Responsibilities of Privilege: Bearing Witness, pt. 2

On my post Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology, Bill Boyle left a long and thoughtful comment, highlighted by a central question I often receive when I confront privilege: “For instance, does the relative wealth I have accumulated via my privilege make any of my statements on addressing poverty hypocritical?”

In many versions, I have been asked about what right do whites have to hold forth on race, what right do the relatively affluent have to hold forth on poverty, what right do men have to hold forth on gender—if privilege, then, discredits the privileged?

My short answer is that one’s privilege is not the determining factor in a person’s credibility, but what one does with that privilege is.

As an educator for over thirty years, a writer and scholar for most of that time, and then a public commentator during the more recent past, I have often had to negotiate my own privilege (significantly in the dominant statuses in the U.S. that drive much of the inequity, bias, and prejudice in the country) against my social justice commitments as well as my developing commitment to bear witness in the tradition of James Baldwin.

The most difficult example of that journey (one begun in the pages of literature when I was in college, discovering and learning from Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker) has been my own discomfort over bearing witness to the segregating and racist intentions and consequences of the charter school movement (specifically among KIPP charter schools and the many copy-cat “no excuses” charter schools) in the context of evidence that black parents were strongly supporting and rushing to choose those very schools (see Sarah Carr’s Hope Against Hope, which documents that phenomenon).

I was able to rectify that deeply uncomfortable sense that I was being privileged, I was whitesplaining, I was being paternalistic by reading and taking great care to listen carefully to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, in which she identifies and addresses a similar paradox in the mass incarceration debate; as I have explained:

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons'” (p. 210).

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters.

Here, then, I want to answer Bill Boyle’s concerns a bit more fully—outlining some key responsibilities of those with privilege as a guide for seeking ways to rise above that privilege, to avoid the trap of hypocrisy:

  • Acknowledge privilege. The most telling sign of privilege is the knee-jerk denial (often angry) of that privilege. Self-awareness is key for managing your privilege and seeking a path to empathy.
  • Respond to privilege with humility instead of arrogance. Another powerful signal of the worst aspects of privilege is now a cliche: Being born on third base but thinking you have hit a triple. I call this the Ozymandias Syndrome: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Many of us with privilege have been quite successful, and have even worked very hard, so we are apt to flaunt that success—”Look what I accomplished, and so can you!” Instead, we must recognize that much of our accomplishments have their roots in huge advantages not of our making, and thus, humility.
  • Use privilege in the service of others. Instead of building privilege from privilege or leveraging privilege for personal gain, the advantages of privilege can and should be aimed at dismantling, ironically, the systems that bestowed them. Instead of “Look on my Works,” we must ask, “How do we build a world in which everyone begins as I did?”
  • Understand and avoid appropriation. Privilege breeds a sense of normal among the privileged and thus an otherness onto any unlike the privileged class. One consequence of creating the other is to appropriate those othered in reductive, insensitive, and manipulative ways. The analogy is one of the great faults of privileged good intentions gone wrong: U.S. slavery of blacks, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment reduced to the analogy game in order to score political points.
  • Shut up and listen. As a white, male, privileged teacher and writer, I am apt to hold forth. I am extremely verbal, and I often struggle against my good intentions and passion coming off as arrogance. As I noted above, my commitment as witness is firmly grounded in reading and listening to those who suffer the burden of bias, prejudice, and oppression. My silence, however, is important since it returns space to the open market of ideas; my intent listening is also essential to my never-ending journey toward compassion that must be central to my role as witness.
  • Understand and avoid paternalism. My warning—beware the roadbuilders—represents well where I am on my journey to use my privilege in the service of others and to eradicate inequity because “roadbuilders” [1] is drawn from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and it rejects directly the cancerous paternalism in bleeding-heart liberalism (confronted by Martin Luther King Jr.). Privilege as paternalism (the roadbuilders) imposes itself on others for their own good, but instead, we must ask, “What do you want, need from me?” [2]
  • Be responsible for your own empathy. Another seemingly good intention among the privileged is requesting that so-called marginalized groups guide one’s path out of arrogant privilege; such requests are simply more burden, more evidence of the weight of privilege heaped on the othered.
  • Step aside. Just as being quiet in order to listen returns space to the common good, an important act among the privileged is to step aside so that others may occupy those spaces automatically denied by the consequences of privilege. Again in my rush to do good, I not only clung to the spaces afforded me because of my privilege, but gobbled up all that I could additionally. In recent years, however, I have begun using my privilege and role as witness to move away from authored scholarly books and toward edited volumes (more voices, and more opportunities for those who otherwise would have been ignored, silenced), edited columns, and other projects in which I can facilitate access to spaces otherwise filled by the privileged. As well—although against the norms of scholarship—my work has been dedicated to preserving the voices of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand by quoting instead of simply paraphrasing and citing.
  • Bear witness to the roadbuilders. The privileged must certainly be willing to call out the arrogance of privilege, and here is likely the most valid way to use privilege in the service of others. Reaching out instead of attacking—but being firm and consistent in bearing witness to the folly and harm done by paternalism, whitesplaining, mansplaining, and the many microaggressions of privilege. This witnessing, I think, is essential for building an empathetic environment in which privilege is no longer allowed to impose itself (Idea X or Comment Y is not valid until Privileged A says so) and in which oversimplification is replaced by nuance (no more monolithic “black culture,” “homosexuality,” “women,” etc., against the privileged norm).

