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  • Writer's pictureCassie Smith

Is Juan a Black Name?

I have the honor and great pleasure of teaching introductory courses in early African American literature at the University of Alabama. For sixteen weeks, I usher a group of 35 students – the vast majority of them African American – through the textual world of early America from a Black perspective.

I introduce them to Esteban Dorantes, the first person of African descent to travel through what is now the Southwest United States. They learn about Isabel de Olvera, a mixed-race woman who refused to be bound by enslavement or the conventions of marriage (both equally vexing for her) in 16th century New Mexico. They read the poetry of 18th century Black poets – Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, Lucy Terry Prince – and a number of life writings from figures such as Briton Hammon, Venture Smith, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Students are eager to learn about these figures and their literary significance.

They soak up names and dates and places. They stay after class to ask more questions. They walk with me to my office to continue the conversation. They are eager to learn more about literary/historical figures who look like them. Their enthusiasm, their investment in the class fuels my investment in DEI pedagogy because I see first hand how education can be transformative when students see parts of themselves reflected in the course content.

For sure, there is a great energy that runs through the course, but it does come with some surprising moments of tension. Students of color are no different from their white counterparts. They come into the classroom with preconceived notions about race and other aspects of human difference. In fact, the most challenging aspect of teaching courses that are majority-minority is helping students interrogate their own world views that have been shaped by the hegemony, or dominance, of white supremacy. What can we say particularly to students of color to help them confront their hegemonic world views?

Here is what happened when I was faced with that very question a couple years ago. I was presenting a lecture in my African American literature survey class on the 16th century Black conquistador Juan Garrido. Garrido had participated in the violent conquests of Florida (alongside Ponce de Leon) and Mexico (with Hernan Cortes). By the 1530s, he had settled down near Mexico City where he raised a family.

We know this information about Garrido largely because he narrated his life’s details, a mini-autobiography, in a petition to the Spanish Crown; he sought a pension in his old age as compensation for decades of faithful service to Spain. At one point during the lecture, a student raised his hand.

“Excuse me, Dr. Smith.”

“Yes, Jamal?” That’s what I will call him.

“I have a question.” He exaggerates the inflection on question and smiles. Tall and lanky, Jamal is an especially engaged student; he likes to make jokes. The jokes are funny.

I enjoy his energy. So I respond, “I might have an answer.”

He leans forward in his desk, wrinkles his forehead as if in deep contemplation. “How do you know this dude was Black?” He is referring to Garrido.

“Hummm. Well…” I stumble for a minute. This is not the question I was expecting. Also, I am not sure what precisely he is asking. Is it a question about the archives, about what the sources tell us regarding Garrido’s race? Or about what Black actually meant in Garrido’s 16th century context? Or about something else entirely?

Jamal repeats the question, this time with an emphasis on the word ‘know’: “How you know he was Black?” He cocks his head to the side.

“We know,” I imitate his inflection, “because we have historical documents in the archives that identify him as a Black man.”

“I’m just saying, though. I ain’t never seen a Black dude named Juan!” He slams his hands on the desk to exclaim the point.

The class erupts with laughter. I do, too.

It was a playful moment but also a teachable one. Jamal’s joke was embedded with a dangerous subtext about racial essentialism, articulated in terms of naming conventions. He expressed a rather limited world view, one that understood Blackness strictly within an American context, and that limited to the United States and an English tradition.

If I had anglicized Garrido’s first name (John), he might have appeared less foreign to Jamal. But translating Garrido’s name would have meant conceding to a hegemonic world view that privileges English as a dominant language and the United States as a dominant cultural perspective. Besides, the man’s name was Juan, not John. The fact of the matter is that Black people live all over the world; that is the case now and has been the case throughout world history.

When teaching for diversity, equity, and inclusion, my goal is never to make the material less foreign for students; I want them to embrace what feels strange. The idea is that they will develop a level of comfort with the unfamiliar, even learn to embrace it. I took Jamal’s joke, then, as an opportunity to refine students’ understanding about race and Black identity.

Once the laughter died down, I was able to lean into his comment specifically by interrogating its logic.

“Oh, you got jokes, I see. Well, tell me, how Black is Jamal? What makes that a Black name?”

“Because that’s what my mama chose to name me. And she Black. So it’s a Black name.” He nods his head and shrugs his shoulders.

“Why can’t the same be the case for Juan? He had a mama, too!”

Jamal doesn’t immediately respond, then concedes the point with a single word, “True.”

I then showed them a clip of a powerful moment from the 2016 Oscar-winning film Moonlight. In the movie, Mahershala Ali plays the role of a patriarchal mentor for a young Black boy named Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, who is struggling with his sexual identity. Ali’s character, ironically, is named Juan. In the clip, Juan is teaching Chiron, or Little, how to swim in the ocean. As a point of racial pride, he tells Little, “There are black people everywhere. You remember that, okay? No place you can go in the world ain't got no black people.” The clip drove home the point about intraracial diversity (in terms of race and also sexuality) that challenged what Jamal and many of his classmates assumed about black identity.

I might have approached the moment with Jamal in other ways, as outlined on our Scripts page. Besides, interrogating the comment’s logic, I could have addressed the historical underpinnings of the comment or entertained the viewpoint by carrying it out to its most (il-)logical conclusion; that is to say, how, in fact, do we know that Garrido was a Black man? Can we trust the archives? In his letter, Garrido does not identify as Black. He identifies as a subject of the Spanish Crown. What did race mean in his 16th century context?

The point is that we have options for how to engage with students. And we want to recognize that all of our students are vulnerable to limiting, supremacist world views that can lead to tense moments in the classroom. We can turn those moments into enriching learning experiences if we are willing to engage. I hope the scripts we’ve created can offer some inspiration for how to do that.

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