Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

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.

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

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Big Lie about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left exists in some substantial and influential way in the country.

The Truth about the Left in the U.S. is that the Left does not exist in some substantial and influential way in the country. Period.

The little lies that feed into the Big Lie include that universities and professors, K-12 public schools, the mainstream media, and Hollywood are all powerful instruments of liberal propaganda.

These little lies have cousins in the annual shouting about the “war on Christmas” and hand wringing by Christians that they are somehow the oppressed peoples of the U.S.

These lies little and Big are a scale problem in that the U.S. is now and has always been a country whose center is well to the right, grounded as we are in capitalism more so than democracy.

The U.S. is a rightwing country that pays lip service to progressivism and democracy; we have a vibrant and powerful Right and an anemic, fawning Middle.

Wealth, corporatism, consumerism, and power are inseparable in the U.S.—pervading the entire culture including every aspect of government and popular culture.

The Left in the U.S. is a fabricated boogeyman, designed and perpetuated by the Right to keep the general public distracted. Written as dark satire, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle now serves as a manual for understanding how power uses false enemies to maintain power and control.

Notably during the past 30-plus decades, conservative politics have dominated the country, creating for Republicans a huge problem in terms of bashing “big government.”

But dog-whistle politics grounded in race and racism benefitting the Right and Republicans have a long history.

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. confronted Barry Goldwater’s tactics foreshadowing Trump’s strategies and rise:

The Republican Party geared its appeal and program to racism, reaction, and extremism…On the urgent issue of civil rights, Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and socially suicidal. While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist. His candidacy and philosophy would serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes would stand. In the light of these facts and because of my love for America, I have no alternative but to urge every Negro and white person of goodwill to vote against Mr. Goldwater and to withdraw support from any Republican candidate that does not publicly disassociate himself from Senator Goldwater and his philosophy.

Malcolm X held forth in more pointed fashion, but with the same focus:

Well if Goldwater ever becomes president one thing his presence in the White House will do, it will make black people in America have to face up the facts probably for the first time in many many years,” Malcolm X said. 

“This in itself is good in that Goldwater is a man who’s not capable of hiding his racist tendencies,” he added. “And at the same time he’s not even capable of pretending to Negroes that he’s their friend.” 

The Civil Rights icon concluded that should Goldwater be elected, he would inspire black people to fully reckon with “whites who pose as liberals only for the purpose of getting the support of the Negro.”

“So in one sense Goldwater’s coming in will awaken the Negro and will probably awaken the entire world more so than the world has been awakened since Hitler,” he said.

Mentioned above, the annual panic over the “war on Christmas” is a distraction from the fact that Christmas serves consumerism, the Right, and not religion—keeping in mind that Jesus and his ideology rejected materialism and espoused moral and ethical codes in line with socialism and communism/Marxism.

What remains mostly unexamined is that all structures are essentially conservative—seeking to continue to exist. Power, then, is always resistant to change, what should be at the core of progressivism and leftwing ideology.

Marxism is about power and revolution (drastic change, and thus a grand threat to power), but suffers in the U.S. from the cartoonish mischaracterization from the Right that it is totalitarianism.

So as we drift toward the crowning of the greatest buffoon ever to sit at the throne of the U.S. as a consumerocracy posing as a democracy, Education Week has decided to launch into the hackneyed “academics are too liberal and higher education is unfair to conservatives” ploy.

At the center of this much-ado-about-nothing is Rick Hess playing his Bokonon and McCabe role:

I know, I know. To university-based education researchers, all this can seem innocuous, unobjectionable, and even inevitable. But this manner of thinking and talking reflects one shared worldview, to the exclusion of others. While education school scholars may almost uniformly regard a race-conscious focus on practice and policy as essential for addressing structural racism, a huge swath of the country sees instead a recipe for fostering grievance, animus, and division. What those in ed. schools see as laudable efforts to promote “equitable” school discipline or locker-room access strike millions of others as an ideological crusade to remake communities, excuse irresponsible behavior, and subject children to goofy social engineering. Many on the right experience university initiatives intended to promote “tolerance” and “diversity” as attempts to silence or delegitimize their views on immigration, criminal justice, morality, and social policy. For readers who find it hard to believe that a substantial chunk of the country sees things thusly, well, that’s kind of the issue.

