Tag Archives: Adrienne Rich

#NCTE14 MOH: The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

A Moment in NCTE History – NCTE Annual Convention

Washington DC, 2014

Paul Thomas, Council Historian

Delivered at the Board of Directors Meeting, 2014 Annual Convention

The Possible?: “You must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

In late November of 2003, I sat on the floor in a crowded luncheon just a few feet and slightly behind Adrienne Rich, speaking and reading her poetry at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, held that year in San Francisco. Appropriately, Rich was reading from her then-upcoming collection, The School among the Ruins, and talking about teaching, teachers, and education. I was struck by many things that day, but one of Rich’s most enduring messages from her Arts of the Possible confronts our choices about education in the U.S.:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (162)

If anything, history is a tapestry of choices—the story of human commitments, choices that shape us. Universal public education in the U.S. is such a tapestry of choices, choices about the possible as well as the possible ignored.

Writing in the November 1985 English Journal, novelist Walter Dean Myers reflected on his journey to loving literature:

I would read a library book under my desk with the assigned text on the desk itself. It happened that I had no library book one day, but I had discovered a store which sold used paperbacks for ten cents a piece. The cover of the book I had selected featured a young woman, sword in hand, blouse carelessly pulled down from her shoulder, standing before a billowing mainsail….

Now, I’d like to think that I read today because I enjoy the finer things in literature. I’m sure that’s the case. I remember, years later, icebound on a cargo ship on Baffin Bay, I actually experienced Coleridge’s “wondrous cold” and the “dismal sheen” of Arctic fog. But sometimes…sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t reading for at least a few years, at just the right time in my life, in hopes that I would find another really juicy line the likes of “he silently padded over her.” (93-94)

And then in 2014, the year he passed away on July 1 just a month and one day before James Baldwin would have turned 90, Myers returned to why he loved literature, why he wrote in“Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

And thus, Myers in the January 2005 English Journal explained: “As a writer I especially want to reach the uninspired reader. I believe it is vital for the country and important for social order, and I relish my shared experiences with inner-city youths” (37).

Like Myers, Rich wrote in 2004 about Baldwin in her “The Baldwin Stamp.” Rich had encountered Baldwin’s work when she was 19, and then met him personally in 1980, explaining, “I did not need to introduce myself to Baldwin nor raise my hand in a question. His work was what I needed” (51). Later, Rich adds,

Baldwin was a moralist, a role which many writer today are apparently uncomfortable, since morality has become hostage of various fundamentalisms, or Hollywood/TV “good guys and “bad guys,” or relegated to the critical trash heap of “post-” discards. But there was no self-righteous or simplistic moral scenario for him. (52)

In the U.S. where our streets and schools are increasingly hostile to young black males—the threat of being shot and killed by the exact police meant to protect them or destined to be suspended, expelled, or failed by the exact schools meant to teach them—we teachers of English, among all teachers, have become hostage to yet another era of accountability, standards, and tests that keep us from our central calling—one identified by Rich and Myers, one voiced by Baldwin at the Non Violent Action Committee Los Angeles (December 18, 1964): “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.”

With each passing moment, we are contributing to the ever-growing tapestry of history, too often adding the possible ignored. Instead, let’s create the possible; let’s offer our students those mirrors for their quests for their own identities.

In her “Language Teaching in a Changing World,” Lou LaBrant (1943) warned: “Teachers should consider carefully what they are doing with the most intimate subject in the curriculum” (97). The possible, then, resides in the words of Rich, Myers, and Baldwin and the faces of our students who come to our classes seeking themselves.

Works Cited

LaBrant, Lou. “Language Teaching in a Changing World.” The Elementary English Review 20.3 (1943, March): 93–97. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean. “How I Came to Love English Literature.” English Journal (1985, November): 93-94. Print.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The New York Times (2014, March 15). Web.

