To High School English Teachers (and All Teachers)

All teachers are incredibly important, but high school English teachers will always have a special place in my heart.

I am in my fourth decade as an educator, spending almost two decades as a public high school English teacher (many years coaching and teaching/advising journalism/newspaper as well) and now in my second decade as a teacher educator (primarily working with future secondary ELA teachers) and a first year writing instructor.

Significant in my teaching journey are being in my area National Writing Project (Spartanburg Writing Project) and then serving as a lead co-instructor in that same project for a couple years.

Concurrent with my career as an educator, I have been a serious and published writer for about thirty years. And of course I have been madly in love with books of all kinds since before memory.

I write this specifically to my colleagues who are high school English teachers, but all teachers really, out of my greatest respect for teacher professionalism, importance, and autonomy—as well as my deepest commitment, the sacredness of every single student who enters any teacher’s classroom.

While at times this may read as scolding, preaching, or prescribing, I am seeking here to invite every teacher to do what I have done my entire career—stepping back from practice as often as possible, checking practice against my most authentic and critical goals, and then changing that practice if those do not match.

I am fortunate that my students often contact me, email or Facebook are common, and generally they are too kind. Typically, they reach out to thank me for preparing them as writers, and few things could make me prouder to be a teacher.

But these moments are tempered at times because they are speaking from decades ago—during years when I now know my practice was off, sincere but flawed.

So I come to teachers with this invitation from many years thinking hard about teaching literacy, focusing on writing, and being a serious writer myself. These thoughts are informed by years teaching English, years teaching young people to be teachers, and years teaching other teachers as well as observing practicing teachers in the field.

I have been fortunate recently to teach four young women who have secured their first teaching jobs as English teachers. Working with them has impacted me profoundly because they are wonderful additions to our field, but also they have encountered a field and practicing teachers who have routinely discouraged them and me about who teaches and how we teach English.

Michelle Kenney’s The Politics of the Paragraph coming in the wake of two separate debates about the use of “they” as a singular gender-free pronoun (see my The Politics of Teaching Grammar) along with my current literacy graduate course has all spurred me to the thoughts below—this rising concern about how English teachers impact our students as free people and as literate people.

My lessons also are strongly shaded by the history of the field of education broadly and English teaching narrowly as I have come to understand both through the lens of Lou LaBrant. Teaching and teachers have been profoundly and negatively impacted by eternal forces for a century at least, and those corrosive forces have been intensified during the recent thirty-plus years of accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing.

Now, then, I offer this invitation to consider lessons I have learned about teaching English:

