“There was a palpable silence in the class,” a professor writes, “as I talked about the 620,000 people who died, the 4 million slaves who were liberated, the President (in my opinion, our best President) who gave his life for this cause” (134). He continues:
They were really feeling it now, as was I. My voice nearly cracked. M, L, L, and A were moved almost to tears; M actually had to excuse herself from the room to take a breath in the lobby. As she was leaving, P said, “This makes me so sad that they had to go through this.” Then B added, “But thank God they did.” Silent nodding throughout the room. … After something of a moment of silence, we launched into a discussion of Chesnut’s diary. I was stunned by their reaction: they loved it! … I think Chesnut’s diary satisfied some of the curiosity they had about the ‘other’ perspective on slavery, but still, they were struck by the sympathy she had for the slaves she witnessed at auction … . I was struck, over and over, about how active and imaginative their readings were: seizing on suggestive moments in the text—was she unhappy, depressed, longing for liaisons with other men, antislavery, fully on board with secession?—to offer informed (and sometimes quite provocative) readings of Chestnut’s “inner life.” I was also struck by how much sympathy the women in the class—especially the black women—had for Chesnut” (134–135).
“‘Jack,’ E asked. ‘Are we the best class you ever had?’” The professor’s written response: “They are shaping up to be” (132). His comments are all the more moving because, by this point in Earl Shorris’s The Art of Freedom, you know that the professor is working with a ragtag collection of bright and ambitious, but downtrodden, inner city adults—not clever undergraduates at an elite institution.