Myers, Walter Dean. “Writing for the Uninspired Reader.” English Journal 94.3 (2005, January): 36-38. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

Blacked Out: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out

“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich

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.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory”

Recently, I have been trying to navigate my own journey toward calling for the next phase in the education reform debate—the primary tension being between my evolving position as it rubs against my sisters and brothers in arms who remain (justifiably) passionate about confronting the misinformed celebrity of the moment or the misguided journalist of the moment.

And then Jose Vilson posted on Twitter:

This moment of concise clarity from Vilson was followed the next morning by a post on R.E.M.’s Facebook page, Troopers release video showing forceful stop of musician Shamarr Allen:

As he continued defending his troopers’ actions, the Louisiana State Police chief released a dashcam video Tuesday of the forceful stop of a musician in the Lower 9th Ward.

Shamarr Allen, a trumpeter known for his band,Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs, has claimed in TV interviews that he felt in danger and that he was treated unfairly because of his race.

“It’s just wrong,” Allen told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune on Tuesday after watching the video. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do none of that. I don’t live wrong at all. It’s just, this is the life of a black man in the Lower 9th Ward.”

Occurring with cruel relevance at the nexus of disaster capitalism and education reform, New Orleans, Allen’s “life of a black man” rests in the wake of Michael Brown’s death as a black young man:

An 18-year-old Missouri man was shot dead by a cop Saturday, triggering outrage among residents who gathered at the scene shouting “kill the police.”

Michael Brown was on his way to his grandmother’s house in the city of Ferguson when he was gunned down at about 2:15 p.m., police and relatives said.

What prompted the Ferguson officer to open fire wasn’t immediately clear.

Multiple witnesses told KMOV that Brown was unarmed and had his hands up in the air when he was cut down.

The officer “shot again and once my friend felt that shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air,” said witness Dorian Johnson. “He started to get down and the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots.”

This feeling has come to me before, a sense that outrage remains mostly token outrage, misguided outrage. Outrage over Whoopi Goldberg, Campbell Brown, and Tony Stewart filled social media, blacking out Brown and Allen as well as dozens and dozens of black men who will never be named.

50 Years Later: “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror”

August of 2014 marked the month James Baldwin would have turned 90. 18 December 2014 will be 50 years since Baldwin spoke at The Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) (speech archive):

There Baldwin built a passionate message, challenging his audience with “you must consider what happens to a life which finds no mirror.” Baldwin inspired author Walter Dean Myers, who echoed a similar message early in 2014 just before his own death:

But by then I was beginning the quest for my own identity. To an extent I found who I was in the books I read….

But there was something missing. I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me….

Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.

There is a beauty, a symmetry to the lineage from Baldwin to Myers—and then to the countless young people for whom Myers paid it forward.

But I must pose a counter-point about Baldwin’s speeches and essays: Why must Baldwin remain relevant 50 years later?

Baldwin’s words in 1964—”it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it”—fit just as well in Allen’s mouth, pulled over in New Orleans because he committed the crime of approaching his car and then reversing himself while black.

And then Baldwin in 1966, A Report from Occupied Territory:

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.

Or Baldwin in 1963 asking, Who is the nigger?:

It is 2014 and the list of blacked out names grows—Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown—with the unnamed list even longer, although mostly ignored, invisible.

When Baldwin’s 90th birthday approached, many expressed how Baldwin as a writer and powerful public voice has himself become mostly unseen, unheard, unread, but each day suggests that in the U.S. we prove Baldwin’s words to be disturbingly relevant.

At the end of his 1964 speech, Baldwin asserts: “[I]t is not we the American negro who is to be saved here; it is you the American republic, and you ain’t got much time.”

“I came to explore the wreck,” explains Rich’s speaker, the “wreck” a metaphor for the U.S.:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun…

a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The narrative of the U.S. remains a redacted myth, names and lives blacked out. Yes, as Baldwin noted, “it is late in the day for this country to pretend I am not a part of it.”

Let us hope it isn’t too late.

