Nina Simone: The Ignored, the Silenced Voices of Protest

As a political and public debate, the state of U.S. public education—and all of the Commons—as well as what education reform is needed overlaps and intersects with debates about whose voice matters and what words and tone are acceptable or appropriate.

Powerful and essential discussions about race and racism, about deficit assumptions concerning people in poverty, speak to Arundhati Roy’s “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Nina Simone’s voice demands that we confront debates about language and tone as they contribute to and detract from political and public struggles with democracy, the Commons, liberation, and the often unnamed plights of racism, sexism, and the persistent culture of violence that defines America:

“Mississippi Goddam”

(1963) (c) Nina Simone

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can’t you see it
Can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer
Don’t tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I’ve been there so I know
They keep on saying “Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Washing the windows
“do it slow”
Picking the cotton
“do it slow”
You’re just plain rotten
“do it slow”
You’re too damn lazy
“do it slow”
The thinking’s crazy
“do it slow”
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I made you thought I was kiddin’ didn’t we
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
Desegregation
“do it slow”
Mass participation
“do it slow”
Reunification
“do it slow”
Do things gradually
“do it slow”
But bring more tragedy
“do it slow”
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know
You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
That’s it for now! see ya’ later

Open Letter to Political Leaders: Action, Not Tributes and Rhetoric

To All Elected Local, State, and National Political Leadership:

No American needs anymore to name specifically the tragedy or the media and political responses because all have become both commonplace and predictable.

I will name nonetheless, not because these are unique, but because they are sobering messages that must not be ignored.

In recent days, a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and during the subsequent news cycle as well as political tributes and rhetoric, the U.S. Senate failed to act on gun legislation that was prompted by the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that also spurred 24-hours media coverage and political tributes and rhetoric.

I want first to note that as a scholar and poet, I understand the need to frame tragedy in words. I wrote commentaries—“‘They’re All Our Children,'” “Misreading the Right to Bear Arms”—and a poem, “calculating (the erased),” after the school shooting and was once again moved to poetry, “they ran (15 April 2013),” in the wake of the marathon bombing.

Also I concede that words matter, and for me, writing is a type of activism.

However, like Hamlet came to feel about marriage, I am compelled to say to politicians, We will have no more tributes and rhetoric.

Political tributes and rhetoric—as well as media discourse—fail in two ways: (1) They offer misleading distractions from authentic political action, and (2) they replace action.

From political perches of privilege, tributes and rhetoric are condescending since politicians read speeches others write for them and act only in ways that serve the moneyed interests who demand their policy.

Political tributes and rhetoric allow one existence for the power elites while preserving an entirely different existence for everyone else. In education reform, this is calling for and implementing policy for “other people’s children” that is unlike what those in power secure for their own children.

Dramatic tragedy such as mass shootings and bombings, then, becomes theater—stages upon which those in power can recite soliloquies about a certain kind of justice-as-revenge. But these hollow calls for justice-as-revenge mask that no action is taken for social justice.

And while each life lost or scarred by these tragedies-as-theater is precious and the acts of violence and terrorism can never be justified, Americans daily are subject to death and scarring from violences and terrorism that appear not to warrant political tributes and rhetoric or 24-hour media coverage.

Americans and America’s children are increasingly finding themselves victims of poverty. While some international rankings seem to preoccupy politicians and the media, hardly a word is spoken about U.S. international rankings in terms of the conditions of our children:

UNICEF, Innocenti Report Card 11, http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/rc11_eng.pdf
(Source: UNICEF)
(Source: UNICEF)

—–

In terms of action related to the well-being of our children, the U.S. ranks near the bottom, and the ways in which the U.S. ranks at the top leave much to be desired, as detailed by Schwayder:

The United States is No. 1 on many other lists: It spends more on the military than the next 12 nations on the list combined; it’s the best in the world at imprisoning people; and it has the most obese people, the highest divorce rate, and the highest rate of both illicit and prescription drug use.

As children died at Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon, as lives were scarred forever, children and adults die and have their lives scarred daily by poverty and violence that are as commonplace as the tragedy news-and-politics cycle.

America’s politicians and their tributes and rhetoric allow children to perish in poverty and a culture of violence—a culture of violence that is never genuinely addressed because that same political tribute and rhetoric have manufactured a New Jim Crow in which African American males are as disposable as our children in this era of mass incarceration that starts in schools-as-prisons and the rise of the working poor.

Racism, classism, and sexism corrode the lives of Americans while politicians pay tribute and make speeches.

The United States of America is the most powerful and wealthy society in human history. Every condition in our society is either created or tolerated by those with power.

To all elected local, state, and national political leadership, I say we will have no more tributes and rhetoric.

This is not, however, a call for politicians to be perfect. In fact, this is quite the opposite; it is a call for politicians to be fully human, not in words, but in deeds.

The Ignored Arm of the Commons and the Invisible Hand of the Market

Education Week has posted a new report on charter school funding, the blog titled “Charter Schools’ Funding Lags, Study Finds”:

Charter school students receive about $4,000 less in per-pupil funding than their regular public school peers according to an analysis of five regions across the U.S., a new report has found.

The report, conducted by the University of Arkansas and funded by the Walton Family Foundation, compared per-pupil funding rates between charter and regular public schools in Denver, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Newark, and the District of Columbia from 2007-2011.

The Walton Family Foundation has been a major backer of school-choice, including charters and private school vouchers. (The Walton Family Foundation also supports coverage of parent empowerment issues at Education Week.)

…Many of the same researchers that conducted the Ball State University study participated in the University of Arkansas research.

What should anyone make about a report coming from the Department of Education Reform Walmart housed at the public University of Arkansas?

First, the charter school movement, good or bad, depends on the existence of public schools—a fact of the Commons often ignored.

The Invisible Hand of the Market sits at the end of the Ignored Arm of the Commons.

Try running your great new business without public streets and highways, public law enforcement, or public schools educating the vast majority of workers and consumers in the U.S.

As Bruce Baker has shown [1], the charter shuffle and its dependence on public schools must never be discounted; note this graphic:

Figure 1. The General Model

—–

As Kelvin Smythe notes:

The education situation is dire, western economies are struggling, with one of its manifestations being the rich and powerful acting to undermine public schools. Charter schools not being about charter schools is emblematic of that dire situation.

Charter schools and charter school reports coming from thinly veiled free market think tanks housed inside public universities are about unfairly discrediting public schools and the wider Commons as well as misrepresenting the power and importance of the free market.

The Invisible Hand of the Market can never conduct its magic without a powerful but Ignored Arm of the Commons to guide it.

[1] See also COMPARING CHARTER SCHOOL AND LOCAL PUBLIC DISTRICT FINANCIAL RESOURCES IN NEW YORK, OHIO, AND TEXAS, Baker & Wiley (2012); and FISCAL DISPARITIES AND PHILANTHROPY AMONG NEW YORK CITY CHARTER SCHOOLS, Baker & Ferris (2011)

Consumed by Manufactured Demons: The “-ism’s” that Blind

Science fiction and horror are two genres that often find themselves intersecting where some form of power reduces humans to mere cogs in the machine. Technology, the future, aliens, and the like, it seems, can be terribly frightening.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four stands as one of the most comprehensive and enduring examinations of when that power abuse is in the hands of a totalitarian government. Dystopian SF that explores the dangers of “big government” resonates with the Libertarian thread running through the American public, but SF also aims its detailed satire and allegory at the nuances of just how governments become totalitarian.

Ridley Scotts’ Alien and more recent Prometheus share more than a director and some sort of lineage in their narratives: Both SF films are horrifying tales of oppressive corporations. [Scott’s Blade Runner can be included here are these films also include the dangers of megalomaniacs, especially corporatists and industrialists who use their ill-got billions for something other than the common good.]

While the mid-1950s spawned SF/horror films as thinly disguised propaganda matching the public hysteria about the Red Scare—the immediate and insidious threat of Communism (see Invasion of the Body Snatchers for a tour de force of such)—the Cold War eventually proved that the creeping cancer of Communism wasn’t as powerful as political leadership and pop culture claimed.

What, then, does SF say about more credible fears facing humanity?

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut (1963) introduces into his fictional world Bokononism, a religion in which its messiah through the sacred text, The Books of Bokonon, confesses: “‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies'” (p. 5).

The government of San Lorenzo finds its stability built on a fabricated conflict between General McCabe and the founder of Bokononism, Bokonon:

“‘Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.'” (p. 172)

The charade driven by McCabe outlawing Bokononism and declaring Bokonon a fugitive continues at the expense of McCabe and Bokonon as men until their manufactured war between the righteous McCabe and renegade holy man Bokonon becomes essential itself:

“‘McCabe was always sane enough to realize that without the holy man to war against, he himself would become meaningless.'” (p. 175)

Cat’s Cradle examines the power of creating a demon for the public in order to keep that public distracted while the privileged remain privileged. Yet, Vonnegut’s often slapstick and always raucous narrative could just as easily be about the U.S. at almost any point in the past century.

What should be feared about the U.S. government and society is better captured, in fact, by Cat’s Cradle, Alien, and Prometheus than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In other words, Communism and Socialism remain much invoked demons, but the dangers lie somewhere else entirely.

In 2013, two ideologies are intersecting—not unlike SF and horror—the progressive and often liberal education community and the libertarian and populist rightwing commentators and public. The common demon?

Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

While the progressive education community tends to reject CCSS as yet more of the failed accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing paradigm (the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results) as well as a distraction from the need to address poverty and inequity, the libertarian/populist rejections of CCSS tend toward a fear of an Orwellian Big Brother or subversive curriculum as pods placed beside the beds of our children; thus, all over Facebook, CCSS are being linked to the Great Evils—Communism and Socialism.

While there is much to be feared about CCSS, that fear need not be grounded on its use to instill communism and/or socialism in America’s youth.

“Communism” and “Socialism” are terms tossed about without much regard for what they mean, but like Bokononism in San Lorenzo, the terms are “ism’s” that blind; they are manufactured demons that allow genuine threats to exist and prosper.

In both Alien and Prometheus, main characters and the audience soon discover that under the guise of science and exploration, the evils of corporate greed—controlling government and its military—are far more horrifying and real than any Red Scare or any form of government, in fact.

Ironically, while I contend we don’t need CCSS, the ability of corporate America to so easily and persistently manipulate the public’s lack of understanding of “-ism’s” seems to beg for a close inspection of just what is being taught in our schools. And if I were going to implement a core curriculum in the U.S., it would include a careful and extensive consideration of some foundational terms:

  • Communism
  • Socialism
  • Capitalism
  • Fascism
  • Oligarchy
  • Indoctrination
  • Consumerism

Condemning CCSS as a government plot to brainwash America’s children with Communism or Socialism ignores some basic points of fact:

  1. Socialists and communists have no power and almost no voice in the U.S.; for at least sixty years, both terms have been used in public discourse to demonize and marginalize (even as both terms are almost always misused in that discourse).
  2. The CCSS were created by and are overwhelming endorsed by the power and corporate elite—who benefit from a consumer culture, not a communist or socialist society.

For those who fear the CCSS, I want to remind you once again: Look carefully at this entire cover of Education Week exposing that CCSS is consumerism and commodification—not communism and socialism:

EW.CCSS

The crass commercialism covering a major education publication reads like an infomercial:

“Catch At-Risk Kindergarteners Before They Fail…in 20 Minutes a Day!”

“Help At-Risk Kindergarteners…20 minutes a day gets them back on track!”

But a letter from the company vice president doesn’t inspire much confidence about high standards: “Kindervention is the most unique program in our history…,” it opens.

Most unique? Maybe words that can’t be qualified aren’t in the CCSS.

Ultimately, CCSS are a distraction.

And cries that CCSS are a communist, socialist, or government plot are distractions.

So the odd intersection of progressives and libertarians rejecting the CCSS fails ultimately since the reasons are deeply divided, but there is a reason that we all—every citizen of the U.S. regardless of ideology—should unite against CCSS and most other corporate manipulations of our Commons:

Being consumed by manufactured demons is a self-defeating American tradition that needs to be set aside.

Like the crews in both Alien and Prometheus, Americans are blinded, and often asking the wrong questions (“Why is Common Core not requiring cursive writing instruction?”)—or worse yet, not asking any questions at all about the power of corporate America over the government we fail to see as “we the people.”