Setting Aside “My Knife Is Bigger than Your Knife”

When I waded into what I knew would be a controversial response to September 11, standing on the shoulders of an equally controversial piece by Michael Stipe, I received some expected responses that ranged from knee-jerk misreadings to very depressing fatalism about human nature and just what the most powerful nation in human history could accomplish.

One question deserves at least a brief response: How would the U.S. respond with humility instead of bravado?

First, let me start with a negative: Let’s stop responding to violence with what appears to be no more imagination than the cartoonish Crocodile Dundee:

Regardless of political party in power in the U.S., we cannot help responding to misguided violence with more and greater violence: “My knife is bigger than your knife.”

As innocent lives were erased callously in the horror of U.S. history now immortalized as 9/11, the U.S. could have—although belatedly—recognized the fundamental right that all humans should share, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness garnered on innocent lives at birth regardless of what soil is under their feet or what organized political system claims to govern their lives.

The innocent man, woman, and child in the carnage of 9/11 on U.S. soil are not more sacred than the innocent man, woman, and child anywhere on this mortal coil we call earth.

A response grounded in humility, then, is not beyond the scope of humans, and it isn’t as if we don’t have something to guide us—considering the lineage at least of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr..

So briefly, some words from King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail (16 April 1963):

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states….Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes….

Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals….

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal….

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists….

Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends….

It certainly isn’t easy to bring into reality, but the answer is easily stated: “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

Responding to violence with humility instead of bravado, then, avoids a powerful warning attributed Gandhi’s call for nonviolent noncooperation: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Responding to violence with greater violence reduces the U.S. to the most powerful blind person among all the blind. We need to choose to lead by sight instead.

James Baldwin at 90: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”

January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.

And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.

As someone who has come to cherish Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the public intellectual, I welcome this sudden burst of sunlight on one of the most daring and perceptive voices ever among writers in the U.S. I cannot stress enough in print that I find Baldwin as valuable today as ever, and often feel deeply inadequate as a writer and would-be public intellectual against the power of Baldwin.

To join in with this celebration, I want to recommend primarily that Baldwin’s voice be read and viewed/heard—that we do not allow all being said and written about him to suffice. And on August 2, 2014, we have so much of Baldwin before us, so much that we have failed to embrace, to consider carefully, to allow these words to complete their unmasking:

My journey with Baldwin has resulted in an edited volume (co-edited with Furman colleague Scott Henderson), James Baldwin: Challenging Authors. So here I want to share the introduction I wrote for that collection of essays.

Introduction

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.[i]

Trayvon Martin was killed February 26, 2012, in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie. In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless. But, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (n.p.).

In this introduction to a volume on the work of James Baldwin, I, like Roy, am compelled to speak beyond Trayvon about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—about those Others: African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the U.S. was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders. Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males too often result in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration (Thomas, 2013) over the past thirty-plus years. While Wright’s and Ellison’s novels continue to capture the African American male experience—including the entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing—Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—the plight of African American males continue to send an ominous and powerful message today  (see Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion).

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Baldwin (1998) addressed teachers in that same year, 1963:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. (p. 678)

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children. Education, for Baldwin, must be revolutionary, an act of social justice. In Baldwin’s words, I hear a refrain: No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However, if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook school shooting (December 14, 2012) has beneath the George Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

When teacher and blogger Jose Vilson[ii] posts a blog, I read carefully and don’t multitask. Why? I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire life in the South where racism clings to the region like the stench of a house razed by fire.

And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white. So when Vilson (2013) posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront. (n.p.)

I have learned to read and listen to Jose as I do with New York Times columnist Charles Blow and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of this volume.

I have learned daily—I continue to learn today—that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people, specifically African American males. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers) and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most beautiful humans—and the greatest reason to live on this planet—are children of every possible shade. They laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as anybody else. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

These are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit. Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring 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 [emphasis added]. 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…. (pp. 737-738)

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today—the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

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. (p. 734)

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society. (p. 738)

Today, racism is thinly masked, and many refuse to see it.

