My students and I walk through the lush cemetery of the Unitarian Church in the Historic Downtown District of Charleston, South Carolina. We are looking for the headstone of Anna Ravenel, but what my students don’t know is that her grave is unmarked. Lore has it that Ravenel met and fell in love with a certain sailor stationed in Sullivan’s Island: Edgar Perry, more commonly known as Edgar Allen Poe. The two rendezvoused in the Unitarian churchyard but her father the chemist Saint Julien Ravenel would have none of this. He put her under house arrest to keep the lovers apart and shortly thereafter she died. Saint Julien purchased six plots, buried Anna in one, and required that all six remain unmarked to prevent Poe from visiting his lover’s graveside.
For an Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies course, I brought my students to this very graveyard and told them the story of Poe’s and Ravenel’s love as a point of entry to how far toxic masculinity and structures of patriarchy could go. I gave them fifteen minutes to locate her grave; students soon expressed frustration. Unable to locate her grave, of course, we gathered round the sun dial Anna allegedly still circles at night looking for her lost love. This scavenger hunt was not a fool’s errand: my students undertook the important work of searching for her traces and ultimately paying their respects to a woman whose grave remains unmarked as a paean to toxic patriarchy. We analyzed “Annabelle Lee” in the graveyard, revealing how Poe too objectifies her in his constant reiteration of her beauty; even objectifying her in death, in keeping with his infamous quote: “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
This exercise demonstrates one of the many ways I foster in students a greater connection with the topics we cover in my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies. Through these and other examples, students begin to see how a concept of “woman” that do not account for differences generates major blind spots, participating in the affirmation of a white supremacist society. We read Truth’s famed speech “Ain’t I a Woman” in which she reveals how enslaved black women are denied the status of being a woman, more disempowered than their contemporaneous white women. While white women struggled to argue that they were equal to men, had to do the work first of proving they were women at all. I stress over the course of the semester that the undeniable of abuse Anna Ravenel experienced is an instantiation of toxic masculinity, but that very oppression is not commensurate with the experiences of suffragist and abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
I have of course taught American Literature in various instantiations. This Fall I plan to use the same method of immersing my students in the spaces that are relevant to our course by teaching George Saunder’s acclaimed Lincoln in the Bardo in the Georgetown cemetery where Willie Lincoln was initially buried and the setting of the novel. I look forward to include photographs from that course day.
I attracted quite a few students from all different identity categories to the Women’s and Gender Studies minor or major. As a first-generation student, I understand that getting students where they want to be requires excellent mentorship. I received a Bachelor of Arts at Queens College, City University of New York, the most ethnically diverse of the CUNY schools where the student body speaks over 160 languages. I am keenly aware of the pressures, both financial and psychological, on students from families of low socioeconomic standings and of continuing education students, and how they are the ones who get the most value out of receiving an education their family’s could not. I take great pleasure in helping all of my students identify and achieve their goals. But I find it especially gratifying to be able to help students who have trouble imagining the heights I see they can reach and helping them to do so. Whether it’s helping students to imagine what they want to do in the world or helping them with the logistics of applying or even just writing letters of recommendation for medical school, law school, and academic scholarships, I bring my enthusiasm, respect, and devotion to my students to all of these tasks.
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