James Baldwin: Two Recent, Relevant Videos

James Baldwin and Black Lives (C-Span) 5/18/15

Professor Eddie Glaude talked about James Baldwin, the underlying meanings of race in America, and the emergence of the phrase “black lives matter” on social media. He discussed the tradition of Black Democratic Perfectionism, the idea of democratic individuality in the service of justice. He argued that the phrase “black lives matter,” which emerged on social media after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, is rooted in Black Democratic Perfectionism and is a tool that reflects African American social, economic, and political struggles, and rejects the idea of white supremacy.

The Legacy of James Baldwin (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum) 6/11/15

Following a screening of the newly restored documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, the filmmaker Karen Thorsen; Tufts professor Peniel Joseph; poets Nikky Finney and Rose Styron; and James Baldwin’s niece, Aisha Karefa-Smart discussed his call for equality and its relevance today. Kim McLarin, a frequent contributor to WGBH’s Emmy-award winning program, Basic Black, moderates. This forum was in partnership with PEN New England.

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

Ryan Boyd focuses his response to the new book by Ta-Nehisi’s Coates on “the bookworm’s Between the World and Me” in order to “speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.”

Boyd agrees with John Warner that Coates is more student than James Baldwin’s preacher. And in his roles as student, writer, public intellectual, Coates presents as well a nuanced (and I think, important) perspective on what literature matters:

Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

Many teachers, writers, and readers have fought a long and seemingly endless battle against the normative canon, which has existed as a prescriptive list of dead white men’s books—myself among that cause.

Yet, I have always struggled with loving many of the works that fall into that traditional canon, like Coates, and also felt self-conscious about having standards myself for “good” versus “bad” literature.

This schizophrenia manifests itself for me in my response to young adult (YA) literature: I strongly advocate for YA literature because it encourages children to read, often a great deal, but I often add that for me most YA literature falls short of what I expect from literature (and I think too many YA works ask too little of teens who are more capable than writers and publishers seem to believe).

I have made that same case about comic books and graphic novels.

This Coates-inspired rethinking about the canon, then, has coincided with my finishing Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain.

McCarthy as a white male writer and then his mostly white, male mythology represent the essential tension faced by those of us calling for the expanded canon, including the voices of women and black/brown authors.

The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal

Scott Esposito acknowledges in McCarthy “the allegorical nature of The Border Trilogy“:

McCarthy seems to be at pains to paint these books in black and white because he knows he is writing allegories, and thus they require broad strokes in order to function properly.

The Border Trilogy is certainly not nearly as realist as McCarthy’s first four novels, or even as realist as Blood Meridian. It has been previously commented that John Grady and Billy are far too able as cowboys to be believable. Whether breaking a horse, muzzling a wolf, or shooting game, they never struggle to do anything; they just do it, much like an epic hero might.

I find the trilogy compelling because of McCarthy’s Faulknerian tendency to drop into poetry (frequently, the prose is beautiful above and beyond the obligation a writer has to move along a story) and because the works are mythology charged with confronting readers with universal questions about justice and coming to grips with the human condition.

And therein lies the problem, but not one we must lay at McCarthy’s feet alone since the white and misogynistic template for mythology is literally Greek and Roman mythology.

The white male hero was not created by McCarthy (see Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but John Grady Cole and Billy Parham maintain a tradition among the normative canon of casting whiteness and maleness as the universal Truth, one that has moved away from description and toward prescription.

As well, McCarthy slips uncritically into the template of the female-as-prize for the male-as-savior—notably Magdalena (Cities of the Plain), a mere child cast as epileptic prostitute and, as always, beautiful. (See the same strengths and weaknesses in True Detective, season 1.)

However, if McCarthy’s works are simply endorsed by the normative cannon edict or dismissed by a similar but inverse multi-cultural mandate, I believe that we fail Coates’s canon-as-principle, as Boyd suggests.

The Border Trilogy is allegory, mythology rich in considerations of the nature of justice as well as the elusive nature of any human seeking to bring about justice.

More nuanced, I think, is the Mexico/U.S. duality posed by McCarthy—much as Margaret Atwood does with Canada/U.S. and Roxane Gay does with Haiti/U.S.

Nested within the larger themes of justice, Mexico becomes an allegory of the communal while the U.S. represents a people trapped in the market. Billy Parham’s sense of justice is enhanced by the kindness he experiences while criss-crossing into Mexico. The border crossing is itself a mythological passage in which coins signal the transition from Mexico—where my house/food is your house/food—to the U.S.—where everything is a matter of money.

This Mexico/U.S. contrast does raise themes about race and culture, to McCarthy’s credit, but that remains within the white gaze of the author and the dominant white male central characters.

