Complicit: On Facing the Mirror Before Casting Stones

“Let me begin,” admits George J. Sefa Dei in “‘We Cannot Be Color-Blind': Race, Antiracism, and the Subversion of Dominant Thinking,” “by making clear that I see myself as fully complicit in the discussion that I undertake in this chapter” (p. 25).

As we face large and powerful social forces such as poverty and racism—along with more narrow issues of education—I believe we all must address that first concern of who is complicit.

Let me begin with something that echoes in my mind almost continually, from Oscar Wilde: “But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.”

Consider taking that frame and using it many contexts: “But to recommend _____ to  _____ is both grotesque and insulting.”

Also consider who makes such recommendations. For the poor, the affluent and powerful—who do not live up to the same standards they impose—are the who.

Today—at this exact moment—we watch as a white authority structure recommends to a dominantly black community that which is “grotesque and insulting.” And then on a narrower scale, those with power and money recommend to educators that which is “grotesque and insulting.”

So whether we are confronting poverty and racism or education, we all must begin with who is complicit.

People in poverty and African Americans in the U.S. share one disturbing but distinct quality: disproportionately the impoverished and African Americans are excluded from the power structure.

Who, then, is complicit in the existence and tolerance of poverty and racism? It cannot be those without the power; therefore, it must be those with the power.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

White high school drop-outs and African Americans with some college have the same economic opportunities.

Whites and African Americans use recreational drugs at the same rates, but African Americans are targeted, charged, and incarcerated at much higher rates.

Those born wealthy and not attending college have greater economic power than those born in poverty and completing college.

To be white, to be wealthy—in the U.S. is to be complicit.

Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit. There is no political option for being neutral as long as poverty and racism exist. None.

While I think my field of education is of a magnitude smaller than issues of poverty and race, I must end there because the picture is hard to confront.

And because education is and always will be inextricable from the fight to end poverty and racism; as George J. Sefa Dei concludes, “Antiracism is about changing current processes of schooling and education delivery” (p. 39). We may say the same about poverty.

I have taught high school English for 18 years in rural South Carolina and then been in teacher education for another 13 years. Teachers and teacher educators persistently complain about the bureaucracy of education; it is a relentless refrain among educators.

Recently, I received an email about how to anticipate what may be demanded of us when political regimes, once again, change; the email included: “No other profession has to deal with such crap.”

My response: “No other discipline would put up with that crap.”

Educators are complicit in the crap that is education reform. Inaction is being complicit. Silence is being complicit.

All those scrambling to have a seat at the Common Core table, a table inextricable from the entire reform agenda—unions, administrators, teachers—all are complicit.

It is time to face the mirror, to examine who is complicit.

English Journal: Speaking Truth to Power: Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics P. L. Thomas

English Journal, Vol. 104, No. 1, September 2014

Speaking Truth to Power

Invisible Young Men: African American Males, Academics, and Athletics, P. L. Thomas


As a pre–Civil Rights era novel dramatizing Ralph Ellison’s perspective on being African American in the United States at mid-20th century, Invisible Man opens with the unnamed narrator explaining:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me. . . . That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact . . . [Y]ou often doubt if you really exist. . . . It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful. (3–4)

Readers learn that the narrator’s response to his invisibility, ultimately, is hibernation, a withdrawal from a society, a world that refuses to see him.

A 2012 report from the Office of Civil Rights offers a disturbing picture of how US public schools see African American (AA) males in the first decade of the 21st century: AA males are disproportionately targeted in disciplinary actions in schools, referred to law enforcement, and suspended from schools. The academic picture for AA males is just as disturbing since they have less access to advanced courses but are overrepresented in retention data. AA males also tend to sit in classrooms taught by inexperienced and under-/un-certified teachers who are under-compensated (“Revealing New Truths”).

When AA males are seen in school, then, many must recognize that they are mostly viewed as misbehaving, as potential, if not already, criminals. AA males have become both the embodiment and stereotype of the school-to-prison pipeline as well as the school-as-prison phenomenon associated with urban schools across the United States (Nolan). Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, then, AA males often make decisions paralleling the narrator’s hibernation—one of which is seeking the support and potential achievement found in athletics, both as an oasis of possibility and as a ticket to college or a profession (despite that ticket often being an illusion). …

Common Core, then, will be yet more failure if it becomes another aspect of the traditional commitments of schooling and if it is a distraction from the sorts of reform that should address race, class, and gender inequities in discipline, retention, academic access, and the emphasis on athletics to the detriment of the athletes. In our ELA classrooms, committing to close reading of text may once again shift our eyes in the wrong direction—the decontextualized text—if we fail to see the students in our care. It is well past time not only to see AA males, but also to listen to them.

Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

My formal expertise and experience are in the field of education, but I have developed as well what I consider equal expertise and experience in two other areas, although the paths have been primarily by self-education: writing and cycling.

I have been serious, purposeful, and committed to teaching, writing, and cycling all for about thirty years each; however, as a writer and cyclist, I have basically no formal preparation. Cycling provides a great deal of pleasure (and pain) for me personally and socially; as well, I recognize more and more every day that cycling offers really important lessons—many of which inform teaching and learning in formal settings.

Lessons from Cycling—for Cyclists and Educators

One of the most compelling aspects of recreational cycling is the it is incredibly complex and challenging, especially as a group sport. As a complex human activity in a group dynamic, then, I think becoming and being a cyclist offers powerful lessons for becoming and being a teacher.

First, cycling has a significant learning curve for beginners to integrate with group rides. To be a group cyclist, you need fitness, a wide assortment of cycling-specific skills, and a knowledge base about group cycling (coming to understand the culture of group cycling).

Fitness requires time and commitment—not unlike learning anything. But embedded in that is the motivation to commit that time. Since cycling can be extremely painful, it offers a perfect example of how learning comes best through the choice of the individual. I cycle about 10,000 miles a years—many of those rides are exhausting, nearly unbearable. There is little likelihood I would either participate or improve in cycling if this were not my choice.

Related to this need for time and commitment to fitness is the necessity for cycling-specific skills. Cycling, teaching, and writing, for me, are parallel human behaviors that are best cultivated by actually doing the behavior, but also by doing the behavior with purposeful attention to the discrete skills that make up the activity.

A fit cyclist (often runners transitioning to cycling) without bike handling skills or group riding knowledge is extremely dangerous to her/himself and other cyclists. In fact, group cycling is so complicated that it baffles me that anyone succeeds in integrating into group riding (in the same way that staying committed to writing or education is very challenging).

Cycling well requires cycling-specific cardiovascular fitness, bike handling skills (maintaining a straight and stable line), proper bicycle fit (bike positioning is crucial, but somewhat technical), and maneuvering awareness and knowledge. In brief, cycling in a fast-paced group (peloton) is extremely complicated—like writing, like teaching: hundreds of concurrent automatic behaviors blended with dozens of split-second decisions.

For cyclists, this means simultaneously exerting often maximum physical efforts that tax your breathing and stress lower body muscle groups, maintaining upper body relaxation so that bicycle control remains your primary concern, and maintaining awareness and control of yourself as well as the surrounding cyclists.

Since each of these elements of group cycling impacts and depends on all the others, how does a cyclist gain the level of expertise needed to participate well and safely?

I think this is the greatest lesson of cycling as it informs teaching. Cycling at a high level in group events is best learned by cycling often—and participating with and observing closely elite and experienced cyclists.

Beginning cyclists perform at first in unskilled ways that require them to consciously focus on gradual and purposeful improvement. It takes baby steps. But it also requires that the cyclist is committed to learning through observation and has the self-awareness to recognize the nuanced differences among her/his novice behaviors and the more polished behaviors of experienced cyclists.

In cycling, beginners are best served (as is the group) if they participate at first in minimal ways—not taking pulls for example, focusing on riding at a high pace while insuring she/he learns group dynamics (not making drastic changes in pace or direction, bike handling). An aggressive paceline (an organized double-line of cyclists in which riders rotate so that one cyclist at a time is pushing the pace [1]) is the ultimate test of cycling expertise; a cyclist needs high fitness, strong bike handling skills, and a honed sense of the entire group and how each cyclist impacts that group’s pace and safety.

Pulling through in a paceline tests a cyclist sense of pace and space—because rotating through from the front into the receding line is a delicate balance of speed and smooth bike handling. Adding to this complex blend of skills and fitness is that cyclists drink and eat while participating in their events! Yet another range of skills that must be learned while doing.

