…to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Haunting the American character still is a fact confronted early in Teju Cole’s Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (originally published in The New Yorker 19 August 2014 but also opening Cole’s Known and Strange Things): that Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Coltrane are all “people who could still be with us.”
Living, Cole means—because, of course, they remain with us in ways that are both beautiful and disturbing.
Retracing Baldwin’s time in Switzerland and his essay spawned from that visit, Cole recognizes Baldwin was “depressed and distracted” during his trip in the 1950s—in part due to the “absurdity” of being a stranger during his travels as well as alienated in his home city of New York through the fact of the manufactured concept of race.
Cole experiences a “body-double moment” that emphasizes a physical self-consciousness of being black and male; being “like [Baldwin],” Cole catalogues insecurities of the flesh, building to:
and feel myself in all places, from New York City to rural Switzerland, the custodian of a black body, and have to find the language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.
This racialized and genderized self-consciousness, Cole details, is cultivated in being surveilled; “glances,” in Cole’s diction, but commonly identified as the “gaze,” whether the white gaze or the male gaze.
“To be a stranger is to be looked at,” Cole explains, “but to be black is to be looked at especially.” Hard, Cole means, as in the perpetual policing of the black body.
Cole’s “custodian” echoes Baldwin’s witnessing—bound as the two men are by what Baldwin captures in “‘People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.'”
The black body and the American character—both Baldwin and Cole demand—are inextricable. But for Baldwin, Western culture forced him to conclude: “‘I was an interloper; this was not my heritage.'”
However, Cole, shifting to Ralph Ellison, embraces Western art despite the lingering weight he shares with Baldwin: “I have experienced in my own body the undimmed fury he felt about pervasive, limiting racism.”
Continuing the scarred mosaic of history, Cole’s contemporary reality will not allow him to escape “the news online”:
There I found an unending sequence of crises: in the Middle East, in Africa, in Russia, and everywhere else, really. Pain was general. But within that larger distress was a set of linked stories, and thinking about “Stranger in the Village,” thinking with its help, was like injecting a contrast dye into my encounter with the news. The American police continued shooting unarmed black men, or killing them in other ways. The protests that followed, in black communities, were countered with violence by a police force that is becoming indistinguishable from an invading army. People began to see a connection between the various events: the shootings, the fatal choke hold, the stories of who was not given life-saving medication. And black communities were flooded with outrage and grief.
Like Baldwin in 1966, Cole cannot escape the policing of the black body, the political “obsession with cleaning, with cleansing,” that “policymakers believe that going after misdemeanors is a way of preëmpting major crimes.”
Dropped like a stone too heavy to carry any further, Cole concludes:
But the black body comes pre-judged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy. To be black is to bear the brunt of selective enforcement of the law, and to inhabit a psychic unsteadiness in which there is no guarantee of personal safety. You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.
Endless surveilling, constant policing the black body are fed by the “fantasy about the disposability of black life [that] is a constant in American history.”
Cole as custodian witnesses that “American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage….Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.”
But there remains one more damning stone to drop: “black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard”—one of which, left unnamed by Cole, is formal education.
An educational dinosaur who refuses extinction, E.D. Hirsch yet again offers a plea for cultural literacy, folded into the decades-old standards debate.
There is a disturbing irony about a torch bearer of the dominant culture lobbying for that culture to remain dominant—specifically through the codified curriculum of the formal education system.
Hirsch cloaks his message in an unaddressed assumption that knowledge can be somehow politically neutral; it’s all about the role of knowledge in teaching students how to read, you see.
But official curriculum and the current state of high-stakes accountability can never be disentangled from power—who can and does decide what knowledge matters.
Just as Cole above confronts how art, culture, and race intersect—among Cole, Baldwin, and Ellison—when the knowledge that matters is the province of some people (read “white,” “male,” and “affluent”), other people become the Other, marginalized by their identified lack of the knowledge that matters.
Cultural literacy/knowledge as that which is objective, easily identified, and then easily dispensed is the fertile soil within which the status quo of society and formal education thrive. Like the literal policing of the black body in the streets, education becomes an act of “cleansing” the Other of their heritage to make room for cultural literacy/knowledge writ large.
