From JRPS to Josephine Baker: A Meridian Senior Reflects on a Self-Designed Interdisciplinary Class
By 12th grader Celine
A lot can be done in a school year, especially in a class of one. When I found out I was going to have an entire French class to myself, I was excited to work with our teacher Sonja to create a curriculum.
At Meridian, seniors are allowed to choose whether or not they would like to pursue a personalized interdisciplinary course or continue taking a language class. For me, I was in the position where I could combine the two options.
My main goal for the interdisciplinary course was to work on my Junior Research Project Seminar (JRPS) from last year, in which I interviewed about 15 organizations relating to prison reentry and created a website called the PROMIS Project, where I displayed my findings. This year, I was able to interview five more organizations, with each interview lasting about one hour. Each week, Sonja gave me some time in class to transcribe these recordings so that I could update my website. I have also been working on a page where I can post recent articles, podcasts, or videos that I come across on my own or with the help of teachers. (If you find anything interesting pertaining to prison reentry or the criminal justice system, please send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
During classes when I am not working on the PROMIS Project, I continued taking a language class by diving into the social aspects of French history and learning about the racial, religious, and cultural ties that led France to be what it has become today. Since these topics were rather broad, and there wasn’t a whole lot of time for me to do thorough research, my trimesters were split into three parts: Francophone outreach, racial identity in France, and the life of Josephine Baker. Some of these subunits intertwined with each other throughout the year, so whenever Exhibitions rolled around, explaining the overall unit of French D became a bit challenging. But, here is what I would generally say:
We started the first semester watching the documentary Trop Noire d’être Francais, directed by Isabelle Bon-Claverie, in which Bon-Claverie described her upbringing as a black middle-class French woman. What she gradually noticed as she got older was the daily oppression black people faced due to the power structures implemented since the African slave trade. The lack of concern she sees in the French government regarding race and religion was demonstrated through the insensitive jokes made by higher officials, the lack of acknowledgment that racism continues in France, and the absence of conversation even when protests were in session.
After watching the documentary, I wanted to see whether contemporary students in France were thinking about the racial inequalities that Bon-Claverie faced at a young age. Were these conversations taking place more or less frequently than in the U.S.? In an attempt to answer these questions, Sonja and I decided to create two surveys – one in French and another in English – asking French students about their high school experience. We emailed four to five schools in France and distributed the email to as many people as we could.
Unfortunately, the results were not as diverse as I would have hoped. Many of those who answered the survey were majority white from an older generation where religion, gender, sexuality, and race was not generally spoken or thought about in school.
In the second trimester, Sonja and I watched and analyzed two movies, La Noire de…, directed by Ousmane Sembene, and La Haine, directed by Mathieu Kassovitz.
La Noire de… takes place in 1966 and follows a Senegalese woman, Diouana, who is flown to France from Dakar after being hired as a caretaker by a French white bourgeois family. What sadly follows thereafter is the progression of Diouana’s depression as she becomes a domestic slave more than anything else. La Noire de… in English is “Black Girl.” The “de” in the title is lost in translation because it can indicate that she is owned by someone or something (so a more accurate translation would be “The Black Girl of...” instead of “Black Girl”). This speaks to the question of not only determining the power dynamics and racial identity in a postcolonial society, but what it means to be objectified as a form of ownership. After watching the film, I wrote a reflection and analyzed symbolic scenes with Sonja. Surprisingly, she later told me that the points we brought up during discussion was similar to a conversation a class at Brown University had after watching the same film.
La Haine was also an amazing film. With directed shots similar to that of Spike Lee, Kassovitz tells the story of three friends, Vinz (Jewish), Said (Arab Maghrebi), and Hubert (Afro-French), who live in a suburban housing project in France. Their mutual friend, Abdel Ichaha, is killed by police during a riot, thus ingraining hatred towards the police in Vinz early on in the film. The three young men live aimlessly around the neighborhood, almost in a state of limbo, until Vinz comes across a lost gun from a police officer in the prior riot.
Suddenly, an adventure progresses revolving around the gun. The prolonged scenes that took place in the beginning of the film became quick paced and intense after the friends’ lives are on the line. There was a lot to analyze in the film, but my main takeaway was the role that youth play in society. If the younger generation is treated as though there is no future for them – that they are given a place to survive, but not to prosper – then this cycle of hatred will persist.
In the third trimester, Sonja and I finished reading a 500-page comic book on the life of Josephine Baker. Baker, who lived from 1906 to 1975, was the first African-American woman to become an international dancer, the first American woman to receive the Croix de Guerre (she was recruited a spy as a part of the French Resistance during World War II), and the only female speaker in the March on Washington. Baker also adopted 12 children from different countries and ethnicities – including Finland, Japan, France, Belgium, and Venezuela – whom she called her “Rainbow Tribe.” Near the end of the year, I was able to watch the movie she starred in called Zou Zou.
We read Josephine Baker throughout the whole school year, and Sonja and I took turns reading aloud. Sometimes, I would be assigned to read pages on my own for homework and explain the chapter to Sonja during the beginning of the next class. I found this type of exercise not only fun – because I was learning about the life of Josephine Baker – but also effective, because I was able to tackle areas of French that I had found especially challenging. Subsequently, I am now able to digest French words more quickly, speak with a more understandable accent, and write more proficiently than before.
This combination of my continued JRPS work and an in-depth study of French culture made for an eventful year. Sonja structured my classes so that I could pursue the PROMIS Project, reach out to people I might’ve not spoken to before, and learn about the different perspectives and ideologies in France about which I had been completely unfamiliar. Thank you, Sonja!