Yes, there is a veiled racial/racist tradition in McCarthy’s allegory/mythology that frames white and male as universal, but those qualities are part of a larger fabric offered in the work—a fabric that may and should be judged in the complex canon-as-principle that seeks to discover “some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first,” per Boyd from Coates.

In my early and rare scholarly publications while I was teaching high school English (see below), I wrote several times about how to merge the traditional canon with multicultural works. Then, I was struggling against the normative canon, but I had no lens for addressing the either/or trap of calling for multicultural literature at the expense of so-called classic works.

Today, as I sit with McCarthy’s Border Trilogy before me—and I think about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy as both fundamentally like McCarthy’s and in very significant ways unlike McCarthy’s (for example, Lisbeth Salander)—I have begun to reconsider the notion of the canon personified by Coates as not a compromise but a richer mechanism for confronting all texts in order to reimagine what works to celebrate, to teach, and to embrace in our never ending journey as students.

In his Between the World and Me, Coates champions the power of literature and confirms Walter Dean Myers’s recognition about the normative canon: “there was something missing.”

Coates (Malcolm X and Baldwin) and Myers (Baldwin) share the importance of seeing yourself in the fictions that make you who you are; in short, the universal—particularly the universal as a thin veil for white/male privilege—is not enough, even when the universal is compelling, as Myers reveals:

I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Thomas, P.L. (1996). When Wordsworth is too tame: Merging minority literature with the classics in the secondary language arts curriculum. In L. Cooke & H. C. Lodge (Eds.), Voices in English Classrooms: Honoring Diversity and Change, 28 (pp. 177-185). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Thomas, P.L. (1991, Spring). Exposing the universal through the diverse: The role of minority literature in the language arts curriculum. Western Ohio Journal, 12 (1), 58-61.

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

Who I Am, Who I Am Not

I am not Howard Zinn.

That likely is unnecessary to state, and may seem a passive-aggressive statement of arrogance, but recently several people have challenged black men’s work and perspectives (notably Ta-Nehisi Coates) by noting “he is not James Baldwin.”

My relatively recent personal/professional blog presence is named the becoming radical based on Zinn’s central claim about his role as teacher/activist:

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn, 1994, pp. 7, 173)

Along with Zinn, my work as teacher/writer and activist is guided by James Baldwin’s concept of bearing witness:

Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

But my voice and footprint in this world—even my direct spheres as a classroom teacher—are incredibly tiny compared to Zinn and Baldwin. They represent who and what I aspire to, but in no way am I deluded into thinking I matter in any way compared to them—or many others.

Part of the reason they and others guide me is that I increasingly am aware of and consciously addressing how flawed I am, how far I have yet to go. If there is arrogance here, it is the arrogance of being a writer; we are compelled to write, which includes the arrogance that there will be readers who think we should be read.

I have been a practicing teacher and writer for over thirty years—and I want to stress that I came to recognize that I am both a teacher and writer, but that I never chose to be either.

An external reality I must admit is that despite my working-class background, my redneck past, I have been afforded a tremendous amount of unearned privilege because I am a white male.

Those powerful buffers of race/gender privilege have been not just a foundation for my personal and professional success but also a trampoline for those achievements.

Nonetheless, my first 18 years of teaching from 1984-2002 were spent as a high school English teacher in the rural Upstate South Carolina high school in my hometown.

There and then, I built who I am today—a teacher who, like Zinn, embraces teaching as activism.

I spent nearly two decades as an unapologetic student-centered teacher who fought daily to expand the reading options for students—adding women and writers of color to the stale white/male canon—and to de-track our English courses by eliminating a mind-numbing array of leveled textbooks.

While teaching high school English, I was mentored by the only black teacher in our department, Ethel Chamblee, who added the much needed veteran voice to our goals of race and class equity in a very conservative and repressive school.

But I also learned another very harsh lesson while teaching high school: I was always “just a school teacher”—professionally and publicly.

If you glance at my publishing history, there are a few scatterings of professional work, poetry, and some fiction throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, but my publishing career exploded in 2002, when I moved to higher education.

In fact, in the final months before I left teaching high school and into my first months as an assistant professor at a selective liberal arts university I was told in both subtle and direct terms that one career didn’t count (teaching public high school) and simply being associated with a university did count (the university association, though, mattered, not me).

First, even though I was hired in the education department of my university, I was told those 18 years teaching didn’t count toward my university experience (administration would have, by the way). So in my early 40s, I had to start in higher education at the bottom.

Next, though, once I had my university beside my name (I had had an EdD for four years before then), local, state, and national publications suddenly considered and published my commentaries. I had been submitting for years while teaching high school, but mostly received no response, and when I did have rare acknowledgements, they were “reject.”

Even today after 13 years and moving through every rank to full professor in higher education, many people within the academy shift their tone and tilt their heads when I explain I taught high school for 18 years before coming to higher education—implying in no uncertain terms, “O, I am so sorry.”

