Illustration by Erin Holt ’13.

“Is violence only physical? Can speech be violent and create a longer-lasting scar?” —Professor William Hart

“A student sees that another is about to be hit by a speeding car, pushes him out of the way, saves his life, but breaks his arm. Is that a violent act or a use of force? Is there a clear line between violence and nonviolence?

“Is violence only physical? Can speech be violent and create a longer-lasting scar?”

In contemplating violence and nonviolence, religious studies professor William Hart employs the Socratic method, asking questions and stirring discussion. “College,” Hart posits in his statement of teaching philosophy, “should be an unsettling, not a comforting, experience. Its purpose is to ‘trigger’ uncertainty … about what you think you know and provoke reflection about how you live.”

Hart’s course, Martin and Malcolm: Racial Terror and the Black Freedom Struggle, draws a mix of students interested in exploring the lives of two giants of the black freedom movement: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In addition to their individual legacies, the course deals with racial identity, religious affiliation, politics and ideas about manhood.

Sociology major Tre Nowaczynski ’17 (Hales Corners, Wis.), who plans to write his sociology capstone on social movements and leadership, signed up for this course because “it’s a great setting for discussing the topic of race.”

The 90-minute class meets twice a week and every meeting includes a 20-minute discussion of the reading led by one of the students. They study a variety of resources including King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

In a recent class, students discussed the Biblical story of the exodus from Egypt and how that story related to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. This led to further discussion about how King’s role as a preacher grounded his leadership in civil rights and whether his insistence on love and nonviolence made his message more palatable to white audiences.

Hart provided an opening meditation for the course, a poem by Carl Wendell Hines Jr. that reads in part:

“Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.”

“One of King’s most neglected concepts is ‘The Giant Triplets,’ the three evils that bedevil American society,” notes Hart, “those being racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

King’s preaching against materialism and war challenge the image of a comforting, anodyne minister. King, according to Hart, condemned war in part for the resources it stole from fighting poverty; and materialism for emphasizing what you have over who you are.

By week six, the class was looking at how Malcolm X’s influence on the black freedom effort compared to King’s, and how concepts from that time are related to core elements of today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Along with readings and discussion, Hart interspersed sections of writer/director Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, cautioning students to be mindful that, in addition to presenting biographical information, a successful film must also entertain and make money.

“I’ve learned more about how complicated Malcolm X’s role was in the Civil Rights Movement,” says Stephanie Rice-Hoffner ’19 (New York City), an art history major. “I had no idea that he was much better liked among young African Americans during his time. It’s made me think about how differently the modern Civil Rights Movement would look had X’s ideas and methods been better known and praised by society like King’s ideas.”

Max Abramson ’18 (Del Mar, Calif.) is a pre-med, neuroscience studies major who takes many courses in the sciences. “This,’ he says, “is exactly what Mac is about—diving into other subjects. This course deals with racism historically and now. Racism is uncomfortable to talk about and easy to avoid, but it’s important to think about it.”

January 31 2017

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