None of this is mine, of course, and none of this is thus justified because I have deemed it so. Therein lies the great paradox of privilege and living in ways that seek to eradicate privilege.

Today this is the best I have to offer because of the many wise and kind people who have lent themselves to my education, to the lifting of the veil of privilege from my eyes. But tomorrow …

Toward the end of his last interview, James Baldwin explains: “Because you can’t be taught anything if you think you know everything already, that something else—greed, materialism, and consuming—is more important to your life.”

And that is something worthy of bearing witness: our humility, and as Baldwin always reminded us, grounded in love.

[1] “Beware the roadbuilders” as a refrain and analogy creates tension against my warning about appropriation and analogy, but it is that tension I use when making decisions about how to frame my necessarily evolving efforts to bear witness and use privilege in the service of others.

[2] An offer that may reveal, as Baldwin argues, “The only thing that really unites all black men everywhere is, as far as I can tell, the fact that white men are on their necks.”

See Also
Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits”

Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person…”

Education Reform as the New Misogyny: A Reader

The Funny Thing about Privilege, Imani Gandy

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh

Bearing Witness: Hypocrisy, Not Ideology

Unless this is mangled memory (and in my advancing age, it may well be), when the sit-com Seinfeld interspersed Jerry Seinfeld doing stand-up with the main show, I was struck by one routine about sports fandom. Seinfeld noted that since the players on any team are constantly changing, fans are essentially pulling for the jerseys.

As observational humor goes, that joke is funny, but I also think it essentially nails what is wrong with partisan politics when anyone defends her/his party (team) regardless of behaviors while simultaneously illuminating every slip of the other party (team) as if the world is coming to an end.

For that reason mainly, I have removed myself entirely from partisan politics (inspired by the late and great George Carlin, who is the team to which I lend my loyalty).

Recently, I have noticed Democrats posting on social media a news story concerning Rudy Giuliani’s daughter being arrested for shoplifting. I ignored the posts at first, but since I certainly have found Giuliani in the past and recently to be beyond loathsome in his commentary (notably when paired with equally loathsome Bill O’Reilley), I happened to click the link once to discover the story is from 2010.

All of this puts me in an ethical/intellectual bind because in many respects the Giuliani-as-law-and-order-politician/daughter-as-criminal dynamic does highlight what I believe is how we must judge both leadership and privilege in the U.S. But the context in which I have found this story (and it being from 2010) still reeks of partisan sniping and pettiness (especially if we consider the recent ugliness surrounding comments about the Obama daughters).

In the U.S., political leadership, wealth and success, and privilege are nearly inseparable—despite the meritocracy myth perpetuated by the privileged to mask their greased paths to power and wealth.

And thus, the genuine differences between Democrats and Republicans remain mostly in word only—platforms, speeches, and published commentaries. War mongering, accountability-driven public education reform, economic policy, etc., remain significantly similar regardless of political party affiliation in the U.S., particularly is we assess the policy against the larger ideology justifying those policies (free market mechanisms, neoliberalism, etc.).

Participating in partisan politics, then, in the same ways we participate in team sport allows privileged leadership to continue serving the interests of the privileged at the expense of the great majority of people in the U.S.—notably the marginalized.

While I am not suggesting ideology doesn’t matter, I am calling for placing judgments of leaders and the privileged in the context of hypocrisy first. Let me offer some context.

Both Democrats and Republicans champion market forces for reforming public education, notably parental choice as a driving mechanism for reform.