While my university position has afforded me incredible access to doing scholarly and public work, I am daily reminded that teaching is a nearly powerless and dehumanizing profession.

So let me return to my blog title—the becoming radical—and Zinn.

Who I am is teacher/writer as activist, but who I am is also a life-long student, thus my always becoming.

I was raised in the fundamentalist and racist South of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite being academically “smart,” I entered college a deeply ignorant and wrong-minded young man who was daily patted on the head for being smart, even though I had yet to recognize the “smart” was an ugly mask for privilege.

In those college years, I discovered literature, and Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes became my unofficial teachers, my saviors—starting for me a journey now 36 years and counting.

I have been at this teaching thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at this writing thing a long time, and I am still becoming.

I have been at both as an activist along side those marginalized by race, class, and gender for a long time, and I am still becoming.

If I have to be Howard Zinn to matter to you, then I am certainly going to disappoint you.

If you think you know me because of Twitter or this blog, it seems likely you don’t because the closest thing to the real me is in the classroom year-round (I have always taught optional summer and May sessions for my entire career); the real me is writing nearly every morning, alone; the real me is reading, reading, reading—certain I have so much more to learn.

Who I am will always be the deeply self-conscious redneck young adult who one day confronted his demons and has worked every day since to make amends.

If you think me arrogant (many do since my passion often reads as such), insincere, or self-serving, I must caution you to reconsider. At a few years past 50, my life tells a different story if you are willing to look at it.

But I am certain you do see flaws I haven’t seen yet as well as ones I am now addressing, and rest assured, I am looking because who I am includes as part of the becoming someone who is always listening.

Listening because while all I have is me, who I am is he who knows this is not about me.

This Is My Post on Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Burden of Living among Dreamers”

Under President Barack Obama, instead of hope and change, the U.S. has been offered ample and disturbing evidence that we are not a post-racial country.

As the 2016 presidential race heats up, the U.S. is now forced to confront an inevitable reality: a post-Obama U.S.

From the Sandy Hook school shooting to the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, President Obama stood before the country and the world in a way that those holding the office before him and those now seeking the office after him surely could not have matched, will not be able to match.

Obama under the weight of Nobel Peace Prize winner and “first black president” was destined to fall short—personifying the racial dilemma exposed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in March 2014:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

In 2015, while popular and critical opinions of Obama have risen in many ways, it is now fashionable to praise Coates, who has released a book-length letter to his his son, Between the World and Me.

Like Obama, Coates has been tossed immediately into rarified air, comparisons that virtually no one could survive. Herself a Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison, in fact, has joined the chorus anointing Coates the next James Baldwin.

Between has also proven to be an irresistible land mine for black male public intellectuals as well as pontificating and tragically un-self-aware white-mansplainers.

Conversely, several black women scholars and journalists have found Between a powerful entry point for encouraging a much needed conversation about race, class, and gender.

The array of responses presents lessons in grace and the absence of grace that Obama spoke to while eulogizing South Carolina state Senator Clementa Pinckney.

My status as privileged (white, male) former redneck and current academic is not intended here to justify, explain, qualify, or endorse Coates or his book. In fact, if you haven’t been reading Coates, if you haven’t read his book, you should be doing those and not reading yet another post about Coates and his book.

If nothing else, this is about that paradox grounded in the racism of the U.S. that produced Coates as well as the book he has written; the racism of the U.S. that is producing the son to whom Coates writes for everyone else to witness.

“Of course we chose nothing,” Coates writes:

We did not design the streets. We do not fund them. We do not preserve them. But I was there, nevertheless, charged like all the others with the protection of my body….

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white. “White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. (pp. 22, 42)

#

From his candidacy and through Obama’s tenure as president, I have drifted from skepticism to cynicism about the promise of a black president to change policy or the hearts and minds of privileged Americans.

I harbor no delusion that the people who should read Coates slowly and carefully, with hearts and minds open to hard truths, will do so.

Despite overwhelming evidence of systemic racism, whites in the U.S. remain resistant, if not incapable of admitting their own culpability in racism. In fact, research shows “Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.”

Coates lived what research details:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not a tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic—an orc, troll, or gorgon….There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally. (p. 97)

For those who believe themselves white, everything is about “me”—except for racism, of course.

And since the connection has been made, let’s admit that James Baldwin was too often ignored while he lived and has nearly disappeared since his death. If Baldwin was one of the, if not the, greatest witnesses among writers and public intellectuals—and I believe that to be the case—how can we expect Coates to achieve what Baldwin could not?

Ours, then, among the privileged is to resist raising a bar so high that Coates is doomed to fail.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to refuse the “yes, but” trivialization of a black man’s interrogation of this racist world.

