleagues, and how faculty of color provided the unpaid and unacknowledged labor of supporting students of color and often most diversity efforts on campuses. I saw, at some places, the erasure of the accomplishments and scholarship of women, faculty of color, and the intersection thereof. I saw at some places how the goalposts of accomplishment were different for different people, and how individuals of marginalized backgrounds were expected to do extra work.

“You will always have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” my father always told me, speaking from a lifetime of also being the only Black person in the American academic institutions he attended and the positions of corporate leadership he held. And so I always have.

I enrolled in my first year of college a few months after I turned seventeen, having finished middle school in one year. I am now thirty-nine years old. I have spent over half my life embedded in academic institutions—first as an undergraduate student, then as a graduate student, lecturer, then tenure-line faculty. Because I am Black, because I am a woman, because I am a first-generation child of immigrants, because I am youngish looking (by academic not Hollywood standards) I have long seen how the dual roles of racism and sexism affect life, and I am used to it. The impact of racism on daily life is on my mind not just during the Year of Black Lives Matter 2014 or the Summer of Black Lives Matter 2020, when it seemed that so many non-Black people began thinking about these things for the first time, but must always be present in my mind in order for me to navigate public space safely and effectively. Still, I knew during the summer of 2020 that the images of violence against Black bodies and the violence against protestors would have a greater effect than normal upon the psyche.

So in late July, as I wrote my syllabus, I thought of that professor I had in graduate school, and I e-mailed my students who were most vulnerable to the summer’s anti-Black and anti-immigration rhetoric and violence to check in with them. “No one else has checked in to see how I am doing,” many of them said. “Thank you.”

But it was not just me connecting with the most vulnerable students. During that summer, I checked in with other faculty members in other departments who were connected to marginalized student groups—not by anything official but just because of who we are in our identities and lived experiences—and saw how we all were making ourselves available when students reached out independently as they experienced violence from white supremacists while engaging in peaceful protests. I remember one particularly harrowing week when a former student and babysitter of my son plus his friends were attacked at a protest; another colleague had her hands full with a student’s hospital bills from a prior attack by a white supremacist; another colleague was researching legal options and bail for students arrested at a peaceful protest.

Later, when the academic semester began, I brought these conversations to the graduate chair of my department, and we set up a meeting with legal advice for graduate students who were affected by anti-international student policies or who faced other issues relating to student-led protests. I also worked with the graduate committee to create a survey and action plan to see how we could best support the students in all areas of their academic experience.

This, again, is the unpaid and ignored labor of Black faculty that we engage in because we see the full humanity of our students of color; we remember what it was like to be in their shoes and we try to provide the support we wished we had when students ourselves.

“You don’t even read books,” a colleague on a board I used to sit on said to me once.

I thought of how, for most of my life, I have read a book a day. I thought of my perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT and my many awards for English and writing, starting in my senior year of high school, when I was voted the most outstanding student in English at my school, to go along with my National Merit Award.

I thought of how Toni Morrison wrote that the function of racism is distraction—it keeps you trying to prove you are something to people who think you are nothing because you are Black; it’s sole purpose is to prevent you from doing the work you are supposed to be doing.

It is often difficult for people who look like me to bear the brunt of some of the internalized racism and/or sexism one inevitably faces in my profession—for even if you place yourself, as I have done, in a supportive English department with an excellent department chair and one of the highest numbers of tenure-line faculty of color in the country, one still encounters these issues when one leaves that space, whether physically or in the world of the rhetorical imagination when respected publications like the Wall Street Journal will print openly sexist screed opining that women are not deserving of respect in the academy, let alone being called “doctor” after they have earned their doctoral degree.

That day, I decided not to try to prove anything to that colleague who had publicly declared me illiterate; instead, I said nothing, and walked away. I have never been one for respectability politics anyway.

I avoided the distraction of that specific instance of racism. I went back to teaching, to writing; I did the work I am here to do.

It is no coincidence that the backlash against higher education within the past five years began when more women, people of color, and the intersection thereof were both attending college and earning graduate degrees. And the backlash toward us and toward academia now that we are in it will continue. But so will we.

I am a Black woman working in America. I am no longer a naive twenty-one-year-old girl stumbling through my first year of graduate school, easy prey for predation. I know, now, that racism and sexism are a given. I have learned a bit about how to successfully navigate racism and sexism, sometimes the intersection of both, in institutional spaces and survive, sometimes even thrive.

As professors, we know our role is not just to teach subject matter, but also to model how to teach. But the students of color, women, and intersections thereof—they are looking to me for more than that. Many of the women graduate students want to see from me a balance of mothering and scholarship in the academy. Many of the graduate students of color want to understand, from me, what to do about racism—the overt instances as well as the quieter interactions that you can’t quite put a finger on but leave a nagging question in your mind that something is not quite right; that you are not being treated the same as everyone else. Many of the women and queer students want to talk about sexism and homophobia. They want to know how I protect myself. They want to know how I do this.

The truth is I have no absolute answers for them. I cannot even completely protect myself from harm in these spaces. Teaching during the reign of Trump has taught me that we, the marginalized and vulnerable in these elite institutions, are more vulnerable than we ever thought we were—such as when that president’s executive order vilified core concepts and words regarding the study of racism that are foundational to much of the academic scholarship that many faculty and students of color engage in.

But while I cannot teach these students how to be immune to these forces—again, none of us are—I can model for them how to face these toxic experiences and navigate them without sacrificing authenticity or selfhood; how to minimize the harm and distraction; how to deal with these threats and dangers without feeling alone. These are the lessons I was hoping to learn from my teachers—except I could not because I did not have my first Black teacher until graduate school.

This is also the unpaid labor of women and faculty of color. This, too, is teaching.

Teaching during these dual pandemics of disease and emboldened racism, I understand now, leans deeply into the essential and timeless center of teaching: the fact that, as a teacher, one must be continually learning. To be open, as a teacher, to the fact that I do not know everything—and even if I could, knowledge is continually changing because of developments across time and space.

An educator’s mind must never be static and acquiescent; it must be continually learning and thinking. One must do the work to be aware of any unexamined beliefs or tendencies one may have and learn to move into deeper thought in order to create an inclusive environment for students, a place of learning that is grounded in respect and understanding so that the students in the classroom may themselves have the safety to learn and create; to think and become.


Hope Wabuke is a Ugandan American poet, essayist, and writer. She is the author of the poetry collection The Body Family, forthcoming from Haymarket Books, and the chapbooks her, The Leaving, and Movement No.1: Trains. She writes literary and cultural criticism for NPR and is poetry editor for Ruminate Magazine and an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She has won awards from the National Endowment from the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, VONA Voices, and others.