“If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” (Franz Kafka)

There is a paradox to my formative years that I vividly recognize but cannot fully understand.

My parents weren’t well educated or prone to intellectualism, and they raised me in some truly toxic ideologies that stunted the human I have been trying to be ever since I recognized those ideologies as toxic.

But my dear parents also—and this remains baffling—allowed and even supported for me an intellectual freedom that completely contradicted everything else about my upbringing.

No book, magazine, film, music, or comedian was ever off limits, denied to me—or banned. In fact, my parents despite out modest working class budget eagerly bought me anything I wanted to read or listen to, including a subscription to Playboy and albums by George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

And because of this great fortune of my youth, I am compelled by all bold art—what some call adult or explicit, even profane—and concurrently, by radical, confrontational ideas. Along side the regrets I feel for much of my early life, this gift from my parents rises above everything else as something for which I could never repay them.

As a voracious reader and a would-be writer as I entered college, I fell in love with Franz Kafka, nearly a cliche for would-be writers, I suppose, but incredibly important for me none the less.

And this has remained a refrain for me since I first discovered Kafka: his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

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My home state, South Carolina, remains too much like the very worst of my early life—notably the coastal city Charleston.

Charleston has a rich but deeply scarred history of racism and economic inequity that remains in many ways today. Charleston is also notorious in contemporary times for the horrific shooting at the Emanuel AME church and a police officer killing Walter Scott.

Yet, like William Faulkner’s Emily, some despite that context persist in clinging to the corpse of race and class bigotry, blinded by James Baldwin’s “rigid refusal”—as in this case highlighting that the fear of books is the fear of ideas that is the fear of Truth:

Two books causing controversy in Charleston County are All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. They are on the summer reading list for Wando High School’s English I class.

In The Hate U Give, the main character’s best friend is unarmed, and shot and killed by police. In All American Boys, one of the main characters is brutalized by a police officer after a misunderstanding when the character is falsely accused of stealing. Both books address racism and police brutality which is making some local law enforcement officers upset.

President of the Fraternal Order of Police Tri-County Lodge #3, John Blackmon, says, “Whether it be through social media, whether it be through text message, whether it be phone calls, we’ve received an influx of tremendous outrage at the selections by this reading list.”

He says in just the past two days, he has received hundreds of messages from police and community members.

Blackmon says, “Freshmen, they’re at the age where their interactions with law enforcement have been very minimal. They’re not driving yet, they haven’t been stopped for speeding, they don’t have these type of interactions. This is putting in their minds, it’s almost an indoctrination of distrust of police and we’ve got to put a stop to that.”

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“In the summer of 1997, when I was eleven, I had an abnormal appetite for books,” recalls Carmen Maria Machado. Specifically, she fell in love with Lois Duncan—despite the problem Duncan’s genre created:

Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?

Machado’s story represents the journey of many writers, how falling in love with writers and books combined with an exhilarating freedom to read as one pleases leads to a life of becoming and being a writer.

To a life of unconventional ideas, a life adultexplicit, profane.

For Machado, Duncan appears to have been a doorway into unconventional ideas about gender:

Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.

In hindsight, Machado realizes:

After that, I re-read “Daughters of Eve,” which had seemed revolutionary when I was eleven. In college, I’d recounted the plot to a friend and started to wonder about its politics. But now it strikes me as a cautionary tale about the potential of radical ideology to empower or destroy, and about the circumstances under which it can take hold. Second-wave, to be sure, and imperfect, of course, but chilling and complicated and uncondescending to its audience. I realized that her books paved the path toward my adult love of novelists such as Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith. Some of her plots still show up in my dreams.

What if Machado had continued to be blocked from horror novels, banned for being too frightening for a young girl or too radical in their ideologies?

Like Machado, I bumped against teachers discouraging me from reading comic books and outright barring me from choosing another science fiction book when we had novel choices for class.

Yet, comic books and science fiction are my Lois Duncan.

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“If you read this story out loud” becomes a parenthetical refrain in Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” a story about telling stories (“I have always been a teller of stories,” reveals the narrator) and the horrifying messages in those stories about the fate of girls and women; for example:

The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.

Once you have read about Machado’s early love of Duncan, this story blossoms even from the tips of the many blossoms built into the narrator’s mysterious green ribbon and the interjected brief stories punctuating the main story.

Early, the story is about unconventional ideas, the sexuality of girls, the tension between being fully sexual and “good”:

The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts. I run slick. It isn’t that I don’t have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have a breast that heaves out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse all at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way that men sometimes are, and I want.

It then becomes a story of awakenings, the inevitable demands of men on women, and the brutal consequences of the world for any, or every woman—like the narrator.

I think Machado’s story is brilliant and awesome, in the purest sense of the root “awe,” and I hesitate to dig deeper, share more because much of that awe is in the reading and the very careful unveiling, the lust and the terrifying.

But as a teacher and a teacher of English teachers, I bring this story here because it is the exact sort of story young people should read, must read, but because it is graphic in its depiction of young sexuality, I can hear my former students who now teach high school explain to me that they can’t teach this story.