  • Begin with and remain true to authentic literacy, and then comply with standards and testing mandates within that greater commitment. Our planning and practice must start with our students’ literacy being sacred—seeking ways to foster eager readers and writers who still must often demonstrate literacy proficiency in the worst possible settings. This is not a call to be negligent, but to be dedicated to the power of literacy first and bureaucracy second.
  • Forefront your expertise and professionalism 24/7. Teachers have never received the professional respect we deserve, and during the accountability era, our professionalism has been even further eroded by shifting all the authority for how and what we teach to standards and high-stakes test. Our expertise and professionalism are our only weapons for demanding the authority for teaching be with us—not bureaucratic mandates, or commercial programs. Every moment of our lives we are teachers, and every moment we are representing our profession.
  • Teach students—not programs, standards, test-prep, or your discipline. Especially at the high school level, and particularly during the accountability era, we are apt to lose sight of our central purpose in teaching English—our students.
  • Resist teaching so that students acquire fixed content and instead foster students as ongoing learners. Recently one of my teacher candidates attended a course in which fellow English teachers were adamant they needed students to learn to cite using MLA by memory. My former student resisted this, suggesting that students should understand citation broadly and then be equipped to follow the ever-changing and different citation guides they will encounter as college students and beyond. This exemplifies a central flaw in teaching English that views learning as acquiring fixed content. Read Lou LaBrant’s New Bottles for New Wine (1952), in which she implores: “Do our students know that our language is changing, that it is the product of all the people, each trying to tell what is in his mind? Do they understand their own share in its making and re-creation?” (p. 342).
  • Become and remain a student of language. What is your background in the history of the English language? How much linguistics have you studied? For me, a key shift in teaching English was embracing a descriptive grammarian stance informed by linguistics and the history of the language. This allows me to view student language use as part of that history, and helps me focus on teaching students to play with language and then to edit and revise their writing, instead of focusing on “correcting.” This is central to having a low-stakes classroom that sees language as investigation.
  • Reject deficit views of language and students. The prescriptive grammarian comes from a history that linked language use with people’s character—a false link. While ideas such as the “word gap” is compelling, it is both false (based on one flawed study) and counter to what we know about literacy and power. Language changes, and claims about “correctness” are always more about power than either language development or literacy. Please read James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and Ralph Ellison’s What These Children Are Like.
  • Foster genre awareness in students while interrogating authentic texts (and rejecting artificial writing templates). As Kenney details, writing templates may prepare students for artificial demonstrations of literacy (high-stakes tests), but they ultimately fail authentic writing and literacy goals. Published writing nearly never follows the 5-paragraph essay template, and the whole thesis idea is equally rare in published writing. Students as writers need to be eager readers who are encouraged to mine that reading constantly for greater genre awareness about how any writer makes a piece what the writer is seeking to accomplish. What is an Op-Ed? A memoir? Investigative journalism? A feature story on an Olympic athlete? The essay form, even in academia, is a question, not a template. Please read Ann John’s Genre awareness for the novice academic student: An ongoing quest and Neil Gaiman’s “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography” (it is clean, I promise, and from his collection, The View from the Cheap Seats).
  • Be a dedicated reader and writer yourself. While I argue above for being a professional educator 24/7, I caution here about allowing our teacher Selves to erase our literate Selves. My voracious reading life and my co-career as a writer are invaluable and inseparable from my being an effective teacher. Our reading and writing lives keep us grounded in our authentic goals eroded by accountability.
  • Choice, joy, and kindness. Writing in 1949, LaBrant warned: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276). How often have we allowed prescription and standards-based, test-prep instruction to instill in our students a distaste for reading and writing? If we demand all students read Shakespeare or The Scarlet Letter, and then most of them come to hate reading, if we hammer the five-paragraph essay into students who wish never to write again, what have we accomplished?

And to offer an umbrella under which my invitation to my lessons rest, I believe we must heed John Dewey:

What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur? (Experience and Education, p. 49)

Revisiting “Juno” in a Time of Instagram: The Luxury of Being Desperate

You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park
You didn’t see me I was falling apart
I was a television version of a person with a broken heart

“Pink Rabbits,” The National

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

“This World is not Conclusion,” Emily Dickinson

Near the end of the film Juno, Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), pregnant teen, gives birth, and the teen father, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), appears at the hospital room door, having run straight from his high school track meet and adorned in the infinitely silly red running shirt and gold shorts with matching gold sweat bands around his head and wrists.

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Before she gives birth, June and Bleeker confess their love at the high school track with Bleeker in his recurring track kit.

Juno’s father, Mac MacGruff (J.K. Simmons), leaves his daughter’s side, pauses to squeeze Paulie’s shoulders, and then leaves. There is a wonderful tension in that moment since after Juno confesses her pregnancy to her father and step-mother, Mac tells his second wife, Bren MacGruff (Allison Janney), that he’s “gonna punch that Bleeker kid in the wiener next time [he] see[s] him.”

Instead Mac leaves the young Bleeker unharmed, and Paulie circles Juno’s bed, ceremoniously takes off his sweat bands, climbs into her hospital bed, and then spoons her as she cries.

I sat on the couch rewatching the film last night, crying for the 7th or 8th time during the film.

I love Juno in the same sort of very conflicted way I love teens and high school.

And while I want to revisit some of the reasons I love the film, I also must confront the main and most powerful character in the film that receives no credits at all: white privilege.