However, when controlling for student demographics (and conditions such as selection exclusivity and attrition), among private, charter, and public schools, virtually no differences in major outcomes exist.

But let’s go further, many endorsing market forces (whether vouchers on the right or charter schools on the left) often claim issues such as class size do not matter—assertions that must be tested against not only those making the claims but also the evidence from the market itself.

Bill Gates, for example, has pushed for classes of 40 students with teachers paid bonuses for those large class sizes; however, Gates himself attended elite private schools with extremely low class sizes.

And therein lies the problem with hypocrisy.

While private schools do not in fact outperform public schools (both forms of schooling have a wide range of so-called quality), the market dynamics around private schools responding to parental choice clearly show that low class sizes are important—in fact, justifying larger financial investments by parents.

And I think now we can circle back to how Giuliani and his daughter can and should matter.

Privileged leadership in the U.S. represents word and deed designed for everyone else except the privileged class; in education, what privileged leaders are saying is that, for example, class size doesn’t matter for other people’s children (but it does for mine and my privileged friends).

Giuliani’s tone-deaf and offensive claims about law enforcement and black/brown people/families reveal the arrogance of leadership and privilege—and thus, he should be held accountable for his hypocrisy. But not as yet another partisan mask for letting those on the “other” political team slide (which is what I believe most of the posts I have seen are doing).

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, among many things, is about the puppet show that is partisan politics as team sport. Vonnegut’s dystopia, however, is playing out before us now whenever we fail to see past the veneer of ideological claims, whenever we continue to pull for the jerseys.

To judge leadership/privilege against hypocrisy is a moral imperative that is lost in ideological team sport.

“But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Why? Because the people demanding thrift among the poor are not themselves living under the same directive; if fact, the wealthy who demand thrift of the poor wallow in waste and excess.

Those demanding “no excuses,” as with those rejecting the importance of class size, for example, tend to live in abundance and slack—among the very riches of excuses.

And so I believe that a key part of our fight for public education and democracy is that we cannot have genuine ideological battles until we hold all ideologies responsible for the validity of their own investment in those ideologies.

Hypocrites have no moral authority. Without moral authority, a person deserves no political authority.

As long as we allow hypocrisy, however, in order to preserve our partisan politics as team sport, we are part of the problem.

In a 1961 interview by Studs Terkel, James Baldwin states: “People don’t live by the standards they say they live by, and the gap between their profession and the actuality is what creates this despair, and this uncertainty, which is very, very dangerous.”

Baldwin, then, as writer/artist describes himself—in a 1984 interview by Julius Lester—as a witness: “Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to see what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.”

Every people, every generation needs the artists-as-witnesses, but a democracy requires that each one of us serves as witness in the way Baldwin explains:

Lester: You have been politically engaged, but you have never succumbed to ideology, which has devoured some of the best black writers of my generation.

Baldwin: Perhaps I did not succumb to ideology, as you put it, because I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness. In the church in which I was raised you were supposed to bear witness to the truth. Now, later on, you wonder what in the world the truth is, but you do know what a lie is….

A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that—I never assumed that I could….No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.

Hypocrisy is that obvious lie we must bear witness to by rising above mere ideology.

Whose Reform?: Claiming the Education Reform Narrative, pt. 2

For thirty years, the education reform movement committed to accountability linked to standards and high-stakes testing has been mostly orchestrated by the privileged class and imposed onto (while also creating) marginalized groups as the Others: black and brown students, English language learners, high-poverty students, special needs students, schools disproportionally serving any of these populations, and more recently, teachers and even parents who advocate for students and public education.

Resistance to that reform has mostly been reactionary, and thus, voices and actions of resistance have remained within the reform structure dictated by the reformers.

As I called for ways to claim the education reform narrative, I acknowledged the need for all marginalized groups to step outside being cast as the Other—but James Baldwin and Audre Lourde make that case far more powerfully than I:

My own point of view, speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer the stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react as a “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence and assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak. (James Baldwin: The Last Interview, p. 72)

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. (The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde)

As we move into 2015, I invite you to join me in avoiding the “great mistake” by claiming the education reform movement on our own terms, in our own language.

Compassionate Teaching: “a hug and a little bit of extra attention”

As I examined a week ago, while many people anticipate Santa Claus, family reunions, and peace on earth during the Christmas/New Year’s season, I await the inevitable worrying, anxiety, and stress. And there is nothing rational about either the anticipation or the days and even weeks struggling against the weight of all that anxiety.

Firmly underneath that this year (tempered briefly when I sit quietly with my granddaughter sleeping on my chest), I was immediately drawn to two moments on social media.

First (either on Twitter or Facebook), I saw this quote attributed to Gandhi:

There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.

And then, this headline at Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet: Mom: How I know my anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher is great.

What I would call normal (for lack of a better word) worrying and anxiety can be exhausting—even if it is rational and based in healthy responses to the world.

But irrational and relentless worrying and anxiety are characterized by the fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable, and (I think, worst of all) highly negative “what if” thinking.

As an adult and life-long sufferer of anxiety, I can attest that these psychological experiences are physically taxing, nearly debilitating even though many of us have learned how to mask for others (in 1999, my family physician could not diagnose my panic attacks because he said I always seemed so relaxed) and how to function in self-denial (we fear admitting our own human frailties, I think, because we anxious are also perfectionists).

As I read Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s celebration of her anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I started seeing more clearly how my discomfort with our field of education grows directly out of my own lived experiences with anxiety.

“As you can imagine, I too love my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Brooks,” Dimyan-Ehrenfeld explains, adding:

Although she is an anxious kid, she loves school, not only because in her classroom learning goes hand in hand with joy and inquiry and creative exploration, but also because she adores Mrs. Brooks, who knows how to solve my daughter’s nervous stomachaches with a hug and a little bit of extra attention, who understands and honors her strengths, and who makes her laugh and teaches her funny sayings like, “Wake up and smell the cappuccino!” My daughter has watched Mrs. Brooks and learned kindness and compassion, becoming an important friend to a student with severe developmental disabilities in the classroom, no doubt in large part because she saw how much Mrs. Brooks. adored this little boy (Mrs. Brooks cried when he left for another school, and threw him a beautiful party on his last day). Where other teachers might have been relieved to lose a high-needs student from their rooms, Mrs. Brooks mourned the loss of a sweet kid, and my daughter watched this and learned.

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s point focuses on the current failure of addressing teacher quality by emphasizing measurable teacher impact on student test scores. And here, I agree, but I think the issue is even larger than that.

Education has historically trained teachers under some dictums I have always rejected: don’t be friends with your students, don’t touch students, and start the year as a strict disciplinarian (you can always ease off a bit later).

So I think Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s essay about her daughter’s kind and compassionate teacher is a charge against historical and current failures about what it means to be an effective teacher.

In part, it makes sense that education and schooling focus mostly in the cognitive domain; of course, that is what learning is, I suppose.

But we fail education and our students if we ignore that teaching and learning exist in the emotional realities of being a human.

In my high anxiety phases, I am much less capable of attending to myself, but I also must retract from the needs of others (anxiety drains our ability to be the compassionate people we wish to be, and need from others)—even if that is nearly imperceptible to others.

And worrying/anxiety share a quality with poverty (as examined in Scarcity) that must be central to our work as teachers: No one—especially children, teens, and young adults—can take a vacation from anxiety, stress, or poverty because they are pervasive states beyond the control of many people.

“Don’t worry” or “relax” serves about the same purpose as “stop being poor” by placing all the emphasis (and possibly blame) on the person who is actually under the control of the anxiety/poverty but not necessarily capable of overcoming those forces alone or under that weight due to personal failure or weakness.

All humans—especially children and the young—need the empathy of others, a community of support grounded in having the awareness of what others may be experiencing if it is beyond your own experiences.

For me, part of the urge to mask grows from how exhausting it is to explain irrational anxiety to someone with no context for understanding what I struggle against. There’s a certain peace among we anxious commiserating, but those who have no experience with “what if” worrying must have empathy in order to grasp something beyond their world.

Thus, when Dimyan-Ehrenfeld emphasizes “kindness and compassion,” I was compelled by her “I too love my daughter’s teacher” to consider more deeply just why I have set out to confront corporal punishment, grade retention, and “no excuses”/deficit ideologies related to children and students: they all breed stress and anxiety unnecessarily in children/students.

Public schooling has a long history of creating stress and anxiety in the education and lives of children; over the past thirty years, that historical reality has been amplified under the guise of rigor, standards, and “no excuses”—all of which erase any hope for kindness and compassion unless each teacher her/himself is willing to risk either.

Teaching the whole child is often trivialized, and mostly marginalized—even mocked. But the great paradox of honoring the cognitive growth of children and students is that we must create lives and classrooms filled with kindness and compassion first before those cognitive goals can matter.

Recess, friendships, laughing, reading by choice, art, band, chorus, clubs, athletics—these are the moments of formal schooling that remain with children and teachers because they are filled with emotional and interpersonal meaning.

Of course, we want our students to learn and our children and youth to grow, but those aspirations are not purely cognitive and not measurable in any valid ways.

Teachers who love their students in word and deed, students who love their teachers in word and deed—these are the foundational conditions of high quality teaching and excellent student achievement.

If we start with kindness, compassion, empathy, and love, and if we remain always true to those ideals, we have a much better chance to achieve the so-called high expectations many champion while creating heartless and soulless schools that impose stress and anxiety on children that erode their capacities for learning and growing.

This is the ultimate immeasurable of being a teacher, the humanity of “a hug and a little bit of extra attention.”

Top Posts of 2014

As a writer (and teacher), I am humbled and grateful for you, the readers. So here as a “thank you” more than anything else are my top posts of 2014 (modified as a Top 10, which is more than 10 because I list the actual top 10 of 2014 and expand to include top 10 published in 2014).

And for 2015, I sincerely wish for all, peace & happiness. Let’s see what we all can do to make that happen for others and ourselves.

Modified Top Posts of 2014

Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”: Allegory of Privilege (2013) – 9,972

Diagramming Sentences and the Art of Misguided Nostalgia – 5,117

NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative – 4,967

Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education – 4,819

The Poverty Trap: Slack, Not Grit, Creates Achievement (2013) – 4,427

What do College Professors Want from Incoming High School Graduates? – 3,960

“Fahrenheit 451” 60 Years Later: “Why do we need the things in books?” (2013) – 3,075

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind – 2,568

New Criticism, Close Reading, and Failing Critical Literacy Again – 2,283

“Education as Great Equalizer” Deforming Myth, Not Reality – 2,204

The “Grit” Narrative, “Grit” Research, and Codes that Blind – 2,128

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers – 2,108

UPDATED: Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege – 2,094

Top Posts of 2013

Eyes of the Beholder

Rain and cold at the beginning of my holiday break this late December forced me onto the bicycle trainer, something I loath doing. But to off-set that torture, I was pleased to find Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), one of my short list of favorite movies that I watch over and over: Blade Runner (1982), Solaris (2002), Lost Highway (1997).

These films draw me in part because of genre—surrealism, fantasy, science fiction—and the allure of considering alternate worlds, alternate consciousness, alternate minds. But there are thematic threads pulling these films together as well.

The folding of time, or the urge and then opportunity to relive, revisit opportunities; questions about reality and what constitutes basic humanity (specifically the human mind and will/spirit); the complicated relationship/tension with each person between mind and heart—these are dramatized and personified in those films in ways that continue to help me wrestle with those realities, but also imagine beyond this temporal existence that is inevitably linear and cumulative.

As a university professor, I am each semester reminded of how perception shapes reality when I read my student feedback forms, almost always including both a few students who think I am the best professor ever and a few students who think I was pure torture and failure. In the same course, the same classroom.

As a parent, I experienced similar swings from my daughter’s own perception of me, especially in those volatile teen years.

Few things sting, hurt as much as disappointing those you love, care for, or are seeking to do nothing except the best in their interests.

I still flinch a bit each time (and it happens regularly) students inform me that I seem “mean,” that students are “afraid of me.” How, o how, could I have possibly sent such completely opposite messages?

In a recent post about the death of Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man, I touched on superheroes’ internal struggles as those intersect with the duality motif common in superhero narratives (Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Bruce Wayne/Batman, etc.).

But another pattern found especially in the Spider-Man narrative is the contrast between what Peter Parker/Spider-Man intends and how Spider-Man is perceived. The graphic novel Death of the Stacys collects The Amazing Spider-Man #s 88-92, 121-122, combining the deaths of Captain Stacy and his daughter/Peter’s girlfriend Gwen. The stories are about the collateral damage of vigilante justice.

After Captain Stacy’s death, the public and Gwen begin to view Spider-Man as the villain, and thus, Peter’s internal struggle over great power/great responsibility is magnified by the social construction of him as evil.

Since I have just finished a semester, I am typically concerned about what students I have failed to reach as I intended, which students are apt to see the professor I never intended to be. This cycle is very powerful in teaching, and although somewhat anxiety triggering, it also helps drive me to be a better teacher next time; teaching affords us those opportunities of another chance without having to be in a dystopian future or a mind-bending David Lynch nightmare.

This winter of 2014, however, has offered me the most significant moment yet in terms of having another chance: my granddaughter, who has recently begun to look at me (and everything) quite intensely.

I have, then, begin to contemplate what she will come to think of me—who will I be in here eyes?

I still walk extremely fast—I do almost everything extremely fast—and I admit to having raced through much of my 20s, 30s, and 40s (sometimes dragging my daughter along the way).

A granddaughter’s five-month-old stare has made the world slow down, some, or at least those eyes have asked of me: Who do I think I am? Who do I want to be? (Yes, these existential questions remain throughout our lives; they are not things to be answered in youth.)

In my advancing age, I am more capable (I hope) and at least more aware that there isn’t necessarily a tension between who we are and who others think we are/want us to be but the need to negotiate those parallel realities.

I will continue to gift myself re-watching the films I love, re-reading the books that move me, but through those, I hope to live better, recognizing that today is the only today I will have, and then tomorrow—not as an act of regret but as an act of being fully human.

The Epilogue in The Amazing Spider-Man #122 is one page of nine panels. In the wake of Gwen’s death, for which he feels responsible, Peter Parker lashes out at Mary Jane, who turns to leave but in the final three wordless panels (except for the onomatopoeia “click” in the final panel) she closes the door and turns back to Peter.

Mary Jane is looking at the distraught Peter. In her eyes, he is worth it.

I think that is what we are hoping for from the ones we love. I think that is what is ours to offer.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

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

Technically, in order to celebrate the first black Captain America, we’d have to resort to the sort of contortions common in the comic book universe—the time machine.

Truth: Red, White & Black was a seven-issue series in 2003 with, yes, a black Captain America [1], as Joshua Yehl noted when the more recent announcement of a black Captain America surfaced: “While it is notable that this will be a black Captain America, it turns out that he’s not the first. Isaiah Bradley was not only the first black Captain America, but he held the mantle even before Steve Rogers.”

But the comic book universe is also noted for acting as if the same-old-same-old is NEW!!! for decades—with reboots (and more reboots), renumbering long-standing titles, killing superheroes, having those superheroes’ sidekicks take over for the dead superheroes, and then resurrecting the superheroes.

It’s exhausting.

But in 2012, Marvel rebooted Captain America (again) after recently killing off Steve Rogers, having his sidekick (Bucky Barnes aka The Winter Soldier) take over, and then bringing Rogers back (sound familiar?), building a two-year journey to issue #25 announcing the new Captain America, as Yehl explains:

Tonight on The Colbert Report, Marvel Comics’ Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada revealed that the new Captain America is Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.

With Steve Rogers losing his super powers in the pages of his solo series written by Rick Remender, readers have been guessing who the new Captain America would be, and now we have our answer. General audiences will recognize Falcon from this summer’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie with Anthony Mackie playing the winged superhero.

The new Captain America by Stuart Immonen

A few aspects of this move to have a black Captain America are worth noting. First, as the announcement above shows, Marvel’s commitment to films is significantly impacting their comics.

As well, making Sam Wilson/The Falcon the new Captain America takes a step further a decision by Marvel in 2011 with creating a bi-racial Spider-Man in the alternate universe Ultimate Spider-Man.

Sam Wilson/Captain America appears to be solidly in the mainstream Marvel Universe, and Captain America as superhero comic character reaches back to 1941.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

My serious comic book collecting years were mainly in the 1970s, and I was drawn always to Captain America because The Falcon was one of my favorite characters. The series featured The Falcon by name and image on each issue’s cover for most of the 1970s, in fact.

Captain America #180 (Dec. 1974). Art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia.

My teenaged self lurking below a few decades of the 50+ self is, then, quite excited about Sam Wilson/Captain America; however, that adolescent nerd-glee is significantly tempered by the social justice adult I have become, leaving me to ask: Should we marvel at a black Captain America?

Captain America #25 opens with Steve Rogers remembering Sam Wilson—Wilson’s warrior nature, his losing both parents (minister and community organizer) and raising a brother and sister, his resilience in the face of prejudice. Notably as well, Sam Wilson was, according to Rogers, “just a man. A man dedicated to showing what one person could accomplish after a lifetime of misfortune.”

Too often, comic book narratives remain firmly entrenched in the cliche (of course, if your audience is primarily children/teens, most anything can seem new to them, and is), but where comic book narratives have failed over about eight decades is that they mostly reflect social norms, even the biases and stereotypes (see Hugh Ryan on Wonder Woman), uncritically.

