Category Archives: Langston Hughes

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.

[email: paul.thomas@furman.edu]


P.L. Thomas, Furman University

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

Date: TBD


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

Confronting DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

For a book on racism written by an academic, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has experienced a level of popularity over the last two years that is interesting, if not surprising.

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement re-ignited after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, DiAngelo’s book has also experienced another significant boost in readership, primarily by white Americans seemingly having a long-overdue come-to-Jesus moment with their whiteness and complicity in systemic racism.

On social media, however, blog posts and Twitter threads have warned “don’t read White Fragility” and “don’t worship DiAngelo.” These warnings come from Black scholars and advocates for anti-racism activism, creating a powerful and important tension in that fight to eradicate white privilege and racism in the U.S.

There is also an insidious challenge to DiAngelo and White Fragility that comes from and speaks to white denial and white nationalism; this denial is grounded in a dishonest use of “science” calling into question DiAngelo’s statistics, methods, and scholarship.

This rebuttal is ironic proof of the existence and resilience of white denial and racism. It has no credibility and is a distraction.

Black voices, however, challenging the centering of DiAngelo in the conversation about race and racism must be acknowledged by anyone—especially white people—claiming to be anti-racism.

Having been raised in a racist home (with parents who embraced white celebrities such as Elvis Presley whose celebrity erased Black entertainers) and community throughout the 1960s and 1970s, I have documented that my journey to awareness about white privilege, white denial/fragility, and systemic racism has been grounded in Black writers and scholars.

When I first read DiAngelo’s essay, I found nothing new or surprising, except that a book existed and that people seemed to be reading it.

If anyone had wanted to understand white America or white fragility, James Baldwin unpacked all that often, for example in 1962’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind”:

quote 8
quote 9

My reading and scholarship on race, whiteness, and racism began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Carter Godwin Woodson, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Martin Luther King Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, and others.

I cannot emphasize enough the essential role social media has played in my evolving racial awareness through my being able to connect to an invaluable wealth of Black and multi-racial scholars, academics, writers, and creators whose voices drive my own commitments to anti-racism: Natalie Hopkinson, Jose Vilson, Chris Emdin, Trina Shanks, Camika Royal, Theresa Runstedtler, Nikki Jones, Mariame Kaba, Robert Jones Jr., Mychal Denzel Smith, Andre Perry, Ernest Morrell, Seneca Vaught, Michah Ali, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rhondda R. Thomas, Jay Smooth, Greg Carr, Imani Gandy, Lou Moore, Simone Sebastian, Yvette Carnell, Asadah Kirkland, Venus Evans-Winter, Roxane Gay, John Ira Jennings, Jacqueline Woodson, Cornelius Minor, Stacey Patton, Jessica Moulite, Chenjerai Kumanyika, Brittney Cooper, Lisa Stringfellow, Angela Dye, Sherri Spelic, Bree Newsome Bass, Zoe Samudzi, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Jonathan W. Gray, A.D. Carson, Terrenda White, Clint Smith, David E. Kirkland, Dereca Blackmon, Alondra Nelson, Teju Cole, Colin Kaepernick, Morgan Parker, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Crystal Fleming, Eve L. Ewing, Johnny E. Williams, DeMisty Bellinger, Imani Perry, Josie Duffy Rice, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Etan Thomas, Ijeoma Oluo, Natalie Auzenne, Ja’han Jones, Howard Bryant, The Root, Jemele Hill, Ibram X. Kendi, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Reynolds, Jamil Smith, Valerie Kinloch, Michael Harriot, Bomani Jones, Rashawn Ray, Walter D. Greason, Hanif Abdurraqib, Sarah Thomas, Joshua Bennett, Marc Lamont Hill, Sarah J. Jackson, Clarkisha Kent, Robert Randolph Jr., Peter Darker, Tanji Reed Marshall, Sil Lai Abrams, Sami Schalk, Bianca Nightengale-Lee, Jessica Owens-Young, Andre M. Carrington, Christena Cleveland, Christopher Cameron, Val Brown, Kim Pearson, Kim Parker, Nicole Sealey, Margaret Kimberley, Malaika Jabali, Lisa Sharon Harper, Benjamin Dixon, Tade Thompson, Maria Taylor, Terri N. Watson, Zaretta Hammond, Shea Martin, and Kim Gallon.

There simply is an enormous wealth of Black voices historical and contemporary that white people should read and listen to, often easily accessible online, in fact.

DiAngelo is finding a place in mainstream and fragile America in a similar way that Ta-nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander have, the latter two Black writers having also received criticism from Black scholars and public intellectuals for appeasing whiteness even as they confront racism.

I have included DiAngelo’s book as a choice reading in my courses as I have introduced students to Coates and Alexander—with caveats and in the context of required reading from critical Black writers, thinkers, and scholars.

White privileged students have admitted openly in class sessions that they finally listened to DiAngelo, even though they have heard and resisted claims of white privilege and systemic racism before.

DiAngelo’s White Fragility and her celebrity from that work fit into what I have called the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness (a paradox of which I am a part).

DiAngelo represents centering whiteness, acknowledging racism and Black suffering only in proximity to whiteness, and Black voices given space because of white approval; these all work against anti-racism and are in fact racism.

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, DiAngelo represents the importance of and power in white-to-white confronting of and naming racism as well as white denial and fragility.

Yes, we should all feel skeptical about celebrity status and capitalizing from racism, just as we should resist monetizing and career-boosting that surrounds poverty studies as well as poverty workshops and simulations.

White people must not worship DiAngelo or her book, and no one should be recommending that white people read only White Fragility or read it instead of Black voices.

My students who have been introduced to DiAngelo know that dozens of Black writers, thinkers, and scholars made the case against whiteness and racism over decades starting at least a century ago (in terms of the works I offer as required reading).

I take the warnings of “don’t read DiAngelo” from Black scholars very seriously, and find compelling without qualifications the alternative offered—read Black voices, listen to Black voices, and believe Black voices on their own merit.

I also think there remains a place for DiAngelo’s work—even as it has one foot solidly in centering whiteness—as long as it is an element of de-centering whiteness and eradicating white privilege and racism.

My critical commitments make me concerned this caveat is a mistake, yet another concession to that white fragility which DiAngelo is naming.

Is a contextualized place for DiAngelo necessary as white people continue to wrestle with racism? I think that is likely true.

“Don’t rely on only white voices about whiteness and racism” is the goal, the ideal.

Since we find ourselves in the midst of the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness, at the very least white people committed to anti-racism must reject calls for reading only DiAngelo or reading DiAngelo instead of Black voices.

White celebrity and white authority can no longer be allowed to rise on the backs and instead of Black labor and experiences, as that whiteness occupies spaces that erase or bar Black voices.

There simply is no place left for approaching the work of anti-racism while tip-toeing around the delicacy of white people.

Ultimately that is the sort of white fragility we must recognize, name, and check.


Recommended

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

Monuments of Honor, Monuments of Shame

Mount Rushmore
Photo by John Bakator on Unsplash

Gun advocates often proclaim that guns don’t kill people, but that people kill people. Of course, this has a kernel of truth to it while also glossing over the inherent violent potential in those guns.

That sort of truth can also be applied to any published text.

The enslavement of Black people in the U.S. was supported by citing Biblical passages among, for example, Southern Baptists.

In other words, meaning tends to be less objectively in any object and more so in the intent of those imposing meaning on that thing.

With the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president, many in the country became more ad more concerned about the possibility of fascism and totalitarianism coming to a free people grown lazy in their consumerism.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 saw a surge in popularity among those troubled by Trump and his supporters.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the U.S. is now facing another potential tipping point among free people—a renewed public uprising over police brutality disproportionately impacting Black people. The killing of George Floyd has expanded and reignited the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has nudged the country a bit farther along in confronting its racial and racist sins often memorialized and honored in building names and statues across the country.

One of America’s literary monuments of shame is William Faulkner, considered a giant of Southern letters despite being a Southern apologist (see James Baldwin’s “Faulkner and Desegregation”). However, there is an irony in Faulkner because his precise depictions of the South prove, not Faulkner, but Baldwin correct.

In 2020, conservatives who have lined up behind Trump (and seemingly forgotten their roots in Ronald Reagan who famously demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”) are rushing to defend racists whose names emblazon buildings and images stand permanently as statues of honor across the country, even as we know most of these purposeful celebrations occurred in defiance of Black liberation and full entry into our so-called free country.

Conservatives are shouting that renaming buildings and removing statues are acts of erasing history. Trump conservatives are our contemporary Emily, discovered at the end of Faulkner’s story to have been spending her nights clinging to the corpse of the lover she could not have and killed instead to hold onto forever.