Conversational and posing as a compassionate conservative, Hess sprinkles in scare quotes while completely misrepresenting everything about which he knows nothing.

This is all cartoon and theater.

The grand failure of claiming that the academy is all leftwing loonies is that is based almost entirely—see the EdWeek analysis—on noting that academics overwhelmingly identify as Democrats.

However, the Democratic Party is not in any way a substantial reflection of leftist ideology. At most, we can admit that Democrats tend to use progressive rhetoric (and this is a real characteristics of professors, scholars, and academics), but that Democratic policy remains centrist and right of center.

A powerful example of this fact is the Department of Education (DOE) and Secretary of Education (SOE) throughout George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s administrations.

For the past 16 years, education policy has been highly bureaucratic and grounded almost entirely in rightwing ideology—choice, competition, accountability, and high-stakes testing.

The only real difference between Bush’s SOE and Obama’s SOE has been rhetoric; yes, Duncan, for example, loved to chime in with civil rights lingo, but policy under Obama moved farther right than under Bush.

Now, let me end here by addressing the charge that college professors are a bunch of leftwing loonies.

I can do so because I am the sort of dangerous professor Hess wants everyone to believe runs our colleges and universities—poisoning the minds of young people across the U.S.

I can also add that I spent 18 years as a public school teacher before the past 15 years in higher education.

In both so-called liberal institutions—public education and higher education—as a real card-carrying Lefty, I have been in the minority, at best tolerated, but mostly ignored and even marginalized.

Public schools are extremely conservative, reflecting and perpetuating the communities they serve. In the South, my colleagues were almost all conservative in their world-views and religious practices.

My higher education experience has been somewhat different because the atmosphere has the veneer of progressivism (everyone know how to talk, what to say), but ultimately, we on the Left are powerless, unheard and often seen as a nuisance.

Colleges and universities are institutions built on and dependent on privilege and elitism. As I noted above, colleges and universities are not immune to the conservative nature of institutions; they seek ways to maintain, to conserve, to survive.

Colleges and universities are also not immune to business pressures, seeing students and their families as consumers.

Do professors push back on these tendencies and pressures? Sure.

But that dynamic remains mostly rhetorical.

The Truth is that colleges and universities are centrist organizations—not unlike the Democratic Party and their candidates, such as Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Some progressives in the U.S. play both sides to sniff at the power on the Right, and then the Right uses that rhetoric and those veneers to prove how the Left has taken over our colleges/universities, public schools, media, and Hollywood.

But that is a Big Lie about the Left in the U.S.

The Left does not exist in any substantial way, except as a boogeyman controlled by the Right in order to serve the interests of those in power.

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true,” Bayard Rustin warned.

Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle dramatizes this warning, and 50 years ago King and Malcolm X challenged us to see beyond the corrosive power of dog-whistle politics.

When the Right paints educational research as the product of corrupted leftwing scholars, you must look past the harmful foma and examine in whose interest it is that market-based education reform survives despite the evidence against it.

To paraphrase Gertrude from Hamlet, “The Right protests too much, methinks,” and we have much to fear from all these histrionics.

From Sports Fanaticism to Plagiarism: This Week in What Is Wrong with Education

In the fall of 1984, I entered the field of education as a high school English teacher, assigned the exact room in which I had been a student and where my mentor, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to a district-level job.

Oddly, 18 years later, I transitioned to higher education after completing the same doctoral program as Lynn; the odd part is that I again filled the position Lynn left to return to public education. My office then and now was designed by Lynn as the education department was moving into a new building just as he left and I was hired.

Over my 33 years as an educator, I have acquired expertise and experience in two fields, education and English, and in two levels of formal education, K-12 public and university/college.

I entered education because I recognized early that although I excelled in and benefitted greatly from education, formal education was deeply flawed. Most of the good in formal education survived in spite of the system—because of wonderful teachers who somehow rose above the system and because some of us had privileges that allowed us to excel, again, in spite of not because of.

From about the fall of my junior year of college on, however, I knew that formal schooling tended to reflect and perpetuate the very worst of our society; that although education could be revolutionary and transformational, it often was not.

