Opinion: Black professor in ‘The Chair’ is woke. And that awakens her students

A Georgia State professor says "The Chair" on Netflix captures the power of African American professors to use parable to reach students and help them see themselves in the classroom and the world. Actress Nana Mensah plays professor Yaz McKay.
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A Georgia State professor says "The Chair" on Netflix captures the power of African American professors to use parable to reach students and help them see themselves in the classroom and the world. Actress Nana Mensah plays professor Yaz McKay.

Georgia State professor: To reach everyone, whiteness can’t be center of everything

Dr. Jessie L. Adolph is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University-Perimeter College. In this guest column, Adolph addresses the teaching of critical race theory, which has become a hot-button issue in America and in Georgia.

As a media literacy specialist and researcher, Adolph has focused on inner-city marginalized dads and the mainstream narrative of African-American fatherhood. Today, Adolph explains how professors of color are using elements of the theory to reach marginalized students, including at the fictitious campus depicted in the popular Netflix series “The Chair.”

By Jessie L. Adolph

In Netflix’s original series “The Chair,” I found my kindred spirit in character Yasmin “Yaz” McKay, an African American professor, played by Nana Mensah, at the fictitious Pembroke University.

While the dramedy does not show her teaching, one can witness her Black Jesus method impact her students. The “Black Jesus method,” my coined term, refers to any professor who teaches in the form of a parable to “un”-weaponize academic language to educate the masses.

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Dr. Jessie L. Adolph

Dr. Jessie L. Adolph
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Dr. Jessie L. Adolph

The viewer can infer McKay provided an atmosphere where students felt encouraged to turn Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” into hip-hop verse that would put “Hamilton” to shame. Put differently, Yaz met her students where they were, showing them how their world of pop culture can be used as a tool for critical thinking. Hence, she taught her undergraduates to turn water into wine.

In Dr. McKay’s course entitled “Sex and the Novel,” the students converted from “the starving 5000″ into “fishermen” of their own knowledge. In other words, these kids began to teach themselves, think critically and create meaning of the world through the power of their own terms. The students expose the flaws of literary gods like Melville — calling into question his misogyny and how white male privilege informs his work — not to cancel him but to showcase his humanity.

Many conservatives fear this kind of education fosters “white guilt” and will cause many white students to be traumatized for their privilege. I beg to differ. The teaching of multiculturalism, taking whiteness out of the centerpiece of supreme knowledge, helps students develop empathy and the emotional intelligence to be global citizens. As rapper KRS-One eloquently raps in the iconic 1989 hip-hop song “You Must Learn”:

Teach the student what needs to be taught

‘Cause Black and White kids both take shorts

When one doesn't know about the other one's culture

Ignorance swoops down like a vulture

Indeed, the Black Jesus teaching method embraces truth telling for all to heal Americans from historical amnesia that continues to harm all. It is the truth necessary to free young minds to become the change they want to see.

The image of Dr. McKay calls for both young and old educators (especially people of color) to join a harvest where the workers are few. The Dr. Yaz McKay character motivates me as a professor to see education as a ministry. As her disciple, I seek to help the oppressed find their own truth — or maybe write their own parables.

Granted, I am aware life does not often imitate art. Many educators cannot afford to pick their cross to fight a system hell-bent on maintaining the status quo.

But imagine just for a moment if America did not fear the Black Boy/Girl or “the others’” magic. Suppose educators could “walk on water” or at least over the culturally biased tests to meet students where they are. Pretend politicians would not perceive this teaching method as pandering to the whims of the “woke” generation.

Even in the Netflix series, Yaz’s teaching style remains a contributing factor to possibly denied tenure, especially at a university that does not value effective teaching.

Most Black Jesuses of academia face what American philosopher and political activist Cornel West describes as the “Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,” a crossroads between education to maintain tradition or reach the minds of the underserved.

Nonetheless, the character has made me proud to wear my crown of thorns like a fitted New York Yankee’s hat for another day — before the rooster crows twice.

The author of this guest column, Jessie L. Adolph, is an associate professor of English at Georgia State University-Perimeter College.

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