This thing that has never existed, I shall hold onto always.

And in another monumental irony, these Trump conservatives are quoting Orwell’s 1984 as a warning about the current racial reckoning in the U.S. targeting monuments to racists:

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Here Winston is explaining to Julia how “history” is a tool of the Party, a weapon of totalitarian rule.

The problem, of course, is that in a time of memes and social media—when many people routinely post quotes that are misattributed at best and simply false at worst—most conservatives quoting Orwell have never read his work, or 1984, and have completely misread the purpose of this passage since it is taken out of context.

Southern Baptist preachers were fond of quoting every possible passage using master/slavery analogies in the Bible, decontextualized and twisted (making the metaphorical literal) to show that God endorsed a master/slave relationship.

Orwell’s fiction is anti-fascism, anti-totalitarianism, in fact, but the novel was not written as prediction; it was a dark parody of the imminent threat to freedom in Orwell’s lifetime.

This passage is no simple warning about the renaming of buildings or the removal of statues. Orwell’s narrative dramatizes for readers that history is determined by those with power. Totalitarian regimes must control history to control people.

What Trump conservatives also miss is that the call to rename buildings and remove statues is not coming from authoritarian leaders, but from the people, people recognizing that honoring racists has no place among free people.

The U.S. is an admirable idea, something beautiful to aspire to—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But Trump conservatives misread the American Dream just as they misread Orwell.

America has never yet been great for all people; American has mostly been great for a few white people at the expense of other people, often Black Americans.

Langston Hughes writes of the tension between what America can be and how it continues to fail:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

The names and statues honoring Ben Tillman, John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, and countless other racists and white supremacists are monuments of shame portraying “[t]he land that never has been yet.”

Along with Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B” and “Let America Be America Again”—and instead of misreading Orwell—let me offer better literary commentaries on the call to remove the names and images of our racist past from Carl Sandburg and William Stafford:

Ready to Kill Carl Sanburg

Stafford Monument

Democracy is also a beautiful idea, one Americans have failed by choosing consumerism and rugged individualism over “liberty and justice for all.”

Renaming and removing the whitewashed history of our ugly past is not erasing history, but acknowledging, like Hughes and Sandburg and Stafford, that to finally build a free and equitable people, ugly things must be torn down so that we can start again.


Recommended

On Memory and History: What’s in a Name?

Dismantling Monuments: History as a Living Document

Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition

accidental monuments to their shame 

A Conversation in 2020 with James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind”

One of the worst forms of propaganda about text and reading in formal schooling is that any text has a fixed meaning, independent of the reader, the reader’s history, or the writer and the writer’s history.

Traditionally, K-12 schooling, often in English courses, has implemented a very reduced version of New Criticism that frames all text meaning as a static formula whereby the reader adds up the techniques and discovers an authoritative meaning (that is singular and, again, not grounded in the people creating meaning or the conditions surrounding either the writing or the reading). More recently this anemic approach to text and reading has been reinvigorated by the “close reading” movement embedded in the failed Common Core era.

In 2020 as the Trump era could be coming to a close and the U.S. is being ravaged by a pandemic and another round of something like mainstream racial awareness, I re-read James Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind.”

The 1962 publication of this essay (which becomes a section of The Fire Next Time) had a distinct historical and personal set of purposes—Baldwin’s relationship with the church and Christianity as well as his being courted by Elijah Muhammad for the Nation of Islam.

This essay has a powerful online presence for The New Yorker currently:

Main image

One of Baldwin’s persistent messages in his nonfiction is the inextricable relationship between white and Black America, and, as he stated, “[t]this rigid refusal to look at ourselves [that] may well destroy us” (“Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'”). “Ourselves” and “us” are telling in that Baldwin sought a new self-awareness for both white and Black Americans even as he was especially focusing on white fragility and denial.

As I re-read a few days ago, I shared quotes on social media, drawn to how this essay speaks vividly to now and to the lingering white problem in the U.S., a white problem that fuels racism, still, through white denial.

One of the first essays by Baldwin I invite my first-year writing students to read in my Baldwin/#BlackLivesMatter seminar is “A Report from Occupied Territory” since this 1966 essay details the historical/systemic racial/racist inequity of police violence in the U.S. that is a part of the two Americas confronted early in “Letter” by Baldwin:

quote 1

A paradox of racism driven by white supremacy narratives is that white power has demands for “other people” that white leaders and most white people cannot and do not maintain. While some confront the tendency of hypocrisy in leadership, we far too rarely ascribe that to a feature of white supremacy narratives and cultural myths. In fact, this hypocrisy may be more embedded in whiteness than any aspect of leadership.

One of those white lies is being replayed in the respectability politics of white people focusing on marches and demonstrations by framing them as “rioting” and “looting.” This misguided attention (distractions from the police shootings and killing that prompted the demonstrations) is also a calculated effort to ignore or erase the white violence and economic theft that are essential to white dominance and capitalism.

U.S. enslavement of Black people made capitalism “successful” for white America, and white economic theft of Black people and on the backs of Black people remains a daily aspect of this country’s “success”—as Baldwin explains:

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The role of racism in capitalism and the U.S. market is paralleled by that same corruption of Christianity, with Baldwin’s message prescient for the deplorable embracing of Trump by conservative Christians:

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Racism is a race lie, an economic lie, and a religious lie.

For Baldwin, the latter meant that Black Americans needed to walk away from a fatally corrupted Christianity:

quote 4

Compared to Martin Luther King Jr., Baldwin poses a much blunter confrontation of the white progressive and the hollowness of progressive policies, the incredibly slow incrementalism bending (maybe) toward King’s “justice”:

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As some in the U.S. feel hopeful in 2020 that the promise of racial justice seems closer at hand, Baldwin, again, acknowledged this possibility in the need for the types of disruptions filling the streets across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd:

quote 6

That American Dream is a myth not framing Truth but myth that is a lie—as Paulo Freire explains, “myths that deform us”:

quote 7

Few moments are more apt in 2020 than this closing question, which also forces the reader to consider that white denial also ignores that the house is, in fact, burning even as white supremacy maintains the myth of white superiority.

Baldwin continues his rhetorical brilliance by confronting the corrosive nature of deficit ideology (whereby Black people are framed always as lacking white qualities) as he builds again to his recognition of white people refusing to see themselves even as they beg to always be at the center of everyone’s consciousness:

quote 8

This essay becomes a brilliant and enduring unmasking of white America:

quote 9

Being white is inevitably being “the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.”

By the end, Baldwin returns to a moral grounding and phrase that has remained connected to Baldwin as has his resilient hope and trust in the power of love:

quote 10

Baldwin’s writing as hope and prophesy seems too long delayed, a “dream deferred” because, as Langston Hughes also mused, “(America never was America to me.)”

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

Myrtle_gets_hit_by_the_car
The Great Gatsby (2013)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something we do not understand and do not want to admit.

James Baldwin, “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,'” 1948

Myrtle Wilson mangled and left for dead in the middle of the road, Jay Gatsby’s gold Rolls Royce driven by Daisy Buchanan disappearing into the night.

Gatsby face down and dead in his opulent pool with George Wilson, Gatsby’s murderer, nearby, also dead at his own hand.

These are the images that resonant with me from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—juxtaposed with these words by narrator Nick Carraway:

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Fitzgerald’s so-called American classic, what some call the Great American Novel, is an incredibly dark work that mostly paints America as a soulless white nation of “vast carelessness.”

While I cannot claim Fitzgerald omits black America on purpose to make a point, the absence of blacks among the decadence of Gatsby’s obsessions beside Nick’s mesmerized impotence as well as Tom and Daisy’s carelessness remains a powerful commentary on the state of this nation in 2017.

Myrtle, George, and Gatsby are sacrificed on the alter of the American Dream and material wealth. While Tom and Daisy directly and indirectly are agents in this tragedy, they mostly survive unscathed.

America today has chosen not to address the rendered invisible—black America in Fitzgerald and directly addressed in Ralph Ellison—or the working class/ poor personified by the delusions of Myrtle and George, but to embrace and worship Tom, privileged white supremacist (in many ways now echoed by Trump):

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? … Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” [1]

Noticeably less celebrated, sitting beside Fitzgerald’s “vast carelessness” of white America was Langston Hughes:

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free. (“Theme for English B”)

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak….

