This semester, all the black men in my evening class at Community College of Philadelphia disappeared. I did my best to find them– emailed, called cell phones that more often than not, had been disconnected. Most of them seemed pretty engaged with the material, and a few had real talent. Years of experience tells me that they might have stopped attending for a dozen reasons: family obligations, a new work schedule, even plain old disinterest. Still, given life outside the classroom, their disappearances were sinister.
The previous semester, I’d taught the same group George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Full disclosure: my husband gave me a facsimile edition of the original manuscript as an engagement present. It’s the size of a coffee-table and has insertions in Orwell’s spidery handwriting. We quote lines of the novel to each other like a secret code.
All experienced teachers know the peril of teaching a book we know too well. What motivated me to teach it? I’d read an excerpt from David Eggers’ The Circle, a satirical novel about the seductive power of internet transparency, and I decided that the only way to help my students understand that novel’s ironies would be to open with the Orwell. I thought I’d teach the first hundred pages of Nineteen Eighty-four, show the film version to fill in the narrative gaps, and move on to the breezier, easier world of Eggers’ social-media addicts.
But my Community College students, as it often the case, surprised me. They were into the Orwell—way in. Sure, most of them were probably reading spark notes, but they were making observations in discussions and in writing that were startling and went far beyond summary.
One thing came up a lot—a central paradox. In the novel’s setting, Airstrip One (London), the Party makes no laws. Therefore, nothing is legal. What does that mean, and how can it be explained? When you’re evaluated on terms you can not know, those terms can change at any point, and even seemingly “orthodox” citizens abruptly disappear. They’re “vaporized”– literally erased from history. The point of these arrests isn’t order; it’s terror.
As we followed the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, through this suffocating world, some of the discussions were intense: about accommodation to a system that is embodied in the ever-watchful figure of Big Brother, about the nature of rebellion, about what can remain intact when you can never be sure what’s true or false except by what you sense in your own body. It was a wild ride, and I learned a lot; after that, (sorry, Eggers) The Circle felt like pretty weak tea.
But after we’d finished both books, I showed the film version of Nineteen Eighty-four. I’m not good at that. Much as I try to frame things, the moment lights go down, so do most of my students’ heads on their arms. After the intensity of our discussions, it felt almost absurd to subject them to a particular director’s vision.
We debriefed, and one student said: “It was okay. But I thought Winston was black.”
Another girl agreed. Then, class was over, and, so, pretty much, was the semester. I never got a chance to ask them more; we were preparing for a final exam that synthesized both books. Now, long after the fact, I wish I could reconvene the class because the statement keeps coming back to me.
I find myself thinking the men whose stories and faces dominated the news all year. Eric Garner would have been around Winston Smith’s age. Much like my students, Michael Brown was about to attend a two-year college. And I always have a few older black men who– like Freddie Gray– spent time in prison.
So what does this have to do with Orwell? The more I thought about the world of Nineteen Eighty-four, the more I could see it applied to these cases. The crowds who shout “I can’t breathe!” are talking about more than just a single circumstance. They’re naming a system. Freddy Grey was born into that system.
Now, back to those evening students– the black men who’d disappeared: given Philadelphia’s record, now made evident in the comprehensive Department of Justice report, I can name what has happened to them on Orwell’s terms. One way or another, like Freddie Grey, they’ve been vaporized.
Martin Luther King’s 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait: “…when you are harried by day and haunted by night be the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at a tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next…”
There are no laws; everything is illegal.
King continues: “…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over.”
What happens when that cup runs over? King wrote this essay in response to criticism from white liberals about civil disobedience in response to segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. A part of me wants his statement to be universal, but honesty makes me know it is particular. I am not harried by day and haunted by night, and for all of my deep empathy with Winston Smith, I am not Winston Smith.
This feels particularly true when I consider what Orwell writes about “double-think”, where citizens of Oceania know one thing to be true but but overcome it with a collective and accepted ideology. They hold two wrestling ideas in their minds at the same time.
How close is this to W.E. B. Du Bois’s description of “double-consciousness”: from The Souls of Black Folks? “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
To what extent is Winston—like Du Bois—trying to figure out a way to reconcile his own sanity with a world that is collectively insane? Du Bois hoped that the double-ness could merge into a true and full American identity. Orwell had a different perspective. He believed the two can not be merged. When Winston Smith’s struggle is over, he has “won the victory over himself.” He loves Big Brother.
So, consider this: Winston Smith is an African American man living in Philadelphia.
Winston knows he’s being watched and judged on terms that he can not understand or control, and he has a private, dignified and precious self he covers with a mask of obedience. His friends have disappeared—have been “vaporized” more or less– and his cup of endurance has run over.
Will his face grow to fit that mask he wears? Or will the mask slip? If it does, will he, too, fall into the hands of the Thought Police? Or will he be recognized by someone else who has a real face behind that mask, a member of that secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood which, Orwell makes clear, might not actually exist? Winston can’t know.
I need to find a way to teach Nineteen Eighty-four again, and this time, have the courage to pair that novel with Du Bois and other readings. I don’t have a Winston Smith on my class list yet, but he may register late; he’s got a lot on his mind. I’ll see what he has to say.