Ours, then, among the privileged is to listen, to stand with in order to build a more perfect union that, ironically, will never again create a Baldwin or a Coates-as-Baldwin in the way those men have been formed.

#

Coates creates a powerful refrain throughout his book, the Dream.

That refrain is an unmasking of people who think they are white, a denunciation of a world that forces black males to define themselves against that whiteness.

As an educator, I am compelled to highlight a central message from Coates about formal schooling: “I had been reading and writing beyond the purview of the schools all my life” (p. 37).

Ultimately, Coates left college—and we must hear Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” in the background:

I wanted to pursue things, but I could not match the means of knowing that came naturally to me with the expectations of professors. The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. (p. 48)

Formal schooling is a mechanism of the Dream, Coates discovered:

The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing. And it became clear that this was not just for the dreams concocted by Americans to justify themselves but also for the dreams that I had conjured to replace them. I had thought that I must mirror the outside world, create a carbon copy of white claims to civilization. (p. 50)

The world Coates interrogates failed him and fails his son in the streets and the classroom; this we must admit is an inexcusable consequence of both enduring racism and the recalcitrance of the privileged to acknowledge systemic racism.

“And still you are called to struggle,” Coates tells his son and his readers, “not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (p. 97).

#

“As I learn from you,” concludes the speaker of “Theme for English B”:

I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

Hughes was Hughes, Baldwin was Baldwin, and Coates is Coates.

The themes are too often the same, however, and it is well past time that the somewhat more free who believe themselves white set themselves aside and learn without qualification from those who have been declared black.

See Also

“I look at the world,” Langston Hughes

remnant 57: “forced on me from above” [Haruki Murakami on school]

On Public Versus Charter: “The Dispute Has Actually Nothing to Do with Education”

I.

Published 54 years ago, Nobody Knows My Name continues to shake any reader willing to listen as James Baldwin bore witness to the region currently—and again, shamefully—in the national spotlight, “the South, which was now undergoing a new convulsion over whether black children had the same rights, or capacities, for education as did the children of white people.”

Baldwin continued—and we could too easily substitute for his “this” as we now witness debates long past their time for resolution:

This is a criminally frivolous dispute, absolutely unworthy of this nation; and it is being carried on, in complete bad faith, by completely uneducated people. (We do not trust educated people and rarely, alas, produce them, for we do not trust the independence of mind which alone makes a genuine education possible.) Educated people, of any color, are so extremely rare that it is unquestionably one of the first tasks of a nation to open all of its schools to all of its citizens. But the dispute has actually nothing to do with education, as some among the eminently uneducated know. It has to do with political power and it has to do with sex. And this is a nation which, most unluckily, knows very little about either. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1102-1108). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

The “frivolous” comes not from the great questions that have always and will always confront humanity—how do we educate?—but from the “bad faith” among “uneducated people” who have undeserved privilege and power.

To believe the current education reform debate is not nearly indistinguishable from what Baldwin contested as the U.S. resisted desegregation is to live among the deaf and blind.

For more than three decades now, public education has been held hostage by the most frivolous of frivolous debates: how to design and implement accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing. This adolescent game of “my accountability can beat your accountability” has left public education and the children it should serve battered and bloodied.

From the seemingly endless cycle of new standards and new high-stakes tests (and ways to punish even more groups within our public schools) to the increasingly snarky divisiveness and personal politics of social media, the often cited reasons for all this sound and fury—public schools, the children—are being mis-served; just as a couple terrible examples, public education has re-segregated during the accountability era, and the mislabeled achievement gap among racial groups has remained robust.

II.

“I often find myself scratching my head,” writes Andre Perry, “wondering why so many black folk extol the virtues of public education.”

Perry, 54 years after Baldwin’s challenge to “frivolous dispute,” wades into not only the public versus charter schools debate but also the race and social class biases at the root of whose voices matter and whose voices do not.

Most of the U.S. sits idly by—like audiences watching the newest Avengers movie—while the arrogant and mighty battle, rarely acknowledging the collateral damage (will there ever be a superhero blockbuster film in which all those superheroes use their superpowers to rebuild the infrastructure they destroy?).

Since Marvel’s Civil War is set for film soon, we may be watching the equivalent in fiction of the public versus charter debate, and I think Perry is offering a rare but important plea, as Baldwin did: “the dispute has actually nothing to do with education.”

Perry recognizes “[i]n the education wars,”

black and brown educators who criticize the current wave of reform often find themselves rallying with those who can say that public education in this country works. But let’s be clear, blacks aren’t in a position to root for or celebrate the status quo. Likewise, there has never been a time in which blacks shouldn’t have considered themselves reformers. Yet many have incidentally joined an education “party of no.”

Although eventually (as late as the early 1970s in the South Baldwin examined) public schools were forced to open their doors to all children, Perry stresses “many of us fight for that unfulfilled promise at the expense of student learning”:

Public education should advance society and its individual members simultaneously. But black communities can’t afford to wait for whites to gentrify schools in the name of democracy to get a good education.

And thus, Perry challenges the false dichotomy that has been created by the “education reform [debate that] is too white to do any good“: public schools versus charter schools. In fact, Perry asserts, guided by Frederick Douglass’s “What To The Slave Is The 4th of July?”:

Charter schools make sense for black communities. Charter schools are independent public institutions that are freed from administrative controls of a centralized, area board, but must still meet broad guidelines or requirements of public schools. Through a charter, parents, teachers, and administrative staff primarily can gain freedom from an elected local board that’s incongruent with their values.

To fight the public versus charter war at a pitch that drowns out the voices of those whom “public institutions” should be serving, must be serving is disturbingly frivolous, Perry recognizes.

Of all the education reform debates, this tension has given me the most pause: How can we rectify rejecting “no excuses” charter schools for being racist/classist while many black families choose those very schools?

I am compelled to look again to Baldwin in order to remove the misleading labels (“public,” “charter”) and to hear, as Perry explains:

I like many see a promise that charter schools can deliver, but I also see inequities waving in the faces of black and brown students every day in public schools. Inadequate funding, harsh suspension and expulsion policies, lack of services for students with special needs and culturally irrelevant curricula are durable, standing problems in most takeover districts. I see waste, fraud, and unsavory practices that led cities to decentralize.

“Charter” for Perry represents a new promise, one responsive to the needs of children too long ignored.

So to save this debate from the “frivolous” we must guard against simplistic labels. Regardless of whether the school is “public” or “charter,” the educator’s commitment must be, as Paul Gorski explains, to “take a stand when one of our students is being shortchanged—not standing in front of or standing in place of, but standing next to, standing with low-income[, black and brown] students and families.”

Being for public education or either for or against charter schools proves to be as callous and hollow as superheroes destroying a city to win a war between Good and Evil when we lose sight of foundational promises to achieve race and class equity.

III.

In the years between Baldwin’s and Perry’s commentaries, the promise of public institutions has remained unfulfilled because the question of race in the U.S. has never been fully confronted.

In 2015, presidential candidates expressing racist trash are viable while elected officials, although now in a minority, in South Carolina continue to cling to the Confederate battle flag as they spew whitewashed history and empty slogans as thin veils for racism that works as political capital. In 2015, because a privileged minority controls what counts as civil debate, we haven’t the capacity to denounce the morally reprehensible position that “both sides” deserve equal credibility.

So we are people trapped by trivializing debate and democracy in a moral vacuum.

And again, Baldwin’s “debate” allows us to insert his voice in our moment now:

And yet, it became clear as the debate wore on, that there was something which all black men held in common, something which cut across opposing points of view, and placed in the same context their widely dissimiliar experience. What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 346-351). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

From Baldwin’s world of overt racial segregation to Perry’s world of covert racial segregation, then, whether the debate be who we educate or how we educate, the tarnished promise is the consequence of the white illusion:

This illusion owes everything to the great American illusion that our state is a state to be envied by other people: we are powerful, and we are rich. But our power makes us uncomfortable and we handle it very ineptly. The principal effect of our material well-being has been to set the children’s teeth on edge. If we ourselves were not so fond of this illusion, we might understand ourselves and other peoples better than we do, and be enabled to help them understand us. I am very often tempted to believe that this illusion is all that is left of the great dream that was to have become America; whether this is so or not, this illusion certainly prevents us from making America what we say we want it to be. [Baldwin, James (2013-09-17). Nobody Knows My Name (Vintage International) (Kindle Locations 1080-1085). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

IV.

We need “educated people,” as Baldwin explained—not the credentialism of formal schooling, but the education that comes from Freire’s reading and re-reading the world, writing and re-writing the world unmasked of race and class privilege.

Educated people who can state clearly that no black child should have to sit in Robert E. Lee Elementary.

That no black young adult should have to sit in Tillman Hall.

Yes, names matter.

But then, the indignity of honoring “men with wicked histories” must not be compounded by what happens inside those institutions.

No black, brown, or poor child should be walking through the doors of any school only to be treated as criminals, failures, or data.

We need educated people who can admit public, charter, and private schools remain too often institutions of inequity reflecting a country in which a child’s race and social class at birth have a greater bearing on her/his life than the content of her/his character.

We need educated people who can admit symbolism and practices both matter—that two Americas will not be tolerated or obscured by “frivolous dispute[s … that have] nothing to do with education.”

On this there must no longer be debate.

What I’m Reading: June/July 2015

Because some of my favorite people have convinced me to share, I will try to post periodically what I’m reading so here is what is on my computer screen and in my hands as my reading life for June/July 2015.

Essay: James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960)

Mademoiselle editorial comment:

On February 1, 1960, four students from North Carolina A. & T., a black college in Greensboro, entered the local Woolworth’s department store. After making a few purchases, they sat down at the lunch counter, an area reserved for whites. Told that they could not be served, they remained in their seats until the store closed. More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida. to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether “We really want to be free” and whether freedom applied to all Americans or only to part of the population.

Short story: Alejandro Zambra‘s “Reading Comprehension: Text No. 1”

ILLUSTRATION BY MATT DORFMAN

This is a brilliant satire of testing and a powerful use of meta-fiction.

Poem: Nikky Finney’s “Dancing with Strom”

black people will forgive you

Powerful, disturbing, and important in the wake of the Charleston shooting at the AME church, this poem confronts and unmasks the racism under the label of “heritage” in South Carolina and the South in the person of Strom Thurmond.

Novel: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

From McCarthy’s official web site:

The Crossing, publicized as the second installment of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, is the initiation story of Billy Parham and his younger brother Boyd (who are 16 and 14 respectively when the novel opens). The novel, set just before and during World War II, is structured around three round-trip crossings that Billy makes from New Mexico into Mexico. Each trip tests Billy as he must try to salvage something once he fails in his original goal. On both his first and last quest he is reduced (or perhaps exalted) to some symbolic futile gesture in his attempt, against all obstacles, to maintain his integrity and to be true to his moral obligations. This novel explores such issues as guilt, the acquisition of wisdom, heroism, and the crucial importance of stories.

Graphic novel: Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War

From Marvel’s description:

The landscape of the Marvel Universe is changing, and it’s time to choose: Whose side are you on? A conflict has been brewing from more than a year, threatening to pit friend against friend, brother against brother — and all it will take is a single misstep to cost thousands their lives and ignite the fuse! As the war claims its first victims, no one is safe as teams, friendships and families begin to fall apart. The crossover that rewrites the rules, Civil War stars Spider-Man, the New Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the entirety of the Marvel pantheon!

James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960): “On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend”

James Baldwin published “They Can’t Turn Back” in 1960 just as I was about to enter this world.

Baldwin—black, gay and from the North—was witnessing a world from which I—white, straight and from the South—would in many ways be exempt, although it was the same world.

In this essay, Baldwin was charged by Mademoiselle to report on student activism in Florida after the Greensboro (North Carolina) sit-in, which the editors framed, in part, as follows:

More than any other event, the Greensboro sit-in launched the 1960s, a decade of political activism and students were on the cutting edge of social change. In 1960, the writer James Baldwin visited Tallahassee, Florida. to report on student activism there. Baldwin ruminated on the underlying causes of black protests and marveled at the militancy and idealism of the younger generation. To Baldwin, the movement challenged all Americans to rethink whether “We really want to be free” and whether freedom applied to all Americans or only to part of the population. (Italics in original)

Four A&T College students sit in seats designated for white people at the racially segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC, on February 2, 1960. From left to right, the students are Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Billy Smith, and Clarence Henderson. This photo was taken on the second day of the now-famous Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins. (Greensboro News & Record photo by Jack Moebes.)

“I am the only Negro passenger at Tallahassee’s shambles of an airport,” Baldwin begins, as he paints an immediate picture of the tensions between blacks and whites that defined his world: “If she were smiling at me that way I would expect to shake her hand. But if I should put out my hand, panic, bafflement, and horror would then overtake that face, the atmosphere would darken, and danger, even the threat of death, would immediately fill the air.”

In Charleston, South Carolina—about 300 miles away from Greensboro and 55 years later—racial tensions have escalated from “threat” to execution. In the wake of the mass shooting of the #Charleston9 (an eerie and disturbing echo of the Little Rock Nine), the political and public response has focused on the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol grounds in SC as well as in both government and private contexts across the South and U.S.

Time and place, then, do not erase the power of Baldwin’s second paragraph:

On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend, and that is why I find the South so eerie and exhausting. This system of signs and naunces covers the mined terrain of the unspoken—the forever unspeakable—and everyone in the region knows his way across this field. This knowledge that a gesture can blow up a town is what the South refers to when it speaks of its “folkways.” The fact that the gesture is not made is what the South calls “excellent race relations.” It is impossible for any northern Negro to become an adept of this mystery, not because the South’s racial attitudes are not found in the North but because it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority. That is why the battle of Negro students for freedom here is really an attempt to free the entire region from the irrational terror that has ruled it for so long.

The South Baldwin describes was cracking under the weight of “separate but equal” as that myth crashed into a rising refrain of civil rights. As Baldwin notes, “the viewpoint of the white majority” dictated the narratives about and for blacks—and whites.

Today, as the South and the nation wrestles with symbolism—a flag—we also confront a tarnished and enduring myth-turned-slogan, “Heritage Not Hate,” as Tony Horwitz explains:

Some of those who invoke the “heritage, not hate” mantra are disingenuous. On the day of the shooting, I was in rural east Texas, touring a small town with a businessman who displayed the rebel flag on his truck. After telling me “it’s heritage, not hate,” he proceeded to refer to a black neighborhood as “Niggertown” and rant against the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

Most flag defenders, however, are sincere when they say they cherish the banner as a symbol of their ancestors’ valor. About 20 percent of white Southern males of military age died in the Civil War. In South Carolina the toll was even higher, and thousands more were left maimed, their farms and homes in ruins. For many descendants of Southern soldiers, the rebel flag recalls that sacrifice, and taking it down dishonors those who fought under the banner. No one wants to be asked to spit on their ancestors’ graves….

But a deeper problem remains, and not just among those who cherish the Confederacy. Nationwide, Americans still cling to a deeply sanitized and Southern-fried understanding of the Civil War. More often than not, when I talk to people about the conflict, I hear that it was about abstract principles like “state sovereignty” and “the Southern way of life.” Surveys confirm this. In 2011, at the start of the war’s sesquicentennial, the Pew Research Center asked more than 1500 Americans their view as to “the main cause of the Civil War.” Only 38 percent said the main cause was slavery, compared to 48 percent who answered states’ rights.

For Baldwin in the turbulent cusp of the 1950s/1960s at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University:

The South is very beautiful but its beauty makes one sad because the lives that people live, and have lived here, are so ugly that now they cannot even speak to one another. It does not demand much reflection to be appalled at the inevitable state of mind achieved by people who dare not speak freely about those things which most disturb them….

It is very nearly impossible, after all, to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. The fact that F.A.M.U. is a Negro university merely serves to demonstrate this American principle more clearly: and the pressure now being placed on the Negro administration and faculty by the white Florida State Board of Control further hampers the university’s effectiveness as a training ground for future citizens. In fact, if the Florida State Board of Control has its way, Florida will no longer produce citizens, only black and white sheep. I do not think or, more accurately, I refuse to think that it will have its way but, at the moment, all that prevents this are the sorely menaced students and a handful of even more sorely menaced teachers and preachers.

Our contemporary world remains too often silent, just as our institutions of education continue to be in the service of the status quo—failing more often than not the very students most in need of public and higher education. Just as Baldwin’s recognition of the power of symbolism in the South speaks to today, his words strike also at the heart of the return of segregated and inequitable schooling across the entire U.S.:

For the segregated school system in the South has always been used by the southern states as a means of controlling Negroes. When one considers the lengths to which the South has gone to prevent the Negro from ever becoming, or even feeling like, an equal, it is clear that the southern states could not have used schools in any other way.

James Baldwin in Los Angeles, 1969 (Credit: Sedat Pakay)

In his role as witness, Baldwin details his own journey among black leaders and students in Florida, and one student leads him to note:

But this [the historical perspective] does not, and cannot exist, either privately or publicly, in a country that has told itself so many lies about its history, that, in sober fact, has yet to excavate its history from the rubble of romance. Nowhere is this clearer than in the South today, for if the tissue of myths that has for so long been propagated as southern history had any actual validity, the white people of the South would be far less tormented people and the present generation of Negro students could never have been produced.

For SC and the U.S., pulling down a flag is not an act of erasing history, but a moment, a momentum for facing a history long masked behind the veneer of whitewashing.

Baldwin’s time spent with student protestors in Florida spurred in him angst—an angst not unlike those who fear now that the flag removal will be but a passing symbolic act with little real change to follow: “And all this, I think to myself, will only be a page in history. I cannot help wondering what kind of page it will be, whether we are hourly, in this country now, recording our salvation or our doom,” Baldwin muses.

However, Baldwin’s closing words suggest hope, a hope embodied in young blacks then who were in a different world than the one into which Baldwin was born. And Baldwin believed in the promise of young black activism grounded in a bold recognition of the real history of race in the U.S.:

They [black student activists] cannot be diverted. It seems to me that they are the only people in this country now who really believe in freedom. Insofar as they can make it real for themselves, they will make it real for all of us. The question with which they present the nation is whether or not we really want to be free. It is because these students remain so closely related to their past that they are able to face with such authority a population ignorant of its history and enslaved by a myth. And by this population I do not mean merely the unhappy people who make up the southern mobs. I have in mind nearly all Americans.

These students prove unmistakably what most people in this country have yet to discover: that time is real.