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet… (“Let America Be America Again”)

Decades after Hughes and many years after the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin made a powerful and pointed observation:

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, Los Angeles Times, 1979)

Several years before that, Baldwin also confronted white America:

The truth is that the country does not know what to do with its black population now that the blacks are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle; and they especially do not know what to do with young black men, who pose as devastating a threat to the economy as they do to the morals of young white cheerleaders. It is not at all accidental that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many, but there are still too many prancing about for the public comfort. (“No Name in the Street,” 1972)

The “vast carelessness” of white America in 2017 includes white denial of racism as well as outlandish claims that somehow white America is under attack.

The truth remains, as Hughes and Baldwin observed, white America would never trade being white for being black—considering the state of racial inequity now:

What this report finds: Black-white wage gaps are larger today than they were in 1979, but the increase has not occurred along a straight line. During the early 1980s, rising unemployment, declining unionization, and policies such as the failure to raise the minimum wage and lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws contributed to the growing black-white wage gap. During the late 1990s, the gap shrank due in part to tighter labor markets, which made discrimination more costly, and increases in the minimum wage. Since 2000 the gap has grown again. As of 2015, relative to the average hourly wages of white men with the same education, experience, metro status, and region of residence, black men make 22.0 percent less, and black women make 34.2 percent less. Black women earn 11.7 percent less than their white female counterparts. The widening gap has not affected everyone equally. Young black women (those with 0 to 10 years of experience) have been hardest hit since 2000.

Why it matters: Though the African American experience is not monolithic, our research reveals that changes in black education levels or other observable factors are not the primary reason the gaps are growing. For example, just completing a bachelor’s degree or more will not reduce the black-white wage gap. Indeed the gaps have expanded most for college graduates. Black male college graduates (both those with just a college degree and those who have gone beyond college) newly entering the workforce started the 1980s with less than a 10 percent disadvantage relative to white college graduates but by 2014 similarly educated new entrants were at a roughly 18 percent deficit.

Race, gender, and social class inequity remains persistent in the U.S.—matched in resilience only by the “vast carelessness” of white America, refusing to acknowledge and thus act in any way to end the ill-gotten advantages of white privilege, and as Hughes implored, “Let America be America again./ Let it be the dream it used to be.”

Four decades ago, Baldwin recognized the failure of American politics, also victim to the “vast carelessness” of white America: “There is a carefully muffled pain and panic in the nation, which neither candidate, neither party, can coherently address, being, themselves, but vivid symptoms of it” (“A Review of Roots,” 1976).

Spoken today, these words send the same relevant message that partisan politics cannot save us because partisan politics is part of the problem.

White America must shed its “vast carelessness,” its commitment to our dark and sordid Tom core.

Otherwise, white America embraces callously the carnage by a free people who lack a soul, the nightmare instead of the dream.


[1] Late in the novel, when the tension among Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby reaches a climax, Tom, the scientific racist and adulterer, becomes self-righteous:

“Self control!” repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…. Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”

The hypocrisy mixed with Tom’s racism creates even more tension, broken momentarily by Jordan: “‘We’re all white here,’ murmured Jordan.”

A seemingly minor comment by a minor character resonates today as not only the historical view in America but the mantra of the rise of white nationalism today.

The Unbearable Lightness of Lying: Renaming What We Value, Fear

“Who is more to be pitied,” muses artist and main character Rabo Karabekian in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, “a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?”

As in most of Vonnegut’s fiction, there is a tension of tone between the narration and the weight of the circumstances—a tug-of-war between light and dark, or better phrased Light and Dark.

Karabekian’s failed autobiography is an adventure in What is art? with the specters of Nazi Germany, fascism, and World War II as well as the rise and fall of the U.S.S.R. (the novel was published in 1987) lurking forever in the background.

“The history of writers working under tyranny or in exile is long, and each example involves its own particular cruelties,” writes Nathan Scott McNamara, adding:

From 1968 until 1989, Czech writers like Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal were put in a particularly impossible position. They spoke and wrote in Czech, a language limited to a very small part of Central Europe—and a language that had fallen under the control of a sensitive and authoritarian government….

One of the major successes of the Soviet regime’s control of Czechoslovakia was the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other. Kundera has been largely disavowed by his native land, and in 2008, he was dubiously accused of once working with the Communist Police. Toward the end of his life, Hrabal came to see himself as a coward. At the age of 82, he jumped from the fifth story window of a hospital and died.

In the very real world, Kundera and Hrabal represent what Vonnegut fictionalizes, but struggled against in some ways himself as a writer.

Also as McNamara recognizes, the terrors found in Vonnegut’s novel as well as Kundera and Hrabal’s lives and careers are not something of history:

The survival of the writer under an unpredictable government is no less a serious concern today….

Warning flares are going up in the United States, too, where our President-elect threatens his competitors, intimidates private citizens, and warns that he’ll alter libel laws so journalists can be “sued like they’ve never been sued before.” This past week brought us another painful parallel between the 2016 US Presidential Election and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: the role of Russia. We don’t have tanks rolling through our streets, but a digital hack and a manipulated election nonetheless feel like a kind of 21st-century echo. It’s almost Hrabalesque in its absurdity. It’s almost darkly comic.

Yes, in some ways, Trumplandia feels too much like a black comedy penned by Vonnegut, even more absurd than the political theater and political-religious propaganda in Cat’s Cradle.

2016 in the U.S. has become not just reality TV as politics but a thin and distracting public debate about fake news and post-truth America—as Sarah Kendzior explains:

“Fake news” is a term that entered the vernacular following the election of Donald Trump. Allegedly coined to bemoan the terrible reporting that helped facilitate Mr. Trump’s rise, it actually serves to stabilize his rule. “Fake news” poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.

When the United States elects a man who peddles falsehoods, obfuscates critical information about his business transactions and foreign relationships, and relies on both mass media outlets and untraditional venues like conspiracy websites to maintain his power, the manifold ways he lies are as important as the lies themselves.

Kendzior recognizes, however, that naming fake news and post-truth actual works—as McNamara notes (“the creation of a generalized fear, making the Czech people suspicious of each other”)—to further solidify Trump:

However, Mr. Trump’s most powerful lies contain a grain of truth that plays to the preconceptions of his audience. When Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.

The mostly unspoken problems facing the U.S. include the fact that the country has always been post-truth, mostly mythology and narrative bluster, and has always mis-named what we value and what we fear.

For example, considered the jumbled responses to healthcare in the U.S., as unpacked by Robert H. Frank:

The same logic explains why private/government hybrid programs — like Obamacare, and its predecessor in Massachusetts, Romneycare — include an individual mandate. Opponents of the mandate argue that it limits individual freedom, which of course it does. But traffic lights and homicide laws also limit individual freedom; everyone celebrates liberty, but sometimes we must choose among competing freedoms. Failure to include a mandate would eliminate the freedom of citizens to purchase affordable health insurance. In such cases, we must decide which of the competing freedoms is more important.

If we frame the overly simplistic embracing of “individual freedom” that is central to the American Myth against McNamara’s consideration of Soviet communism as totalitarianism, there appears to be a powerful space for renaming what we value and what we fear.

And our fears, in fact, have little to do with communism or socialism—but everything to do with totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and fascism. The Soviet labeled their totalitarianism “communism,” but as critical educators know, institutions of a free people (such as formal education and the judicial system) “can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.”

Like “communism” and “socialism,” “democracy” and “capitalism” can be veneers for totalitarianism and oppression; and in the U.S., that “can be” often proves to be “is.”

The nastiness of “Make America Great Again” reflects and then seeps into the fabric of a people without real moral grounding, and with a superficial faith in freedom tinted with a cartoonish fear of the Other.

Renaming, we must call for making America great for everyone, finally.

Renaming, we must reject totalitarianism and authoritarianism.

If we return to Vonnegut-as-Karabekian, we in the U.S. are confronted with neither a formal police state nor “perfect freedom,” but none the less, we are unwilling and unable to say unvarnished what we value and what we fear so that we can gain the former and cast out the latter.

The Inevitable Rise of Trumplandia: Market Ideology Ate Our Democracy

Writing in 2000 specifically about education reform, Michael Engel [1] acknowledges: “Market ideology has triumphed over democratic values not because of its superiority as a theory of society but in part because in a capitalist system it has an inherent advantage” (p. 9).

Nearly four decades before Engel’s claim, Raymond E. Callahan [2] confronted what he labeled the cult of efficiency in education:

The tragedy itself was fourfold: that educational questions were subordinated to business considerations; that administrators were produced who were not, in any true sense, educators; that a scientific label was put on some very unscientific and dubious methods and practices; and that an anti-intellectual climate, already prevalent, was strengthened. (p. 246)

What is disturbingly clear here is that despite the enduring claims that universal public education—often attributed to the idealistic foresight of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson—serves our democracy, public schooling has in fact worked almost entirely in the service of market ideology: sorting children for the workforce and instilling compliance in those young people become good and compliant workers [3].

And here we have a subset of the entire country.

While many are wringing their hands about the post-truth U.S., our newly minted Trumplandia is not anything new, but the logical outcome of who we have always been—a belief culture skirting by on mythologies and false narratives to mask the ugly facts of our essential commitments to competition, consumerism, and capitalism.

Donald Trump is the best and most accurate personification of who the U.S. currently is, but also the embodiment of who we have always been.

Founded as a revolt against monarchy, the Founding Fathers used the rhetoric of freedom as a veneer for a few privileged men truly wanting the doors to exploitation, not closed, but opened just a tad wider so they could cozy in.

The newly founded free country allowed by law the enslavement of humans and the relegation of women to second-class citizenship.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was post-truth.

Or at least only the sliver of truth for a select few white men already clutching power.

All you have to do is to listen now or to the record of black voices, women’s voices, the voices of the imprisoned and impoverished: “(America never was America to me.)” [4]

Just as the robber baron era of U.S. history was no blip on the country’s radar, but who we really are, the current ascension of Trumplandia is simply a more full unmasking of our complete failure at democracy and human liberation.

Trump’s apparent cabinet appointments, his claims he doesn’t need daily briefings, and the brash blurring of celebrity and huckster business acumen—these are the U.S. laid bare.

We have always been mostly branding—meritocracy, boot straps, upward mobility as marketing lingo with little basis in fact.

Political leaders have always sold the U.S. public a bill of goods wrapped in the American flag; George W. Bush sold a war on repackaged lies, and there were essentially only consequences for the soldiers, the U.S. public, and the victims of that war.

But the warmongers remain essentially unscathed.

And thus, Trump as Teflon blow hard reality TV star/business huckster is just a few notches past Ronald Reagan as Teflon actor.

The ugliest paradox of all is that in our lust for consumerism we have allowed market ideology to eat our democracy, and as the metaphor requires, the excrement has really hit the fan this time.


[1] Engel, M. (2000). The struggle for control of public education: Market ideology vs. democratic values. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[2] Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

[3] See Education Technology and the ‘New Economy,’ Audrey Watters:

Although there is some lip service paid to learning computer programming in order to deepen students’ thinking and expand their creativity, much of the conversation about computer science is framed in terms of developing students who are “job ready” – the rationale for teaching computer science President Obama gave in his final State of the Union address in January.

[4] “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

Free

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

The iconic aliens of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five marvel at the idealistic delusion of the human race when challenged by Billy Pilgrim about free will:

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” [Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (Kindle Locations 1008-1010). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.]

In the American character, “free” remains a powerful and corrupt term and concept.

It is uttered like an incantation, but in fact, the use of “free” has sullied both the role of government (socialism) and the so-called free market (capitalism).

Nothing of the government is free—not highways, public schooling, the military, the judicial system and police force, and certainly not the bare-bones social services so demonized.

All government structures and services are publicly funded, a powerful and important term that highlights that public funding provides a foundation on which a free people can remain free.

Despite the animosity among many Americans about the damn government (who is us), there would be no free market without essential and publicly funded structures and services; think about how any business could exist in the U.S. without the highway system.

But we sully capitalism as well with promises of “free”—free internet with our hotel room, buy one to get one free.

But, alas, there is nothing free in the free market. The truth is that all products and services are paid for by the customers.

Internet may be included with the price of a room, and two products may be included with the usual charge for one product—but nothing is free, including freedom.

*

Writing in 1946 specifically about bigotry, English educator Lou LaBrant asked: “Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323).”

LaBrant was confronting the power of words and the need for teachers of language to stress the importance of using words with care; what we say, how we label and name—these human acts define, shape, and create the world.

But to name does not make truth, LaBrant warns:

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 any thing. Children do not understand this; nor do all adults. (p. 324)

As with “free,” LaBrant would argue: “These abstractions tend to become vague and therefore misleading….Frequently the speaker uses them with apparent assurance that they have meaning, and yet could not for his[/her] life explain what he[/she] means” (p. 325).

This carelessness with language, with words, LaBrant calls “word magic”—and with our slipshod use of “free,” it is a black magic that sullies everything it touches.

*

Free will hangs before the human grasp like an apple forbidden by the Creator.

Tempting, yes, but is it delusion?

Nothing’s free, including freedom, and so, “free” can only be cherished if used with the care it deserves.

Feel free to take such care.