Tag Archives: James Baldwin

In God We Trust?

Writing about her The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explains in “Writing Utopia”:

Dystopias are often more like dire warnings than satires, dark shadows cast by the present into the future. They are what will happen if we don’t pull up our socks.

Atwood’s now contemporary classic reads as a brilliant hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible—”dire warnings” about the allure and dangers of totalitarian theocracies.

Literature, in fact, comes back again and again to warnings about fanatical and fundamentalist religion, especially as that intersects government and politics.

Powerful in its concision and word play, e.e. cummings’ satire of pompous political patriotism begins, “‘next to of course god america i/ love you'”—weaving a stump speech both garbled with cliches and distinctly lucid in its pandering.

The last line (“He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water”), the only words not being spoken by the unnamed politician, comes after the dramatic rhetorical question: “‘then shall the voice of liberty be mute?'”

Like Atwood, Orwell, and Miller, cummings is offering his warning about draping ourselves in the flag while simultaneously thumping the Bible.

In God We Trust?

Having been born, raised, and then living and working my entire life in South Carolina, I have mostly existed in a default culture of Southern Baptist religiosity, a fundamentalist view of scripture.

I have witnessed and continue to witness religion used both as a rod and as a water torture: at once a blunt and instant tool of judgment and a relentless, although only a drop at a time, force for keeping everyone in line.

And that line is decreed by God, so they say.

However, this is not something exclusive to the South—although many continue to rely on scripture to justify corporal punishment and even misogyny in my homeland.

The history of the South, too, offers countless and disturbing “dire warnings”: justifying slavery with scripture and the historical roots of Southern Baptists as a result.

But fundamentalism in the South and the dramatic consequences may mask the thread of those same beliefs running throughout the nation. Consider “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the place of prayer in public schools.

The public is mostly misinformed about all of these, but easily swayed by the political implications of invoking “God.”

“God” on currency and in the Pledge (as a Cold War political ploy) represents a political manipulation of religion (using religion to score political points), as the history of how each occurred reveals. But prayer in public school may be the best example of the problem.

Formed under Ronald Reagan, the committee eventually drafting what is called A Nation at Risk included Gerald Holton, who has revealed Reagan’s “marching orders” for the report:

We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom [emphasis added]. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.

When the president of the U.S. misrepresents a fundamental issue, when virtually no one (media, etc.) holds the president accountable for the misrepresentation, and then when that inaccurate claim remains powerful for decades (until today), we would be careless to suggest that the danger of religion and politics is simply a vestige of the backward South.

Neither prayer nor God has ever been removed or banned from public schools. In 1962, forced prayer was ruled unconstitutional—which ironically seems to be the sort of law the Libertarian-leaning streak in the U.S. would embrace. Yet Reagan Democrats and Tea Partiers are the exact national demographics calling for “religious freedom” legislation, much like the redundant and unnecessary legislation guaranteeing students the right to pray in public schools.

“Freedom To and Freedom From”

“Religious freedom”?

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia,” Atwood’s narrator, Offred/June, recounts. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

Women training women, Atwood dramatizes, is about control—control of their bodies and control of their minds, which includes controlling language.

“We were a society dying, said Aunt Lydia, of too much choice,” Offred/June adds.

Again, I live in SC, a “right to work” state, so I am attuned to the Orwellian language gymnastics so wonderfully emphasized in Atwood’s novel, echoing Orwell’s “dire warnings”:

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer; though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing. A kilometer away the Ministry of Truth, his place of work, towered vast and white above the grimy landscape….

The Ministry of Truth—Minitrue, in Newspeak—was startlingly different from any other object in sight….From where Winston stood is was just possible to read, picked out on its white face in elegant lettering, the three slogans of the Party:




Therefore, I am skeptical—if not cynical—about the proposed “religious freedom” law in Indiana. I am also disturbed that this is occurring in Kurt Vonnegut‘s Indiana, and as Garrett Epps discusses, there are important connections to Indiana’s law and SC:

Until the day he died, however, [Maurice] Bessinger insisted that he and God were right.  His last fight was to preserve the Confederate flag as a symbol of South Carolina. “I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God’s) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years,” he told his hometown newspaper in 2000….

