Social Media: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I would like to call Chenjerai Kumanyika my friend and colleague, but when I shared his excellent open letter to Dabo Swinney with my students, I stumbled over exactly how to describe our connection, which is entirely through Facebook and Twitter.

In fact, a significant amount of my professional and personal connections are now virtual. I have met Diane Ravitch and Paul Gorski in person once each, but my contact with them remains an electronic venture.

I would be hard pressed to list all the people I count as friends and professional colleagues who I have never met in person.

And just this morning, I shared an article with a former student, current friend who asked how I found so many good articles—to which I replied, social media.

My mornings are filled, in fact, with my Twitter and Facebook feeds—treasures of commentary and research that fuel my teaching and writing in ways that I could never accomplish on my own.

The incredible “good” of social media is that it is my daily education among the smartest and most diverse teachers possible. As much as I love and value my formal education and all my teachers and professors in the real world, it pales to my virtual daily education.

But, of course, there is the “bad”—and the “ugly.”

That often is blurred, but it certainly is a range.

When I post a blog or comment on social media, I often receive, even from “good” people, smart people, responses that reveal how social media lends itself to careless and lazy conversations.

People respond without reading the posts, or if they do read, their responses are about what they want to say, not what the post is about.

People respond to their assumptions about me—and, again, not to the content of the post.

Often, people responding assume that since I teach at a selective liberal arts college, my expertise or voice is anchored in that privilege—only.

My 18 years as a high school English teacher and coach—responding to 4000 essays and an additional 6000 journals per year—rendered invisible. My working class background, my redneck past, also invisible.

The really “ugly” comes from those who project—casting their own weaknesses and biases onto my work, and me. It is here that there is no dialogue, there is no hope of anyone learning anything.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of social media may be the inevitable given of the media—and I think on balance I am willing to tolerate that range.

Social media is very accessible, and very fast, as a way to interact with people, research, commentary, and information.

I suppose we cannot be angry that responses are equally fast, and thus, sloppy, careless, and just plain lazy as well as mean and belligerent.

It may benefit us all to slow down, and also step back, as we navigate the virtual world. Because even the virtual world cannot assuage the dangers of “assume”—making an ass out of you and me.

On Citation and the Research Paper

Like its cousin the five-paragraph essay, the research paper [1] shares a serious flaw: they are both artificial forms found mostly in formal schooling (and primarily in K-12) that teach more about compliance than about writing.

A related problem with the middle and high school research paper assignment is “teaching MLA.” Last fall, after several weeks of investigating how my first-year students had been taught to write and cite, one student fumed uncontrollably in class that her high school teacher had demanded they learn MLA “because everyone uses MLA in college.”

If, then, we begin to view the teaching of writing throughout K-12, into undergraduate and graduate school, and then into the so-called real world, we as teachers of writing must embrace more authentic concepts of writing as well as citation—while also providing students with writing experiences that prepare them for both disciplinary writing throughout college and any writing as scholars or writers they may choose beyond their formal schooling.

Therefore, just as we must set aside the five-paragraph essay (a false template that does not translate into authentic forms or inspire students to write), we must stop assigning the research paper and demanding that students memorize MLA citation format.

Instead, students need numerous experiences as writers over years in which they investigate how writers write in many different situations and for many different purposes (including academic and scholarly writing that is discipline-specific). And as teachers, we should focus on authentic forms as well as on the concepts that guide writing.

Consider the following guiding concerns for the shift:

  • Just as teachers too often teach writing modes (narration, persuasion, description, exposition) as if they are types of essays (they are not), to suggest that anyone writes “research papers” is flipping the role of research. For example, in my first-year writing seminar I assign four essays and then require that one includes both a formal style for citation (APA) and a sophisticated used of a wide range of high-quality sources (a requirement of all our first-year writing seminars). However, my students discover after submitting and conferencing with me about their essays that as they rewrite, sources and citation become essential to virtually all their writing. To write well and credibly, then, is to study, to research; and to be a credible and ethical writer is to give proper credit to the sources of new-found knowledge.
  • “Research” also becomes jumbled in how “research papers” are traditionally taught. Students need to gain a better and more nuanced understanding of what original research is as compared to young and established scholars seeking out and then both studying and synthesizing other people’s work (research). Conducting an original study and then writing about that process and findings is a quite different and important thing versus generating a literature review and/or seeking out substantial evidence to give an essay greater credibility in the academic/scholarly world.
  • Citation and its evil twin plagiarism are also greatly cheated by focusing on students acquiring a specific citation format. Students must understand powerful and complex aspects of finding, evaluating, and then incorporating other people’s ideas and works into their own original writing. Citation, however, like essay writing, is discipline- and context-specific. For example, before I ask first-year students to write an essay using a scholarly citation format, I have them write an online piece (modeled on blog posts or online journalism) that depends on hyperlinks for citations. This process forces students to step back from MLA and consider the ethics of citation—finding and using only credible sources, thinking about the aesthetics of citation (how many words and where to place the hyperlink), and investigating how the threshold for proper citation and plagiarism shifts for different disciplines and different types of essays writing (journalism versus high school literary essays using MLA, for example).
  • Even more broadly, students must be exposed to the big picture reality that writing is an ethical endeavor—and the parameters of what is or is not ethical shifts subtly as writers navigate different writing environments and purposes.

When and how students incorporate primary and secondary sources into their own original essays must be a continual experiment contextualized by the students’ purposes. Therefore, citation and citation styles must be within the teaching of disciplinary conventions.

An early and important lesson for students is that multiple formal citation styles exist because of legitimate demands of the disciplines—not because teachers have rules and enjoy torturing students.

Early in my first-year seminar, we discuss the differences in English and history when compared to the social and hard sciences as disciplines.

Literary and historical analysis are often grounded in individual text analysis; therefore, quoting is often necessary in that analysis. But the social and hard sciences tend to incorporate original research, requiring students and scholars to represent accurately a body of research (not one study); thus, writing in those disciplines typically shun quoting and expect synthesis (not rote paraphrasing of individual studies, but accurate representations of patterns found in the body of research).

Literary and historical writing forefronts titles of works and recognizable names of those producing written artifacts; but the social and hard sciences are more concerned with findings and conclusions along with the when of those students so parenthetical dates and footnote/endnotes support highlighting what matters in those disciplines.

As a consequence of disciplinary needs—the purposes of writing—many in the humanities embrace MLA or Chicago Manual of Style while the social sciences may prefer APA or a variety of footnote/endnote formats.

Further, students must be introduced to the ultimate purpose of citation formats—publication.

While school-based writing seems to suggest MLA, APA, et al, are created for students, these formats are publication manuals—leading to the authentic skill we should be teaching: how to follow a format regardless of the format and navigating the conventions of any discipline.

Students need to understand disciplinary conventions and then the why’s and how’s of following whatever conventions are appropriate for any writing purpose.

The “research paper” and “teaching MLA” at the middle and high school levels fail our students in the same ways that the five-paragraph essay fails them.

The teaching of writing needs a renaissance that honors both the authentic nature of writing and writing forms as well as the goal of fostering writers, not students who comply to assignments.


[1] For this post, when I refer to the “research paper,” I am confronting the traditional research paper assignment found in most high school English classes in which students are walked through a highly structured process in order to produce a prompted essay using MLA format. Grades are often highly affected by students complying with (or not) the process and conforming to MLA. Instead, I am suggesting authentic writing assignments that include students participating in and then implementing research because that is necessary for the type of essay written or the disciplinary expectations of the writing; I also believe we need to move toward larger concepts of citation and encouraging students to understand how to navigate any citation form as required by different writing purposes. As with the “5-paragraph essay” and confusing modes (narration, description, exposition, and argumentation) for types of essays, calling a writing assignment a “research paper” is overly reductive and inauthentic.


Resources

Citation Style Chart (OWL)

Why Are there Different Citation Styles? (Yale University)

Why are there so many Different Citation Styles? (Mercer University)

Writing for Specific Fields [far right column] (University of North Carolina)

Building a Nuanced and Authentic Understanding of the Essay 

The Five-Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education, UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative

The Five-Paragraph Theme – National Writing Project

The Five-Paragraph Theme Redux – National Writing Project

The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme, Kimberly Wesley

Kill the 5-Paragraph Essay, John Warner

Five Paragraphs: Unloved and Unnecessary, Susan Knoppow

See this FOLDER for the following scholarship on the 5-paragraph essay/templates:

  • What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • What Inquiring Writers Need to Know, Michael W. Smith and George Hillocks, Jr.
  • The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (and Why We Need to Resist), Mark Wiley
  • The Struggle Itself: Teaching Writing as We Know We Should, P.L. Thomas
  • Fighting Back: Assessing the Assessments, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Teaching Argument for Critical inking and Writing: An Introduction, George Hillocks, Jr.
  • Slay the Monster! Replacing Form-First Pedagogy with Effective Writing Instruction, Kathleen Dudden Rowlands

And for historical context, see Lou LaBrant’s work reaching back into the 1930s.

Kaeptain America?: On Respectability Politics

NFL quarterback of the Carolina Panthers Cam Newton has taken his already otherworldly existence and added an even more marvelous layer, his Superman persona.

In the Marvel comic book universe, where film adaptations have created a market boom in the industry, another superhero has risen to prominence—Captain America. The Avengers franchise along with Cap’s own films have bolstered the superpower Marvel holds in Hollywood over DC and Superman as well as Batman (who had been the shining dark star).

But in the comic book graphic universe, Captain America lost his youth and powers and was replaced by The Falcon, Sam Wilson—prompting me to ask Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?  [1]

The essence of my question addresses using race superficially in that the new black Captain America simply becomes the jingoistic flag waving militant originally conceived in Eugenics who just happens to be black.

In the not-so-real world of the NFL, Newton still suffers under a parallel burden of the quarterback position being a white position, but Newton also represents another powerful and disturbing lesson about respectability politics, speaking as he has in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racial inequity and racism.

Respectability Politics in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

Before Kaepernick’s protests, Newton had already established himself among high-profile black race deniers and carriers of the respectability politics banner—Bill Cosby, O.J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Ben Carson.

And while Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem targets racial inequity, many have spent a great deal of energy policing how Kaepernick has chosen to protest, not what he is protesting. As a result, Kaepernick has unintentional exposed Newton, Shaquille O’Neal, Ray Lewis, and Rodney Harrison—all of whom have dutifully played the respect card.

Throughout the race equity struggles of the U.S., consider Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. [2], respectability politics has been employed as a tool for maintaining the status quo of white male privilege.

Blacks kept in their place; women kept in their place.

Respectability politics is a strategy to infantilize—to render childlike entire categories of people. I was raised in a working class home in the South where respectability politics was writ small: my father invoking “Do as I say, not as I do” and hitting me if I failed to respond always with “yes, sir” or “no sir.”

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale dramatizes how the dominant group uses some members of the oppressed group to maintain inequity. The Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, and the Aunts are women who control women:

There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from, In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it….

We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice. (pp. 24-25)

The voice is that of a woman, but the words and ideas are pure paternalism: “you are being given.”

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained also dramatizes how power uses some of the oppressed against the majority of the oppressed—although (as tainted as the film may be) reflecting a very real aspect of U.S. history that included the house slave (Stephen/Samuel L. Jackson of the film) tension with the field slave.

Newton, O’Neal, Lewis, and Harrison are convenient shields—like Captain America employs—for white privilege, and just as Atwood’s Aunts put female faces on male beliefs, they put black faces on a white message: free speech is protected unless it offends white fragility.

The Irony of the NFL’s Kaeptain America

The 2016 NFL season kicked off with a rematch of the previous season’s Super Bowl. Announcers during the game skirted around the Bronco’s Brandon Marshall kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick, but even with his brave act, Marshall had to hedge:

“I’m not against the military,” Marshall said after the Broncos’ 21-20 win against the Carolina Panthers. “I’m not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice.”

However, the game offered a surprising irony: NFL referees taught Newton the very real fact and consequences of the systemic bias:

Cam Newton absorbed helmet hits several times in Thursday night’s season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, including on a third-quarter sack that left him hurting on the sideline….

“It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton told reporters. “I really like this officiating crew, so it wasn’t something I know they did intentionally, but it’s not fun getting hit in the head.”

Systemic racism—the kind Newton denies—is exactly that, often unintentional, subtle to the point of being easily ignored (by the privileged especially), but producing real and negative consequences nonetheless.

Newton, the sports talking heads are debating nonstop now, suffers unpunished blows to the head the NFL has explicitly announced are not to be tolerated, but he also benefits (a very loaded word here) from being allowed to remain on the field when he may be suffering from the concussions the NFL also claims to be policing rigorously.

It may be worth Newton’s time to acknowledge the large body of research showing that black males are viewed older than their biological ages—notably by police and teachers—and that the implicit bias that frames blacks as stronger and tougher is literally jeopardizing his career and life.

The NFL has a Tom Brady Rule—he who shall not be touched—but Newton, reigning league MVP, is repeatedly slammed on national TV.

But Golden Boy Brady is not the only Golden Boy worth mentioning here, especially in the context of the perverse relationship between the NFL and the military: recall Pat Tillman.

Pat Tillman, the NFL’s original Captain America, abandoned a dynamic NFL career to enter the military—but then that experience turned on itself.

Tillman was killed by friendly fire and then became the focus of a disturbing campaign to use the NFL star to trump up patriotism despite the overwhelming evidence that Tillman was not who he was often portrayed to be just as his death was falsely characterized in the beginning by the government.

The Tillman Story (2010) and ESPN’ Outside the Lines special Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy shatter the respectability myth now being used in an effort to police Kaepernick, the new Kaeptain America.

As the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks tiptoe toward protest, we can be certain of a few things throughout the season: Newton will continue to be the focal point of debate as proof of the exact bias he refuses to acknowledge, the exact bias the media shields themselves from behind the respectability politics of Newton, O’Neal, Lewis, and the backpedaling Harrison; and the NFL will continue to wrap its self in the flag while simultaneously claiming to protect the players and reaping huge profits on violence and, disproportionately, the backs of black men, who will be required to know their place.

We can also be certain that the NFL, the media, politicians, and the public will remain firmly entrenched in respectability politics because that is where the status quo of power and profit resides.

Now I am compelled to ask, Should we marvel at a black Kaeptain America if we police how he uses his free speech instead of listening to and then addressing what he is protesting?

See Also

Colin Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson and the ‘Appropriate Posture for a Black Man,’ Chuck Modiano


[1] See an expanded version here: Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

[2] MLK’s legacy has been tarnished with the passive radical myth, masking his true radical self in order to reinforce respectability politics.

Building a Nuanced and Authentic Understanding of the Essay

Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter

First-year students face a tremendous challenge and learning curve related to the essay.

High school has too often left students with an inauthentic and narrow view of the essay as a template; mechanical and scripted—the introduction, the thesis sentence, the body paragraphs, and the conclusion.

College writing and ultimately academic/scholarly writing as well as essay writing beyond the walls of academia are all far more nuanced and complex than the template essay, which is practiced almost nowhere by writers and which almost never serves as a transition or foundation for authentic writing.

James Baldwin offers a powerful model for essay writing since he was primarily a literary writer, a writer of fiction, who also wrote compelling and highly crafted essays and non-fiction—often blurring modes and genres as he worked in the field of journalism.

Essays often share some aspects of mode (narration, description, exposition, argument), citation and use of sources and research…

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The Irony and the Dishonesty: Revisiting 1999

First, let’s do the irony: Think outside box inside S.C. classrooms by SC’s executive director of StudentsFirstSC (a political journeyman, and never an educator) is the least outside the box commentary you can read.

The least.

Propaganda and baseless claims from a deceptive organization—this is what we face in SC:

  • “The key is developing real-world solutions to help students learn, regardless of the hurdles they face outside of the classroom.” No. This is a harmful and failed approach. We need to address inequity in children’s lives and in their schools. Asking children to pretend their real lives don’t exit while they happen to be in school is cruel.
  • “Quality teachers should have the freedom to fully use their passion to fuel innovation within their classrooms.” Hint at this sham Op-Ed: “innovation.” A hollow “business” term that means nothing.
  • “A great example of innovation is happening right here in Charleston. As recently highlighted in The Post and Courier last week, Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood is a local, public-private partnership. In a short time, this school has achieved remarkable results—setting challenging goals for students and working to help them achieve more.” There remains no proof of these claims except by MSE advocates and those who benefit from such claims.
  • “South Carolina’s embrace of educators from Teach for America is a step in the right direction for our state.” TFA is de-professionalizing teaching, has failed as a sham organization, and has seen its popularity significantly decline because of the harm the program does to its recruits and the students they teach.
  • “Bradford Swann is executive director of StudentsFirstSC, a non-profit, membership- based organization working to ensure all students have access to great teachers and a quality education, regardless of the ZIP code in which they live.” This is a pollitical propaganda organization that has no credibility—begun by the thoroughly discredited Michelle Rhee and run by political want-to-be’s.