Readers in the first pages of issue #25 are led to believe (as the surrounding superheroes do) that Wilson has died heroically—and Rogers is about to pronounce Wilson a martyr. Until Wilson speaks.

The issue then turns to the aging Steve Rogers, no longer invigorated by super-soldier serum, who speaks to The Avengers in order to announce Sam Wilson/Captain America. This reboot ends with Wilson/Captain America in a hybrid uniform—red, white, and blue, Captain’s shield, and Falcon wings—shouting, “Avengers assemble!”

The All-New Captain America #1, interestingly, comes in a variant edition—all-white cardboard cover with only the title blazoned across the top. And with a somber and powerful opening page in which Sam Wilson recalls his father’s sermons and death, and his mother’s murder soon after, building to a refrain alluding the Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, the black Captain America takes flight.

I mentioned Wonder Woman above because I am now reading Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. If Wonder Woman was born out of the rise of twentieth century feminism, as Lepore details, and then the series itself in action and image contradicts those feminist ideals, what good a female superhero?

And there I am stuck about the black Captain America, built up in Captain America #25 as the rugged individual, the exceptional human (superhuman) who lifted himself up by the bootstraps (wings didn’t hurt, there) and overcame every obstacle, including racism.

And there I am haunted by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

If a black Captain America reinforces the “terrible advice” confronted by Coates, if black Captain American continues to perpetuate crass militarism and unbridled vigilante violence, I am left to ask, what good a black superhero?

[1] See Sean P. Connors on this series in Chapter 9 of Thomas, P. L. (ed.). (2013). Science fiction and speculative fiction: Challenging genres. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

The Power of Superhero Mythology: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

Risking hyperbole, I believe Spider-Man saved my life, much like Max Dillon/Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2except mine was metaphorical.

Watching the sequel of the 2012 reboot that had the cinematic guts to replicate possibly the most important moment in the Spider-Man Universe (and even the entire Marvel Universe)—“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”—I was powerfully forced into two minds paralleling the Peter Parker/Spider-Man duality: my 53-year-old academic mind as it interacted with my teenaged self, a traumatic period in the 1970s when I found myself strapped into a full body brace in hopes I could overcome scoliosis without major back surgery.

In the summer of 1975, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a medical shock tossed on top of my frail self-concept wallowing in the typical throes of adolescence. I was scrawny, and I was destined not to become the strapping young male and athlete I believed my father wanted. And then, scoliosis—a curving spine and an affliction mostly common among females.

Perfect.

The body brace I wore was a torture device of straps, metal rods, and a solid plastic body mold, designed to force my spine straight so that the defective vertebrae could regain their proper shape. Wearing the brace 23 of 24 hours a day was how I spent my ninth grade, an adventure horrifying all on its own without the brace waving out to everyone, “Hey, look at the nerdy cripple kid!”

And then there was Spider-Man.

My wonderful parents not only sacrificed financially for the brace and seemingly never-ending visits to the orthopedist, but also scrambled to find anything that would help off-set what they must have recognized as a significant blow to who I was becoming, how I saw myself.

The saving choice was comic books. And to this day, I cannot set aside how hard that must have been for my very-1950s, rugged, working-class father, a four-sport athlete in high school who lost all of his teeth to sport and fights before graduation.

At first, I began buying comics mostly to stand at the long bar separating our kitchen/living room and draw (starting with tracing, and then freehand with pencil followed by teaching myself how to ink those pencil drawings as comic book artists did).

Drawing led to reading and reading, to collecting. One of our spare bedrooms became my comic book room, and I even built a chest to hold my comics in my ninth-grade wood working class at school.

Those familiar with Peter Parker/Spider-Man likely already anticipate what had to happen; I fell in love with Spider-Man comics—the Holy Grail of low self-esteem nerd superhero mythologies.

Science nerd, orphaned, painfully thin and wearing glasses, Peter Parker walked into my life both as a stark reflection of my Self and a promise that transformation was possible (although with a price). But in 1975, I was dropped into the post-Gwen Stacy world of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but that was about to change.

“The Night Gwen Stacy Died”

As my comic book fascination grew, somehow my father was snagged in the collecting bug, taking me to the local pharmacies and quick shops in my small hometown that carried comics and even to one comic book convention in Atlanta, GA. But he also noticed comic collections being sold in the ads of the newspaper.

Over two visits spurred by the ad of a 20-something still living at home but obviously making a decision to shift into adulthood, we bought about 1000 comics, essentially a complete run of Marvel comics spanning most of the 1970s.

Sorting, cataloguing, and carefully placing each comic in the prerequisite plastic bags of true comic book nerdom—these were my solitude. I also ravenously began to piece together the Peter Parker/Spider-Man Universe, significantly the death of Gwen Stacy.

In The Power of Myth, an interview between Bill Moyers and popular comparative religion guru Joseph Campbell, I came to understand many years later the mythological patterns in superhero comics and the science fiction I would also begin to consume.

Throughout 30-plus years of teaching, I have grown more and more fascinated with genre and form; and as a reader, I can now trace my early comic book love that fed into Arthur C. Clarke to the logical path through Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, leading then to Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami.

Mine is the story of the power of secular mythology—as Campbell may explain, the Truth beyond the narrative that need not be factually true (in contrast to the literalist Christianity of my Southern childhood).

That brings me back to watching The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as both teenage-Me and current-Me.

The updating of the Gwen Stacy arc (set in contemporary times, for example) hurts my soul, but I found the film ambitious for remaining true to the only conclusion possible in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man narrative, the death of Gwen Stacy.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man has always been a bit about working-class insecurity, but the current-Me feels deeply uncomfortable about the failures in the original Silver Age arcs absent sophisticated portrayals of race and gender (the latter captured in the character of Gwen Stacy, blonde, pretty, and more Ideal than person).

I want to set aside, however, a critical re-reading of Spider-Man to embrace again why I believe the myth remains enduring and ultimately important, despite the many flaws.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man is grounded in the central superhero motif of duality: the mere human and the masked superhero.

Spider-Man grew out of the seminal Marvel method—personified by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby—of collaborative creation and genre blurring (superhero, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc.).

As the domain of child, teen, and young adult males, comic books from Marvel in the 1960s succeeded by tapping into teenage angst and alienation, relationships, and the transition from formal school to work.

While often misquoted, however, the ethical dilemma of Peter Parker/Spider-Man endures: “WITH GREAT POWER THERE MUST ALSO COME — GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!”—anchoring the final panels of Amazing Fantasy #15, the origin of Spider-Man.

The duality motif in Spider-Man is about much more than hiding Peter behind a mask. Peter the nerd, before the spider bite, was lonely and alienated; and then, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) discovers over and over that he remains lonely and alienated because of not his super powers, but his great responsibility.

Silver Age Spider-Man, from the origin in 1962 until the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, confronts the mythology of the individual heart in battle with that individual’s social responsibility.

Despite all the villains the Marvel bullpen could muster, Peter Parker’s greatest battle has always been with himself.

And the one moment that matters above all others is captured in a way that sequential art demands:

ASM 121 122
Gwen Stacy’s death in The Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (June/July 1973)

The Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy storyline—for all the camp and flaws—remains in mythological terms a disturbing and fatalistic story of the sacrifice of the individual heart against our obligations, about the limitations of the human need to connect and then protect.

As a parent/grandparent and teacher, I lay on the couch and re-watched The Amazing Spider-Man 2 through layers of me and then tears because I have lived and live a very real battle with myself that is our essential humanity: how do we follow our hearts and offer those we love and world the selflessness it deserves?

Beneath the mask of superhero lies a secular myth of duality that is each one of us, a calling not for superheroes but every human. All of which we can find in classic mythology about gods and humans.

In Peter Parker’s universe, Gwen Stacy had to die, and then die again in the re-imagined universe of film.

Gwen Stacy’s neck breaking is the frailty of human limitation, ironically, at the end of a web—Gwen’s own mortality as that intersects with Peter’s humanity, even as Spider-Man.

_STH8386
My penciled and inked drawing from my adolescence.

In existential terms, our passions are our suffering—the essential duality of being human.

As we watch Peter Parker fight himself, it is ours to recognize that to avoid our passions is to avoid living, to avoid the very humanity that should be our joy.

Max Dillon/Electro fumbles badly the gift of being saved by Spider-Man; I continue to try to find ways to serve it well (parenting, grand-parenting, teaching), although I do so in the only way a human can—I race forward, I trip, I pause on the ground, and then I stand again, committed to doing better this next time.

Each time, the spider webs are metaphorical.

For Further Reading

Challenging genres: Comic books and graphic novels

See this sample, including a brief history of comics in Chapter 1.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon