MLK Day 2016: A Reader

In the US in 2016—and specifically for educators—the need to confront racism must remain central to all efforts to overcome inequity and injustice. Among the privileged—white-, male-, heterosexual-skewed—there is no room for “yes, but,” although there remains ample room for stepping back, being silent, and then listening as first steps to offering solidarity in the action needed to confront the false narratives of “meritocracy” and “rugged individualism,” and then to overcome the irrefutable inequities linked to race, class, gender, and sexuality.

One commitment is to resist the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical. So here, I offer some readings, varied and important, but pathways to honoring the radical MLK and to resisting the lingering dream deferred.

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” (1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

MLK poverty

The Trumpet of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Haley’s fairy tale ignores our history

haleyEnslaved Africans of George Washington Depicted as ‘Happy and Joyful’ in New Children’s Book

The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr., Matt Berman

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christian Radical—And Saint, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Read This Before Co-Opting MLK Jr., Jose Vilson

The Revisionist’s Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream For Most Of Us,” Jose Vilson

Harlem, Langston Hughes

Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes

The white man pathology: inside the fandom of Sanders and Trump, Stephen Marche

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment, Dick Startz

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“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

The Causal Effects of Cultural Relevance: Evidence from an Ethnic Studies CurriculumThomas Dee, Emily Penner

Questioning Payne | Teaching Tolerance

Toolkit for “Questioning Payne” | Teaching Tolerance

50 Years After Selma, White Lives Still Matter More, Stacey Patton

The Oscars’ Racist Refusal to Honor Modern Black Heroes, Stereo Williams

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

The Martian: Allegory of Whose Lives Matter

Nicolas Sparks and the Allegory of Pretty White People Who Struggle until Everything Works Out

James Baldwin: “the time is always now”

the-time-is-always-now

The “Objectively Reasonable” Shooting of #TamirRice: A Reader

“In Self Defense,” A.B. Frost, Harper’s Weekly (October 28, 1876)

inselfdefense5w

(1934) W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Negro Nation Within a Nation”

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the lat two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin, The Nation (July 11, 1966)

You will note that there is not a suggestion of any kind of appeal to justice, and no suggestion of any recompense for the grave and gratuitous damage which this man has endured. His tone is simply the tone of one who has miraculously survived—he might have died; as it is, he is merely half blind. You will also note that the patch over his eye has had the effect of making him, more than ever, the target of the police. It is a dishonorable wound, not earned in a foreign jungle but in the domestic one—not that this would make any difference at all to the nevertheless insuperably patriotic policeman—and it proves that he is a “bad nigger.” (“Bad niggers,” in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.) The police, who have certainly done their best to kill him, have also provided themselves with a pretext derisoire by filing three criminal charges against him. He is charged with beating up a schoolteacher, upsetting a fruit stand, and assaulting the (armed) police. Furthermore, he did all of these things in the space of a single city block, and simultaneously….

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Last week, a group of legal experts ruled the November 2014 police shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice “objectively reasonable.” Rice was shot as he sat in a local park, near the recreation center where he frequently played, holding a pellet gun. When officers responded to 911 calls that a “guy was sitting in the park pointing a gun at people,” they did not know that 195-pound Tamir Rice was only 12….

It is entirely unreasonable for a young boy, someone’s child, to end up dead at the hands of law enforcement when he did not objectively pose a threat. He was a child playing with a toy. In a park. That is what children do. There was nothing unreasonable about his activities. He was playing with a gun openly in an open-carry state. He was playing with his gun in a gun-driven national culture that does not think the killings of innocent college students or little children warrant more robust gun control laws.

The plot of one of our iconic American movies, “A Christmas Story,” is about a nine-year old boy wanting nothing more for Christmas than a “Red Ryder air rifle.” In the film, the adults in his life repeatedly warn Raphie, the protagonist, that he’ll “shoot his eye out,” with the weapon. Many adults who saw Tamir Rice the day he was killed warned him to be careful with his toy gun, too. The adults in Tamir Rice’s life weren’t worried that he would harm himself, but rather that the police would “reasonably” assess the 12 year old to be a dangerous criminal.

The legal murder of Tamir Rice, Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is where my own questions begin: Is our tolerance for the lethal violence of the police rooted in the fact that lethal violence in our society is relatively common? Put differently, murder in America is much more common than in other developed countries. Is this how we have made our peace with that fact? Our world is, in some real sense, more dangerous. In recognition of this, have we basically said to the police, “Do what you will?” And in the case of Stand Your Ground, has this “Do what you will” ethic even extended to the citizenry? And if that is the case, then is there a line that can be drawn from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott to Sandy Hook to Trayvon Martin?

The Paranoid Style of American Policing, Ta-Nehisi Coates

When policing is delegitimized, when it becomes an occupying force, the community suffers. The neighbor-on-neighbor violence in Chicago, and in black communities around the country, is not an optical illusion. Policing is (one) part of the solution to that violence. But if citizens don’t trust officers, then policing can’t actually work. And in Chicago, it is very hard to muster reasons for trust.

When Bettie Jones’s brother displays zero confidence in an investigation into the killing of his sister, he is not being cynical. He is shrewdly observing a government that executed a young man and sought to hide that fact from citizens. He is intelligently assessing a local government which, for two decades,ran a torture ring. What we have made of our police departments America, what we have ordered them to do, is a direct challenge to any usable definition of democracy. A state that allows its agents to kill, to beat, to tase, without any real sanction, has ceased to govern and has commenced to simply rule.

White police are killing black kids: The cops get off, because the system protects the lives it values, Brittney Cooper

Who will fight when the cops run in guns blazing without regard or care for the lives they have been called to protect and serve?

The answer is no one. No one will fight for us. And when we fight for ourselves, they kill us for that, too. When we stand up and decry injustice, our rage becomes the pretext for even more state-sanctioned violence, repression, and disenfranchisement.

We’ve said it all before. At this point, White Americans know the racial refuse of this nation is a stinking, rotting sore. But far too many of them continue to walk around acting, as the country folks of my youth would say, as if their shit don’t stink. For those of us who view Black lives as something more than the incidentally odoriferous fertilizer for white supremacy, the stench of rotting Black flesh is almost too much bear.

Confronting Privilege in the New Year: “when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice”

A former student and current wonderful early-career teacher texted me yesterday because someone had shared with her the inane “I’m not going to apologize for my white privilege” article that is all the rage among white privilege deniers.

Nearly as disturbing as the pervasive and corrosive influence of racism is the reality that the more whites are confronted with evidence of white privilege and racism, the more likely whites are to cling to their denial. Research from 2015 confirms:

What happens when people are faced with evidence that their group benefits from privilege? We suggest such evidence will be threatening and that people will claim hardships to manage this threat. These claims of hardship allow individuals to deny that they personally benefit from privilege, while still accepting that group-level inequity exists. Experiments 1a and 1b show that Whites exposed to evidence of racial privilege claim to have suffered more personal life hardships than those not exposed to evidence of privilege.

Throughout 2015, I have been cataloguing the overwhelming evidence of white privilege and racism, but I am discouraged about both the abundance of that evidence and the ineffectiveness of presenting it to those clinging fervently to their white denial.

Humans are drawn to patterns, both the recognition of patterns and the creation of patterns. Maybe anthropologists and sociologists would argue that in part that attraction is about survival and comfort. I suspect this pattern fetish in humans is also at the root of seeking out others like us (see any school lunch room where students are allowed to sit where they please), and I fear it is also the foundation for the very worst of humans—our racism, sexism, classism, and seething anger at the Other.

This is not some historical low point of human history—U.S. slavery, the Holocaust, the Japanese internment—but a seemingly credible point of debate among presidential hopefuls and their supporters who are calling from banning Muslims from U.S. soil.

And as the hashtags have continued to increase (#BlackLivesMatter, #TamirRice, and then too, too many to list) so has the backlash, the denial—just as the research above confirms.

We stand at the cusp of one of our greatest pattern urges, the arbitrary designating of the passing of time. Soon a new year will be upon the West (yes, even the calendar is a force of privilege, a way to mask subjectivity as objective, universal), and at least one voice has suggested there is hope: “I believe – I hope – that a great rewriting is slowly, surely underway,” writes Laurie Penny.

Penny’s examination of the latest Star Wars film offers a much more detailed and powerful investigation than my own look at The Martian, but we do tread similar ground; notably Penny explains:

The people who are upset that the faces of fiction are changing are right to worry. It’s a fundamental challenge to a worldview that’s been too comfortable for too long. The part of our cultural imagination that places white Western men at the centre of every story is the same part that legitimises racism and sexism. The part of our collective mythos that encourages every girl and brown boy to identify and empathise with white male heroes is the same part that reacts with rage when white boys are asked to imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes.

I struggle to share Penny’s optimism—because of the horrifying specter of the unfathomable nastiness in both our presidential politics and our pop culture, both of which expose the “white interpretive horizon.”

Yet, I think Penny makes a powerful observation that may be the key to believing change is upon us:

Let’s not get carried away here. These stories and retellings are still exceptions. Women are still paid less, respected less and promoted less at almost every level of every creative industry. For every Jessica Jones there’s a Daredevil, whose female characters exist solely to get rescued, provide the protagonists with some pneumatic exposition, or both. For every Orphan Black there’s Mr Robot and Narcos and you know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps I watch too much television. The point is that what we have right now isn’t equality yet. It’s nothing like equality. But it’s still enough to enrage the old guard because when you’ve been used to privilege, equality feels like prejudice. [emphasis added]

White privilege is an iceberg; very little is visible above the surface, and for those of us with that privilege, it is ours to interrogate what lies beneath in order to understand and dismantle it.

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains the speaker of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck”:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

As Penny explains when unpacking “[t]he rage that white men have been expressing, loudly, violently”:

Like a screaming toddler denied a sweet, it becomes more righteous the more it reminds itself that after all, it’s only a story.

Only a story. Only the things we tell to keep out the darkness. Only the myths and fables that save us from despair, to establish power and destroy it, to teach each other how to be good, to describe the limits of desire, to keep us breathing and fighting and yearning and striving when it’d be so much easier to give in. Only the constitutive ingredients of every human society since the Stone age.

Only a story. Only the most important thing in the whole world.

This is our wreck, a story of a people blinded by the myth of meritocracy while steering the ship headlong into the iceberg we pretend isn’t there.

We must write better stories, fictional and real. A new year is arbitrary, yes, but it serves us well to listen to the refrain “the time is always now.”

See Also

What to do when you’re not the hero any more, Laurie Penny

On Nerd Entitlement, Laurie Penny

Hello from the same side, Robin James

The horrifying lesson of Tamir Rice: White America will use “objectivity” to justify the murder of black children, Brittney Cooper

Confronting Privilege to Teach about Privilege

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

White Denial

High Cost of White Denial (Updated)

 

What We Have Allowed to Happen to Our Profession: “We’re Terrified”

Two conversations—one in person with an early-career teacher, the other through email with a pre-service teacher—can be highlighted by a sentence from the email:

preservice

Pre-service and early career teachers (although not alone) now learn and teach under the weight of “We’re terrified.”

The early-career teacher currently attempts to teach ELA in a high-poverty, majority-minority school, where she has 3 classes with about 50 students each in a team-taught experiment and must work under the incessant requirement of giving students and their parents feedback while planning and teaching in an entirely new school focus.

Again, this is not some unusual circumstance. This is the new normal of being a public school teacher—a new normal that began about thirty years ago and continues to accelerate despite no evidence any of the so-called reforms help and ample evidence those reforms harm students (except those so-called “top students” who are white and affluent but insulated from the reforms), de-professionalize teachers, and demonize schools as well as all of public education.

The pre-service teacher who emailed anticipates the exact conditions new and veteran teachers suffer under daily—conditions that mis-serve students (mostly high-poverty and black/brown students), their parents, and their communities.

I shared with the pre-service teacher by email that being a critical educator is hard—nearly impossible?—for all educators despite status or experience.

But I also offered my regret that we veteran educators have stood by and allowed this to happen to our profession—remained passive and apolitical so that pre-service and early career teachers have been reduced to “We’re terrified” like characters on The Walking Dead.

While the early-career teacher struggles with balancing health and happiness with the relentless and misguided expectations of teaching-as-accountability, the pre-service teacher added: “I’m worried about holding true to the principles that brought me to the profession.”

Today marks the passing of James Baldwin in 1987, and as I spend time with pre-service and early-career teachers, I am haunted by “We’re terrified,” inspired by Baldwin’s “the time is always now,” and disheartened how we educators continue not to heed his call.

James Baldwin’s Paris

James Baldwin in Paris in 1986. Credit Peter Turnley/Corbis

James Baldwin’s Paris, Ellery Washington

James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78, Interviewed by Jordan Elgrably

Seeing the Paris of James Baldwin, Ellery Washington

Another Country, Claudia Roth Pierpont

In Memoriam: James Baldwin’s Paris, Monique Y. Wells

James Baldwin’s Discovery of Self, Adrian Sheppe

Equal in Paris? Thomas Chatterton Williams

On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love

In the second chapter of All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, an unorthodox and engaging biography, Douglas Field confronts the “Disneyfication of the FBI,” highlighted by his own search of the bureau’s website that includes 1884 archived pages on Baldwin.

All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, Douglas Field

Field seeks to re-examine, complicate, and enrich many of the mainstream responses to Baldwin’s writing and “lives,” as the title notes. The disproportionately large and now easily accessible FBI files serve as a provocative reason to read this biography that never attempts to be comprehensive. However, I was drawn ultimately to the “Love Is in the Air” section of Chapter 3: James Baldwin’s Religion: Sex, Love, and the Blues, in which Field weaves together passages from Baldwin’s fiction and essays to stress the radical politics of the unappreciated author’s commitment to the power of love.

Politics features prominently in Field’s mostly thematic approach to Baldwin—the politics of sexual identification, the politics of race, and the politics of being an artist/public intellectual. And all of that, of course, is illuminated against the backdrop of the partisan politics of the U.S. and world during Baldwin’s life throughout the mid- and late twentieth century.

Baldwin suffered then and since his death charges he was too focused on race, he wasn’t focused enough on race, he was too focused on sexuality, he wasn’t focused enough on sexuality, he was too political, and he wasn’t political enough.

Running throughout Baldwin’s life were his own demand that he was a witness, an artist as witness (as Field’s quotes Baldwin from 1969, “‘I am not a public speaker. I am an artist'” [p. 67]), and as Field weaves together, a profound message about loneliness and the radical power of love—all of which, I think, has been as under-appreciated and insufficiently examined as Baldwin himself as a major writer and thinker.

“The Touch of Another”

Field challenges those who label Baldwin not political enough by first noting love for Baldwin is not “sentimentality,” and second, “his definition of love is explicitly active and political” (pp. 95, 96).

Baldwin’s insistence on the power of love is part of his “radical rewriting of Christian,” Field explains; then drawing on Leo Proudhammer in Baldwin’s novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone:

[S]ome moments teach one the price of the human condition: if one can live with one’s pain, then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.

Field adds: “Baldwin explicitly replaces salvation through prayer with what Leo refers to repeatedly as ‘the touch of another: no matter how transient, at no matter what price'”:

Baldwin’s emphasis on “touch” is both physical and spiritual, suggesting being moved (to be touched) but also the physical act of reaching out to another. By emphasizing the physicality of touch, Baldwin continues his critique of the way in which American Puritanism prohibits and inhibits both bodily and spiritual contact, which he explicitly refers to as the damage caused by “a fear of anybody touching anything.” In order to redress this, Baldwin insists that we must overcome our “terror of the flesh,” what he also calls “a terror of human life, of human touch.” (p. 96)

Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin

Later in this section on love, Field adds Baldwin’s view on the “sensual,” drawing on The Fire Next Time:

The word “sensual” is not intended to bring to mind quivering dusky maidens or priapic studs. I am referring to something much simpler and much less fanciful. To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. (qtd. in Field, p. 98)

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

In the next section of Chapter 3, In the Beginning Was the Word, Field hits what I think is the key to Baldwin’s lifelong emphasis of touch and love: “Baldwin’s first novel is also a remarkable exploration of loneliness” (p. 101).

Baldwin’s art and lives, then, are fueled by and efforts against the very human condition of loneliness made manifest by human institutions such as the church and human organizations such as religion. Baldwin sought the power of love to reinstate humanity, but was in no way trying to erase the day-to-day and often harsh realities of race or sexuality.

On Touch and Loneliness: Baldwin’s Echo

However we are compelled to frame it—coincidence, karma—immediately upon reading the section above in Field’s biography, I noticed three pieces that seem to suggest that Baldwin was not only speaking to an enduring human reality but also quite possibly shouting down a well.

“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.”

Greene offers a historical perspective on the culturally shifting attitudes toward platonic touching between men that has been rendered taboo due to the rise of homophobia in the twentieth century. Greene also notes how touch is common between adults and babies, but for boys, that intimacy is gradually replaced “with the introduction of [a] ‘get tough’ narrative.”

Addressing the taboo of touch in schools, Jessica Lahey asks, Should Teachers Be Allowed to Touch Students?:

The sensory experience of touch can’t be divorced from the emotional experience, [David J. Linden] explained, because the way humans perceive touch depends on its social context. An arm thrown over your shoulders by a domineering boss is perceived very differently than an arm thrown around your shoulders by a trusted friend, for example. “The sensation is perceived differently because the emotional touch centers in the brain are receiving signals about social nuances, even if the touching is identical,” and these nuances, Linden explained, are one of the reasons it’s so hard for schools to create rules governing touch.

And then, my colleague, Melinda Menzer, English professor and avid swimmer, blogged about searching the “swim” category in the menu of Sports Illustrated:

When I see the word “swim” on a sports website, I expect to find coverage of the sport of swimming. I’m crazy like that. But if you know anything about Sports Illustrated or their annual swimsuit edition, you can guess what I found: photos of models in bikinis, sitting on beaches and lounging in meadows and perching in groups on convertibles, but none of them actually swimming.

Further, she muses about her experiences with people talking about being hesitant to swim:

The whole matter wouldn’t be worth mentioning except that I know people — many people — who tell me that they don’t swim or that they feel uncomfortable swimming because they don’t want to be looked at.

It makes me very sad. I love swimming. I would like other people to love swimming. But these people don’t swim. And they are not unusual; Body Positive Athletes reports, “93% of people have identified a fear of judgement about their size, shape, or level of fitness as a barrier to starting physical activity.”…

I don’t know how to make uncomfortable people feel comfortable about putting on a swimsuit, how to combat our obsession about how we look and how other people look.

From touch taboos to paralyzing body image phobias—is this not the tyranny of the Puritanical Baldwin deplored?

Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others)—”we can release each other from pain”—that Baldwin demanded?

There is a sadness to these questions, ones that remain with Baldwin’s words echoing in the background—words that seem not to touch us.

Field also turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).

In “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” Baldwin acknowledges, “This rage for order can result in chaos, and in this country chaos connects with color” (p. 827). And then:

Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated—in the main, abominably—because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most powerful terrors and desires.

Most of us, however, do not appear to be freaks—though we are rarely what we appear to be….

We are part of each other. (p. 828)

“[O]ur most powerful terrors and desires,” then, found in all we do not touch, cannot touch, and thus, loneliness.

James Baldwin: Two Recent, Relevant Videos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racist Imperative: White as Mythological and Universal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who I Am, Who I Am Not

I am not Howard Zinn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course we chose nothing,” Coates writes:

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

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

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

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

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

Coates lived what research details:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also

“I look at the world,” Langston Hughes

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