StudentsFirst churns out the same Op-Eds all over the U.S.—piling on lie after lie in the seemingly never-ending parade of dishonesty in education reform.

Quite disturbing, however, is that this sort of dishonesty has been refuted for decades. For example, I published a piece in 1999, predicting and addressing this exact phenomenon.

A New Honesty in Education—Positivist Measures in a Post-Modern World addressed virtually every element of the recurring Op-Eds by StudentsFirst minions and other edureform robots.

Let me catalog a few here, and, again, this is from 1999 (all directly quoted from the article, with some emphasis added):

  • The debates swirling around education never stray too far from the fore-front of key concerns for Americans. In South Carolina, for example, education grew to be a central issue of the 1998 governor’s race—the arguments centering on the lottery and video poker versus vouchers and high standards for teachers and students. Concurrent with the political season, The Atlantic ran a feature article on education—Nicholas Lemann’s “‘Ready Read!'” applauding Robert E. Slavin’s Success for All reading program. Both the South Carolina governor’s race and the Lemann article epitomize a central aspect of the current educational debate—dishonesty. That dishonesty runs through almost all the educational discourse within political arenas; such dishonesty grows from the clash inherent in the power of positivist measurements—primarily through standardized testing—within a culture that is concurrently influenced by post-modern perspectives.
  • Since the rise of Taylorism at the turn of the century, education has been driven by a belief in empirical data, the belief that we can objectively generate data from standardized tests to assess both individual students and entire educational systems (Kliebard, 1995, pp. 81-82).
  • We must be honest about textbooks and curriculum programs, we must be honest about standardized testing, we must be honest about the nature of educating, and we must be honest with our students in the classroom.
  • Gerald W. Bracey (1997) and Herbert M. Kliebard (1995), among others, have noted that throughout the 20th century, the American educational debate has been rife with dishonesty when it benefited both politicians and educators.
  • They touted higher standards for teachers (including a new testing format that would reward existing teachers with a bonus if they would take the test and would raise the score needed to gain initial certification); higher standards and a stricter, more scope-and-sequenced curriculum; and choice in education driven by vouchers.
  • Lemann clearly embraces a belief in empirical data, a belief that schools should produce workers, and a belief that teachers should get out of the way of a content-rich prescribed curriculum.
  • Soon politicians will realize (some already have) that if a test is designed first, and if that test dictates a prescribed curriculum that can be scripted, and if teachers can be forced to train students along that and only that curricular course, tests scores will increase, the public will be pleased (though horribly fooled), and the politicians’ careers will have been boosted.
  • Educators must acknowledge that we are increasingly overwhelming students, primarily because too many factions contribute to the educational mix—parents through school boards, politicians through legislation, publishers through textbooks, and educators as practitioners. Prescribed curriculum guides, statewide standards, and textbooks often create a monster too large for either teachers or students to handle.
  • A second area for educators to attack vigorously and honestly is the standardized test.
  • We must assert honestly that education is still not good enough; it never will be.
  • Students leaving third or fourth grade as independent and willing readers will benefit more from their educational experience than our current focus on third graders taking a wide range of standardized tests that do not force the students to produce anything, except merely to bubble.
  • Clinging to that which is easily transferred to the student, that which is most manageable to assess, is the most morally and educationally bankrupt behavior existing in education.

Sound familiar? These warning from almost two decades ago?

The StudentsFirst playbook is predictable, but it is also tired and thoroughly disproven.

I begged for a new honesty in education as I taught in public schools throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

When will political leaders, the media, and the public choose to listen to educators and not con artists out for their own political gain? [1]


[1] Yes, I know, a very hollow questions in the 2016 presidential election.

How We Live, How We Die: On Touch, Intimacy, and Loneliness

“One day in April—” begins John Gardner’s tour-deforce short story, “Redemption,” “a clear, blue day when there were crocuses in bloom—Jack Hawthorne ran over and killed his brother, David.”

A farming accident comes to define Jack, who at 12 decides he is evil and, as a result, removes himself from all of humanity, especially his remaining family—the parents being particularly devastated by the death of the seven-year-old David.

Gardner’s story guides the reader through Jack’s hell, which is not the accidental killing of his brother but ostracizing himself from human contact, human interaction, the intimacy of others.

And as powerfully as he crafts the first sentence, Gardner ends the story symbolically: “Then the crowd opened for him and, with the horn cradled under his right arm, his music under his left, he plunged in, starting home.”

Beautifully and tenderly, but without sentimentality, the story ends with “home,” and marks Jack’s redemption as his return to necessary community of other people, notably his family, in order to be fully human, in order to live.

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As a high school English teacher, I was fortunate to teach advanced students American literature during their sophomore year and then have the same students again in Advanced Placement Literature their senior year. We read and studied Gardner’s “Redemption” in 10th grade, and it laid important groundwork—the power of craft as well as the central themes—for investigating Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood’s speculative fiction, a dystopian novel, focuses on Offred (June) as the titular handmaid of the tale about a not-so-distant future in which a theocracy arises out of the militant overthrow of the U.S.

Offred (June) is forced into isolation as a handmaid: fertile women assigned to Commanders and designated to repopulate the theocracy, the Republic of Gilead.

Without her husband and daughter, and sequestered in the Commander’s home until each Ceremony (intercourse with the Commander while lying back between the legs of the Commander’s wife) intended to impregnate her, Offred (June) confesses:

Or I would help Rita make the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch. (p. 11)

Her loneliness gnaws at her throughout the novel, which includes a recurring motif of touch:

I wanted to feel Luke [her husband] lying beside me. I have them, these attacks of the past, like faintness, a wave sweeping over my head. Sometimes it can hardly be borne. What is to be done, what is to be done, I thought. There is nothing to be done. They also serve who only stand and wait. Or lie down and wait. I know why the glass in the window is shatterproof, and why they took down the chandelier. I wanted to feel Luke lying beside me, but there wasn’t room. (p. 52)

For Offred (June), to touch is to live, and to be denied touch is to die—drawn as she is to suicide.

Later, she admits while recalling “[l]ying in bed, with Luke, his hand on my round belly”:

If I thought this would never happen again I would die.

But this is wrong, nobody dies from lack of sex. It’s a lack of love we die from. There’s nobody here I can love, all the people I could love are dead or elsewhere. Who knows where they are or what their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for them. I too am a missing person. (p. 103)

Touch, intimacy, love—these are essential for being fully human, to live.

Ultimately, this lack of touch, intimacy, drives Offred (June) past her own humanity to a violent inhumanity as she fantasizes:

I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands. (pp. 139-140)

An inverse of Jack’s killing his brother driving him to believe himself evil and to isolate himself from others, Offred (June) suffers a forced seclusion that breeds at least disturbing urges toward murder.

And as she confronts, becoming a “missing person.”

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“American men,” writes Mark Greene, “in an attempt to avoid any possible hint of committing unwanted sexual touch, are foregoing gentle platonic touch in their lives. I’ll call it touch isolation.” [1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there not messages here about the power of radical love (self-love, love of others) that Baldwin dramatizes in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone?:

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

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

In his All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James BaldwinDouglas Field turns to Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” where Baldwin too seems resigned: “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being. I am aware that we do not save each other very often” (p. 98).

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Single Is Hard, writes Emma Lindsay.

In her confession about the challenges of being single, Lindsay is eventually drawn to touch:

But anyway, the part I actually find hard about being single is that I never get touched, and this is always overlooked and undervalued. This is where the myth of self sufficiency breaks down.

And here she begins to interrogate both language and the Puritanical roots of the U.S. Like Offred (June), Lindsay challenges the simplistic blurring of sex and intimacy, grounded in touch:

In fact, some of my friends started complaining that I was too independent (I swear, I can’t win) but, at the end of the day, I can’t touch myself. Or, I can touch myself, but it doesn’t have the same impact as when someone else touches me.

Did you chuckle to yourself when you read that because it sounded like I was talking about masturbation? That’s not a coincidence. That is part of the problem.

We don’t even value platonic touch enough for it to exist in our lexicon without a sexual overtone.

“I’m talking about affectionate touch,” Lindsay emphasizes. “And, it is completely reasonable to be afraid of not getting that.” And then she concludes: “Touch matters so much. Why do we keep acting like it doesn’t?”

#

Lindsay’s essay brought me to Baldwin and back to my high school students.

As we discussed The Handmaid’s Tales, one of the topics was the connection between words and the act of making ideas or actions taboo.

I would ask students what word(s) we used for men with many sexual partners, and usually “stud” or similar words were mentioned—and that these words connoted something positive, an accomplishment, a “score.”

I followed with what word(s) we use for women with many sexual partners, and we had many—”slut,” whore,” “tramp.” These, of course, are all negative, about the act of sex defiling the woman, ruining her (by implication “for other men”).

“i like my body when it is with your/body,” writes e.e. cummings in one of his many explicit and beautiful poems that celebrate love, sex, and intimacy without the taboos that render us unable to live, to be fully human. This is a celebration of the flesh otherwise demonized and shunned by social norms and religious dogma:

i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which I will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you

To touch, to be touched—gifts offered between and among, whether sexual, platonic, or unidentifiable intimacy.

We mortals in the flesh are only fully human in the flesh, pressed against the one we love so that we both may live.


[1] Adapted from an earlier blog post On Touch, Loneliness, and James Baldwin’s Radical Love 

The Eternal Negligence of the Mainstream Media: “The World Is Not White”

Somewhere among Urban Legend and the sort of fine-detail scholarly bickering that people outside of academia find tedious lies the truth about how many words Eskimo have for “snow.”

What is compelling about Eskimo words for “snow,” I think, is the idea that a people would become increasingly nuanced in proportion to how much something dominated their environment: Eskimo are so daily confronted with snow and the challenges of snow that they have a hundred words for all the ways it pervades their lives and world.

Conversely, in the very human effort to understand our world and human nature, one of our cliches includes a truism (speculative and mostly metaphorical) about fish being completely unaware of water since it is both ever-present and essential for their existence.

So when it comes to so-called mainstream culture in the U.S., we are, regretfully, fish and not Eskimo.

And the daily record of that obliviousness is recorded by the mainstream media.

Exhibit A:

people and black Americans

Exhibit B:

Rapinoe, a World Cup and gold-medal winner with the U.S. women’s national team, becomes the first nonblack professional athlete to join in protesting during the national anthem since Kaepernick gained notoriety for sitting out the anthem in 49ers preseason games.

I could make this a quiz, but it would be one most people would fail for the exact reason I included both examples.

The word that shall not be spoken in the U.S. is “white.”

The New York Times editors apparently believe black people are not people, but they certainly cannot cross the line and confront that it is white people who “fail to understand”—or better yet, refuse to understand—”the lives of black Americans.”

And, really ESPN? Megan Rapinoe is “nonblack”?

And if we dig beneath the “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” (read: white Americans) we are able to unmask that when politicians or the media admit the U.S. continues to have a “race” problem, that is the whitewashed code for a “racism” problem—yet the other word that dare not be uttered.

In an interview from 1984, Julius Lester asked James Baldwin about “the task facing black writers,” and Baldwin replied:

This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete….

Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete.

Baldwin’s confrontation of the power of normalizing white as that marginalizes black in the U.S. is portrayed brilliantly in a scene from Ralph Ellison’s (1952) Invisible Man where the unnamed main character finds himself in a hellish nightmare after being kicked out of college and sent on a cruel quest for work in New York. He then turns to a paint manufacturing plant for employment:

KEEP AMERICA PURE

WITH

LIBERTY PAINTS. (p. 196)

The exchange between the main character and his supervisor, Kimbro, when the main character is first learning his job at the paint factory informs well the current tensions created by #BlackLivesMatter:

“Now get this straight,” Kimbro said gruffily. “This is a busy department and I don’t have time to repeat things. You have to follow instructions and you’re going to do things you don’t understand, so get your orders the first time and get them right! I won’t have time to stop and explain everything. You have to catch on by doing exactly what I tell you. You got that?” (p. 199)

What is important at Liberty Paints is the best-selling paint and the company slogan—”If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White”—that echoes the racist “white is right.”

The main character learns from Kimbro that Liberty Paints’ prize item, Optic White, requires ten drops of black (a literary harbinger for Baldwin’s argument that whites are defined by blacks in the U.S.). The process makes no sense on many levels to the main character, but he is chastised for questioning instructions: “‘That’s it. That’s all you have to do,’ [Kimbro] said. ‘Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it’” (p. 200).

So white America finds itself in 2016 anesthetized by whiteness to the point that it does not see “white,” and the institutions designed to maintain white privilege—such as the mainstream press—dare not utter the word.

Fish so accustomed to water that they have no concept of water.

Or as Baldwin confronted, the truth may be that as fish white America has now been forced to confront water/whiteness and fears the consequences of the other side of the end to white privilege so desperately as to render itself “nonblack.”