In 1853, Frederick Douglass recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. (qtd. in Alexander, 2012, p. 140)

Douglass’s charges are echoed in Baldwin’s (1998) “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (pp. 432-433)

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men without just cause, don’t incarcerate young black men without just cause, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it or unmask it—and because we have become so cynical that the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and as James (“Jimmy”) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love. Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

As stated above, I offer these words because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Vilson (2013), refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background” (n.p.). Or, as Baldwin (1998) himself said: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’” (p. 738)—and we all must hear what everyone else says—especially the words they choose—never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

In 2004, poet Adrienne Rich (2009) wrote about a postage stamp bearing the face of American ex-patriot writer James Baldwin: “the stamp commemorates Baldwin’s birthday, August 2: he would have been eighty that year” (p. 49). This volume appears in 2014, the year that Baldwin would have turned ninety.

Rich’s essay reads as the journey of one writer’s experience embracing the other, but Rich also highlights what this volume seeks to address as well—the lack of attention that Baldwin receives in the twenty-first century U.S. Why, Rich asks, does a country still laboring under the same issues of race continue to ignore a powerful voice, as Americans certainly did when Baldwin spoke of racism?

Quoting from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” Rich (2009) includes the following:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Baldwin’s challenge here should haunt us because it remains the challenge before us—“[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The following chapters—based on both scholarly and experiential perspectives—make significant contributions to the astonishingly slim amount of research and discussion that exists on one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. They provide key insights into Baldwin’s literary skills, his political views, and the impact his life and work had on historic, as well as ongoing, policy debates. They reveal a complicated, often tormented, and always provocative individual who confronted racism, imperialism, and homophobia as a black, gay pacifist. It should therefore come as little surprise that his work maintains its relevance as American society continues to grapple with racial, social, and political challenges.

Happy birthday, Jimmy, and let me offer this as what feels to me to be a fitting birthday song:

See Also

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (revised ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Ellison, R. (2003). The collected essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J.F. Callahan. New York, NY: The Modern Library.

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Roy, A. (2004, November 8). The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Real Voice.

Thomas, P. L. (2013, May 17). Education reform in the New Jim Crow era. Truthout.

Vilson, J. (2013, April 8). An open letter from the trenches [to education activists, friends, and haters] [Web log]. The Jose Vilson.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

[i] Portions of this chapter are adapted from two blog posts: “The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard,” (2013, July 25), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-deliberately-silenced-or-the-preferably-unheard/ and To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism (2013, April 9), http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/to-jimmy-and-jose-with-love-i-walk-freely-among-racism/

[ii] Vilson offers about himself at his blog, The Jose Vilson (http://thejosevilson.com/): “José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers. He currently serves as the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, and has been a part of the Acentos Foundation, LATinos In Social Media (LATISM), the Capicu Poetry Group, BlogCritics, and the AfroSpear.”

Dream Deferred, MLK Day 2014: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem.”

As a poem of social consciousness, “Harlem” may often be reduced to literary analysis or an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance; as schools become more and more focused on the Common Core and raising scores on the related next-generation tests, the poem is likely to be (if at all) just one more text for close reading practice.

But on MLK Day in 2014, “Harlem” remains a powerful and necessary question—and a disturbing harbinger, as Hughes answers his opening question with more questions:

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?

In her “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich explores a personal and social wreck, confronting “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” She concludes with a recognition that echoes a recurring theme found in Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and countless artists aware of otherness, invisibility:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The history students have been and are currently taught remains a controlled, if not contrived, story; where once many “names [did] not appear”—names of African Americans, names of women, names of anyone from the “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—now students are presented with a version of names that serves to keep Hughes’s question in “Harlem” relevant, not only as a dream deferred, but also as a dream ignored.

Students will certainly discuss King in these days around his birthday and holiday; and students will likely, as noted above, be lead through “I Have a Dream” as a text ripe for close reading, possibly also analyzing “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for its technical precision but not its call for civil disobedience in the face of inequity.

Few students will be asked to look behind the official view of King as the passive radical, a masking narrative used to control whose name is allowed into the “book of myths” as well as how students are allowed to see those names—a pattern repeated in the life and death of Nelson Mandela:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

Education, in this era in which the dream is ignored, you see, is about rigor, “no excuses,” and (above all else) raising test scores—as our leaders chastise us about why the U.S. pales in comparison to the rest of the world: “We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.”