Here is an ideal representation in cycling of the beauty found in balancing the needs of the individual with the good of the community. To be an elite or skilled group cyclist, each cyclist needs the group; thus, each cyclist benefits from conforming to the group norms and contributes to the group good—not because of arbitrary or blind allegiance but because those norms address that balance between individual and group.

At their highest levels, teaching, writing, and cycling are individual endeavors grounded in communities; all represent John Dewey’s complex (and often misunderstood) calls for honoring the individual and the community simultaneously—not as competing interests but as synergetic interests.

Each cyclist in a group ride can perform better than cycling alone by contributing to and competing with the other cyclists, but if any individual cyclist disrupts the essential dynamics of that group (poor bike handling, careless attention to the safety of the group) that cyclist and the entire group suffer, performing less well.

Self-interests and group-interests, then, are inseparable in cycling. I would argue the same about teaching and writing.

Serious recreational cycling offers dynamic lessons for cyclists and educators about the power of engaging by choice and over time with complex human behaviors that require a balance between individual and group needs, about the value of committing to those behaviors as a novice eager to observe and learn from elite and experienced experts/mentors, and about the reality that few human pursuits are ever finished, but always in a state of becoming.

There is a zen elements here—the giving up of the self to find the self. And as with cycling, teaching, and writing, you will not understand it until you do it—by allowing the becoming.

[1] See for example below:








Democracy can mean a range of concepts, including freedoms, rights, elections, governments, processes, philosophies and a panoply of abstract and concrete notions that can be mediated by power, positionality, culture, time and space. Democracy can also be translated into brute force, hegemony, docility, compliance and conformity, as in wars will be decided on the basis of the needs of elites, or major decisions about spending finite resources will be the domain of the few over the masses, or people will be divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. because it is advantageous for maintaining exploitative political systems in place to do so. Often, these frameworks are developed and reified based on the notion that elections give the right to societies, or segment of societies, to install regimes, institutions and operating systems that are then supposedly legitimated and rendered infinitely just simply because formal power resides in the hands of those dominating forces.

The book is interested in advancing a critical analysis of the hegemonic paradigm described above, one that seeks higher levels of political literacy and consciousness, and one that makes the connection with education. What does education have to do with democracy? How does education shape, influence, impinge on, impact, negate, facilitate and/or change the context, contours and realities of democracy? How can we teach for and about democracy to alter and transform the essence of what democracy is, and, importantly, what it should be?

We are particularly interested in the notion of decency in relation to democracy, and underpinned by forms of meaningful, critically-engaged education. Is it enough to be kind, nice, generous and hopeful when we can also see signs of rampant, entrenched and debilitating racism, sexism, poverty, violence, injustice, war and other social inequalities? If democracy is intended to be a legitimating force for good, how does education inform democracy? What types of knowledge, experience, analysis and being are helpful to bring about newer, more meaningful and socially just forms of democracy?

Some of the themes to be explored might include:

  • peace, peace education and democracy
  • media, media literacy and democracy
  • pedagogy and education for democracy
  • curriculum and education for democracy
  • race, anti-racist education and democracy
  • poverty, class and education for democracy
  • environment and ecology within the context of democracy and education
  • the meaning of kindness in relation to democracy and education
  • what is decency within the context of democracy and education?

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please submit the following to by September 30, 2014:

1)    a 400-word summary of your proposal, including:

  1. title
  2. focus and research questions
  3. the connection to the subject of the book
  4. the theoretical and/or conceptualframework
  5. the major themes to beexplored
  6. other pertinent information

2)    8 keywords for the chapter

3)    a 100-word biography for each author


1)    Call for Proposals (August 25, 2014)

2)    Receive Proposals (September 30, 2014)

3)    Communicate with contributors regarding decision on proposals (October 15, 2014)

4)    First complete draft of 5,000 words due (January 15, 2015)

5)    Comments from editors regarding first draft to contributors (Februrary 15, 2015)

6)    Final complete draft due to editors (April 1, 2015)

7)    Review by editors, and follow-up with contributors (May 1, 2015)

8)    Liaison with publisher for final editing and proofing (May 15, 2015)

9)    Publication (Summer 2015)

For all other inquiries about this book, please contact Paul R. Carr at

Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction

It is the 1890s, and educators are concerned that students are not receiving the quality education they deserve—especially if those students plan to attend college. What became known as The Report of the Committee of Ten has now been replicated at varying intervals in the U.S. for 120 years: Competing interests declaring what students learn (and how students learn) as inadequate, and then setting out themselves to identify what students learn (and how students learn) to (i) save the children, (ii) save the country, (iii) save the economy.

