Cool Courses Series: African American Studies with Dr. Elaine Parker-Gills
“America has a great story, a phenomenal story. It is a wonderful experiment that started off horribly wrong.”
Welcome to any one of Dr. Elaine Parker-Gills’ African American Studies courses at AULA.
A member of the Undergraduate Studies Teaching Faculty, Dr. Parker-Gills received her undergraduate degree from AULA back when it was located on Rose Avenue in Venice. She completed her graduate work at Pepperdine University and then taught at AULA’s other previous location on Fiji Way in Marina Del Rey. Her work in education keeps her busy, but her weekly class at AULA is accordant with her teaching philosophy and particularly close to her heart. For Parker-Gills this affinity arises from the freedom to teach using the experiential, community integrated approach that is signatory of the university; the support and inspiration of her colleagues; and her mutually beneficial rapport with her students.
Dr. Parker-Gills’ compassion and admiration for her students is palpable when she speaks of the atmosphere of respect for all in her classroom, and of their sincere desire not only to learn but to seek knowledge and understanding in their own right as citizens of the world.
The first class she taught at AULA was the History of the Civil Rights Movement, and she states that all subsequent classes, such as History and Culture of the Black Church, Presidential Politics and Race, Washington to Hollywood, Historical and Contemporary Issues in the Schooling of African Americans (a workshop), Watching Black on Network Television: From Amos and Andy to Oprah, and Power to the People: The Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party; were developed from facets of that very first course.
Every class relates to contemporary events as well as being grounded in the context of African-American history, which is synonymous with American history. There is, of course, a syllabus at the outset, but, being unable to predict what will be happening in the world tomorrow, the classes have an element of dynamic spontaneity to them. “They learn to adjust,” says Dr. Parker-Gills, who clearly enjoys the ride herself.
This quarter, Watching Black on Network Television: From Amos and Andy to Oprah is being offered as an undergraduate humanities course. It addresses the perception of African Americans in the media, the media’s role in how stereotypes are perpetuated; and relates to our countries origins as built upon the slave trade. The eradication of Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, and even our first African American President has not resulted in a post-racial society, as some would like to think, Dr. Parker-Gills says. “We are addressing police issues, under-representation, the impact of received images, pay gaps, and a host of other inequalities based on skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.” In addressing the issues that society grapples with today, and considering new elements coming into play in the mainstream, such as Black Lives Matter, the “whys” and “whats” are key.
The “why,” goes back to the fact that African Americans did not arrive through Ellis Island. “First there was the march to the caves, then the ships, the auction blocks, and the plantations.” She discusses Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), which describe a set of behaviors, beliefs, and actions associated with or related to multi-generational trauma. “Race started us off [in the U.S.], and race still matters.”
And the “whats”… In the 80s, Dr. Parker-Gills served as an educational consultant for multiple episodes of Pryor’s Place, a children’s T.V. show hosted by Richard Pryor. She describes sitting at a table with the show’s writers, as the only female in the room. There was one other African American, a man, who was also the only other one in the room with children. The rest of the people responsible for creating the material “representational” of black culture, were single white men.
Have things improved since then? Her students view current shows and films and research the writers and producers; the result being critical insight into the images and concepts that we are trained to passively receive as media consumers.
Her workshop, Historical and Contemporary Issues in the Schooling of African Americans, addresses the difference between going to school and getting an education. The public school system in a general sense is not considerate of the needs (“cultural imperatives”) of Black and Brown students and communities. Thus, while a student may attend school regularly, their education is likely to be inadequate because it does not take into consideration how these students differ culturally from the majority White benchmark that the education system is designed around. Students learn about and discuss implicit bias, the impact of received images on individuals and society as a whole, and history as it speaks to the present moment. Always history.
Lecture is a very small part of all of these courses and workshops, and much of what happens in class is group discussion of these topics, as well as relevant field trips, and guest speakers who are working in the industries being discussed. “We’ve got a long way to go on women and people of color,” Dr. Parker-Gills says. But she is confident that her students, who are exposed in her class to first-hand accounts of history and social theory from a diverse array of backgrounds; who learn to be critical about their sources of information; and who often continue on to pursue graduate degrees in education and psychology; are a part of the change that is slowly but surely happening.
The legal system can force open doors and sometimes knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. – Justice Thurgood Marshall
by Malia Gaffney