Juno is technically wonderful, smart, funny, and well crafted as a film, reminding me in many ways of the Coen brothers’ same artistry—and similar whitewashing.

I love the use of drawings to guide film transitions, the music is wonderful, and the acting/actors along with the diamond of a script are equally beautiful.

“Smart” is a fair word to describe the film in the same way the characters are hyper-smart—linguistic virtuosos all of them, that is at least hyperbole (and not unusual in film and literature; think J.D. Salinger and To Kill a Mockingbird, as just a couple literary examples) if not cloying ultimately (I suspect as many people love as hate the film for the clever word play; think Aaron Sorkin or Little Miss Sunshine).

The slang that characterizes teens—as acts of resistance—is exaggerated and, I think, perfect as a medium for carrying a film that is  mostly real in its unrealistic portrayals.

The film also depends on the actors as well as their crisp acting to keep the viewers distracted by the humor and the bittersweetness of the story and those characters (there is a sadness, a desperation in every single character) so that we avoid the elephant in the room, or rightly the white elephant not credited in the film.

Juno is a PG-13 whitewashing of teen pregnancy in the same way Breaking Bad is a dark TV whitewashing of drug dealing.

Unintentionally, the film is a powerful message about how privilege allows the luxury of being desperate.

Mark Loring (Jason Bateman), the husband of the very pretty couple who cannot have children so seek to adopt Juno’s baby, is (ironically) a case of arrested development—a man-boy who is handsome, charming, and ultimately stunningly selfish.

Mark, I think, is a minor character but the ideal example of where Juno is a problematic film, one that unselfconsciously ignores the white privilege.

Everyone is buoyed, protected by white privilege in the film so that these very real conflicts—teen sex, teen pregnancy, divorce—are rendered PG-13, harmless, the fodder for mirth.

Even the sensitive teen sex scene—both Juno and Bleeker looking pre-pubescent, childlike—fits perfectly into the Instagram culture or today: Instagram, where scantily clad women traffic in product placement but there is no room for the very dangerous female nipple.

If we admit Juno is a technically fine film, that it depicts some wonderful and touching aspects of human frailty, especially during our teen years, we must also accept that all of this is wrapped in the safe blanket of privilege.

Juno the character as a black pregnant teen is a much bleaker story.

Consider the documentary Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, which includes “Maya, a 16-year-old black student who had her first baby at 13 and another before she was old enough to drive.”

Even though this documentary shows that Maya is often very much still a child herself, the real-world consequences for those not sheltered by white privilege are a much different tale than Juno.

But Juno is just a movie—I feel some people say. And yes, there is something to art, or pop art, as a vehicle for escape.

I am not trashing Juno; as I noted above, I do genuinely love the movie.

But along with the moments of adept artistry, the abrupt humor, and the sincere homage to the bittersweet realization about love and human affection that confronts everyone moving from childhood to adulthood, Juno fails to admit how white privilege has shielded these mostly compelling characters from the consequences that black, brown, and poor people cannot afford to set aside for a few laughs.

 

Weekend Quick Takes June 25-26

Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:

Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”

It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.

Also see his co-authored Actuating equity?: Historical and contemporary analyses of African American access to selective higher education from Sweatt to the Top 10% Law


There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:

Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”

Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.

The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.

And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.


In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).

In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.

Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin

The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.

In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.


I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.

My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.

While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.

Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.

If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.


Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).

Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.

See the abstract:

Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.

This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.


And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.

Here’s just a taste:

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

David Denby’s The Limits of “Grit” in The New Yorker offers further evidence that the “grit” train is slowly but surely being derailed.

Paul Tough, journalist, and Angela Duckworth, scholar, have been central to the rise of “grit” as a silver-bullet in education reform—mostly targeting high-poverty racial minority students in “no excuses” charter schools. Both Tough and Duckworth have recently begun pack pedaling slightly as they release new books, Tough’s second on teaching children in poverty and Duckworth’s first on her highly celebrated “grit,” which was a hit as a TED talk and garnered her a MacAuthur Genius grant.