Education is not about raising fists:

If education were about raising fists—a social contract with a people’s children that every person matters, that every voice has equal volume, that equity of opportunity is the essential element of human dignity—MLK Day would include the King of The Triumph of Conscience, read for his messages and calls to action and not as a close reading activity.

If education were about raising fists, names would be added to the “book of myths,” no longer ignoring the echo of James Baldwin‘s power during the Civil Rights movement that tends to be reduced to repeatedly published images of King walking arm in arm with white men to his left and right:

But education in the U.S. is not about raising fists, and the great disturbing irony is that political leaders who are shaming the people of this country for talking the talk, but not walking the walk are themselves masters of only talking the talk.

On this MLK Day 2014, then, there remains much of King unexplored, and the days and weeks around his birthday and holiday are ideal for reading and listening to King with both reverence for his sacrifices and seeking ways in which to fulfill the dream.

But we must move beyond the ceremonial, and we must expand the “book of myths.”

And we must raise Hughes’s existential questions along with asking the truly hard questions about mass incarceration and in-school academic and discipline policies that are destroying the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young African American men week after week after week.

Where are the voices and where is the political will, we must ask, that will confront that white males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but that African American males outnumber white males about 5 to 1 in our prison system—an incarceration machine that dwarfs prison systems in countries against which political leaders use to shame the U.S. public.

In 2004, Rich called for including Baldwin in the “book of myths,” highlighting his words from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’”:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Let’s place before our students, then, King metaphorically arm in arm with Baldwin—the King of The Triumph of Conscience, decrying the tragedy of Vietnam and the failure of enormous wealth turning a blind eye to inexcusable poverty, and the confrontational Baldwin, like Hughes, offering words that remain relevant today:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

“The truth is” what will set you free.

“The truth is,” we can’t handle the truth, and “[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

References

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

The Triumph of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

Our freedom was not won a century ago, it is not won today; but some small part of it is in our hands, and we are marching no longer by ones and twos but in legions of thousands, convinced now it cannot be denied by any human force. (p. 4)

 

Ending Poverty Requires Community, Not War

Many, if not most, wars have failed to salvage victory from the inherent destruction war brings.

All wars leave collateral damage in their wake.

A big picture message offered in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the war on drugs, a key part of the larger era of mass incarceration, has devastated the lives and futures of African American males in ways that are nearly incomprehensible. That collateral damage, as well, has been disproportional—accentuated by the fact that AA and whites use illegal drugs in the same percentages but AA shoulder the burden of punishment.

The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs are evidence of the nightmare of codifying behavior as illegal as a context for punishment. Is it possible that the legalizing of marijuana in Colorado represents a move away from the “war” approach to recreational drugs—a recognition, again, almost a century after the failure of prohibition?

Laws and wars, then, define the lines between combatants and the conditions of criminality; those lines and conditions, easily shifted, determine who matters, and who does not.

As the public discourse rises about the 50th anniversary on the war on poverty, we are being asked if the war on poverty worked and if we need a new war on poverty. These are the wrong questions, especially the latter.

In my work on ignoring poverty in the U.S., I raise the possibility that contemporary political strategies surrounding poverty include the paradox of constantly mentioning and highlighting poverty in order to ignore it. Over the past decades, “poverty” is repeatedly on the lips of political leaders and in the pronouncements of the mainstream and “new” media.

Yet, childhood poverty in the U.S. continues to rise, that childhood rate remains at the bottom of international comparisons, and the gap between the top 1% and everyone else in the U.S. grows.

Has the war on poverty worked? No.

But the problem with that one-word answer is that despite abundant evidence that some social programs do alleviate poverty (prompting many to say the war on poverty has worked as an argument for more and direct social intervention), the failure is that we have been conducting a war.

Ending poverty in the U.S. requires community, not war.

If we as a people genuinely wish to end poverty, genuinely believe in equity for every human regardless of her/his coincidences of birth, we must first set aside the war approach (as we must with the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration).

That first step must then create a spirit of community that ends what truly was occurring during the war on poverty—a war on the people trapped in poverty.

