chapter  9
27 Pages

The Way We Do the Things We Do: Enunciation and Effect in the Multicultural Classroom

The small auditorium was close to full: sixty first-year students at a largely white, upper-middle-class, Midwest university watching the film version of John Guare's play Six Degrees o f Separation for English 111, a composition course. The auditorium was close to silent-ex­ cepting the crunch of popcorn and the rustle of students getting com­ fortable in their seats-as the screen filled with images of the hysterical Kittredges, a wealthy white Manhattan couple whose home has been invaded by an intruder, describing for each other and the audience the mere hairsbreadth by which they escaped having their throats slashed and their possessions stolen. The auditorium remains comfortable, relaxed even-legs up, bodies settled-as the film flashes back to a scene depicting a young, well-dressed, well-spoken black man, a friend of the Kittredges' children from boarding school, presumably the vic­ tim of a mugging in Central Park, asking the Kittredges for help. After bandaging his wound, the Kittredges listen in fascination as Paul re­ gales them with stories of their kids at their posh boarding school; they are so taken with him that they invite him to stay for dinner. Although the Kittredges experience moments of noticeable discomfort at Paul's presence, these moments are represented as a kind of con­ trolled tension, an undercurrent, far from the hysteria of the previ­

ously mentioned scene. This tension is demonstrated most pointedly in a scene during dinner when Paul disappears into the kitchen to get more wine; the white people practically suspend their breathing, appre­ hension flashing among their questioning eyes until Paul reappears, wine in hand, putting their fear that he has made off with the silver momentarily to rest. At this point in the film, the tension is con­ structed solely in relation to Paul's blackness-which has, for the moment, been mediated by his voice, dress, education, and, not least, his status as the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Back in the auditorium, comfort still reigns; my students crunch relaxedly on their popcorn. It is not until much later, after Paul has been comfortably tucked into the Kittredges' cushy spare room, and after Ouisa Kittredge has discovered him in bed with a white male hustler, that the auditorium full of stu­ dents erupts into a chorus of disgusted moans, groans, and simulated retching sounds. The hysteria in the auditorium mirrors that on screen: the flashback has come full circle, back to the chaos which began the movie, the cause of which has now been revealed to the audience. Paul's difference has become too much for these students-and their counterparts in the film, the Kittredges-to bear.