The Core program at Colgate University requires all students to enroll in Legacies of the Ancient World, a Scientific Perspectives class, Communities and Identities class, and Challenges of Modernity. At the beginning of the semester, family members and friends from other universities asked me what the class Challenges of Modernity was about; I honestly had no clue, I mean I was only taking the class because I have too. I assumed the class would have something to do with living in the twenty-first century, the most modern era. Except we started the semester reading about Du Bois, so this is clearly not a class about the twenty-first century. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, wrote about the struggles of modernization after the slavery was abolished in America in 1933 or the Challenges of Modernity – wink, wink.
Next we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me. The memoir was written as a letter to his teenage son; it was published in 2015 (the twenty-first century). I believe the importance of reading this text immediately after Du Bois is to highlight black Americans’ continual fight for equality in today’s society. The third major piece we studied was Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925. The text focused on the stigma placed upon people with mental illness. Woolf herself struggled with mental illness similarly to the character in the book Septimus Smith. Similar to the struggle within the African American community to achieve equality, though society is advancing the stigma about mental remains largely the same; I talk about this in my post “It’s OK Not To Be OK.”After talking about Mrs. Dalloway and mental, the course transitioned to Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents where Freud explores why civilization leads to unhappiness.
Karl Marx in the “Communist Manifesto” critiques civilization and capitalism. Marx wanted to implement communism instead of capitalism to create equality amongst all citizens. Capitalism allows for veiled slavery distant from the consumer to produce the cheapest product. Kevin Bales does an interview with NPR about modern slavery; I wrote more about this in my blog post “Modern Day Slavery.” We read numerous other texts about the challenges of civilization and advancement. The course Challenges of Modernity is not about living in the modern era or twenty-first century, but the obstacles we face in the process of advancement. Even though some of the obstacles have not been fully resolved, studying these texts have given me a new outlook on the future. Though progress is not easy, it is possible.
In class, Professor Briley asked us how we defined good, bad, and evil. My understanding of what is good, bad, and evil mostly comes from what my parents have taught me. Professor Briley asked us to craft definitions as if we were explaining these values to a child; everyone in the class had very similar definitions for good, bad, and evil. The best I could come up with was:
Good: Something that you would not mind someone else doing to you or something that benefits a greater amount of people than the alternative. For example sharing is good because you would want someone to share with you and sharing benefits a greater amount of people than being selfish.
Bad: Something that is wrong, but it is not detrimental to a numerous amount of people only to the person doing the action. For example lying to your parents is bad and disrespectful because they are only trying to protect you from harm.
Evil: Something that is bad and conducted with malicious intent to hurt a large amount of people.
So as you can see, I could not come up comprehensive definitions for good, bad, or evil. When attempting to write these definitions, I found myself referring back to my foundation in Christianity. I was raised in a Christian household and I was taught those values from a young age. In my definition of ‘Good,’ I fell back on the verse Luke 6:31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” without realizing it. My example for ‘Bad’ was about disrespecting one’s parents because from a young age everyone is taught to treat their elders with respect, however this principle also comes from the Bible as well. In Exodus 20:12 the fifth commandment in the Ten Commandments is to “honor your father and your mother.” This exercise showed that a majority of my moral code stems from my Christian beliefs. However a majority of Americans have a similar moral code, but not all Americans are raised in a Christian household. Friedrich Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality wanted to trace “what origin our terms good and evil actually have” (Nietzsche 4). He did not believe that morals resulted from human altruism (Nietzsche 6). From the activity Professor Briley had us complete in class it is apparent that within the United States our morals and values come from the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Thomas Kohn, an influential historian of science, argued that when new information is discovered that does not neatly fit into our predetermined categories, the “data that did not fit the commonly accepted assumptions of discipline would either be discounted or explained away as long as possible,” (Kolbert 93). Only after numerous unexplainable findings, does a paradigm shift occur. Though Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, uses Kohn’s definition of paradigm shift to explain the acceptance of extinction, this definition relates to my understanding of Du Bois and Coates at the beginning of the year. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote about the struggles of African Americans after Emancipation fighting for equality within white society. Historically I understand the fight for equality, but at the beginning of the year it was hard for me to relate Du Bois to inequalities in the black community today.
Du Bois writes about the Veil, that all people of color wear. In my blog post, “The Black Population is Cloaked with the Veil,” I define the Veil as a cloak white society uses to make generalizations about the black community, a boundary that prevents the success of black men and women, and a shield that protects the black community as long as we stay in our place in society. Du Bois wrote about the first time he collided with his Veil. When a white student refused to accept his card he realized that he was different from his classmates “shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through” (Du Bois 4). I knew, before this class and coming to Colgate, that being black in America was different than being white. My mom told me that that I needed to do ‘twice as good’ (Coates 90) because of the color of my skin. I was taught various spirituals from a young age, but I never knew “the meaning of its music” (Du Bois 207). Watching “Roll Jordan Roll” in the movie Twelve Years a Slave affecting me in a way I could never anticipate. The actors’ portrayed pain and hope at the same time.
I knew what it meant to be black in America, however I never felt it. Through this course, analyzing Du Boise and Coates, I am now able to understand my blackness differently. Paradigm shifts do not cause the world to change; however it changes how you and I view the world (Kolbert 94). I now view my place in society as a woman of color much differently than ever before.