“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin

Toward the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut mostly abandoned his life as a novelist, publishing instead political rants against George W. Bush and Republicans for In These Times. Some of those essays formed A Man Without a Country in 2005.

Vonnegut in 1972

Vonnegut, 1972

On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died, and then a few months past a year later, George Carlin also died. Vonnegut (84), chain-smoking aside, lived a full 13 years longer than Carlin (71), who had his struggles with recreational drugs and heart disease.

Carlin and Vonnegut profoundly shaped me, Carlin’s comedy albums in the 1970s and Vonnegut’s impressive body of novels and essays throughout my adulthood. Both men as well ultimately became, as Carlin phrases, “old farts”:

Playing off Carlin’s joke that “farts are shit without the mess,” I must here acknowledge that both of these influential men were very weak versions of themselves in the final years—and they also began to fail significantly the brilliance they offered in the prime of their careers.

Two experiences with Carlin lately have nudged me to account for my affection for him and Vonnegut.

First, a much younger friend recently watched some Carlin stand up on YouTube; the response was, “He’s really problematic.” As I watched, these were much later clips, and I found them underwhelming, mostly angry-old-man rants that weren’t very thoughtful and held little evidence of the comedian I worshipped and memorized after listening to his albums over and over in my bedroom as a teenager.

Carlin’s Class Clown and Occupation: Foole were so smart and incisive, such powerful works of language, I am certain these are some of the most solid foundations of how I came to be a reader, writer, and teacher.

When I think of Carlin, I recall his slipping into songs and skits that I still can do by heart: Class Clown, Muhammad Ali—America the Beautiful, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. But I am in retrospect also drawn to his noting that he attended a John Dewey progressive Catholic school, where he terrorized the nuns.

Carlin and Vonnegut spoke to me through their irreverence, especially toward religion, and, of course, their deft use of language and dark humor; I also embraced the profanity.

But, second, after the sobering experience of watching Carlin with a friend, I saw these Tweets by Ja’han Jones:

Something really hard for me to confront happened to Carlin between his three-album run in the 1970s and his posthumously released I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. The skit and material for this were shelved by Carlin because of 9/11 and then Katrina.

That collection is representative of the later Carlin, the ranting that seems, as Jones questions, little more than conservative “get off my lawn” material; this Carlin seems as annoying as being crop-dusted by a stranger while trying to shop—offensive for offensive’s sake.

As a 2008 routine shows, unlike his brilliant examination of profanity from his early career, Carlin begins simply to swear a lot:

I’d like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it fuck Tiger Woods, too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? You know? Being told who you ought to be looking up to. I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much. And fuck Dr. Phil, too. Dr. Phil said I should express my emotions, so that’s what I’m doing. Now, since the last time I rolled through these parts, and I do roll through with some frequency. I’m a little bit like herpes. I keep coming back. But since the last time, I might have seen some of you folks I have had my 70th birthday.

Carlin, the old fart.

I was in New Orleans the spring before Katrina hit, the natural disaster that, like 9/11, gave Carlin pause about his angry-old-man wish for a lot of deaths. My friend and I were tired, and back in our hotel room, I flipped through the cable channels, falling on Carlin in a 1992 interview by Charlie Rose.

Carlin explained “I don’t vote and I really don’t,” once again nudging into my life and steering how I navigated the world.

By 1996, again on Rose, Carlin is a more fully formed “old fart” from the hints of libertarianism in 1992 (“between you and me, I do not consent to be governed”), the detached observer without hope:

There’s a little bit of a sick part in this too, I [root] for the big comic, for the big asteroid to come and make things right….To get us back where we were before the first one came and knocked out these dinosaurs and…I’m routing for that big one to come right through that hole in the ozone layer because I want to see it on CNN. See, I’m here for the entertainment, Charlie. I am. People, philosophers say, “Why are we here?” I know why I’m here, for the…show. Bring it on, I want to see the circus.

Well, we’ve all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work, and always implicit in the work is some positive outcome. That this is all going to work, if only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if we only elect him, if only we do that. It’s not true, it’s circling drain time for humans. I believe this, I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian, “He thinks that he has to say that,” I believe it, and when you say to yourself, “I don’t care what happens,” it just gives you a broader perspective for the art. For the words to emerge. To not care, that’s what happened in that ’92 show, that’s why I could say the planet is fine the people are (fart sound). Because the planet will outlast us, it will be here, and it will be fine.

At 81, Vonnegut wrote in “Cold Turkey”:

Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.

But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.

Ultimately, with Vonnegut and Carlin, I recognize their counter-cultural roots in the 1960s and 1970s (when both men really hit) that shift from skepticism to cynicism as they approached death—humanity is doomed because we are self-defeating and at war with each other and Nature.

What am I to do with the ideal, maybe even idealized, Carlin and Vonnegut who shaped me against the “old farts” they became?

I am not sure, really, but I am left with one more similarity between the two men, a few lines late in Vonnegut’s claimed last novel, Timequake, “Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”


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Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

“Your House Is Just a Place for Your Stuff”

The secretary’s desk is dark wood with a pull down door and one drawer beneath the main section, divided into sections for office supplies and such. It sits now in a very dark corner of my parents’ living room, and I am certain we had that desk in our house in Enoree, South Carolina during the 1960s, and then in the two subsequent houses after.

I spent part of Saturday afternoon taking three car loads of trash from their house to the nearby dump. But part of the time helping one of my nephews go through everything in my deceased parents’ house was spent cleaning out that desk.

Stacks of medical bills reaching back almost two decades, tax returns from the late 1980s and 1990s, unopened packs of pens and Rook playing cards—the desk was some awkward combination of mausoleum, careless filing system, and hoarding.

I found handwritten notes my nephew had left for my parents to wake him on time; also his assorted certificates from school along with school pictures of my other nephew when he was on the basketball team.

In the single lower drawer was a hefty stack of newspaper pages and clippings—all of me.

There I saw a jumbled cataloging of my hair, facial hair, and glasses (or not) styles, and then on the bottom, I found a dark yellow page crumbling at the edges.

The date was 1968, and staring out at me was my first-grade school picture beside a brief story about my surprise seventh birthday party.

My childhood at that moment holding a crumbling yellowed newspaper seemed especially foreign, as if not in a different time but a different world. A child’s birthday party and picture in a small town newspaper.

I felt like the brother and sister must have in Pleasantville after being transported into a TV sitcom from the 1950s.

My nephew and I were on a second weekend of going through my parents’ stuff, in hopes that we can over the summer sell the house. The finality of my parents’ death can only come through the total eradication of their stuff, in the wake, of course, of all the legal complications of deceased people, their stuff, and those who may have claims against them and that stuff.

The process has developed into determining if everything is either something someone in the family would want, something for a yard sale, or trash.

Almost everything from the desk I shuffled through went into a large box that I loaded into my SUV with as many garbage bags as it would hold to toss mostly without any thought into the giant and relentless trash compactor at the waste site.

The main compartment of the refuse receptacle has criss-crossing bars over the top to control the size of what people can toss in. The near side is a large angled metal surface that bags and trash slide down violently into a smaller area where a giant plunger pulls back and then compacts the trash into a surprisingly small storage area to the right.

All this stuff my parents had kept, much of it paperwork documenting all the stuff of their lives—this machine thoughtlessly pounded into a uniform rectangle of just trash to be hauled to yet another refuse facility, probably a landfill.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

The stuff we just had to buy, the stuff we made ourselves miserable to attain, and the stacks and stacks of paperwork documenting all that stuff and all the payments of our monied lives—all of it comes mostly to trash.

But before it is trash, it must be handled one last time, christened trash, sometimes thoughtlessly and sometimes with the hesitation of placing it in a stack as if it should carry on—until in a flash it too is tossed into a box or bag as once-stuff-now-trash.

Three times carrying my parents’ stuff to my SUV, three times unloading bags and boxes to be tossed into the giant compactor, three times driving to and from the waste site—this mini-ritualizing of my parents stuff into trash was yet one more thing I could not have anticipated about the terrible thing that is any person’s death.

Just common flawed people, my parents both died in ways no one really deserves—clinging to bodies that simply had run their course and laboring under the dark cloud of how much everything would cost and a medical care system reduced to a mechanistic nightmare by the insurance industry.

As I paused a few times watching the giant trash compactor work—steeling myself against the smell and the din of this machine grinding on and on—I recognized an unintended metaphor for what my parents had experienced in their dying.

Or to be brutally honest, their living also.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

During one trip back to their house from the waste site, I thought about George Carlin’s routine on stuff:

“The whole meaning of life, isn’t it: Trying to find a place for your stuff”—so when you die, it is all in one place, easier to sort through and mostly haul off as trash: “They don’t bother with that crap you’re saving. Ain’t nobody interested in your fourth grade arithmetic papers.”

I put yellowed and brittle paper from 1968 to the side while I finished sorting through the desk. I picked it up, thought about being seven and recalling my parents as a young couple, and then could not bear the thought of taking this newspaper page to my house for someone to look at and decide it was finally trash.

All of that stuff mattered the wrong way, and then it became in a flash stuff that doesn’t matter at all.

When we die, people go through all our stuff and throw most of it away.

Confessions of a Born Again Agnostic

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

Born November 11, 1922, Kurt Vonnegut has been dead a few months more than a decade now. For all his dark humor and fantastic stories, it seems impossible to believe he could have imagined the U.S. in 2017.

President George W. Bush left Vonnegut in a near-constant state of exasperation so a country now led by Trump with Republicans and conservative Christians scrambling to excuse every indecency known to humanity, including crimes against women and children, would make even Vonnegut shrug, “Nobody would buy it.”

On this day of Vonnegut’s birth, I am witnessing a world I could have never imagined—especially considering my lifelong mostly closeted existence as an atheist/agnostic.

I came to recognize that atheism/agnosticism in the first years of college, and I also realized this was no choice, but who I am to the bone.

During intense years of reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, and other existentialists mostly, I was an aggressive atheist, mostly outing myself and obnoxiously confronting peers who were themselves equally obnoxious as witnessing Christians.

Being born, growing up, and living in the deep South, the Bible Belt, I was confronting this aspect of my Self with a great deal of angst, fear, and self-loathing. Once I graduated and entered my profession as a public school English teacher—at the same high school I had attended in my home town—this important aspect of who I was as a young adult was quickly packed back into the closet.

The four schools of the district I taught in literally surrounded the dominant church in the small town, the steeple towering above the horizon when looking from any of the school buildings.

Many students attended that church, but everyone in the school confronted everyone about what church they attended.

The great paradox about my early years teaching was that I was adamant about not sharing my atheism with my students, about not in any way imposing my nontraditional beliefs on my students who were in most ways as I was growing up in that town.

Yet, gradually and increasingly, students were more and more aggressive about asking and even explicitly pushing me to confirm or deny a rumor I was an atheist.

This was incredibly stressful for my early years. I literally feared for my job each time these situations popped up, some of them reaching administration and causing me to be quizzed by the principal as well.

Later in my time at that school for almost two decades, this became something of a joke, that I refused to answer what I did or did not believe. But it lingered as a threat none the less.

I tried to play along; it was a defense mechanism about the closeted life.

Once, when one of the office staff asked me just to tell her the truth, I looked around to make sure we were alone, and then whispered, “I am an agrarian,” before walking away with a smile.

The next day when I saw her, she apparently had shared my confession with someone, unaware of the joke, so I followed up with, “That’s right. I work the land!”

Being atheist/agnostic, however, has never been anything other than stress for me, as an outlier, someone who simply sees the world unlike the vast majority of people. Even moving to higher education, I am moment by moment confronted by traditionally religious students and the norm of being Christian and attending church.

Once while in a diversity training session for faculty, the facilitator had people stand by their religious identities. The list worked through virtually every faith and many Christian denominations, but non-believers were excluded by omission.

In my row were two colleagues who are atheists as well. We made eye contact, one shaking her head, and I simply stood, leaving the session.

From those early days of college, my embarrassing certainty and in-your-face atheism, to my much more reserved and comfortable understanding that I am a born again agnostic, I have continued to suffer under the weight of how angry traditional Christians make me with their conservative politics and egregious hypocrisy.

I want to bite my tongue, but it is challenging, especially in political discussions.

The Moral Majority, the Religious Right, and the Reagan era—these were the sort of perverse marriages of politics and religion that confirmed by humanistic commitments, ones espoused by Vonnegut, and my inability to commit to the petty God and spurious dogma of organized religion, often brilliantly skewered by George Carlin.

So I sit here on Vonnegut’s birthday genuinely stunned at the U.S., this bastardized Christian nation in which white evangelicals overwhelmingly voted for a sexual predator and continue to support him.

This bastardized Christian nation in which so-called Christians contort themselves in whatever way necessary to justify child abusers and sexual abusers, abdicating any semblance of moral or ethical beliefs for crass political affiliation.

This, then, is what I could have never imagined: The religious right is so morally bankrupt that I am for the first time in my nearly six decades entirely comfortable to be out of the closet as a born again agnostic committed, as Vonnegut wrote, “to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead.”

With the current unmasking of very awful men living their lives mostly without any consequences for being very awful, I must admit Vonnegut himself was a flawed man, embodying the tension in the spotlight now between artist and his art.

In Vonnegut’s case, I do not justify or excuse his flaws as a man—just as I admit my own—but I do hold tight to the many wonderful and enduring codes he at least promoted with his writing, and best expressed in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, where the titular character of the novel, Eliot Rosewater, implores:

“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.’” (p. 129)

Everything else, including religion in the service of politics, is, as Carlin charged, bullshit.

Gods and Heroes: A Musing

Over the course of my doctoral program, I became a biographer, specifically an education biographer by writing about the life and career of Lou LaBrant.

As part of my journey, I dove into reading biographies—many about women and also about writers—and studying feminist theories of biography along with the relatively new field of educational biography.

Reading literary biographies about Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath had a profound impact on me as a teacher, writer, and would-be biographer. Especially enriched was my teaching because I was able to move beyond the narrow idealizing that is common when we love or fall in love with an artist’s work, a poet’s words that are a part of the creator but certainly not the whole story.

I also delved into reading multiple biographies of the same person—such as Dickinson and Plath—but the most disturbing experiences with reading multiple biographies included Thomas Jefferson and e.e. cummings.

And here is the short version of that: especially, people larger than life are incredibly disappointing when they are detailed for you in full.

So I come back again and again to cummings, whose work was seminal for me as a poet and writer and whose work I love to this day.

For all his poetic brilliance and perceptive sensitivity about the human condition, cummings was at times, if not often, a lazy thinker and a really calloused person.

Like Kurt Vonnegut as well, cummings seemed incapable of honoring the fidelity of other people’s hearts in direct contradiction to his writing. But who among us have avoided this failure?

That, I must confess, is the irony of this reading biography—coming up against the bared and stark truth about each human, no matter how badly we yearn for gods and heroes.

Since each of us lives with our True Selves, knows every single thought, and despite how hard we try otherwise, must confront all our bitter failures and weaknesses, humans are prone to manufacturing gods and heroes.

Another terribly flawed seminal person of my life is George Carlin, whose routines on why he didn’t believe in god are some of his most insightful and enduring unmaskings.

To paraphrase, Carlin would walk through how the Christian God is sold as this all-powerful, perfect, and loving deity—and yet, the narratives of God reveal a truly petty being not unlike the very worst of humans.

This too is how we manufacture heroes, superheroes.

Superman, it seems, was just too perfect so the need for Kryptonite and the most powerful flaw of all in humanity—romantic love.

Simultaneously, then, humans are both repulsed by the flaws of being fully human—the impulse to create gods—and unable to rise above our own attraction for our flawed but idealized selves—the impulse to create heroes.

“anyone lived in a pretty how town,” cummings opines, detailing with both a child-like rhythm and a stark journalistic eye the fate that awaits us all:

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

Closer the grave that unites us all than to the birth that we also share, I marvel at my granddaughter now bursting with language and imagination—and worry about cummings’s lines: “children guessed(but only a few/and down they forgot as up they grew.”

Out of narcissism and self-loathing we manufacture gods and heroes, but in that haste, we forget to kiss a face despite our eternal longing for our faces to be kissed.

What good these gods and heroes if we cannot see the very real people right there in front of us, more precious than anything we can imagine?

At a Great Beyond Starbucks: Deleuze, Freire, Kafka, and Malcolm X Discuss Obama

“Shouldn’t we be at a bar?” Gilles Deleuze raises his arms and hands scanning around the Great Beyond Starbucks.

“It’s Malcolm,” Franza Kafka explains. “Doesn’t drink.”

“Coffee either,” Deleuze shrugs. “And why are we here? Talking about some American football player and the president?”

“The brother has a name,” Malcolm X says walking to the table before sitting. “Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick.”

Paulo Freire scoots his chair over so the table mostly is equally divided among Deleuze, Kafka, Malcolm, and himself.

“And the president, Obama, is talking like a house slave,” Malcolm continues. “Telling Kaepernick to consider how he has hurt military members and their families.”

“It is the bureaucratization of the mind,” Freire interjects. “Obama must assume the political pose of the bureaucrat—seeking to offend no one and as a result offending everyone.”

“Poseidon,” Kafka offers absently.

“Poseidon?” Malcolm asks, scanning the others at the table.

“Obama has endless work, the work of a bureaucrat, the chief bureaucrat,” Kafka sighs.

Deleuze raises a hand, adding, “It is the necessity of administration, of administering. Always reforming, always in flux.” He pauses with a slight shake of his head. “If he declares anything, it is over, finished. To be finished is to be without purpose. The nightmare of the bureaucrat.”

“If Jimmy was there,” Malcolm says, “if Jimmy were there, he would say what needs to be said.”

“Jimmy?” asks Deleuze.

“Baldwin,” Freire leans toward Deleuze. “James Baldwin.”

“O, yes, where is Baldwin?” asks Deleuze.

“With Ali,” Malcolm explains. “Prince is performing, and Jimmy says he has had it with the living and their invoking his name while doing nothing.”

“Carlin is doing a set after Prince,” Kafka smiles.

Seemingly in unison, the four turn toward the billow of smoke gradually enveloping their table from the one beside them.

“So it goes,” comes through the fog of cigarette smoke. “So it goes.”

Meanwhile among the living.


“A generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure”: Deleuze

Franz Kafka, “Poseidon”

Teachers As Cultural Workers: Letters to Those Who Dare Teach, Paulo Freire

Message to Grassroots, Malcolm X

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Listening to Langston Hughes about “Make America Great Again”

When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.

Bayard Rustin

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

When I met with my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, this Monday, I noted that the weekend had provided for us local and national examples of why the course matters: locally, one high school restricted students from having U.S. flags at a football game because of patterns of using that flag to taunt and harass rival students who are Latinx/Hispanic, and nationally, Colin Kaepernick was questioned about his sitting during the National Anthem at the beginning of NFL preseason games.

As entry points into the work of Baldwin as well as the long history of racism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, I read aloud and we discussed Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” [1] and “Let America Be America Again.”

I stressed to these first-year college students that Hughes lived and wrote in the early to mid-1900s—nearly a century ago in terms of the college student personae in “Theme for English B.”

As we examined the professor/student and race-based aspects of power in “Theme,” students were quick to address the relevance of Hughes today—emphasizing as well part of my instructional purpose to expose these students to the lingering and historical racism in the U.S.

But the real meat of this class session revealed itself as we explored “Let America Be America Again.”

Hughes: “(America never was America to me.)”

Written and published about 80 years ago, “Let America Be America Again” represents a racialized dismantling of the American Dream myth—a poetic companion to the skepticism and cynicism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other writers/artists works throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Hughes begins with a celebratory stanza that easily lulls readers into an uncritical response to the American Dream, but then offers a brilliant device, the use of parentheses, to interject a minority voice (parenthetical, thus representing the muted voices of the marginalized in the U.S.) after several opening stanzas:

(America never was America to me.)…

(It never was America to me.)…

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

And then the poem turns on two italicized lines followed by:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

My students soon recognized a disturbing paradox: Hughes and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan share a foundational claim but for starkly different reasons.

Trump has built political capital on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim (both as “Others”) sentiment that the media and pundits often mask behind what is being called legitimate white working-class angst.

Parallel racist anger has been sparked when Michelle Obama, for example, confronted that the White House was built in part with slave labor—raising the issue of just who did build this country. Upon whose backs? we must ask.

Eight volatile decades ago, Hughes named “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart” now courted by Trump’s coded and blatant racism and xenophobia.

However, Hughes’s poem celebrates the diverse workers who created the U.S. while reaping very little if any of the benefits. Hughes offers a different coded assault, his on capitalism and the ruling elites, but not the rainbow of U.S. workers “fooled,” it seems, by the hollow promise of the American Dream.

In Whitmanesque style, Hughes raises throughout the poem a collective voice of immigrants and slaves as the foundation of the U.S.:

I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

But as he returns to the poem’s refrain, Hughes unmasks the promise and tempers the hope:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

In the final stanza, there is hope, built on “We, the people, must redeem.”

In a time of Trump’s cartoonish stereotype of the empty politician, his “Built a Wall” and “Make America Great Again” sloganism, we must reach back almost a century to Hughes’s often ignored voice that merges races through our shared workers’ remorse.

Hughes calls out the robber baron tradition of U.S. capitalism—”those who live like leeches on the people’s lives”—as the “fooled and pushed apart” line up to support those very leeches.

“Let America Be America Again” is a warning long ignored, but truths nonetheless facing us. Silence and inaction are endorsements of these truths.

“To be afraid,” Bayard Rustin acknowledged, “is to behave as if the truth were not true.”

It remains to be seen if we are brave enough as a people to “Let America Be America Again.”


[1] See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.