Ralph Ellison, a Century: From Unseen to Misseen

With his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s narrator announced on the first page: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Ralph Ellison – March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994

And with this novel, the ironies become so layered that “irony” likely isn’t sufficient.

Many see only Invisible Man when they hear Ellison’s name. And Ellison’s entry into the exclusive and mostly white and male world of the American literature canon is not without controversy since that entry has much to do with modernist (and thus a certain type of traditional, a certain level of normative) expectations for what makes literature high-quality.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

As Ellison was being embraced by the mainstream world of literary fiction at mid-twentieth century, he was also creating tensions among the more left-leaning African American arts and civil rights movement—especially among the radicals.

Now at one hundred years since Ellison’s birth and more than fifty years since Invisible Man was published, the rich paradox of the invisible black man in the U.S. at mid-twentieth century must be viewed through the lens of Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations.

And the more recent trials surrounding the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis as well as the controversies surrounding Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart.

Ellison’s invisible man recognized that mainstream (and white) America refused to see him, but African American males in the second decade of the twenty-first century are now faced with another reality of being misseen as “thugs”—criminals by their very existence.

African American males know this reality of being misseen as soon as they enter school.

Maybe one hundred years after Ellison’s birth, we have in the U.S. moved away from refusing to see African Americans, but I fear that our gained sight is not what Ellison envisioned.

There is much still to be mined in the words of Ellison, and on the occasion of his 100th birthday, I offer some places to read—and urge that we all use such occasions to close our eyes in order to open them anew and to re-vision the world.

For Further Reading

Books

Thomas, P.L. (2008). Reading, learning, teaching Ralph Ellison. New York: Peter Lang USA.

Ralph Ellison: An American Journey (PBS)

Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8 (The Paris Review)

Ellison at 100

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

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

Education: The Invisible Profession

“What These Children Are Like,” Ralph Ellison

The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (Modern Library Classics)

A Historical Guide to Ralph Ellison (Historical Guides to American Authors), Steven C. Tracy  (Editor)

The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison (Cambridge Companions to Literature), Ross Posnock (Editor)

Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Lawrence Jackson

Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad

“What These Children Are Like”: Rejecting Deficit Views of Poverty and Language

“I am an invisible man,” begins Ralph Ellison‘s enduring modern classic Invisible Man, which transforms a science fiction standard into a metaphor for the African American condition in the U.S.

Less recognized, however, is Ellison’s extensive non-fiction work, including a lecture from 1963 at a seminar for teachers—“What These Children Are Like.”

More than 50 years ago, Ellison was asked to speak about “‘these children,’ the difficult thirty percent,” the disproportionate challenges facing African American children in U.S. schools. Ellison’s discussion of language among African Americans, especially in the South, offers a powerful rejection of enduring cultural and racial stereotypes:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church….

But how can we keep the daring and resourcefulness which we often find among the dropouts? I ask this as one whose work depends upon the freshness of language. How can we keep the discord flowing into the mainstream of the language without destroying it? One of the characteristics of a healthy society is its ability to rationalize and contain social chaos. It is the steady filtering of diverse types and cultural influences that keeps us a healthy and growing nation. The American language is a great instrument for poets and novelists precisely because it could absorb the contributions of those Negroes back there saying “dese” and “dose” and forcing the language to sound and bend under the pressure of their need to express their sense of the real. The damage done to formal grammar is frightful, but it isn’t absolutely bad, for here is one of the streams of verbal richness….

I’m fascinated by this whole question of language because when you get people who come from a Southern background, where language is manipulated with great skill and verve, and who upon coming north become inarticulate, then you know that the proper function of language is being frustrated.

The great body of Negro slang–that unorthodox language–exists precisely because Negroes need words which will communicate, which will designate the objects, processes, manners and subtleties of their urban experience with the least amount of distortion from the outside. So the problem is, once again, what do we choose and what do we reject of that which the greater society makes available? These kids with whom we’re concerned, these dropouts, are living critics of their environment, of our society and our educational system, and they are quite savage critics of some of their teachers.

What Ellison is rejecting is a deficit view of language as well as a deficit view of people living in poverty that blurs with racial prejudices. This deficit view is not some remnant of history, however; in fact, a deficit view of language and impoverished people is one of the most resilient and often repeated claims among a wide range of political and educational ideologies [1].

