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?

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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.

Bizarro Politics and Fearing the “Other”

For decades, I was wasting my votes in South Carolina by aggressively voting against Republicans. I really never voted for a Democrat, but I certainly found all the Republicans so vile that I felt a moral duty to vote against them.

Then in 2005, I was sitting in a hotel in New Orleans just months before Katrina hit and watching an interview on TV with George Carlin. Prompted by Charlie Rose about the 1992 election, Carlin explained that he was a lifelong non-voter.

Since then, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Carlin, I have been a non-voter and very openly not a Republican, Democrat, or (the silliest of all) Independent.

With the rise of Trump, I also resisted addressing this new and unprecedented level of insanity in mainstream politics: Trump is a bizarro cartoon extreme of everything wrong with partisan politics and the U.S. (although he certainly isn’t an extreme conservative, which I address below).

Recently, I have broken my Golden Rule of not mentioning the fools who live by the glory of being mentioned, even when being called fools (again, Trump is the king of that crap).

I also have been forced to reconsider partisan politics—most disturbingly, to acknowledge that if the Republicans had nominated Jeb Bush, they would have had a very powerful leg to stand on in terms of refuting Hillary Clinton over ethics and honesty.

Yes, we all could have quibbled over policy (I detest Jeb Bush’s policy, especially the dumpster fire of education policy in Florida), but Jeb Bush proved himself one of the most honest candidates in the primary campaign, and Hillary Clinton has a legitimate credibility problem (one that is typical of almost all candidates and only easily exposed by an unusually ethical, honest candidate).

And while there is a long and disturbing history (especially in the South) of major blocks of voters voting against their best interests, the Trump phenomenon, again, is a truly extreme example of that paradox.

I have begun to understand this better after seeing a photo with a news story about Trump: A line of young white males all wearing “build the wall” t shirts mimicking Pink Floyd’s The Wall (possibly in the top three most offensive things I have seen in the campaign as a Pink Floyd fan).

Trump has risen along a continuum of Republicans who have maintained the religious right’s support despite multiple infidelities and divorces, as well as amassing wealth that clearly contradicts the whole camel through an eye of a needle idea of reaching heaven.

Trump also has seemingly increased the loyalty of poor and working class whites—despite his being the sort of business man who has exploited and ignored those populations to amass and squander his wealth. (We worship the wealthy in the U.S. and conveniently ignore that wealth is always built on the backs of workers who are left out of that wealth loop.)

I don’t want to catalogue the many contradictions between who Trump is and those subgroups who support him, but it is without question that Trump maintains support from many stakeholders who are somehow putting aside that he does not represent them in order to remain rabidly behind him.

Along with the “my team” aspect of partisan politics in the U.S. (a certain number of Republicans and Democrats, for example, would vote for anyone on their “team,” even if we simply swapped candidates), I believe there is one extremely disturbing common denominator cementing the Trump wall: fearing the “other.”

Trump has garnered the support of the anti-government Republican party with mantras of “I can do this for you” and with plans such as the federal government building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (huge time and tax money commitments from the “less government” crowd?).

The “build the wall” refrain of the Trump campaign is simultaneously the most irrational and most compelling and solidifying aspect of his run.

The Newt Gingrich moment when he refused to acknowledge violent crime is down in the U.S. by insisting that it is more important that the public believes there is more crime—this is the “wall” element writ large.

Trump is the orange-faced, wild-haired Clown Leader of Fear—a very bad script plagiarized from a much better Stephen King novel.

The fear of the “other” feeds Islamophobia, racism, sexism/misogyny, homophobia, etc., and can be maintained only through ignorance and delusion.

And mainstream cloaked-racist refrains such as “black-on-black crime” have created the foundation upon which the Trump Circus has been built.

Some continue to argue that we must not demonize Trump supporters as stupid, but I believe that reasonable call is deeply flawed.

Do poor and working class whites have reason to be disillusioned? Of course, but that doesn’t excuse there misinformed responses.

White high school drop outs have the same employment opportunities as blacks with some college (see here page 8), but the angry poor/working class voters supporting Trump will not admit their white privilege, and refuse to address the complicated facts of a racist U.S. society.

So the ultimate paradox of the rise of Heir Clown Trump is that “build the wall” is the real unifying theme that discredits his “Make America Great Again”—because, if we were informed at all, we may be compelled to see just what our country’s values are regarding the “other”:

Liberty Enlightening the World poster

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


Imagining a Society where All Lives Matter

The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966.

The U.S. suffers from “myths that deform” [1].

As George Carlin quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

At the core of that deforming American Dream is a cultural clinging to individual responsibility and its negative—a rejection of both community/collaboration and systemic forces.

In the U.S., so the story goes, you are successful or a failure because of your own individual traits, regardless of the power of inequities (racism, classism, sexism) to shape your life.

Also necessary for the American Dream and bootstrap narratives to endure, the U.S. has a love affair with outlier antidotes: One black man’s success proves no racism exists.

Idealism in the U.S. sustains offensive slogans such as All Lives Matter, but also feeds whitewashing of the ugliest parts of our history (know-nothing pundit Bill O’Reilly, for example, arguing that slaves building the White House were well fed).

This belief in individual responsibility has created a culture in the U.S. that allows and embraces a militarized police force, one that defaults to an excessive use of force.

Just as our idealism blinds us, we in the U.S. are simplistic thinkers. Instead of questioning why in the U.S. police kill hundreds of citizens each year (2014: 630 killed) while in German police routinely kill fewer than 10 citizens a year (2014: 7 killed), the urge to whitewash shouts that police kill more whites than black—disregarding that black and brown U.S. citizens are killed at much higher rates than whites.

Let’s then imagine what a society would be like where all lives do matter—even though we really don’t have to imagine.

If all lives mattered, we would expect that no citizens be killed by the police each year, and that no police officer would die in the line of duty.

Our default would be zero in each case, and instead of rushing to justify either, we would see both as failures of our free people. “We are better than this,” we would say, “and we shall do better.”

In this imaginary society, most of us would have never known Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice—now perversely immortalized as victims of a people who do not value some people’s lives as much as we rush to justify our violent culture, our militarized police, and our sacred guns.

In this imaginary world where all lives matter, there is “nothing to kill or die for”—but this is a type of idealism we refuse to pursue in the U.S.


[1] Paulo Freire’s Teachers as Cultural Workers.

Bigotry, George Carlin, and My Critical Journey

As I have noted many times, George Carlin and Richard Pryor were instrumental in saving me from my redneck past.

As a frail, anxious, and highly insecure teen, I sat in my room alone listening to their comedy albums over and over—memorizing, yes, but listening very carefully because I wanted to understand what these men were saying.

These were revolutionary ideas to a redneck in South Carolina in the 1970s.

With the death of Muhammad Ali, I have been drawn back to my Classic Gold collection of Carlin’s first three albums, anchored for me by his “Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful” on Class Clown:

But as I have been listening, my recognition that Carlin and Pryor are foundational to my critical journey—especially as an educator—has been shaken by coming back to Carlin as I sit in my mid fifties.

Two routines—”White Harlem” and “Black Consciousness” on Occupation: Foole—have pushed me even further into the tension that exists in pop culture, a tension I have examined regarding Marvel Comics Captain America:

And as I have been contemplating these routines, mostly about race and the politics of race, the Orlando massacre has forced me to highlight what is possibly the most important joke from Carlin for me in terms of everything it represents about why I was drawn to his work, why it still speaks to me, and why I am deeply concerned about both of those.

Carlin was born a couple years before my father and we are separated significantly by regional and religious backgrounds; however, we still share some commonalities that distinguish us from younger generations.

During Carlin’s riff on his old neighborhood—Morningside Heights bounded by Columbia University and Harlem, and labeled as “White Harlem”—he offers his sharp observation about language, noting that in his time, the words “fag” and “queer” meant different things: A fag, Carlin explains, is someone who wouldn’t go down town with you to beat up queers.

The audience roars on the albums—and I am forced to contemplate the ugliness beneath the laughter.

Carlin as social critic and master wordsmith always laid the world before us—and in his routines, characters, and rants, I believed him to be critical of that world he portrayed.

