Rejecting Cultural Literacy for Culturally Relevant: From Baldwin to Cole, “the custodian of a black body”

…to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Haunting the American character still is a fact confronted early in Teju Cole’s Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (originally published in The New Yorker 19 August 2014 but also opening Cole’s Known and Strange Things): that Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Coltrane are all “people who could still be with us.”

Living, Cole means—because, of course, they remain with us in ways that are both beautiful and disturbing.

Retracing Baldwin’s time in Switzerland and his essay spawned from that visit, Cole recognizes Baldwin was “depressed and distracted” during his trip in the 1950s—in part due to the “absurdity” of being a stranger during his travels as well as alienated in his home city of New York through the fact of the manufactured concept of race.

Cole experiences a “body-double moment” that emphasizes a physical self-consciousness of being black and male; being “like [Baldwin],” Cole catalogues insecurities of the flesh, building to:

and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.

This racialized and genderized self-consciousness, Cole details, is cultivated in being surveilled; “glances,” in Cole’s diction, but commonly identified as the “gaze,” whether the white gaze or the male gaze.

“To be a stranger is to be looked at,” Cole explains, “but to be black is to be looked at especially.” Hard, Cole means, as in the perpetual policing of the black body.

Cole’s “custodian” echoes Baldwin’s witnessing—bound as the two men are by what Baldwin captures in “‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.'”

The black body and the American character—both Baldwin and Cole demand—are inextricable. But for Baldwin, Western culture forced him to conclude: “‘I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.'”

However, Cole, shifting to Ralph Ellison, embraces Western art despite the lingering weight he shares with Baldwin: “I have experienced in my own body the undimmed fury he felt about pervasive, limiting racism.”

Continuing the scarred mosaic of history, Cole’s contemporary reality will not allow him to escape “the news online”:

There I found an unending sequence of crises: in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia, and everywhere else, really. Pain was general. But within that larger distress was a set of linked stories, and thinking about “Stranger in the Village,” thinking with its help, was like injecting a contrast dye into my encounter with the news. The American police continued shooting unarmed black men, or killing them in other ways. The protests that followed, in black communities, were countered with violence by a police force that is becoming indistinguishable from an invading army. People began to see a connection between the various events: the shootings, the fatal choke hold, the stories of who was not given life-saving medication. And black communities were flooded with outrage and grief.

Like Baldwin in 1966, Cole cannot escape the policing of the black body, the political “obsession with cleaning, with cleansing,” that “policymakers believe that going after misdemeanors is a way of preëmpting major crimes.”

Dropped like a stone too heavy to carry any further, Cole concludes:

But the black body comes pre-judged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy. To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.

Endless surveilling, constant policing the black body are fed by the “fantasy about the disposability of black life [that] is a constant in American history.”

Cole as custodian witnesses that “American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage….Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.”

But there remains one more damning stone to drop: “black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard”—one of which, left unnamed by Cole, is formal education.


An educational dinosaur who refuses extinction, E.D. Hirsch yet again offers a plea for cultural literacy, folded into the decades-old standards debate.

There is a disturbing irony about a torch bearer of the dominant culture lobbying for that culture to remain dominant—specifically through the codified curriculum of the formal education system.

Hirsch cloaks his message in an unaddressed assumption that knowledge can be somehow politically neutral; it’s all about the role of knowledge in teaching students how to read, you see.

But official curriculum and the current state of high-stakes accountability can never be disentangled from power—who can and does decide what knowledge matters.

Just as Cole above confronts how art, culture, and race intersect—among Cole, Baldwin, and Ellison—when the knowledge that matters is the province of some people (read “white,” “male,” and “affluent”), other people become the Other, marginalized by their identified lack of the knowledge that matters.

Cultural literacy/knowledge as that which is objective, easily identified, and then easily dispensed is the fertile soil within which the status quo of society and formal education thrive. Like the literal policing of the black body in the streets, education becomes an act of “cleansing” the Other of their heritage to make room for cultural literacy/knowledge writ large.