My career as an educator also began almost exactly at the genesis of the accountability era that has been an epic failure because the political prognosis of educational failure was completely wrong and thus the cures have all been disastrous.

Formal education at all levels in the U.S. suffers from the corrosive influences of privilege and inequity, and since those with power benefit mightily from that privilege and inequity, they will never (and probably are not able to) address those genuine failures—what I would phrase as: We have failed formal education; formal education has not failed us.

The week leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2017 has been illustrative of the kinds of problems with education that the powers-that-be are apt to ignore and reject, and these examples have come in an unlikely pair: Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney and Monica Crowley, who is poised to serve in the Trump administration.

Swinney, as Dave Zirin unmasks, represents an “obscene amount of entitlement” because in the U.S. scholastic sports and coaches enjoy a perverse and warped degree of fanaticism; Zirin continues:

Here is someone working on a refurbished plantation who makes millions of dollars off the sweat and head injuries of overwhelmingly black, unpaid labor, and yet when asked about the Black Lives Matter movement in September, he said, ”Some of these people need to move to another country.”…

College football is a septic tank of entitlement. It’s a fungal culture created by the head coaches of Big Football. Dabo Swinney is the very embodiment of that culture: adrift, clueless, and filthy rich.

Quoted in Zirin’s piece, Clemson assistant professor Chenjerai Kumanyika has confronted his university, the football program at Clemson, and Swinney; as well, Kumanyika has a unique perspective he has shared on Facebook:

Clemson University as a public institution founded in and remaining mostly resistant to moving beyond its racist roots (see AD Carson and Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition), the National Champion Clemson football team, and Swinney are all powerful examples of the veneers that exist to mask what the powers-that-be claim to be about and what they truly are about.

Let me stress here that Clemson University, Clemson football, and Swinney are not unique, not the worst, and certainly not outliers. The point here is that this is what education is in the U.S.

Hypocrisy is rampant not only in claims about student-athletes but also in the unholy alliance between athletics/coaches and Christianity.

From Zirin to Kumanyika to professor Louis Moore (and many others), scholastic sports has been confronted as a contemporary obscenity in which mostly white men accumulate great wealth and power on the backs of mostly black males—only a very few of which ever gain access to some of that wealth, too few are afforded the educations they are guaranteed, and way too many suffer great physical injury.

Coaches like Swinney and Nick Saban are multi-millionaires, and are allowed to hide behind sanctimonious rhetoric about grooming young men, offering educational opportunities to disadvantaged athletes, and instilling moral fiber through (as Swinney does) coercing players to be baptized and attend church services (again in the context of a public university).

I grew up in a small rural town in the South where the head football coach was God, and a truly despicable person. Decades before the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky revelation, I witnessed and lived how a person can be lionized and simultaneously daily behaving in ways that were inexcusable around young people.

Scholastic sports at all levels, “septic tank[s] of entitlement,” are systemic problems that create and enable people such as Swinney—again as a notable representative of the systemic inequity, not as the only one, not as a person to be vilified solely for who he is and what he reaps.

The sacred coach dynamic ultimately exposes how those in power live by one set of rules even as they impose upon those beneath them a much more stringent code.

And in that context we have the new brazenness of Trumplandia that flaunts that fact in the faces of everyone throughout the U.S.—personified recently by Monica Crowley who continues to succeed and looks to be a part of a presidential administration even though she is a serial plagiarist.

The Melania Trump speech has already contributed to the new normal that ethical boundaries do not matter to Trump, the Republican party, or his supporters.

Trump embracing Crowley, defending her against “fake news,” and the high likelihood she will not suffer much for these transgressions are no longer surprising.

As with Rand Paul and Joe Biden, the real world’s response to plagiarism is more about privilege than about any real ethical code—one that academics at all levels claim.

More urgent and more telling from the Crowley story are that a major publisher and a major university failed to catch her plagiarism.

Andrew Kaczynski, Chris Massie, and Nathan McDermott’s Trump aide Monica Crowley plagiarized thousands of words in Ph.D. dissertation is particularly damning—but again, not really about Crowley or Trump or the complete lack of ethical grounding in the U.S.

This is a parallel and ugly narrative about privilege and inequity, parallel to the fanaticism about scholastic sports.