It is the sort of fiction that is an “axe for the frozen sea inside us”; it is meant to stir our bodies, our souls, and our minds.

And like the novels challenged by police in Charleston, this story is frightening to the social order, the sort of things police, schools, and churches seek to maintain.

Adults with authority, if truth be known, are terrified of young people aroused in mind, body, and spirit.

In one story within the main story, the narrator concludes: “I don’t need to tell you the moral of this story. I think you already know what it is.”

And this is why fiction is frightening; it presents us with inconvenient truth. It isn’t so much that we don’t know it, but that it must not be uttered into reality.

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” (p. 150).

Fiction is almost always terrifying, and it certainly is far more dangerous than fake news.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the police.

Fiction tells the inconvenient truth about the dangers a man’s world pose for all women.

Banning books is banning ideas, the very ideas that liberate anyone to recreate the world in the name of justice and human dignity. There simply is no place for banning books among free people.

That, in fact, is yet another paradox: banning books is an unspeakable crime against human dignity.

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Margins

Although I am sure more people have blocked me on social media, I remain aware of and concerned about two of those—both women, one black and one white.

The reason for my concern is that I would count them both members of the communities I support, ideologically and practically. Also, since I am blocked, I remain mostly uncertain of why, although with one I did have an exchange on an email forum about her perceptions of me (what I view as unwarranted assumptions).

Being blocked, I recognize however, was the result of both these women functioning in much narrower margins than I do because of my privileges of gender, race, and economics. In other words, regardless of my good intentions, regardless of whether or not I behaved in any way that warranted being blocked, these women do not have the margins to risk examining whether I am part of the toxic masculinity, toxic whiteness, or toxic affluence that threatens them moment by moment.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in their Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much label the margins of economic privilege and disadvantage as “slack” (privilege and thus huge margins) and “scarcity” (disadvantage and thus very thin margins). I think those terms apply equally as well to gender and race.

In retrospect, I am reminded of a moment from my teaching high school English when a white boy brushed a copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” from his desk when I handed them out, announcing that he wasn’t reading that “[racial slur].” The student was adamant that King was an adulterer, having a pamphlet that excoriated King; the pamphlet, if one bothered to look carefully, had been created by the KKK, which had a vibrant following in the small town just south of the high school.

The margins (scarcity) for MLK—using “adultery” as a veneer for racism—must be placed against, for example, the social slack afforded John F. Kennedy, who is allowed his claimed accomplishments despite his personal indiscretions, unlike how any small failure by MLK is used to discredit all of his work.

More recently, the US has witnessed eight years of unrelenting discrediting of Barack Obama as president through unfounded claims about his birthplace; Obama as the first black president had to be perfect or completely discredited.

Immediately succeeding Obama is Donald Trump, who survived video/audio evidence of language and attitudes toward women most people would not tolerate in children; in other words, Trump’s gender, race, and economic privilege (slack) is so powerful, he appears nearly capable of doing anything with impunity.

Trump himself declared this himself during his campaign:

This is the most vivid and gross example of the power of slack grounded in race, gender, and economic privilege.

Black Film/ White Film: More on Slack and Scarcity

Since I am a comic book advocate, having collected Marvel comics throughout the 1970s and more recently published scholarship on the intersections of race and gender in superhero comics, I have watched and listened carefully to the public responses to Black Panther, the most recent Marvel Universe film.

While I have not yet seen the film, I have followed the sputtering path of the character Black Panther since he was introduced in the 1960s; as a teenager collecting comics, I was a fan of Black Panther as well as The Falcon, who was cover-billed along with Captain America throughout much of the 1970s.

Black_Panther_Vol_1_1  Captain_America_Vol_1_117

I lacked critical discernment as a teen, but can recognize that these two characters laid a foundation for my discovering black authors and thinkers in college as I struggled to cast off the worst aspects of my upbringing in the racist and intolerant South.

Most have responded to Black Panther the film with enthusiasm and even glee, and the box office has reflected some powerfully positive messages about black films and actors. But a few have begun to unpack problems with nationalism and the white savior trope in the narrative.

Here we may be inclined to argue that the highest form of equity, the absence of racism, would require that the film receive something akin to objective analyses—not unduly criticized (veneers for racism) and not sheltered from criticism as a sort of inverse racism.

There, however, this claim is not as simple as it may seem—especially if we ground how we respond to the film in terms of slack and scarcity, in terms of the King/Kennedy inequity.

Certainly, the film cannot be above credible criticism, but in that pursuit, we must guard against the perfection bar often manifested as scarcity when applied to disadvantages associated with race, class, and gender.

White films, for example, are not called “white,” but simply films. Adam Sandler and Kevin James, for example, have long resumes of films that certainly have been allowed an incredible amount of slack—forgiven the nearly unforgivable (think Trump) for hopes of some glimmer of humor nestled among the truly cliche, offensive, and just plain lazy.