For example, Robert Pondiscio notes in a post for Bridging Differences:

We know that low-SES kids tend to come to school with smaller vocabularies and less ‘schema’ than affluent kids, and both of these are correlated with (and probably caused by) poverty. Low-SES kids have heard far fewer words and enjoyed few to no opportunities for enrichment.

When I posted a challenge to this deficit view, Labor Lawyer added this comment:

How about the seminal research outlined in Hart & Risley’s “Meaningful Differences”? Their research showed that there were significant differences in how low-SES parents and high-SES parents verbally interacted with their children + that the low-SES parents’ interactions were generically inferior, not just reflective of different vocabularies. The low-SES parents spoke less often to their children, used fewer words, used fewer different words, initiated fewer interactions, responded less frequently to the child’s attempt to initiate an interaction, used fewer encouraging words, and used more prohibitive words.

Two important points must be addressed about deficit views of language among impoverished people: (1) Ellison’s argument against a deficit view from 1963 is strongly supported by linguists, anthropologists, and sociologists, but (2) the flawed Hart and Risley study remains compelling, not because the research is credible (it isn’t), but because their claims match cultural assumptions about race and class, assumptions that are rooted in prejudices and stereotypes.

One powerful example of the popularity of a deficit view of language and poverty is the success of Ruby Payne’s framework of poverty books and teacher training workshops—despite a strong body of research refuting her claims and despite her entire framework lacking any credible research [2].

To understand the problems associated with deficit views of language and poverty, the Hart and Risley study from 1995 must be examined critically, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas published in 2009 [3].

Hart and Risley: Six African American Families on Welfare in Kansas City

Dudley-Marling and Lucas reject the deficit view of poverty and language, calling instead for an asset view. They note that deficit views place an accusatory gaze on impoverished parents, and thus, blaming those parents reinforces stereotypes of people in poverty and allows more credible sources of disproportionate failure by students in poverty and minority students to be ignored.

Since the political, social, and educational embracing of deficit views is commonly justified by citing Hart and Risley (1995) [4], Dudley-Marling and Lucas carefully detail what the study entails and how the claims made by Hart and Risley lack credibility.

First, Hart and Risley

studied the language interactions of parents and children in the homes of 13 upper-SES (1 Black, 12 White), 10 middle-SES (3 Black, 7 White), 13 lower-SES (7 Black, 6 White), and 6 welfare (all Black) families, all from Kansas City. Families were observed for one hour each month over a period of 2 1/2 years, beginning when children were 7–9 months old. (p. 363)

Dudley-Marling and Lucas stress:

What is particularly striking about Hart and Risley’s data analysis is their willingness to make strong, evaluative claims about the quality of the language parents directed to their children….

Many educational researchers and policy makers have generalized the findings about the language and culture of the 6 welfare families in Hart and Risley’s study to all poor families. Yet, Hart and Risley offer no compelling reason to believe that the poor families they studied have much in common with poor families in other communities, or even in Kansas City for that matter. The primary selection criterion for participation in this study was socioeconomic status; therefore, all the 6 welfare families had in common was income, a willingness to participate in the study, race (all the welfare families were Black), and geography (all lived in the Kansas City area). (pp. 363, 364)

In other words, Hart and Risley make causational claims based on a very limited sample, and those claims are widely embraced because they speak to the dominant culture’s assumptions about race and class, but not because the study’s data or claims are valid. Dudley-Marling and Lucas explain:

Conflating correlation with causation in this way illustrates the “magical thinking” that emerges when researchers separate theory from method (Bloome et al., 2005). Hart and Risley make causal claims based on the co-occurrence of linguistic and academic variables, but what’s missing is an interpretive (theoretical) framework for articulating the relationship between their data and their claims….

The discourse of “scientifically based research,” which equates the scientific method with technique, has led to a body of research that is resistant to meaningful (theoretical) critique. Hart and Risley’s conclusions about the language practices of families living in poverty, for example, are emblematic of a discourse of language deprivation that “seems impervious to counter evidence, stubbornly aligning itself with powerful negative stereotypes of poor and working-class families. It remains the dominant discourse in many arenas, both academic and popular, making it very difficult to see working-class language for what it is . . . or to be heard to be offering a different perspective.” (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005b, p. 153)…

[T]hey are establishing a norm thoroughly biased in favor of middle- and upper-middle-class children. This common-sense rendering of the data pathologizes the language and culture of poor families, reflecting harmful, long-standing stereotypes that hold the poor primarily responsible for their economic and academic struggles (Nunberg, 2002). (p. 367)

The accusatory blame, then, focusing on impoverished parents is a powerful and detrimental consequence of deficit views of poverty and language, as Dudley-Marling and Lucas add:

Blaming the poor for their poverty in this way leaves no reason to consider alternative, systemic explanations for poverty or school failure. There is, for example, no reason to wonder how impoverished curricula (Gee, 2004; Kozol, 2005; Oakes, 2006), under-resourced schools (Kozol, 1992), and an insufficiency of “high-quality” teachers in high-poverty schools (Olson, 2006) limit the academic performance of many poor students. Nor is there any reason to consider how the conditions of poverty affect children’s physical, emotional, and neurological development and day-to-day performance in school (Books, 2004; Rothstein, 2004). Recent research in neuroscience, for example, indicates that the stresses of living in poverty can impair children’s brain development (Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007). But most Americans do not easily embrace systemic explanations for academic failure. In our highly individualistic, meritocratic society, it is generally assumed that academic underachievement is evidence of personal failure (Mills, 1959). (p. 367)

That deficit views of language and poverty remain compelling is yet another example of a research base being discounted because cultural beliefs offer pacifying blinders:

Rolstad (2004) laments that “linguistically baseless language prejudices often underlie [even] well-designed, well-conducted studies” (p. 5). Linguistic research conducted within theoretical and anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics that demonstrates the language strengths of children from non-dominant groups “has had virtually no impact on language-related research elsewhere” (Rolstad, 2004, p. 5). The deficit-based research of Hart and Risley, with all of its methodological and theoretical shortcomings, has been more persuasive than linguistic research that considers the language of poor families on its own terms (e.g., Labov, 1970; Heath, 1983; Michaels, 1981; Gee; 1996; see also Michaels, 2005), perhaps because Hart and Risley’s findings comport with long-standing prejudices about the language of people living in poverty (Nunberg, 2002). (pp. 367-368)

Continuing, then, to cherry-pick one significantly flawed study in order to confirm cultural stereotypes reveals far more about society and education in the U.S. than it does about children living and learning in poverty.

Despite many well-meaning educators embracing this deficit view as well as Hart and Risley’s flawed study, seeking to help students from impoverished backgrounds acquire the cultural capital associated with the dominant grammar, usage, and vocabulary is actually inhibited by that deficit view:

Finally, Hart and Risley draw attention to a real problem that teachers encounter every day in their classrooms: children enter school with more or less of the linguistic, social, and cultural capital required for school success. However, we take exception to the characterization of this situation in terms of linguistic or cultural deficiencies. Through the lens of deficit thinking, linguistic differences among poor parents and children are transformed into deficiencies that are the cause of high levels of academic failure among poor children. In this formulation, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies with parents who pass on to their children inadequate language and flawed culture. But, in our view, the language differences Hart and Risley reported are just that—differences. All children come to school with extraordinary linguistic, cultural, and intellectual resources, just not the same resources. (p. 369)

A larger point we must confront as well is that all efforts to describe and address any social class as monolithic is flawed: Neither all affluent nor all impoverished children are easily described by what they have and don’t have. In fact, social classifications and claims about a culture of poverty are equally problematic as deficit views of poverty and language [5].

Just as Ellison confronted, U.S. society and schools remain places where minority and impoverished children too often fail. Much is left to be done to correct those inequities—both in society and in our schools—but blaming impoverished and minority parents as well as seeing impoverished and minority children (no longer invisible) as deficient stereotypes behind a false justification of research has never been and is not now the path we should take.

“I don’t know what intelligence is,” concludes Ellison in his lecture:

But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Continuing to embrace a deficit view of poverty and language is to embrace a desert that will never bear fruit.

[1] The source of this blog post is a comment on a post at Education Week, but deficit views of language by social class, notably the standard claim that children in poverty speak fewer words than children in middle-class and affluent homes, are common and not unique to the blog post identified here.

[2] Please see this bibliography of scholarship discrediting Payne’s framework. See also:

Thomas, P.L. (2010, July). The Payne of addressing race and poverty in public education: Utopian accountability and deficit assumptions of middle class AmericaSouls, 12(3), 262-283.

[3] See Dudley-Marling, C., & Lucas, K. (2009, May).Pathologizing the language and culture of poor children.Language Arts, 86(5), 362-370.

