Category Archives: James Baldwin

America Dishonors MLK By Refusing to Act on Call for Direct Action (pt. 2)

[NOTE: See part 1 HERE]

The USA is a country built on cultural mythology—rugged individualism, boot strapping, just to name a couple.

But the American Dream works both as a touch stone for Americans and a veneer covering over the realities that represent us as people and country.

In most ways, the American Dream is a lie in practice, but a beautiful idea that could be.

What better represents America is this from James Baldwin:

Included in that “rigid refusal to look at ourselves” is an insidious pattern of creating mythologies that conform to our foundational myths even when those manufactured myths prove to be distortions, or even lies.

That is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. who Americans begrudgingly allowed into the pantheon of Great Americans but only as a reductive caricature as a passive radical.

The Right and conservatives in the US have repeatedly shaped MLK into a soundbite endorsing color blindness, a false representation of MLK and the ideal in terms of how race should matter among humans.

MLK was clear that racism was the plague on the US, but he didn’t call for not seeing race; he urged humans to see race and not impose hatred and bigotry onto race, not allow privilege/oppression for some based on race.

But one of the single most important aspects of MLK’s ignored legacy is his call for direct action, which conservatives refuse to see and even cloak by stressing “passive” action (again, an important misrepresentation of “non-violent” since MLK himself stated he never urged people to be passive about anything).

Here is the King many in the US want to ignore: King’s 1967 work, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?:

Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:

• lack of education restricting job opportunities;

• poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiatives;

• fragile relationships which distorted personality development.

The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measure were intended to remove the causes of poverty.

Wealth and Want

“In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else,” King noted, adding: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Not only did King call for a guaranteed income, he asserted the essential need to be direct:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Wealth and Want

It is here that I have grounded my work in education addressing education policy, practice, and reform.

The reason political leaders focus on education is that it is the perfect mechanism for keeping the public focused on indirect action.

The US is committed to capitalism, not democracy, and capitalism depends on poverty and therefore will never eradicate it.

To perpetually address the consequences of inequity projects the veneer of action without actually committing to action, direct action, that would eradicate what causes the harm to begin with.

The history of education reform in the US since the 1980s has been on in-school only reform. Many key reformers and often cited scholars (such as John Hattie) beat an incessant drum that there is nothing we can do about systemic inequity—poverty, racism, etc.—so we must target school reform and then over time that will somehow eradicate inequity.

There are numerous problems with this, including that it fits into our rugged individualism myth by claiming that we must “fix” students and “fix” teachers.

But the essential problem with indirect action is well dramatized in the parable of the river:

Many Americans and most education reformers have decided that addressing directly root causes is too hard, or impossible, a fatalistic view of the world that Paulo Freire cautions against: “I have always rejected fatalism. I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing.”

Targeted in-school reform only, addressing inequity indirectly—these approaches “reduce the human person to nothing.”

Education reform is constantly scrambling to pull babies form the river but will not dedicate any resources to stop those babies form being thrown in that river.

For two decades now, every time I call for addressing inequity directly, I am characterized as calling for doing nothing about the consequences; those who have embraced fatalism project that onto me and my work.

This is a false dichotomy.

The in-school only reformers have made their decision to focus only on indirect action.

I have argued and detailed carefully that we are morally obligated to do both: Reform social inequity and reform education by focusing on equity not accountability.

It is no accident that the students we pretend to be reforming education to serve are the vulnerable and marginalized children and teens who are the victims of the very inequity we refuse to address, and increasingly refuse to even acknowledge.

Black students, poor students, special needs students, and multi-language learners are all viewed through deficit lenses that emphasize all that they lack while arguing that students who excel are hard working, gifted, and bright.

Disadvantage and privilege are ignored, and again, increasingly discounted.

The rich and complex MLK, his commitment to eradicating inequity by direct action, is both the answer America needs and the solution America refuses to see.

Occasionally we are acknowledging that we have broken people in our society and our schools; yet, we continue to dishonor MLK by refusing to see what forces are breaking these people and children in the first place.

See Also

Provincialism, Ways of Being, and the Failure of Democracy

I had dinner and a few beers with a former student recently. Although he is about two decades younger than me, we share a hometown and grew up in the same neighborhood. And after I had moved out during young adulthood, as a child, he often spent time at my parents’ house, just playing and hanging out.

He’s worked all over the world and has been living in Europe for more than 15 years. Our conversation drifted to our hometown and his perception of living in Europe instead of near where he grew up. Eventually, he asked how some people “get out” of small hometowns, escape the trap of narrow-mindedness—what I referred to as provincialism.

We share a strong discomfort with conservative and fundamentalist thinking even though we were raised in that environment, which continues to this days in our hometown. His question reminded me of one of my favorite lyrics from The National: “How can anybody know/ How they got to be this way?”

Especially as a teacher, I have found teaching siblings complicates any solid answer to his question since two people raised in the same home and town can turn out to be very different people. We catalogued several people also from our community who, like us, no longer conform to the mold of our upbringing, trying to understand why some people change and others remain frozen in the provincialism of their upbringing.

My former student is very clear that the key for him was being an exchange student in Europe during his junior year of high school; his worldview changed once he had lived a different view of the world. I credit my education, especially literature, but it is the same dynamic—being exposed to different views of the world.

“The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance,” begins “The Words of My Mouth” in a June issue of English Journal. “Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues—all of these may be evils in the English classes as others.”

That opening builds to this key question: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings?”

This essay is by Lou LaBrant and was published in 1946. LaBrant was vividly aware of the threats to freedom in the context of WWII and Nazi Germany, but her essay resonates today because of the threats from within the US, the Republican assaults on academic freedom, books, and individual choice by weaponizing “pornography,” “grooming,” “Critical Race Theory,” and any word or phrase to impose a narrow view of the world onto all of us.

“Not one facet of human experience will serve to insure the kind of society we need so desperately, and all aspects of living affect all others,” LaBrant warns.

The role of education, she emphasizes, must include: “A basic understanding which needs to be taught in school and home is that the existence of a word does not at all prove the existence of anything.” At the core of racism, sexism, and all types of bigotry and hate, LaBrant recognized the need to challenge the power of “word magic,” the belief that uttering something makes it so, gives it power.

In 1950, LaBrant returned to this topic, focusing on students as writers:

[Students] should discover the danger in word-magic, that calling a man by a name does not necessarily make him what they say; that describing the postal system as socialist does not transfer our mail to Moscow, nor brand either the writer or postman as disciples of Stalin. We must teach our students that words are symbols which they use, and that there is stupidity in word-magic. (p. 264)

LaBrant, L. (1950, April). The individual and his writing. Elementary English27(4), 261-265.

