Category: Kurt Vonnegut

2016 Furman University Graduation Speeches

I am no fan of ceremony—especially ones that trap you for hours in a false setting of formality—and I am equally no fan of what is often a hollow part of the graduation ceremony experience, the graduation speech.

I am a fan of one of the masters of graduation speech as satire and brilliance, Kurt Vonnegut.

At the 2016 Furman University graduation, however, I witnessed two wonderful addresses—one by a student and one by a university board member. I invite you below to read the transcripts:

Read W. Randy Eaddy’s address

Regardless of the activity, the key questions are these:  Who will you call (or text) to invite?  Who will accept the invitation and come?  Who will not?  And, in each case, Why?

Will you invite, for example, any of the following people who may work at your company, or who may be enrolled with you in same graduate program, or whom you otherwise see frequently and with whom you are cordial, but who are not part of your circle for personal social interactions:  the woman who wears a hijab?  The man who speaks with a thick foreign accent and is sometimes difficult to understand?  The woman whom you saw wearing a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt?  The guy who has a buzz cut and likes to wear cowboy boots?

Imagine the answers if you are working, affirmatively and purposefully, to achieve a deep, first hand, understanding of the self-defining perspectives of other people.

I realize that interacting with people who appear to be different makes most of us uncomfortable and uneasy.  “What will my friends think?”  “How will they react to these unfamiliar other people?”  “How will they react to me for inviting these other people?”

Read student Nathan Thompson’s address

President Davis also suggested in her inaugural address that, “maybe it’s time to progress from the idea of service and service learning to equal partnerships and mutual stewardship of place.” Put simply, we must become women and men who are not just for others, but with them. Our work and service aren’t acts of resume building and self-congratulation; they are the foundation of relationships between equals.

See Also

My Speech to the Graduates: Don’t Listen to Graduation Speakers

Recommended Reading Week of April 24

This list of suggested readings is eclectic, reflecting my interests, but I believe they are quite important—even though they range from issues of race and class to James Baldwin and Kurt Vonnegut.

Recommended reading week of April 24:

Raising Creators, Not Consumers

Traded my daylight
For a career

“Theory of the Crows,” The National

“I’ve yet to meet the writer who didn’t have an inspirational English teacher,” explains writer and former poet laureate Andrew Motion. “Mine was Peter Way,” adding:

This was his gift to me – and he gave it without ostentation, always speaking modestly and carefully, in such a way as to make poetry (in particular) seem an endlessly ingenious thing, but also as natural to the species as breathing. He lent me books from his own library, encouraged me to write my first poems, helped me to prepare for my university entrance and afterwards managed the transition from teacher/pupil to close friend/close friend. It’s no exaggeration to say that in certain ways he gave me my life.

My life as a reader, writer, and teacher also had its genesis in an English teacher, Lynn Harrill—my sophomore and junior teacher as well as my mentor and friend for many years since.

In the November 2003 English Journal (see below), I wrote about Lynn, highlighting how he steered the path of my life, including the initial impact:

1976. Mr. Harrill was my high school English teacher, though I had first met him over the summer as my drivers education instructor. I spent all of my free time at school in his classroom—an intellectual, emotional, and personal refuge for young people just becoming themselves. After I had read two Arthur C. Clarke novels, Mr. Harrill suggested I move on to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, and Lawrence. My life changed. We students were encouraged—not just allowed—to discuss and debate literature and the “Big Issues” of the day in Mr. Harrill’s class, and he happily refereed. We knew that he valued us as people; we knew that he loved us. And our lives changed. One day at break during my sophomore year, Mr. Harrill said to me, “You should think about teaching.” I laughed.

As Motion experienced, I was introduced to who I am by my English teacher, Lynn, who helped me on the course grounded firmly in words—reading voraciously, writing daily, and teaching with and about words.

I am not a poet laureate, but I am a poet and writer—and I am also as a teacher, a person who spends his life creating.

So when I saw the tribute by Motion and then read a comment on my blog about poetry from a parent homeschooling in order to raise children as artists, I was moved to think harder about our obsession in the U.S. with “college and career ready”—an obsession decades-long and really about career, or most factually about using public education to produce workers-as-consumers.

To work and to consume in the service of others.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s masterful satire, Player Piano, Paul Proteus tells his wife Anita:

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.”

And while Vonnegut is taking aim at corporate America, I have noted the novel is also satirizing our reductive approach to learning and knowledge, the blind faith in IQ as a technocratic way to know if someone is ready to become that worker-as-consumer.

We should read Vonnegut carefully, and we should heed his warning.

We should also listen to Motion about how teachers matter, and we should step away from our insistence that the purpose of a human is to become a consumer.

Potentially, we are all creators, artists, and not in some condescending way that suggests frivolity, but in the way that is fully human.

As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, to foster creators and not consumers is the greatest gift we can offer another human.

And once again, I sit writing, and thinking, “Thank you, Lynn.”

I work daily to pay this forward on his behalf.

Call 1

Call 2

Call 3

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

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment


On Family and the Inevitable Inadequacy of the Human Heart

For casual readers of Kurt Vonnegut, his broad use of dark satire likely cloaks the enduring streak of idealism running through his fiction, public talks, and essays—notably his unwavering faith in “artificial extended families,” which is central to what his genre-bending Prologue to Slapstick or Lonesome No More! notes is “the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography.”

In that opening, Vonnegut implores in typical inverted Vonnegut logic:

Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.” (p. 3)

Like “common decency,” kindness weaves its way through Vonnegut, as the eponymous main character of God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater demands:

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

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

The family, decency, and kindness—these are the ideals that have always drawn me to Vonnegut’s work, Vonnegut’s message. But ideals often reveal themselves quite differently in the lived world.


During my doctoral work, I became a biographer, writing an educational biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. And over the past twenty years or so, I have read a high number of biographies, often of writers I admire.

Biography is a damning thing, however, because people bigger than life laid bare are mostly exposed as just like us—and when bigger than life is juxtaposed with just like us, those people seem very, very small.

It is parallel to that moment as a child when you recognize your parents are flawed humans, just real people.

Biographies of e.e. cummings have left me hollow and numb, especially in terms of his relationships with wives and his daughter. Like Vonnegut, cummings is filled with idealism about children, love, and carpe diem, but his ability to fulfill that idealism was mostly absent.

Reading the first major biography of Vonnegut, then, also peeled back the curtain from the man who created out of tragedy (the death of his sister, Alice, and her husband) an “artificial extended family” and who wrote in “Biafra: A People Betrayed”:

General Ojukwu gave us a clue, I think, as to why the Biafrans were able to endure so much so long without bitterness. They all had the emotional and spiritual strength that an enormous family can give. We asked the general to tell us about his family, and he answered that is was three thousand members strong. He knew every member of it by face, by name, and by reputation.

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities—and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own—perfectly naturally. (p. 150)

There is a beauty and impossible idealism in this description that I do believe Vonnegut aspired to personally and then for all of humanity. He continued, wistfully:

The families were rooted in the land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Lovely. (p. 150)

Yet, just like us, Vonnegut’s bigger than life personae was not sustainable on this mortal coil.

So it goes.


While teaching Advanced Placement Literature, I often helped high school students anticipate the complex world of literature. While patterns and truism certainly can be disrupted by individual works of literature, a few are very helpful for young readers faced with a timed high-stakes test demanding both rapid and complex responses to dense literature.

And so, I often stressed that literature is ripe with examinations of the family as a source of great tension—King Lear, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, As I Lay Dying, and I could list for quite some time.

For me, I think, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof resonates powerfully as just such a work that demands we consider how difficult, if not impossible our roles as parents, sons/daughters, siblings, spouses, and lovers are—Tennessee Williams pens a song that echoes with the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.

Ah, the universal truths of great literature: the family is the source of our greatest passions and our greatest calamities.


While Vonnegut has profoundly shaped the young adult and aging adult me, as I have noted often, George Carlin—along with Richard Pryor—is my guiding initial voice for my world view, my own emerging and developing voice, and my relentless demand that we understand and shape the world with words.

Elizabeth Blair’s The Dark Side Of Funny: Growing Up In George Carlin’s Shadow, in fact, explains:

Stoned or not, George Carlin was also a perfectionist. According to Jerry Hamza, George’s manager and best friend for more than 30 years, the comic worked at his craft incessantly. He says, “I would tell people, ‘Well, where’s George? He’s up in the trees,’ because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write.” When George wasn’t writing, he and Hamza were on the road driving to gigs, TV tapings and meetings with entertainment industry types. “I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter,” Hamza says.

And it is there, in this piece on Carlin’s daughter’s memoir of her father that, like Vonnegut, Carlin’s lived life just like us crashes against the bigger than life comedian Carlin, whose routines about child rearing were performed in front of his daughter:

In fact, in a 1999 HBO special George ranted about overprotective parenting:

“You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers, are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren’t even allowed to have hazardous toys for Christ’s sakes. Hazardous toys, s***. Whatever happened to natural selection, survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn’t get to grow up and have kids of his own.”

The audience howled and Kelly says she laughed, too, though she wasn’t all that surprised. “I sat in the audience listening to this going, ‘Well, of course this disgusts him, because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez faire parent.'”

I find myself both compelled and repelled by Kelly Carlin’s A Carlin Home Companion. I also both know and do not know what is between the covers of that book.

What is there is on the family and the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart.


I am one not prone to giving advice, and even when I do, it is laced with so many caveats that the actual advice gets lost in the trimming.

Advice almost always seems trivial, trite, and the person giving advice is faced with the monumental task of not being either a hypocrite or a pompous ass.

So let me offer what I know, and take it as advice if you want.

There will be moments in life if you live long enough that you will regret above almost everything else having not appreciated the kindness and love bestowed upon you by others.

You will regret taking for granted those people, and their gifts of love and kindness.

Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet.

Knowing this, of course, has little chance to keep us from making that mistake—even repeatedly.

But I wonder if we have the capacity to recognize when we have given in to the inevitable inadequacy of the human heart, I wonder if we have the capacity then to do something not to erase the failure but to make things right now.

And I wonder about my dear muses Vonnegut and Carlin, nonbelievers both, possibly somewhere in the Great Beyond still committed to the better humans we could be but now relieved of this corporeal Self that is a glorious jumble of soaring human passion and stumbling human frailty.

In the last paragraphs of his Prologue to Slapstick, Vonnegut recalls his idea for the novel and how Alice is central:

Who is Melody? I thought for a while that she was all that remained of my memory of my sister. I now believe that she is what I feel to be, when I experiment with old age, all that is left of my optimistic imagination, of my creativeness.

Hi ho.

Hi ho, indeed.

And so, I am sorry, and you know who you are. Regret is a lousy way to walk across this planet. I am begging you to take that seriously because that is one family I do not wish upon anyone.

The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains

Hamlet: “Seems,” madam? Nay, it is. I know not “seems.” (1.2.76)

How completely high was I?
I was off by a thousand miles

“Heavenfaced,” The National

“Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion of readers who are going to doubt your facts,” explains Barbara Kingsolver in her High Tide in Tucson. “But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true.”

As I flipped through my cable movie options last night, knowing that the beginning of each month brings new films to watch, after watching Birdman, I noticed Lucy airing. I recalled that the film had mixed reviews at best, but I am a science fiction fan so I decided to give it a try.

Lucy relies heavily on the claim that humans use only 10% of their brains, and the film weaves together the main character Lucy with a neuroscientist who studies and speculates on humans using more of their brains—a good bit of “hypothesis” and “theory” language tossed around there—as well as what many may view as a documentary approach that includes cuts to not just realistic but real-world scenes.

For good measure, the film also plays with evolution—Lucy as the first human.

Viewers, then, are faced with a few challenges. First, is Lucy a good film? And related, is Lucy good science fiction?

But if we pull back from simply examining medium and genre (which I find to be very compelling discussions, by the way), we must consider Kingsolver’s dilemma as a writer.

Before scientists had even viewed Lucy, the drumbeat began pretty heavily:

Now I suppose a perfectly good response to this is, “Come on! It’s only a movie.” And I think that is what Kingsolver was pushing against: when is fact, fact, and when is fiction merely fiction.

Yet, as Christian Jarrett explains, the film speaks to a powerful misunderstanding widely embraced by people today:

Does anyone really believe this myth anymore?

Apparently so. For example, in 2012, a survey of school teachers in Britain and The Netherlands found that 48 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, endorsed the myth. Last year, a US survey by the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research found that 65 percent of people believed in the myth.

The larger problem beyond Lucy as good or bad film/science fiction is that, ironically, despite the 10% myth being completely refuted by scientists, humans have a powerful capacity for choosing what we believe to be true while almost entirely ignoring evidence to the contrary—and often in ways that are detrimental to us all.

Lucy‘s nod to evolution is no small matter here as the U.S. is unlike most of the so-called advanced world in rejecting and misunderstanding evolution. This is a subset of the fact that the public in the U.S. resists a tremendous amount of science and knowledge while clinging to ideology and mythology.

The consequences of the belief culture have been waved before us and the world recently as the Charleston shooting has resurrected “Heritage, Not Hate” among those unable to see the facts of history behind hollow sloganism.

While believing a false statistic such as humans use only 10% of their brains or perpetuating discredited legends such as The Beatles wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” as a paean to LSD may seem trivial (please, just let us enjoy our films and music), as the cultural clash over the Confederate battle flag reveals, clinging to the corpse of unwarranted belief ultimately erodes the very promise of the human brain, our capacity to think and then to act—although Kurt Vonnegut has mused that the too-big human brain may, in fact, be our problem, not our solution.

Journalism and education policy remain crippled by flawed approaches to science: the 10,000 hour rule, “grit” narratives and research, and the “word gap”—all of which are uncritically embraced and as misguided as thinking humans use only 10% of their brains.

Once again, for example, only a week ago, Education Week published a piece beginning:

In 1995, the researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley published the results of their groundbreaking study that found 4-year-olds from working-class families and families on welfare had considerably smaller vocabularies than their age-mates from professional families. This difference has been called “the 30-million-word gap.”

Not true, however, this study that will not die because it claims something people want to believe, something that seems true.

There is a democracy to belief that builds a wall against our idealized trust that human knowledge is progress, that to commit to universal education, for example, can lift us all above human misery.

Lucy as a film sputters, but when Lucy explains her expanding mind to Professor Norman, this moment about the essential nature of being human, fully human, confronts the tension between knowledge and knowing the self and others. I think the film has some small nods to empathy and compassion beyond the reductive view of science as quantifying, science as certainty.

How much of our brains we use seems pointless if we remain a species characterized by closed minds, unable or unwilling to build on evidence to form new ideas, unable or unwilling to check our existing ideas against evidence.

As Lucy’s mind expands, she recognizes and demonstrates for the viewer a cold, robotic thing, drained of desire and passion.

I am left, then, leaning toward Vonnegut’s view that the human brain is our problem, not our solution.

For Further Reading

Cycling to Extremes, Chris Case

Don’t Stop Running Yet!, Larry Creswell

On Southern Heritage and Pride

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson

For Skylar and Jessica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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