[4] Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.

[5] Please consider the following works in order to confront a wide range of problems associated with class and poverty:

Return of the Deficit, Curt Dudley-Marling

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski

Poor Teaching for Poor Children … in the Name of Reform, Alfie Kohn

The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman

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 

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

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.

Trayvon Martin was killed 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 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.”

I am also compelled to speak beyond Trayvon, about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” Others, African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the US 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 are too often results in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration over the past thirty-plus years.

Just as Wright’s and Ellison’s fiction captures the African American male experience at mid-twentieth century, continuing to speak to the complex and 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—African American males remain ominous and powerful messages in 2013.

In 1963, Ellison 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.

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized as insufficient language skills):

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

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”:

As we approach the dropouts, let us identify who we are and where we are. Let us also have a little bit of respect for what we were and from whence we came. There is a bit of the phony built into every American. This is inevitable in a conscious society that has developed as swiftly as ours has. We are faced with endless possibilities for change, for metamorphosis. We change our environment, our speech, our styles of living, our dress, and often our values. So, in effect, we become somebody else–or so we are tempted to believe–and often we act as though we have no connection with our past. We are all tempted to become actors, and when we forget who we are and where we are from, our phony selves take command.

Finally, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored:

I don’t know what intelligence is. But this I do know, both from life and from literature: whenever you reduce human life to two plus two equals four, the human element within the human animal says, “I don’t give a damn.” You can work on that basis, but the kids cannot. If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society, then I will not only drop my defenses and my hostility, but I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.

Baldwin 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.”

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children:

Now, if what I have tried to sketch has any validity, it becomes thoroughly clear, at least to me, that any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.  He is assumed by the republic that he, his father, his mother, and his ancestors were happy, shiftless, watermelon-eating darkies who loved Mr. Charlie and Miss Ann, that the value he has as a black man is proven by one thing only – his devotion to white people.  If you think I am exaggerating, examine the myths which proliferate in this country about Negroes….

The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were, indeed, animals and deserved  to be treated like animals.  Therefor it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.

Ultimately, education, for Baldwin, is revolutionary, an act of social justice:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them -  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.  And that one of his weapons for refusing to make his peace with it and for destroying it depends on what he decides he is worth.  I would teach him that there are currently very few standards in this country which are worth a man’s respect.

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 shooting has beneath the 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: I Walk Freely among Racism

When Jose Vilson posts a blog, I read carefully, and I don’t multitask.

Why?

I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire 52 years in the South where racism clings to our 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 Jose 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.”

I learned, painfully and too slowly, I regret to admit, to read and listen to Jose as I do with Charles Blow and 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 a book project I co-edit.

I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people and 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, that the most beautiful humans, the greatest reasons to live on this planet are children of every possible shade—red and yellow, black and white children 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 any race of people

America the Beautiful created a criminal class out of African America men, building a new Jim Crow 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 school houses imprisoning urban communities.

And 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, as James Baldwin, in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted as an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” 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….”

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.”

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.”

Today, the racism is thinly masked, and only the adults refuse to see it.

However, “the children do notice.”

In 1853, Frederick Douglass [1] 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.”

Douglass’s charges remain in Baldwin’s “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.”

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, don’t incarcerate young black men, 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, we will not unmask it, and ultimately, the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and James (“Jimmy” of the allusion-as-blog-title) 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.

I may have no real right to these words as a privileged, white male, but I offer them, as I stated above, because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Jose, refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.”

And as Baldwin referenced: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”—and we all must hear what everyone else says, the words they choose, never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love,

Paul

[1] The passage below is cited by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow.

Education: The Invisible Profession

“I am an invisible man,” announces the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, adding:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, of 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….you 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.

After the reader follows the narrator along his journey from naivete and idealism to the battered realism of coming face-to-face with his invisibility, we discover that his invisibility leads to hibernation:

I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole—or showed me the hole I was in….So I took to the cellar; I hibernated. I got away from it all. But that wasn’t enough. I couldn’t be still even in hibernation.

Invisibility and hibernation represent well the education profession because educators are more and more rendered invisible and as a result have hibernated, literally in their rooms (shut the door and teach) and figuratively in their muted voices (teachers are to be objective, neutral, apolitical).