Higher education often wraps itself in claims of academic and ethical rigor, but Crowley’s dissertation and the ability of CNN to detail it when the awarding university did not are where we should be focusing now.

From student-athletes to amateurism to academic integrity (do not forget the University of North Carolina)—there is a colloquial way to explain how Swinney and Crowley reveal what is wrong with education: it is all bullshit.

Bullshit shoveled by the powers-that-be who are created by and profit from the privilege and inequity built into and perpetuated by institutions such as formal education.

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.

 

You Don’t Know Nothing: U.S. Has Always Shunned the Expert

Why did you listen to that man, that man’s a balloon

“Friend of Mine,” The National

My redneck past includes a childhood steeped, like the family formula for making sweet tea, in a demand that children respect authority—authority-for-authority’s sake, the status of authority despite the credibility of the person in that status.

And is typical in the South, these lessons were punctuated with refrains such as the one my mother launched at us often: “He’s a know-it-all that don’t know nothing.”

But the best laid plans of parents often go awry, and they certainly did for me because this aspect of my redneck past backfired big time, resulting in a life-long skepticism of authority as well as my own pursuit of expertise trumping status.

Among my most irritating qualities, I suspect, is I work very hard not to hold forth until I am well informed, but when I do hold forth, I am passionate and that passion often comes off as arrogance.

I have little patience with debating when the other side lacks credibility, and I also balk at the silliest of all—”We will agree to disagree, then.”

Well, no, since your position has no credibility.

So I am particularly fascinated with what I consider a parallel interest currently with fake news and post-truth, what Tom Nichols calls The Death of Expertise.

Nichols and his argument, coming from his conservative perspective, represent, I think, why expertise currently and historically has been marginalized in the U.S.

Pop culture, in fact, has documented well how the so-called average American finds expertise and being educated mockable—think Fonzie on Happy Days and Ross on Friends.

Uneducated Fonzie is always smarter than the educated, and Ross is a laughing stock among his friends, notably often one-upped by the very anti-intellectual Phoebe and Joey (I discuss the latter more fully in Belief Culture).

Nichols and I share a concern about how little expertise matters in political and public discourse as well as policy, but while he and I share some elements of being experts, we are divided by our essential ideologies.

This presents a paradox: The U.S. rejects a cartoonish and monolithic “expert class,” but most fields/disciplines have a fairly wide spectrum of stances within them (in other words, the “expert class” rejected by the U.S. simply doesn’t exist).

But even that is oversimplified. Let me return to my redneck past.

In the South specifically, rejecting expertise is often about traditional views of respecting authority, best captured, I think, in how Huck Finn’s father shames Huck for his book learning. Huck even confesses: “I didn’t want to go to school much, before, but I reckoned I’d go now to spite papa.”

One of my former colleagues recounted often that his own father identified sending my friend to college was the worst mistake his father ever made.

Perversely, many see being informed, knowledgeable as rudeness, disrespectful.

A better recent confrontation of expertise than Nichols’s, I think, is Freddie deBoer’s What Is Aleppo?, focusing on Gary Johnson:

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate — one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance — not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

deBoer argues: “Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence.”

And here we may have a more accurate window into why someone who is not really an expert, such as Donald Trump, but is smug and cavalier about being smart, is more compelling in the U.S. than actual experts. Trump passes deBoer’s test:

That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

As I have argued, this is a very high-school popularity kind of dynamic in which bravado trumps credibility; again, think Fonzie’s allure in pop culture: “See, the drop-out is smarter than all those teachers!”

My own career as an educator has highlighted these exact patterns.

As a teacher of English, I am not credible in the field of English because I am just a teacher with an undergraduate, Master’s, and Doctorate in education (not English). However, to politicians and the public, I am routinely rejected in debates about education because my experience and expertise lie in education.

As a prelude to the rise of Trump, consider Arne Duncan, who has no degree in education and who has only experience in eduction as a political appointee.

Who do you think has more public and political influence on education—Duncan because of his statuses of authority or me with 33 years in education, an advanced degree, and a substantial publication history?

That question is nearly laughable in the U.S.

Let me end with a couple examples that are useful for a more nuanced consideration of the role of experts, grounded, I think, in deBoer’s discussion.

