I am not Howard Zinn.
That likely is unnecessary to state, and may seem a passive-aggressive statement of arrogance, but recently several people have challenged black men’s work and perspectives (notably Ta-Nehisi Coates) by noting “he is not James Baldwin.”
My relatively recent personal/professional blog presence is named the becoming radical based on Zinn’s central claim about his role as teacher/activist:
When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)
Along with Zinn, my work as teacher/writer and activist is guided by James Baldwin’s concept of bearing witness:
Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.
Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….
A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.
But my voice and footprint in this world—even my direct spheres as a classroom teacher—are incredibly tiny compared to Zinn and Baldwin. They represent who and what I aspire to, but in no way am I deluded into thinking I matter in any way compared to them—or many others.
Part of the reason they and others guide me is that I increasingly am aware of and consciously addressing how flawed I am, how far I have yet to go. If there is arrogance here, it is the arrogance of being a writer; we are compelled to write, which includes the arrogance that there will be readers who think we should be read.
I have been a practicing teacher and writer for over thirty years—and I want to stress that I came to recognize that I am both a teacher and writer, but that I never chose to be either.
An external reality I must admit is that despite my working-class background, my redneck past, I have been afforded a tremendous amount of unearned privilege because I am a white male.
Those powerful buffers of race/gender privilege have been not just a foundation for my personal and professional success but also a trampoline for those achievements.
Nonetheless, my first 18 years of teaching from 1984-2002 were spent as a high school English teacher in the rural Upstate South Carolina high school in my hometown.
There and then, I built who I am today—a teacher who, like Zinn, embraces teaching as activism.
I spent nearly two decades as an unapologetic student-centered teacher who fought daily to expand the reading options for students—adding women and writers of color to the stale white/male canon—and to de-track our English courses by eliminating a mind-numbing array of leveled textbooks.
While teaching high school English, I was mentored by the only black teacher in our department, Ethel Chamblee, who added the much needed veteran voice to our goals of race and class equity in a very conservative and repressive school.
But I also learned another very harsh lesson while teaching high school: I was always “just a school teacher”—professionally and publicly.
If you glance at my publishing history, there are a few scatterings of professional work, poetry, and some fiction throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but my publishing career exploded in 2002, when I moved to higher education.
In fact, in the final months before I left teaching high school and into my first months as an assistant professor at a selective liberal arts university I was told in both subtle and direct terms that one career didn’t count (teaching public high school) and simply being associated with a university did count (the university association, though, mattered, not me).
First, even though I was hired in the education department of my university, I was told those 18 years teaching didn’t count toward my university experience (administration would have, by the way). So in my early 40s, I had to start in higher education at the bottom.
Next, though, once I had my university beside my name (I had had an EdD for four years before then), local, state, and national publications suddenly considered and published my commentaries. I had been submitting for years while teaching high school, but mostly received no response, and when I did have rare acknowledgements, they were “reject.”
Even today after 13 years and moving through every rank to full professor in higher education, many people within the academy shift their tone and tilt their heads when I explain I taught high school for 18 years before coming to higher education—implying in no uncertain terms, “O, I am so sorry.”
While my university position has afforded me incredible access to doing scholarly and public work, I am daily reminded that teaching is a nearly powerless and dehumanizing profession.
So let me return to my blog title—the becoming radical—and Zinn.
Who I am is teacher/writer as activist, but who I am is also a life-long student, thus my always becoming.
I was raised in the fundamentalist and racist South of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite being academically “smart,” I entered college a deeply ignorant and wrong-minded young man who was daily patted on the head for being smart, even though I had yet to recognize the “smart” was an ugly mask for privilege.
In those college years, I discovered literature, and Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes became my unofficial teachers, my saviors—starting for me a journey now 36 years and counting.
I have been at this teaching thing a long time, and I am still becoming.
I have been at this writing thing a long time, and I am still becoming.
I have been at both as an activist along side those marginalized by race, class, and gender for a long time, and I am still becoming.
If I have to be Howard Zinn to matter to you, then I am certainly going to disappoint you.
If you think you know me because of Twitter or this blog, it seems likely you don’t because the closest thing to the real me is in the classroom year-round (I have always taught optional summer and May sessions for my entire career); the real me is writing nearly every morning, alone; the real me is reading, reading, reading—certain I have so much more to learn.
Who I am will always be the deeply self-conscious redneck young adult who one day confronted his demons and has worked every day since to make amends.
If you think me arrogant (many do since my passion often reads as such), insincere, or self-serving, I must caution you to reconsider. At a few years past 50, my life tells a different story if you are willing to look at it.
But I am certain you do see flaws I haven’t seen yet as well as ones I am now addressing, and rest assured, I am looking because who I am includes as part of the becoming someone who is always listening.
Listening because while all I have is me, who I am is he who knows this is not about me.