Comments Shared with my Colleagues on the Responsibility of the Intellectual

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Adrienne Rich, Arts of the Possible

Since this is a voluntary gathering of concerned faculty, I am going to risk assuming we are here mostly in solidarity.

None the less, I recognize I am offering at least two controversial points and asking that you afford them your immense breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your patience.

First, while it is now popular in this time of Trump for pundits and the media to wring their collective hands about post-truth and fake news, my opening controversial claim is that despite that attention, neither of these is something manufactured by Trump, and fake news is not the primary problem.

Please consider this Twitter exchange between me and Juana Summers, a well-respected journalist at NPR in 2014, the time of the exchange., and now with CNN:

Summers represents here a tradition that journalists and educators, including professors, assume a neutral pose, honoring a call that they remain apolitical.

In that context, let me ask you next to consider an article published in the New York Times  just a week before Trump’s inauguration: In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda.

The headline and the article itself are mainstream media, not fake news; yet, what that distinction reveals is that our day-to-day public discourse is often indistinguishable from the click bait and false content we are lamenting in fake news.

O’Connors article cites a study from the USDA, which along with this being in the NYT, appears to be credible and compelling.

However, Joe Soss, writing in Jacobin and professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, has exposed that O’Connor’s article badly misrepresents the USDA study and expresses instead ugly stereotypes about people in poverty, what many in the public believe about people depending on food stamps.

So my first controversial claim, which leads into the second, is that public discourse has crossed the Bigfoot line. While there is a spectrum from fake news (entirely false and created to generate clicks online and thus revenue) to mainstream journalism, virtually all of that fails policy and the public because of traditional and misguided commitments to neutrality, objectivity.

There was a time when the National Enquirer depended on a facile commitment to report without unpacking the credibility of the person making a claim; thus, “Hiker has close encounter with Bigfoot!”

Might we imagine that journalist deflecting: “I’m not sure it’s my place to say whether the hiker is credible”?

In that era, mainstream media mostly refused to cross that Bigfoot line. But today, major media outlets are debating if journalists should report “Trump makes claim X” or “Trump makes false claim X”—or even more astounding “Trump lies.”

So I want to end with my second controversial claim.

If you google “fake news,” you are likely to read about a Davidson College graduate, and for us, this may trigger our own Yik-Yak founders.

I think this is not a trivial connection as we gather in our concern as university faculty, intellectuals, serving the liberal arts and our disciplines.

Across our campus, across our disciplines, the liberal arts is an argument that each of our fields is one way of coming to know the human condition. From biology to religion, from economics to philosophy, from psychology to education, and everything in between, we are carefully considering not only what knowledge exists, but what knowledge matters.

Our collective knowledge, or collective pursuit of knowledge, is more likely to serve us well than any one alone.

And then, there is the whole world beyond our beautiful fountains.

Therefore, when Donald Trump says torture works, or when his final TV ad in SC blatantly falsified data on the employment and crime rates, I think about fake news, hot new smartphone Apps, and the failures of mainstream media—each of which fails us if we resist looking at this world informed, if we pretend we can be apolitical, if we close our eyes to larger questions of ethics and morality.

The responsibility of the intellectual—and that includes us—is not about taking a neutral pose, but about speaking beyond those fountains, about modeling what it means to be well informed, to honor the truth, as difficult as at that is to attain, and to model for everyone what it looks like to work in the service of humanity, and not simply to say what you are paid to say, not simply to advocate for your own self-interest.

The responsibility of the intellectual is inescapably political, even as we pledge rightfully to be non-partisan.

Now, I end by appealing as an old English teacher, a writer, must—through metaphor.

Activist historian Howard Zinn’s memoir argues that the human condition is a moving train, and any of us who choose to sit quietly are in effect endorsing where that train is heading.

And thus, as Zinn believed and practiced, ours is always a political act—whether in our passivity or our action.

The responsibility of the intellectual?

For me, it is acknowledging that you cannot be neutral on a moving train, and I must add, you must not be neutral on a disaster-bound train—so I urge that we express our concern as action, informed and ethical.

The Resurrections of Adrienne Rich: “in a tunnel of silence”

Graceless
Is there a powder to erase this?

“Graceless,” The National

“Yes, she is a problem for me,” Adrienne Rich opens in her “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985), “as I read and reread the published work and some of the unpublished—copies of letters, interview transcripts, essays.”

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To follow is a series of parallel “As I” sentences in which Rich muses on Hansberry (“a Black woman trying to write both from ‘within the Veil,’ as she once put it, and for a public which included Black women and men, but whose dominant expectations and mythic opinions about the world were shaped by white males”), leading to:

Lorraine Hansberry is a problem to me because she is Black, female, and dead….The problem begins for me when, in reading Les Blancs, I do not know when I am reading dialogue written by Hansberry and when I am reading the end product of the process Nemiroff describes….All this may be forthright and devoted enough, and it may seem graceless to question the end result. But I do question it….But biography by a former husband and literary executor is not the same as autobiography.

This “problem” builds to Rich acknowledging “the limitations of my experience as a white woman.” Rich confronts that “within white feminist criticism itself there have been notable silences, erasures”—and “[t]he Black woman writer, as Barbara Smith has noted, suffers from double erasure.”

In fact, “[t]he study of silence has long engrossed me,” Rich writers in her “Arts of the Possible,” the eponymous essay of her 2001 collection of essays:

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

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Rich as woman, as gay. Rich as poet, essayist—artist at “deep levels.”

She has presented to us in autobiography/biography that is a poet’s/artist’s work a series of resurrections, exposing who she has been and who she becomes. She has been daughter, wife, and mother; she has been lesbian lover—just as one way through association (the sorts of associations Rich exposed and confronted, “shaped by white males”) to view her metaphorical deaths and resurrections.

Rich struggling through Hansberry is Rich wrestling with her many selves—none of them perfect but all of them the richness of words crafted.

With Rich’s literal death, a new door of resurrections has opened—post mortem biographies, literary criticism, and unpublished works.

But June 2016 brings the most recent resurrection, Collected Poems: 1950-2012.

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It is a simple, understated cover for a work of great physical heft, over 1100 pages in hardback—a work that resurrects Rich the poet in toto. What more could a poet want? What more could a poet dread?

If you have been on Rich’s journey for many, many years—as I have—this volume is redundant but inescapable and invaluable, a Siren’s call to those of us who love books, desire collecting.

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1119 pages into her body of work, Rich leaves us with words that seem haunted with James Baldwin (see her “The Baldwin Stamp”):

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame

To read Rich’s entire body of published poetry draws me back to her “Diving into the Wreck,” a tour de force of personal and social commentary as poetic genius.

In death, Rich’s collected poetry presents “a book of myths” as revolt, as liberation—as a problem for everyone holding this heaviest of resurrections that is Rich and is not Rich.


See Also

Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

Doubling Down (Again) on the White Man’s World

A decade ago, I was confronted with an incredibly uncomfortable situation when my first-year English class overwhelmingly believed the Duke lacrosse team was innocent and the woman accusing them of sexual assault was fraudulent.

There was a significant mixture of irony in the tension resulting from my trusting that the class—atypically majority male at a university consisting of mostly privileged and white students—was biased by their collective and individual privilege as that conflicted with the eventual revealing that the Duke lacrosse team was in most ways innocent (although I would argue that is a simplistic conclusion supported by technicalities of law): the irony, of course, being that I—white, male, and privileged—was proven wrong about my claims of the U.S. being, in the language of today, a country in which white male lives matter most.

Just this May, another class included, again atypically, about a third black students, some of whom were eager to argue for corporal punishment and then several of the black male students felt compelled to speak up for males wrongly accused of sexual assault.

At that, I asserted that in the U.S. today it remains easier to be a male wrongly accused of sexual assault than to be a woman actually raped or sexually assaulted.

But I could not have anticipated both the Baylor University scandal and then the Brock Turner rape judgment and sentence, which has been followed by a disturbing pair of commentaries by Turner’s father and a female childhood friend.

The light sentence of Turner, by a judge who like Turner attended Stanford University, was justified because of the consequences this rape would have on Turner’s life. Turner’s victim has rebuked this decision in her own statement.

Both the Turner sentence and the Baylor scandal returned me to my examination of The Martian, an unintended allegory of the hyperbolic concern in the U.S. for the white male at the expense of women and people of color.

Having been raised in the sexist and racist South, I have spent my adult life—going on four decades—working against my privilege and learned bigotries.

I am aware of and fearful of whitesplaining and mansplaining, the white gaze and the male gaze in every interaction I have in both the real and virtual worlds. I shudder to think, on social media especially, how often I creep toward the line crossed by vicious male trolls, how often women and people of color see in my words the very things I abhor.

As a writer, I am hyper-aware that my one-more-white-man’s voice is crowding out space for women and people of color; we simply do not need more white male perspectives.

As a scholar and academic, now full professor and tenured with a significant body of published works, I am equally hyper-aware I continue to do the same in academia.

Much of my work has been devoted to calling out racism, but I have also addressed misogyny and mansplaining often. In both cases, I have tried to confront the inevitable “yes, but” from men and whites.

But I look at the one picture of Turner, and I see me—white male. I think about the judge in the case, and I am among the disproportionate number of white males in power in the U.S.

What woman would trust me, especially from a distance? Why would black and brown people believe my solidarity?

And while I am writing about me, this is not about me; this is about the daily doubling down in the U.S., proving that white male lives matter most—and the corrosive consequences for everyone.

That fact—the light sentence for Turner, the failure to hold police officers accountable for taking black lives—sustains a hostile world for everyone; we are pitted daily against each other because the greatest threat to power is solidarity.

I will continue to name misogynyracism, and child abuse—even as that work pushes my voice farther the margins.

As a privileged white male, I am insulated enough that I can offer these observations that remain mostly about my own minor inconveniences that are devastating realities for vulnerable populations and people oppressed because of race, gender, sexuality, or age. As a privileged white male, I seek to use my privilege to eradicate privilege.

But most of all, my greatest act of solidarity remains my role as a student—I listen, I read, I heed.

And even then, I fall short.

I have failed enough women, children, and people of color to last a dozen life times—and “I’m sorry” seems trivial against that.

White male privilege has created a vicious world that needs to be dismantled, and in its place, we must imagine something better, a world brought forth from the mouths and minds of those rendered less human and thus more aware of the beauty and grandeur of being human.

As Adrienne Rich offers, “the sea is another story/ the sea is not a question of power.”

Most people know “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” but the Turner verdict and sentencing remind us of what Lord Acton offered next: “Great men are almost always bad men.”

Daily, this is proven true as we watch white males double down again and again on white male lives mattering most.

Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)

 

On Southern Heritage and Pride

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

For Skylar and Jessica

When writing about my redneck past—born, raised, and now having lived my entire life in the upstate of South Carolina—I reached back to my grandparents and parents as a way to give context to who I am and how I “got to be this way.”

In the waning days of June 2015, in the sort of near-100-degree heat we tend to suffer in July and August, SC has been exposed to the rest of the U.S. and world in a way that is hard for me as a Southerner to face: nine innocent souls slaughtered in a racist rage.

While the domestic terrorist responsible for this logical consequence of a people hopelessly clutching a culture of violence in the form of the right to bear arms and willfully blind to the lingering racism that stains our refrain of “life, liberty, and the pursuits of happiness” sought to start a race war, instead a state and national conversation has begun about the embarrassment that is Southern Heritage, raised like a petulant bully’s middle-finger on the grounds of SC’s Capitol.

I have never felt pride about being a South Carolinian, a Southerner, or an American—these are all mere coincidences of my birth.

It makes no real sense to me, this personalizing geography and then mangling history and ideology in order to create barriers among people.

As a high school teacher in SC for nearly two decades, my students often bristled at my confronting them about the flag fetish among many white students, mostly males.

As a life-long witness to Southern Heritage, I have come to recognize that we are not unique but representative in the South of the worst aspects of patriotism, nationalism, and jingoism—making a commitment to a false narrative to preserve an ideology that ultimately is self-defeating and dehumanizing.

Those most fervent about Southern Heritage and fundamentalist faith in the South have something important in common: an incomplete at best and missing at worst understanding of either the history of the South (and the Confederacy) or the Bible.

There is a selectivity to calling on history and scripture that exposes the real commitments of the fervent: holding onto a world that insures other people remain inferior.

“Heritage Not Hate” is propaganda, and as Aldous Huxley notes: The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”

It is the cruelest sort of irony that Southern Heritage advocates misrepresent history as many fundamentalists misrepresent Christianity because those false narratives seek to dehumanize and divide.

Yes, my family and community shaped who I am and how I “got to be this way.” And I am certain the South and SC have played roles in that story of me as well.

But I have no specific idea if any of my ancestors participated in any way in the Civil War or slavery; I must imagine that those ancestors in the South during those eras were like most people—in most ways directly or indirectly complicit in horrible human acts.

I must imagine that because we are directly and indirectly complicit now in horrible human acts—some so large and pervasive that most cannot see them (our consumer culture that includes the wealth of the few on the labor of the discardable many).

I have no desire to contort reality around my ancestors or the history of the region I happen to be born in as a act of somehow justifying my own value as a person.

Southern Heritage and Pride are abstractions that allow a callous disregard for the very real world around us—a world that is unnecessarily violent of our own making, a world that is horribly inequitable of our own making, and a world trapped in the labels of “heritage” and “Christian” but unwilling to learn from history or act on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I simply cannot embrace a past that reveals all the ways we have failed each other.

It seems instead that today and every “today” we are called to imagine how the world can be better and then do something to make that happen.

I am grateful in many ways for the life my grandparents and parents afforded me, but my life has also included making choices to set aside many things that redneck past inculcated in me, things that do not fill me with pride, but shame.

The enduring possibilities of human dignity have been my guideposts that I found in literature (not garbled and romanticized history or cherry-picked bible verses): William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Alice Walker, Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings, Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera and Adrienne Rich.

But the moral barometers who ultimately saved me remain the voices I hear daily: Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin.

Vonnegut writes through Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:

“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Baldwin confesses in “They Can’t Turn Back”:

It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half-believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.

I feel no pride in being a South Carolinian, a Southern or an American; I did not choose any of that geography.

But when I read Vonnegut and Baldwin, I am proud to be a fellow human and I feel a sudden rush of hope found in the pages of literature—as author Neil Gaiman recognizes:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

And this is my confession: While white parents gave me life, black authors saved my life.

I have debts to pay, and I must pay them forward—things I cannot do clutching a past that has failed us all.

Howard Zinn: “education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time”

24 August 1922—Howard Zinn was born. His life and career spanned the twentieth century and into the first decade of the twenty-first. It is his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, for me, that speaks to the enduring power of Zinn’s metaphor, particularly for teachers.

Historically and currently, teacher remain under the demand that their teaching—and even their lives—remain neutral, not political. University professors—such as Zinn—also face disciplinary and public expectations of objectivity, dispassion—their work as public intellectuals either shunned or unrecognized.

In that context, K-12 education and university education suffer the same ultimate failure found in journalism, a flawed pursuit of objectivity, the faux-neutral pose of representing both sides.

So on the day of Zinn’s birth, it continues to be important not only to read and listen to Zinn, but also to act on Zinn, for it is action, after all, that Zinn lived and called for.

“When I became a teacher,” Zinn explains in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, “I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences”:

I have often wondered how so many teachers manage to spend a year with a group of students and never reveal who they are, what kind of live they have led, where their ides come from, what they believe in, or what they want for themselves, for their students, and for the world.

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?

Concealment is a political act, and in the face of the tragedy surrounding the police shooting of Michael Brown, the educational response has been exactly that, concealment. But as poet Adrienne Rich has confronted:

The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable.

Instead of striking the masked political poses of neutrality, objectivity, and dispassion, Zinn called for transparency:

In my teaching I never concealed my political views: my detestation of war and militarism, my anger at racial inequality, my belief in democratic socialism, in a rational and just distribution of the world’s wealth. 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.

Having taught in rural Southern public schools for 18 years and then 13 more years in higher education, I can attest that Zinn’s argument is challenged only because of the positions he holds and not because he took positions. You see, in K-12 classrooms, especially in history classes, textbooks, curriculum, and teachers always represented positions by framing as neutral the mainstream perspectives found among them all: a blind allegiance to capitalism, representing the U.S. as a righteous military victor, whitewashing every struggle in the country’s history, celebrating the wealthy and powerful while turning a blind eye to their many sins.

It has never been that our classrooms are neutral, as Zinn confronts, but that our classrooms have been passive passengers on the moving train of social and cultural indoctrination, the sort of indoctrination that benefits the few who have wealth and power built on their privilege at the expense of the many—workers, racial minorities, women, children, and the impoverished.

As Zinn recognized:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

And although written well before the current education reform movement built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, Zinn’s memoir has identified the Orwellian reality of that movement: Those decrying the status quo are those in service of the status quo. Education reform is the pursuit of maintaining, not reforming.

This call for teaching as activism was join by Zinn’s disciplinary challenge as well:

History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history—while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance—might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.

Here, Zinn recognizes both the power of disciplinary knowledge and the concurrent danger of codified disciplinary knowledge (prescriptive standards, curriculum). Zinn’s confrontation, then, speaks to the foundational principles expressed by critical scholar Kincheloe:

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

These critical principles replace the dissembling of neutrality in the classroom, as Kincheloe explains:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

In this context it is not the advocates of critical pedagogy who are most often guilty of impositional teaching but many of the mainstream critics themselves. When mainstream opponents of critical pedagogy promote the notion that all language and political behavior that oppose the dominant ideology are forms of indoctrination, they forget how experience is shaped by unequal forms of power. To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner.

“Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom,” Kincheloe concludes. Teaching and history as activism, for Zinn, were moral imperatives, and thus:

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.

Zinn, activist, radical, speaks to us now, the “us” of any classroom, the “us” charged with the learning and lives of any child:

From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity”; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.

Today on the date of Zinn’s birth, I argue, it is a recipe we must follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them…. (pp. 737-738)

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

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. (p. 734)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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