This pattern of education reform is best captured, I think, in Herb Kliebard’s The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 because his guiding motif, “struggle,” reveals what is really going on when politicians, educators, researchers, and the public debate (often badly and in conflated ways) content, curriculum, standards, and then instruction.

Although content, curriculum, and standards as terms are different, in the real world, they tend to represent the same urge: Identify the what (knowledge) students should (or must) learn.

Before diving into the content and direct instruction debates, I want to address what is really going on. You don’t have to read George Orwell or Ray Bradbury to know this (although you should*), but the powerful in any society recognize that those who control knowledge (and language is knowledge) ultimately control everything. Thus, to codify what is known, what counts as knowledge, and what facts mean is to establish power.

Howard Zinn has popularized how perspective impacts so-called objective facts in his people’s history of the U.S.; many narratives of history told from the perspectives of losers, workers, and marginalized people become suddenly unrecognizable to those who were raised on traditional textbook renditions committed to celebrating the American Way.

Since the U.S. is mired in a misguided and often distorted debate about national curriculum, I want to return here to what is wrong with the content and direct instruction debates, historically and currently.

Revisiting Content and Direct Instruction

Ron Barnett in The Greenville News announces, “The high school of the future is here”:

George Jetson won’t be dropping his daughter Judy off in a flying bubble capsule, but the New Tech high school programs starting up this month in Greenville County promise to rocket the old educational model straight into the 21st century.

And what does that entail?: “The concept of teachers imparting knowledge on students who passively soak up information from their desks is on its way out at Carolina and J.L. Mann high schools.”

Two schools in Greenville (SC) county have adopted project-based learning, but Barnett offers this qualification: “Actually, project learning isn’t entirely new in the district.”

Actually, project learning isn’t even new to this century because, as Kliebard details, project-based learning grew out of John Dewey’s laboratory schools at the turn of the twentieth century and then the concept was bastardized and popularized throughout the first half of the 1900s, notably by William H. Kilpatrick.

And just for the historical record, project-based learning and an assortment of garbled practices mislabeled “progressive” [1] worked so swimmingly that all hell broke loose in the 1950s and 1960s: Rudolf Flesch fretted over Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955) [2] and Hyman G. Rickover (1962) warned about how the Swiss were kicking the U.S. to the curb because of failing schools.

So let’s start with the central problem driving the never-ending content and direct instruction debates that sound about exactly the same today as they did over 100 years ago: The real issue with content and direct instruction is not if but how, when, and why.

At the core of how these debates both flourish and fail is the straw man, personified by attacks on John Dewey (progressivism) and Paulo Freire (critical pedagogy). Neither Dewey (progressivism) nor Freire (critical pedagogy) reject content or direct instruction, but both demanded that teachers and students re-imagine content (notably that content is not ideologically or politically neutral) and direct instruction.

Content is problematic as a term because many stakeholders in education use it differently. I want to clarify that content in this discussion has two distinctions: disciplinary knowledge (the facts of the disciplines) and disciplinary moves (how the disciplines view artifacts/facts, how the disciplines gather and interpret data, how the disciplines present their examinations of coming to know the world).

For progressive and critical educators, that formal schooling tends toward transferring static disciplinary knowledge to the exclusion of examining and fostering disciplinary moves (especially for marginalized groups of students) is the crux of the debate, compounded by the traditional stance that disciplinary knowledge can be objective. As critical scholars have argued, simply choosing what counts as knowledge is itself a political act.

As well, Dewey argued that since we could never really predict what static disciplinary knowledge students would need in the future, we should be sure to focus much of our energy on fostering disciplinary moves in students; this argument has been reduced to a somewhat silly and simplistic urge to teach “critical thinking,” which is in practice, as it turns out, anything except being critical.

Freire added to Dewey’s quest for instilling disciplinary moves by challenging the simplistic “banking” concept that views content (disciplinary knowledge) as static and non-political—but that challenge did not reject content, but called for ways in which to honor that content.

Both disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, then, are battlegrounds over power—influenced by race, class, gender, and sexuality (among other contexts). As Lisa Delpit has argued, children of color and impoverished children are often fed reduced disciplinary knowledge and excluded from disciplinary moves; thus, our debates about content and direct instruction (as a subset of all instruction) must move toward insuring that all students have equal access to disciplinary knowledge and disciplinary moves, and that all students receive the same quality of instruction (including direct instruction).

No one that I know is calling for no content or no direct instruction. The debate rests with when, how, and why—and those debates are important, and likely inexhaustible.

For me, content (as disciplinary knowledge) and direct instruction are secondary: disciplinary knowledge as a means to the greater ends of disciplinary moves; direct instruction coming after students have engaged in relatively naive and emerging authentic productions of artifacts of learning.

When I teach writing, for example, my students must engage with something worth writing about (disciplinary knowledge), and then after they present early drafts, I must offer direct instruction. My critical teaching of composition, then, is not without content and not without direct instruction.

Ultimately, then, the why is central: So that every student comes to discover for her/himself the disciplinary moves most valuable for reading and then re-reading the world, for writing and re-writing the world (Freire) in order for her/him to act on the world instead of having the world happen to her/him.

Finally, as a critical educator, I practice these beliefs each day with deep and diligent skepticism because, in the end, I could be wrong. And that is what disciplinary moves are all about—the purposeful engaging with the world to better understand it for the self and the larger community.

* Wink, wink, nod, nod …

[1] For a genuinely progressive take-down of the folly found in misguided uses of the project method, please read: 

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. Stable URL:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

[2] And by 2011, ta-da!, “Why Johnny STILL Can’t Read.” [HINT: It's those damn progressives.]

VAM Remedy Part of Inequity Disease

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

In Reliability and validity of inferences about teachers based on student test scores (ETS, 2013), Edward H. Haertel draws an important conclusion about value-added methods of evaluating teachers built on standardized tests: “Tests aligned to grade-level standards cannot fully register the academic progress of students far above grade level or far below grade level,” and thus create a “bias against those teachers working with the lowest performing or the highest performing classes,” adding:

High-stakes uses of teacher VAM scores could easily have additional negative consequences for children’s education. These include increased pressure to teach to the test, more competition and less cooperation among the teachers within a school, and resentment or avoidance of students who do not score well. In the most successful schools, teachers work together effectively (Atteberry & Bryk, 2010). If teachers are placed in competition with one another for bonuses or even future employment, their collaborative arrangements for the benefit of individual students as well as the supportive peer and mentoring relationships that help beginning teachers learn to teach better may suffer. (pp. 8, 24)

All of these consequences of high-stakes testing and VAM, then, are likely to impact negatively high-poverty and minority students, who disproportionately score low on such tests.

Matthew Di Carlo’s new examination of VAM in DC reinforces Haertel’s concern:

Specifically, you’ll notice that almost 30 percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive the highest rating (“highly effective”), compared with just 7-10 percent in the other categories. In addition, just over seven percent of teachers in low-poverty schools receive one of the two lowest ratings (“minimally effective” or “ineffective,” both of which may result in dismissal), versus 18-21 percent in the medium- and high-poverty schools.

So, the relationship between school poverty and IMPACT ratings may not be linear, as the distributions for medium- and high-poverty schools are quite similar. Nevertheless, it seems very clear that IMPACT results are generally better among teachers in schools serving lower proportions of poor students (i.e., students eligible for subsidized lunch), and that the discrepancies are quite large.

High-poverty schools already share some disturbing characteristics, including that they often reflect and perpetuate the inequities found in the homes and communities of the children they serve (see HERE and HERE). But high-poverty schools also struggle to attract and retain experienced and certified/qualified teachers.

And while virtually no one advocates for using VAM in high-stakes policies, mounting evidence shows that VAM is likely to further deter teachers from the schools and students most needing high-quality dedicated teachers.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and then Common Core have been sold to the public as policy intended to close the so-called achievement gap (a misnomer for the equity gap; see HERE and HERE)—just as advocates of VAM have attributed school failure to “bad” teachers and VAM as a way to rid schools of those “bad” teachers, again to address the achievement gap.

However, the evidence refutes the rhetoric because accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing, Common Core, and VAM have not and will not address equity, but are likely to increase the exact problems advocates claim they will solve (see Mathis, 2012Hout & Elliot, 2011Haertel, 2013; Di Carlo, 2014).

If left unchecked, VAM as a education reform remedy will prove to be yet another part of the inequity disease.

Blacked Out: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory”

Recently, I have been trying to navigate my own journey toward calling for the next phase in the education reform debate—the primary tension being between my evolving position as it rubs against my sisters and brothers in arms who remain (justifiably) passionate about confronting the misinformed celebrity of the moment or the misguided journalist of the moment.

And then Jose Vilson posted on Twitter:

This moment of concise clarity from Vilson was followed the next morning by a post on R.E.M.’s Facebook page, Troopers release video showing forceful stop of musician Shamarr Allen:

As he continued defending his troopers’ actions, the Louisiana State Police chief released a dashcam video Tuesday of the forceful stop of a musician in the Lower 9th Ward.

Shamarr Allen, a trumpeter known for his band,Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs, has claimed in TV interviews that he felt in danger and that he was treated unfairly because of his race.

“It’s just wrong,” Allen told | The Times-Picayune on Tuesday after watching the video. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do none of that. I don’t live wrong at all. It’s just, this is the life of a black man in the Lower 9th Ward.”

Occurring with cruel relevance at the nexus of disaster capitalism and education reform, New Orleans, Allen’s “life of a black man” rests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death as a black young man:

An 18-year-old Missouri man was shot dead by a cop Saturday, triggering outrage among residents who gathered at the scene shouting “kill the police.”

Michael Brown was on his way to his grandmother’s house in the city of Ferguson when he was gunned down at about 2:15 p.m., police and relatives said.

What prompted the Ferguson officer to open fire wasn’t immediately clear.

Multiple witnesses told KMOV that Brown was unarmed and had his hands up in the air when he was cut down.

The officer “shot again and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air,” said witness Dorian Johnson. “He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.”

This feeling has come to me before, a sense that outrage remains mostly token outrage, misguided outrage. Outrage over Whoopi Goldberg, Campbell Brown, and Tony Stewart filled social media, blacking out Brown and Allen as well as dozens and dozens of black men who will never be named.

50 Years Later: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

August of 2014 marked the month James Baldwin would have turned 90. 18 December 2014 will be 50 years since Baldwin spoke at The Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) (speech archive):

There Baldwin built a passionate message, challenging his audience with “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.” Baldwin inspired author Walter Dean Myers, who echoed a similar message early in 2014 just before his own death:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

There is a beauty, a symmetry to the lineage from Baldwin to Myers—and then to the countless young people for whom Myers paid it forward.

But I must pose a counter-point about Baldwin’s speeches and essays: Why must Baldwin remain relevant 50 years later?

Baldwin’s words in 1964—”it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it”—fit just as well in Allen’s mouth, pulled over in New Orleans because he committed the crime of approaching his car and then reversing himself while black.

And then Baldwin in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies.

Or Baldwin in 1963 asking, Who is the nigger?:

It is 2014 and the list of blacked out names grows—Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown—with the unnamed list even longer, although mostly ignored, invisible.

When Baldwin’s 90th birthday approached, many expressed how Baldwin as a writer and powerful public voice has himself become mostly unseen, unheard, unread, but each day suggests that in the U.S. we prove Baldwin’s words to be disturbingly relevant.

At the end of his 1964 speech, Baldwin asserts: “[I]t is not we the American negro who is to be saved here; it is you the American republic, and you ain’t got much time.”

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains Rich’s speaker, the “wreck” a metaphor for the U.S.:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun…

a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The narrative of the U.S. remains a redacted myth, names and lives blacked out. Yes, as Baldwin noted, “it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it.”

Let us hope it isn’t too late.


by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

See Also

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

War Against Whites? I Think Not, Charles Blow

New Study: White People Support Harsher Criminal Penalties When Told More Black People Are Incarcerated

Michael Brown: Yet another reminder that police see even unarmed black people as thugs, Andre Perry

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind