In dystopic COVID-time, I am trying to do something a little different – to reconnect with former students, and to sit with their memories – our memories – of another crisis not long ago. If it is hard to make connections right now, we can be restored by the relationships we already have, reminding ourselves of what it means to not be alone, or to have taken up intellectual work together.
It was the fall of 2015. The mood was difficult. The campus was unsettled. My class was, too. It was an undergraduate seminar for sophomores on race and visual culture. Twelve students were enrolled, most of them Africana Studies and Ethnic Studies concentrators. Roughly half the class were students of color.
There was a lot happening in the world. The shooting of Michael Brown in the summer of 2014. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri. The mass murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. The hunger strike against racism organized by Black students at the University of Missouri. The outrage over the misguided defense of blackface and objectionable Halloween costumes by two residence hall heads on the Yale campus. Too many incidents on our campus, and elsewhere. It felt, to me, that the Brown campus was ready to explode. My students were struggling to separate the classroom material from their everyday, to keep the swell of images and emotions at bay. And things were definitely getting worse. In just two days, Yale students would confront Jonathan Holloway, their Dean of the College, on the main green. I asked the class if we might watch the video of the confrontation and discuss it, but one student politely asked that we not; another revealed that they had a sibling at Yale. I put it on Canvas. A week after that, a visiting Latinx student on our campus was assaulted by a public safety officer. “I think about that time in the world often,” one of my students remembered; “it was when things really felt like they started to fall apart for me. I started to feel like POC friends, my community, were truly vulnerable and were not protected by my society or my institutions. It was a time in my life that I was coming into understanding how I could be white AND Latinx together.”
On a random Tuesday in early November, I decided to make an unrehearsed improvisation in the classroom: substituting a simple three-step assignment for the week’s more contemporary readings. I queued up a single advertisement – the 1971 Coco-Cola advertisement, “Hilltop,” otherwise known as the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad – and watched it with the whole class. I broke them into small groups, and asked them to talk about what they had noticed. We returned to the larger conversation, with the whole class critiquing the ad. And then we watched it again and again, repeating the entire process roughly a dozen times. At the end, we talked about the value of repeated viewing, collaborative critique, and close reading. We ran out of time but we never ran out of things to talk about.
“Hilltop” is one minute long. Set on an isolated ridge far from anywhere, it opens with a single voice – that of a blond, blue-eyed woman – expressing the desire to “buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.” Slowly the camera draws backwards, and an ever larger, and ever more variegated ensemble expresses its desire to “sing in perfect harmony” and then, of course, to “buy the world a Coke.” The advertisement reveals itself to be a paeon to the multiracial ensemble, enlisting the world’s diversity in the celebration of American capitalism’s most unassuming export: Coca-Cola. But its emphasis on harmony is fractured by the racial differences it mobilizes for the eye. The clothes. The hairstyles. The skin tones. It forces us to see difference and to hear harmony at the same time. As the ditty reaches its peak, a single voice breaks free of the harmony – a soulful, mellifluous voice, drawn from the familiar register of sonic Blackness. And then we are back to the perfect harmonics, before the voice of a single white woman is elevated above the others. Unlike that Black voice, she gets a close up. “It’s the real thing,” she – and everyone – concludes – “what the world needs to today.” As the chorus concludes, we see the entire ensemble from the perspective of a helicopter, while text informs us that the bottling company “assembled young people from all over the world” on “a hilltop in Italy” to communicate this message of shared love and solidarity.
Everything about “Hilltop” is an artifact from a different reality, from the setting to the costumes, the orchestrated unity, the choral quality, the aspirational, uplifting tone, and the strange obsession with “the real thing.” The ad is a busy text, saturated with affect and meaning, a paeon to the empire of consumer capitalism offered in the midst of the war in Vietnam. Close reading, I know, is a skill – a skill students can learn. But it doesn’t come naturally. Most of the time, our students are brilliant at the one-off read. They are busy themselves, relentlessly multitasking. And they’re often quite candid about it, even letting me know that when they watch assigned movies or videos they sometimes speed them up to 1.5 speed, hoping to cram as much into any given day as possible. There isn’t a lot of time, they think, to read something repeatedly, to immerse yourself in the study of every detail of every frame of some digital artifact, to repeatedly survey the narrative, to look deeper, closer, and from every angle. Something like “Hilltop” can provide an excuse to slow down, to look closer, and to look again and again.
Why “Hilltop,” though? I honestly can’t remember. The song had been featured in the closing scene of Mad Men just a few months earlier, and it resonated with a book I’d just published on racial sightlines, with a chapter on mixed-race platoons and ensembles and their political work.
The point, anyway, was to change the beat. And to have the students work in small groups: close reading in close quarters. To allow for sustained attention to the visual, to the sonic, and to the collaborative act of analysis, sharing out what they’d learned. They were meant to consider what the class as a whole had realized. And then to return back to their intimate conversations in groups. And to do this repeatedly. Individual viewing, followed by small group discussion, followed by reporting out and sharing with the whole class, followed by a return to individual watching as the cycle starts again. The rapidity with which we moved through the steps was meant to keep students from pausing, from becoming self-conscious.
In the years since, though, I have often referred back to that one day and to that one exercise. I have been teaching now for half of my life, but am still learning, with ambitions to improve each and every year. I know, though, that everyone who stands at the front of the room needs to have a surprise in their back pocket – an in-class assignment for down days – a letter, a photograph, a song, a scene, anything that can be dropped into a class that is listless, when the students are as limp as a jacket hung on the back of a chair, and when every question sees students turn back to the text, flipping through pages, with nothing to say. Those pocketed, of-syllabus assignments are even more useful when a class has gone horribly wrong. They make a reset possible. I have often held up the “Hilltop” exercise as an example of exactly this sort of assignment, and that day as just this kind of reset.
Crisis makes for crisp, vivid memories. When I reached out to them this spring in COVID-time, my former students remember that semester as urgently melodramatic. “I remember watching the video and thinking ‘what world is that?,’ one remembered, “and how did pedaling that vision get us to where we are. I also believe that was around the time that the student at Yale was recorded confronting a Dean who had done something racist, I think something around Halloween costumes. I remember often the cracking in the students’ voices, the emotion, and the vulnerability in that moment.” Another shared that they were “thoughtful of BLM protests, the diversity initiative at Brown, and the events around Indigenous people’s day – specifically an avoidance to examine the past of slavery and genocide.” This was “a semester of high tensions,” a third recalled, and the class felt “like a petri dish for all the politics we were all learning from/with/on each other.”
“I remember thinking the ad wasn’t only of that time,” one recalled. “It resonated with what was going on around us. The ad and its stated goal of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony struck me as idealistic, utopian, and seemingly unattainable. The goal resonated with the zeitgeist of the end of the Obama era—at least the zeitgeist of the center-left. But there was some sort of discord between this zeitgeist and what seemed realistic at the time. The perfect harmony called for by the ad had never come to fruition, and that didn’t bode well for where we were or where we were going.” “I had to take a moment to remember,” another began; “the coke ad video – to me it reflected some of the frustrations about multicultural inclusion as a political stance and the idea of ethical “feel-good” consumerism within capitalism using ideas of global peace or unity.” “The singing itself,” they went on, “also reminded me of religious undertones in political messaging with universal values of Christianity or democracy.” A different student listed out for me everything they remembered about that day, with some extraordinary detail: “I remember talking about how dominant the white faces were in the video as well as the initial white woman’s voice (as the central voice of the video); for me, at least, it was helpful exercise to have a more critical eye!”
That note about the white woman’s voice sticks with me. One of the things we had done was to listen to the ad with our eyes closed, to focus on the sonic landscape. We were able to hear, in that moment, the tremulous Southern twang of young white woman, whose face and voice move into the foreground in the closing seconds. When we watched it again, we were able to understand her differently. She embodied the seeming contradictions of 1971, the grinding imperial conflict in southeast Asia, the state-sponsored disruption of the civil rights movements, the murder of so many leaders of so many social movements, all of that displaced by the glossy vision of a world united in its desire for a soft drink. Listening let us hear empire’s enactments.
That day sticks in my mind – and in theirs, I suspect – precisely because in the midst of our own politically and personally challenging season, with so much going so wrong, we surprised ourselves by taking up a weird antique and studying it closely. The tight repetition was a marvelous mnemonic, it seems, and the distracting details of the advertisement were, in their own way, a welcome relief. What we took away from that very particular close reading, from that single morning we spent watching and listening to “Hilltop” together, might well matter less than what we remember about that shared experience, about finding a way to do the work of learning together when all anyone wanted to do was to repair or remake the world, which seemed terrifyingly impossible. In that kind of dystopian moment, sometime all you can do is cling to each other – teacher and student, old and young – and do whatever is right in front of you, no matter how difficult it might be.
In doing that work together, I suppose, you can hold each other, and survive for at least one more day. And maybe make it possible, years later and in another crisis, to create an ethos of reconnection and repair.