While the “grit” train was gaining steam among politicians, the media, and edureformers, several educators and scholars raised significant concerns about the essential racist and classist elements of “grit” research, the “grit” narrative, and why both are so politically powerful and popular with the public.

“Grit” is receiving another boost directly from Tough’s and Duckworth’s books—and the PR masked as journalism both have been afforded through their own public writings and numerous interviews at many of the most prestigious news sources.

However, an unintended consequence of Tough and Duckworth boosting the “grit” train through soft back pedaling has been a rise in substantive push back; for example consider:

The quality of Duckworth’s research as well as the essential value of “grit” has been fairly strongly refuted now, even in the mainstream media who love the whole “grit” charade (however, we must note, that nearly no one in that push back or the mainstream media is willing yet to acknowledge the racism and classism driving this train).

So Denby’s challenge to Duckworth and “grit” is very welcomed, but also deeply problematic.

Denby strikes first at the essential choice Duckworth has made:

Other social scientists, looking at the West Point situation and many others that Duckworth considers, might have called grit a “dependent variable”—one possible factor in a given experimental situation affecting many other factors. But Duckworth decided that grit is the single trait in our complex and wavering nature which accounts for success; grit is the strong current of will that flows through genetic inheritance and the existential muddle of temperament, choice, contingency—everything that makes life life.

“Grit,” Denby rightfully argues, is grossly over-exaggerated by Duckworth and the cult of “grit” in “no excuses” education reform. Success comes from a complicated matrix of causes—and we must acknowledge that often those competing for success are all very “gritty” as much as we must acknowledge that a tremendous amount of success in the U.S. is the combination of dumb luck within the larger advantages of privilege: Many less “gritty” privileged folk are more successful than more “gritty”  people burdened by poverty, racism, and sexism.

Denby builds, I think, to a damned fine conclusion: “Duckworth—indifferent to class, race, history, society, culture—strips success of its human reality, and her single-minded theory may explain very little.”

This dynamic is the result of so-called hard science that strips and masks through the false allure of objectivity and quantification combined with social norms and biases that remain invisible to the privileged class.

There are thousands and thousands of examples, but the unwarranted rise of Duckworth’s “grit” is also akin to how the media almost alway get science wrong; consider The Irony of Believing Humans Use Only 10% of Their Brains.

And here is the problem with Denby’s takedown of “grit”; therefore, let’s return to how Denby lays out his critique.

“This snowballing effect among school reformers can’t be understood,” Denby explains, “without recognizing a daunting truth: We don’t know how to educate poor children in this country. (Our prosperous students do fine on international tests.)”

As I have posed already, instead of Duckworth’s “grit,” we should be focusing on the well researched concepts of scarcity and slack. We in fact do know a great deal about the negative consequences of scarcity (poverty, stress) on adults and children, and we also are well aware of the advantages of slack (privilege).

But to Denby’s finer point, we also know how to educate children burdened by poverty. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Christopher Emdin are two recent books that are far more credible than Tough and Duckworth but also represent that educators do in fact know how to educate poor and racial minority children.

Lisa Delpit has been making this case for some years as well: Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and “Multiplication Is for White People”: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, for example.

And there are now decades of educators and scholarship on culturally relevant pedagogy, often grounded in the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings.

So, yes, Denby, your unpacking of “grit” is on track, but you are way off about what we know about educating poor children.

The truth is, as Dave Powell explains,

We tend to think that everyone has a valid opinion on education, up to and including people who are running for president, but I can’t think of another class of people that is less attuned to the day-to-day challenges of teaching than presidential candidates are.

Political leaders, the public, and the media will not listen to the educators and scholars who know what we must do, and leaders do not have the political will to do what we know we must do.

Period.

Ironically, further on, Denby turns to Tough (easily an equally key figure in making “grit” popular with Duckworth) and Malcolm Gladwell to unmask Duckworth.

Again, Tough is an edujournalist, and his books and so-called expertise are parts of the problem. We should be buying Gorksi’s and Emdin’s books, interviewing them, and then building policy on their work.

Gladwell is cited for his popularizing the 10,000-hour rule. But Denby fails to recognize that Gladwell and others in the media fumbled the 10,000-hour rule in much the same way as Duckworth has “grit.”

The key researcher behind the 10,000-hour rule found in Gladwell’s book and public work has carefully refuted how Gladwell and the media have misrepresented what the research reveals. See The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists: Why the APS Observer Needs Peer Review When Summarizing New Scientific Developments by K. Anders Ericsson.

In short, Tough and Gladwell are journalists who do not have the expertise on education or poverty that does exist in academia.

So while I appreciate Denby’s often incisive critique of Duckworth and the cult of “grit,” I  must caution that this critique also too often fails for the same reasons that created the “grit” circus to begin with—just as we have seen with people using only 10% of their brains and the 10,000-hour rule.

Ultimately, there are many reasons to reject the cult of “grit,” but let’s hand the stage properly to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Gorski, Emdin, Delpit, and Ladson-Billings—along with dozens of educators and scholars who in fact know what must be done and how to serve the most vulnerable students among us.

The Resurrections of Adrienne Rich: “in a tunnel of silence”

Graceless
Is there a powder to erase this?

“Graceless,” The National

“Yes, she is a problem for me,” Adrienne Rich opens in her “The Problem of Lorraine Hansberry” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985), “as I read and reread the published work and some of the unpublished—copies of letters, interview transcripts, essays.”

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To follow is a series of parallel “As I” sentences in which Rich muses on Hansberry (“a Black woman trying to write both from ‘within the Veil,’ as she once put it, and for a public which included Black women and men, but whose dominant expectations and mythic opinions about the world were shaped by white males”), leading to:

Lorraine Hansberry is a problem to me because she is Black, female, and dead….The problem begins for me when, in reading Les Blancs, I do not know when I am reading dialogue written by Hansberry and when I am reading the end product of the process Nemiroff describes….All this may be forthright and devoted enough, and it may seem graceless to question the end result. But I do question it….But biography by a former husband and literary executor is not the same as autobiography.

This “problem” builds to Rich acknowledging “the limitations of my experience as a white woman.” Rich confronts that “within white feminist criticism itself there have been notable silences, erasures”—and “[t]he Black woman writer, as Barbara Smith has noted, suffers from double erasure.”

In fact, “[t]he study of silence has long engrossed me,” Rich writers in her “Arts of the Possible,” the eponymous essay of her 2001 collection of essays:

The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes it way—certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice art at any deep levels. The impulse to create begins—often terribly and fearfully—in a tunnel of silence.

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Rich as woman, as gay. Rich as poet, essayist—artist at “deep levels.”

She has presented to us in autobiography/biography that is a poet’s/artist’s work a series of resurrections, exposing who she has been and who she becomes. She has been daughter, wife, and mother; she has been lesbian lover—just as one way through association (the sorts of associations Rich exposed and confronted, “shaped by white males”) to view her metaphorical deaths and resurrections.

Rich struggling through Hansberry is Rich wrestling with her many selves—none of them perfect but all of them the richness of words crafted.

With Rich’s literal death, a new door of resurrections has opened—post mortem biographies, literary criticism, and unpublished works.

But June 2016 brings the most recent resurrection, Collected Poems: 1950-2012.

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It is a simple, understated cover for a work of great physical heft, over 1100 pages in hardback—a work that resurrects Rich the poet in toto. What more could a poet want? What more could a poet dread?

If you have been on Rich’s journey for many, many years—as I have—this volume is redundant but inescapable and invaluable, a Siren’s call to those of us who love books, desire collecting.

rich bookshelf

1119 pages into her body of work, Rich leaves us with words that seem haunted with James Baldwin (see her “The Baldwin Stamp”):

The signature to a life requires
the search for a method
rejection of posturing
trust in the witnesses
a vial of invisible ink
a sheet of paper held steady
after the end-stroke
above a deciphering flame

To read Rich’s entire body of published poetry draws me back to her “Diving into the Wreck,” a tour de force of personal and social commentary as poetic genius.

In death, Rich’s collected poetry presents “a book of myths” as revolt, as liberation—as a problem for everyone holding this heaviest of resurrections that is Rich and is not Rich.


See Also

Adrienne Rich: Artist of the Possible and Life among the Ruins

The Butthurt Right, Or, An Outbreak of the White-Man Vapors

…so feared by a patriarchal world…

Audre Lorde

But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it.
Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

Oscar Wilde, “The Soul of Man under Socialism”

Let’s start with a fact that few are willing to acknowledge:

Despite endless debates between and about the Right and the Left in the U.S., there is no substantial Left in the U.S.—a country that is solidly right of center and distinctly so when compared to Canada or European countries with a vibrant Left.

The U.S. Left is Obama and the Clintons—neoliberals who nudge at the left edge of capitalism and a country in perpetual war.

The U.S. Left is a sort of polite progressivism of rhetoric that sees almost no fruition in action of any kind.

The U.S. Left is a compromising incrementalism that sustains the disease; it is Tyrion.

The U.S. Left meekly raises it hand and whispers: “Might we consider how we could be a tad bit less sexist, racist, and homophobic—and if that isn’t too much trouble, a little less violent?”—before shrinking away for fear of the response.

And those whispers—or God forbid a direct shout—are met with what we have now in the U.S., a newly butthurt Right, an outbreak (dare I say “epidemic”) of white-man vapors.

Nicholas Kristof—nice-guy, cardboard “progressive”—thinks the nasty Left in the U.S. has excluded the Right from academia (and we all know how powerful academia is in the U.S., right? nudge nudge), and the education reform movement (a bi-partisan assault on public education that is entirely a rightwing enterprise) is all atwitter because of the contentious Left/Right divide (Gosh, they are fuming, if those nasty BLM folk don’t settle down, all the Righties will flee the reform movement!).

All of this butthurt on the Right is very much reflected in both the rise of Trump in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the silliness of Kristof and edureform butthurt.

The white-man vapors are triggered by Michelle Alexander’s relatively moderate confrontation of the New Jim Crow, the polite left-of-center Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Norman Rockwell Obama family just as they are accelerated by BLM, Cornel West, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

And the butthurt messages come from faux-progressives (Kristof) as much as they come from the rabid Right—political leaders, religious leaders, and law enforcement publicly stating that gays slaughtered in Orlando deserved the massacre or calling on gun owners to shoot black protesters at Trump rallies and the Republican convention.

The polite and articulate butthurt punditry on the Right, like Michael Petrilli trying to shame BLM for having the audacity to name racism “racism,” is very little different from the bully racism of Trump; in fact, they are an inseparable part of the U.S.’s conservative nature reflected in the necrophilic South.

In fact, the U.S. once chided the South for its backwardness, its illogical Bible thumping and gun toting, but we stand today in a U.S. where the essence of the entire country is just like that South.

The white-man vapors are upon us, but we must not fall prey to the same-old faux-liberal solution to yelping Rightwingers; we must not shrink against the fears of the most powerful people in the country who see their ill-gained fortunes and power slipping away.

No, the butthurt Right is a sign that women, black and brown people, the LGBT+ community, and people of all faiths and nationalities are demanding to be heard, are standing on the right side of history, which is ironically on the Left.

Higher education does not need a diversity of thought that includes traditional bigotry, misogyny, and a blind faith in disaster capitalism.

And let’s hope the neoliberals (self-identified as both Right and Left) throw up their hands and exit stage right the education reform movement—which has rained terror on the vulnerable populations of students who need our public schools the most.

James Baldwin wrote in The Nation (July 11, 1966), “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

He was naming racism “racism,” both in the acts of specific police officers and as a systemic reality of the U.S. codified in the judicial system.

Baldwin was not being impolite. He was not ostracizing the Right or shaming white male patriarchy.

Baldwin was speaking necessary truth to power—and it resonates to this day because the butthurt Right slips into the vapors every time they are held accountable for the wreck of the ship they built and captained.

The barely audible Left in the U.S. has pushed the door slightly open to the House White Male Privilege built.

The owners are clutching their pearls as they lean against that door chastising the intruders to please simmer down.

We must not step back. We must push the door open, throw out the Masters, and start anew.

Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. Redux: A Reader

We were in Rye, passing the First Church, and the breeze from the ocean was already strong. A man with a great stack of roofing shingles in a wheelbarrow was having difficulty keeping the shingles from blowing away; the ladder, leaning against the vestry roof, was also in danger of being blown over. The man seemed in need of a co-worker—or, at least, of another pair of hands.

“WE SHOULD STOP AND HELP THAT MAN,” Owen observed, but my mother was pursuing a theme and, therefore, she’d noticed nothing unusual out the window….

“WE MISSED DOING A GOOD DEED,” Owen said morosely, “THAT MAN SHINGLING THE CHURCH—HE NEEDED HELP.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

I wrote Ignoring Poverty in the U.S. to reject the decades-long focus on education reform targeted in-school only accountability driven by ever-new standards and high-stakes testing.

But that work also reveals the incredible power of stereotypes about adults and children living in poverty in the U.S. Despite our cultural myths about rugged individualism and boot-straps success, the impoverished in the U.S. are overwhelmingly vulnerable populations.

whoispoor1

Consider the following sobering statistics, illustrated in the figure above:

  • More than a third of those who live in poverty are children. More than 15.5 million children lived in poverty in 2014.
  • About 13 percent of those living in poverty are senior citizens or retired.
  • A quarter of those who live in poverty are in the labor force—that is, working or seeking employment.
  • A tenth of those in poverty are disabled.
  • Eight percent of those living in poverty are caregivers, meaning that they report caring for children or family.
  • Students, either full- or part-time, make up another seven percent of those living in poverty.
  • Just three percent of those living in poverty are working-age adults who do not fall into one of these categories—that is, they are not in the labor force, not disabled, and not a student, caregiver, or retired.

vulnerableopm

Stereotype 2: Poor People Are Lazy

Another common stereotype about poor people, and particularly poor people of color (Cleaveland, 2008; Seccombe, 2002), is that they are lazy or have weak work ethics (Kelly, 2010). Unfortunately, despite its inaccuracy, the “laziness” image of people in poverty and the stigma attached to it has particularly devastating effects on the morale of poor communities (Cleaveland, 2008).

The truth is, there is no indication that poor people are lazier or have weaker work ethics than people from other socioeconomic groups (Iversen & Farber, 1996; Wilson, 1997). To the contrary, all indications are that poor people work just as hard as, and perhaps harder than, people from higher socioeconomic brackets (Reamer, Waldron, Hatcher, & Hayes, 2008). In fact, poor working adults work, on average, 2,500 hours per year, the rough equivalent of 1.2 full time jobs (Waldron, Roberts, & Reamer, 2004), often patching together several part-time jobs in order to support their families. People living in poverty who are working part-time are more likely than people from other socioeconomic conditions to be doing so involuntarily, despite seeking full-time work (Kim, 1999).

Who Do Sacred Texts Serve?

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

“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” James Baldwin

In my sixth decade as a son of the South, I know more than a little bit about Bible thumping.

Fundamentalist preachers, street preachers, and the faithful who hold the literal truth of Biblical texts sacred—these all embody literally and figuratively what “Bible thumping” represents: a sacred text.

The great irony of fundamentalism in the South where the King James Version of the Bible is thumped, slammed, waved, and quoted includes the problems with translation as well as the many contradictions in that text. Eye for an eye or turn the other cheek?

Not to dwell also on the cherry picking necessary for literalists: condemning homosexuality by jamming a finger on a passage from Leviticus but conveniently not pointing out the dozens of other Jewish laws those literalists trespass daily.

Throughout the U.S., however, there is also a powerful secular sacred text, The Constitution (notably the most thumped Second Amendment), that serves as a disturbing and extra layer of irony.