Behind the political rhetoric of the war on poverty lies a cultural myth in the U.S. that individuals are to blame for their lot—that somehow those people with the least (and sometimes no) political capital are causing the exact forces that trap them.

A commitment to community over war acknowledges, as Kristof does, basic political facts:

The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.

In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.

I don’t want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I’d say it’s more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that’s because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.

The war on poverty fails as long as it remains a war, and not a moral imperative among a community of people.

Ending poverty must no longer be trivialized, then, as political expediency—the consequences of creating through state and federal policy a war on poverty. That approach can become only a running tally of manufactured winners and losers.

While any are in poverty, everyone is a loser.

As we end the war on poverty as our primary approach, as we end the war on people trapped in poverty by no longer blaming them for their situations or for the broader facts of poverty and inequity, and as we commit instead to community and the moral imperative of ending poverty, we must also end the empty claim that schools primarily or alone can eradicate poverty—a jumbled message advocated within a larger commitment to “big business.”

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to acknowledge the collateral damage—the stereotype of the welfare queen, that misrepresents people living in poverty but reflects the classism and racism tarnishing our democracy, shredding the fabric of human kindness and dignity.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to name and see the very real consequences of addressing poverty mainly as it impacts those with political, cultural, and economic capital; ending childhood poverty through direct social commitments, then, is an announcement that poverty and inequity are inexcusable in a free society, and not merely a partisan political talking point.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must admit that mass incarceration and accountability-based education reform contribute to and do not address the plight of poverty. An end to the punitive war on poverty must be joined with ending equally flawed approaches to punitive legal and educational policies.

As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must push aside the passive radical mask we use to honor a Martin Luther King Jr. facade allowing that war on poverty to exist; instead, we must champion the radical anti-war King, whose messages near the end of his life called for a direct end to poverty:

In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

  • lack of education restricting job opportunities;
  • poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;
  • fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development.

  • Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.
  • Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions.
  • Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.

At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.

In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.

I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

A war on poverty is an indirect and piecemeal approach to poverty. As King implored, we need a direct plan to end poverty, requiring a new commitment to community and an end to social policies as war.

Mandela: Dishonored by Passive Radical Myth

Early in February 1990, my daughter, born March 11, 1989, spent an entire night vomiting. My wife and I were new parents, and we called our pediatrician multiple times, always urged to be patient and wait it out. By the morning, we were in the emergency room, followed by our tiny child, a month shy of a year old, being admitted to the hospital.

After a few sleepless days for my wife and me, my daughter was released from the hospital on February 11, 1990, the day she was eleven months old and the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

I think that I will never forget the moment that remains in my memory when I stood in the hospital room holding  my frail, beautiful child, watching on the TV the news coverage of Mandela’s release. There were personal and political promises of relief and hope in that coincidence, that intersection of history and my own life that filled my heart in a way that is beyond words.

Mandela’s death now overlaps with my daughter in that she is carrying her first child and has begun to live a life that offers challenges and hope in ways than Mandela’s legacy speaks to for me, but I also must pause my hope because, as Mike Klonsky (@mikeklonsky) posted to Twitter: “They’re turning Mandela into a harmless icon.”

NBC reports, Nelson Mandela’s death: World mourns ‘hero,’ ‘icon,’ ‘father’—with a reductive paragraph near the end:

Mandela spent 27 years in prison and led his country to democracy. Though he was in power for only five years as his country’s first black president, his moral influence earned him the praise and respect of people all over the world.

And as Klonsky anticipates, an annual ritual will now follow, reducing Mandela like Martin Luther King Jr. to the passive radical myth.

Passive Radicals: The Manufactured Myth [1]

With the annual and somewhat functional recognition of certain versions of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. behind us in 2013, let me ask this: What do Jesus, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and King have in common?

I admit the answers could be many: Significant historical voices and lives, shared messages of peace and harmony, tragic assassinations, and more.

And while these are all credible answers, I suggest the most important commonality among Jesus, Gandhi, and King is how their legacies have been manipulated by the privileged in order to create a mythology of the passive radical.