And the status quo of the streets and the hallways must not be allowed to remain: where black girls are policed for their hair, the same hair that is fetishized, rendered exotic; where black boys are seen as older than their biological ages; where the black body has been so demonized that blacks themselves embrace the punishing, cleansing, of their own flesh.
If we pretend knowledge is politically neutral, that whoever is in power has the right to decide what knowledge matters, and if we define reading in a way that depends on that cultural knowledge for anyone to be considered literate, then we are failing to read and re-read the world as it is in order to make a new world.
Not the world as it was during Baldwin’s life. Not the world as it is during Cole’s life.
The “obscene American forms of white supremacy” are the parents of cultural literacy/knowledge.
And this white gaze has also created “no excuses” charter schools that “fix” black, brown, and poor students.
White privilege and its cognate racism, as Cole notes, are invisible: “You don’t see it at first.”
The “at first,” however, must not be undervalued.
To see privilege and racism requires not cultural literacy, but critical literacy—reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world—fostered in a context of culturally relevant pedagogy.
From Baldwin as witness to Cole as “custodian of the black body,” the message about how our society and our schools must change is not absent but “preferably unheard.”
Change must happen, but it must not “shame or defame black people and [black] organizations,” Adrienne Dixson and Andre Perry argue, concluding with a stone of their own: “Be accountable to black people.”
Cultural literacy is stasis, not change. It is accountable to white privilege.
Haunting the American character still is Baldwin demanding that we must “cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
Decade four and round two in academia—this time at the university level where, one might assume, things would be easier.
First, a flashback.
I am the English department chair, and the entire faculty is sitting in the high school library for a faculty meeting about standardized test scores for our school. Having entered education in the fall of 1984—the first year of South Carolina’s all-in commitment to accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing—I have taught for over thirty years under the weight of test scores.
Before the principal and the math department chair shared our students’ scores on the test-of-the-moment, the principal offered what he believed was a friendly caveat about the English scores: ” Just want you all to remember that we don’t teach grammar here,” with a nod and a smile in my direction.
Now fast-forward to my current situation where I teach two first-year writing seminars, had a now defunct role as faculty Director of FYS, and continue to co-facilitate our efforts at offering faculty develop in teaching writing.
In our Faculty Writing Fellows sessions, I am routinely addressed whenever someone mentions grammar, notably commas, with a similar caveat—although these don’t seem quite as friendly as they are marginalizing.
To be committed to critical pedagogy, critical constructivism, de-grading/de-testing, and authentic writing instruction is to be a stranger in academia.
You are tolerated with bemusement, as the mostly harmless weirdo in the room.
You aren’t credible—although you have worked for over thirty years honing your craft, taking great care as a teacher and writer to teach only warranted practices and to honor above all else the human dignity and autonomy of your students.
Nope, you “don’t teach grammar”—which is both false and used in the sort of condescending way people in the U.S. say “liberal” or people in the South say “Bless your heart.”
My urge to be abrasive always prompts me to say: “Actually I teach grammar the right way.” But I don’t say anything.
Mostly I stew—the same way I stew about writing free verse poetry under the judgmental purview of those who think free verse is a lazy person’s game.
And, I keep at it—doing warranted practice diligently despite the suggestions otherwise.
I teach relentlessly that language, its use and the forces that seek to control its use (including those who shout “grammar rules!”), is about power—as James Baldwin confronts in his brilliant defense of Black English:
It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity. There have been, and are, times, and places, when to speak a certain language could be dangerous, even fatal. Or, one may speak the same language, but in such a way that one’s antecedents are revealed, or (one hopes) hidden. This is true in France, and is absolutely true in England: The range (and reign) of accents on that damp little island make England coherent for the English and totally incomprehensible for everyone else. To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.
I don’t teach students grammar, mechanics, and usage rules; I guide my students as we interrogate the conventions of language—why they exist, how they have changed, and why each student’s own empowerment depends on their being aware and in control of those conventions and their language.
And beyond my ethical reasons for approaching language this way, ethical reasons grounded in critical pedagogy, I am motivated by a negative: I don’t want to fall into a trap confronted by Lou LaBrant:
On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness. (pp. 276)
The prescriptive-grammarian-as-teacher, I fear, is harping on pet peeves, setting themselves up for sullying the language and their students’ passion for expression—but certainly opening themselves up for losing their own credibility because virtually all users of language are pickers and choosers about strict adherence to the so-called
My stress level is triggered each time I receive emails from a prescriptive grammarian who spells my sacred Southernism “ya’ll.”
I am a writer and I teach writing—both of which are at the core of who I am as a person.
Ultimately, then, I side with LaBrant: “As a teacher of English, I am not willing to teach the polishing and adornment of irresponsible, unimportant writing” (p. 123).
But, alas, it is this sort of principled approach to teaching, and teaching writing, that pushes me farther and farther afield of academia.
And so a stranger in academia, I eye the fire escape, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie anxious with the awareness that “the other boys in the warehouse regarded [him] with suspicious hostility.”
…to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
“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.”
Message to Grassroots, Malcolm X
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
“One day in April—” begins John Gardner’s tour-deforce short story, “Redemption,” “a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.”
A farming accident comes to define Jack, who at 12 decides he is evil and, as a result, removes himself from all of humanity, especially his remaining family—the parents being particularly devastated by the death of the seven-year-old David.
Gardner’s story guides the reader through Jack’s hell, which is not the accidental killing of his brother but ostracizing himself from human contact, human interaction, the intimacy of others.
And as powerfully as he crafts the first sentence, Gardner ends the story symbolically: “Then the crowd opened for him and, with the horn cradled under his right arm, his music under his left, he plunged in, starting home.”
Beautifully and tenderly, but without sentimentality, the story ends with “home,” and marks Jack’s redemption as his return to necessary community of other people, notably his family, in order to be fully human, in order to live.
As a high school English teacher, I was fortunate to teach advanced students American literature during their sophomore year and then have the same students again in Advanced Placement Literature their senior year. We read and studied Gardner’s “Redemption” in 10th grade, and it laid important groundwork—the power of craft as well as the central themes—for investigating Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Atwood’s speculative fiction, a dystopian novel, focuses on Offred (June) as the titular handmaid of the tale about a not-so-distant future in which a theocracy arises out of the militant overthrow of the U.S.
Offred (June) is forced into isolation as a handmaid: fertile women assigned to Commanders and designated to repopulate the theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.
Without her husband and daughter, and sequestered in the Commander’s home until each Ceremony (intercourse with the Commander while lying back between the legs of the Commander’s wife) intended to impregnate her, Offred (June) confesses:
Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch. (p. 11)
Her loneliness gnaws at her throughout the novel, which includes a recurring motif of touch:
I wanted to feel Luke [her husband] lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room. (p. 52)
For Offred (June), to touch is to live, and to be denied touch is to die—drawn as she is to suicide.
Later, she admits while recalling “[l]ying in bed, with Luke, his hand on my round belly”:
If I thought this would never happen again I would die.
But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s a lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person. (p. 103)
Touch, intimacy, love—these are essential for being fully human, to live.
Ultimately, this lack of touch, intimacy, drives Offred (June) past her own humanity to a violent inhumanity as she fantasizes:
I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands. (pp. 139-140)
An inverse of Jack’s killing his brother driving him to believe himself evil and to isolate himself from others, Offred (June) suffers a forced seclusion that breeds at least disturbing urges toward murder.
And as she confronts, becoming a “missing person.”
“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.” 
Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”
Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:
The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.
When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.
Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:
The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.
It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…
I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.
From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical James Baldwin deplored?
[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.
There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.
In his All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, Douglas Field turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).
In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:
Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.
Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….
We are part of each other. (p. 828)
“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.
Being Single Is Hard, writes Emma Lindsay.
In her confession about the challenges of being single, Lindsay is eventually drawn to touch:
But anyway, the part I actually find hard about being single is that I never get touched, and this is always overlooked and undervalued. This is where the myth of self sufficiency breaks down.
And here she begins to interrogate both language and the Puritanical roots of the U.S. Like Offred (June), Lindsay challenges the simplistic blurring of sex and intimacy, grounded in touch:
In fact, some of my friends started complaining that I was too independent (I swear, I can’t win) but, at the end of the day, I can’t touch myself. Or, I can touch myself, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when someone else touches me.
Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.
We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone.
“I’m talking about affectionate touch,” Lindsay emphasizes. “And, it is completely reasonable to be afraid of not getting that.” And then she concludes: “Touch matters so much. Why do we keep acting like it doesn’t?”