While the main elements of the current education reform movement—expanding charter schools, implementing and testing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Teach for America (TFA), value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation, merit pay—have created a significant amount of political and public debate (debates that by their very nature lend credibility to all of these reform policies), absent from that debate has been an essential message about the field of education: All of these education reform policies suggest that no field of education even exists.

Two powerful and persistent responses from the new reform advocates when anyone (especially an educator) challenges their reform agendas include (a) teachers are against reform and want the status quo, and (b) while teachers are quick to criticize X reform policy, they never offer any solutions of their own.

These responses are not accurate (most educators are reformers at heart, and educators, thus, have many things to offer in terms of better reform agendas), but most of all they exist in a narrative that renders the entire field of education invisible.

Modern education as a field of study is over a century old. A great deal of consensus and enduring debates characterize teacher education, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher evaluation, and assessment—all rich and vibrant elements of the larger field of education, informed by decades of practitioners and educational researchers.

My doctoral work included writing a biography of Lou LaBrant, who lived to be 102 and taught from 1906-1971. Recurring messages of LaBrant’s work as a teacher and scholar reveal an ignored fact of the teaching profession: Education in the U.S. has been primarily driven by political and bureaucratic mandates that have reduced teachers to implementing education policy, not creating it.

The most recent thirty years have intensified that legacy that reaches back to at least the first decade of the twentieth century, but was identified by LaBrant (1947) directly: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

In effect, then, for a century, teachers have been invisible in their own field, except as both compliant workers implementing political and bureaucratic mandates and as often-silent scapegoats as that bureaucracy fails.

However, even that teachers have primarily been those who implement education policy instead of those creating it is more complicated than it seems.

Regie Routman documented the typical dysfunction that characterizes education policy. By the 1990s, California’s state literacy curriculum was being labeled a failure by politicians, the media, and the public; the culprit was whole language.

Yet, Routman unmasked the charges as misleading because of two factors: (1) Much of the measurable decline in California test scores was strongly correlated with decreased education funding and an influx of English language learners, and (2) while teachers received extensive in-service for implementing whole language, the vast majority of the teachers returned to their classes, shut their doors (hibernated), and taught as they had been taught, as they had always taught—thus, never implementing the whole language pedagogy and curriculum that constituted the official bureaucracy of the state.

The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles.

As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.

Just as teenagers seek out self-defeating ways to appear adult (cigarettes, alcohol, recreational drugs, sex) as expressions of their autonomy and agency, invisible workers of all kinds respond in dysfunctional ways when their autonomy is denied and their voices muted—just as Routman detailed about California during the rise and fall of whole language.

CCSS, charter schools, TFA, VAM, and merit pay plans are driven by advocates who refuse to see not only teachers but also the entire history and field of education, or as Arundhati Roy explains, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

If teacher quality is a genuine problem in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for teacher preparation, teacher evaluation, and compensation.

If curriculum and pedagogy are genuine problems in U.S. public education, we already have a knowledge base for curriculum and pedagogy.

Let’s allow for the first time in history educators the recognition they deserve to examine, evaluate, and reform their own field. Current reform that is top-down and driven by the same historical and bureaucratic methods that have brought us to where we now stand is destined to repeat the same patterns we have already experienced for over 100 years.

But educators must step outside the social norm of apolitical, silent, hibernating teachers. Educators must confront our invisibility, but most of all, our culpability in our own de-professionalization, our hibernation, as Ellison’s narrator recognizes:

Even hibernations can be overdone, come to think of it. Perhaps that’s my greatest social crime, I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.

LaBrant, L. (1947, January). Research in languageElementary English, 24(1), 86-94.

MLK Day Readings [updated]

“The Drum Major Instinct,” Martin Luther King Jr. [AUDIO]

“Final Words of Advice,” “Where Do We Go From Here?” — Martin Luther King Jr.

“The MLK Imperative in an Era of ‘No Excuses’” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Censored

“‘They’re All Our Children’” — P. L. Thomas @ AlterNet

“The Polonius Chronicles: The Invisible Hand and the King Imperative” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Censored

“Organizations, No, Community, Yes: MLK Jr. Day 2012” — P. L. Thomas @ Daily Kos

“21st Century Segregation: Inverting King’s Dream” — P. L. Thomas @ Truthout

“Diversity and the Rise of Majority-Minority Schools” — P. L. Thomas @ Truthout

James Baldwin on Education (video)

“What These Children Are Like” — Ralph Ellison

“A Talk to Teachers” — James Baldwin