Consider Jose Vilson’s framing of how King serves other people’s purposes:

For some revisionists, MLK Jr. was either one of two things: a staunch conservative who lived patriotically, owned guns, and worked towards self-help, or he was a such a commercial pacifist whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment. Then, there are those who, after having recognized MLK’s full history, still want to use his name for things he would never entertain, like breaking unions and limiting opportunity to a full education to only the “good” kids, whatever that means.

It is at Vilson’s second point—framing radicals as “commercial pacifist[s] whose message for peace followed every rule in the book and posed no real threat to the establishment”—I want to pause for a moment.

Passive Radicals?

My journey to critical consciousness may very well be anchored in my confrontation as a child and teen with the Hollywood portrayals of Jesus common at mid-twentieth century. I shared a revelation found in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in a letter from Nettie, in Africa, to Celie:

All the Ethiopians in the bible were colored. It had never occurred to me, though when you read the bible it is perfectly plain if you pay attention only to the words. It is the pictures in the bible that fool you. The pictures that illustrate the words. All of the people are white and so you just think all the people from the bible were white too. But really white white people lived somewhere else during those times. That’s why the bible says that Jesus Christ had hair like lamb’s wool. Lamb’s wool is not straight, Celie. It isn’t even curly. (pp. 140-141)

Just as the church and Western culture created a mythology of Jesus as white, the Hollywood versions of my youth clearly established Jesus as passive, meek, exactly as Vilson characterizes one version of King—”no real threat to the establishment.”Many years later, I included the film Gandhi in a unit that explored Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, King (about whom all students know only “I Have a Dream”), and Malcolm X (a figure students had either never examined or had been taught he was a negative figure in history). That film portrayal of Gandhi perpetuated the passive radical myth in Gandhi through a British actor, able only to mask the whiteness but not abandon it entirely.

The life and work of activist and historian Howard Zinn has catalogued and confronted what Nettie learns in Africa: Those in power who control the images and the narrative use those images and narratives to feed their privilege.

The passive radical myth allows the privileged in the U.S. to wield the mask of praise to hide their self-interests.

Jesus, Gandhi, and King are reduced to cartoons, single-dimensioned, almost entirely upon a middle-class and white norm of “articulate.”

In school (including Sunday school in churches), children are led in close analysis of the rhetorical power of their words, keeping the gaze almost entirely on the mechanics and notthe reasons why those words were needed, the consequences of what those words did and could incite.

As Nettie discovers, however, if anyone looks carefully, even at the words that the passive radical myth uses to honor rhetoric over action, the truth is right there before us.

Even in the reductive film, Gandhi challenges the term “passive resistance” and prefers “civil disobedience.” And many Jesus scholars note Jesus overturning the tax collectors’ tables may best reflect the radical Jesus.

For America, the mythology of King, the distorted mythology of King as passive radical, must be confronted and dismantled if any of the promises King envisioned can become reality. As Zinn notes,

Martin Luther King himself became more and more concerned about problems untouched by civil rights laws—problems coming out of poverty. In the spring of 1968, he began speaking out, against the advice of some Negro leaders who feared losing friends in Washington, against the war in Vietnam. He connected war and poverty….King was turning his attention to troublesome questions….And so, nonviolence, he said, “must be militant, massive nonviolence.” (pp. 205-206)

Like Nettie, we must look carefully at the words, and not be distracted by the fabricated images, the narratives creating the manufactured myth of the passive radical. King, especially in his last days, offered words that refute that myth:

These are revolutionary times; all over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression….We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of Communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch-antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit. Therefore, Communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. (“Conscience and the Vietnam War,” in The Trumpet of Conscience)

These words of a genuine radical ring true today, but are unlikely to be read in a classroom or quoted from a political stump, or echoed in the pulpits of any church. Nettie’s revelation about Jesus leads to her own blossoming self-awareness: “We are not white. We are not Europeans. We are black like the Africans themselves. And that we and the Africans will be working for a common goal: the uplift of black people everywhere” (p. 143).

Knowledge is the fuel of the liberatory impulse, and thus, it is in the interests of the privileged to manufacture characters and narratives of the passive radical in order to maintain the imbalance of equity that enslaves the promise of democracy in “proneness to adjust to injustice.”

King’s embracing unionization, direct eradication of poverty, minimum salaries, the eradication of permanent war, and the insidious racism maintaining the historical divisions between impoverished whites and blacks will not be allowed in that myth since the voice of a true radical is also the voice raised to lead to action.

[1] Originally posted January 22, 2013, at Daily Kos.

Ali: “You must listen to me”

1972

James Baldwin declared in his No Name in the Street:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) [1]

George Carlin opened one of his best routines singing Muhammad Ali’s name as part of his album Class Clown (“Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful”), explaining about Ali’s exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam:

He said, “No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ‘em up, but I don’t want to kill ‘em.” And the government said, “Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ‘em up.”

1967-1970

From March 1967 to October 1970, Muhammad Ali lived in America the Beautiful, not as a free man, but as the embodiment of Baldwin’s declaration in 1972. Ali as African American and Black Muslim was trapped between the rule of law and his own code of ethics—which he explained as alternatives:

I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative: and that alternative is justice.

This Ali in a suit and tie behind a microphone, glancing down to read from his prepared statement, stood in stark contrast to the Ali draped in a towel and swarmed in the boxing ring where he declared, “I shook up the world!”

1968

John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood, fists raised at the Summer Olympics:

black-power-salute-ap6810160546-ga

Ali sat for an interview:

Black people actually’ve been in jail for 400 years, we’ve been here in America….They can’t believe that I’m this strong. They thought they would weaken me and put fear in me by threatening to go to jail and taking my earning power. And they won’t let me work in America…

2013

My colleague, Scott Henderson, and I are currently editing a volume on James Baldwin, and during the review of the draft chapters for the collection, I began to see ads for a film about Muhammad Ali produced by HBO, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. The ads called to me in the same way I am always moved when I hear Carlin singing Ali’s name: “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, it’s a nice musical name, Muhammad Ali.”

So I found myself watching the HBO film, at first not yet clear if it was a documentary (my hope) or a fictional film; I was certain I wasn’t interested in watching someone portray Ali. I wanted Ali.

And there he was, Muhammad Ali, archival footage to open the film, and then, despite the film focusing on the Supreme Court and the all-white crew of young men working at the Court, Ali appears throughout the story again and again. The real Ali—each time I could not stop myself from smiling at his bravado and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee outside the boxing ring.

But there is a subtext to this film focusing on the Supreme Court dominated by old white men. There is a subtext in 2013 about why now—why now is Ali’s fight with the government about his refusal to fight in Vietnam being recognized and validated?

Ali, once again, is pushed to the background in the HBO film, a work that becomes in many ways a layered narrative of privilegewhite privilege and male privilege.

Some of those layers can be found in the book that provides the basis for HBO’s film.

Some of those layers can be found in the documentary that doesn’t appear to share the privileged status of an HBO production: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

ali_v01_11x17

Privilege is a closed space.

That space is behind a wall that provides the privileged their perch of authority as well as a walling out those Others.

Ali, Carlos, Smith, and Malcolm X lived outside the wall, and still remain under the gaze of privilege—to be acknowledged and explained when the time is right, when those with privilege see fit.

Ali remains mostly cartoon in America, reduced to his athletic bravado (“I am the Greatest!”) in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. is tolerated as a passive radical, but not as the voice of protest and action that complimented Ali’s anti-war convictions:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

1933

Carter Godwin Woodson confronted The Mis-education of the Negro:

[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) [2]

1963

Baldwin asked, “Who is the nigger?”:

1966

And then Baldwin wrote in The Nation:

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….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. 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. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Privilege is a spider’s web.

Where is the space for Ali to speak for Ali? When will that space exist, and how?

I agree with Carlin that there is music in Ali’s name, but the song remains bittersweet—too hard to swallow in 2013.

I cannot disentangle the web of history that remains attached to all of us, regardless of how hard we try to pull the invisible strings from our faces, our clothes, and our skin.

That web we cannot free ourselves from is privilege—and privilege demands only two alternatives.

But as Ali explained, there is a third alternative and “that alternative is justice.”

It is time, we must listen to Ali.

[1] Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.

[2] Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

—–

For Further Viewing and Reading

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin (1966)

Knocked the Hell Out by ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’, David Zirin

The Trials of Muhammad Ali