Teaching During Quarantine in the District of Columbia
Daniel DeWispelare, George Washington University
The Covid-19 lockdown in the District of Columbia happened rapidly. I taught my final in-person class at George Washington University on March 5th. Non-essential businesses were closed on March 14th. The District’s mandatory stay-at-home order began April 1st. This normally noisy city became a place where, with the apartment windows open, you could hear a lone jogger pounding the pavement a block away.
Race and its inequities pervade all anecdotes I have learned about my adoptive city. Old DC metro trains were carpeted so that suburban commuters could feel like they were safe in their living rooms while shuttling to and from work. And the booming gentrification of the 2000s and 2010s grew directly out of the popular uprisings following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Condo developers in recent decades have bought, bulldozed, infilled, and whitened parts of the city that have been in disrepair and civic neglect since 1968. At some point a few years ago I first heard the buzzing thrum that commercial property owners downtown broadcast outside their lobbies to keep the unhoused from sleeping nearby. It’s impossible to unhear.
Currently, I live in a one-bedroom rental apartment on the fourth floor of a large building on East Capitol Street, three blocks from the US Capitol building. Sounds in this apartment have always been signifiers, but perhaps more so now: helicopters, police sirens, ambulances, and chanting crowds are sure alerts that something is afoot. Peaceful protests pass this way, especially frequent since the the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others. In the midst of these life-giving gatherings, antisocial, opportunistic behavior passes this way too. On my block alone, the Grubb’s Pharmacy, dating from 1867, saw three attempted burglaries in two weeks. Shop owners in the area speculate that these robberies are about opioid addiction, another US public health crisis in addition to coronavirus and systemic racism. One tragedy of the robberies at Grubb’s is that some repellent thinkers and pundits have mischaracterized the store’s smashed windows as the result of the truly historic, popular, and peaceful series of protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter.
DC is a city of extreme polarities. Twenty blocks to the East of my building is the Anacostia River, the eastern banks of which were built up in the late-nineteenth century by freedmen and fugitive slaves alongside a Nacochtank trading center, or “anaquash,” anglicized “Anacostia.” Frederick Douglass’s house is perched there on a hilltop looking northwest over the district. Twenty blocks to the West of my apartment building is the recently rechristened Black Lives Matter Plaza at 16th and H Streets NW, just north of the White House, an area that on a pre-Covid day was usually swarming with lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants. For now, this plaza is a focal point of the ongoing movement for the safety and sanctity of BIPOC lives, not just in the US, but around the world.
Because I am a teacher, I have tried in my mind’s eye to record the tumultuousness of what we are living through now, knowing full well that the “we” in this context should be critiqued intensively. I have wanted but have so far failed to figure out how to document this moment—in writing, in photos, in video, or in something else entirely. Those questions will obviously need to be collectively answered going forward, and of course this process is already well underway.
At Black Lives Matter Plaza the people’s historians are already archiving the signs that have been produced by weeks of peaceful protest. Drone footage of massive peaceful rallies take on the air of the sublime. The music, slogans, chants, and collective die-ins will be memorialized somehow. We also have—and have had for so long—ghastly records of white racial terror. Most importantly we have the testimony of the brutalized, both now and in all earlier historical moments. Now is the time to do the work of knocking the Edward Colstons, Leopold IIs, Albert Pikes, and their analogues, out of our curricula for good.
In January of 2020, I began teaching an in-person course on “Riotous Literary Forms.” I have found that it is a good icebreaker to ask students when they think “the now” begins. Ultimately, this question is about how culture marks time, not empty calendar time, but affective, eventful time. Students often suggest that the contours of the present can be found most obviously in the invention of the internet, or in the economic collapse of 2008. Some say that 2014 is the most important recent marker of historical change, and here they mention the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest and police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere.
When the semester began, I had planned to examine literature from the eighteenth century and nineteenth century that stages popular uprisings, revolutions, and riots, including but not limited to bread riots, swing riots, dock riots, machine breaking, slave rebellions, etc. When we moved class online in March, I feared that my syllabus was totally irremediable, and perhaps it was. For the first two weeks we read Zola’s Germinal, which chronicles the lives of starving and striking miners, and this at a time when students’ parents are losing work and hemorrhaging money. We moved tentatively on to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, which is a wonderful reworking of the themes of Beloved, but which also has at its heart a smallpox epidemic that I failed to prepare the students for. Matters were made worse when we came to the last work of the class, Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl, an oral chronicle of ecological and social cataclysm.
The class’s conversation started slowly and innocuously with students suggesting safe topics as though TikTok dance routines and out-of-touch celebrities during quarantine could commemorate this moment, one in which racist and colonialist statues are being pulled down all over the world. The conversation moved on to a discussion about embodiment, binge watching, online class attendance, and debilitating computer fatigue. Someone nudged the conversation in the direction of the extreme racial and gender disparities that quarantine reveals, both nationally and abroad. One student commented that, in the US, a wide swath of the population was sheltering in place while the immiserated workers of the gig economy delivered them food.
What cultural forms capture the extreme disparities and in-built hierarchies of the battle dome that is US American society? What cultural forms are commensurate to the representation of these two proximate moments, first the pressure cooker of Covid-19 and then the explosion of popular protest in reaction to racialized police violence? What forms usher American white supremacy to its dissolution?
As I plan my syllabi for the year to come, I am thinking about how to bring my lessons up to the task of framing the new moment that is beginning—and this is a difficult problem. Obviously solving this problem requires a decolonizing approach to curriculum. But even with such an approach one’s interventions run counter to the ambient and enduring inequity that stalks every aspect of the normal, especially in a long-stratified city like DC. I am reading and reading, even as it seems impossible to predict how instruction will proceed in the fall, or if it even should.