High Cost of White Denial

My Op-Ed in The State (Columbia, SC) paper, Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores, prompted both email responses and a few posted comments online.

A recurring theme of the negative feedback reflects entrenched white denial, offering insight to why our political leadership tends to avoid addressing directly systemic racism and social class inequity and exposing why the Republican candidates thrive despite what should otherwise be viewed as a collection of buffoons at best and racists, sexists, and classists at worst.

Any time racism and class inequity are confronted, the “individual responsibility” response rings strong. As well, the “I was poor but succeeded” mantra is shuffled out.

What is always notable, however, is that the overwhelming evidence of racism and classism is never directly addressed. White denial always remains trapped in slogans and anecdote.

For example, one online comment addresses the evidence I provided with “if whites are getting paid more than blacks.” If?

The pattern of race-based inequity within the same educational level is not a question, but a fact:

Yet, white denial must hedge evidence in order to continue to cling to the delusion of racial fairness.

How does individual responsibility instead of systemic racism explain the race-based income inequity above? How does individual responsibility instead of systemic racism explain that white high school dropouts have the same probability of employment as blacks with some college?

probability employment

The social and policy implications of white denial are significant, but white denial also pervades our schools, notably in schools that serve black and brown children living in communities experiencing concentrated poverty such as New Orleans, Detroit, or the Corridor of Shame in my own South Carolina.

In that context, one comment online is particularly disturbing since it is from a white person who claims to have taught for decades in SC, including years in the Corridor of Shame. This educator blames the parents and students, concluding “I didn’t see any entrenched racism, there is no institutional racism.”

No child should be taught by teachers who blame them for their disadvantages. Of all institutions, schools cannot tolerate white denial.

Destroying the promises of democracy and universal public education, white denial is the warm blanket of delusion that comforts the privileged and keeps them slumbering at the expense of those adults and children suffering the weight of racism and classism.

We must not compound that further by denying that the current race for the presidency is a reflection of that white denial and its power to embrace slogans over reality.

Race and class nastiness resonates among those suffering from white denial, but facts fall on deaf ears.

White denial has real consequences; thus, we must keep in mind that clowns have nowhere to perform without someone building the circus.

Postscript

White denial sent by postal mail:

government

And for the record:

U.S. Children in Single-Mother Families

white single parent famsSingle Parents Aren’t the Problem, Ivory A. Toldson

Children In Single-Parent Families By Race

single parent by race

The State (Columbia, SC): Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

Entrenched racism drives down SC child-well-being scores

[full unedited text below]

Two facts about children and poverty are especially disturbing: children make up about 1/3 of people in the U.S. in poverty, but raising children expands those in poverty to 43%.

For South Carolina, children and poverty present a particularly challenging reality, captured by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2015 Kids Count data book.

Our state has long suffered in the bottom quartile of impoverished states in the U.S., but SC’s 2015 Kids Count profile reveals a grim picture with the state ranking 42nd in the nation in terms of child well-being:

  • SC children’s economic status has mostly worsened from 2008 to 2013 with 290,000 children in poverty, 376,000 children with parents lacking secure employment, and 349, 000 children in households with burdensome housing costs.
  • SC children’s educational opportunities remain inequitable. The percentage of children attending preschool has worsened, and so-called proficiency levels in math and reading have mixed results while high school graduation remains, although improved overall, elusive to those young people most in need of education.
  • Healthcare for SC’s children has improved, but 73,000 children remain without healthcare in the state.
  • SC’s children also face harsh community challenges. 420,000 children live in single-parent homes, an increase from 2008 to 2013, and more children, 161,000, live in high-poverty communities now than a few years ago.

The summer of 2015 has brought an intense spotlight on SC with the racist shooting of nine black citizens gathered in their church. Along with that tragedy, many in the state have continued to claim that we as a people embrace heritage and not hate.

However, political leaders and the public rarely identify the exact and real conditions behind claims of “heritage” and “tradition.” In SC and all across the South, our heritage includes crippling economic inequity and entrenched racism—both of which condemn our children to their ZIP codes, not the content of their character, being their destiny.

