By Julia Schiff
Nancy Bristow described Dexter Gordon as “a gifted teacher, brilliant thinker and scholar, and an innovative and imaginative leader and builder” while introducing him as this year’s Regester lecturer. On the evening of March 22, faculty and students gathered for the 45th annual Regester Lecture. The lecture is delivered by a distinguished member of faculty, voted to give the speech by fellow faculty. The speaker is honored for their academic pursuits and intellectual integrity.
This year, Dexter Gordon was the featured speaker. Gordon is an African American studies and communications professor at the University of Puget Sound, and is also a leader of the Race and Pedagogy Institute (RPI). This year’s speech was entitled “Race & Pedagogy: A Yearning…” The speech focused around issues of race, touching on Gordon’s own experiences, racial issues within institutions and the work of the RPI.
“We envision a society where the systemic causes of racism have been uprooted and in which we are energized to reimagine a world oriented toward the shared experience of liberation,” the Race & Pedagogy mission statement reads. Gordon’s speech loosely followed the mission statement of the RPI.
The speech was focused around the idea of “yearning.” He expressed throughout his lecture the yearning for institutional transformation. The central idea that institutional transformation is necessary was one Gordon frequently returned to. He began by discussing RPI’s role in influencing change, analyzing his work with the Race and Pedagogy Institute, liberal arts education, his early life in Jamaica, and the racial dynamics on University of Puget Sound’s campus. Beginning with the accomplishments of the Race and Pedagogy Institute, Gordon launched into an appreciative recognition of the positive work that the RPI has done. He then discussed the priorities of the RPI: “Our strategic priorities are to work on curriculum practice, community engagement and diversity initiatives,” Gordon said, and elaborated on further steps to create tangible change within each of these priorities.
As the speech progressed, Gordon used his own childhood experiences to contextualize his understanding of race and identity. “It was commonplace in Jamaica to frame your life after school as a period of recovery from the alienating experience of British education,” Gordon said. He went on to analyze the importance of unlearning oppressive concepts and asking important questions. “How do we, who have been colonized as belonging only to the margins of history, grapple with such history?” he asked.
From these subjects, he branched into a challenging discussion about the history of racism on the University of Puget Sound campus. He brought up repeating instances of blackface on campus. His slides featured a 2003 issue of The Trail, where one of the front page articles reads, “Blackface concern reemerges at UPS.” He also mentioned the University’s history of minstrel shows featuring blackface. These shows have a history of mocking African Americans; they featured white actors in blackface presenting offensive stereotypes to their audiences. Gordon tied these instances of blackface to the absolute necessity of transformative action on campus, expanding to the need for curricular reform and greater diversity among faculty.
The speech was followed by a question-and-answer session. One woman suggested that the grandchildren of black students on campus during the early minstrel shows be contacted and offered free tuition. Another faculty member asked about how to engage black students as a white teacher. To this, Gordon replied that keeping students engaged using more current and accessible modes would be beneficial. He expressed the need for greater diversity in teaching positions, citing that teachers in the Tacoma school district are mostly white while the student body is half people of color.
Gordon’s lecture expressed his personal desire for transformation. He took his audience through the different elements of his mission for change, asking them to participate in his “yearning.” His speech was almost like a tour of his mind; each concept seemed like an invitation to discover ideas he has been developing for years.
The Race and Pedagogy Institute is hosting its quadrennial Race and Pedagogy conference in fall 2018 on campus, which regularly welcomes over 2,000 participants. This year, the theme is “Radically Re-Imagining the Project of Justice: Narratives of Rupture, Resilience, and Liberation.” The conference hopes to engage students, faculty, and the greater Tacoma community in discussions of transformation and progress. Gordon’s Regester lecture was a small preview of this momentous occasion.