But just as Captain America’s popularity reveals the very worst of mainstream U.S. bigotry (regardless of the creators’ and many writers’ and artists’ since intentions), I see beneath Carlin’s routine that the audience response is about laughing at marginalized people due to sex or sexual identification.

Carlin’s race riffs seem to be as problematic. White Harlem? Really?

Carlin also explains that if you put five really white guys with black dudes for a while, the white guys will start to talk, act, and walk as the black guys do.

I think Carlin genuinely valued his growing up close to and in black culture, but I am not sure he understood appropriation—and I am certain his audience did not.

When a Sport Illustrated article repeated praises a female Olympic swimmer by framing her as “like a man” (at the subtle and seemingly harmless-but-not end of the scale) and when fifty people are slaughtered for being in a gay nightclub just a year after nine people were slaughtered in a church for being black, I have to ask are these routines by Carlin funny? Were they ever funny?

And, for me this is important, how complicit is Carlin in perpetuating the horrors of homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism?

It seems a very privileged thing to sit in a theater and laugh at a man, self-proclaimed foole, telling jokes and using dirty words:

I memorized Carlin and Pryor—and I took their routines to school everyday as a shield against getting beat up, probably not against the threat of physical abuse but getting beat up socially and psychologically because I was skinny and insecure—I simply was not man enough, I feared.

In the late 1970s, I was entirely unaware that I was already shielded from those threats in most ways, being white, male, and heterosexual.

I was entirely unaware of how cruel and wrong this world was and is, even though Carlin and Pryor had opened the door for me to discover all that in the coming years of college.

My critical journey has been a tremendously privileged one—one in which I have been afforded the role of witness, informed by James Baldwin and many others who have been passengers.

Just as Kurt Vonnegut taught me the sacred value of kindness, Carlin and Pryor proved to me that words matter—but our critical journey must step beyond words even as we correct them.

In a year, we have placed at our feet the Charleston Massacre and the Orlando Massacre. I find little joy in listening to Carlin because I must ask: What are we going to fucking do?

Cinco de Mayo 2016: A Reader

Let us hope we can resist the urge to trivialize and appropriate the wonderful history, traditions, and people of Mexico because of the silliness that is making a holiday another way to churn up crass commercialism (a redundant term). [Also, lost in the shuffle, today is the birthday of Karl Marx.]

So below, please read a gathering of important articles, somewhat loosely connected because they have crossed my path.

First, let me note that since I have relentlessly criticized edujournalism of late (and it is well deserved criticism), I start with an edujournalism unicorn—a very good piece on NAEP.

Read on:

The simple truth is that NAEP is not designed to provide causal explanations. It’s a test given every two years to a representative sample of students who happen to be in fourth, eighth, or twelfth grade that particular year. It does not follow students over time, so it’s impossible to say that a policy or practice “caused” the results….

Put together, the findings paint a picture of unequal opportunities to learn challenging content. Low-performing students spend less time explaining their reading or doing projects, and more time on test prep. Once again, these are correlations: they do not suggest that these patterns caused the low performance. But why do they exist? What can be done about them? That’s the challenge for educators and policy makers.

Clinton has been a card-carrying feminist for decades, she started her career doing advocacy for children and women, she’s famous for her UN speech about women’s rights are human rights, she’s been reliably pro-choice and so on. So if that all fits into this sort of recognition side, she’s been there, and in a more explicit, and front-and-center way than Sanders. But, on the other hand, What kind of feminism is this? Clinton embodies a certain kind of neoliberal feminism that is focused on cracking the glass ceiling, leaning in. That means removing barriers that would prevent rather privileged, highly educated women who already have a high amount of cultural and other forms of capital to rise in the hierarchies of government and business. This is a feminism whose main beneficiaries are rather privileged women, whose ability to rise in a sense relies on this huge pool of very low-paid precarious, often racialized precarious service work, which is also very feminized that provide all the care work

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

Black students will always underachieve when they are perceived as needing fixing.

The irony is that black students aren’t the ones who need fixing.

Deficit thinking corrupts the potential effectiveness of even the most competent teachers.

White folk must unlearn their negative expectations. That’s the only way we’re ever going to change the structures that really hold students back.

And now, a musical extra: