Category Archives: John Gardner

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

Whose Rights Matter?: On Censorship, Parents, and Children

Having been an educator in South Carolina across five decades, starting in the early 1980s, I have witnessed dozens of challenges by parents concerning assigned books, topics discussed, and controversial ideas raised in class discussions.

In the first years of teaching, I had assigned John Gardner’s Grendel, a retelling of sorts of the Old English classic Beowulf narrative, to my advanced tenth grade American Literature class (knowing they would read Beowulf the next year and also as preparation for advanced students going to college in just a few years).

Grendel was a highly regarded novel, experimental and challenging but also often humorous and deeply thought provoking. Gardner was also one of favorite authors, and his work fit well into preparing students for the Advanced Placement program.

However, this novel became my first book challenge experience as a teacher. I learned a few things.

First, it didn’t take long—my students informed me—to discover that a few parents had conspired to challenge the book primarily as a way to challenge me.

Next, I found out quickly that a few parents did have the power for making decisions for everyone—since the book was pulled from required reading for all students as those two parents requested (although it remained on my classroom shelves and in our library).

While Gardner’s novel does include what some people would consider crude language and one very brief graphic scene, this parent challenge was entirely about ideology, not literary quality or even offensive material.

More broadly, I learned that what I taught would always be about the politics of whose rights matter, including the rights of everyone in a free democracy, parents, teachers, and of course (although this is too often ignored), students.

A few other moments stand out from my two decades teaching high school English.

Once, I had a heated debate with the school librarian about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. By then, I was English Department chair and teaching AP Literature and Composition. Walker’s celebrated novel was included in that AP course (which is supposed to reflect college-level content and instruction).

The librarian had children who would be in that course, and she was adamant that The Color Purple was pornography, not literature. I calmly referenced several critical books on the shelves of the library, literary criticism on Walker and the novel.

Again, this was not really about the novel; this was about fundamentalist religious beliefs and racism.

Which brings me to maybe the most powerful censorship moment of my career.

I cannot stress this enough, but book bans and censorship are almost never about a book. Book bans and censorship are about some people imposing their ideologies on all people.

I was fortunate to have as a colleague the only Black teacher in our English Department, Ethel Chamblee. She was a powerful advocate for students and one of the kindest supporters of me as a teacher I have ever experienced.

While I was chair, Ethel and I worked to diversify our required reading lists for high school students in our English courses. Before we did so, the required works were all by white authors, and almost entire while men.

This process of revising the reading list was laborious because one reason the so-called canon remains white and male is that older works are often absent any potentially offensive language and all the sex is cloaked in metaphor (my students routinely failed to recognize what Daisy blossoming for Gatsby implied).

However, we eventually chose and approved adding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s novel had been out of print until being fairly recently resurrected, notably as a recommended novel in AP programs.

The novel has some modest sexual content, but certainly isn’t as graphic as The Color Purple or even many of the classics we had required for decades.

During the first semester the book was taught, in Ethel’s classes, a parent complained. By then, I had established a process for parent complaints based on NCTE’s guidelines, including that anyone raising a concern had to complete a form and identify if they had or not read the book.

We had a committee of high school and middle school teachers who reviewed the complaints and issued a ruling.

Since the form demonstrated the parent had not read the book and since the parent boldly admitted they did not want their child reading a work by a Black author (a student sitting in a classroom taught by a Black woman, by the way), we quickly rejected the complaint and noted the student could be issued a different novel instead, but the class assignment remained with the novel on our required reading list.

Now the important part: The parent complaining was a leader in the local KKK.

Once again, I cannot stress this enough, but book bans and censorship are almost never about a book. Book bans and censorship are about some people imposing their ideologies on all people.

Should the bigoted ideology of the KKK determine what books teachers can teach and what books students can read for an entire public school?

Although there is an even harder question—should the bigoted ideology of the KKK be a prison for a child that just happens to be born into that family?

In 2022, book challenges are occurring across the U.S., repeating my own experiences above. These are attacks on freedom in the name of using public schools and public libraries to impose some people’s ideologies onto everyone.

One parent having a book removed from a school library makes decisions for all other parents and students. So who determines whose rights matter?

Academic freedom isn’t free as long as we allow the rights of a few to determine the rights of everyone.


Recommended

Grendel Introduced Me to Allegory, Allusion, Symbolism, and Generally Blew My Mind

Conservatives are Wrong about Parental Rights

Curriculum as Windows, Mirrors, and Maps

Banned in the U.S.A. Redux 2021: “[T]o behave as educated persons would”

Banning Books Is Un-American

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

Being Single Is Hard, writes Emma Lindsay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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