And the status quo of the streets and the hallways must not be allowed to remain: where black girls are policed for their hair, the same hair that is fetishized, rendered exotic; where black boys are seen as older than their biological ages; where the black body has been so demonized that blacks themselves embrace the punishing, cleansing, of their own flesh.

If we pretend knowledge is politically neutral, that whoever is in power has the right to decide what knowledge matters, and if we define reading in a way that depends on that cultural knowledge for anyone to be considered literate, then we are failing to read and re-read the world as it is in order to make a new world.

Not the world as it was during Baldwin’s life. Not the world as it is during Cole’s life.

The “obscene American forms of white supremacy” are the parents of cultural literacy/knowledge.

And this white gaze has also created “no excuses” charter schools that “fix” black, brown, and poor students.

White privilege and its cognate racism, as Cole notes, are invisible: “You don’t see it at first.”

The “at first,” however, must not be undervalued.

To see privilege and racism requires not cultural literacy, but critical literacy—reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world—fostered in a context of culturally relevant pedagogy.

From Baldwin as witness to Cole as “custodian of the black body,” the message about how our society and our schools must change is not absent but “preferably unheard.”

Change must happen, but it must not “shame or defame black people and [black] organizations,” Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry argue, concluding with a stone of their own: “Be accountable to black people.”

Cultural literacy is stasis, not change. It is accountable to white privilege.

Haunting the American character still is Baldwin demanding that we must “cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Traditional Assessment Isolates Learning, Devalues Community and Collaboration

I attended junior high well before the rise of the middle school; therefore, I did not enter high school until 10th grade.

But the greatest shift for me as a student was my sophomore English class taught by Lynn Harrill. Throughout junior high, English class has been a never-ending Sisyphean hell of grammar textbook exercises and a sentence-diagramming marathon throughout 9th grade.

I entered high school a devoted math and science student—but more importantly, I had written essentially nothing of consequence as a student, ever.

Until Mr. Harrill’s class, in which we wrote two essays that sophomore year.

My close friends were a somewhat smaller subset of the so-called “top” students who were tracked in the honors classes. We were both socially and academically close.

By my senior year, we had begun to peer-edit our essays—which we feared was cheating because the workshop approach to teaching writing was not in practice yet and we had as “good students” learned all the unspoken lessons of schooling.

From “Cover your papers” during tests to “Don’t copy your friend’s homework,” we knew that collaboration was cheating—but my close circle of friends also knew something very important: when we were collaborative, we learned, and we learned in ways that surpassed traditional teacher-centered learning.

We were each other’s spell checkers, grammar editors, and unofficial peer-teachers.

Despite the rise of the National Writing Project and the mostly widespread awareness of process writing (although it remains too often misunderstood and mischaracterized), students throughout K-12 and university education experience traditional assessment in isolation—significantly one of the least authentic aspects of traditional assessment.

Throughout my 30-plus-year career, I have advocated for and practiced de-testing and de-grading, but during the more recent 14-plus years at the university level, I have been able to experiment more fully with how this looks in the classroom.

One element of authentic assessment and feedback for students that I have explored is moving away from assessment that isolates and toward collaborative assessment, assessment opportunities that require and emphasize community.

While university professors benefit from much greater professional autonomy than K-12 teachers, university’s still require grades and mid-term/final exams; notably, these exam sessions are pretty strictly regulated in that professors need to show some use of the exam times/days for assessment.

Since I give no tests (a practice I started while a public school English teacher), I have developed mid-term sessions that are collaborative and discussion-based.

For example, each fall my first-year writing seminars and foundations of education class have assignments that build toward spending the actual mid-term exam time in small and whole group discussions.

Class discussions as mid-term exams pose several significant problems in the context of traditional schooling. First, every teacher has experienced the resistance by students and their parents to grades on group work—especially when “good” students get nicked on grades because the group had a member who didn’t pull her/his weight.

Discussion also privileges extroverted students and, just as most of traditional class structures do, disadvantages introverted students.

And as with any form of alternative assessment, students are often uncomfortable with and may fail to perform well because of different contexts for motivation and accountability.

The classroom discussion as mid-term exam originated with a foundations of education class several years ago—as we confronted the problems with traditional grades and tests, I encouraged the class to brainstorm with me how to create a more authentic mid-term experience.

Last week, I implemented the discussion as mid-term exam in both courses I am teaching.

First-year writing students choose, contact, and interview a professor in a department students are considering for a major. Each student records the interview as an artifact to prove she/he fulfilled that requirement, but then, students come to class with several key take-aways from the interview, which focuses on the professor as a scholar and writer.

The class begins with small-group (3-4 students) discussions that I casually monitor, and then we move to a whole group discussion.

I list the departments/disciplines on the board, and I help structure the discussion to focus on what scholars do and how academics write and submit work for publication (and how some disciplines do not conform to that norm, such as artists and musicians who create and perform).

In the foundations of education course, students read Paul Gorski’s Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap throughout the first half of the course, including a few class sessions for discussions of their reading.

Before the mid-term date, students submit talking points for the class discussions. I encourage those notes to be as specific as possible (quotes, page numbers).

The class session also starts with small-group discussion and then moves to whole group, but in this class, I remain entirely outside the discussions and require the students to navigate everything.

Briefly, at the end, I have a debrief about the experience.

These assessments have a few key elements in common: requiring artifacts of participation, creating small spaces for students to share if whole-group dynamics are uncomfortable, and shifting as much ownership of the learning to the students as possible.

I have been doing this for several years now, and every single one has been impressive. The actual mid-term sessions have always impressed me in a way that no traditional tests have.

In the debrief with my foundations of education class last week, I pointedly asked them to compare the mid-term discussion of a textbook reading to a standard test or individual essay.

Students were eager to argue that the discussion was far more powerful in terms of their understanding and engaging with Gorksi’s work; in fact, the whole-class discussion became extremely animated, and I witnessed students negotiating with both Gorski’s ideas on poverty and their classmates evolving awareness about poverty.

In short, the assessment was not a mere recording of learning, but a learning experience itself.

And what I learned, what the experience reinforced for me? Learning is collaborative, knowledge is the result of a community, and traditional assessment fails miserably since it isolates learners from each other and the teacher while reducing knowledge to a commodity.

As a critical educator, I continue on a journey to practice Paulo Freire’s vision of the teacher-student charged with educating students-teachers.

Assessment as collaboration and community is both something we can all practice in traditional settings and something we must do if we honor education as an act of liberation and the classroom as a space that honors human autonomy and dignity.

Political Spaces: More on the Politics of Calling for No Politics

A talking head on my local sports talk radio recently speculated that part of the reason NFL TV ratings are slightly down is that fans in the U.S. do not want politics mixed with their sports.

The touchstone of blame, of course, was Colin Kaepernick, who has now been named starter for this coming week’s game and, subsequently, has become the face on further speculation about how fans will react—since, you know, Kaepernick is being all political.

This lingering debate about “political” reminds me of the politics of calling for no politics that plagues education.

Educators at the K-12 level and professors work within a norm that expects educators to not be political. Something my roundtable at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference this November 2016 in Atlanta, GA is addressing with Confronting Educator Advocacy with Pre­Service and Early Career Teachers.

The current NFL debate centered on Kaepernick and K-12 education share something profoundly important: both simultaneously establish themselves as political spaces and then demand no politics from those with the least political power.

With all NFL games starting with the National Anthem and schools days across the U.S. starting with the Pledge of Allegiance, NFL games and public schooling are political spaces because coercing, demanding, or denying public displays of nationalism/patriotism is profoundly political.

Complaints, then, about “being political” are dishonest; the truth is that those in power want compliance to a prescribed politics—not an absence of politics.

And that can be proven easily. If we want our sport and education spaces to be politics free, stop playing the National Anthem and stop asking children to recite the Pledge.

But that will never happen—not in the good ol’ U.S. of hypocrisy.

Where the ultimate politics is the politics of money—and the best we can offer democracy and human agency is lip service.

Human behavior is always political, and those in power are always exercising their political will—which too often includes demanding no politics from everyone else.

Kapernick is exposing, at least, this fact about the hollowness of calls for spaces free of politics.

If in the U.S., anyone has to relinquish her/his political agency because of her/his profession, then we all have lost our freedom, we have thus conceded to a totalitarian state.

Standing with hand over heart during the National Anthem is a political act, just as Kaepernick’s kneeling. Both are the byproduct from those in power who have created the political space to begin with.

We must, then, resist the urge to condemn and blame those brave enough to respond to political spaces by exercising their politics—and if we truly want spaces free of politics, we must confront those in power, which would, of course, take our own political will to act.

Lost in Translation: More from a Stranger in Academia

Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.

First, a flashback.

I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.

Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.

Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.

In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.

To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.

You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.

You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.

Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”

My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.

Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.

And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.

I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:

It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.

And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:

On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)

The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called

My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”

I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.

Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).

But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.

And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”

It’s Just How Men Talk—And That’s the Problem

In the friendly banter scene from Notting Hill, several men are sitting at a restaurant having a lewd and boisterous conversation about Meg Ryan and then Anna Scott, the fictional world-famous actress featured in the romantic comedy and who coincidentally is sitting out of sight but nearby with William Thacker:

The scene is intended to match the mostly humorous but semi-critical subtext of the film about the pressures of being a celebrated actress in Hollywood: being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you are a woman.

However, the scene isn’t funny at all, but it is a reflection of how men talk—of the normalized culture all Western men have been raised in and tolerate and/or participate in, which is the male gaze and the objectifying discourse that is an extension of the male gaze.

This has allowed Donald Trump to brush off his 1995 hot-mic bragging about physical and sexual assault (we have no way to know if he is exaggerating, but he has never disavowed his story) as “locker room talk”—it’s just how men talk.

However, like much of the 2016 presidential campaign, allowing this excuse is yet more false equivalence.

Trump’s language and the behavior it represents are rape culture, not merely objectifying discourse from the male gaze.

This distinction proves to be as unsatisfying as the false equivalence because the male gaze/objectifying discourse as normal is the context within which rape culture thrives.

Many men sit just as the men in the Notting Hill scene do—with a jovial tone no less—sexualizing women, especially women who are famous, and women who dress in a way that men have deemed sexual.

The male gaze and the objectifying discourse grounded in that gaze, probably, rarely extends to assault—but even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also coerced sex with women they considered just an opportunity for sport sex, a one-night stand, and even with significant others, lovers, and spouses.

And even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also made women feel uncomfortable, threatened, because all women live with the prevalent awareness of not only the male gaze but the capacity for male physical and sexual aggression.

And thus, it is a real but ultimately pointless line between “friendly banter” (male gaze, objectifying discourse) and rape culture because it isn’t a line; rape culture is a very real and very horrible subset of friendly banter.

As in all situations within which some have power over others, it is the responsibility of men to confront and end both the male gaze/objectifying discourse and rape culture.

Those men who participate cavalierly in the male gaze and “friendly banter”—most if not all men—have an urgent responsibility to name and reject the uglier rape culture represented with disgusting glee by Trump and by serial celebrity rapists such as Bill Cosby.

But men must also begin to disassemble the falsely characterized “friendly banter” culture as well.

It is entirely valid for those men who believe themselves to be good men to claim they are not Trump, his bravado and predatory behavior are not them, and to admit their own culpability in the culture that has bred and allowed Trump and other predatory men to exist.

Trump’s language and predatory behavior—that is not just how men talk and act, but in the grand scheme of things, that distinction really doesn’t matter because how men talk does create a world in which women’s lives too often do not matter beyond their being objectified, sexualized, and reduced to their relationship statuses.

Most men, I hope, do not want to be or be considered a monster, a predator. Trump has outed himself as a predator, a part of rape culture, an active and cavalier aggressor.

Among many other examples, these facts of his true self disqualify him for being a serious candidate for any credible position in society.

Men must and can distance themselves from rape culture, but that must not be used as a shield for the many ways in which men are uncritical and unconscious participants in the male gaze and “friendly banter.”

Yes, it is urgent for everyone to reject rape culture, and the newest face on that, Trump, but it is well past time to admit that the male gaze and objectifying discourse strip women of their human dignity and sully every man’s humanity as well.

See Also

Emily Ratajkowski: Baby Woman

Deplorables Unmasked

Something deplorable happened on the way to claiming the U.S. is a Christian nation of free people where everyone regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender has the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And it wasn’t Donald Trump. Or better expressed, it wasn’t only Donald Trump.

Once Trump secured the nomination for president of the Republican Party, many scrambled to caution about condemning Trump’s supporters, not painting them with too broad and negative a brush.

Especially in the mainstream media, few, nearly none, would venture to utter words such as “racist,” “sexist,” “xenophobe,” or even “lie.”

Trump and his running mate have skated along literally piling lies on top of lies—including lies about not saying provable things, including Trump opening his most recent apology with lies.

But what is truly deplorable is Trump both represents and has unmasked the ugly truth about the U.S.: we are a nation of deplorables, not as outliers, but as a substantial population of our country.

As I was driving down I-85 in South Carolina on the morning after the suddenly shocking* recording of Trump being exactly who he has always been, I saw a large, black SUV in front of me with this bumper sticker:


It has become conventional wisdom to brush off Trump’s obnoxious bravado as part of his reality show persona, while adding that his supporters are more nuanced in their support for his candidacy.

But the harsh truth is that Trump is deplorable and so are his supporters—and so are many so-called decent Americans.

Cliches become cliches often because they are true, and one truism seems quite important at this moment: when someone shows you who they really are, be sure to pay attention.

And people often reveal who they really are when they think they are in private, when they think they are among their own kind.

Men hanging out with other men often sound like the Trump comments being rebuked now as if this isn’t common language and attitudes.

Having been born, grown up, and now living in the South, I can assure you when whites are in seemingly safe environs, the racism rears its ugly head in subtle and blunt ways.

But it is even worse than that.

Now that we have yet more evidence of who Trump is, who his enablers are, the carefully prepared political backpedaling tells us just as much as any hot mic:

“I am sickened by what I heard today,” [Paul] Ryan said through a spokesman, about five hours after The Washington Post published a 2005 recording of Trump boasting of groping women and trying to have sex with a married woman. “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.

Gross, pig sexist being chastised by his more well-groomed but equally clueless sexist—as part and parcel of who the Republican Party has always been, as part and parcel of who many in the U.S. remain to be:

When Trump vilified Mexicans and Muslims, when Trump repeatedly stirs racism and caters to openly racist groups, the mainstream political response remains trapped in respecting human dignity only by close association—currently the hot take in the mainstream press is to speak with reverence about mothers and daughters.

A people has no moral compass, no ethical grounding if the only way anyone can respect human dignity is by association.

If you have to know or be related to people with other statuses than yours to care about their human dignity, you are deplorable.

Some may now try to burn at the stake the Frankenstein’s monster, Donald Trump, but to do so without acknowledging Dr. Frankenstein is misguided and shallow political theater.

Trump as bogus billionaire entrepreneur, as con-man reality star is the white male prototype of what it means to be an American: America built this.

And, as much as we wish to deny it, we are America.

The America who tells Colin Kaepernick not to sully our sacred football with politics—while failing to see that opening every football game with the National Anthem is political.

The America who responds to #BlackLivesMatter with All Lives Matter—while refusing to admit that guns matter more than any lives.

The America that polices how some people raise their fists—while “land of the free and home of the brave” proves to be false on both counts.

Something deplorable happened on the way to claiming the U.S. is a Christian nation of free people where everyone regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender has the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Something deplorable is right there in the mirror.

* One must ask, I think, why now? See More Than 150 Republican Leaders Don’t Support Donald Trump. Here’s When They Reached Their Breaking Point.