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Exploring the intersection between race and space

English course brings students on overnight trip to Baltimore

Last Thursday, English Professors Marlon Ross and Kenrick Grandison led students on an overnight trip to Baltimore, where they attended a conference on historically black colleges at Morgan State University.

Ross and Grandison began work on English course “Race, Space and Culture” 14 years ago, when Grandison was appointed as a University professor.

“There was work being done on space for the humanities, but it was very abstract,” Ross said. “There was a tendency to think about space in text, but not to connect it to the actual spaces.”

The focus of the seminar is to investigate how physical space relates to racial formation, representation and identification. Given the nature of the course material, the professors thought it essential to expand students’ understanding by incorporating field trips into the syllabus.

This is the first year in which students have the opportunity to visit a historically black college or university through a U.Va. course.

“We chose to go to Morgan State University partly because I was invited to keynote a conference on black colleges, and it was a year ago that I was planning this course ‘Race, Space, and Culture’ that I had this crazy idea to give the students the experience of attending a conference at a black college,” Grandison said.

Throughout the trip, students drew connections between content from class and their own experiences. They began with a discussion of Frederick Douglass’ role in racial history of Fell’s Point.

“Frederick Douglas wrote about works that are very important in literature,” Grandison said. “To go on the ground and explore the spaces that he was talking about such as Fell’s Point — there is an additional dimension that students are able to appreciate that from a grounded experience.”

Several activities during the trip illustrated how cultural identity shapes physical space, and vice versa. The students completed a walking tour of Baltimore, which outlined shifting color lines in the city.

“[The students] will experience on foot what it feels like to face a mass resistance color line built by federal funds. They will see how difficult it is to get from one side to the other side by walking it,” Ross said. “These highways were put in as a result of desegregation. When you can no longer have segregation in the form of law, it comes in the form of actual physical barriers.”

Content covered throughout the trip covers periods spanning from the height of American slavery to the present. Second-year College student Becca Pearson said they went to historical museums, but also talked about Freddie Gray.

“The path from where we are from to where we are isn’t as linear, and maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we thought,” Pearson said. “I want to be able to see that for myself, visibly.”

Ross and Grandison have created a unique experience for students by asking them to recognize and question the interconnections within spaces.

“Places seem so natural that we can almost not comprehend, but they are so very much involved in empowering some and disempowering some, inheriting some and disinheriting some,” Grandison said. “We want our students to become aware of it. Spaces seem so innocent, but they are very implicated in social hierarchy.”

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