In the U.S., despite lingering and false stereotypes of “welfare queens,” 80% of people in poverty are from vulnerable populations: children, the elderly, the disabled, students, and the working poor.

As well, despite educational attainment, racial inequity remains powerful. Even with the same level of education, whites earn more than Hispanics and blacks. And blacks with some college have the same probability of employment as white high school dropouts.

Congressman James E. Clyburn has called for SC both to appreciate the symbolism of removing the Confederate battle flag from state grounds and to commit to substantive policy addressing the great weight of poverty and racism that our state still carries, a weight that is particularly harmful to our children.

Clyburn identifies healthcare and voting rights as policy SC must address, but there are many commitments to the lives of our children we could make to give substance to refrains of “heritage”:

  • Insure, as Clyburn notes, that all children in SC have healthcare from conception until their early 20s.
  • Seek public policy that supports all families with children, focusing on ensuring that having children doesn’t push any family into poverty.
  • Abandon the fruitless education accountability process and replace our school reform efforts with a focus on equity of opportunity: equitable K-12 and higher education funding across the state, equitable teacher assignments for all students, access to high-quality courses for all students, and quality alternatives for anyone to complete high school and college degrees despite age or background with substantial financial support.
  • Create stable and well-paying work for the people of SC that reinforces everyone’s access to healthcare and retirement/savings.
  • Confront directly and comprehensively the reality in SC that the state has enough money, but that our problem is the inequitable distribution of that capital. The infamous Corridor of Shame was not created by our school system, but the education inequity that it reveals is a reflection of the larger socioeconomic injustice across our state.

American novelist and public intellectual James Baldwin confronted Noble Prize winning author William Faulkner in the early years of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. because Faulkner called for patience among blacks in the South.

Baldwin responded with words that should resonate today in SC: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

At-Risk Students, Bad Teachers, Failing Schools: Our Blinding Accusatory Finger Pointing

Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart

“The Scientist,” Coldplay

The absolute greatest gift of being a teacher by profession is accumulating throughout your career the young people gifted you by your classroom.

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a former student and current teacher, Ali Williams, who teaches English at a majority-minority, high-poverty high school in the school district that serves the county where I teach.

Among the ramblings of our nerdfest, we talked about language, about the challenges of trying to be a good teacher, and about the fields of psychology and sociology, a tension that has more and more fascinated me over a thirty-plus years career as a teacher.

For anyone who doesn’t know Ali personally or who has never spent time at her school or with her students (I have had several teacher candidates placed at the school and thus have observed there often), the reality today is that the students are likely and uncritically viewed as at-risk, the school is believed to be failing, and Ali could very easily be labeled a bad teacher.

Those pronouncements occur all across the state of South Carolina and the U.S.—an accusatory finger pointing that blinds political leaders and the public from the corrosive social forces that are reflected by students, teachers, and schools (but not created by those students, teachers, or schools).

Because the U.S. remains trapped within the lies of rugged individualism and believing the country is a meritocracy, the influence of psychology (mostly quantified claims about individual qualities and behaviors) is more readily and almost entirely uncritically and inaccurately embraced while sociology (often broad and descriptive explorations of social forces) is either ignored or carelessly discounted—often as “excuses.”

If we did deeper, another division is embedded in the disciplinary tension above—the power of numbers.

Numbers give the compelling appearance of objectivity and certainty while rich description offers complexity and uncertainty.

And the U.S. has a disturbing propensity for being a blowhard nation; we seem to like our columnists, radio personalities, and even presidential candidates to hold forth with the simplistic bloviating found among privileged white men who have never reconsidered anything, especially their own privilege.

The 10,000-hour rule, humans use only 10% of their brains, poor children have smaller vocabularies that wealthy children, high rates of black-on-black crime—each of these remains incredibly common claims throughout mainstream media, politics, and private conversations, but each is also bad numbers—at best cited in misleading ways and at worst simply wrong.

Numbers are compelling, especially when they can be used to promote “objectively” our worst prejudices.

If we focus on the black-on-black crime claim (which I believe is representative of this problem), that data are misleading because essentially most crime is within race (white-on-white crime is about 84% and black-on-black, 91%).

Crime is also strongly connected with poverty, and then poverty disproportionately impacts blacks.

In other words, a rich and detailed description of crime, one that is more accurate and not accusatory, pulls back from focusing the gaze on individuals and raises questions about why so much crime is among family members and acquaintances, why so much crime is within lives overburdened by poverty, and why the criminal justice system also disproportionately targets some people (blacks, the poor) while somehow turning away from other people (whites, the affluent).

The black-on-black crime lie is not much different than the at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools lies.

The accountability movement in education has embraced and perpetuated high-stakes testing in order to increase the quantification of blame, to make sure the accusatory finger pointing remains on individuals and not the social forces creating those things being measured.

As a result, satire is hard to separate from reality:

In an effort to hold classroom instructors more accountable, the Illinois State Board of Education unveiled new statewide education standards Friday that require public school teachers to forever change the lives of at least 30 percent of their students. “Under our updated educator evaluation policy, teachers must make an unforgettable, lifelong impact on at least three of every 10 students and instill a love of learning in them that lasts the rest of their lives,” said chairman James Meeks, adding that based on the annual assessments, if 30 percent of students don’t recall a particular teacher’s name when asked to identify the most influential and inspiring person in their lives, that instructor would be promptly dismissed. “We are imposing these standards to make certain that a significant proportion of students in any given classroom can someday look back and say, ‘That teacher changed the course of my life, making me who I am today, and there’s no way I could ever repay them.’ Anything less is failure.” Meeks also confirmed the implementation of another rule aimed at ensuring that no more than 40 percent of a teacher’s students end up in prison.

How is this substantially different than No Child Left Behind requiring 100% proficiency by 2014? How is this substantially different than legislation demanding teachers and schools close the achievement gap (a coded lie again no different from the black-on-black crime claim)?

Labeling students at-risk, teachers bad, and schools failing is itself the real failure because it keeps our eyes focused on the consequences—not the causes—of the problems we claim to be addressing.

My former student Ali who is now a wonderful and dedicated young teacher can never be accurately reduced to a number, just as her students can never be rightfully represented by a number.

But our words matter also.

Overwhelmingly, the labels we assign to students, teachers, and schools reflect the conditions of lives and communities not created by those being labeled.

We must end the use of deficit language that points the accusatory finger at people who are the victims of situations beyond their control because that absolves the few who do have the power both to create and tolerate the great inequities that now characterize the U.S.

Distorting numbers and simplistic labels, in fact, make it less likely that we can and will confront when individuals are to blame and when we do fail students, education, and our communities (and, yes, those failures do exist, although not in the ways we hear daily among those prone to blame).

At-risk students? How about looking at some data and asking some fundamental questions?

Those students we tend to label “at-risk”—black, brown, poor, ELL, and special needs—are disproportionately likely to be taught by un-/under-qualified and early career teachers. Why?

If we answer that—along with why they live in homes and communities overburdened by poverty—and then do something about those conditions, we would find our urge to label those students suddenly different.

If we somehow swapped children in so-called failing schools with so-called exemplary schools (both in their homes and their schools), the labels would stick with the conditions, not the children.

This would hold true if we swapped faculty between so-called failing and so-called exemplary schools.

If we genuinely believe in universal public education as essential to democracy and equity, then we must resist the corrosive power of quantifying and labeling that has become entrenched in how we talk about students, teachers, and schools.

I am a teacher, and many of my former students, like Ali, are teachers.

“Nobody said it was easy,” could be about this profession we share. “No one ever said it would be this hard.”

As formal schooling begins again this fall, however, many students, teachers, and schools are facing conditions that now make education even more difficult because of accusatory finger pointing, numbers and labels that mask the lingering stereotypes and biases that create so called at-risk students, bad teachers, and failing schools.

What I’m Reading: August 2015

Trying to keep the momentum from posting my June/July 2015 reading.

Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, 2/3rds of a trilogy that English language readers have had only the final 1/3 available, are now published together: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 as Wind/Pinball.

Since the Rat trilogy ends with A Wild Sheep Chase, a reread is up after the above.

The controversy surrounding both publishing and then the content of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is in line after the Murakami-fest.

“Education” Journalism’s Hollow Echo Chamber: New Orleans Edition

What’s in a publication’s name? Apparently when the publication’s title includes “Education,” the lesson is “reader beware.”

First, the ever-misleading Education Next trumpets: Good News for New Orleans, concerning the Recovery School District created post-Katrina, which eradicated public schools in the city.

Essentially and uncritically parroting that piece, Education Week proclaims: New Orleans Test Scores Have ‘Shot Up’ 10 Years After Katrina, Report Says.

We have been here before since mainstream media—even the so-called “liberal media”—are prone to whitewashing the story of disaster capitalism in New Orleans education reform. And I have discussed recently the need to have a nuanced and complicated examination of both public and charter schools, inspired by Andre Perry’s impassioned and blunt confrontation of why black parents have embraced charter schools in New Orleans.

So it is in that spirit that I note, Salon (no “Education” in the title, by the way) has run a much better and more complex look at post-Katrina education reform in New Orleans: “Reform” makes broken New Orleans schools worse: Race, charters, testing and the real story of education after Katrina.

Much of Berkshire’s investigation parallels the concerns anticipated by the National Education Policy Center’s press release about claims and research coming out of the 10th anniversary of Katrina, which concludes:

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent reforms, there remain more questions than answers. Even if the reforms implemented under such a hyper-politicized arrangement show some clear gains in student achievement, as seems to be the case, it is important to attend to the serious equity concerns that remain in the system, and to examine other outcomes, beyond test scores. The preliminary evidence, from a combination of news reports and research studies, suggests that the New Orleans reforms disproportionately benefit more advantaged students, relative to the most at-risk and under-served students. In light of these concerns, there is a need for more research that systematically examines whether the reforms have truly altered the structure of opportunities for students who are low-income, of color, English Language Learners, or have disabilities. Given the additional resources and the unique New Orleans experience, there are also questions about how sustainable and replicable the New Orleans model is, even though many cities are adopting similar reforms.

It is also important to ask how much local, democratic oversight the public is willing, or should be willing, to trade for somewhat higher test scores. In New Orleans, as well as in many other cities and states seeking to adopt a “recovery” or “portfolio” model, policymakers should ensure that the temporary turnaround measures do not permanently disenfranchise local actors.

So we are left with two truisms about education publications and education reform: (1) If “Education” is in the publication title, you better do your homework, and (2) if education reform is touted to achieve outcomes that seem too good to be true, then they likely aren’t true.

Time Machine and the Callousness of Being Human

If one operates on the principle that everything can be a learning experience, then of course aging needn’t be so painful.

Hear the Wind Song, Haruki Murakami

My granddaughter, Skylar, is a time machine for my heart.

Having just turned one year old a few weeks ago, Skylar has begun sleeping all night in her crib and is now being weaned off breast feeding. Her world, her reality is changing at an incredible rate.

When I keep her for my daughter and son-in-law, I arrive at their house about 6:45 AM, and now Skylar sleeps until about 8:30. So in that quiet time of just her and me, I often slip into her room—even thought there is a monitor—to watch her sleep.

It is then that I am transported back in time.

Skylar, especially while she is sleeping, is the exact sort of heart-twisting beautiful my daughter Jessica was about 25 years ago.

When Jessica was a baby and a child, I often did the same sort of stealthy watching and even eavesdropping. Jessica slept like a brick—an extremely warm brick. I was able, then, to walk into her dark room to watch her sleeping face and also squeeze her tiny warm feet, kiss her face. She would not budge.

Since Jessica’s room was upstairs, I often sat on the steps but out of sight to listen to her play. And she played hard, talking and singing and laughing out loud.

Time has passed incredibly fast, to this point of my daughter a young adult and her glorious gift of her daughter.

Skylar is a walking, babbling bundle of energy, but she remains in the baby phase of fighting sleep. She often cries as she falls asleep and then wakes crying.

While rocking her yesterday—and she never did give into a nap—I kissed the top of her head, her matted baby hair. Skylar raised her head toward me when I stopped kissing. So I kissed again and then over her forehead and eyes.

She was eager to move her head and face to encourage more kissing.

And then I was transported into the future.

I have been gifted life long enough to share adulthood with my daughter. While I desperately miss her as a baby and child, it is a wonderful thing to share adulthood with a daughter.

But the math and life work against me with my granddaughter, and I spend a small amount of my anxious nature contemplating how long I will be here to witness Skylar. I have begun to contemplate not a sadness about my mortality and how that will deny me the long view of Skylar’s life, but an awareness of being human, a state that too often lacks humanity.

Parenthood is spent for most of us simultaneously with young adulthood and early marriage.

While entirely lacking experience in any of those endeavors, we must learn to raise a child, become the person we are or want to be, and manage the nearly impossible task of sharing this world with another.

That magnificent and cruel combination accelerates time to a blur. And we often stumble under the weight of our selfishness.

In the bright and harsh light of hindsight, I see that I did much of those duties badly, with the crippling intensity of a deeply anxious, self-conscious, and insecure human.

The paradox of past-50 grand-parenting is that time continues to accelerate exponentially, but you gain the power of focus that allows you to observe that world as if time has shifted into slow motion.

In these moments of lucidity, time slowed, I have been keenly aware of how all of us who love Skylar behave in her presence—feeding her, changing her diapers, rocking her to sleep, sitting with her sleeping against our chests, listening intensely as she babbles and points, and staying within arm’s length to be sure she is safe.

When Jessica was a small child, she came down stairs one day while I was sitting on the couch. She climbed onto the coffee table and said, “Watch this.”

Before I could even tell her not to climb onto the table, Jessica dove off and into a perfect head roll—spinning up to her feet as if she had been doing such gymnastics for years.

I probably nearly passed out since this all happened so quickly and since my only gear is anticipating the worst outcome for any situation.

Skylar does not only look like Jessica, but also she has the daredevil gene, climbing onto any- and everything, pushing your arm away when you try to help her or keep her from falling.

The one clear good thing I did as a parent is pass on to my daughter that adults should never hit children. Jessica wasn’t spanked beyond a couple early smacks on the leg that came in those early years of parenting and immediately left me feeling less human (I still would take them back if given the option).

So Skylar is being raised in a very kind environment. No spankings to come, mostly very gentle “no’s” that make her smile and then us smile.

And here is my greatest question about time.

When—or better yet, why—do we stop this tenderness about the Other, this compassionate selflessness of raising a baby?

Take just a few moments to watch humans interacting with humans, especially adults with children.

We are often very harsh and impatient, accusatory and condemning.

You are sitting at a restaurant, and a family is nearby eating. Some time during the meal, one of the family’s children spills a drink.

What happens?

Often, I think, the adults act as if the child has committed a mortal sin.

Now, the same scenario, except only adults are at the table. How does that go?

Why such antagonism toward children? And when do those children cross the line so that we no longer treat them as we do babies?

One day when Jessica was in high school and had just gotten her own car to drive to school, I heard a terrible noise just after she walked out the door to leave that morning.

In a few seconds, Jessica was at the door again, sobbing uncontrollably and looking frantic.

She had just backed her car into mine in the driveway.

Jessica was raised in an incredibly permissive environment, allowed always to eat whatever she wanted and given many, many opportunities to make her own and often bad decisions.

That incident with the cars was predictable because she was always leaving too late and always distracted.

But I hugged her, telling her they were just cars, that’s why we have insurance. (By the way, it is easy for me to recall my good parenting moments as they were more rare.)

Backing her car into mine was just spilled milk; no need to cry.

My granddaughter, Skylar, is a time machine for my heart.

But this world afforded me—rushing me back and forth and throughout time—gives me pause about all of us.

The callousness of being human, and the high cost of forgetting how it feels to treat another human being as we treat a baby.

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

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