First, consider Joseph R. Teller’s Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong? and Doug Hesse’s We Know What Works in Teaching Composition, both published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I immediately blogged a rebuttal to Teller, and discovered through responses to my concerns that Teller has greater expertise in literature than composition (which I suspected).

Hesse’s rebuttal is grounded in his expertise in composition, his status of authority (president of NCTE), and his appeal to disciplinary authority (citing ample research that accurately reflects the field of composition).

None the less, Teller’s piece speaks to both an uniformed public and a click-bait culture, and it is likely, as John Warner mused, that Hesse’s better piece will not garner as many views or as much commentary as Teller’s.

This debate between experts serves to highlight, again, the failure of media in terms of honoring expertise, but it also demonstrates that expertise is often narrow and that disciplines are more often contentious than monolithic (although there are some things that are essentially settled and no longer debatable).

Bluntly, we must admit that simplistic resonates more than complex—and expertise is not only narrow but also complex.

Finally, to highlight that expertise is as much about wrestling with knowledge as having knowledge, I offer a debate in a guest co-edited volume of English Journal, centered on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

At one level, the experts included in this debate, in my informed opinion, are far more likely to have credible positions about the topic than people without degrees and experience in literature, the canon, race/racism, and teaching.

Yet, among these articles, you will find pointed disagreement—and as someone with expertise in these areas, I find myself siding with some, rejecting others, even as I respect the basic expertise among them all.

So in 2016, we are faced with a historical and immediate problem, one that could be solved if we reconsidered our cultural antagonism toward expertise and embraced a greater appreciation for informed stances, the realm of the expert.

As a critical pedagogue, I appease my skepticism about authority and quest for expertise by honoring being authoritative over authoritarian (see Paulo Freire).

It is ours to resist extremes, neither ignoring experts nor abdicating all authority to experts.

As cumbersome as it may seem, democracy that honors all voices works well only when we start with the most informed voices and then allow “all voices” to occur in an educated space.

Currently, we are prisoners to bravado drowning out expertise, and in that echo chamber, freedom cannot survive.

Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

In an effort to understand post-truth Trumplandia, this is one explanation:

However, this fails to confront that the rise of Trumplandia is but an extreme and logical extension of a mainstream media and political elite existing almost entirely on false narratives—the denial of basic reality.

The bootstrap and rising boat narratives, black-on-black crime, the pervasive threat of terrorism, the lazy poor, the welfare queen, and the relentless “kids today” mantra—these are all powerful as well as enduring claims but also provably false.

With Trump’s election, the post-truth reality now focuses on lamenting the plight of the white working class (also provably false) and masking racism and white supremacy as “alt-right.”

The media simply report that Source X makes Claim A—but never venture into the harder story that Source X is making a false Claim A—especially when false Claim A rings true within the Great American Myths that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie powerfully warns about:

I’m a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call “the danger of the single story.”…

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Adichie artfully shares more examples in her talk, but her message from 2009 rings much more horrifying today in post-truth Trumplandia, where the elected leader of the free world can say damn near anything one minute, deny it the next, and remain safely cloaked in the lies that endure as the “one story” many in the U.S. believe despite ample evidence to the contrary.

The one story of black men as criminals that allows police to disproportionately execute those black men in the streets.

The one story of the lazy poor that allows political leaders to avoid their moral obligations to provide social services, including health care even for children.

The one story of objectified women that allows rape culture and the democratically elected leader of the free world to boast about his own cavalier behavior as a sexual predator.

And so: “Stories matter. Many stories matter,” Adichie concludes:

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

For Adichie, “now is the time” to confront post-truth Trumplandia, and the media are on notice:

Yet a day after the election, people spoke of the vitriol between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. No, the vitriol was Trump’s. Now is the time to burn false equivalencies forever. Pretending that both sides of an issue are equal when they are not is not “balanced” journalism; it is a fairy tale—and, unlike most fairy tales, a disingenuous one.

Post-truth Trumplandia is creeping toward yet another of the very ugliest stories of a people claiming to embrace life and liberty but denying basic reality instead.

The question before us is whether or not we have the capacity for changing that arc of history toward, as Adichie expresses, the possibility to “regain a kind of paradise.”

See Also

Now Is the Time to Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie