Yesterday, my Smithsonian Fellowship year culminated in an afternoon of presentations made by the eleven Fellows before an audience of professors, deans, and other notables at Montgomery College. The following is the speech presentation I made (PowerPoint not included).
This year’s Smithsonian Fellowship theme, “American Experience: The Quest for Identity,” fit well with my English 102 argument course, which has long carried an identity theme I call “Redefining Difference.” At the foundation of my course is the work by Feminist theorist and black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet Audre Lorde. Lorde rejects the use of binaries—“dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior,” black/white, gay/straight, us/them—and she urges the recognition of differences as useful rather than detrimental tools for creating social change.
Many students today accept the notion that age, race, class, gender, and sexuality no longer matter; they often blindly accept the idea that we are all equal. But as soon as we read more about the racial and class tensions experienced during the Hurricane Katrina event, my students face a critical challenge: many find that they have more complex relationships with “traditional” forms of identity, which demonstrates that our national narrative, no matter how far we have come, returns to age, race, class, gender, and sexuality as benchmarks from which we derive our own senses of self.
As I said, this year’s fellowship theme, “American Experience: The Quest for Identity,” fit very well with my English 102 course, which three objectives: incorporate my course theme, incorporate the Smithsonian Fellowship theme, and teach research skills and argument techniques. Through all this, my personal objective was to have students recognize how their own identities influence the ways they approach arguments and the ways they argue their positions on social issues.
For my project, Students visited three exhibits at the National Museum of American History: “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” “American Stories,” and “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War”. They journeyed through the exhibits’ ranges of artifacts, for example: Jefferson’s portable desk, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, and a series of pin-ups, marketed during World War II.
Through the museum objects, students discovered various narratives of the American experience. They were assigned to find one object in one of the three exhibits that they could connect to an identity category; this object and its related identity category were then developed into a broader research project, one in which they would argue a position on a social issue.
For example, Celia Cruz’s custom-designed shoes led Carlos Marquina to research the values of immigration. Carlos wrote, “I was able to view, first hand, the shoes that Celia Cruz wore during one of her first performances after fleeing Cuba. It inspired me [that] America saw the cultural and artistic value that she had to offer.” Carlos’s paper focused on three benefits immigrants offers American society: cultural diversity, economic contributions, and a way to remember the historical significance of the first immigrants to the United States.
Veronica Gonzalez was drawn to a pink Quinceañera dress. Veronica wrote, “The dress immediately took me back five years ago to the memories of my own celebration.” She also offered some history: “This ritual goes back to the Aztec civilization when this rite of passage meant that a girl was now ready to be introduced to society as a woman.” And she argued that perhaps the Quinceañera ritual is losing some of its significance by being overshadowed by large parties meant to prove the American ideal of prosperity: “[Latin families] are showing to society that they have ‘made it in America’ or ‘have reached the American dream,’” thus losing sight of the true meaning of the ritual.
Edwin Guzman connected with a baseball used by the Negro League. He wrote, “As a 19 year old Latino, I can understand the same feeling as an African American. I have gone through many events in my life that have involved racism in sports and in daily life.” He cited the two years of try-outs it took him to join his high school lacrosse team, try-outs that might have had something to do with his race. But through his research, Edwin also learned that Latinos were a ticket-in for some black baseball players. He wrote, “Something that really surprised me was the fact that some baseball owners and managers of major league teams tried to hire African Americans by saying that the players were Hispanic or Native American. Many athletes were from Cuba and the Dominican Republic.”
This project turned up some very interesting papers that synthesized the topic of my class, “Redefining Difference,” with the Smithsonian Fellowship’s theme, “American Experience: The Quest for Identity,” together with the English department’s objective for English 102, which is that students learn research skills and argument techniques. While reflecting on the project, one student said, “I paid more attention to the objects and got to research more about them. Also, it gave me an opportunity to relate to the objects with the daily activities in the world.” Another student said, “I never thought a museum component would relate to something relevant around me before.” And another student said, “Finding Kermit the Frog and the Pokemon Pikachu being used as exhibits in a museum was really special.”
For me, guiding students through the Smithsonian project, witnessing them remain open to the experience, and reading the connections they made among museum objects, our course materials on the values of difference, and their personal identities were very special, indeed. In the end, my Smithsonian Fellowship experience can be best described in the inspirational words of Kermit the Frog, “Someday we’ll find it, that rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”