Tag Article List: pedagogy

What We Owe Our Students: The Good Place, Pedagogy, and the Architecture of Engaged Learning 

Shala Mills
State University of New York at New Paltz
New Paltz, New York, USA

Darrell Hamlin
Fort Hays State University
Hays, Kansas, USA


Pedagogy is the architecture of a learning environment. The discipline of philosophy has often operated according to a pedagogy of conversation, clarity, and reflection, certainly since the era of Socratic dialogue in the streets of Athens. We argue that The Good Place occupies that space, re-setting this pedagogy as an architecture of learning through entertainment associated with ultimate matters of eternal disposition. A critical character driving conversation, clarity, and reflection across four seasons of the story’s arc is a philosopher – doomed by their own indecisive flaws – who teaches deep understanding of ethical development through a variety of relevant philosophic problems originating from intellectual history. Confronted with the complexities of an intricately connected world and highly motivated by the weight of ultimate choices, the protagonists bring a sense of how a well-constructed “classroom” can prepare students to meet ordinary challenges, extraordinary obstacles, and even existential crises. The Good Place is a classroom with a purposeful syllabus and highly motivated participants, structured for viewers to extract ethical insights of the highest consequence — if they are willing to keep trying to get it right. By comparison, this article unpacks how the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Global Challenges blended model course is a valuable example of high impact teaching practices which, like The Good Place, engage students through content connected to issues that confront them personally and professionally, providing them with opportunities for repetition and mastery.

Keywords: pedagogy, popular culture, wicked problems, Bloom’s taxonomy, high impact practices, global challenges, The Good Place

Author Bios

Shala Mills, Associate Provost for Academic Planning & Learning Innovation at State University of New York at New Paltz, was formerly Chair and Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University (Kansas).  She is the recipient of numerous teaching and advising awards. She has taught courses in the areas of law and the courts, current political issues, sustainability, food and politics, and global challenges. She served as one of the AASCU Global Engagement Scholars, was the National Coordinator for the AASCU Global Challenges Project, and was the 2017 recipient of AASCU’s Barbara Burch Award for Faculty Leadership in Civic Engagement.  Her most recent publications have been in the areas of academic assessment and leadership and global challenges.

Darrell Hamlin, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University (Kansas), is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Civic Leadership at FHSU and Managing Editor for the eJournal of Public Affairs.  He previously served as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at FHSU and as Assistant Professor of Political Science at Spring Hill College (Alabama). Hamlin was one of the original AASCU Global Engagement Scholars, and his scholarly interests relate to the culture and politics of democracy.

Suggested Reference


Mills, S., & Hamlin, D. (2021). What we owe our students: The Good Place, pedagogy, and the architecture of engaged learning. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/what-we-owe-our-students-the-good-place-pedagogy-and-the-architecture-of-engaged-learning/


Mills, Shala, and Darrell Hamlin. “What We Owe Our Students: The Good Place, Pedagogy, and the Architecture of Engaged Learning.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2021, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/what-we-owe-our-students-the-good-place-pedagogy-and-the-architecture-of-engaged-learning/

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Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry

Ronnie Stephens
Tarrant County College
Arlington, TX 76063


“Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry” explores the function of form in American poetry and its proximity to whiteness. Through an analysis of experimental and nontraditional forms I argue that poets Fatimah Asghar, Jericho Brown, Franny Choi, Natalie Diaz, Ilya Kaminsky, and Danez Smith challenge traditional notions of what a poem is; these authors use graphics and co-opt familiar text objects to challenge larger assumptions about gender identity, ableism, and the immigrant experience. These experimental forms are grounded in a larger poetic tradition that alters traditional forms, such as the sonnet, to disrupt and further dialogue related to oppressive tactics in American poetry. They also signal an intentional departure from strict forms associated with colonialism and mark a shift in contemporary American poetry. For educators, including nontraditional and experimental form poems in the curriculum encourages students to engage poetry as a living genre. It also invites conversation about the implications of gatekeeping in both the publishing and education industries. The co-opting and evolution of form is not just a rebellion against classic American poetry but an opportunity for students of color to engage with the literary canon on their own terms.

Keywords: Poetry, Counternarrative, #DisruptTexts, Decolonize, Technology, Sonnet, Cyborg, Pedagogy

Suggested References


Stephens, R. (2021). Experimental forms and identity politics in 21st century American poetry. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(2).  http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/experimental-forms-and-identity-politics-in-21st-century-american-poetry/.


Stephens, Ronnie. “Experimental Forms and Identity Politics in 21st Century American Poetry”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 2, 2021. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/experimental-forms-and-identity-politics-in-21st-century-american-poetry/.

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Conceptualizing Empathy and Prosocial Action: Teaching Film within theLiterature Classroom

Mayuri Deka
University of the Bahamas
Nassau, The Bahamas


The experience of viewing a movie in the global era is multi-faceted. A viewer’s response to a cinematic experience as Carl Plantinga explains in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience is not only admiration for the aesthetics and techniques employed in the movie but also in the emotions aroused by the storyline. Audiences react to the story and characters presented with directed emotions by imagining either their mental lives and feelings or their situations. Empathy occurs within this framework of imagination where the audience engages with the story and character based on these directed emotions. The audience could not only empathize with the story or character by experiencing a similar emotion but also think about a similar situation they have experienced and attribute the emotion they experienced to the story or character. Watching a film such as How to Train Your Dragon (2010) would allow the instructor to help students sustain a coherent identity and find similarities with more and more diverse groups of people, leading to a reduction in prejudice while promoting an empathic identity. This facilitation of the development of complex identity-contents in the students based on universal affective states and life-conditions should result in them taking practical steps to alleviate the Other’s suffering and engage in social change through empathic reflection.

Keywords: Film, literature, empathy, Self/Other, pedagogy

Author Bio

Dr. Mayuri Deka is the Chair of English Studies at The University of the Bahamas. She has published and presented numerous papers on the areas of multi-ethnic identities, diasporic literatures, Postcolonial literatures, cinema, and pedagogy. Articles and chapters can be found in South Asian Review, The Journal of the School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies,Teaching Hemingway and Race and such. She is in the process of writing her book on pro-social pedagogy and social justice. Deka has taught a wide range of American and World literature courses, including texts from various diasporas and focusing on the interactions within cultures and races.

Suggested References


Deka, M. (2021). Conceptualizing empathy and prosocial action: Teaching film within the literature classroom. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 8(3). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/conceptualizing-empathy-and-prosocial-action-teaching-film-within-theliterature-classroom/


Deka, Mayuri. “Conceptualizing Empathy and Prosocial Action: Teaching Film within the Literature Classroom.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 8, no. 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v8-issue-2/conceptualizing-empathy-and-prosocial-action-teaching-film-within-theliterature-classroom/

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Queerly Cultivating Anti-Racist Feminist Pedagogy

Laurie Fuller
Northeastern Illinois University
Chicago, Illinois, USA


Queerly Cultivating Anti-Racist Feminist Pedagogy raises questions and analyzes classroom practices based on adrienne maree brown’s (2017) Emergent Strategy, a radical self-help manual for our current political climate that calls for a paradigm shift in organizing work. A Black, mixed, queer, pansexual, feminist writer, pleasure activist, facilitator and sci-fi scholar, brown builds on a continuous tradition of women of color feminists resisting oppression to bring together science fiction and permaculture, biomimicry and organizing, pleasure and activism. She offers fresh perspectives on how to imagine liberation and provides dynamic ways to think about teaching and learning. Emergent Strategy provides principles to help us change and grow, essential for all pedagogical work, and asks us to imagine liberation. In fact, emergent strategy principles can be integrated into classroom teaching and educational practices to create more meaningful learning, engagement, and measurable success: Trust people, what you pay attention to grows, less prep more presence, never a failure always a lesson, and change is constant (brown, 2017, pp. 41-42).  This article addresses present moment classroom concerns using these five principles to explore why and how to cultivate anti-racist feminist pedagogy and to do it queerly. In this case, queer is an action, a verb, something to do, and something to do to counter normative approaches, to queer them. Thus, queerly cultivating anti-racist feminist pedagogy questions the status quo, and can be used to challenge taken for granted, problematic and oppressive classroom practices and educational theories.

Keywords: Feminist, Anti-Racist, Queer, Pedagogy, Privilege, Oppression, Organizing, Emergent Strategy, Teaching

Author Bio

Laurie Fuller’s feminist teaching and learning practices center the use of imagination as a key tool to transform the contemporary conditions of oppression and to engender new ways of being in liberated, free and accountable societies. As the Audrey Reynolds Distinguished Teaching Professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, Laurie uses anti-racist, queer and speculative texts in the classroom to cultivate transformative justice. She has published articles in journals such as QSE, GLQ, Radical Pedagogy, Radical Teacher and the Journal of International Women’s Studies.

Suggested Citation

Fuller, L. (2020). Queerly cultivating anti-racist feminist pedagogy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(2) http://journaldialogue.org/v7-issue-2/queerly-cultivating-anti-racist-feminist-pedagogy/

Fuller, Laurie. Queerly Cultivating Anti-Racist Feminist Pedagogy. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2020. http://journaldialogue.org/v7-issue-2/queerly-cultivating-anti-racist-feminist-pedagogy/


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Pedagogy, Ideology, & Composition: Is There a Better Way to Teach?

Erin Guydish Buchholz
The Grier School
Birmingham, Pennsylvania, United States


While academia tends to focus on differentiating various groups of students, prioritizing similar learning practices can have surprising and potentially transforming outcomes. In classrooms that are often filled with students who do not quite comprehend the significance of critical thinking processes or practices, the role they will play as global citizens, or why studying abstract topics is necessary, interchanging effective pedagogy from one classroom or student type to another may result in more engaged and productive learning. Additionally, students may mature and create their personas more clearly when classes interject ‘basic’ classroom practices such as modeling respect while discussing politics or more ‘advanced’ techniques like scaffold writing and hands-on activities. If instructors are more reflective as they interact with students as adult learners, their lessons may provide chances to explore identities, ideologies, and a deeper comprehension of the impacts of their actions within and on society. 

This article will discuss a combination of personal experience and research-based pedagogy with the aim of illustrating useful ways to stimulate students’ critical thinking abilities. While many educators and recent assessments have focused on significant learning experiences and valuable course outcomes, this research focuses on creating practices to serve students better within writing courses, general education, and in their future careers. Interchanging conversational practices, writing activities, and research processes across classrooms with specific student demographics (such as developmental learners, international students, non-traditional students, and traditional college learners) may be key in helping students understand how their academic education could serve them more usefully in their post-graduation communities. 

Keywords: pedagogy, reflective practices, diverse learners, student-centered learning, general education 

Author Bio

Erin Guydish Buchholz completed her studies at Wilkes University and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has spent her time teaching at a variety of higher education institutions. Currently, she holds a position teaching American Literature at an all girls’ boarding school where she enjoys the opportunity to encourage young women to become empowered. 

Suggested Reference Citation

Guydish Buchholz, E. (2020). Pedagogy, ideology, & composition: Is there a better way to teach? Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 7(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-1/pedagogy-ideology-composition-is-there-a-better-way-to-teach/

Guydish Buchholz, Erin. “Pedagogy, Ideology, & Composition: Is There a Better Way to Teach?” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 1, 2020. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-1/pedagogy-ideology-composition-is-there-a-better-way-to-teach/

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Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era

Becca Cragin
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, OH, USA


With the rise of cultural studies, positivism and formalism fell out of favor. But in recent years, altered versions of these methodologies have been suggested as solutions to the deficiencies of the ideological approach dominating the field. Where the ideological approach looks at the content of texts to determine their meaning, the aesthetic approach adopted by media scholars in recent years returns to the close textual readings of formalism (while abandoning its assertion that meaning resides in the text alone). Similarly, where the ideological approach tends to use textual analysis devoid of sociological empiricism, the use of “big data” in the humanities enhances interpretation by using empirical data alongside it (while rejecting positivism’s assumption that measurable data alone is probative). This article draws both methodological strands together to propose an approach to media interpretation called “grounded aesthetics.” Grounded aesthetics involves correlating sociological data with close textual reading to argue for the likely social meaning of the text, given the techniques it uses and the social reality around it. Examples of classroom activities are used to show how the approach can address the “post-truth” perspective many students share: that analyses of representation are interchangeable opinions. Grounded aesthetics greatly improves students’ ability to create well-supported textual analyses and to evaluate the persuasiveness of others’ arguments. It also models critical thinking skills that are useful for dismantling attacks on reality in the “fake news” era, especially those that dismiss analyses of inequality as ideology.

Keywords: aesthetics, big data, class, cultural studies, empiricism, formalism, gender, inequality, media studies, pedagogy, post-truth, race

Author Bio

Becca Cragin is an Associate Professor of Popular Culture in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include gender, race, and sexuality in television and film, in comedy and crime genres.

Reference Citation

Cragin, B. (2018). Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

Cragin, Becca. “Grounded Aesthetics: Pedagogy for a Post-Truth Era.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/grounded-aesthetics-pedagogy-for-a-post-truth-era/

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We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead

Elizabeth Gartley
South Portland, Maine, USA


A model can be useful when engaging secondary students in team-building by appreciating differing skills and identifying their own strengths. In this example, a model was provided that students to indulge in the transgression of popular culture and zombie media. Middle and high school students participated in a critical thinking and team-building unit which capitalized on student interest in zombie popular culture, particularly the AMC series The Walking Dead. Students engaged in cooperative activities with a “zombie apocalypse” theme. Activities included identifying roles for team members based on individual skill sets in order to strengthen to group as a whole. This approach allowed students to approach this unit as assembling a “zombie apocalypse team,” an idea borrowed from popular culture. The popular culture “zombie apocalypse team” shows that survival depends on building a cooperative team of individuals with disparate but complementary skills and approaches to problem solving. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences can provide theoretical framework to examine how the group of survivors in The Walking Dead combine multiple intelligences, as represented by individual characters, to survive. This model can provide a more detailed context to allow students to their own strengths within a team.

Keywords: educational psychology, Howard Gardner, intelligence, Multiple Intelligences, psychology, The Walking Dead, pedagogy, team building, secondary education

Author Bio 

Elizabeth Gartley is a certified teacher librarian with a background in media studies. Her research interests include language and literacies in comics, critical media literacy and pedagogy, cross-cultural approaches to media studies.

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/egartley/

Reference Citation

Gartley, E. (2018). We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(3) http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/ 

Gartley, Elizabeth. “We All Have Jobs Here: Teaching and Learning with Multiple Intelligences in The Walking Dead”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018, vol. 5, no 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-3/we-all-have-jobs-here-teaching-and-learning-with-multiple-intelligences-in-the-walking-dead/

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Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources

Kathryn N. McDaniel
Marietta College
Marietta, Ohio, USA



Teaching students to evaluate sources—for accuracy, bias, and agenda—and to use them effectively despite their weaknesses, presents a challenge, and yet is essential in today’s crowded media landscape. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time helping students develop a critical eye for documentary evidence. Using the fictional informational sources J.K. Rowling presents in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to understand Albus Dumbledore’s troubled youth can provide students the analytic skills they need through an entertaining exercise. The Harry Potter stories intrinsically value the past, though Rowling is not naïve about the difficulty of understanding the truth from flawed sources. Throughout the series, but particularly in the last book, characters must weigh evidence and gain important information from biased sources to help them determine their future actions. Conflicting views of Albus Dumbledore in The Daily Prophet, Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, and Aberforth Dumbledore’s eyewitness testimony about his brother, raise questions about the Hogwarts headmaster’s motivations and moral integrity. Only by sorting through these contradictory accounts can Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. When muggle students sort through these fictional accounts from the wizarding world, they nevertheless gain experience needed for navigating real-world sources to determine their own future paths. As a result, this exercise allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and their sense of historical consciousness.

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Historical Consciousness, Source Evaluation, Analysis, Evidence, Harry Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Pedagogy

With cries of “fake news” at every turn, the urgency for teaching critical reading skills has mounted in recent months. Teaching students to evaluate sources for quality and usable content remains a constant challenge at almost every educational level. Despite the topic’s relevance, students are likely to approach the material with either an indifferent shrug or rolling eyes, chin in palm. For historians, the ability to analyze sources of information about the past and to use them appropriately has always been a central requirement of the discipline. But any educated person must have these abilities. Most humanities and social science teachers spend at least some class time discussing how to regard documents and other evidence with a critical eye. Although today we find ourselves inundated with information, most of our sources are not vetted by experts, are partisan (with varying degrees of openness about their bias), or have entertainment instead of accuracy as the top priority. Given this crowded yet flawed information landscape, evaluation of the quality and content of source materials has become a more essential skill than ever before. Students will find even more valuable the knowledge of how to use inherently biased sources effectively as evidence.

Pop culture approaches to source materials can make this rather workmanlike topic more immediately interesting to students. A useful and suitably complex exercise asks students to evaluate sources within the wizarding world of Harry Potter, particularly focused on the topic of Albus Dumbledore’s uncertain past. It may seem counterintuitive to base an assignment about source accuracy on a fictional text—and fictional informational texts within it—but the key is the thinking process behind discerning source limitations and strengths. By developing the analytic skills to examine and effectively use documentary evidence about past events, even imaginary ones, students can apply this critical thinking to real-world situations. Developing critical evaluation in a relatively politically neutral subject area helps students and faculty focus on the skill itself instead of politicized content. J.K. Rowling possesses a surprisingly strong critical sensibility about historical (and other) sources, which makes her books ideal for this kind of exercise. Requiring thoughtful decision-making about what happened in Dumbledore’s youth, this assignment helps students develop the essential skills needed to assess the quality of sources, identify the role played by their own expectations and biases, and even determine how to use imperfect accounts by biased authors in nevertheless responsible ways.

J.K. Rowling’s Personal, Political Past

In the Harry Potter universe, the past is never far removed from present-day problems. Rowling builds into the fabric of her stories an urgent need to know what really happened in history. In “Hermione Raised Her Hand Again: Wizards Writing History,” Anne Rubenstein examines the way that socially accepted history (what historians call “social memory”) butts up against scholarly sources in the wizarding world, with very serious consequences. She notes, “A historian who asks just the right question and uncovers just the right evidence to answer the question and interprets the evidence in just the right way can end up challenging what everyone believed the story of the past to be. And once in a while, changing the official story of the past changes the present as well” (310-311). Rubenstein examines the variety of sources wizarding-world characters use to discover information about the past, including official ones and counter-cultural or hidden ones. Her most significant take-away is the value Rowling places on historical knowledge and the ability of her characters to sort through many different kinds of accounts of the past in order to solve current problems.

In underscoring the usefulness of the past to the present, Rowling acknowledges what scholars of history and pedagogy have learned in recent years: that people intuitively know that the past is relevant and useful to the present, but that their confidence about where to find accurate information is low. In The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel Thalen explain the results of a survey of Americans about their sense of history’s relevance, and where they might find the most accurate sources. Their study revealed that Americans have a strong sense of the usefulness of the past to the present, but that they distrust both commercial sources of historical information and official ones (like textbooks and school teachers). Instead, they tended to value most the personal testimony of people who have lived through historical events. This connection people feel to the past (if not to historians or history books) is vital to human endeavors. Klas-Göran Karlsson refers to “historical consciousness” as “a time compass that assigns meaning to past events and directs us to future projects” (129-130). As such, it is an essential tool for all citizens to be able to use. Rowling’s depiction of a highly personal past demonstrates this same sensibility. In the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry uses his conclusions about Dumbledore’s youth as a “time compass,” pointing him to the next steps on his quest.

Harry’s detachment from his own roots makes his development of critical thinking about the past more difficult, yet also more necessary. His status as an orphan targeted by the evil Lord Voldemort and the Death Eaters stems from a past of which he has no memory, his parents’ involvement in a conflict that continues from their generation to his, and living friends and foes among those who experienced the prior conflicts. As a result, Harry must become adept at uncovering valid sources of information about what occurred before he was born. His friends assist him in this regard. Ron Weasley, as a wizarding-world insider, inherits and absorbs common knowledge (social memory) about the past from his family. Hermione Granger is an outsider like Harry who learns of the past through authoritative sources like their history teacher Professor Binns and books, specifically Hogwarts: A History. 

Harry must also identify and exclude invalid sources of information. Some presumably authoritative sources, like the Daily Prophet, reveal how easily they may be manipulated by either government censorship or the desire to pander to a fearful paying customer. Hermione also becomes wise to the (to her, unforgiveable) omissions in Hogwarts: A History when she learns of the role house-elves’ unpaid labor played in the school’s history; she claims the book should be renamed A Highly Biased and Selective History of Hogwarts, Which Glosses Over the Nastier Aspects of the School (Goblet of Fire 238). Harry’s very survival in the present depends on the ability to analyze sources of history. But, importantly, so does the ultimate victory of good over evil. For the most part, Harry gleans relevant details from conversation with adults who lived through past traumatic events (the favored historical source of respondents in Rosenzweig and Thalen’s study), Hermione’s research, and occasional magical intervention like the Pensieve, which recreates the historical memories of individuals.

A crucial conflict emerges, however, when Albus Dumbledore dies in the sixth book. Harry has lost one of his chief and most credible sources of information about the past, present, and future. Indeed, the end of every prior book in the Harry Potter series involved a usually lengthy commentary on past events and how they relate to the present, either by Dumbledore himself or facilitated by him (as with Barty Crouch, Jr.’s veritaserum revelations at the end of Book 4). Now that authority is silent. Harry will have to go forward with Dumbledore’s plans to defeat Voldemort without his mentor’s reassuring presence or valuable historical perspective. Harry will have to find his own perspective on the past in the last book in order to complete his quest.

Unfortunately, in the seventh book Harry discovers that perhaps Dumbledore was not the man he thought. He encounters sources about Dumbledore’s youth that seem to contradict Harry’s personal understanding and that consequently call into question his mission in the present to fulfill Dumbledore’s quest for the horcruxes. Harry will have to decide how to weigh these sources about the past in making his own decisions in the present. He will find truth in unexpected, undeniably biased sources, ones that contradict his personal understanding of Dumbledore’s role in wizard history. He will agonize over the idea that Dumbledore’s past was complex and perhaps tainted by impure motives and aims. The end of the last book will show Harry confronting his own memory of Dumbledore and coming to terms with his mentor’s uncertain past. In the process of revealing these personal struggles that will determine whether good triumphs over evil in the end, Rowling provides readers with an opportunity to consider how to evaluate a variety of sources about the past.

Dumbledore: The Histories

Dumbledore is mostly silent about his own past. What Harry knows about the Hogwarts headmaster he knows from other sources. His first knowledge comes from what we might call a pop culture source of history, Dumbledore’s chocolate frog card:

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and tenpin bowling. (Sorcerer’s Stone 102-103)

Harry comes to accept uncritically what we might think of as the social memory of Dumbledore, based on his heroic defeat of Grindelwald, especially when it is confirmed by Dumbledore’s mission to defeat Voldemort in the present. Importantly, this understanding of the headmaster conforms to the image shared by the adults around Harry—Mr. and Mrs. Weasley and the other Hogwarts faculty, for example—and therefore preserves an uncomplicated, heroic image of his mentor.

But in Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, Harry encounters new sources of information that tell him unexpected, important details about his deceased mentor. One he is inclined to agree with: Elphias Doge’s starry-eyed eulogy appearing in the Daily Prophet, which Harry reads early in the book. The other comes from shady journalist Rita Skeeter: a salacious exposé entitled The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. Harry hears unsavory rumors about Dumbledore’s past from Ron’s Aunt Muriel, and then reads Skeeter’s promotional interview in which she heavily criticizes Doge’s account. He reads an excerpt from the exposé much later that, despite its scandal-mongering, nevertheless throws into question everything that Harry thinks he knows about Dumbledore’s character and ambitions. Toward the end of the last novel, when the children meet up with Albus’s brother before the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry will hear Aberforth Dumbledore’s eye-witness testimony, another undeniably biased account that nevertheless contains important elements of truth.

Rowling presents these sources for her readers so that we are similarly drawn to question their accuracy as well as what we thought we knew about Albus Dumbledore. Each of these accounts describes occurrences at the Dumbledore household shortly after Albus’s completion of Hogwarts and in between the deaths of his mother and his sister Ariana. For this exercise in source evaluation, students should read the documentary source excerpts Rowling provides in the text of the seventh novel. The two main sources are published documents: the first, the Daily Prophet’s eulogy, and the second, an unauthorized (and, we are told, lengthy) biographical book.

  1. “Albus Dumbledore—Remembered”: Doge’s eulogy of his friend mostly confirms Harry’s perspective on Dumbledore’s life, but reveals that there were complexities in his youth of which Harry has been unaware. As a former schoolmate, Doge portrays Dumbledore as the heroic defender of muggle rights, the powerful victor over the dark wizard Grindelwald, and a modest man who remained active in the politics of the wizarding world without seeking its highest office, Minister of Magic (Deathly Hallows 16-20).
  2. “The Greater Good”: the chapter excerpt from Skeeter’s exposé, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore, throws Harry’s understanding of Dumbledore into serious question. Students should read a little before the excerpt in order to see the note that accompanied this copy of the book, which Skeeter gave to Bathilda Bagshot as “thanks” for being interviewed (“You said everything, even if you don’t remember it” (Deathly Hallows 352)) as well as the caption for the picture of Dumbledore standing with “his friend” Gellert Grindelwald (353). This except dwells with malicious glee on Albus’s “missing year,” during which he befriended the young dark wizard and penned a letter (also excerpted) advocating for wizard dominance over muggles “FOR THE GREATER GOOD” (352-359).

Students will evaluate these two main sources for their quality and should compare them to see where they corroborate each other and where they disagree. To facilitate questions about bias, students should also examine “Dumbledore—The Truth at Last?,” the Daily Prophet’s interview with Skeeter as a promotion of her soon-to-be published book (Deathly Hallows 22-28). This interview appears in The Deathly Hallows immediately after Doge’s eulogy, and allows us to see both Skeeter’s view of “Dodgy” Doge’s limitations as a judge of Dumbledore’s life and character, as well as her particular biases and quite unsavory journalistic methods.

Historic Detection: Finding Dumbledore’s Missing Year

On the basis of these three excerpts—all printed material available to a mass wizarding audience—students should determine the relative value of these sources and what might be useful about them despite their biases. Here’s an example of a homework assignment that may be used to prime the students for class discussion:

Based on these three readings, evaluate the quality and reliability of the two main sources (by Elphias Doge and by Rita Skeeter). What are their perspectives, what evidence do they have, how useful is that evidence, and how well do you think they represent the truth about Dumbledore’s past? Ultimately, explain what you think a person reading these two descriptions can know about Dumbledore’s youth. What does this tell us about historical biography in general?

A short assignment like this allows the students to wrestle with the material outside of class and bring their own impressions, supported by evidence, into the discussion. This exercise may, of course, be done entirely in class, with students given this charge individually or in groups. The benefit of coming in with prior preparation is that students will have considered the documents at more length and probably in a more deliberate fashion. The benefit of carrying out the whole assignment in class is that students who have not previously formed an opinion may be more open to persuasion by other points of view. Either way, students will grapple with the key questions of what makes a source useful and whether biased sources (which each of these obviously is) can provide “true” information.

Whether they have prepared in advance or not, students in discussion should consider some of the following questions.

  • Why did Doge and Skeeter write their accounts? How do their purposes affect the validity of their versions of Albus Dumbledore’s life?
  • What are Doge’s and Skeeter’s personal perspectives on Dumbledore, where do their perspectives come from, and how to do they show themselves in these documents?
  • Do these perspectives amount to a detrimental “bias”? Why or why not?
  • On what authority do Doge and Skeeter claim to know the truth about Albus Dumbledore? Are these believable claims? How might they be challenged?
  • What sources do Doge and Skeeter rely on? Which of these has the most authority as evidence? Which are, therefore, the most believable?
  • How do Skeeter’s methods of getting information affect the reliability of her evidence? Do you find Skeeter’s implication that she used veritaserum  believable and does this enhance her credibility or detract from it?
  • Based on this analysis, what can a savvy reader determine to be likely true from these accounts? How can we reconstruct at least parts of Albus’s “missing year”?
  • What questions remain that cannot be satisfactorily answered by these sources? Where might wizards look for answers to these?

Once students have evaluated these written sources, show them the “oral” testimony of Albus’s brother Aberforth Dumbledore for comparison (Deathly Hallows 563-567). Harry, Hermione, and Ron ask Aberforth about the events of that pivotal year and listen to his version of events. Bitterness toward his high-achieving older brother colors Aberforth’s description of Albus’s friendship with Grindelwald and treatment of their sister Ariana. Students should consider whether this eyewitness account constitutes a more authoritative source of information than Doge’s or Skeeter’s and evaluate Aberforth’s biases, some of which were pointed out in Skeeter’s interview and book. Aberforth’s motives for talking about these episodes—for the first time, we’re told—should be a part of the discussion, as well.

  • Does this testimony confirm or undermine the version of events we determined from the published accounts?
  • Do we see Aberforth as a better source, given that he was an eyewitness to many of the events discussed? Or do those standing at a remove from history have better access to “the facts”?
  • What does this tell us about who can speak authoritatively about historic events?
  • Does this show that we value oral testimony more or less than we should?
  • Do Harry, Ron, and Hermione consider this to be a definitive account? How does hearing from Aberforth affect their course of action?

Students who have read the Harry Potter series will have an advantage in some respects in this last part of the conversation, but their knowledge of the larger story may also play into their judgment on these accounts. In the last book, even after his death, Albus Dumbledore has laid out a course of action for Harry, Ron, and Hermione: for them to seek and destroy the horcruxes so that they may defeat the evil Voldemort. Dumbledore’s own youth, however, reveals that he, like Voldemort, searched for the Deathly Hallows instead—the elder wand, the resurrection stone, and the invisibility cloak, which together defeat death. Harry must decide whether to seek the hallows or the horcruxes, and his doubts about his mentor’s moral purity make him question Albus Dumbledore’s direction. Aberforth tells his version of events in order to discourage Harry, Ron, and Hermione from entering Hogwarts to seek the remaining horcruxes. The three protagonists will have to sort through the varied accounts of Dumbledore’s youth in order to decide their course to victory. Ultimately accepting a less-heroic image of the Hogwarts headmaster, the Trio will nevertheless pursue his path in seeking horcruxes instead of hallows. This does, indeed, lead to the victory of good over evil. Knowing this result in advance may cause students to look at the documents differently. It may be useful to ask students about whether they think their prior knowledge of the Harry Potter story influenced their decision-making in this exercise.

To cap off this exercise, students may be encouraged to read Harry’s conversation with the deceased Albus at King’s Cross station toward the end of the novel, in which they discuss his guilt and temptation by dark magic (707-723). This passage contains clues that this is not the actual Dumbledore, but rather represents Harry’s cohering understanding of this complex man (Perez). Students might consider the degree to which various sources influenced Harry’s perspective in the end, and whether they arrived at conclusions similar to Harry’s from a critical reading of all the available sources.

Toward a Useable (Muggle) Past

Although this exercise uses fictional sources in a fantasy universe, it can—paradoxically perhaps—help students find the unexpected relevance of sources about the past. Ask students who know the larger Harry Potter story how a different interpretation of Dumbledore’s past might have changed Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s actions, and thereby changed the story’s outcome. How are interpretations of the past in the present, muggle world affecting both personal and political decisions? Where do they see this in their own lives? Have they ever had the experience of learning something new about the past that shook their understanding of themselves in the world or their sense of what they should do in the future?

As students navigate research projects of various kinds, they will need to be able to evaluate the quality and usefulness of their sources. More than that, they must be able to find what is useful even in problematic sources. Rare indeed are pure and unbiased sources of information. In their absence, we are all called upon to find what is true and important even in flawed materials. This exercise can help students to go even further than identifying bias; it can help them to determine how to use biased sources for valid research anyway. What could be more useful in our often unfair and unbalanced world today?

Works Cited

Karlsson, Klas-Göran. “Processing Time—On the Manifestations and Activations of Historical Consciousness.” Historicizing the Uses of the Past: Scandinavian Perspectives on History Culture, Historical Consciousness and Didactics of History Related to World War II. Eds. Helle Bjerg, Claudia Lenz, and Erik Thorstensen. Transaction Publishers. 2011. 129-144.

Perez, Jeanina. “Magical Rememory: How Memory and History Collide to Produce Social Change in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Saga.” Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference. Alburquerque, New Mexico. February, 2016. Presentation.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). 2005.

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thalen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. Columbia UP. 1998.

Rubenstein, Ann. “Hermione Raised her Wand Again: Wizards Writing History.” Harry Potter and History. Ed. Nancy Reagan. John Wiley and Sons. 2011. 309-321.

Author Bio

Kathryn N. McDaniel is Andrew U. Thomas Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. Although her specialty is early modern British history, she teaches a wide variety of courses in world history, modern European history, feminism, history of science, and historiography, and is the editor of Virtual Dark Tourism: Ghost Roads. In addition to teaching a course on Harry Potter and the Liberal Arts, she has published several articles on Harry Potter scholarship and pedagogy, hosts the MuggleNet podcast “Reading, Writing, Rowling,” and is the co-editor of Harry Potter for Nerds II.

Reference Citation


McDaniel, Kathryn N. “Dumbledore’s Uncertain Past: A Harry Potter Approach to Evaluating Sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, vol. 5, no 1, 2018 http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.


McDaniel, K. N. (2018). Dumbledore’s uncertain past: A Harry Potter approach to evaluating sources. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-1/dumbledores-uncertain-past-a-harry-potter-approach-to-evaluating-sources/.

The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals

Tara Propper
University of Texas at Tyler
Tyler, Texas, USA



This article explores how we can use African American activist media to theorize the role of pedagogy in the public sphere. Focusing on how racial passing stories expose the limiting (and often tropic) binaries through which racial identity is deciphered, this analysis further highlights the extent to which these binary constructions of identity are learned through media narration..

Using the December, 1912, issue of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine as a touchstone for investigation, this analysis considers how pedagogy is taken up as both a theme and project in the magazine. Foregrounding the degree to which Crisis critiques and counternarrates the demeaning and derogatory portrayals of African American identity in early twentieth-century media, this article suggests that Du Bois’s magazine not only indicts dominant visual systems of seeing and evaluating African American identity but also reveals the extent to which such systems of seeing and interpreting blackness are learned and can be remediated through media intervention.

The ultimate aim of this article is to derive an interpretive framework that understands pedagogy as not simply a method for inscribing pre-existent dominant norms but rather as a means for intervening, questioning, and challenging dominant systems of representation and public articulation. Moreover, this analysis intends to reveal the hidden pedagogies within dominant cultural paraphernalia for the purposes of advancing an approach to media literacy that recognizes and endeavors to transform the tropes and archetypes applied to marginal and minority communities.

Keywords: Media Activism, Pedagogy, Public Sphere, Race, Giroux, Du Bois, African American, Print Culture

In a New York Times Magazine article chronicling the public shaming of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane Washington chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. who came under fire for allegedly “misrepresenting” herself as African American, author Daniel J. Sharfstein writes:

…Dolezal’s exposure comes at a time when racial categories have never seemed more salient. The same social media that is shaming Dolezal has also aggregated the distressingly numerous killings of African Americans by the police into a singular statement on racism and inequality. In this moment, when blackness means something very specific—asserting that black lives matter—it follows for many people that categorical clarity has to matter, too. (Sharfstein)

Asserting that Dolezal’s story is not as anomalous as mainstream media outlets have claimed, Sharfstein’s article, entitled “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual,” frames Dolezal’s case among countless historical incidents of passing.1 Citing genealogist Paul Heinegg, Sharfstein traces the phenomenon of passing to a 17th-century Virginia law that assigned racial classification based on the status of the mother. According to Heinegg, passing was initially a matter of deciphering the identity of mixed race individuals. In order for mixed race families to access the resources associated with white privilege, which included being kept out of bondage, white mothers were compelled to prove their whiteness through legal means. However, as racial categories and tensions became more stringent, passing garnered greater cultural attention in magazines and newspapers and came to be understood as a phenomenon in which individuals misrepresent their purported racial, ethnic, or gender identity for cultural, intellectual, material, or personal advancement. Yet what is especially noteworthy about Sharfstein’s genealogy of racial passing is his case for “categorical clarity,” which is symptomatic of a larger gesture by mainstream presses to evaluate and interpret blackness (and not whiteness) as an intuitive and fixed racial category.

We can see this trend in many of the headlines announcing and exposing Dolezal’s reverse passing. News about Dolezal treated the activist as either a punching bag, punchline, or both, placing an inordinate amount of attention on Dolezal’s physical appearance by focusing on her hair, nose, and lips. Gawker even published an article entitled, “Rachel Dolezal Identifies as Medium Spray,” which poked fun of Dolezal’s spray tanning habits. Other media outlets focused on the existential requirements of racial identification, as the Daily Mail ran an article entitled “Race Faker Rachel Dolezal Talks Racial Identity on Chat Show and Says She Ticks Both the Black AND White Box on Forms.” Less vitriolic media coverage tended to define authentic blackness through the lens of cultural and institutional marginalization and historical discrimination, experiences that Dolezal’s biography was ostensibly lacking (see The Guardian‘s “I Became a Black Woman in Spokane. But Rachel Dolezal, I Was a Black Girl First” by Alicia Walters; Salon‘s “What We Can’t Afford to Forget About Rachel Dolezal: A Master Class in White Victimology” by Chauncey Devega; and the New York Times‘s “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal” by Charles Blow).

The goal of this article, however, is not to answer these concerns about racial identity with a definitive framework through which to understand blackness and whiteness as either authentic or constructed subject positions. Instead, this analysis is framed with Dolezal’s example because it exposes the central role that media plays in teaching citizens what constitutes appropriate or “authentic” racial identity. While one might take issue with Sharfstein’s assumptions about the necessity to solidify racial boundaries, this analysis builds upon his genealogy of passing by considering how the phenomenon of passing is taken up by activist media for the purposes of challenging the institutional bodies that have traditionally defined racial performance. Focusing the analysis at the turn of the twentieth century—a moment in which categorical clarity retained particular import in determining who could inhabit certain public spaces—this article suggests that popular media outlets provide a consequential pedagogical arena for learning, interpreting, and evaluating race identity. Concentrating on three articles written for the December, 1912, issue of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine, the primary media organ of the N.A.A.C.P., this article suggests that stories of passing (which become visible through our media outlets) intuitively teach readers how to inhabit and perform racial identity, assigning what Sharfstein defines as “categorical clarity” to these purportedly different identity formations.

It is important to note that this analysis is not offering a comparative view of white versus black passing. Rather, this article addresses the role of activist media in calling attention to reductive characterizations of race identity and in revising (and counternarrating) how blackness comes into view within public forums. This analysis locates itself at the turn of the twentieth century for two reasons. First, the twenty-five years between 1890 and 1915 is especially fertile ground for examining the role of African American media activism. The commercialization of periodical literature and the growing popularity of monthly magazines in this period marked a sea change in American aesthetic values, political consciousness, and forms of public engagement, which stimulated conversations about social justice and marginal and minority activism. These conversations also inspired dialogue about and among marginal and minority activists. Second, studying how these cultural transitions offered space for marginal and minority bodies to theorize the terms on which one could engage and become visible within a public sphere of representation can help shape our own thinking about contemporary mass media technologies, including digital technology. Especially relevant to contemporary scholarship are concerns about how these technologies contour our notions of who gets to participate within a public sphere of representation, where we find and engage this space, and how to make this space more open and accessible to a wider range of readers and writers. Such questions were also taken up by African American activist presses nearly a century earlier as a result of the growing accessibility of print magazines and the increasing regularity of print advertising and half-tone printing technologies, which significantly altered not only who could access these texts but how these texts were consumed (see Anne Ardis and Patrick Collier’s Transatlantic Print Culture: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms and Amy Helene Kirschke’s Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory). Moreover, concerns surrounding the stakes of making oneself, one’s suffering, and one’s experience visible through public writing was highlighted by African American media in reaction to the increasing influence of visual imagery on print media, such as lynching photographs. It is therefore productive to turn to such texts in order to outline how African American media activism intervened in these consequential questions regarding race and public visibility.

Public Culture, Public Pedagogies, and Media as an Object of Analysis

Mainstream public culture, viewed through the lens of magazines, newspapers, and social networking sites, not only offers an arena for understanding how race identity comes into view (or is made viewable) through dominant systems of representation and articulation but also acts as an alternative pedagogical forum, one that grants access to the means of literary production and consumption outside of traditionally academic venues. Therefore, magazines and newspapers can be seen as pedagogical or “teaching” texts—that is, texts that either critique or instantiate structures of power by introducing and inculcating new, popular, or alternative habits of mind. Using Henry Giroux’s “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals” as a touchstone for unpacking the latent pedagogical functioning of public culture, this analysis suggests that activist periodicals both expose and reinscribe the pedagogical imperative of cultural paraphernalia through the production of counterdiscourses. These counterdiscourses help to construct new pathways for accessing educational resources beyond dominant and hegemonic institutions of knowledge.2

According to Giroux, public culture is a fluid and dynamic arena for understanding the performative dimensions of identity and agency, rendering visible the political forces influencing identity construction. In other words, public culture is a space for mediating, accommodating, and contesting dominant social hierarchies by highlighting the material relations informing and constructing a politics of representation. Framing this politics of representation through a discourse of pedagogy, Giroux’s “Cultural Studies” points to the hyper-fabricated nature of subject formation and, more specifically, citizen subjectivity. As Giroux notes, “the primacy of culture and power should be organized through an understanding of how the political becomes pedagogical” (62). Thus, political agency necessitates a process of learning whereby individuals come to understand themselves in relation to cultural artifacts and institutions.3

Consequently, Giroux’s formulation attaches pedagogical significance to this process of subject formation.4 More pointedly for Giroux, the pedagogical encounter reveals the political forces influencing how individuals come to articulate themselves within cultural institutions by underlining the degree to which these systems of power are artificial and ideologically driven. Making explicit connections among public culture, pedagogy, and subject formation, such work highlights the centrality of pedagogy in understanding and revising systems of power.

Recognizing the pedagogical imperative underlying the circulation of print media allows print culture scholars to better account for the ideological function of such material, especially as such material engages in the work of narrating which bodies can and cannot retain and garner visibility within a public sphere of representation. In other words, paying attention to the ways in which print culture teaches its readers how to be in the world—particularly in terms of how to differentiate oneself from gendered, racialized, and ideological othersis a fundamental aspect of acquiring and advancing a progressive approach to media literacy. Primary, however, to these questions regarding identity formation, pedagogy, and public culture is how the asymmetrical deployment of political, cultural, and social power shapes the pedagogical encounter. Revealing this asymmetry and chronicling how activist campaigns offer alternative forums for enunciating identity formation and political agency is thus fundamental to countering dominant systems of power.

Turn-of-the-Century African American periodicals are especially useful sites for exposing asymmetrical deployments of cultural and political power, as such periodicals interrogated the deep racial divides buttressing public and social norms. A landscape in which news, advertisements, opinion pieces, political commentary, personal letters, and literary critique sat alongside and in conversation with one another, African American print media offers a particularly unique staging ground for historicizing and contextualizing the multi-voiced and inter/intratextual nature of modern mass media. As Anne Ardis posits in “Making Middle-Brow Culture,” turn-of-the-century African American magazines like W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis highlight “the complex relationships between printed artifacts, the dazzingly, distractingly visual cultures of modernity, and the world of things for purchase commercially in a modern consumer culture…” (21). Similarly, Anne Carroll’s “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts in Crisis” suggests that Crisis’s “large cultural presence in the early twentieth century was due, in part, to its multimedia format and layout, which has drawn scant scholarly attention” (89). This “multimedia format,” characterized by the intermingling of news, photographs, advertisements, and critical and opinion commentary (and which is akin to contemporary media layouts both online and in print), provided a forum for readers to experience and engage with different genres of writing. For example, the Table of Contents for the December, 1912, issue of Crisis Magazine lists the following four titles under its “Articles” section: “Emmy” (a short story by Redmon Fauset), “Sackcloth and Ashes” (an editorial detailing the trauma of lynching and mob violence), “The Club Movement in California” (featuring biographical sketches of members of the National Association of Colored Women’s California chapters), and “The Christmas Sermon” (a poem by Robert J. Laurence), in addition to its featured departments, including “Along the Color Line,” “Men of the Month,” “Opinion,” “Editorial,” and “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.” Such offerings represent a range of critical, literary, and journalistic prose, from poetry and short stories to investigative journalism and political commentary.

Readers of magazines like Crisis were therefore presented with various textual genres and images that required a multimodal literacy, one that took into consideration how the structural and design features of these periodicals coalesced to make meaning. Even print advertisements, which were reflective of a growing consumer culture, cultivated a style of reading and interpretation that compelled audiences to deduce meaning from an economy of words and images. This multimodal reading experience was shaped by the various linkages and relationships one might find between different media paraphernalia, as such relationships could be found between images and copy, or copy and advertisements, or advertisements and opinion commentary. Editors also took advantage of multimedia formatting by positing arguments based on the internal staging of different, sometimes competing, media paraphernalia.5 In short, African American newspapers and magazines advanced a multimedia format that privileged inter- and intra-textual dialogue, exposing the internal juxtapositions informing how we making meaning from a range of cultural and media artifacts. Additionally, African American newspapers and magazines offered an approach to literacy where readers were able to participate in, contribute to, and enact new outlets for democratic engagement.

Passing, A Pedagogy: Artificial versus Embodied Passing 

One of the more insightful observations made about the media flurry surrounding Rachel Dolezal’s public outing was by a columnist for The Guardian. In an article entitled “Rachel Dolezal Exposes our Delusional Constructions and Perceptions of Race,” Steven W. Thrasher suggests that Dolezal’s failed passing reveals the artificiality of binary constructions of whiteness and blackness. Thrasher notes that what makes Dolezal’s case so “fascinating” is its exposure of the “disquieting way that our race is performance — that, despite the stark differences in how our races are perceived and privileged (or not) by others, they are all predicated on a myth that the differences are intrinsic and intrinsically perceptible” (Thrasher). Thrasher’s article presents two premises. Thrasher suggests that the ostensible intuitiveness with which we perceive racial characterization is learned. Thrasher additionally notes that we can learn to see and unsee these visual markers given our cultural and social training. In other words, although our racial constructs are arbitrary (as Thrasher points out), the features and categories that we associate with such constructs are learned and serve an ideological purpose, as such constructs are policed through legal legacy (Plessy v. Ferguson), social doctrine (de facto segregation), and institutional forums.

Historically, Crisis Magazine has played a role in narrating the linkages between artificial and embodied passing, enabling early twentieth-century readers to recognize the hidden pedagogies within dominant cultural paraphernalia. The editors of Crisis made revealing these “hidden pedagogies” a fundamental project of the magazine—a project that is productively illustrated in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s “Emmy.”

Arranged around two instances of passing—(1) Emmy, the protagonist, becoming “passable” as a black body within the protopublic sphere of the classroom; and (2) Archie, Emmy’s love interest, passing as someone of “Spanish decent” in order to excel in the field of engineering—Fauset’s story is largely a mediation on the role of public institutional settings in defining and standardizing blackness.6 Making visible the discriminatory and derogatory lens through which black identity was visualized in turn-of-the-century American culture, “Emmy” endeavors to “mend” these dominant and problematic ways of discerning black identity by calling attention to the arbitrary nature of such identity markers, foregrounding the role of pedagogy in inculcating these dominant modes of evaluation and interpretation. Passing is treated as a pedagogical practice, one that requires African American subjects to perform arbitrary racial markers for the purposes of attaining legibility within our public forums. Yet passing is cast from two differing vantage points, artificial and embodied passing. A comparative example between artificial and embodied passing, as each are noticed through Fauset’s Emmy and Archie, clarifies how Fauset, and in a larger sense the editors of Crisis Magazine as a whole, undertake the work of redefining passing as not simply a process of misrepresenting one’s race identity. Rather, passing in this context is defined as a cultural procedure in which black Americans acquire legibility within a larger public sphere of representation by performing “acceptable” racial characteristics (as defined and delimited by dominant visual and discursive systems).

Consumed with the stakes and consequences associated with disguising his racial identity, Archie’s narrative follows many of the tropes and themes associated with a traditional passing story, referred to in this analysis as “artificial passing.” Posing as white man in order to ascend the ranks in the field of engineering, Archie is plagued with interior deliberations about whether or not he wants to marry Emmy and “out” himself as an African American, thereby limiting his chances of professional fulfillment and wealth. It is not until Archie is met with the prospect of professional advancement at the expense of his romance with Emmy that he realizes success cannot be achieved without self-acceptance and race pride. Archie accomplishes these forms of acceptance when he exposes his “true” identity and comes out to his superiors, risking his career as an engineer for the interior reward of self-actualization.

Although Archie’s narrative aligns with standard passing stories, Emmy’s storyline extends the notion of passing to account for the process in which racialized bodies are taught and expected to disguise specific identity markers in order to pass through public space, even if they do not intend to pass as white. Thus, Emmy’s narrative explores passing-as-learned-identity as opposed to passing-as-deception. In drawing Emmy’s narrative, Fauset is perhaps more concerned with and critical of the white gazing subjects that delimit and authorize how racialized bodies can be seen or come into view within public spaces. Emmy’s story therefore serves to illuminate “embodied passing,” which is the primary focus of this article insofar as it underscores the material and cultural forces influencing subject formation.

For the purposes of this discussion, “embodied passing” denotes the physical experience of passing into and out of different public arenas as a racialized body, a term employed to underline the extent to which mainstream culture places specific conditions on how blackness can be seen and received within public spheres of representation. Black bodily presence is therefore mediated through certain assumptions about blackness; these assumptions dictate and discern how blackness can be performed in public space. Although embodied passing does not necessitate disguising one’s racial identity for the purposes of seeking professional or social advancement (artificial passing), it does suggest that in order to “pass” through different public venues unscathed (that is, without the chronic fear of bodily harm and harassment), racialized bodies must contend with and acquiesce to dominant visual systems for seeing and evaluating blackness. Such dominant and problematic systems of representation are made explicit in the story’s initial scenes, which are staged within the schoolhouse and revolve around the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student. In an assignment for class, Emmy is asked to name the world’s “five races” (Fauset 79). After naming the “white or Caucasian, the yellow or Mongolian, the red or Indian, the brown or Malay, and the black or Negro,” Emmy’s instructor, Mrs. Wenzel, demands that Emmy identify the race to which she belongs (79). This question, however, is harder for Emmy to navigate, “not because hers was the only dark face in the crowded schoolroom, but because she was visualizing the pictures with which the geography had illustrated its information” (79). Emmy deliberates that “she was not white, she knew that—nor had she almond eyes like the Chinese, nor the feathers which the Indian wore in his hair and which of course, were to Emmy a racial characteristic” (79). Finally, Emmy concludes that she “belongs to the black or Negro race,” much to her teachers “relief” (79). Emmy too is relieved, as “the Hottentot, chosen with careful nicety to represent the entire Negro race, had,” as Emmy notes, “on the whole a better appearance”(79).7

Visualizing iconic representations of racialized bodies, Emmy undertakes a process of logical deduction, reading her race identity in relation to these other representative identities. Although none of these iconic race representations adequately articulate her experience as a racialized body, Emmy chooses the least problematic minority appearance as her own. Emmy’s participation and legibility within the public institutional sphere of the classroom is predicated on these representative icons (for example, the Venus Hottentot). Thus, Emmy becomes intelligible and “passable” only when she complies with these racial representations. Moreover, passing within this context holds a double significance, since Emmy is both receiving a passing grade for Mrs. Wenzel’s assignment, as well as passable as a black body within a public institutional sphere. By introducing her story with a schoolhouse “lesson,” Fauset underlines the extent to which dominant visual systems are learned and artificial. Pedagogy therefore acts a medium through which dominant visual systems are articulated and enacted, as educators are the primary interlocutors for policing racial categories.

Throughout “Emmy,” Fauset is concerned with how racially marked bodies come to know, see, and value themselves within and in relation to dominant visual systems, as the story reaches its climax when Emmy and Archie learn to reject the racial hierarchies and stereotypes that define blackness in order to realize and fully recuperate their love for one another. Each character undergoes a process of becoming intelligible both within and against these dominant characterizations of blackness. One reviewer, Claire Oberon Garcia, describes the story as “permeated by problematic tropes of recognition in the verbal and visual arts” (Garcia 101). This chronic and consistent squaring of embodied identity with dominant standards for seeing blackness is further explicated in the illustration of a young African American woman gazing at her reflection in a vanity mirror, which momentarily interrupts Fauset’s text and works to create a collage effect in the layout of the page. This juxtaposition of image and text underlines the visual qualities implicit within the process of imagining identity: identity, through this discursive and visual vantage point, is contingent upon and pivots from the image. In other words, the visual field through which bodies become viewable works to determine one’s access to and acceptance within public culture. As a consequence, racial icons such as the Venus Hottentot—a public identity singularly circumscribed by the visual field—set certain and specific limitations on how blackness could be seen, received, and responded to within mainstream culture and its publics. In Fauset’s fictional account of passing, the image works to police, circumscribe, and substantiate racial identity. Race is treated as an aestheticized object of public consumption, interpretation, and analysis, and racial articulation is mediated by public figures, specifically educators. Furthermore, racial iconicization in “Emmy” works to reify binary constructions of race, asserting categorical clarity through the visual field, through artificial enactments and visual presentations of race.

The primacy of the image in discerning racial identity finds further elucidation in an editorial preceding Fauset’s “Emmy,” entitled “The Black Mother” (TBM). Reporting on legislation to erect a mammy monument in the National Mall, “TBM” complicates the legacy of the mammy figure, which at the turn of the century derived particular cultural currency as a happy and benign relic of the “Old South.”8 Noting that such iconography “existed under a false social system that deprived [real black mothers] of husband and child,” “TBM” suggests that such caricatures dehumanize and negate the subjective experience of Black mothers—as the mammy figure signifies a moment in African American history when Black women were deprived of interiority and barred from cultivating a private life outside of white supremacist systems of servitude and surveillance (“TBM” 78).

“TBM” also points to the degree to which our public memorials are spaces of learning, as public memorials both instruct citizens what our nation’s values are and which citizens (and civic actions) are valuable. Erecting a mammy statue in the National Mall would therefore teach African American women that their value as citizens stems from their capacity to identify with and live into these demeaning tropes of representation. In both “Emmy” and “TBM,” dominant pedagogies (such as those that happen in the schoolhouse and those that are derived through public memorialization) are associated with submission. That is, Emmy must submit to her teacher’s reading of race in order to pass through and become legible within the classroom space. Likewise, public memorialization of mammy works to instruct white and black citizen subjects how to read and evaluate African American identity through the lens of submission, as the legacy of the mammy is one of servitude and submission. However, the editors of Crisis challenge these dominant pedagogical practices by teaching readers how to recognize and depart from these systems of seeing and evaluating blackness.

Critiquing the extent to which black bodies were encouraged, expected, and to some degree even required to identify with and through these iconic and hypervisible racial caricatures, the editorial describes the mammy figure as a “perversion of motherhood” and compels “present-day mammies [to] suckle their own children…walk in the sunshine with their own toddling boys and girls and put their own sleepy little brothers and sisters to bed” (“TBM” 78). Compelling African American women to contest the cultural legacy of these hyperbolic and problematic tropes of representation, “TBM” asserts that the mammy caricature (probably one of the more iconic and visually pointed images of black iconography) works to abstract and erase the embodied and felt experiences of black women.

Particularly noteworthy is the article’s positioning. Directly preceding Fauset’s story about passing, “TBM” contextualizes the drama of “Emmy” with real-world prefatory material, drawing connections between passing and racial caricatures. By juxtaposing Fauset’s fictive story of passing (which emphasizes the primacy of the image in objectifying and aestheticizing racial identity) with a critique of the hypervisible legacy of the mammy figure, the December, 1912, layout of Crisis links the phenomenon of passing to an oversimplification and caricaturization of racial subjectivity. Passing is therefore associated not with the breakdown of racial categories but with the solidification of racial boundary lines—lines that, regardless of the racial identity performing the passing, associate racial identification with phenotypic categorization.

Scholar Baz Dreisinger, who has written prolifically on the phenomenon of passing, suggests that passing privileges and reiterates the presence of the white gazing subject. In an interview for the Atlantic Monthly, Dreisinger suggests that the phenomenon of passing underlines the white gazing subject’s “long legacy of fetishizing blackness” (Dreisinger). Such fetishistic imagery is “based upon caricatures, and not characters…on idealized or cartoonish notions of what blackness is” (Dreisinger). These cartoonish portrayals of blackness work to obfuscate the interiority of racialized subjects. Although traditional stories of passing tend to emphasize the psychological consequences of performing whiteness (notably the pain associated with breaking familial ties for the purposes of social or professional advancement), both “Emmy” and “TBM” highlight the extent to which passing as black within a white public sphere of representation is equally risky. In other words, passing takes on a dual context: passing is treated as both a phenomenon in which individuals transition from one race identity to another and a process through which African Americans learn how to see, identify, and contend with dominant visual systems. Consequently, the editors at Crisis sought to re-define passing as a social and psychological process of erasing embodied experience and aestheticizing racial identity. The metaphoric erasure of subjectivity that becomes visible through the fetishizing imagery of the mammy figure is made literal and explicit in the article directly succeeding “Emmy,” which chronicles the lynching of Zackaria Walker.

Walker’s identity, as well as his purported crime, is not specified in the report. Instead, the article, entitled “Sackcloth and Ashes,” vaguely notes: “On August 18, 1911, a black man was burned to death by a mob in Coatesville, Pa” (“Sackcloth” 87). From here, the editorial details a speech by John Jay Chapman to a prayer gathering in Coatesville. In his speech, Chapman interprets a newspaper account of Walker’s death:

…I read in the newspapers of August 14…about the burning alive of a human being—and of how a few desperate fiend-minded men had been permitted to torture a man chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive, thrust back by pitchforks when he struggled out of it, which around about stood hundreds of well-dressed American citizens, both from the vicinity and from afar, coming on foot and in wagons, assembling on telephone calls…hundreds of persons watching this awful sight and making no attempt to stay the wickedness. (“Sackcloth” 87)

Making many references to sight and seeing, Chapman describes his personal reaction to the violent scene reported in the paper: “I seemed to get a glimpse into the unconscious soul of this country. I saw a seldom-revealed picture of the American heart and of the American nature. I seemed to be looking into the heart of the criminal […] What I have seen is not an illusion. It is the truth” (“Sackcloth” 87). The “truth” that Chapman gleans from this tableau is the commonness of racial violence in American public culture. For Chapman, the black body comes into view publicly through the frame of the lynching spectacle. Signifying the erasure of black bodily presence, the lynching spectacle (circulated through lynching photographs and media depictions) works to further abstract black subjective experience. Like “Emmy” and “TBM,” “Sackcloth and Ashes” examines the role of dominant visual systems in narrating and filling in black identity. “Sackcloth and Ashes” does not describe the lynching spectacle firsthand; rather, the lynching spectacle comes into view through media narration and visual language.

By appropriating how lynching was narrated and depicted in popular media, the editors of Crisis perhaps hoped to disrupt popular depictions of lynching as either a “just” response to black criminality or a benign enactment of popular sovereignty. Furthermore, lynching reporting and imagery within mainstream presses was implicitly pedagogical; that is, such coverage acted as a grotesque and deeply problematic mode of teaching white and black readerships the risks associated with black public visibility. The circulation of lynching imagery in Southern States made explicit the consequences of questioning or challenging segregationist policies. However, in Crisis, the circulation of lynching stories (and photographs) inverted this pedagogical initiative.

Drawing connections between artificial representations of racial performance (vis-a-vis passing and racial iconography) and the erasure of black subjectivity, Crisis Magazine (as observed through its intratextual linkages) brings to light the extent to which our modes of seeing, understanding, and evaluating blackness is learned. Furthermore, the aestheticization of racial identity (as is noticed in passing narratives, as well as in racial caricatures) directly informs—and is in dialogue with—the most extreme examples of black erasure. That is, the erasure of black subjective identity exemplified in the popularity of iconic caricatures such as the Venus Hottentot (“Emmy”) and mammy (“TBM”) finds its most disgusting manifestation in the wholesale erasure of black subjectivity in the lynching spectacle. Thus, the lynching spectacle, as Chapman notes, offers a harrowing insight into the political and social pulse of the country.


This analysis has touched on the relationship between passing and pedagogy by discussing the central role popular media plays in the construction of public identities. Considering how binary constructions of race rely on and privilege phenotypic identification, this article historicized the ways in which the phenomenon of passing is interpreted and re-defined by activist media. By highlighting intratextual linkages, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Crisis Magazine takes up the pedagogical incentive to teach readers our own cultural biases and assumptions regarding racial identity, underscoring the extent to which such biases and assumptions are learned and can be re-learned for the purposes of pursuing a more progressive agenda towards race, racial performance, and racial legislation. What “Emmy,” “The Black Mother,” and “Sackcloth and Ashes” clarify is the primacy of the image in envisioning and legislating identity. Of course, this brief analysis of Fauset’s story and the two editorials bordering her work cannot fully articulate the extent to which questions of citizenship are built into this collective imagining of how to see and receive blackness within public institutional spaces. However, this analysis begins to identify the ways in which black citizenship comes into view both within and against these dominant visual systems. These dominant visual systems are taught and learned through popular media in stories of passing, which expose the artificial boundaries defining and circumscribing who and how we see. Each of the articles chronicles the contours of these systems of seeing black identity while at the same time aiming to respond back to the white gazing subject through whom these depictions are authored and authorized.

What turn-of-the-century activist periodicals can teach—or at least model—for us today is the pedagogical nature of these media representations. Periodicals such as Crisis call attention to the pedagogical imperative to write and legislate identity. Mainstream pedagogies of representation can work to foreclose the potential for new citizen subjects and subjectivities to emerge. Yet, the texts referenced in this article offer an historical framework for understanding how media invention and intervention by marginal and minority communities works to re-shape the borders and boundary lines characterizing dominant discursive and visual fields of representation.

Although this article focused on historical accounts of periodical activism, such work opens up new avenues for discussing media literacy, defined here as identifying, critiquing, and even modifying the pedagogical dimensions underpinning popular culture. By considering what media landscapes make visible (or not visible) in terms of racial subjectivity, gender expression, and citizenship, such work uses a discourse of pedagogy as a lens for understanding the various popular forums where teaching happens. Making racial passing stories a focal point, this article suggests that such narratives expose the many ways in which different forms of social representation are learned through public culture and public media and the extent to which media landscapes “teach” us normalized identity categories. Such categories have the potential to influence not only how we visualize blackness, but the ways in which blackness is legislated in public spaces, as stories of passing tend to derive specific cultural currency in moments of social and cultural upheaval (moments in which the policing of racial identities in public space is particularly incisive).

While it is important to be sensitive to the cultural particularities and nuances surrounding the policing of black bodies today, the antecedents of such skepticism towards “foreignness” and “otherness” within public forums can be traced to segregationist legislation and deeply-rooted anxieties about modernity at the century’s turn. Furthermore, these anxieties can be connected to current fears surrounding globalization and immigration, which have manifested in the rise of nativist populist rhetoric. Thus, it is no surprise that questions of “categorical clarity” with respect to racial identity were re-introduced alongside of nativist concerns about “shoring up our borders” and surveilling foreign others. Conversations about the pedagogy and politics of racial passing are therefore not divorced from more modern concerns regarding how popular media narrates difference and which counternarratives derive media currency.

This article proposes the following three questions for further research seeking to use a discourse of pedagogy for the purposes of better understanding the critical and cultural relevance of examining popular media and media activism: How can a discourse of pedagogy that does not singularly privilege traditional classroom settings and practices further highlight the political dimensions associated with reading and interpreting media texts, texts that explicitly and implicitly teach us the degrees of visibility available to marginal and minority communities in the face of dominant or hegemonic structures? How might this expanded view of pedagogy allow us to balance political concerns with an aesthetic and literary experience of Otherness and passing? How might we use different forms of media expression as a means for intervening in this process of visibility—or changing and counternarrating dominant media tropes?


Works Cited

Appelbaum, Yoni. “Rachel Dolezal and the History of Passing for Black.” The Atlantic Monthly, 15 June 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/rachel-dolezal-and-the-history-of-passing-for-black/395882/.

Ardis, Ann L. “Making Middlebrow Culture, Making Middlebrow Literary Texts Matter: The Crisis, Easter 1912.” Modernist Cultures vol. 6, no. 1, 2011, pp. 19-36.

—and Patrick C. Collier, eds. Transatlantic Print Culture 1880-1940: Emerging Media, Emerging Modernisms. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Blow, Charles. “The Delusions of Rachel Dolezal.” The New York Times, 17 June 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/opinion/charles-blow-the-delusions-of-dolezal.html.

Caroll, Anne Elizabeth. “Protest and Affirmation: Composite Texts in the Crisis.” American Literature vol. 76 no. 1, March 2004, pp. 89-116.

Castronovo, Russ. Beautiful Democracy: Aesthetics and Anarchy in a Global Era. The U of Chicago P, 2007.

Devega, Chauncey. “What We Can’t Afford to Forget About Rachel Dolezal: A Master Class in White Victimology.” Salon, 22 June 2015. http://www.salon.com/2015/06/22/what_we_cant_afford_to_forget_about_rachel_dolezal_a_master_class_in_white_victimology/.

Eberly, Rosa A. Citizen Critic: Literary Public Spheres. U of Illinois P, 2000.

Fauset, Jessie R. “Emmy.” The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 79-87.Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>.

Garcia, Claire Oberon .“Jessie Redmon Fauset Reconsidered.” The Harlem Renaissance Revisited. Edited by Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar. Johns Hopkins UP, 2010.

Giroux, Henry A. “Cultural Studies, Public Pedagogy, and the Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Communication and Critical Cultural Studies vol. 1, no. 1, 2004, pp. 59-79.

Graham, Regina F., and Khaleda Rahman. “Race Faker Rachel Dolezal Talks Racial Identity on Chat Show and Says She Ticks Both the Black AND White Box on Forms.” The Daily Mail, 30 October 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3297068/Rachel-Dolezal-talks-racial-identity-guest-The-Real.html.

Jones, Allie. “Rachel Dolezal Identifies as Medium Spray.” Gawker, 17 June 2015. http://gawker.com/rachel-dolezal-identifies-as-medium-spray-tan-1711927604.

Kirschke, Amy H. Art in Crisis: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for African American Identity and Memory. Indiana UP, 2007.

Nealon, Jeffrey T., and Susan Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Rowman and Littlefield, 2011.

Sharfstein, Daniel J. “Rachel Dolezal’s ‘Passing’ Isn’t So Unusual.” The New York Times Magazine, 15 June 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/magazine/rachel-dolezals-passing-isnt-so-unusual.html.

Thrasher, Steven W. “Rachel Dolezal Exposes our Delusional Constructions and Perceptions of Race.” The Guardian, 12 June 2015. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/12/rachel-dolezal-delusional-construction-perception-of-race>.

Walters, Alicia. “I Became a Black Woman in Spokane. But Rachel Dolezal, I Was a Black Girl First.” The Guardian, 15 June 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/14/became-a-black-woman-spokane-rachel-dolezal-black-girl.

“The Black Mother.” The Crisis Magazine: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 78. Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>.

“Sackcloth and Ashes.” The Crisis Magazine: A Record of the Darker Races [New York]. December 1912: 87-88. Modernist Journals Project Archive. Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. <http://www.modjourn.org>


End Notes

1 Sharfstein’s article primarily focuses on reverse passing cases, such as those of Rachel Dolezal, Dan Burros, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan whose family identified as Jewish and who was considered a “star bar mitzvah student,” and Forest Carter, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan and speechwriter for George Wallace who authored a Native American “memoir” under the penname Asa Earl Carter (Sharstein). Although Burros and Carter’s cases derived some media attention, the purpose of this article is to unpack how the phenomenon of passing exposes larger cultural assumptions about racial identity, particularly the extent to which we rely on aesthetic or phenotypic markers as a means for interpreting racial identity.

2 My use of the term “counterdiscourse” borrows from Nancy Fraser’s “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” “Subaltern counterpublics,” according to Fraser, are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (Fraser 67). In this context, counterdiscourses are simply discourses that offer “oppositional interpretations of marginal identity, interests, and needs.” Seeing as turn-of-the-century African American periodicals offered alternative portrayals of blackness that countered the often-derogatory stereotypes found within mainstream media in this period, I argue that these periodicals are counterdiscursive.

3 Without veering too far from my central argument, we can see the stakes inherent in Giroux’s ideas in our current socio-political climate. That is to say, concerns over immigration and what constitutes American assimilation reveals the ways in which popular media (from all ends of the political spectrum) have a direct hand in shaping the types of identities that are visible or are not visible within a social sphere by teaching a media-consuming public normalized identity formations. For example, viewing an immigrant as either a foreign other to be feared, maligned, and banned from American participatory democracy or a “raw material” to be shaped and molded into a model for American exceptionalism or progressivism are archetypes that derive consistent media currency in our contemporary moment.

4 In this article, I am suggesting that subject formation is tied to one’s capacity to become visible within a public sphere of representation. Here, I am gesturing toward the work of Jeffery Nealon and Susan Giroux. In The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Nealon and Giroux define subjectivity as a collection of discursive and physical actions that allow for individualized identities to develop and become culturally visible. Subjectivity happens at the intersection of individual agency and larger cultural values. The larger cultural values that help dictate and discern racial subjectivities, for instance, are explicitly tied to political forces. Therefore, political agency is the medium through which new racial subjects can emerge, develop, and become visible within mainstream culture and within wider public spheres of influence and representation.

5 In “Beauty Along the Color Line: Lynching, Aesthetics and the ‘Crisis,’” Russ Castronovo argues that Crisis‘s multimedia format was used deliberately by editors to build connections between politics and aesthetics. Castronovo’s work focuses specifically on how the internal staging of lynching photographs alongside of literary articles worked to renegotiate both the standards on which art was evaluated and the conditions on which bodies came into and out of view (and the extent to which these bodies were considered beautiful).

6 I borrow this term from Rosa E. Eberly. Eberly refers to school spaces as protopublic spheres where students can practice participatory democracy within a low-stakes learning environment. Eberly notes that these “protopublic spaces…[allow] students to form and enter literary public spheres and choose whether to join wider public spheres”  (162). For a more detailed account of the relationship between classroom spaces and public spaces, see Christian Weisser’s Moving Beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere.

7 The Hottentot Venus was the stage name assigned to Saartjie Baartmann (also referred to as Sara Baartman), a South African slave who was sold to a Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop. Dunlop compelled Baartman to perform in carnival slideshows throughout Europe. Considered a major “attraction” in Britain and France between 1810 and 1815, Baartman would draw large crowds interested in her “exotic” anatomy. Baartman was also used as an object of scientific examination both during her life and after her death by Georges Cuvier, a professor of anatomy at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. After Baartman’s death in 1815, Cuvier dissected her body and displayed her remains, including her brain, skeleton, and genitalia in Paris’s Museum of Man. Fauset uses the legacy of Baartman in order to highlight the extent to which blackness was treated as an object of public scrutiny and scientific examination, and to further elucidate the degree to which black public presence was marked by an erasure of subjective identity.

8 This notion of the “Old South” is firmly connected to Lost Cause Mythology, a nostalgic misreading of plantation life prior to the Civil War. In the half century after the Civil War, Lost Cause sentiment grew in popularity. Rooted in plantation literature (including The Leopard’s Spots in 1902, The Clansman in 1905, and The Traitor in 1907), Lost Cause mythology romanticized Southern paternalism, uplifting the plantation as a utopian space in which racial binaries were fixed and natural. The mammy figure played a central role in clarifying such binaries.


Author Bio 

Tara Propper received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature and Languages at the University of Texas at Tyler. Her research focuses on the relationship between literacy and identity, specifically the ways in which the production and consumption of newspapers and magazines in the long nineteenth century allowed marginal and minority voices to participate within a public sphere of representation. This research applies a historic framework to investigate the concept of “the public” and what it means to write into or outside of this sphere.


Reference Citation


Propper, Tara. “The Pedagogy and Politics of Racial Passing: Examining Media Literacy in Turn-of-the-Century Activist Periodicals”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1the-pedagogy-and-politics-of-racial-passing-examining-media-literacy-in-turn-of-the-century-activist-periodicals


Propper, T. (2017). The pedagogy and politics of racial passing: Examining media literacy in turn-of-the-century activist periodicals. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 4(1). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v4-issue-1the-pedagogy-and-politics-of-racial-passing-examining-media-literacy-in-turn-of-the-century-activist-periodicals.