Black Panther, even in the praise, is rendered into scarcity as a black film, and by implication must carry the weight of all black films, all black actors, all black writers (although the character was spawned by white creators in a very white, often racist industry).

Since Kevin James was allowed Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, just how close to perfect does Black Panther need to be?

The truest test of equity may be that all films have the same degree of slack.

School Safety: Slack and Scarcity as a Matter of Life and Death

While many in the US are reveling in the pop culture frenzy around Black Panther, the ugliest aspects of American culture once again expose how our on-screen violences pale against our gun culture and the ever-present threat of mass shootings, especially at the expense of students in school.

Although most mass shooters are white men, gun violence tends to prompt concerns about gangs and black-on-black crime, yet another demonstration of inequitable margins: White male mass shooters never prompt outcries about all white men (since the shooters are often framed as mentally ill) even though simply the threat of terrorism evokes blanket narratives and even policies about Muslims.

The paradox of gun violence and mass shootings in the US is that Americans have experienced increasingly less crime over the past four or so decades, even as the rate of mass shootings and gun violence remains disturbingly high when compared to other countries.

Debates about gun violence become yet more evidence of slack and scarcity linked to race.

Why has the country responded so positively to the teens speaking out after the shooting in Parkland, Florida but tended to reject or ignore the outcries from teens surrounding the all-to-frequent police shootings of young blacks, the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Simply stated, when anything appears to encroach on the huge slack whites perceive (safety in this case), mainstream responses flair, but the margins for safety are so thin for blacks, for example, that to live in danger as a black person has become normalized beneath the implication that blacks themselves are the ones perpetuating violence.*

Whites as victims (slack), and blacks as violent (scarcity).

Taking care about whether or not we criticize Black Panther holds some important symbolic value, but in terms of how we respond to a school shootings, we are now making decisions that are life and death.

Responses to the Parkland, Florida shooting have focused on how to make schools safer—in part, to avoid the larger gun control debate that is muted by the NRA.

Arming teachers is one extreme, but in an Op-Ed for The State (Columbia, SC), Will Britt argues:

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening. Still, they will require unified and emphatic parental endorsement: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

This is a compelling argument to those living in the slack of race privilege, but is a red flag to those living in slack, in very thin margins.

First, Britt’s argument is solidly refuted by evidence:

Impact of Security Measures on Violence

  • There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, 8,9,10,11 and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.12
  • There has not been sufficient research to determine if the presence of metal detectors in schools reduces the risk of violent behavior among students. 13
  • Some researchers have expressed concern about the widespread use of guards, cameras, and other security technologies, given that so little is known about their effectiveness. 14,15
  • Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students16 and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption17 and higher levels of disorder in schools. 18
  • Evidence from a school–police partnership implemented in New York City reveals that students in these schools continue to experience higher than average problems linked directly to future criminality, compared to students in other New York City schools not involved in the partnership. 19
  • Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.20
  • Research suggests that the presence of security guards and metal detectors in schools may actually increase levels of violence in schools by strengthening the influence of youth “street” culture with its emphasis on self-protection.21

If these measures do not work, why are they compelling?

Calls for more security, research shows, in fact is more veneer for racism since extreme measures such as metal detectors and surveillance cameras are more common in high-minority schools even when discipline issues are not more pronounced.

White slack dictates that white safety must be protected at all costs; black/brown scarcity dictates that there is no margin of error for protecting against black/brown violence.

American culture is today awash in a triumphant celebration of Black Panther jammed against a national scramble to confront our daily violences in the form of guns.

Turning our schools into fortresses if not prisons, and even arming teachers, presents those with race, gender, and economic slack a much different picture (more safety) than those with race, gender, and economic scarcity (more violence).

Margins still define us, and margins left unchecked are apt to destroy us in the end.


* The mainstream media and political focus on black-on-black crime allows whites to ignore that all crime is mostly same-race since white-on-white crime rates are nearly identical to black-on-black crime rates.

Research excerpt sources:

8 Garcia, C. A. (2003). School safety technology in America: Current use and perceived effectiveness. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 14, 30-54.

9 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

10 Borum, R., Cornell, D. G., Modzeleski, W., & Jimerson, S. R. (2010). What can be done about school shootings? A review of the evidence. Educational Researcher, 39, 27-37.

11 Casella, R. (2006). Selling us the fortress: The promotion of techno-security equipment in schools. New York: Routledge.

12 Addington, L. A. (2009). Cops and cameras: Public school security as a policy response to Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1424-1446.

13 Hankin, A., Hertz, M., & Simon, T. (2011). Impacts of metal detector use in schools: Insights from 15 years of research. Journal of School Health, 81, 100-106.

14 Birkland, T. A., & Lawrence, R. G. (2009). Media framing and policy change after Columbine. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 1405-1425.

15 Green, M. B. (2005). Reducing violence and aggression in schools. Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6, 236-253.

16 Schreck, C. J., & Miller, J. M., & Gibson, C. L. (2003). Trouble in the school yard: A study of the risk factors of victimization at school. Crime & Delinquency, 49, 460-484.