Over the past few years, I have made long trips from South Carolina into the Midwest, specifically Ohio and Wisconsin. Each time, I find the persistence of what is stereotypically “Southern” into the region that we in the South would classify as the “North” (which is everything outside of the Deep South, including Virginia and Texas). Fundamentalist billboards condemning homosexuality and abortion as well as huge signs quoting scripture line highways all through rural America.

Billboard in Ohio

These 8-10 hour drives left me certain I was not making just the specific trip I was on (conference presentations) but was destined for the flaming pits of Hell. Although I am a white straight man, I strongly believe in the rights of all people regardless of racial identification, gender, sexuality, religion (or not), etc., because I very much believe I deserve the same sort of freedom to fully be the human I have come to know that I am.

I also know that for women to be fully human, body autonomy is essential and that includes abortion rights.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, I am a humanist:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife [emphasis added]. My brother and sister didn’t think there was one, my parents and grandparents didn’t think there was one. It was enough that they were alive. We humanists serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

A Man without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To me, this is a foundational commitment to the country’s claim of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How can any of us be happy if we are required to conform to a narrow mandate of ways of being determined by a few in power based on a provincial view of the world?

My gender identity and sexuality are who I am, and right for me, but that means nothing for anyone else. I want my ways of being to be honored; therefore, I believe I am obligated to honor that for everyone else.

As my former student can attest by experience, people have even more freedom in countries other than the US; Americans do not have a monopoly on individual freedom and certainly not communal support for those freedoms (universal healthcare contributes to individual freedom, for example):

[I]t seems to me that the myth, the illusion, that this is a free country, for example, is disastrous….

There is an illusion about America, a myth about America to which we are clinging which has nothing to do with the lives we lead and I don’t believe that anybody in this country who has really thought about it or really almost anybody who has been brought up against it—and almost all of us have one way or another—this collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.

“Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” James Baldwin

The hostile environment in the US today fostered by conservatives is also eroding those freedoms day by day; people are less free in the US than 6 months ago, and we are very likely on the precipice of the erasing of even greater freedoms in the coming months.

The Republican agenda of rolling back freedoms and rights as well as increasing bans and censorship is an agenda grounded in provincialism, which, as I have observed, seems to be rooted in rurality, the isolation of people creating an isolation of worldview.

We know rural America is red and urban American is blue, but I think we fail to examine fully why this is the case. For me, my former student’s experience illustrates the dangers of narrow thinking when you have limited experiences and why a cosmopolitan worldview is a doorway to expanding how you think and your ability to have empathy for people who appear to be unlike you.

I use “appear” because, for example, a gay person and a straight person have different sexualities but share the need for having that sexuality honored. That is our commonality.

Yet, democracy is failing us in the US because those who want to use their political power to control have the same rights to vote as those who want to use their political power to insure everyone’s freedoms and ways of being.

And in 2022, those voting to control seem to the have the upper-hand, not because there are more of them but because the system has been gamed to favor them and they often have the greatest passion for asserting their control. Sadly, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” (William Butler Yeats).

Some see their ideologies and beliefs as baseball bats; others see them as safety nets. In a democracy, those votes are equal—and the humanity of individuals hangs in the balance.

I am not concerned, however, that I am in fact going to hell for wanting individual freedom for everyone regardless of their ways of being, regardless of how their gender, sexuality, or whatever appears the same or different from mine.

The irony is that Republicans are creating hell on earth for all of us right here in the US; they are proving Sartre right: “Hell is other people.”

And because of the failure of democracy, there is no exit.

National Days of Teaching Truth to Power

Speaking at a recent hearing on yet another copy-cat bill in South Carolina to censor curriculum (targeting Critical Race Theory [CRT]), Dr. Susi Long, professor of early childhood education (University of South Carolina) offered a measured but pointed dismantling of the partisan misinformation in this legislation:

Not to oversimplify, but Long clarifies that CRT is not taught in K-12 (or even K-16) education, adding specifically that the laundry list of issues addressed in these bills are not how teachers teach or treat our students.

Last summer, I emphasized similar points, adding what does occur in schools in terms of race and equity. At one point, Long calmly suggests legislators should be learning from educators instead of legislating what teachers can and cannot teach, what students can and cannot learn.

One of the great ironies of efforts to ban CRT (beyond that CRT isn’t something taught in K-12 education) is that a key tenet of CRT is in order to overcome racism/inequity, everyone needs to be better educated, better informed—exactly what teachers offer students across the U.S.

Here, then, is my modest proposal: National days of teaching truth to power.

As a recent post of mine details, students and teachers are vividly aware of the rise in censorship as well as the potential negative consequences of those bans, such as self-censorship grounded in fear.

Will, for example, Paul Laurence Dunbar be erased from classrooms or will teachers be fired for honoring Dunbar’s voice that continues to resonate in 2022?:

“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar

Let’s identify days when we will target lessons and texts that are being misrepresented purely for political gain.

Lessons on race and racism, lessons on academic freedom and censorship, lessons on gender and sexuality—ultimately lessons one what it means to be educated in a country that claims to be free.

This semester I plan to dedicate a day in my courses to Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again.”

Like Dunbar’s poem reflecting the realities of being Black during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, Hughes creates a complex unpacking of many minoritized groups during the 1930s:

And Hughes also resonates today in his confronting of the failures of the American Dream, an ideal not yet realized even in 2022:

“The land that never has been yet” is facing us all now in the U.S. as Republicans are in denial and have turned to the antithesis of freedom, censorship, in order to cling to power.

As educators, as professionals charged with honoring the dignity of every student’s mind, we have only truth to break the cycle of oppressive power.

Teaching truth is the key. Can we do this, and do this now?

As James Baldwin implored, “[T]he time is always now.”

If you will join me, I will identify dates and lessons below, updating over the coming weeks with full lesson plans, texts being taught, etc.


P.L. Thomas, Furman University

Lesson: “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Date: TBD

O NCTE, NCTE, Wherefore Art Thou NCTE? [Update]

[UPDATE: Please see and support this open letter to NCTE Executive Committee.]

[UPDATE 2: NCTE Statement on the Doublespeak Award and Anti-Censorship Efforts.]

