There are certain things that can't be taught. Musical ear. Court vision. Sense of humor. Empathy.
Racism is not one of those things. In fact, you could make a very convincing argument that racism is a widely taught art on the planet. Handed down from generation to generation, parent to child like good hair and freckles.
But in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard University ten graduate students are using Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained to help bolster racial understanding. How are they doing it? With a class entitled, "Race, Racism, and Quentin Tarantino" --and tutelage of Jason Silverstein.
Touré and I surveyed a class where Silverstein bobbed and weaved from Chappelle's Show, to Barack Obama, to Jules Winnfield, to Schultz, Django, and Candieland. He touched on the catharsis of violence, and when it's okay to laugh. Students shared their experiences in watching Django, what the theater was like, who was watching it, how they reacted.
Now I know what you're thinking, because I thought it too. A class on Quentin Tarantino is the most "Harvard" thing of all time. But the class works--according to Silverstein pop culture gives everybody a shared experience from which to draw. It creates a common language. And it has to, because Silverstein's class isn't some nouveau-intellectual speakeasy, or anthropology salon and think tank where students of the discipline congregate and wax philosophical (anthropological?). The students taking the class are science and math majors, physicists and soon-to-be accountants. Some of them haven't even seen all of the Tarantino basics.
References to non-source material like Grindhouse or Kill Bill fall on deaf ears.
So why have the class at all? Tarantino plays with race in ways other directors can't or won't. He's not afraid to shine a light on the many ways we relate to each other, even when (and often especially when) they're ugly. And Silverstein does an incredible job keeping the two-hour class interesting, fun, and relevant.
The video above is Touré's interview with Silverstein--the Ph.D. student leading the course--as well as clips from the class we sat in on. And of course, we couldn't put this together without showing a little of the source material, right?
Hope you enjoy.
If you'd like to see Silverstein's Syllabus and a list of the readings, you can find them here