“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979)

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

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.

What Can a Sincere White Person Do? Malcolm X

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A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

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“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

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The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

The Bootstrap Lie and the Politics of Privilege

This is going to be difficult and uncomfortable.

I invite you, then, to be patient while I start with something slightly less uncomfortable but just as difficult.

The tragic but real story of Pat Tillman is many things—one of which is a complete unmasking of how powerful and dangerous cultural mythologies are and how often our cultural mythologies prove to be both false and serving the interests of privilege (primarily white, male, and wealth privilege).

Tillman believed in the sacred duty of a person to serve his country, and then, in that service, Tillman not only lost his life, but also had his death story fabricated to perpetuate the very false myth that failed him.

Those with power sullied Tillman’s legacy to reinforce that the false myth of patriotism could be preserved in the service of their power — and were willing to sacrifice anyone buying the myth.

Again, that is a very hard discussion, a nearly impossible reality to recognize and digest.

But this is even more difficult because it entails race and racism as well as the very ugly stereotypes the U.S. perpetuates and embraces about people in poverty.

And as a very privileged and successful white man, I am walking onto very thin ice by confronting and naming black leaders who, as I will outline, represent a tragedy similar to Tillman’s.

Next, before I become more pointed, my caveat here is that I offer this as a witness in the tradition of James Baldwin, to whom I will return at the end. These are critical views of the world that I have learned by listening carefully, by setting aside my own urge to mansplain, whitesplain—to be the authority.

I am not the authority, but I am a diligent student.

To be considered:

Lawyer Michelle Alexander has detailed a disturbing dynamic: many black communities have advocated against their own best interests by embracing the “get tough on crime” myth perpetuated in the service of privilege. Alexander’s best example, I think, is that police often sweep black neighborhoods (are often invited to do so by blacks themselves), but choose not to do similar sweeps in white and affluent areas such as college campuses—although both are likely to have recreational drugs being used and sold.

Critical educator Chris Emdin, writing on his Instagram page, confronts a parallel paradox in education: “Black teachers with white supremacist ideologies [are] just as dangerous as white folks who don’t understand culture.” From Geoffrey Canada to Steve Perry to Joe Clark—many black educators have embraced the essentially racist “no excuses” ideologies that target black, brown, and poor children while perpetuating that the problems with educating these children lies in deficits of the children, and not any systemic forces. Education designed to correct, “fix,” fundamentally broken children (racial minorities, impoverished children) is inherently racist and classist.

Scholar Stacey Patton advocates against corporal punishment, specifically addressing how many blacks have internalized racist demands that the black body be punished, reaching back to U.S. slavery. As Patton explains:

Dr. Stacey Patton: People think that hitting a child is a form of teaching. We think it will protect them.  And people grow up to invert the violence they experience as children as something that was good, particularly in African-American culture.  As a people, we attribute our success to having had our bodies processed through violence and quite frankly what it does is confirm a long-standing racist narrative about Black bodies. The only way to control us, the only way to make us “good,” law-abiding, moral people is with a good whupping. It seems that we unconsciously agree with that narrative.

Alexander, Emdin, and Patton represent a much larger body of work that recognizes how often privilege recruits outliers of marginalized groups in order to distort those outliers as proof of false myths, specifically pointing to any successful black person as proof that the bootstrap myth is real, that we have achieved a meritocracy.

Popular culture is filled with examples—O.J. Simpson, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, just to name a few who have become spokespersons in the service of privilege, who, as Emdin notes, are “just as dangerous.”

So here is the very hardest and most uncomfortable part, forced by the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, an ideologue billionaire hell-bent on perpetuating the choice myth that serves only people like her at the expense of marginalized people, especially children who should not have to wait for the Invisible Hand and who should be served immediately by leaders of the wealthiest country in human history.

Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) has eagerly supported DeVos within his own unwavering advocacy for choice, often invoking that poor and minority families and children deserve the same choices as white and wealthy families and children.

Scott has sold his political soul (much like Clarence Thomas) to an ugly and harmful bootstrap myth, as expressed on his biography page:

An unbridled optimist, Senator Scott believes that despite our current challenges, our nation’s brightest days are ahead of us. As a teenager, Tim had the fortune of meeting a strong, conservative mentor, John Moniz. Moniz helped instill in Tim the notion that you can think your way out of poverty, and that the golden opportunity is always right around the corner. The American Dream is alive and well, and Tim’s story is a concrete example of that.

Scott is an outlier, and his story of success is commendable—except it is an ugly thing to hang one’s success over the heads of others, demanding that their not reaching a similar success is simply due to not “think[ing] [their] way out of poverty.”

No, the American Dream is not alive and well:

access-to-good-jobs-race-gender

At the same levels of effort, women and racial minorities remain disadvantaged by systemic forces that work against them; these inequities are not the result of the ugly “laziness” myth about black, brown, and poor people that lies underneath the bootstrap myth, the rugged individual myth, the meritocracy myth.

The free market and all sorts of choice are crap shoots, and they are in no way mechanisms for equity, for justice.

Scott’s “notion that you can think your way out of poverty” is a slap in the face of adults and children who are already working and trying as hard as they can, and worst of all, this bootstrap mantra maintains the very systemic forces it refuses to recognize.

Billionaires from Trump to DeVos are spreading cultural lies, and they depend along the way on recruits into these narratives, recruits—as Alexander, Emdin, and Patton reveal—who may even look just like the people being cheated.

And so I will end by coming back to Baldwin, whose legacy is being renewed, and whose message still resonates as Rich Blint concludes:

As the latest entry of the brilliance of James Baldwin on film, I Am Not Your Negro (along with Baldwin’s scathing account of American film-making, The Devil Finds Work) lays bare the rhetorical and imagistic sleight of hand that enables the fiction and terror of race in American life to persist with such a renewed and deadly power. As he suggests, the extent to which we truly wrestle with our psychic need for the myth of the “nigger,” will determine the future of the country. It is still the only song left to sing.

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

White progressives, academics, and book lovers were all atwitter on social media because in his farewell address, Barack Obama quoted from literature:

obama-af-tkam

Similar to my concern about Michelle Obama’s recent comments on education and teachers, my response to this excitement was tempered:

 

During the praise tour for the Obamas, I have taken this stance on social media:

Praise for Michelle and Barack Obama has begun as Obama’s presidency comes to an end. That praise poses a few problems:

Praise is warranted, must be supported against the inherent racism that demands perfection from minorities and not from white males.

However Michelle and Barack have allowed, supported policies that contradict the often wonderful rhetoric, notably about education.

Michelle’s recent praise of teachers and the power of education is hard to let lie since Obama’s 8 years have been horrible for education.

The policies and rhetoric from the DOE/SOE have been horrible for black, brown, poor students since they have fed deficit ideology.

Let us be careful to honor but not idealize, not gloss over the failure of policy beneath the veneer of rhetoric.

Here, I want to deal directly with the paradox of race surrounding Obama’s presidency as that is reflected in Obama’s choice to quote Atticus Finch and not, for example, the essays of James Baldwin or the literature and public commentary of Toni Morrison.

This is offered specifically to white people, in the context of my awareness and rejecting of whitesplaining, and as an ally to all people seeking racial equity in a country that denies its racism daily.

Also this is informed by the wide spectrum of reactions to Obama and his role in confronting racism in the U.S. Black academics and intellectuals are not uniform in how to assess Obama, not uniform in either praise or criticism of Obama.

A powerful touchstone for Obama and race/racism in the U.S. has been Ta-Nehisi Coates’s My President Was Black.

Tressie McMillan Cottom and William A. Darity Jr. have challenged both Coates and Obama.

Cottom offers a wonderful and nuanced response, but concludes:

The essay is also infuriating. It attributes so much of Obama’s improbable presidency to his inimitable faith in white Americans’ higher self, something I can only describe as Obama’s painful rejection of black folks’ agency. The theory that Obama could be elected president because his white family had imbued him with an authentic love for and faith in white people that the typical black American does not have is intuitive but wrong. I suspect, given Obama’s own words over hours of conversations with Coates, that he believes he really does have some special insight into white people’s better angels. Nothing is more emblematic of the problem with this theory than Obama’s assessment of Donald Trump’s election chances to Coates: “He couldn’t win.” Obama’s faith in white Americans is not better insight into their soul where, presumably the mythical “racist bones” can be found. Obama’s faith, like the theory that it made Obama’s presidency possible, misunderstands race as something black folks can choose without white folks’ assent. White voters allowed Barack Obama because they allowed him to exist as a projection of themselves. It is seductive to believe Obama could shape that in some way, much less control and direct it. But, as Coates details in painful case after case of political obstructionism among Democrats and Republicans during the first black president’s terms, Obama never had the ability to shape white people’s attitudes. White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.

But Darity is more pointed:

I had a queasy feeling about Barack Obama’s candidacy from the moment I heard his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that lifted him into national prominence, a speech that Coates summarizes in the profile. Toward the end of the speech Obama observed that black families in urban centers realized “that government alone can’t teach our kids to learn … that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” “The acting white” libel—a myth that will not die—argues that low school performance for black students is a product of a culturally based black opposition to high academic achievement.

Among these many diverse and brilliant voices—and the rhetorical legacy of Obama—I feel both nervous about expressing and compelled to address how Obama choosing Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird to quote offers yet another reason to believe Cottom’s “White people’s attitudes, the contradictions of their racial identities and class consciousness, made Obama. Obama did not make them.”

My short response is Obama has been successful and effective (admitting reasonable people may disagree about what “effective” means) because he is the type of person who knows to quote TKAM when trying to persuade whites about the need to overcome racism.

My longer response must address why white people are so enamored with Finch and TKAM: Like Obama, it is a middle-class and respectable way to confront something very ugly and likely not to be changed by that politeness.

With the controversial posthumous publishing of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, most people fell prey to the debate about Finch as a racist in that pre-quel and ignored the long critical examination of TKAM and Finch as a failed work on race and racism that is enduring because white privilege loves the white savior narrative, which is the foundational element of TKAM (see Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s Walking in Another’s Skin: Failure of Empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird).

“In many ways, Atticus’s subtle racism in Mockingbird is the story’s brilliance,” explains Catherine Nicols.

That “subtle racism,” notes Jennifer Polish, appeals to the Left:

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely valorized as a “progressive” book. And this is the larger problem with the book and with Atticus’s character and racism—Atticus was always positioned as a white savior.

And Osamudia R. James adds the need to re-consider TKAM (a call that may be equally relevant to how we praise and critique Obama):

Atticus Finch presented an enduring model to which many white liberals still cling. But besides being a fictional character, Atticus Finch is a myth. And a dangerous myth because he keeps good white liberals from reconsidering the fact that they live in white neighborhoods; from challenging administrators about the racial segregation of their children’s schools or white supremacy advanced in the curriculum; or from acknowledging how they benefit from a system that keeps people of color laboring in their homes but excluded from their social and professional spaces. Like Finch, it is sufficient that they simply “do their best to love everybody.”

James concludes then:

It would be easier to ignore “Watchman” and stick to white saviors and the triumph of individual values over structural oppression. But if we choose this account, racism is not overcome, black children still encounter anti-blackness at their schools, and whites – despite their individual goodness – remain complicit in it all.

Ironically, I guess, the debate around Lee’s Watchmen failed to prompt either an impactful reconsideration of TKAM or race/racism/white privilege (see here and here also).

It now seems unlikely that Obama’s presidency (at least a significant symbolic moment in race for the U.S.) or the rise of Trump and the concurrent normalization of white supremacy will prompt an impactful reconsideration of race/racism in the country either.

In fact, it seems that the circumstances have been reduced so that we must cling with glee in some way to Obama’s anemic confrontation of race tempered by the conventional expectations of respectability governed by white privilege.

Just as the white savior myth needs to be retired from literature and pop culture, the role of white privilege must be eradicated, allowing the equity of all spaces for everyone.

I am skeptical that appeasing white privilege is the course needed for that to occur.

I am nervous about incrementalism—the belief that Obama is a necessity along the path to racial equity.

I am fearful that Obama’s symbolic and rhetorical moment in history has spawned the worst sort of backlash, one we could not have imagined—or one that whites were unable to imagine while mired in the white savior myth, the lie of post-racial America, and the delusion that systemic racism is not fed by virtually every single white person.

Despite the good that Michelle and Barack Obama have fostered for this country, today we are still being asked to tip-toe around the sensibilities of racists—not to call racism “racism,” racists “racists.

This I am certain is not progress.

 

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

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. (pp. 7, 173)

 

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016)

“All we gotta do is be brave
And be kind”

“Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” The National

…the world is gone daft with this nonsense.

John Proctor, The Crucible, Arthur Miller

In a keynote address at the 1960 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant asserted:

Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which [she/]he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom—rights—of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)

Published as The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English in the September 1961 English Journal, this characteristic call to action from LaBrant resonates in 2016 as English teachers prepare to gather in Atlanta, Georgia for #NCTE16 with the increasingly important theme of Faces of Advocacy.

Fifty-five years ago, LaBrant advocated for teaching:

Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A [hu]man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner….But the teacher is something quite different from the [hu]man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results. (p. 380)

Most practicing teachers today work within and against political and bureaucratic forces that “[reduce teaching] to a mechanical procedure.”

And even more disturbing is LaBrant’s warning:

What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which [she/]he deals and the very materials with which [she/]he works, that teacher is a robot [her/]himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless [she/]he knows [she/]he will have freedom to use [her/]his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)

At mid-twentieth century, LaBrant spoke against the all-too-familiar “bad” teacher myth used in contemporary calls for accountability:

Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when [she/]he has to face [her/]his own decisions, and when [she/]he supports that decision. (p. 383)

The de-professionalizing of all teachers, then, is not something new, but a historical fact of being a teacher. However, LaBrant confronted the culpability among educators themselves:

One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master [her/]his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But [her/]his right to choose comes only when [she/]he has read and considered methods other than [her/]his own. [She/]He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)

“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” lamented LaBrant. “By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire”:

There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about [her/]his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which [she/]he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (pp. 390-391)

The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux

“Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it,” writes Teju Cole in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S. “It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”

LaBrant wrote about the field of teaching English throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the power—both for evil and for good—of language forefront of her concerns:

Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. (“The Individual and His Writing,” 1950, p. 265)

So we teachers of English/ELA—and all educators—sit in 2016 confronted with a “[m]isuse of language” that has given rise to a presidency built on racism, sexism, and xenophobia; therefore, as during LaBrant’s career, we teachers of English/ELA must embrace the most pressing responsibilities.

But driving Trump’s and his supporters’ bigotry has been a powerful corruption of language: blatant lies, denials of those lies, and the ugliest of coded language. In short, bullying has rewarded a political leader with the highest office in a free society.

Parody of Trump’s misuse of language cannot be taken lightly, but that misuse has real consequences on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, including children in the classrooms of teachers across the U.S.

Immediately, then, teachers must admit “that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces” (Kincheloe, 2005).

In other words, although teachers are historically and currently de-professionalized by being told not to be political, as LaBrant argued, educators cannot reinforce that mantra by calling for politics-free zones in our classrooms and in our professional spaces.

Calling for no politics is a political act of silencing that brazenly takes a masked political stand in favor of the status quo.

Teaching and learning are unavoidably “politically contested spaces,” but they are unavoidably ethically contested spaces as well.

Language is a human behavior that allows us to wrestle with and find our moral grounding; and thus, those teaching literacy have a profoundly ethical mission to work toward the Right, Good, and Decent—in the act of teaching but also as a personal model.

As philosopher Aaron Simmons argues:

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

The naive stance of neutrality can no longer be who teachers are because, as I noted above, to be neutral is to support the status quo, and in the U.S., the status quo is a cancer that left untreated promises to kill us all.

As Lucas Jacob argues directly:

Calling a politician out for Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny is not a matter of exerting undue influence by favoring one political party over another; nor is it a matter of disrespecting the presidency. Naming Mr. Trump’s hate speech as such is, rather, a moral imperative for supporting the missions of K-12 schools, in which Islamophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist words and actions are punishable offenses that can (and must) be treated as being beyond the pale.

“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979 on Black English. “It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”

Just as LaBrant linked language and power, Baldwin extended that dynamic to include race—and called for using that power in the name of community instead of divisiveness.

The word “critical,” now, has taken on exponential layers of meaning.

We are in critical times, and thus, as Kincheloe explains about the political and ethical responsibilities of being critical educator who seeks for students critical literacy:

Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….

To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)

In its simple form, to call a lie, a lie; to name racism, racism; to reject hate as hate—these are the undeniable responsibilities of teachers, especially teachers of English/ELA.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of a lie is to lie.

To say “I’m neutral” in the face of racism is racism, in the face of sexism is sexism, in the face of xenophobia is xenophobia.

To divorce the act of teaching from the world within which it resides is to abdicate the greatest potential of teaching and learning: to change the human experience from dark to light.

If we shun our responsibilities as teachers in 2016, we are turning our backs to the ugliest realities faced by Baldwin nearly forty years ago:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.

Writing two decades before her NCTE keynote examined above, LaBrant made a foundational request: “For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that [she/]he teach in [her/]his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life” (p. 206).

And about “this honest use of language,” there are only two options—although remaining neutral is not one of them.

Dark Mourning in America: “The world is at least/fifty percent terrible”

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

“The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats

Although humans appear ultimately incapable of listening to and then acting upon our great capacity for art—which is an extension of our great capacity for compassion, love, and good—literature may offer some solace in a time when the US has announced itself still a racist, sexist, and xenophobic people, hiding behind the codes of “conservative,” “family values,” and “Christian nation.”

How low do people have to stoop before they have their Lady Macbeth moment:

Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!–Fie, my
lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we
fear who knows it, when none can call our power to
account?–Yet who would have thought the old man
to have had so much blood in him.

Shakespeare’s dramatization of guilt and being complicit is, let’s not ignore, an allusion to Pontius Pilat and the “assassination” of Jesus:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” [Matthew 27:24, NIV]

If we can have that moment in which we admit, confront, and atone for our responsibility in the evil that humans do, we must finally listen to James Baldwin:

rigid-refusal

And to Langston Hughes:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

And face our children with our failures, against which Maggie Smith struggles:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children….
The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children….
Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children.

The US and its majority white population have the greatest opportunity before them, a free and powerful nation of riches, and daily, that opportunity is squandered because of our “rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The US is undeniably inequitable, and to balance among gender, race, etc., we have only two options: to take away or to give to—but in either case, white privilege is erased and white sensibilities are challenged.

There is no evidence the white majority has the ethical backbone to make changes for equity or even to tolerate them.

On a dark mourning in America, I recommend reading or rereading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—a sobering imagining of the worst of white responses to the rise of the Others they have created.

We are now on that path, and it is ours to make the decision to turn around or move forward into that oblivion.