[UPDATE 3: Public statement from NCSS 8 February 2021: “Saving” American History? Start by Teaching American History]

I have been a literacy educator for 38 years and counting; throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I taught high school English in rural South Carolina, and then I moved to higher education in 2002, where I am in teacher education and teach first-year and upper-level writing.

Along with being a career educator, I am a writer. I can identify the beginning of my real life as a writer and scholar with three publications: first, Oregon English (published by a state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English [NCTE]) in 1989, and then English Journal (a flagship journal of NCTE) in 1991 and 1998.

When I made my move to higher education, I also began a twenty-year and counting relationship with NCTE that has been among the most rewarding elements of my career as teacher and writer/scholar.

While my colleagues and friends discovered through NCTE are too many to list here, at NCTE San Francisco (2003), I attended a presentation and met Ken Lindblom; we began talking, and eventually our connection led to my editing/co-editing a column in English Journal for 10 years under several editors (also counted among my friends and colleagues), including Ken.

In 2013, NCTE named me recipient of their George Orwell Award—one of the proudest moments of my career—acknowledging not only my work that spoke truth to power but highlighting the significance of my public work (blogging, which is often marginalized in academia). Then, after my work on the committee preparing for NCTE’s Centennial at the Chicago annual convention (2011), I served as the Council Historian from 2013-2015.

Until the interruptions of Covid, one of the highlights of each year included attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual conventions.

I share all this not to aggrandize myself, but to establish a fact of my life and career: I love NCTE and the people who have enriched my life because NCTE brought us together.

And thus, I write here in the spirit of James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” (Notes of a Native Son).

Since I do love NCTE, and since I am troubled at this moment of literary and educational crisis, I feel obligated to criticize NCTE, asking, Wherefore art thou, NCTE?

Novices to Shakespeare often misread “wherefore” as simply “where,” but, of course, Juliet is asking “why” Romeo exists, specifically why is she being confronted with the challenge of Romeo’s family name.

Why, I am asking, does NCTE exist? And more pointedly, why is NCTE choosing silence, why is NCTE choosing to take a false apolitical pose—at this moment of literary and educational crisis?

First, let me stress the context of my question.

Across the U.S., Pollock and Rogers, et al., have authored a report from UCLA that analyses the wildfire spreading across the U.S.—curriculum, instruction, and book/text bans:

We found that at least 894 school districts, enrolling 17,743,850 students, or 35% of all K–12 students in the United States, have been impacted by local anti “CRT” efforts. Our survey and interviews demonstrate how such restriction efforts have been experienced inside schools as well as districts. We found that both state action and local activity have left many educators afraid to do their work.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

As I have been cataloging, censorship and even calls for book burnings are nearly a daily event into 2022.

Notable, these attacks on what and how teachers teach, on what and how students learn, are grounded in dishonest claims and misrepresentations, as the UCLA report notes:

We put “CRT” in quotation marks throughout this report because so often the conflict campaign’s definition of “CRT” (like its description of actual K–12 practice) is a caricatured distortion by loud opponents as self-appointed “experts.” The conflict campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school.

(Pollock, & Rogers, et al., 2022, p. vi)

The news reports are chilling: A teacher fired in Tennessee for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates (a featured speaker at an annual NCTE convention); a superintendent of education in North Carolina banning a book from one parent complaint, and without reading the book; and high-profile coverage by NBC and The Atlantic detailing the magnitude of the censorship movement, which has included bans of one of the most celebrated graphic novels ever, Maus.

With that context in mind, I want to add I am guided by two more commitments.

Martin Luther King Jr., in Strength to Love (1963), warned: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

And Howard Zinn [1], whose work has been prominent at NCTE’s annual convention, who titled his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, argued:

This mixing of activism and teaching, this insistence that education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time, this movement back and forth from the classroom to the struggles outside by teachers who hope their students will do the same, has always frightened the guardians of traditional education. They prefer that education simply prepare the new generation to take its proper place in the old order, not to question that order.

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

As of today, I am deeply concerned that NCTE, as the premiere national professional organization for literacy and literature in the U.S., has chosen the path of neutrality, of silence, to strike an apolitical pose in order to avoid risk.

In November before the 2021 annual convention, I reached out to some leaders of NCTE and implored that NCTE take a leadership role in speaking out against the creeping threat of state legislation banning curriculum and the rising number of books being banned across the country.

Although I was assured this would happen, there has only been silence.

And then, this: Members of NCTE’s Public Language Awards Committee posted on social media that NCTE has put the Doublespeak Award on hiatus indefinitely in order to avoid looking “political.”

Some members have resigned in protest.

The disappointment and irony of this move is that the Doublespeak Award, a companion of the Orwell Award, is designed to offer an “ironic tribute to public speakers who have perpetuated language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.”

If you return to the report from UCLA, it is obvious we are in the midst of an educational and literary/literature crisis that screams for the Doublespeak Award (“[t]he conflict campaign thrives on caricature”), that demands public-facing, risk-embracing leadership from NCTE.

Why does NCTE exist, if not for this moment?

The current anti-CRT/book banning movement is politically partisan only because Republicans have chosen to make it so. And as King and Zinn noted throughout their careers, taking a neutral pose, pretending to be apolitical, is a political concession to support the status quo.

Since curriculum bans, book censorship, and parental oversight legislation are occurring exclusively among Republican-controlled states, the teachers and students impacted are mostly in right-to-work (non-union) situations; therefore, they are the most vulnerable, and most in need of advocacy from organizations and people with power.

NCTE is the collective voice of literacy educators, scholars, and creators.

I want to remain hopeful, but I am deeply disappointed and increasingly skeptical of that hope.

NCTE’s leaders must look in the mirror, ask “why,” and then act.

Returning to Baldwin, I end with this: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now” (Nobody Knows My Name).

[1] Trying to confirm if/when Zinn spoke at an annual NCTE convention [edit].

Becoming a Good Writer: On Purpose and Authority

While watching (re-watching for me) Marvel’s The Punisher (Netflix), my partner noted, “He is a really good actor,” about Jon Bernthal who plays Frank Castle (The Punisher).

This is something we all do in our daily lives, declare “good” and “bad” as we navigate the world. In the so-called real world, we rarely interrogate those evaluations—what makes something “good” or “bad”?

However, in academia, not only do we bristle at the low terms themselves, but also we are in a nearly constant state of unpacking exactly what constitutes quality.

The comment about Bernthal (who is a captivating actor) came just after I had spent more time than I wanted addressing the Aaron Rodgers/Ayn Rand moment trending on social media. Any time Rand is mentioned, “Rand is a bad writer/philosopher” is not far behind.

For example, I found Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, an analysis of Rand’s harmful influence on real-world politics in the U.S.

Also concurrent with people debating Rand’s quality as a novelist (since Rodger’s pointed to her Atlas Shrugged), I noticed Neil Gaiman (and Bill Sienkiewicz [1] in the comments) post the following on Facebook:

Gaiman’s comment: “The thing that makes me sad is that the incorrect apostrophe destroys the joke.”

So in those contexts, I want to consider exactly what we mean about whether or not a writer is “good” or “bad”—notably as a framing for students who are themselves trying to become good writers.

A first-level problem with considering the quality of writing is distinguishing whether we are focusing on the content of the writing or the actual composing itself. What does that mean?

When people blast Rand as a “bad” writer, they almost always are attacking the content of her novels, how she uses narrative to propagandize about her philosophical and ideological commitments.

If you look carefully, some who proclaim her a “bad” writer also concede that Rand crafted engaging stories and constructed those stories in purposeful ways (her craft as a writer).

By contrast, although Gaiman suffered some appropriate challenges, Gaiman is targeting how the credibility of any writer is inextricable from many elements of craft (diction, tone, grammar, syntax, sentence and paragraph formation, etc.).

While the field of rhetoric has a long history of debating medium versus message, for students learning to write better, I emphasize that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. To reach the Holy Grail of “good,” then, I think anyone learning to write must focus on purpose and authority (internal v. external authority).

All writers are seeking ways to establish and develop their authority (convincing readers of their credibility so that their writing is read and considered seriously). And that authority is impacted by the purposefulness of the writing (both in terms of content and craft).

Gaiman’s Facebook post represents how the credibility of a text (the humor of the eatery’s sidewalk advertisement ) is impacted by surface features (in this example, confusing the use of the apostrophe for possessive versus plural)—a seasonal debate often when people send out Christmas cards and can’t navigate how to pluralize their family names.

As a writing teacher, I would use Gaiman’s post to note that, first, we should resist shaming anyone for surface features, and, second, we can interrogate the text of the ad to note that “dogs” and “human’s” is not about correctness, but a sort of lack of purpose.

I would note that a student essay having these usages would be a signal of lack of control of language (and thus, an erosion of authority), and not about “correctness.”

Here, especially when working with students and developing writers, we must be very careful about how we explain the relationship between medium and message since Gaiman is triggering the urge toward correctness as an absolute marker of quality [2].

Since most students have come through formal education that uncritically fosters an unhealthy attitude about grammar and usage (correctness), teachers of writing are often confronted with how to unpack correctness and shift students toward purpose.

So-called standard English is problematic, often a veneer for racism, sexism, etc., so I invite students to consider, for example, James Baldwin’s If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? and this wonderful unpacking of dialect quality, which in part notes:

The characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words (“desks” and “tests” become “desses” and “tesses,” for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections (“He throw the ball.” “She write the book.” “He vote for the candidate.”), and certain distinctive uses of the verb “to be.” Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the “habitual be.” When speakers of standard American English hear the statement “He be reading,” they generally take it to mean “He is reading.” But that’s not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom “He is reading” refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. “He be reading” refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he’s doing it right now.


The marginalized dialect (often referred to as Black English, Ebonics, or AAVE) is in fact nuanced, complex, and powerful—as the unpacking concludes:

Only by moving beyond the deeply ingrained negative attitudes of the past, the speech researchers agree, is it possible to appreciate the multi-faceted subtleties of all human language. “Language is not just a matter of words and sounds and syntax,” says Seymour. “It’s an identity issue, it’s a social issue. It’s very complicated.”


Beyond fostering an unhealthy understanding of language, focusing on correctness often leads to students practicing an imbalance in the relationship between medium and message; many students have received high grades on writing that conforms to correctness but expresses very little, offers jumbled thinking, and/or simply misrepresents a topic.

Too often, as well, students have been rewarded for conforming to prescriptions that are neither good writing nor good thinking (five-paragraph essays that force all topic into 3 points).

Ironically, students spend so much energy confirming to scripts and correctness that they become bad writers.

Although there certainly is some wiggle room in spelling and punctuation, students must be aware that surface features in writing trigger assumptions about their credibility, the authority of the writer; in other words, purposeful writing and writer authority work together, are symbiotic.

Again, in the real world, there are far too many examples of public writing that shows how a writer’s established authority allows that writer to express some really careless and false ideas (let me note David Brooks, for example, who certainly can craft words and sentences in all the so-called correct ways while saying nothing or, more often, expressing simplistic thinking).

Students are in a very difficult position since they are almost always less authoritative on their topics than their professors/teachers as well as still on their journey to being “good” writers (in terms of having control of the language they craft).

We are left then with a journey, helping students develop their sense of purpose with composing that establishes their internal authority (the authority grounded in the essay itself) in order to create their external authority (the authority associated with them as people/students/scholars; again, see Brooks or Rand, who many recognize as people who think and write with some established authority).

Students must move away from correctness (the learned belief in rules such as “Don’t write fragments”) and toward purposefulness (crafting and choosing sentence forms, medium, that reinforce the message of their writing).

To be a good writer is a paradox, then. Good writers have a healthy understanding of writing (as Baldwin advocates for) while also being aware of the consequences of norms (see Gaiman’s somewhat petty lament).

When my partner praised Bernthal as a “good actor,” I agreed and noted several of the Marvel series on Netflix benefitted from many good actors, often allowing rather bad elements of superhero narratives to slip by (although several of the series also have good writing).

For students learning to write, we must do much more than say writing is “good” or “bad,” however, by helping students recognize and practice the elements of purpose and authority that lead to those evaluations.

[1] Sienkiewicz notes his own parody of misspellings on business signs from his run on Elektra: Assassin:

Elektra: Assassin (1986-1987) #6 (of 8) - Comics by comiXology
Elektra: Assassin 6

[2] See my poem parodying this phenomenon: grammar Nazis (post-apostrophe literature)

UPDATE: Possibly the best example of apostrophe confusion yet:

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

James Baldwin wrote in 1966 about the antagonistic relationship between Black Americans and the police; his willingness to interrogate that dynamic provides a powerful framework for rethinking the antagonism between educators and students. (The Nation)

Teaching in my third academic year impacted by the Covid pandemic, I am feeling nostalgic for some (but not all) of the pre-pandemic dynamics in the classroom.

My university established and followed strict protocols throughout the 2020-2021 academic year that allowed many courses to be taught face-to-face (while professors were allowed to teach remotely and courses provided many hybrid opportunities to address student needs). But last year was a very stilted teaching and learning experience with faculty and students fully masked and social distancing (maintaining the six-feet requirement typical pre-vaccine).

This fall we are face-to-face, masked, but not social distancing; therefore, I am enjoying being able to do small group work in class again. A return to semi-normalcy in the classroom means that Monday, as my first-year writing seminar students formed groups to discuss their reading of Baldwin, I waited a few minutes before strolling around the room to listen to the discussions.

Anyone who teaches knows what happened; as I approached each group, students fell silent, and several looked up, concerned.

I always take these moments to begin a discussion about the antagonistic relationship that exists between teachers and their students. Students admit that a teacher approaching makes them afraid they are doing something wrong, even when they are fully engaged in the assignment.

Many of us who went through teacher training or conduct teacher training have discussed walking toward students as a classroom management technique.

It does work, but we rarely unpack why and almost never interrogate that the technique should not “work.”

My first-year students at a selective liberal arts college (having almost all been very successful in K-12, either straight-A students or close to that) are quick to acknowledge the many ways that they feel antagonism from and toward their teachers. From dress codes to bathroom restrictions to grading policies to late-to-class rules—students find the school days filled with landmines policed by their teachers.

Of note is how difficult it is for first-year college students to shift away from student behaviors (raising hands, asking to go to the bathroom) and toward autonomous adult behaviors (we explicitly focus on the difference between access to going to the bathroom in high school and college).

Part of this reductive and dehumanizing dynamic is the prevalence of uncritical embracing of simplistic behaviorism grounded most vividly in the punishment/reward elements of school rules and grading.

Despite my commitment to creating a classroom environment driven by collaboration and not antagonism, students still primarily experience antagonistic relationships with their teachers/professors when learning formally.

As a professor, I witness that reality because of one of the worst aspects of the teaching profession—educators publicly shaming student behaviors.

When I started teaching high school in 1984, I quickly learned to avoid the teachers’ lounge, where my colleagues tended to gather and endlessly rail against (by name) students that I taught (and loved). What I noticed was a proclivity for teachers to angrily berate teenagers for behaving like teenagers.

One of my fortunate gifts as a teacher is that I chose to teach high school and that I genuinely love teenagers because they have reached an early stage of adulthood but also maintain some of the most endearing qualities of childhood. I very much enjoyed discovering and unpacking the world with teenagers who found everything to be new (even as I realized that none of it was new).

Jump about four decades later, and I see that played out just a bit differently on social media, where teachers and professors routinely hold forth in anger about a student’s email asking if they missed anything when absent. This sort of public (although anonymous) student shaming seems to be common at the beginning and end of semesters so there has been a flurry of them over the past few weeks.

Tip toeing the line of subtweeting, I Tweeted this yesterday with those type of social media posts in mind:

Later, I added this:

Throughout my career as a high school teacher and now a college professor, I have worked diligently to be student-centered in the way that honors the autonomy and human dignity of my students; I have also embraced Paulo Freire’s concepts of choosing to be authoritative and not authoritarian as a teacher, parent, and coach.

This critical commitment has often been well embraced by my students (although not all of them) but rebuffed by many, if not most, of my colleagues. A typical criticism I hear (which I confront in the second Tweet above) is that if adult authority figures are not authoritarian, students will take advantage of them.

The nasty (and false, I think) Puritanical belief that humans (especially children and teenagers) left alone will behave in base and selfish ways seems to be how many teachers/professors view their students. This deficit perspective is pervasive in education, often manifested as racism, classism [1], sexism, and agism but masked as “necessary” lest we lose all control!

I firmly reject that my job as a teacher is to “fix” inherently flawed young humans and instead embrace that to teach is to provide the guidance necessary for young people to develop their autonomy and recognize their and other’s basic human dignity.

Over almost 40 years of teaching, I have had very few students attempt to take advantage of me, and most of them have suffered the consequences they deserved for that behavior while many of them have directly reached out to me over the years to apologize.

A low-stakes teaching and learning environment has allowed me to be very demanding, having extremely high standards for students, and I have found that students respond well to high expectations couched in clear expectations, detailed support and feedback, and patience paired with firm guidelines for student behavior and artifacts of their learning.

I have documented on social media several times that my students submit work on time at well over 90-95% rates although I do not grade assignments and do not record or deduct for late work. Almost all the work that is late can be traced tp legitimate reasons (the types of real-world justifications for late work that adults enjoy).

Students and educators deserve a teaching/learning environment grounded in collaboration and not antagonism—where everyone has their autonomy and human dignity honored, and even celebrated.

If K-12 and undergraduate students already knew and behaved in all the ways adults want, why would they need to be in our classes?

When Student Y sends a preposterous email, our job as educators is to teach the student why it is preposterous, and how to engage with another human in ways that show respect to both the student and the teacher.

And that teaching—even when our last nerve is tested—must be as patient as possible, although firm, and our students must trust that we are here to work with them for their success, not to police them for their flaws until they are properly “fixed.”

At its core, I think James Baldwin’s view of policing serves us well here: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.”

And so, many days while teaching, I explain to students that I work for them, and when all is going as it should, I actually am there to work with them.

None the less, every time I walk toward a small group of students, they fall silent and look up, faces expecting antagonism and not yet sure we are there for the same thing—whatever any student needs to live autonomous lives where their human dignity is seen and appreciated.

[1] See:

The return of the deficit signifies a depressing symmetry in demographic trends and public policy. Deborah Stone (1997), writing on the art of political decision­making, argues that “political reasoning is [about] metaphor­making and category­making . . . strategic portrayal for persuasion’s sake, and ultimately for policy’s sake” (p. 9). Portraying disproportionate school failure among Black and Hispanic youth in terms of “personal troubles” (Mills, 1959) or cultural deficiencies sustains public policies that emphasize individual self interest and personal responsibility (e.g., welfare reform, high stakes testing), leaving no reason to consider the effects of poverty and discrimination or underfunded schools and deteriorating facilities on children’s learning.

Dudley-Marling, Curt (2007) “Return of the Deficit,” Journal of Educational Controversy: Vol. 2 : No. 1 , Article 5.
Available at:

Welcome to South Carolina: A State of Denial

In the United States of America, the stated law of the land is “innocent until proven guilty.”

However, police in the U.S. shoot and kill about 1000 people a year, denying them due process, acting as judge, jury, and executioner instead of the claimed role of “protect and serve.”

The U.S. is experiencing a mild reckoning, specifically linked to the killing of George Floyd but broadly connected to how policing and the legal system continue to be racially inequitable—or as many conservatives and the media refuse to state, racist.

A vocal and likely substantial portion of the U.S.—mostly white and often white men with power—have decided that naming racism is more harmful and offensive than actual racism.

Police killing citizens must also be put in the context that the U.S. stands out among peer nations in terms of gun violence.

It is mid-2021, and the world is suffering more than a year in a global pandemic.

It is mid-2021, and the guilty verdict of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin still lingers in the news.

Yet, Republican leaders in South Carolina have decided that a pressing issue is the death penalty—voting to reinstate the firing squad.

South Carolina, the home of one of the most horrific mass shootings targeting Black people sitting in church, has Republicans who are choosing to give the state the right to shoot and kill convicted prisoners in a legal and prison system that disproportionately convicts Black people.

Conservatives and Republicans in South Carolina—again, it is 2021—continue to wave the Confederate flag in one hand while thumping the Bible in the other—are endorsing gun violence by the state.

Very Christian.

Christian, that is, in the tradition of the KKK.

As reprehensible as this move is by Republicans, it simply isn’t the only evidence that white men with power are the most fragile people in the U.S.

Republicans in South Carolina have jumped on the white-washing of history bandwagon, prompted in the final days of Trump.

Republicans in South Carolina have ended federal unemployment benefits.

Republicans in South Carolina seek open carry, finding any and every way to appease their gun fantasies.

But possibly the most stark example of denial and white fragility is bill H630, which ends with this jumbled nonsense:

1.105. (SDE: Partisanship Curriculum) For the current fiscal year, of the funds allocated by the Department of Education to school districts, no monies shall be used by any school district or school to provide instruction in, to teach, instruct, or train any administrator, teacher, staff member, or employee to adopt or believe, or to approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks, instructional materials, or instructional practices that serve to inculcate any of the following concepts: (1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; (2) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; (3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his race or sex; (4) an individuals moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his race or sex; (5) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; (6) an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex; (7) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race; and (8) fault, blame, or bias should be assigned to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex. Nothing contained herein shall be construed as prohibiting any professional development training for teachers related to issues of addressing unconscious bias within the context of teaching certain literary or historical concepts or issues related to the impacts of historical or past discriminatory policies.

2021-2022 As passed by the Senate

Republicans across the U.S. are simultaneously know-nothings and people with disproportionate power to impose that lack of understanding not simply on public policy but on the very education of the children who will inherit the country.

This senseless passage at the end of bill H630 is the exact language being used in several states and it grows out of the fear-mongering around critical race theory.

Please take the 8 minutes to watch Marc Lamont Hill interview Dr. Imani Perry about the Big Lie around critical race theory now spreading across the country:

And as Victor Ray, professor of sociology (University of Iowa), explains:

Critical race theory arose to explain why structural racism endures. Given the racial conflicts roiling American politics, scholarly analysis of the causes and consequences of racial inequality may be more important now than at its inception….

Despite internal disagreements, critical race theorists have documented a stunning (and disturbing) array of racial inequalities that can’t be explained by the acts of individual racists. 

Perspective | Trump calls critical race theory ‘un-American.’ Let’s review.

But let’s return to the exchange between Hill and Perry.

As they note, this Republican attack on critical race theory is mostly a lie since those attacking it do not know what the term means, and, this is important, critical race theory simply isn’t being taught in the vast majority of schools in the U.S.; as Hill notes, it is a solution in pursuit of a problem.

Republican leaders and those who support them persist to prove James Baldwin correct:

rigid refusal

Lies and deception are the foundational strategies of Republicans, reaching back to William F. Buckley.

They can’t handle the truth—a truth that, once again, Baldwin asserted:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

The Big Lies of the Republican Party are really not about denying racism, but about protecting their white advantages.

Thus, as Perry implores, “We cannot be held to their terms because their terms are deceptive.”

Fact Checking “Cancel Culture”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

If we can take seriously the high-quality source, the actor who plays Mr. Bean, it appears we should be fearful of a future where there is no freedom of speech because “what we have now is the digital equivalent of the medieval mob roaming the streets looking for someone to burn,” claims Rowan Atkinson.

Of course, this is but one of many alarm bells about the scourge of “cancel culture.”

It would be easy to smile at Atkinson’s goofy face and brush this off—except there are dire consequences to this manufactured crisis. Take for just one example the language being used to propose legislation in my home state of South Carolina.

“Pushing back against what they called America’s ‘woke mob,’ a group of GOP lawmakers want to protect South Carolina historic monuments and markers and penalize any community or elected official that removes them,” writes Adam Benson for the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC).

Later in the article, Benson quotes Republicans advancing this legislation:

“In South Carolina, our heritage roots run real deep, and they’ve got to be protected from the small number of people that could cancel out our monuments and pull them down,” Taylor said, who is sponsoring the bills with state Reps. Steven Long, R-Inman, and Lin Bennett, R-Charleston.

“In today’s day and age where the woke mob is coming after our monuments from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to South Carolina’s heritage, this is all inclusive,” Long said of the proposed state certification of plaques.

Proposals would punish removing monuments: ‘Time to stand up and defend the history of SC’

Conservatives in the U.S. have taken over the “cancel culture” label and used it to create a false narrative about liberals (“woke mob”) having the disproportionate power to unfairly punish conservatives, to end free speech, and as these Republicans argue, to erase history.

Recent “cancel culture” controversies that represent that false narrative include Dr. Seuss’s estate ending the publication of six of his books, changes to Mr. Potato Head, and the firing of Gina Carano from The Mandalorian.

While all of these have been framed as “cancel culture,” they aren’t all the same. Dr. Seuss wasn’t canceled (most of his books remain in print, and this was an estate decision), but like the renaming of Mr. Potato Head, these are market decisions, not some government mandate driven by “woke culture.”

Carano’s firing isn’t even that unusual in Hollywood; consider Kevin Spacey. Was he canceled? Or are there simply consequences for people’s words and actions—even, some times, when you are rich and famous?

To dissect the false narrative around “cancel culture” by conservatives, let’s return to the Dr. Seuss fake news cycle. Consider these Tweets from Michael Hobbes:

The pattern: Falsely claim “cancel culture,” point fingers only at the liberal mob, and ignore what is really happening (market forces versus actual canceling legislation proposed from conservatives).

Also conservatives shouting “cancel culture” tend to have a weak grasp on the past along with being highly selective in their outrage.

John Warner offers an excellent comparison between his own experiences as an author and the the Dr. Seuss controversy:

Was Warner’s liberal parody of conservative W. Bush canceled? The nefarious workings of the liberal mob? Or was this the free market doing its work?

But consider a much more substantial situation—the end of Colin Kaepernick’s NFL career.

I do not recall any conservatives crying “cancel culture” when Kaepernick was essentially banned from the NFL by mostly conservative billionaire owners because of Kaepernick’s liberal politics. And I don’t recall those players standing during the national anthem having any consequences for their ostensibly conservative political actions (standing during the anthem).

I do recall conservatives wringing their hands over Tim Tebow’s short-lived NFL career since Tebow is a darling of conservatives and also conveniently used his NFL platform to express his conservative religious politics.

“Cancel culture” as a terminology of any social value has been erased, ironically, by conservatives who have co-opted the language to perpetuate lies about the left as a distraction from their own penchant for canceling.

The partisan political nature of the shift to “cancel culture” being the mantra of conservatives has some very serious consequences in the U.S. since it misrepresents free speech and also blurs the line between valid accountability and the so-called mob mentality in pop culture.

Conservatives have repeatedly misrepresented the free market as a free speech issue, which is essentially about the role of government in what people are allowed to express.

The decisions made by Dr. Seuss’s estate, Republicans losing Twitter followers, and Carano being fired (see also, Spacey)—these are all the workings of the free market, not mandates of government. If Republicans want to start a conversation about the silencing impact of capitalism, then I think many of us on the left would be thrilled, but they seem oblivious to how their own ideology works.

Ultimately, the most problematic aspect of conservatives capitalizing on “cancel culture” is that it has distorted a needed conversation on fairness since free speech isn’t license; even when what we say and do is not mandated by either the government or the market, “free” in free speech doesn’t mean we are free of the consequences.

So which is unfair here—that Woody Allen has never suffered any real consequences for his behavior or that Louis CK had his comedy career briefly stalled due to his serial sexual harassment?

Maybe there are petty dynamics on Instagram in which mob mentalities evolve and people are unfairly “canceled,” but what is currently passing as “cancel culture” is a bald-faced lie with political/ideological intentions.

The history of people being closeted in the U.S. as well as the current reality of closeted people is a narrative about the precariousness of being outside the norms of this country—norms that are decidedly conservative and thus to be outside those is necessarily liberal.

Unfair consequences in the U.S. remain mostly for people on the left; conservative Americans are themselves fretting about losing their status of privilege, and their cries of “cancel culture” are ugly projections since it is they who wish to erase the realities that have always existed but have too often been forced behind lock and key.

When millionaire white men wag their fingers about “cancel culture” from the floor of the U.S. Senate, we must be more than skeptical that they are being sincere about freedom of speech since they are embodying that they, in fact, haven’t been canceled at all.

MLK Jr. Day Reader 2021

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

From 1984 until 2002, 18 years, I taught high school English in the town and school where I grew up and graduated, moving into the classroom of my high school English teacher, Lynn Harrill, where I had sat as a student just six years earlier.

My first few years were overwhelming and at times terrifying; I taught five different preparations—managing fifteen different textbooks—and several of the classes were filled to capacity, 35 students packed into the room.

Throughout those two decades spanning the 1980s and past the 1990s, I was a student-centered teacher who had a wonderful relationship with my students—lots of mutual love and respect. However, there was always some tension between me and white redneck boys.

Again, these white redneck boys were who I had been growing up, and even the least aware among them likely sensed deep down inside that I knew who they were.

One of the worst days of my teaching career—sitting among having to confront a student gunman and returning to school after three children burned down the school building—included the actions of one white redneck boy.

A significant sub-unit of my nine-week non-fiction unit included walking students through the concept of civil disobedience, starting with Emerson and Thoreau but spending far more time on a mini-unit in Black history grounded in ideas and texts by Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

We capped off that unit with Gandhi, but the grounding text of this nine weeks was always King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” paired with different excerpts from Malcolm X.

One day as I was passing out King’s “Letter” (I always provided students their own copies of texts to annotate and keep), a white redneck boy slapped the handout off his desk and announced, “I ain’t reading that [N-word].”

In many ways, this was a defining moment for me as a teacher and a human. I was very aware that I had Black students in the room and that this teenager was much larger and angrier than was safe for me or the classroom of students.

I calmly returned the handout to the desk, my hand firmly on the paper while I leaned toward the student, and I said without hesitation that he would read the essay and that he would never utter that word in class again.

It seems odd to me now, but that is exactly what happened as I continued handing out the essay before we began reading and discussing the essay as a class.

This is no after-school special, and I never had any sort of deep conversation with that student—and I suspect he never changed his beliefs, except keeping his bigotry to himself, at least in my class.

I do suspect that for him and others in the classroom, I was the first white man to take a stand against racism and racist language that they had ever experienced.

It is embarrassing to admit, but that unit was a huge risk for me throughout my 18 years teaching. It even prompted not-so-veiled attacks from local preachers during sermons that my students attended on Sunday mornings (oddly, Southern Baptists seemed very offended by students studying Gandhi, who they dismissed as “not a Christian”).

There are many things I would change about my first two decades of teaching, being charged with the learning of hundreds of teenagers; there are many things I did inexcusably wrong, things for which I remain embarrassed and wish I had the power to return to those moments in order to make amends.

But that sub-unit, and specifically how I taught MLK and what works of his I exposed students to, is important still to me because we did not read “I Have a Dream,” and we did not mythologize MLK as a passive radical, rejecting the whitewashing far too common with King’s ideas and life.

I also exposed students to a wide range of Black writers and thinkers, emphasizing the importance of recognizing Malcolm X and taking his arguments seriously.

None the less, I could have done better—and even today in 2021, King’s life and legacy are woefully mis-served, especially in classrooms (as well as crossing the lips of politicians who cannot even for one day practice an iota of the ideals of King).

Here, then, is a reader for serving King better and expanding the voices and ideas with which we invite our students to engage:

Martin Luther King Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon

Final Words of Advice/ “Where do we go from here?” (1967), Martin Luther King Jr.

The Trumpet of Conscience, Martin Luther King Jr.

“Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr.

Read This Before Co-Opting MLK Jr., Jose Vilson

The Revisionist’s Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have A Dream For Most Of Us,” Jose Vilson

Harlem, Langston Hughes

Let America Be America Again, Langston Hughes

The Forgotten, Radical Martin Luther King Jr., Matt Berman

James Baldwin: “the time is always now”

“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979) (incl. What Can a Sincere White Person Do? Malcolm X)

James Baldwin from “The Negro and the American Promise”

They Can’t Turn Back, James Baldwin

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin

“Peculiar Benefits,” Roxane Gay

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument, Caroline Randall Williams

Lockridge: “The American Myth,”James Baldwin

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? James Baldwin

“The Baldwin Stamp,” Adrienne Rich

Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” Teju Cole

The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Audre Lorde

Bayard Rustin (March 17, 1912 – August 24, 1987): A Reader

The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter Godwin Woodson

Nina Simone on the Role of the Artist

Imposter: Whitewashing “By Any Means Necessary”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” they are “with us.”

Malcolm X, “What Can a Sincere White Person Do?”

I grew up among oafish racists in my white family and community. This was upstate South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a teenager, I stood in the pro shop of the golf course where I worked while one of the grounds crew carefully explained to me that once Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden, he mated with apes and that’s how we have Black people.

This horrific moment aside, one of the most stark lessons I learned living among people with grossly simplistic views of race was that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated.

Each summer as a teenager, I moved from working in the pro shop to working as an attendant and then a lifeguard at the country club’s pool. There, white Southern women arrived daily, many with unnaturally bleached-blond hair piled high, and rubbed themselves down with baby oil to sun bath from midmorning until mid-afternoon.

These women were as blatantly racist as their husbands routinely were on the golf course—a white person’s sanctuary that explicitly banned Black people from joining.

I have a very vivid memory of one woman, a wife of a long-time employee of the golf course. She had the most cartoonish bleached hair, maybe the tallest, but she also was tanned to beyond brown; with the lathering of baby oil, her stomach glistened black.

And my mother often joined these women. She also sunbathed in our yard when not at the pool. Like her father who sat outside barefoot in only cut-off blue jean shorts any sunny day, she was olive complexioned and tanned deeply.

Harold Sowers, my maternal grandfather, was my Tu-Daddy; here, in his later years, he sat outside fully clothed and in the shade.

What compelled these white women who so openly loathed Black and brown people to render themselves dark every summer?

This, I think, is the complexity of anyone’s relationship with race—especially when white and especially when trapped in baseless, simplistic views of race that serve the interests of white people.

In the first six years of my life, before we moved to the golf course, I remember vividly that my mother often suggested she had some Indian heritage; with hindsight, I suspect she spoke with something like a garbled romantic longing because she had exoticized the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina from briefly living in Lumberton, North Carolina growing up.

My mother also adored Cher, whose own jumbled heritage and flourishes of cultural appropriation helped fuel the very worst aspects of my mother’s racism.

Wikipedia offers how complex race and celebrity are (not the used of “claimed”): “Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, on May 20, 1946.[3] Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver with drug and gambling problems; her mother, Georgia Holt (born Jackie Jean Crouch), was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claimed Irish, English, German, and Cherokee ancestry.”

These white women tanning and my mother’s fantasy of having Lumbee blood somewhere in her veins are my first experiences with white women imposters, who are increasingly being exposed in higher education:

This year alone has seen the unmasking of a handful of white academics who have posed as nonwhite: BethAnn McLaughlinJessica Krug, C. V. Vitolo-Haddad and Craig Chapman.

Whereas Chapman and McLaughlin impersonated women of color online only, Krug and Vitolo-Haddad wove their false ethnicities into their personal and professional identities day in and day out. This kind of living a lie is perhaps most infamously exemplified by Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Tacoma, Wash., and part-time professor of African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal identified herself as Black but was revealed to be white in 2015.

White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.

The paradoxical aspect of these layers includes that women are one of the areas of need in many universities dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion and that white women suffer the negative consequences of being women even as that is tempered by their proximity to white men’s privilege (something that we have abundant evidence a majority of white women will cultivate, notably that more white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for a white woman, Hillary Clinton).

White imposters of race who are women are not only doing harm by taking away the very small spaces afforded Black and brown faculty candidates, but by spitting in the face of the very real and very harmful effects of imposter syndrome often experienced by minoritized people.

As a faculty member on our presidential committee for diversity and inclusion, I have spent many years specifically serving on and chairing a committee that participates in the hiring process so that the university implements best practice to increase diversity among our faculty (which is deeply underrepresented by race as well as gender).

Since my university has now faced a recently hired faculty member accused of being a race imposter, I am witnessing in proximity (as I did with my mother) that this deception has many negative consequences, mostly suffered by the people this event has impacted directly (the department, students, etc.) and indirectly (candidates not hired), but also impacting the process of recruiting and hiring diverse faculty.

Academia is a complicated environment, even culture, in which many things must not be spoken while other things are discussed to the point of no return (with no action).

Legal restrictions and tradition have created circumstances whereby universities seeking diverse faculty can discuss diversity needs and set up policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity, but not explicitly address any candidate’s race, culture, gender, etc.

There are also spaces in academia (not all of them) where everything works under a veil of good faith, but the sort of good faith that has existed forever among the privileged, the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod that existed among the all-white members of the golf course of my youth.

Higher education is not the world of Leftist indoctrination imagined by conservatives, but it is populated by progressives with good intentions who are more than counter-balanced by a willful naivete that comes with being the white progressives Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.

As I mentioned above, academia can often be more words than action. I do not doubt that many who speak often and eloquently about the need for diversity and inclusion are genuine in their rhetoric and their intellectual commitment; but I also know for a fact that most who offer the rhetoric balk at taking any actual steps on the road to equity.

Don’t want to step on any of the wrong toes.

There are few places where “talk is cheap” (and safe) is more telling and complicated than higher ed.

Academia, then, is ripe for deception by those who are willing to whitewash “by any means necessary” even at the expense of people who have no choice but to live lives tinted every moment with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

My life has transitioned from the oafish racism of my childhood—good country people—to the elegant racism of higher education—well-educated people with good intentions.

Each faculty member unmasked for being a race imposter sends me back in time to my mother playing Cher records or sun bathing with the regulars at the golf course pool.

I have been reminded in recent days that people with grossly simplistic views of race reveal that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated—and ultimately dangerous.