17 Nickerson, A. B., & Martens, M. R. (2008). School violence: Associations with control, security/enforcement, educational/therapeutic approaches, and demographic factors. School Psychology Review, 37, 228-243.

18 Mayer, M. J., & Leaone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and Treatment of Children, 22, 333-356.

19 Brady, K. P., Balmer, S., & Phenix, D. (2007). School-police partnership effectiveness in urban schools: An analysis of New York City’s Impact Schools Initiative. Education and Urban Society, 39, 455-478.

20 Warnick, B. R. (2007). Surveillance cameras in schools: An ethical analysis. Harvard Educational Review, 77, 317- 343.

21 Phaneuf, S. W. (2009). Security in schools: Its effect on students. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

Man Prefers Comic Books That Don’t Insert Politics Into Stories About Government-Engineered Agents Of War (The Onion) includes a simple picture of a 31-year-old white male with the hint of a soon-to-be Van Dyke:

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

“I’m tired of simply trying to enjoy escapist stories in which people are tortured and experimented upon at black sites run by authoritarian governments, only to have the creators cram political messages down my throat,” said Land, 31, who added that Marvel’s recent additions of female, LGBTQ, and racially diverse characters to long-running story arcs about tyrannical regimes turning social outsiders into powerful killing machines felt like PC propaganda run amok. “Look, I get that politics is some people’s thing, but I just want to read good stories about people whose position outside society makes them easy prey for tests run by amoral government scientists—without a heavy-handed allegory for the Tuskegee Study thrown in. Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?”

The satire here is the whitesplaining/mansplaining inherent in the politics of calling for no politics.

It strains the imagination only slightly to understand how this commentary on comic book fanboys also parallels the persistent combination in education of calling for no politics while using policy and a narrow definition of data and evidence to mask the racial and gender politics of formal schooling.

Let’s imagine, then, instead of the fictional Land an image of David Coleman (who parlayed his Common Core boondoggle into a cushy tenure as the head of the College Board) or John Hattie (he of the “poverty and class size do not matter” cults that provide Hattie with a gravy train as guru-consultant).

A close reading of David Coleman’s mug shot reveals a whole lot of smug.

In his “visible learning” hustle, John Hattie likely prefers to keep his enormous profits invisible.

Coleman and Hattie as technocrats feed the systemic racism, classism, and sexism in formal education policy and practice by striking and perpetuating an objective pose that serves as a veneer for the normalized politics of political and economic elites in the U.S.

As Daniel E. Ferguson examines, Coleman’s Common Core propaganda, the rebranded traditional mis-use of New Criticism into “close reading,” argues:

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

However, Ferguson adds,

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

And thus, close reading serves the cult of efficiency found in the high-stakes standardized testing industry that depends on the allure of believing all texts have singular meanings that can be assessed in multiple-choice formats—a dymanic Ferguson unmasks: “The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from.”

Simultaneously, of course, keeping students and teachers laser-focused on text only detracts them from the richer context of Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader implications of racism and classism informed by and informing King’s radical agenda.

Simply stated, close reading is a political agenda embedded in the discourse of objectivity that whitewashes King and denies voice and agency to King, teachers, and students.

Concurrently, Hattie’s catch phrase, “visible learning,” serves the same political agenda: Nothing matters unless we can observe and quantify it (of course, conveniently omitting that this act itself determines what is allowed to be seen—not the impact of poverty or the consequences of inequity, of course).

Hattie’s garbled research and data [1] match the recent efforts in education reform to isolate student learning as the value added (VAM) by individual teachers, yet another off-spring of the cult of efficiency manifested in high-stakes standardized testing.

Just as many have debunked the soundness of Hattie’s data and statistics, the VAM experiment has almost entirely failed to produce the outcomes it promised (see the school choice movement, the charter school movement, the standards movement, etc.).

Coleman and Hattie work to control what counts and what matters—the ultimate in politics—and thus are welcomed resources for those benefitting from inequity and wishing to keep everyone’s gaze on anything except that inequity.

The misogyny and racism among comic book fanboys allows the sort of political ignorance reflected in The Onion‘s satire.  If we remain “within the four corners of the text” of Marvel’s Captain America, for example, we are ignoring that, as I have examined, “Captain America has always been a fascist. … But … Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.”

The politics of education policy seeks to point the accusatory finger at other people’s politics, and that politics of policy is served by the technocrats, such as Coleman and Hattie, who feed and are fed by the lie of objectivity, the lie of no politics.


[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:

NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

Sandra Eckard, editor

Eckard_Comic Connections_Women[1] copy

See my chapter:

Wonder Woman: Reading and Teaching Feminism with an Amazonian Princess in an Era of Jessica Jones, P. L. Thomas

[Sample excerpt from Classroom Connections section]

Women Superhero Costumes and Sexism in Student Dress Codes

“The original Wonder Woman comics included page after page of bondage imagery, scads of cross-dressing villains, and really remarkably unrepressed lesbian eroticism[i],” explains Noah Berlatsky, examining The New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman, adding: “The best Azzarello/Chiang can do, in contrast, is to have their Amazons pose like Playboy models while Eros makes sophomoric cracks about the quest for seminal mortal vessels.”[ii] The tension between the potential for a woman superhero to confront and change corrosive social norms such as sexism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and objectifying/sexualizing women and the too-often reality of pop culture to reflect and reinforce those norms is throughout Wonder Woman, including how she is physically depicted as a superhero.

