Esteemed scholar and social commentator discusses literature, privilege and activism.
At the beginning of the year, eighth-grade Core teacher Ebony Murphy-Root assigns her students what she calls “foundational texts,” a selection of writings to which the class will return again and again. This year, as part of a larger discussion on human rights, Ebony’s foundational texts included works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Rebekah Taussig and Roxane Gay. When Crossroads parent, alumnus and entertainment lawyer Lev Ginsburg ’95 saw his son Mo reading Gay’s essay “Peculiar Benefits,” he generously offered to introduce Ebony to Gay, his client and friend. On Tuesday, Oct. 20, Crossroads eighth graders demonstrated their sophisticated understanding of Gay’s work in an intimate conversation with the celebrated scholar via Zoom.
“I feel so lucky that my students were able to connect with such a brilliant feminist writer,” says Ebony. “I’m so proud that they took the lead for facilitating the conversation.”
Over the 50-minute period, eighth grader Yasu Agawa acted as emcee, introducing Gay and then announcing his peers before they asked their questions. The honor of speaking with such an accomplished thinker was not lost on Yasu. “I will remember most that I didn’t just talk to a person,” reflects Yasu. “I talked to the amazing Roxane Gay, an activist and a feminist.”
A host of “great questions”—as deemed by Gay—followed. In response, Gay shared the books she thinks young people should read (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” and James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” among others). She underscored the importance of “smaller gestures” in an activist’s work. And she encouraged acknowledging one’s privilege and then using it to help others.
Gay’s discussion of privilege resonated with eighth grader Celeste Molina. “We can acknowledge privilege without forgetting suffering,” notes Celeste. “Just because you’re privileged doesn’t mean you haven’t suffered.”
As the interview with Gay concluded, Ebony beamed with pride. “I hope my students realize how much they already know,” she adds. “They don’t need to wait until high school or college, and they shouldn’t. There are so many great writers they can begin to explore now.”