Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

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

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“That’s How I Got My Name”: Expanding the First Day of Class with Baldwin

Last academic year, I wrote about considering our students’ names more intentionally in terms of diversity and inclusion through activities around the following texts:

Today as I began an introductory course in education foundations and two first year writing seminars, I confronted students about how these texts address names and gender, familial connections in names, power dynamics, race and culture, and the connection between a name and understanding Self.

Instead of the usual cycling around the room for introductions, I asked which students disliked their names (see “My Name”), calling on them to share their names and why. From there I asked who liked their names, using the same process, and then prompted those with clipped names or nicknames, and those who went by middle names.

Many of the students during this discussion of the text did, in fact, introduce themselves, and we also shared stories of our names.

I explained that when I was in second grade Mrs. Townsend told me I was named for my father. However, I was Paul Lee Thomas, II, and named after my paternal grandfather (my father was Paul Keith Thomas, and went by Keith).

Since I grew up in a small town where everyone knew each other, my teacher identified my grandfather as Tommy; I suspect almost no one in the town were aware of his full given name.

I correct Mrs. Townsend, politely offering, “No, ma’am, I am named for my grandfather.”

This was the late 1960s in small town America so I was immediately sent into the hall as punishment for arguing with a teacher.

I was terrified, mostly about what punishment awaited me when I returned home. My father’s standard rule was my sister and I would receive double the punishment for any trouble we caused at school.

I imagine my parents either called Mrs. Townsend or my mother spoke with her. None the less, the next day, Mrs. Townsend took me in the hall to apologize.

To this day, I recall all this, more than 50 years ago, and I still resent that she refused to apologize in front of the class.

My story fits well against Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” which explores identity—student/black, instructor/white—and the imbalances of power connected with identity.

That power imbalance in schools and schooling is particularly important to name and address the first day of class, when our teaching is grounded in critical awareness.

With the first year writing seminars, I also added this year a talk by James Baldwin, “Baldwin’s Nigger”:

We watched the first 7 minutes or so, including when Baldwin uses the phrase “Baldwin’s nigger” to explain “That’s how I got my name.”

First, I shared this clip to explain to students my own complicated relationship with the racial slur—refusing to say the word aloud except when I am reading passages that include it, confessing I was raised in a racist home and community where the slur was all too common in the mouths of whites.

From there, I introduced my students to discomfort in a formal learning setting. They should expect to be intellectually uncomfortable from time to time, but none of them, I stressed, should be emotionally or physically uncomfortable.

Further, I guaranteed that they could come to me in private and their discomfort would be honored and addressed. For first year students, these are likely new concepts, I realize.

Baldwin’s talk also addresses the weight of names and ownership (similar to Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself”) so we explored the impact of names on gender and racial stereotypes as well as how names and titles can create or perpetuate imbalances of power.

I included a brief discussion of Malcolm X (renaming himself in defiance of enslavers’ names) as well as the “ordinary thing” of women giving up their maiden names and the implication of ownership in “Mrs.”

Including Baldwin’s talk, I think, has made this opening activity much richer, breathing even greater vivacity into starting a journey with students—notably since I also challenged them to seek ways to be humans and not students in our class.

We ended class by brainstorming about student behaviors that are not common outside of school—having to ask to go to the bathroom, raising a hand to speak.

While I was excited last academic year about my name activity and having a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of diversity and inclusion, this expanded version, adding Baldwin, has greatly enhanced the experiment—one I think I must always see as in progress.

“I was formed in a certain crucible,” Baldwin explains. For my students, today began a “certain crucible” for each of them, one they will eventually name and one that will, I hope, deepen their own understanding of the names and identities they choose and cast upon them.

A few months from now, we will all be something different, something new, and maybe even something better.

Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Recommended

Who Me?

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.

UPDATE

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.”

William_Powell_Frith_The_Witch_Trial

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.