Lindsay’s essay brought me to Baldwin and back to my high school students.
As we discussed The Handmaid’s Tales, one of the topics was the connection between words and the act of making ideas or actions taboo.
I would ask students what word(s) we used for men with many sexual partners, and usually “stud” or similar words were mentioned—and that these words connoted something positive, an accomplishment, a “score.”
I followed with what word(s) we use for women with many sexual partners, and we had many—”slut,” whore,” “tramp.” These, of course, are all negative, about the act of sex defiling the woman, ruining her (by implication “for other men”).
“i like my body when it is with your/body,” writes e.e. cummings in one of his many explicit and beautiful poems that celebrate love, sex, and intimacy without the taboos that render us unable to live, to be fully human. This is a celebration of the flesh otherwise demonized and shunned by social norms and religious dogma:
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you
To touch, to be touched—gifts offered between and among, whether sexual, platonic, or unidentifiable intimacy.
We mortals in the flesh are only fully human in the flesh, pressed against the one we love so that we both may live.
 Adapted from an earlier blog post On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love
Somewhere among Urban Legend and the sort of fine-detail scholarly bickering that people outside of academia find tedious lies the truth about how many words Eskimo have for “snow.”
What is compelling about Eskimo words for “snow,” I think, is the idea that a people would become increasingly nuanced in proportion to how much something dominated their environment: Eskimo are so daily confronted with snow and the challenges of snow that they have a hundred words for all the ways it pervades their lives and world.
Conversely, in the very human effort to understand our world and human nature, one of our cliches includes a truism (speculative and mostly metaphorical) about fish being completely unaware of water since it is both ever-present and essential for their existence.
So when it comes to so-called mainstream culture in the U.S., we are, regretfully, fish and not Eskimo.
And the daily record of that obliviousness is recorded by the mainstream media.
Rapinoe, a World Cup and gold-medal winner with the U.S. women’s national team, becomes the first nonblack professional athlete to join in protesting during the national anthem since Kaepernick gained notoriety for sitting out the anthem in 49ers preseason games.
I could make this a quiz, but it would be one most people would fail for the exact reason I included both examples.
The word that shall not be spoken in the U.S. is “white.”
The New York Times editors apparently believe black people are not people, but they certainly cannot cross the line and confront that it is white people who “fail to understand”—or better yet, refuse to understand—”the lives of black Americans.”
And, really ESPN? Megan Rapinoe is “nonblack”?
And if we dig beneath the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” (read: white Americans) we are able to unmask that when politicians or the media admit the U.S. continues to have a “race” problem, that is the whitewashed code for a “racism” problem—yet the other word that dare not be uttered.
This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….
Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.
Baldwin’s confrontation of the power of normalizing white as that marginalizes black in the U.S. is portrayed brilliantly in a scene from Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man where the unnamed main character finds himself in a hellish nightmare after being kicked out of college and sent on a cruel quest for work in New York. He then turns to a paint manufacturing plant for employment:
KEEP AMERICA PURE
LIBERTY PAINTS. (p. 196)
The exchange between the main character and his supervisor, Kimbro, when the main character is first learning his job at the paint factory informs well the current tensions created by #BlackLivesMatter:
“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffily. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to do things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you. You got that?” (p. 199)
What is important at Liberty Paints is the best-selling paint and the company slogan—”If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White”—that echoes the racist “white is right.”
The main character learns from Kimbro that Liberty Paints’ prize item, Optic White, requires ten drops of black (a literary harbinger for Baldwin’s argument that whites are defined by blacks in the U.S.). The process makes no sense on many levels to the main character, but he is chastised for questioning instructions: “‘That’s it. That’s all you have to do,’ [Kimbro] said. ‘Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it’” (p. 200).
So white America finds itself in 2016 anesthetized by whiteness to the point that it does not see “white,” and the institutions designed to maintain white privilege—such as the mainstream press—dare not utter the word.
Fish so accustomed to water that they have no concept of water.
Or as Baldwin confronted, the truth may be that as fish white America has now been forced to confront water/whiteness and fears the consequences of the other side of the end to white privilege so desperately as to render itself “nonblack.”
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.
It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.
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”  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 Ruston 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.”
 See also Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes.