Category Archives: Malcolm X

A Case for Critical Race Theory, and More

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people.

Race, however, is not biological; race is a social construction that has very real consequences because of the systems of white privilege and racism.

Conservative white men with power, political power, have launched a campaign against their own distorted and purposefully misleading characterization of critical race theory (CRT), a narrow and complicated legal and academic term and concept.

First, CRT is not practiced or implemented in the vast majority of K-12 schools, and is rare in higher education. I am speaking as someone who has taught about 20 years each in K-12 and higher education while being a critical educator.

Critical educators are rare, and at best, we are tolerated; but being a critical educator has professional negative consequences because being “critical” is a commitment to challenging systemic forces.

As the attack on CRT shows, people take personal and individual offense when systems are challenged.

Even though white people in the U.S. on average earn more and hold disproportionate positions of power than Black people, white people perceive anti-racism efforts (which are designed to dismantle white privilege) as an attack; white people perceive a creeping loss of their privilege even as they deny that privilege exists.

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

Anti-racism efforts, which include concepts such as CRT, are not some sort of reverse racism, not a blanket condemnation of white people.

Again, white privilege and racism are systemic, as CRT argues, built into the fabric of most if not all institutions in the U.S. including policing and the judicial system (which CRT specifically addresses). But white privilege and racism are also built into formal education and, as the 1619 Project proposes, into the very core of capitalism and the U.S. economic system.

Anti-racism efforts, including those found in K-12 and higher education, ask educators and students to consider how racism happened (historically) and to examine critically how white privilege and racism remain in our contemporary daily lives in the U.S.

The backlash against CRT has had some high-profile consequences, including Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at the University of North Carolina through a process that is overtly partisan politics—the same conservatives decrying CRT punishing the most prominent face of the 1619 Project, which sits at the center of this storm.

That politically partisan denial of tenure occurred around the birthday of Malcolm X, who I think serves an important point here.

Malcolm X was considered during his life a radical, in today’s language “critical,” and despite his careful and powerful rhetoric when positioned in the mainstream media of his day, he was demonized as the exact embodiment of racial threat that white Americans were openly embracing in the 1960s.

To understand racism in the U.S., consider this from Malcolm X: “History proves that the white man is a devil.”

For knee-jerk conservatives, this is proof of Malcolm X himself being racist.

But read in its full and clear language, the comment is not racist since it is grounded in “history proves.” Malcolm X is drawing a valid generalization about white people based on Black people living in the reality of active individual and systemic racism in the U.S.—from slavery to Jim Crow, from separate bathrooms and water fountains to segregated schools, from lynchings and the rise of the KKK to interracial marriage being illegal until the mid-1960s.

Racism is a set of race-based generalizations based on stereotypes, not evidence. I won’t list them here, but white racism toward Black people includes the very ugliest of claims about Black people that have no basis in fact, no historical, biological, or sociological evidence.

Part of the backlash against CRT is simply denial and racial discomfort, but that backlash is also a profound misconception about the fact of racism. Conservatives are apt to claim that the U.S. is not a racist country, and that any racism in the U.S. is merely a thing of the past.

Let me offer here two examples of why CRT and anti-racism efforts are valid, and must be central to formal education.

First, CRT argues that our current systems have racism baked into them because they were designed and created when, in fact, being virulently racist was not only socially and politically acceptable, but often a social and political advantage.

For example, Ben Tillman had a long successful political career in South Carolina (1890-1918), as governor and U.S. Senator. Tillman is something of an extreme example, but he was one of may white men who were racist and creating the laws that govern this county.

Detailed at Historic Columbia are some of the key elements of Tillman as racist politician who helped created our current systemic racism:

In a 1909 speech at the Red Shirt Reunion in Anderson, SC, Tillman boasted about his role in the 1876 murder of six Black militia members, whom he called “negro thugs.” White leaders celebrated the “Hamburg Riot” as a key victory of the 1876 Red Shirt paramilitary campaign, which successfully intimidated Black voters and stuffed ballot boxes to ensure the election of Wade Hampton III, and with it, the end of Reconstruction. Today, these murders are known as the Hamburg Massacre, one of the earliest lynchings in South Carolina.

Although he began as a perpetrator, Tillman later used his platform as governor and senator to serve as an instigator of and advocate for racial violence. Perhaps his most well-known pronouncement occurred in an 1892 speech, when, as governor [emphasis added], he vowed that “I would lead a lynching”–a claim carried by the state’s leading newspapers. His election to the governorship in 1890 unleashed what human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins later called “an era of lynching.” By the end of the decade, at least 53 men, 51 of whom were Black, were lynched in South Carolina.

Yet, Tillman was most proud of his role in the Constitutional Convention of 1895, which introduced an “understanding clause” and poll tax as barriers to the vote, designed to eradicate Black participation in government. In a speech to his fellow United States Senators [emphasis added] five years later, he reminded them that, “We [South Carolinians] did not disfranchise [sic] the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments….” This speech affirmed a sentiment repeated throughout his career on the national stage about the role of African Americans in American democracy:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Historic Columbia

Today, we all live in a country under systems intentionally designed to be racist—some as overt as Tillman but others far more subtle (consider the sentencing differences between powder and crack cocaine and racial disparities in police shootings).

CRT and anti-racism efforts ask us to consider how these racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Denial and neutrality allow racism and racial inequity to remain; only naming, exploring critically, and confronting racism can erase racism.

Consider this second example, drawn from headlines within the last decade.

How did the killing of Tamir Rice by a police officer occur?:

“Shots fired, male down,” one of the officers in the car called across his radio. “Black male, maybe 20 [emphasis added], black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.”

But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12. Now, with the county sheriff’s office reviewing the shooting, interviews and recently released video and police records show how a series of miscommunications, tactical errors and institutional failures by the Cleveland police cascaded into one irreversible mistake.

In Tamir Rice Case, Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One

A racist stereotype (Black males are inherently dangerous and violent) combined with implicit bias (Black children are viewed as much older and more mature than their biological ages) led to the death of Rice. This tragic event is a real-life manifestation of what CRT argues, systemic forces with material consequences for Black people.

A police officer shooting and killing a Black boy, then, does not have to be a consciously racist individual to have acted in a way that is driven by systemic racism.

As further evidence, just a few years later, Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, shot and killed two people during protests in Wisconsin. The same conservatives attacking CRT refer to Black boys as “men” and Rittenhouse as a “boy.”

Attacks on CRT and anti-racism initiatives are embarrassing and offensive caricatures; these attacks are themselves racist and provide the evidence proving why CRT and anti-racism practices remain necessary.

We are now facing a paradox because the misleading attacks on CRT are justification for increasing CRT and other anti-racism efforts in K-12 and higher education.

CRT is incredibly rare in any formal education setting. More K-12 and higher education situations are incorporating (often begrudgingly) anti-racism practices and examinations (which may or may not have elements informed by CRT).

Diversity, equity, and inclusion experiences for children are not blaming all white people or white students simply for being white; but those discussions are designed, as noted above, to critically explore how evidence-based racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Being white is not a crime, but denying racism is itself an act of racism.

To take a stand against anti-racism (against CRT) is taking a stand for racism.

In this case, we can say “not all white people,” but clearly identify those people white or Black who are to blame when they seek ways to deny and perpetuate the racism that remains in our daily lives.

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.

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

Imagine a Unites States …

Malcolm X knee

People often either over-idealize or reject as a “bad” song the lyrics to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but the concept serves a useful purpose.

Imagine a United States where the public and political leadership took seriously Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against the racially inequitable policing and justice system in the US.

Imagine white America taking action because they listened, believed, and truly wanted an equitable and just country.

Imagine the many Black lives that would be with us today, alive and mostly anonymous in those lives.

Imagine no marches, no protests or signs emblazoned with “George Floyd” or “Black Lives Matter.”

But, instead, white America attacked Kaepernick, retreated into their comfortable white denial.

But, instead, white America today points accusatory fingers at “riots” and laments the loss of property, proving that for many whites, Black lives in fact do not matter.

White America created this, and only white America can end it.

Baldwin law

Now.

Imagine a country where the police protect and serve.

To make that real, white America must admit that the police protect and serve white interests at the expense of those lives that do not matter.

If you suffer white denial, if you are fretting over the protests and not the blue knee that took George Floyd’s Black life, I am providing a reader below.

But this is not a place for your white denial or white arguments.

“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,” James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (“Faulkner and Desegregation”)

Reader

James Baldwin: “the time is always now”

False Equivalence in Black and White

James Baldwin: “It’s a trauma because it’s such a traumatized society”

Understanding Racism as Systemic and about Power

All Lives Matter as a response to #BlackLivesMatter is offensive because…

James Baldwin’s “They Can’t Turn Back” (1960): “On such small signs and symbols does the southern cabala depend”

The “White Gaze” and the Arrogance of Good Intentions

This Is U.S.: “To be a Negro in this country…”

“The Other America,” Martin Luther King Jr. 14 March 1968

“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979)

James Baldwin (1979): “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood”

Every time I make the case that in order to offer every child the very highest quality education all children deserve, we must address the socioeconomic inequity of homes and communities as well as the schools that serve them, I am chastised by some that teachers and schools cannot control any of those out-of-school conditions.

Yet there remains a historical and current fact that social inequity is almost always reflected in educational inequity; schools, then, mostly perpetuate inequity, but they almost never fulfill their promise as the great equalizer.

In California recently, we see this in action: California students sued because they were such poor readers. They just won $53 million to help them.

Students and teachers have won a lawsuit that exposes political negligence, a failure to fully fund the most burdened schools serving students most burdened by inequity, as Kohli and Lee report:

A Los Angeles Times analysis of the 75 lowest-performing schools on the state’s English language arts test, based on California’s Common Core standards, illustrates the depth of the reading problem. Seven out of 10 third-graders in these schools did not meet the standards, according to state data from 2018 and 2019. The schools have about double the English learners of other elementary schools, and more than 90% of students at those schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — a poverty indicator.

While this is now, we must not ignore that social and educational inequity is a historical reality of the U.S.

James Baldwin, speaking in 1979, argued: “the billion-dollar industry [education] is more important than the life of the child,” and “you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood.”

It is here, “changing the neighborhood,” that the U.S. as a political body balks. We will label and attempt to change children; we will constantly reform our standards, our tests, and our schools; but we dare not “build a new social order.”

Baldwin criticizes a public school system that cheats Black students, calling for Black people to take their children out, to keep their children off the busses. Baldwin notes that any people (white people) who cannot educate their own cannot educate “other people’s children.”

On today’s date, February 21, Nina Simone was born, and Malcolm X was assassinated. Voices and lives such as Simone and Malcolm X as well as Baldwin, I imagine, are mostly ignored in classrooms across the U.S.—even during Black History Month.

Why? As Baldwin recognized, Black people, especially well educated and literate Black people “are a threat to the machinery.” Baldwin noted about himself: “I’m a disturber of the peace,” a label perfect for Simone and Malcolm X as well.

It takes very little imagination to understand why the U.S. has always cheated and continues to cheat some students, those students already being cheated in their lives by class inequity, racism, xenophobia, and other inequities.

Education and especially literacy can foster power; therefore, equitable access to education and literacy is equitable access to power.

The law suit in California is about equity and access; it is about power.

In a country based on value, we put out money where it matters most. Underfunded and under-resourced schools point at damning finger at what, as Baldwin recognized, the U.S. continues to disregard.

“Every white person in this country…knows one thing,” James Baldwin (1979)

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

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.

What Can a Sincere White Person Do? Malcolm X

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James Baldwin at 90: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’”

January 1, 2000, exposed a truly baffling phenomenon about most humans: A silly fascination with numbers that end in zero that completely renders those humans irrational. In the land of the arbitrary where people fear that arbitrary dates can spawn the Apocalypse, the irrational can’t even manage those arbitrary dates as January 1, 2001 (not 2000), was the turning point of the millennium.

And so we now witness a flurry of articles about James Baldwin, mostly ignored over the past few decades, because August 2, 2014, would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday—somehow signifying he is more important now than when he would have turned 89.

As someone who has come to cherish Baldwin the essayist and Baldwin the public intellectual, I welcome this sudden burst of sunlight on one of the most daring and perceptive voices ever among writers in the U.S. I cannot stress enough in print that I find Baldwin as valuable today as ever, and often feel deeply inadequate as a writer and would-be public intellectual against the power of Baldwin.

To join in with this celebration, I want to recommend primarily that Baldwin’s voice be read and viewed/heard—that we do not allow all being said and written about him to suffice. And on August 2, 2014, we have so much of Baldwin before us, so much that we have failed to embrace, to consider carefully, to allow these words to complete their unmasking:

My journey with Baldwin has resulted in an edited volume (co-edited with Furman colleague Scott Henderson), James Baldwin: Challenging Authors. So here I want to share the introduction I wrote for that collection of essays.

Introduction

No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.[i]

Trayvon Martin was killed February 26, 2012, in part because he was reduced to a stereotype, and after his death, Trayvon was again reduced—often by well-meaning people—to an icon, the hoodie. In his death, as well, Trayvon has been spoken about, spoken for—and I am compelled to argue that he has also been rendered voiceless. But, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has explained, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard” (n.p.).

In this introduction to a volume on the work of James Baldwin, I, like Roy, am compelled to speak beyond Trayvon about “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—about those Others: African American males.

At mid-twentieth century, as the U.S. was fighting against its racist heritage, African American males demanded to be heard—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and many others took the stage as artists, public intellectuals, and civic leaders. Wright’s Black Boy and Ellison’s Invisible Man represent in fictional narrative a powerful and disturbing image of the African American male; for Ellison, the guiding metaphor of that narrative is invisibility. The killing of Trayvon and the subsequent trial may suggest that African American males no longer suffer from invisibility but from how they are seen, how they are silenced, and how they are unheard: Trayvon seen (and reduced) as black male, thus necessarily a thug, a threat, and then Trayvon, the hoodie, the icon of the disposable African American male.

The fact of being seen and reduced as African American males too often result in violent deaths and prison. And the intersection of race, class, and gender with education has paralleled the rise of mass incarceration (Thomas, 2013) over the past thirty-plus years. While Wright’s and Ellison’s novels continue to capture the African American male experience—including the entrenched conditions that contributed to Trayvon’s killing—Ellison’s and Baldwin’s concerns about the failure of education to see clearly and holistically—and humanely—the plight of African American males continue to send an ominous and powerful message today  (see Chapter 9 for a fuller discussion).

In 1963, Ellison (2003) spoke to teachers:

At this point it might be useful for us to ask ourselves a few questions: what is this act, what is this scene in which the action is taking place, what is this agency and what is its purpose? The act is to discuss “these children,” the difficult thirty percent. We know this very well; it has been hammered out again and again. But the matter of scene seems to get us into trouble. (p. 546)

Ellison recognized the stigma placed on African American students, a deficit view of both an entire race and their potential intelligence (marginalized because of non-standard language skills). But Ellison rejected this deficit perspective: “Thus we must recognize that the children in question are not so much ‘culturally deprived’ as products of a different cultural complex” (p. 549). Ultimately, Ellison demanded that the human dignity of all children be honored.

Baldwin (1998) addressed teachers in that same year, 1963:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that.  We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country.  The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. (p. 678)

Then, Baldwin unmasked the cruel tension between the promise of universal public education and the inequity found in the lives of African American children. Education, for Baldwin, must be revolutionary, an act of social justice. In Baldwin’s words, I hear a refrain: No rhetorical sleight of words should mask that Trayvon Martin was a son. He had parents. No rhetorical sleight of words should allow us to ignore that any child is everyone’s child.

However, if the killing of Trayvon does not haunt us, if the killing of Trayvon slips beneath the next tragedy-of-the-moment—as the Sandy Hook school shooting (December 14, 2012) has beneath the George Zimmerman trial—then society and schools will continue to be mechanisms that shackle “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” And I suppose that is ultimately the cruel paradox, rendering Trayvon a ghost in this American house he was never allowed to enter, invisible again as Ellison’s unnamed narrator.

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love

When teacher and blogger Jose Vilson[ii] posts a blog, I read carefully and don’t multitask. Why? I am a privileged, white male who has lived his entire life in the South where racism clings to the region like the stench of a house razed by fire.

And as a result, I walk freely among racism because I am white. So when Vilson (2013) posted “An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters],” I listened, and I recognized:

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest….

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?…

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront. (n.p.)

I have learned to read and listen to Jose as I do with New York Times columnist Charles Blow and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, as I do with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, and now more than ever, James Baldwin, who is the focus of this volume.

I have learned daily—I continue to learn today—that America the Beautiful has failed an entire race of people, specifically African American males. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most hateful people I have encountered have been white men—yet, daily brown and black faces smile at me (even or especially when we are strangers) and speak with kindness and joy when we approach each other on the street, in restaurants, and where we all work and live. I have learned daily, I continue to learn today that in my half-century-plus life, the most beautiful humans—and the greatest reason to live on this planet—are children of every possible shade. They laugh and sing and dance and run with the beauty of life that has nothing at all to do with race or the supreme and inexcusable failures of the adults in whose care they reside.

America the Beautiful created a minority class out of a race of people who are as rich, vibrant, and beautiful as anybody else. America the Beautiful has also created a criminal class out of African American men, building a new Jim Crow system (Alexander, 2012) with mass incarceration masked as a war on drugs. America the Beautiful created a dropout class and future criminal class out of African American young men, building school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons as zero-tolerance schools imprisoning urban communities (Nolan, 2011).

These are not angry and hyperbolic claims about the soot-stained American past; these are claims about the roots that continue to thrive and bear bitter fruit. Baldwin (1998), in “A Report from Occupied Territory” (originally published in The Nation, July 11, 1966), confronted an “arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life” (p. 737) and the corrosive deficit view of race it is built upon: “‘Bad niggers,’ in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed”:

Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bring peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years [emphasis added]. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them…. (pp. 737-738)

These realities of racism from 1966 linger today—the scar of racism cloaked, as Baldwin recognized, with claims of justice:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect. (p. 734)

And thus, Baldwin’s conclusion about the Harlem Six rings true still:

One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever. It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!” The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society. (p. 738)

Today, racism is thinly masked, and many refuse to see it.

In 1853, Frederick Douglass recognized what would 100 years later be portrayed as invisibility by Ralph Ellison:

Fellow-citizens, we have had, and still have, great wrongs of which to complain. A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.

As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white fellow-countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious of our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimate us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. (qtd. in Alexander, 2012, p. 140)

Douglass’s charges are echoed in Baldwin’s (1998) “No Name in the Street,” which points a finger at the entrenched American problem with race:

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 around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (pp. 432-433)

America doesn’t know what to do, but it is startlingly clear that we should know what not to do: Don’t suspend and expel young black men without just cause, don’t incarcerate young black men without just cause, don’t lure and then send young black men to war, and without a doubt, don’t allow anyone to demonize anyone else with racial slurs.

Maybe, in the end, racism remains a cancer on America the Beautiful because we will not face it or unmask it—and because we have become so cynical that the solution seems trite: As Jose stated, as King repeated, and as James (“Jimmy”) Baldwin demanded, the solution is love. Love everyone, but be vigilant about loving the least among us—children, the impoverished, the imprisoned, the hungry, the sick, the elderly—and do so color-blind.

As stated above, I offer these words because I walk freely among racism and because I, like Vilson (2013), refuse to believe “that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background” (n.p.). Or, as Baldwin (1998) himself said: “‘I can’t believe what you say,’ the song goes, ‘because I see what you do’” (p. 738)—and we all must hear what everyone else says—especially the words they choose—never offering excuses for the racism of policy, the racism of action, or the racism of language.

James Baldwin: Challenging Authors

In 2004, poet Adrienne Rich (2009) wrote about a postage stamp bearing the face of American ex-patriot writer James Baldwin: “the stamp commemorates Baldwin’s birthday, August 2: he would have been eighty that year” (p. 49). This volume appears in 2014, the year that Baldwin would have turned ninety.

Rich’s essay reads as the journey of one writer’s experience embracing the other, but Rich also highlights what this volume seeks to address as well—the lack of attention that Baldwin receives in the twenty-first century U.S. Why, Rich asks, does a country still laboring under the same issues of race continue to ignore a powerful voice, as Americans certainly did when Baldwin spoke of racism?

Quoting from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth,’” Rich (2009) includes the following:

The gulf between our dream and the realities that we live with is something that we do not understand and do not wish to admit. It is almost as though we were asking that others look at what we want and turn their eyes, as we do, away from what we are. I am not, as I hope is clear, speaking of civil liberties, social equality, etc., where indeed strenuous battle is yet carried on; I am speaking instead of a particular shallowness of mind, an intellectual and spiritual laxness….This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything. (p. 52; Baldwin, 1998, p. 593)

Baldwin’s challenge here should haunt us because it remains the challenge before us—“[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves.”

The following chapters—based on both scholarly and experiential perspectives—make significant contributions to the astonishingly slim amount of research and discussion that exists on one of the twentieth century’s most important public intellectuals. They provide key insights into Baldwin’s literary skills, his political views, and the impact his life and work had on historic, as well as ongoing, policy debates. They reveal a complicated, often tormented, and always provocative individual who confronted racism, imperialism, and homophobia as a black, gay pacifist. It should therefore come as little surprise that his work maintains its relevance as American society continues to grapple with racial, social, and political challenges.

Happy birthday, Jimmy, and let me offer this as what feels to me to be a fitting birthday song:

See Also

A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness (revised ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America.

Ellison, R. (2003). The collected essays of Ralph Ellison. Ed. J.F. Callahan. New York, NY: The Modern Library.

Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. [Kindle edition]

Rich, A. (2009). A human eye: Essays on art in society 1997-2008. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Roy, A. (2004, November 8). The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Real Voice.

Thomas, P. L. (2013, May 17). Education reform in the New Jim Crow era. Truthout.

Vilson, J. (2013, April 8). An open letter from the trenches [to education activists, friends, and haters] [Web log]. The Jose Vilson.

Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

[i] Portions of this chapter are adapted from two blog posts: “The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard,” (2013, July 25), https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-deliberately-silenced-or-the-preferably-unheard/ and To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism (2013, April 9), https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/to-jimmy-and-jose-with-love-i-walk-freely-among-racism/

[ii] Vilson offers about himself at his blog, The Jose Vilson (http://thejosevilson.com/): “José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He co-authored the book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Public Schools … Now and In The Future with Dr. Barnett Berry and 11 other accomplished teachers. He currently serves as the president emeritus of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, as a board member on the Board of Directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, and has been a part of the Acentos Foundation, LATinos In Social Media (LATISM), the Capicu Poetry Group, BlogCritics, and the AfroSpear.”

Ali: “You must listen to me”

1972

James Baldwin declared in his No Name in the Street:

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 around for the public comfort. Americans, of course, will deny, with horror, that they are dreaming of anything like “the final solution”—those Americans, that is, who are likely to be asked: what goes on in the vast, private hinterland of the American heart can only be guessed at, by observing the way the country goes these days. (Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433) [1]

George Carlin opened one of his best routines singing Muhammad Ali’s name as part of his album Class Clown (“Muhammad Ali – America the Beautiful”), explaining about Ali’s exile for refusing to fight in Vietnam:

He said, “No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” And the government said, “Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ’em up.”

1967-1970

From March 1967 to October 1970, Muhammad Ali lived in America the Beautiful, not as a free man, but as the embodiment of Baldwin’s declaration in 1972. Ali as African American and Black Muslim was trapped between the rule of law and his own code of ethics—which he explained as alternatives:

I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative: and that alternative is justice.

This Ali in a suit and tie behind a microphone, glancing down to read from his prepared statement, stood in stark contrast to the Ali draped in a towel and swarmed in the boxing ring where he declared, “I shook up the world!”

1968

John Carlos and Tommy Smith stood, fists raised at the Summer Olympics:

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Ali sat for an interview:

Black people actually’ve been in jail for 400 years, we’ve been here in America….They can’t believe that I’m this strong. They thought they would weaken me and put fear in me by threatening to go to jail and taking my earning power. And they won’t let me work in America…

2013

My colleague, Scott Henderson, and I are currently editing a volume on James Baldwin, and during the review of the draft chapters for the collection, I began to see ads for a film about Muhammad Ali produced by HBO, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. The ads called to me in the same way I am always moved when I hear Carlin singing Ali’s name: “Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, it’s a nice musical name, Muhammad Ali.”

So I found myself watching the HBO film, at first not yet clear if it was a documentary (my hope) or a fictional film; I was certain I wasn’t interested in watching someone portray Ali. I wanted Ali.

And there he was, Muhammad Ali, archival footage to open the film, and then, despite the film focusing on the Supreme Court and the all-white crew of young men working at the Court, Ali appears throughout the story again and again. The real Ali—each time I could not stop myself from smiling at his bravado and his ability to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee outside the boxing ring.

But there is a subtext to this film focusing on the Supreme Court dominated by old white men. There is a subtext in 2013 about why now—why now is Ali’s fight with the government about his refusal to fight in Vietnam being recognized and validated?

Ali, once again, is pushed to the background in the HBO film, a work that becomes in many ways a layered narrative of privilegewhite privilege and male privilege.

Some of those layers can be found in the book that provides the basis for HBO’s film.

Some of those layers can be found in the documentary that doesn’t appear to share the privileged status of an HBO production: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

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Privilege is a closed space.

That space is behind a wall that provides the privileged their perch of authority as well as a walling out those Others.

Ali, Carlos, Smith, and Malcolm X lived outside the wall, and still remain under the gaze of privilege—to be acknowledged and explained when the time is right, when those with privilege see fit.

Ali remains mostly cartoon in America, reduced to his athletic bravado (“I am the Greatest!”) in the same way Martin Luther King, Jr. is tolerated as a passive radical, but not as the voice of protest and action that complimented Ali’s anti-war convictions:

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and for justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

1933

Carter Godwin Woodson confronted The Mis-education of the Negro:

[T]he educational system as it has developed both in Europe and America [is] an antiquated process which does not hit the mark even in the case of the needs of the white man himself….The so-called modern education, with all its defects, however, does others so much more good than it does the Negro, because it has been worked out in conformity to the needs of those who have enslaved and oppressed weaker people….The same educational process which inspires and stimulates the oppressor with the thought that he is everything and has accomplished everything worth while, depresses and crushes at the same time the spark of genius in the Negro by making him feel that his race does not amount to much and never will measure up to the standards of other peoples. The Negro thus educated is a hopeless liability of the race. (pp. 4-5) [2]

1963

Baldwin asked, “Who is the nigger?”:

1966

And then Baldwin wrote in The Nation:

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect….

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it.

Privilege is a spider’s web.

Where is the space for Ali to speak for Ali? When will that space exist, and how?

I agree with Carlin that there is music in Ali’s name, but the song remains bittersweet—too hard to swallow in 2013.

I cannot disentangle the web of history that remains attached to all of us, regardless of how hard we try to pull the invisible strings from our faces, our clothes, and our skin.

That web we cannot free ourselves from is privilege—and privilege demands only two alternatives.

But as Ali explained, there is a third alternative and “that alternative is justice.”

It is time, we must listen to Ali.

[1] Baldwin, J. (1998). James Baldwin: Collected essays. New York, NY: The Library of America. Originally published in 1972, No Name in the Street.

[2] Woodson, C. G. (1933). The mis-education of the negro. New York, NY: Tribeca Books.

—–

For Further Viewing and Reading

To Jimmy (and Jose), with Love: I Walk Freely among Racism

James Baldwin (Aug. 2, 1924 – Dec. 1, 1987)

“The Deliberately Silenced, or the Preferably Unheard”

What Would James Baldwin Do (Say, Write)?

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin (1966)

Knocked the Hell Out by ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’, David Zirin

The Trials of Muhammad Ali