“Harlem”

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

See Also

Reading Out of Context: “But there was something missing,” Walter Dean Myers

War Against Whites? I Think Not, Charles Blow

New Study: White People Support Harsher Criminal Penalties When Told More Black People Are Incarcerated

Michael Brown: Yet another reminder that police see even unarmed black people as thugs, Andre Perry

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind

Dream Deferred, MLK Day 2014: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves”

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asks Langston Hughes in “Harlem.”

As a poem of social consciousness, “Harlem” may often be reduced to literary analysis or an artifact of the Harlem Renaissance; as schools become more and more focused on the Common Core and raising scores on the related next-generation tests, the poem is likely to be (if at all) just one more text for close reading practice.

But on MLK Day in 2014, “Harlem” remains a powerful and necessary question—and a disturbing harbinger, as Hughes answers his opening question with more questions:

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In her “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich explores a personal and social wreck, confronting “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth.” She concludes with a recognition that echoes a recurring theme found in Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and countless artists aware of otherness, invisibility:

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The history students have been and are currently taught remains a controlled, if not contrived, story; where once many “names [did] not appear”—names of African Americans, names of women, names of anyone from the “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”—now students are presented with a version of names that serves to keep Hughes’s question in “Harlem” relevant, not only as a dream deferred, but also as a dream ignored.

Students will certainly discuss King in these days around his birthday and holiday; and students will likely, as noted above, be lead through “I Have a Dream” as a text ripe for close reading, possibly also analyzing “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for its technical precision but not its call for civil disobedience in the face of inequity.

Few students will be asked to look behind the official view of King as the passive radical, a masking narrative used to control whose name is allowed into the “book of myths” as well as how students are allowed to see those names—a pattern repeated in the life and death of Nelson Mandela:

Chris Harris captures the moment Nelson Mandela is released after serving 27 years in prison. Times photographer, Chris Harris

Education, in this era in which the dream is ignored, you see, is about rigor, “no excuses,” and (above all else) raising test scores—as our leaders chastise us about why the U.S. pales in comparison to the rest of the world: “We talk the talk, and they walk the walk.”

Education is not about raising fists:

If education were about raising fists—a social contract with a people’s children that every person matters, that every voice has equal volume, that equity of opportunity is the essential element of human dignity—MLK Day would include the King of The Trumpet of Conscience, read for his messages and calls to action and not as a close reading activity.

If education were about raising fists, names would be added to the “book of myths,” no longer ignoring the echo of James Baldwin‘s power during the Civil Rights movement that tends to be reduced to repeatedly published images of King walking arm in arm with white men to his left and right:

But education in the U.S. is not about raising fists, and the great disturbing irony is that political leaders who are shaming the people of this country for talking the talk, but not walking the walk are themselves masters of only talking the talk.

On this MLK Day 2014, then, there remains much of King unexplored, and the days and weeks around his birthday and holiday are ideal for reading and listening to King with both reverence for his sacrifices and seeking ways in which to fulfill the dream.

But we must move beyond the ceremonial, and we must expand the “book of myths.”

And we must raise Hughes’s existential questions along with asking the truly hard questions about mass incarceration and in-school academic and discipline policies that are destroying the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young African American men week after week after week.

Where are the voices and where is the political will, we must ask, that will confront that white males outnumber African American males in the U.S. about 6 to 1, but that African American males outnumber white males about 5 to 1 in our prison system—an incarceration machine that dwarfs prison systems in countries against which political leaders use to shame the U.S. public.

In 2004, Rich called for including Baldwin in the “book of myths,” highlighting his words from “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'”:

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)

Let’s place before our students, then, King metaphorically arm in arm with Baldwin—the King of The Triumph of Conscience, decrying the tragedy of Vietnam and the failure of enormous wealth turning a blind eye to inexcusable poverty, and the confrontational Baldwin, like Hughes, offering words that remain relevant today:

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. (No Name in the Street; Baldwin, 1998, pp. 432-433)

“The truth is” what will set you free.

“The truth is,” we can’t handle the truth, and “[t]his rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us.”

References

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

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