Reflection from Rachel Greenspan

Before teaching a course on gender and sexuality in a region one student referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, I wondered what kinds of perspectives and experiences would populate my classroom. After a month at the Sunflower County Freedom Project, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which gender and sexuality prove challenging and undecidable subjects across all traditions. What does it mean to be a man or woman? Are there only two sexes? How is gender learned and transgressed through popular media? What is a family and how does social injustice breed alternative forms of kinship? Who benefits from the sexual division of household labor? How does race shape the way gender and sexuality are lived and perceived? In grappling with these questions over the course of the summer session, students at the SCFP have shown the courage to lean into the discomfort of engaging ideas that have, in many cases, challenged the foundation of their beliefs and intuitions about the world. 

Students initially convinced that African American women’s choice of hair style was politically inconsequential returned over and over to an article by bell hooks, eagerly parsing the relationship between individual choice and ideological coercion. Students initially troubled by the gay romance depicted in Moonlight actively made time to re-watch scenes from the film, carefully noting the details that upset conventional ideas of masculinity and femininity. Students outraged by Fun Home’s depiction of a rural husband and father who has sex with young men returned over and over to the graphic novel, probing its pages for clues about how social taboos relegate certain desires and activities to secrecy. 

For me, the most difficult aspect of teaching literary analysis to students at the Freedom Project was asking them to set aside whatever they might initially think, feel, or believe about a text or idea in order to understand it better. I struggled with the fear of reproducing the routine violence of dismissing underserved minority students’ thoughts and feelings, which have been sidelined in school for the sake of test prep and largely devalued in mainstream American culture. But when students took a moment to defer judgment of the texts and their characters, they showed an open-minded willingness to approach their own attitudes, which felt so natural, intimate, and central to their sense of self, with some critical distance. This summer we cultivated a creative estrangement from the ordinary through a slow, close engagement with texts. We mixed high and low culture, reading an academic article by Angela Davis the first week and concluding the course with an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. These texts represent culture, but also have the power to transform it; students at the SCFP have shown how feminist theory and pop culture can upset certainties about gender and sexuality to provoke better questions about ourselves and each other. 

Rachel Greenspan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Literature at Duke University. Her course this summer was entitled "Gender in Everyday Life"

Emily Gowen