"But Be Honest, the Qur'an is a Piece of
He says those exact words.
This is supposed to be my teaching feedback session. He's tenure, has this smug confidence. I'm a part-timer on a year-by-year contract. He can say anything he wants. What can I do? His door's shut. We're at the end of the hall.
I have difficulty holding back the anger. He doesn't know if I'm Muslim or not. But he does know that I've been handing out copies of the Qur'an for free in class, much more proper translations than the hideous translation found in the Norton we're using. It's a southern university, a “football school” as one of the retiring faculty told me, “not an English school.” The students quote me Fox News bastardizations of Islam.
When I took a job in the south, I promised myself I would do it with integrity. I was worried the roots of the campus's money come from slavery, was concerned about being connected to that. When I got to the campus and saw how the buildings all looked like plantations, it made me even more radical. I had to test these students, push them beyond what they were giving me, which often felt like pre-programmed replies, e.g. a paper on Endgame that ended with a conclusion that Samuel Beckett needed the Lord Jesus Christ in his life.
“Are you serious?”
“Have you read it?”
“I don't have to read it. I know enough about it.” He looked like he had an easy life, didn't have to work his way through college, got a job immediately upon graduating, had taught there ever since. His scholarly research was focusing on the Quakers.
“That's the problem. Too many people are like that.” He was upset that I wasn't letting the issue pass. I continued, “I want to expose my students to different cultures. That's what World Literature is about. That's why I'm giving them some history of Islam, letting them hear what it's like when the Qur'an is recited. Which is how it's supposed to be presented. What?”
He rolled his eyes. “I've heard it.”
“Isn't it beautiful?”
“No,” he said, “It's not. I couldn't wait for it to end.”
And what can you do when you're in that position? Later, I informed the Department Head and quickly realized the indifference. I was a short-term professor. He had a long background with the university. Nothing was going to happen, except I would get blacklisted.
But I kept on. I told the Head of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He told me that I could try to stir things up as much as I wanted, but the community would support him. The university would support him. He'd make more friends than enemies if word got out he said that.
I emailed the Dean anyway, told his secretary what he'd said.
And then I found out my contract wasn't renewed.
The economy had collapsed. Jobs were rare, impossible to come by.
They were downsizing for next year.
The semester was ending. There was a panel on the black experience happening in the final month of classes. I was the only white faculty member to attend, the only white person to attend, period. Dr. Naim Akbar was there as a special guest speaker, a man whose youtube videos I'd watched religiously for their powerful honesty on African and African-American psychology. At the end of the group meetings, I bumped into him in the hallway. He was just like he was in the videos—charming, honest, charismatic. I couldn't believe he was taking the time to talk with me. He asked my name. “Riekki?” he said, “What's that?”
“How do you spell it?”
“Wait, one more time.”
“Oh, OK, I wanted to make sure there were only two Ks. If there were three, I was going to worry about you.”
He asked what I was doing there, pleased that a white faculty member was attending. I told him that my contract wasn't renewed, that I wouldn't be back next year.
“Why doesn't that surprise me,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“You tell me. What's been your experience of—” He gesticulated all around him, the rich white people at the end of the hall, there for a different event, the conference rooms part of a larger, expensive hotel.
I told him what I'd experienced, that I'd only had one black male student per semester and that student would often transfer, even though he'd usually be my best student in the class. I told him that I wanted to teach with a passion, wanted to push my students, make them think about race, class, and gender issues.
“And what are you here for?” he asked.
“At this event?”
He nodded, grabbed some shrimp that was put out for us to eat, various little fancy snack foods, now cold.
“'The black experience,' I guess. I want to learn.”
“You want to know what it's like to be black?”
“I guess, yeah.”
“Well, now you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you had a job, right? You worked hard at it, right? And now you lost it because your boss was a racist, right?” He ate one of the shrimp. “Now you know what it's like to be black.”
He patted me on the shoulder, laughed, walked over to a group of admirers that had been waiting for us to finish our conversation.
I wandered out of the hotel, went to my car, and drove away, carefully, watching the speed limit.
words: Ron Riekki (webpage / novel)
image: 'beyond Pompidou' - Dorothee Lang
notes on the story: on the fence