Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.


Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.

For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin


This Is Not My Opinion

“Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem,” writes Nicole Truesdell, concluding: “Now is not the time to side with neutrality.”

Mainstream and rightwing pundits have long promoted the idea that K-12 and higher education in the US are rife with liberal indoctrination. One of my long-time colleagues often told the story of his own father periodically lamenting that he had allowed my colleague to go to college because the experience had turned him into a liberal.

Evidence, however, is another thing when framed against these standard railings against a Left in the US that simply does not exist.

As the country stumbles toward its first year in Trumplandia, a new but also misleading mantra is lamenting fake news in post-truth America. The misleading part is that these phenomena are somehow new or spawned by Trump and his serial lies as well as his ability to avoiding any consequences for his outlandish racism, sexism, and xenophobia.

The US has a long and disappointing history with choosing ideology over evidence, and public discourse has often been grounded in framing opinion in a cloak of false equivalence.

The term “opinion” itself has worked throughout modern history to suggest that no person has any more credibility than another since “both sides” are simply sharing their opinion. How often do we listen as debate is resolved with “Let’s just agree to disagree”?

So as 2017 comes to an end, and the Trumplandia nightmare of the unreasonable continues, I want to take this opportunity to state clearly: This is not my opinion.

While socializing with good friends just yesterday, I was reminded once again that to be informed places anyone in a stressful situation throughout our day-to-day life since the vast majority of people are uninformed about the many things they none the less feel compelled and justified to weigh in on.

I, on the other hand, have the annoying habit of reserving comments unless I am well informed and being disturbingly honest and blunt when I do weigh in myself.

Yes, I do hold my tongue often in social situations—but that is quite challenging since most people spend their lives in the actual realm of “opinion” as it is commonly used to suggest that no evidence exists to confirm if that “opinion” is valid or not.

Formal schooling traditionally reinforces this lazy approach to how we explore ideas by plodding students through overly simplistic “fact v. opinion” worksheets.

What we should be teaching instead is that all of us make claims (not that everyone has an opinion) and that we are all ethically responsible for making claims that are credible, supported by evidence or solid logic.

As two examples, I often contribute to public discussions about the so-called “word gap” and corporal punishment—both of which are illustrative of the problems inherent with seeing the world as awash in “opinion.”

The “word gap” represents an interesting phenomenon since those who appeal to the term and the idea that social class is strongly correlated to literacy (wealthy children are exposed to and know more words than poor children) do take the initiative to cite evidence, almost always one study by Hart and Risley.

This appeal to the “word gap,” however, has two critical flaws: it is driven by a social class and racist bias hiding beneath a flawed view of literacy (number of words in any person’s vocabulary is not a valid single proxy for literacy), and since the “word gap” appeals to a common-sense view of how to support better children in poverty, the average person and journalist have failed to investigate Hart and Risley, whose study has itself been discredited.

Understanding the complex relationship between social class/race and literacy and then how to educate better vulnerable populations of students are not served well by a culture of “opinions.” Here is an important context for why expertise (making claims grounded in evidence) is important—and how all discourse is political.

Journalists perpetuating the “word gap” without critically unpacking the concept or confronting Hart and Risley are themselves being political—even as they hide behind the veneer of “just reporting” and “both sides” journalism.

As a literacy professor, I cannot avoid being political—there is no neutral pose—when I teach literacy courses. But I have an ethical obligation to be well informed on the topics I teach. And thus, just as when I blog or weigh in on topics in public spaces, when I teach, this is not my opinion.

While the “word gap” continually is reanimated as a fact that isn’t true, the corporal punishment debate is a disturbing example of how “both sides” discourse and “just an opinion” have real and negative consequences—especially for the powerless (such as children).

As I have explained before, public debate about domestic violence is quite distinct from public debate about corporal punishment—the former is always examined as something no one can support or defend, but the latter is always framed as a “both sides” argument.

If we consider the rush to cite Hart and Risley when promoting the “word gap,” we must wonder how domestic violence is universally rejected in mainstream discussions (and with no need to cite research[1]) but corporal punishment remains a debate—despite decades of research and virtually all medical and psychological professional organizations clearly showing there is no acceptable amount of physical punishment.

This often ignored distinction between how we frame domestic violence and corporal punishment again highlights that all human discourse is political.

In her rejecting calls for classrooms that are somehow not political, Truedell offers the words of James Baldwin so here I want to make my case by merging their ideas myself:

While Truesdell argues, “Now is not the time to side with neutrality,” Baldwin admonished us: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

A democracy cannot afford teachers, professors, journalists, or public intellectuals who choose the veneer of neutrality as long as inequity and injustice rule the day.

This is not my opinion.

[1] Note that discussions of domestic violence often do include statistics about who is involved and how many women suffer domestic violence, corporal punishment debates may note how may states allow it in schools, but rarely identify the number of actual children impacted; thus, domestic violence is more humanized than corporal punishment even in the numbers. This is political; this is about power.

Segregation Surprise?: How Public and Charter Schools Have (Always) Failed

On social media, I witnessed charter advocates try to justify the exact failures Andre Perry unmasks in his Charter school leaders are complicit with segregation, and it’s hurting their movement, where he concludes:

Make no mistake, segregated schools of the past and present are a result of horrible policy choices that most people are willing to accept. There is a reason that after more than 20 years, the research is mixed on charter schools. Schools in black and brown communities were built on broken foundations — i.e., segregation. By not addressing segregation, reformers are turning off the stove when the house is going up in flames.

Perry was having none of it, the apologists’ dissembling, but was far more patient and willing to engage this nonsense than I.

I also have no energy left to revisit this again, except to point out that finding it surprising that both traditional public schools and charter schools are failing the most vulnerable populations of students—often black, brown, poor, speakers of home languages other than English, and having special needs—requires being willfully ignorant of decades of evidence.

And thus, what the rabid edureformers have willfully ignored for quite some time:

Made in America: Segregation by Design

Segregation and Charter Schools: A Reader

Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Racial segregation returns to US schools, 60 years after the Supreme Court banned it

Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era

As Perry confronts, edureformers are embodiments of one of the most powerful warnings from James Baldwin:

Men, Power Must Change

Along the arc of horrors, where we place the abuses of men and power seems a trivial enterprise, as if horrors can be quantified, compared by degrees.

In her 1992 novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker fictionalized one of those horrors, female genital mutilation; this ritual may seem barbaric, foreign, and somehow not of us to many in the U.S.

However, the expanding spotlight on powerful men who are sexual abusers and predators—Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly—belongs on that same arc of horrors—even if we choose to categorized George H.W. Bush’s behaviors are “harmless” or continue to qualify accusations about Woody Allen and Louis CK because, you know, art.

Reviewing Walker’s novel, Janette Turner Hospital explains:

“Possessing the Secret of Joy” is about the “telling” of suffering and the breaking of taboos. And when taboos are broken, new forms and modes of discourse must evolve to contain that which has previously been unspeakable. Predictable outrage — moral, political, cultural and esthetic — ensues, and the breakers of taboos are both vilified and deified. Alice Walker tackles all these developments head-on in a work that is part myth, part polemic, part drama. It is a work that sits uneasily within the category of “the novel,” though the breakers of taboos must always redefine the terms and the rules of the game. Indeed, Ms. Walker’s book is a literary enterprise whose ancestry runs closer to the Greek chorus and the medieval miracle play than to the modern novel. Its subject matter is ritual clitoridectomy and the genital mutilation of young women.

As James Baldwin witnessed, “the time is always now.” Even though Cosby seems to have survived, and the U.S. elected Donald Trump despite boasting about his own life as a sexual predator, there appears a possibility that we are seeing a crack in the damn behind which men and men with power have ensconced themselves forever.

If Walker’s novel was an attempt to break taboos and prompt change, then now is a moment in the wake of that clarion call about the horrors awaiting all women and girls simply because men are men, and because men are too often too powerful.

Simply stated: How men fundamentally interact with the world must change; how power manifests itself in the world must change. Incremental change is not enough. No longer can men be centered just for being men, and all power must be dispersed, no longer concentrated.

Immediately men must stop placing themselves on the arc of horrors in ways that frame them as somehow not a monster, and therefore, not complicit.

All men are to blame, and all power is corrupt.

We can no longer discount the inherent flaws of men and power as somehow not all men, not all power; and we cannot allow the horrors to be mere celebrity and entertainment—as Joe Berkowitz confronts in a review of Louis CK’s new film (a thinly veiled examination of Woody Allen) despite his own refusal to address years of rumors about his offensive behavior toward women:

In making a case for not believing certain rumors, Louis CK is making a case for not believing women. Bill Cosby is a free man because people didn’t believe women. Donald Trump is the president because people didn’t believe women. Nobody might have believed the case against Harvey Weinstein if not for audio proof of him being disgusting to women. A policy of disregarding these kinds of rumors only protects the powerful men who stand accused. The real Woody Allen is surely aware of how dangerous it is for him if people start believing women. While prominent actors and directors publicly flagellate themselves for not speaking out about Weinstein sooner, even though they knew about his crimes, this man is worried that the avalanche of Weinstein accusers will lead to “a witch hunt.”


The Witch Trial by William Powell Frith (1848)

Not believing women as victims is the abuse that compounds the abuse—as Adrienne Rich captures in “Rape”: “You have to confess/to him, you are guilty of the crime/of having been forced.”

After Trump’s election, at the very least a “boot in the face” of all women and human decency, Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” resonated with many. Two lines—”The world is at least/fifty percent terrible”—now resonate well beyond her likely intended meaning, or even why the poem spoke to may then.

Men, the “fifty percent terrible,” stand now exposed, hands raised against the widening spotlight as the crack in the dam expands.

The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit.

James Baldwin, “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” 1948

Myrtle Wilson mangled and left for dead in the middle of the road, Jay Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce driven by Daisy Buchanan disappearing into the night.

Gatsby face down and dead in his opulent pool with George Wilson, Gatsby’s murderer, nearby, also dead at his own hand.

These are the images that resonant with me from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—juxtaposed with these words by narrator Nick Carraway:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic, what some call the Great American Novel, is an incredibly dark work that mostly paints America as a soulless white nation of “vast carelessness.”

While I cannot claim Fitzgerald omits black America on purpose to make a point, the absence of blacks among the decadence of Gatsby’s obsessions beside Nick’s mesmerized impotence as well as Tom and Daisy’s carelessness remains a powerful commentary on the state of this nation in 2017.

Myrtle, George, and Gatsby are sacrificed on the alter of the American Dream and material wealth. While Tom and Daisy directly and indirectly are agents in this tragedy, they mostly survive unscathed.

America today has chosen not to address the rendered invisible—black America in Fitzgerald and directly addressed in Ralph Ellison—or the working class/ poor personified by the delusions of Myrtle and George, but to embrace and worship Tom, privileged white supremacist (in many ways now echoed by Trump):

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” [1]

Noticeably less celebrated, sitting beside Fitzgerald’s “vast carelessness” of white America was Langston Hughes:

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free. (“Theme for English B”)

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….

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet… (“Let America Be America Again”)

Decades after Hughes and many years after the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin made a powerful and pointed observation:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,’ but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie. (On Language, Race and the Black Writer, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

Several years before that, Baldwin also confronted white America:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort. (“No Name in the Street,” 1972)

The “vast carelessness” of white America in 2017 includes white denial of racism as well as outlandish claims that somehow white America is under attack.

The truth remains, as Hughes and Baldwin observed, white America would never trade being white for being black—considering the state of racial inequity now:

What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.

Why it matters: Though the African American experience is not monolithic, our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing. For example, just completing a bachelor’s degree or more will not reduce the black-white wage gap. Indeed the gaps have expanded most for college graduates. Black male college graduates (both those with just a college degree and those who have gone beyond college) newly entering the workforce started the 1980s with less than a 10 percent disadvantage relative to white college graduates but by 2014 similarly educated new entrants were at a roughly 18 percent deficit.

Race, gender, and social class inequity remains persistent in the U.S.—matched in resilience only by the “vast carelessness” of white America, refusing to acknowledge and thus act in any way to end the ill-gotten advantages of white privilege, and as Hughes implored, “Let America be America again./ Let it be the dream it used to be.”

Four decades ago, Baldwin recognized the failure of American politics, also victim to the “vast carelessness” of white America: “There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it” (“A Review of Roots,” 1976).

Spoken today, these words send the same relevant message that partisan politics cannot save us because partisan politics is part of the problem.

White America must shed its “vast carelessness,” its commitment to our dark and sordid Tom core.

Otherwise, white America embraces callously the carnage by a free people who lack a soul, the nightmare instead of the dream.

[1] Late in the novel, when the tension among Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby reaches a climax, Tom, the scientific racist and adulterer, becomes self-righteous:

“Self control!” repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…. Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”

The hypocrisy mixed with Tom’s racism creates even more tension, broken momentarily by Jordan: “‘We’re all white here,’ murmured Jordan.”

A seemingly minor comment by a minor character resonates today as not only the historical view in America but the mantra of the rise of white nationalism today.

Racial Slur

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

“Incident,” Countee Cullen

Earlier in the summer of 2017 during the controversy over Bill Maher’s use of a racial slur, I wrote a poem [1] that confronts the slur but also ends with an image that haunts me in the wake of Charlottesville and Barcelona.

The tyranny of the threat of being run over rests now in my bones after having been run over with a group of cyclists just 8 months ago.

But I have no direct personal understanding of what James Baldwin confronts about race in the U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. ” [2]

Along with the pervasive threat of  physical violence and death for any black body even or especially at the hands of the state (the crux of Colin Kaepernick’s protests), there remains the threat of the racial slur.

As Baldwin interrogated:

As witnessed in this video: Watch Out Loud: What Was It Like the 1st Time You Were Called the N-Word?

My first grandchild is starting 3K in a bit more than a week from now. She is a vibrant and affectionate child who happens to be biracial.

She appears at 3 on a path to mostly pass for white—that itself a horrible thing to still be contemplating or acknowledging in 2017. In the dead of winter, people praise her lovely tan.

And she is attending a school in my hometown where my wife teaches; it is a solidly rural small town in the South that is far more white than when I attended those schools.

And when I look at my dear granddaughter, the engine I hear revving is when she will first encounter that racial slur, directed at her—to be defined—or at her father, a tall black man with dreads who, when then dating my daughter, used to leave our house in a hoodie in the time around Trayvon Martin‘s killing.

There is a powerful thing shared between parenting (and grand-parenting) and teaching—spending our time in the care of children and young people.

Parenting involves watching a baby grow into independence and the inevitability of kinds of loss.

But teaching is an ever-refreshed group of children and young people—a sort of permanent fountain of youth.

In that parenting and teaching, then, is a kind of hope. Intoxicating hope.

However, my dearest granddaughter is walking into the world of Trumplandia, and I am nearly bereft of hope, consumed instead by fear.

I am haunted now by a question: What is the critical mass of good people who will act on that goodness in any organization or society for it to matter?

I am haunted now by a realization: The critical mass of truly awful people needed to matter is incredibly few, often needing only one dominant figure head to render the whole organization or society essentially evil.

I am terrified by my midlife understanding of the term “gunning an engine.”

I cannot hold my granddaughter tight enough, long enough.

[1] white folk (switchblade)

But all agon eventually reduces itself to human violence….
But then the world has always made violent use of children.
The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

to apologists for Bill Maher

white folk carry “nigger” in their throats

like switchblades secreted in designer boots

there are no excuses for such dormant violences

like white men with slick-backed hair and dark suits

who will slit your throat in a white-hot second

like a volcano spewing lava swallowing barefoot children sleeping

beware these smiling white folk clearing their throats

like an engine cold cranking before plowing over you

[2] “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI (1961), p. 205.