Hope and angst are with us in the wake of the mass shooting in Charleston, in the wake of political leaders who defended the Confederate flag on one Friday (and for years) only to reverse course after a weekend (and likely some motivation from the very CEOs politicians had invoked as evidence the flag was not a real issue), in the vacuum of the national refusal to confront the violent gun culture that arms the racism we are begrudgingly admitting.

In Baldwin’s refuting of William Faulkner—white calls for patience from blacks—we have more evidence of the relevance of Baldwin in a time of racial unrest:

But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist—and he is not the only Southerner who knows is. There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now. (“Faulkner and Desegregation,” Nobody Knows My Name)

On Southern Heritage and Pride

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

For Skylar and Jessica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BaltimoreUprising and the Politics of “Myths That Deform Us”

They know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, they know everything they need to know. And whatever else they say is a lie….The American idea of progress, when Americans talk about progress, they mean how fast I become white. And it’s a trick bag because they know perfectly well I can never become white….

James Baldwin, 15 January 1979

Politics in the U.S. is carefully and meticulously restrained, walled off as mere partisan politics, the manufactured and mostly illusion of choice (hence, of democracy) between Republicans and Democrats—both of which are in the service of capitalism, commercialism, and consumerism.

As such, Republicans and Democrats are different sides of the same economic coin, both depending on the false threat of socialism and both fostering the narrow and distorted gaze always on economics. The U.S. has no capacity for looking away from the coin and toward what the coin represents: Power.

Not to be too simplistic, but the system is irrelevant because the powerful few will always work that system to maintain power, and thus to keep the vast majority subservient. In that respect, the former USSR serves well to show that so-called communism works in many of the same ways as capitalism to serve the few.

Capitalism, communism, socialism, and even democracy, then, are not really economic or political systems as much as they are stories, mythologies—ways of framing the world to serve the needs of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

Made popular by Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell spent his career seeking ways to bring a better understanding of comparative religion studies and mythology into pop culture. Campbell explained that “[m]yth basically serve four functions”: mystical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical.

The third function, sociological, “[supports] and [validates] a certain social order”:

And here’s where the myths vary enormously from place to place. You can have a whole mythology for polygamy, a whole mythology for monogamy. Either one’s okay. It depends on where you are. It is this sociological function of myth that has taken over the world—and it is out of date. (p. 31)

As a powerful example, Moyers and Campbell discussed the representation of serpents/snakes in myths, starting with the Christian Garden of Eden myth, but also highlighting the parallel Bassari legend. “It’s very much the same story,” Campbell explained (p. 45).

And from this, Campbell noted where the sociological functions vary regarding serpents/snakes: “Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation,” he added (p. 47). However, the Christian framing is uniquely negative:

Moyers: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.

Campbell: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to the man. The identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.

Moyers: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?

Campbell: No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. (p. 47)

In its sociological function, the myth of the Fall serves men, the power and purity of men by imposing sin onto serpents/snakes and women.

Paulo Freire confronts the power of myth:

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology. (p. 41)

#BaltimoreUprising and the Politics of “Myths That Deform Us”

The abrupt shooting of Tamir Rice offered a horrifying moment to confront the “myths that deform us,” as Stacey Patton explained, placing Rice’s shooting within the historical context of Emmitt Till.

As well, Rice’s shooting has been informed by research showing that black children are mis-seen as being older, even by people in authority (such as police officers, teachers).

The relentless string of highly publicized shootings of black males has now exploded in Baltimore, a perverse real-world allegory of the consequences of the sociological function of “myths that deform us.”

Placing as we should all of the incidences from Trayvon Martin until today (since memory in the U.S. is brief, ahistorical), we must acknowledge that blacks live daily under the “myths that deform us,” often myths ascribed to the power of Church and God: biblical arguments for slavery, biblical arguments against inter-racial marriage, biblical arguments for beating children (and parallel marginalizing and dehumanizing women with the Word of God).

The Western/Christian iconography and symbolism preaches black is evil and white is pure: the corrupt that must be purified and the pristine that must be preserved.

These “myths that deform us” have also been given the veneer of science—IQ and decades of standardized tests that serve the interests of white, affluent males, keeping people of color, the poor, and women behind the wall of not measuring up.

Watching #BaltimoreUprising requires that we listen to and look at carefully in order to confront the Thug Myth being used to maintain with perpetual surveillance a culture of compliance shaped by and for white privilege.

Race itself is a myth, a human construction, not a biological fact. The associations (prejudices, stereotypes) with race (young black males are thugs, looters, rioters) are no more true than snakes are evil.

Those who control the myths (that deform us) have fashioned these stories in their honor, for their gain.

As Baltimore rises, those who deny racism continue to have an evidence problem, one that must serve to crumble their “myths that deform us.”

#BaltimoreUprising exposes that white privilege cares more about private property than human life—even as a black man sits in the White House.

We must tear down the wall.