Yes, often, those most fervent about their Christianity are equally fervent about their guns. It seems what is important is being fervent, not making sure ones ideologies match up.

But in the wake of tragedy, we may have hope.

The Orlando massacre has spurred a powerful message about the importance of a diversity of voices in a free society.

In 2016, white males continue to have too many megaphones—we labor under, for example, the relentless drumbeat of many David Brooks who know little but pontificate endlessly simply because they can—but with the rise of social media, we hear more and more from women, people of color, and LGBT+.

After Orlando, those diverse perspectives have been willing to challenge that sacred text, the Second Amendment, noting that when the Constitution and Amendments were codified, the voices of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ were absent.

In other words, our secular sacred text is necessarily incomplete, likely flawed.

And the problem rests in by whom, why, and how “sacred” is deemed.

There is a straight and clear line from the genesis of the South Baptist denomination—thumping the Bible to justify slavery—and the perversion of the Second Amendment—the right to bear arms to form a militia—to suit the gun fetish, gun industry, and culture of violence that all characterize the U.S., a so-called Christian nation.

Sacred texts most often serve the wants and needs—and status—of the privileged, those who have the power to thump the text and anoint it with the power of God or State.

And those powerful depend on the powerless to cling to those sacred texts, empowered by that clinging through the sheer proximity of “it’s in the Bible” or “the Second Amendment!”

So we stand in a particular part of history now, one in which some voices have been “deliberately silenced,” “preferably unheard.”

But the oppressed and suppressed are demanding that they be heard, in part by challenging, as Adrienne Rich wrote, the “book of myths/in which/our names do not appear.”

In the U.S., sacred texts are as deadly as the murderous guns we cling to—until we choose to look at ourselves, to listen, and to act in ways that hold all humans sacred.


[Grammar Note: There was a time when we made a distinction between “who” and “whom”—a sacred distinction like “they” always being plural—but “whom” has died so long live “who” as a versatile part of speech!]

More Questions for The Post and Courier: “Necessary Data” or Press-Release Journalism?

Back-to-back editorials at The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)—Bolster efforts at rural schools (18 June 2016) and Make literacy No. 1 priority (19 June 2016)—offer important messages about the importance of addressing South Carolina’s historical negligence of high-poverty schools, especially those serving black and brown students, and the folly of cutting funding for literacy initiatives in Charleston.

However, reading these two editorials leaves one well aware that good intentions are not enough and wondering if the P&C editors even read their own editorials.

In the 18 June 2016 editorial, the editors argue: “Acting rashly without necessary data would be misguided. But taking baby steps while one class after another misses out on an adequate education is a continued waste of valuable time.”

And the very next day, we read:

Still, parents should expect their children’s reading skills to improve noticeably.

And it’s fair for parents of the youngest students to expect significant improvement in their children’s reading by the end of the school year — if the new approach works. Of course, parents also can make a difference by reading to their youngsters every day at home.

If Dr. Postlewait’s plan doesn’t succeed, the school board must find a way to pay for programs that do.

Those programs exist. At Meeting Street Academy private school, and now at Meeting Street @ Brentwood, entering students score well below average on literacy tests and quickly catch up to and surpass the average. All Charleston County students deserve the same opportunity.

This praise of “programs [that] exist” is the exact “acting rashly” the P&C rightfully warns about the day before.

So what about “necessary data”?

We have two problems.

First, we do not have a careful analysis of data by those not invested in these schools about the two praised school programs. The fact is that we do not know if successful reading programs exist at these schools.

Second, we do know that “only 1.1 percent of high-poverty schools were identified as ‘high flyers'” (Harris, 2006). In other words, we now have decades of data refuting the political, public, and media fascination with “miracle schools.”

As I have repeatedly warned: “miracle schools” are almost always unmasked as mirages, but even if a rare few are outliers, they cannot serve as models for all schools because they are not replicable or scalable.

Therefore, the P&C editors are right to warn about acting rashly and without the necessary data as we reform public schools and bolster literacy among our students.

But the P&C is wrong to continue press-release journalism that contradicts that mandate.