While comic books and graphic novels can be effective in classes as ways to reach beyond traditional texts, using Wonder Woman to lead into topics directly relevant to students is also recommended. Consider the controversial issue of dress codes for students as that is dramatized in depictions of Diana Prince and Wonder Woman.

In The New 52 rebooting of Wonder Woman, many have confronted the sexualizing of Wonder Woman in her costume and poses.[iii] These debates about objectification of females as well as slut shaming and body shaming can be introduced through Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman: Blood and the Meredith and David Finch runs before Rebirth), and then, students can research and debate the gender bias often found in school dress codes. Some resources for the latter include:

  • Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code[iv]. This is a documentary by a 17-year-old student, available on YouTube. This could be a text in this unit or a model for documentaries created by students.
  • “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” Li Zhou (The Atlantic).[v] This is a well-written work of journalism that covers the topic of sexism in dress codes well and serves as a strong model for public writing that uses hyperlinks as citation.
  • “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” Meredith J. Harbach.[vi] Here, students can examine a scholarly approach to the issues of sexism and dress codes.
  • “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Rosalind Wiseman (Anti-Defamation League).[vii] A curriculum resource and excellent overview, this can serve as a guideline for students lobbying for changes to dress codes and/or writing alternative codes that avoid bias.
  • “Baby Woman,” Emily Ratajkowski (Lenny).[viii] Ratajkowski is a contemporary celebrity, model and actress, who takes a strong public position as a feminist, despite her association with provocative and sexualized media (controversial music videos and TV commercials). Her personal narrative is a strong model of the genre, but it also complicates views of feminism and female sexuality as well as objectification.

Using the texts above, students can write persuasive essays, cited essays, and new dress codes; they can participate in formal or informal debates; and they can develop projects around identifying how popular media and culture objectify and shame women based on physical appearance and clothing. A unit on dress code linked to Wonder Woman is a provocative and rich unit that challenges students on many levels.

Finally, in this section on teaching through Wonder Woman, I am listing some additional resources for other units of study:

  • Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces.[ix]
  • Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time.[x]
  • Christopher J. Hayton, “Evolving Sub-Texts in the Visual Exploitation of the Female Form: Good Girl and Bad Girl Comic Art Pre- and Post-Second Wave Feminism,” ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies 4 (2014), www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v7_4/hayton/
  • Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal.[xi]
  • Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture.[xii]

Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios.[xiii]

[i] Noah Berlatsky, “Comic Books Have Always Been Gay,” Slate, June 1, 2012, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/01/gay_comic_books_have_been_around_since_the_birth_of_wonder_woman.html

[ii] Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iii] Ryan, “Wonder Woman Takes a Big Step Back” and Berlatsky, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act.”

[iv] Maggie Sunseri, Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Codes, YouTube, may 29, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgAZO_5U_U

[v] Li Zhou, “Why School Dress Codes Are Sexist,” The Atlantic, October 20, 2015, accessed February 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/10/school-dress-codes-are-problematic/410962/

[vi] Meredith Johnson Harbach, “Sexualization, Sex Discrimination, and Public School Dress Codes,” 50 U. Rich. L. Rev. 1039 (2016), access February 10, 2017, http://scholarship.richmond.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2275&context=law-faculty-publications

[vii] Rosalind Wiseman, “The Unspoken Messages of Dress Codes: Uncovering Bias and Power,” Anti-Defamation League, September 2014, accessed February 10, 2017, http://www.adl.org/education-outreach/curriculum-resources/c/the-unspoken-language-of-bias-and-power.html

[viii] Emily Ratajkowski, “Baby Woman,” Lenny, February 16, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, http://www.lennyletter.com/life/a265/baby-woman-emily-ratajkowski/

[ix] Robert Jones Jr., “Bumbling: DC Super Hero Girls and the White Racial Imagination,” The Middle Spaces, May 10, 2016, accessed February 2, 2017, https://themiddlespaces.com/2016/05/10/bumbling-dc-super-hero-girls/

[x] Eliana Dockterman, “Wonder Woman Breaks Through,” Time, December 26, 2016–January 2, 2017.

[xi] Charlotte E. Howell, “‘Tricky’ Connotations: Wonder Woman as DC’s Brand Disruptor,” Cinema Journal 55.1 (2015, Fall), DOI: 10.1353/cj.2015.0072.

[xii] Mitra C. Emad, “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation,” The Journal of Popular Culture 39.6 (2006).

[xiii] Kelli E. Stanley, “‘Suffering Sappho!’: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal,” Helios 32.2 (2005).

Toxic Masculinity, Predatory Men, and Male Paralysis

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

This is my sixth decade as a human, as a white, straight male.

Here I want to attempt confession, possibly seeking greater understanding, but fully aware of the huge complexities of making these claims, raising these personal struggles in the context of my many privileges.

I am treading lightly but committed to rise above the problematic satire of Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs”—which both speaks to me and makes me cringe:

Let me tell y’all what it’s like
Being male, middle-class, and white
It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe
Listen up to my new CD

My formative years over the 1960s and 1970s were spent in the redneck South. Just as I was reared to be a racist, I was taught very clearly to objectify women, even as that was tempered in my immediate family by direct and indirect messages about respecting and loving women/girls.

Growing up, I was a Mama’s boy, I was very close to my sister (my only sibling), and I had strong and warm relationships with aunts and my maternal grandmother.

As a so-called pre-sexual boy, then, I genuinely learned to feel deep and healthy affection for women/girls—to whom I have always been drawn more strongly than any male bonds.

As a teen, however, I was significantly enculturated into objectifying women, sowing the seeds for potentially behaving in ways that fed into and participated in predatory masculinity and even the various degrees of rape culture.

My classroom was, at first, superhero comic books and then soft-core pornography (such as Playboy and Penthouse)—but the wider popular culture was always reinforcing the worst possible models for how men treat women.

But as all this colored my attempts to be a sexual person, seeking out romantic relationships throughout high school and college, I was also being shaped in how I interacted with the world aesthetically, notably in that I was actively teaching myself visual art by drawing from both comic books and nude photography in the euphemistically named men’s magazines.

One can see a theme in my adolescent artwork:

Storm

Storm from the X-Men

Vargas

I shifted from comic books to men’s magazines and copying the objectifying artwork of Alberto Vargas, popularized in Playboy.

As a teen and young man, I was certainly trapped in very unhealthy but subtle patterns that could only be overcome by gaining critical awareness over my mid-20s into and my mid-30s (when I completed my doctoral program).

Some of that critical awareness was powerfully acquired through my commitment to learning from and teaching important literature such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Margate Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well as poetry units I taught on Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath.

Ultimately, writing an educational biography grounded in feminist theory stands in hindsight as the crowning experience as I approached 40 for a healthy awakening into fully appreciating toxic masculinity, predatory men, objectifying women, the male gaze, and rape culture.

Just as I would explain about my racial awareness, my sexual and gender awareness remains a journey, and as such, I find myself often paralyzed because, as a man, I represent still the potential for abuse through my status, the threat men pose for women in a society that continues to objectify and marginalize females—especially in terms of failing to listen to women who risk telling of their experiences with predatory men and rape culture.

My adult life has been spent as a partner, friend, parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach—all requiring me to monitor my status of power granted by being male and by my professional and familial positions in relationship with females.

As a coach and teacher, I have been (and continue) to be prone to call young women “darling” in casual moments—rightfully prompting some of my closest friends and colleagues who are women to call me on the language, the positioning.

I remain aesthetically drawn to photography and artwork of women nudes—entirely unsure if I can disentangle my toxic past from what I consider non-objectifying appreciation of art.

And so, as I noted above, I stumble toward 60, a man with good intentions who understands that is never enough; I am often reduced to paralysis in how to navigate the world in ways that are equitable and healthy for everyone regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or class.

I am genuinely terrified of ever making any woman/girl feel discomfort because of my masculine presence, my inadvertent gaze, my language, or the implicit threat of my status in relationship to her.

Often these days, I must confront these tensions as I snuggle with my granddaughter who I dearly want to grow up with healthy views of gender and sexuality, who I want to avoid any sort of predatory world.

My daughter was raised without corporal punishment, and now her children have been gifted that same dignity.

I work hard to practice what I preach and feel I make contributions small and even large to a kinder and more compassionate world—a world in which women and children need not ever fear men.

But even the best men walk in the wake of the worst men have given this world—the worst men continue to give to this world, and the women and children who must suffer for that.

Each man must moment by moment examine how he is culpable, where and how he stands in this world in relationship to women and children.

The dilemma of navigating the world as a man is couched in the unearned privilege, the potential for an abuse of unearned power that shouts out “First, do no harm.”

For a man committed to that, however, how does he live a full life without being paralyzed by the worst of being a man, behaviors that often go unpunished and even masked to protect some men from consequences.

How does any man avoid paralysis reading about the Stanford rape case or the stories of women as victims of predatory men?

This remains a rhetorical question for any man with an ethical imperative for his life—not a question for any woman or any child to offer their compassion.

For any man, for each man, this is ours to confront, to answer, and to act.

As long as men hold most of the power that shapes the world, it is ours to build a consensual environment in which human dignity supersedes the brute force of power.

Between acquiescing to the basest of male behaviors and paralysis is the true way, about which Franz Kafka wrote: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

Pause. Listen. Look carefully before taking any step.


For Further Reading

Experts in the FieldBonnie Nadzam

Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment

The Predatory Men of Academic Creative Writing, John Warner

“He knows, or thinks he knows”: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World

True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

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

“Gravity”: The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Woman

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

For Pre-order: Teaching Comics Through Multiple Lenses: Critical Perspectives

Teaching Comics Through Multiple Lenses: Critical Perspectives

Editor: Crag Allen Hill

9781138649903

About the Book

Building off the argument that comics succeed as literature—rich, complex narratives filled with compelling characters interrogating the thought-provoking issues of our time—this book argues that comics are an expressive medium whose moves (structural and aesthetic) may be shared by literature, the visual arts, and film, but beyond this are a unique art form possessing qualities these other mediums do not. Drawing from a range of current comics scholarship demonstrating this point, this book explores the unique intelligence/s of comics and how they expand the ways readers engage with the world in ways different than prose, or film, or other visual arts. Written by teachers and scholars of comics for instructors, this book bridges research and pedagogy, providing instructors with models of critical readings around a variety of comics.

Table of Contents

Contents

Preface

1. Introduction: The Growing Relevance of Comics

Crag Hill

Section 1: Materiality and the Reading of Comics

2. Designing Meaning: A Multimodal Perspective on Comics Reading

Sean P. Connors

3. Multimodal Forms: Examining Text, Image, and Visual Literacy in Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief

Amy Bright

Section 2: Comics and Bodies

4. Illustrating Youth: A Critical Examination of the Artful Depictions of

Adolescent Characters in Comics

Mark A. Lewis

5. Just Like Us? LGBTQ Characters in Mainstream Comics

A. Scott Henderson

Section 3: Comics and the Mind

6. Telling the Untellable: Comics and Language of Mental Illness

Sarah Thaller

7. Christian Forgiveness in Gene Luen Yang’s Animal Crackers and Eternal Smile: A Thematic Analysis

Jake Stratman

Section 4: Comics and Contemporary Society

8. Poverty Lines: Visual Depictions of Poverty and Social Class Realities in Comics

Fred Johnson, Whitworth University, and Janine J. Darragh, University of Idaho

9. Can Superhero Comics Defeat Racism?: Black Superheroes “Torn between Sci-Fi Fantasy and Cultural Reality”

P.L. Thomas

10. Teaching Native American Comics with Post-Colonial Theory

Lisa Schade Eckert

Section 5: Endpoints

11. Crag Hill

List of Contributors

Additional resources were compiled by Shaina Thomas.

O Captain America! Our Captain America!

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

“Daddy,” Sylvia Plath

Camille Paglia has confronted her own prescience about the direct line from Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor or California to Donald Trump now being a serious candidate for president: “This is how fascism is born.”

And while these political realities—possibly catastrophic to a people clinging to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—will likely not receive very much attention by the mainstream public, please don’t **** with an iconic comic book superhero:

The goal, of course, is to shock readers into buying the next issue, and presumably that’s what comics scribe Nick Spencer and his colleagues at Marvel Comics hoped to do when they executed a final-page revelation in last Wednesday’s Captain America: Steve Rogers No. 1: We learned that Cap is actually … evil? The Star-Spangled Avenger uttered the words, “Hail Hydra,” the fascistic slogan of longtime villain collective Hydra. Say it ain’t so!

Comic books (and more recently graphic novels and the film adaptation of superhero comic books) have always been both a reflection of and fuel for pop culture in the U.S.

And the primary subgenre of comic books, superhero narratives, has done far more to perpetuate the very worst of our society than to confront or seek to rise above xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and warmongering.

Marvel Comics claimed the comic book throne in the 1960s—over long-time powerhouse DC—but has since experienced a renaissance through film adaptations.

Iron Man and Captain America, for example, have recaptured the public’s imagination—but only a few have offered that their appeal is strongly grounded in our militarism, our patriotism that is strongly tainted with nationalism and even jingoism.

These film adaptations have carried on a tradition of the comic book industry—one that is primarily market driven: the reboot.

Now, however, pop culture has two competing set of fans, clashing nerdoms—those who worship at the alter of the comic book universe(s) and those who worship at the alter of the film universe(s).

Captain America being outed as a life-long fascist, then, in the pages of the comic book reboot of Steve Rogers as Captain America along side Sam Wilson as the replacement Captain America (see below) has drawn the ire of fans.

However, that anger lacks a grasp of both the history of Captain America and that Captain America has always been our fascist.

The general public in the U.S. suffers under a lazy understanding of terminology—such as “communism,” “socialism,” and “fascism”—and under the weight of an idealized (and misleading) faith in capitalism, one that confuses the “free market” with freedom, liberty.

The horrors of fascism include its embracing totalitarianism and militarism in order to sustain corporatism. It is fascism, in fact, that is perfectly reflected in Captain America.

In a chapter I recently completed and is now in publication, I examine race in superhero comic books, and focus on the ascension of Sam Wilson, black and formerly The Falcon, to being Captain America. In that discussion, I researched and unpacked the history of Captain America.

Here is an excerpt of that unpacking from the section subhead “Comic Book Superheroes: From Gods to White Knights”:

While gaining a much larger cultural status because of the rise of Marvel films, Captain America may best represent how superhero comics represent race and racism—as the ultimate White Knight. “Captain America, an obviously Aryan ideal,” McWilliams (2009) poses, “has always had a curious relationship with racial ideals” (p. 66) [emphasis added]. In fact, Golden Age (from the 1940s), Silver Age (later mid-twentieth century), and contemporary Captain America each represents well the comic book industry (and Marvel Comics specifically) as well as how popular culture reflects/perpetuates and confronts race and racial stereotypes.

As superhero archetype, Captain America embodies the masked duality (Brown, 1999), the white ideal, the masculine norm, and the periodic rebooting of superhero origins as part marketing strategy and part recalibration that helps mend the tear between the official canon of the comic book universe with the changing real world. The rebooted origin stories of Captain America/Steve Rogers are powerful lessons in race and the comic book industry (Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009).

The 1940s Captain America arrived in the wake of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman from the minds and pencil of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Uber-patriotic, these foundational stories, including the original origin of Steve Rogers’ transformation into Captain America, are xenophobic and perversely fueled by eugenics (Hack, 2009). Somehow the medically altered superhuman maneuvers in the U.S. were morally superior to Hitler’s parallel ethnic cleansing [emphasis added]. The 1970s Marvel recasting of Captain America by Kirby and Stan Lee reflected the changing social mood about war (Vietnam)[i], and laid the foundation for coming face-to-face with race and civil rights with the addition of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (to be explored in detail below). Although this new Captain America in the Silver Age incorporated the best and worst of Blaxploitation conventions found in films of the era (McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011), this new origin sought to erase traces of eugenics from the Captain America mythos (Hack).

From the 1980s (a hot decade for rebooting origins, highlighted by Frank Miller’s Batman) and into the early 2000s, Captain America’s origin continued to be reshaped. Notable for a consideration of race is Truth: Red, White and Black from 2003, which details a remarkable alternate origin as a medical experiment on black men (echoing Tuskegee), resulting in Isaiah Bradley ascension as the actual first Captain America (Connors, 2013; Hack, 2009; McWilliams, 2009; Nama, 2011). While the Truth/Bradley side-narrative is important in an investigation of race in comic books, Captain America provides an even more important entry point into race and superhero comic books through the 1970s teaming with Sam Wilson/The Falcon, and then the more recent and new origin story in which Wilson becomes the new (and black) Captain America (see below). However, the entire Captain America mythos, as Hack (2009) concludes, “begs the question as to whether comics such as CA [Captain America] knowingly presented a different America from the one that actually existed [and exists], or if the creators of these books believed a version of reality in which eugenics was a boon to civic virtue and in which no American would knowingly profit from Nazism. …Good and evil were [and are] presented in reductionist terms, and offered little of what contemporary conservatives decry as moral relativism; yet these distinctions were no less blurry in pre-war America as they are today: war, as always, is business” (p. 88).

It is in that broader context, I believe, that the Falcon and Wilson’s donning the cowl of Captain America are central pieces of the complex puzzle revealing how comic books address race.

So Captain America has always been a fascist. But we actually didn’t need Marvel’s newest reveal to know that.

Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.


See Also

Hydra the Beautiful: The American Roots of Captain America’s Quasi-Nazi Revelation, Noah Berlatsky

Having the good guys turn out to be bad guys is fun as a plot device. But, as Truth shows, the actual implications aren’t fun at all. When Captain America beats up Hitler, it’s a blow against white supremacy. But given the twisted origin and development of the protagonist, it can also be seen as a blow for white supremacy, Jim Crow, segregation, racism and the eugenic fantasies that helped inspire Hitler to begin with. Hate’s a big part of what made Captain America into Captain America, with his blonde hair and perfect muscles. “Hail Hydra” is as American as apple pie, or superheroes.

LGBT Visibility: This Fucking Week, Matt Santori-Griffith

Oyola, O. (2015, November 3). The Captain white America needs [Web log]. The Middle Spaces. Retrieved from https://themiddlespaces.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/the-captain-white-america-needs/

References

Brown, J.A. (1999, Spring). Comic book masculinity and the new black superhero. African American Review, 33(1), 25-42.

Connors, S.P. (2013). “It’s a bird … It’s a plane … It’s … a comic book in the
classroom?”: Truth: Red, white, and black as test case for teaching superhero comics. In P.L. Thomas (Ed.), Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres (pp. 165-184). Boston, Ma: Sense Publishers.

Hack, B.E. (2009). Weakness is a crime: Captain America and the Eugenic ideal in early twentieth-century America. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 79-89). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

McWilliams, O.C. (2009). Not just another racist honkey: A history of racial representation in Captain America and related publications. In R.G. Weiner (Ed.), Captain America and the struggle of the superhero: Critical essays (pp. 66-78). Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.

Nama, A. (2011). Super black: American pop culture and black superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press.

[i] Corresponding as well with Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972, identified by most comic books scholars as a key moment in the cultural awareness of the medium.