That’s a good background against which to measure the uproar about the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by Governor Mike Pence last week. I don’t question the religious sincerity of anyone involved in drafting and passing this law. But sincere and faithful people, when they feel the imprimatur of both the law and the Lord, can do very ugly things.

Being reared in the fundamentalist South, I was given mostly a negative education in morality—all that I was determined not to do and be.

My moral compass has come from literature instead—Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and Kurt Vonnegut.

These calls, then, for “religious freedom” ring Orwellian, not about “freedom” at all but about the sorts of cancerous marriages between religion and politics already played out time and again in the U.S. to deny marginalized groups what those in power enjoy as if such is ordained by God.


“Do you know what a humanist is?” writes Vonnegut in A Man Without a Country:

My parents and grandparents were humanists, what used to be called Free Thinkers. So as a humanist I am honoring my ancestors, which the Bible says is a good thing to do. We humanists try to behave as decently, as fairly, and as honorably as we can without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife.

I am compelled to suggest that the question is not, In God we trust?

We must be very cautious about anyone who speaks in God’s stead; we must adopt Vonnegut’s stance toward our fellow humans.

Indiana should feel the consequences of humans’ inhumanity toward humans—a great irony is that this wrath appears to be the Invisible Hand of Capitalism—and like great literature, Indiana’s political hubris and indecency must fulfill Atwood’s recognition of the power of “dire warnings.”

Indiana, pull up your socks.


Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby


Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able , without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.

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

Whether you are from the South—as I am, approaching my 54th year in the area where I was born—or not, here is how you can come to understand the South: Read William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” James Baldwin’s “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and M.E. Bradford’s “Faulkner, James Baldwin, and the South.”

In the shocking ending to “A Rose for Emily,” the town (that community and place so sacred to Faulkner, as Bradford emphasizes) and the reader discover that Emily has spent much of her life sleeping with the corpse of her mysteriously vanished lover. Not to be overly simplistic, but in that scene, Emily is the South and her act is the cancerous core of what best captures that region’s ideological commitment—cling to the corpse of tradition no matter what.

It is the steadfast clinging that matters, not the thing itself.

Baldwin’s response to Faulkner’s call for Southern blacks to be patient about integration at mid-twentieth century deftly dismantles the inherent contradictions, the incessant paternalism, and the disturbing lack of awareness embodied by Faulkner himself. While Faulkner seems oblivious to the message in his own work, Baldwin, a black man from Harlem, the North, echoes the warning of “A Rose for Emily”:

[S]o far from trying to correct it, Southerners, who seem to be characterized by a species of defiance most perverse when it is most despairing, have clung to it [emphasis added], at incalculable cost to themselves, as the only conceivable and as an absolutely sacrosanct way of life. They have never seriously conceded that their social structure was mad. They have insisted, on the contrary, that everyone who criticized it was mad.

Further, Baldwin’s understanding of the South remains as perceptive now as when he originally confronted Faulkner:

It is apparently very difficult to be at once a Southerner and an American….It is only the American Southerner who seems to be fighting, in his own entrails, a peculiar, ghastly, and perpetual war with all the rest of the country….

The difficulty, perhaps, is that the Southerner clings to two entirely antithetical doctrines, two legends, two histories….

The Southern tradition, which is, after all, all that Faulkner is talking about, is not a tradition at all: when Faulkner evokes it, he is simply evoking a legend which contains an accusation. And that accusation, stated far more simply than it should be, is that the North, in winning the war, left the South only one means of asserting its identity and that means was the Negro.

And finally to grasp fully the South, Bradford’s apologist reading of Faulkner (punctuated with “We in the South”) as well as a distinct misreading of Baldwin offers the full shape that characterizes the South: Faulkner as embodiment, Emily as metaphor, Baldwin as moral witness, and Bradford as contorted intellectual justification.

However, in the South, this is never merely academic or something past. 

Clemson’s Tillman Hall and the Tragedy of Southern Tradition

It is currently being recreated in the Tillman Hall debate at Clemson University—not as a unique case, but a representative one, Clemson University in its founding, its physical plant, and the myriad names with which it is associated

Tillman Hall at Clemson University bears the name of a former South Carolina governor, Benjamin Tillman, who “established an agricultural school that would become Clemson College, as well as Winthrop College.”

Those not from the South likely find these recurring tensions unfathomable, notably the never-ending battles about the Confederate flag that remains on the capitol grounds after decades flying atop the Statehouse.

The Faulkner-Baldwin-Bradford dynamic detailed above is now being played out by students calling for renaming Tillman Hall, faculty voting to support renaming, administration appearing to call for patience, and then a counter-protest supporting the tradition of the hall’s name.

“Yes, But…”

Apologists for tradition in the South, like Bradford for Faulkner, expose the contradictory mindset confronted by Baldwin. Those who rush to add “yes, but…” in defense of Tillman, for example, are likely to interject the “yes, but…” strategy to refute Martin Luther King Jr.

“Yes, but” Tillman was governor and if not for him, no Clemson!

“Yes, but” King was a socialist and adulterer.

As a life-long Southerner, I have witnessed these patterns regularly throughout my life. It is the logic of the South.

I am a child of the South, the Bible Belt where “spare the rod, spoil the child” dominates “turn the other cheek.”

Again, as Baldwin recognized, the South clings like Emily not to tradition but to the fabricated legend. And it is there that the hypocrisy of “yes, but…” is fully exposed.

Apologists for Tillman cling to Tillman’s ill-gotten status during his life, a status reflecting the most dehumanizing qualities of the South during Reconstruction and the early twentieth century.

Critics of Tillman, however, recognize that his racism outweighs any so-called accomplishments.

Will Moredock notes as one example:

Tillman went to the U.S. Senate in 1895, where he remained until his death in 1918. He used the Senate floor and the Chatauqua circuit to become the nation’s loudest and most famous proponent of white supremacy, or in his own words, “preaching to those people the gospel of white supremacy according to Tillman.”

“It’s true, South Carolinians would do well to remember Tillman’s legacy,” argues Paul Bowers, addressing directly the naming of Tillman Hall:

But we shouldn’t honor it, which is exactly what we’re doing by keeping his name on a building at a public university….

It’s another thing entirely for it to be named after Tillman, a progenitor and perpetuator of American apartheid who led lynch mobs during Reconstruction and boasted about it until his dying day.

To honor Tillman as well as many others like him is to make Emily’s mistake—clinging to a corpse that should be buried beneath a marker, not to honor but to remind us of all that we must not embrace again.

Apologists for tradition are emboldened by those calling for patience, like Faulkner, who prompted Baldwin to punctuate his essay with urgency:

But the time Faulkner asks for does not exist— and he is not the only Southerner who knows it. 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.


Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, Stephen Kantrowitz

Reviewed by Bruce Palmer

Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, Equal Justice Initiative

Lynching as Racial Terrorism, NYT Editorial Board


Whose Reform?: Claiming the Education Reform Narrative, pt. 2

For thirty years, the education reform movement committed to accountability linked to standards and high-stakes testing has been mostly orchestrated by the privileged class and imposed onto (while also creating) marginalized groups as the Others: black and brown students, English language learners, high-poverty students, special needs students, schools disproportionally serving any of these populations, and more recently, teachers and even parents who advocate for students and public education.

Resistance to that reform has mostly been reactionary, and thus, voices and actions of resistance have remained within the reform structure dictated by the reformers.

As I called for ways to claim the education reform narrative, I acknowledged the need for all marginalized groups to step outside being cast as the Other—but James Baldwin and Audre Lourde make that case far more powerfully than I:

My own point of view, speaking out of black America, when I had to try to answer the stigma, that species of social curse, it seemed a great mistake to answer in the language of the oppressor. As long as I react as a “nigger,” as long as I protest my case on evidence and assumptions held by others, I’m simply reinforcing those assumptions. As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak. (James Baldwin: The Last Interview, p. 72)

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. (The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde)

As we move into 2015, I invite you to join me in avoiding the “great mistake” by claiming the education reform movement on our own terms, in our own language.

Writing versus Being a Writer

It is a key distinction, but one we often ignored in daily life—that between choice and recognition.

At lunch, we choose the meal we prefer, or while shopping, we choose the outfit in the color that appeals to us. And it is there that we are a bit careless about words and concepts; those choices are actually about recognition.

After about 20+ years of choosing not to eat beef, a couple of years ago, I returned to steak on occasion. I order steaks medium-rare because I recognize that a wide variety of qualities of taste and texture appeal to me in aesthetic/palpable ways in a medium-rare steak.

As clumsy as all this may seem, after having been a teacher of writing for over 30 years and a so-called serious writer for a handful of years longer than that, I believe people fall into two camps related to writing: those who need to or are required to write and those who are writers, the first being somewhat in the arena of choice and the second, a recognition of Self.

Both those who choose (or are compelled) to write and those who are writers can be taught to write well, I am convinced, but I think in much different ways and with a much different attitude by the teacher (notably, recognizing that one is not better than the other, simply different).

As the fall semester of 2014 ended, which included two classes of first year writing, and as I continued to teach and write simultaneously, I watched the documentary Regarding Susan Sontag and read James Baldwin: The Last Interview and Susan Cheever‘s e. e. cummings: A Life.

“I suppose finally the most important thing was that I am a writer,” Baldwin explained to Studs Terkel in a 1961 interview, adding:

That sounds grandiloquent, but the truth is that I don’t think that, seriously speaking, anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are a writer and then you haven’t got any choice. You live that life or you won’t live any. (p. 20)

In Cheever’s examination of poet e.e. cummings, the life of the writer is highlighted:

Cummings seems like a man with an enviably successful career; but like many American writers he had years of anxiety and hardship, of being sniped at and attacked, of struggling to make a living, to buy food and pay the rent. This kind of rejection is part of being a writer. Men and women who are somehow constituted to get energy from rejection—no matter how painful that might be—are the ones who survive as writers. (p. 114)

And here I stress that being a writer is a recognition, some could argue a compulsion, that certainly can and should be fostered, but is not likely something that can be instilled in others. Sontag, cummings, and Baldwin, it seems to me, had little choice in the matter, but also mostly embraced that inevitable of who they saw themselves to be.

Teaching Poetry as Teaching Writing

As a writer and a writing teacher, I often come back to the power of teaching poetry (reading and wrestling with poetry) and asking students to write poetry, fully aware that most people are not poets. This, I think, is a powerful subset of what it means to teach writing broadly: We are not creating writers, necessarily, and it is not our calling as teachers of writing to treat all students as writers.

So let me offer just a brief consideration of teaching writing to those who choose (or who are compelled) to write as that stands against teaching writing to those who are writers (who recognize “[y]ou live that life or you won’t live any”).

As its essence, writing is about producing an artifact, and understanding that the written thing itself is static, although the meaning (Rosenblatt’s interaction of reader, writer, text) is organic. Many other forms of text (film, visual art, etc.) fall under this same quality, but writing is a static thing restricted to the word and both the conventional and unconventional units made up of words.

To write poetry, then, is to confront that poetry shares with prose the conventional word > phrase > clause > sentence grammar of written language. However, poetry is distinguished from prose by the construction of purposeful lines and stanzas (prose tends to remain within sentence/paragraph boundaries, and thus, not conscious of how those words form on the visual page; prose poetry remains poetry because it is a purposeful rejection of conventional lines and stanzas).

For example, William Carlos Williams write, “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens”—a grammatical sentence crafted into poetry by the transition into lines and stanzas that impact the reader visually. Or consider “our happiness” by Eileen Myles—a poem remaining fully grammatical but raised to poetry by the craft of lines and stanzas.

To sit down and write poetry, then, the writer must consider the essentials of all effective writing, a complex web of choices that ultimately result in that artifact that is paradoxically both static (a visual construction of words) and organic (reader, writer, text). Those essentials include the following:

  • Form, medium, and genre—conventions. To construct a poem is to face conventions (writers must either conform to those conventions or reject those conventions, purposefully) about form (lines, stanzas, rhyme, meter, etc.—for poetry), medium (print or visual text), and genre (broadly imaginative [fiction] or factual [non-fiction]; and then, narrowly, realism, fantasy, etc.). Writing is not the inverse of reading, but the product of synthetic discourse of being a reader: The more sophisticated the reader, the more craft the writer. For those choosing or compelled to write, this can be overwhelming; for writers, there is pain in this process for sure, but it is both necessary and never-ending.
  • Purposefulness. Although any writer may certainly begin writing without a clear purpose, the final artifact of writing must be shaped with both the awareness noted above and then the guiding purpose intact. Since poems tend to be brief, writing poetry is an ideal avenue to understanding, recognizing, and maintaining purpose in a piece of original writing. In different contexts and types of writing, we call this “thesis” or “focus,” but ultimately, writing is about making purposeful decisions mechanical, aesthetic, expressive, and transmissional. If we turn back to cummings, Cheever notes that many who responded negatively to cummings raised concerns about whether or not he sought in any way to communicate with readers; for a writer, few charges could be more damning.
  • Audience. When I conference with students, I ask questions: What is this thing you are writing (see first bullet)? What are trying to say (second bullet)? And then, who is this for, and why would anyone read this (thus, audience)? If we again return to Rosenblatt, and consider trees falling in the woods with no one around, that static thing called a poem (or essay, or novel) spawned out of a writer’s purpose ultimately seeks an audience in order (again, Rosenblatt) to achieve meaning (the organic and difficult thing possibly most mistreated by formal education). For those choosing to write or compelled to write, the audience is often imposed, mechanical—a key reason prompted and formal school writing is so miserably lifeless. Writers, however, are nothing without an audience, a love/hate relationship not unlike being in a family.
  • Coherence. And finally, as a static thing, all writing achieves coherence—something or some things designed by the writer to hold it all together. Writing is cobbling, crafting, synthesizing, shaping—especially the poem. In those conferences, we talk about framing a piece of writing, organization, and how the student-as-writer has decided to move the reader from here to there and there and then ultimately there.

So let me end with some offerings.

During my most recent semester teaching first year writing, we read “Gate A-4” by poet Naomi Shihab Nye. My students loved the piece, and we approached it as an essay, but I have seen it called a short story and a poem (so, what is it?). [Pair with her poem, “Trying to Name What Doesn’t Change.”]

What mattered most to me, however, is that my students were eager to say that it was clearly written by a poet, and that means to me, although they are far from finished in most ways as writers, they somehow get it. Few compliments could be higher for a piece, for a writer.

I end this musing with something quite wonderful from Nye, about a found poem,“When Did You Stop Being a Poet?” Naomi Shihab Nye ~ the charm of and lesson in “One Boy Said”:

#Ferguson #FergusonDecision Listen

“The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.” James Baldwin. The Nation. July 11, 1966.

“As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.” Neil Gaiman. October 15, 2013

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Malcolm X

In several ways, I have seen on social media: “Dear white people, listen” [1]—coming in the wake of the failure to charge Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown.

Here, I want to catalogue those voices that speak to that need to listen.


Harlem, Lanston Hughes

Only Words, Roxane Gay

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress., Carol Anderson

As a police officer kills without consequence in Ferguson, let’s look at profiling, education’s silent serial killer for black kids, Andre Perry

Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See, Jose Vilson

I am utterly undone: My struggle with Black rage and fear after Ferguson, Brittney Cooper

Ferguson is not a special case, Tony N. Brown

Why We Won’t Wait, Robin D.G. Kelley

Telling My Son About Ferguson, Michelle Alexander

Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Gospel of Rudy Giuliani, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ferguson, goddamn: No indictment for Darren Wilson is no surprise. This is why we protest, Syreeta McFadden

In America, black children don’t get to be children, Stacey Patton

Fury After Ferguson, Charles M. Blow

The Illipsis: Jay Smooth on Ferguson, Riots & Human Limits

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: White People Feel Targeted by the Ferguson Protests—Welcome to Our World

A Report from Occupied Territory, James Baldwin

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, Audre Lorde

“The truth is…” James Baldwin

“To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true…” Bayard Rustin

Toni Morrison, the White Gaze, Race, and Writing

“This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us” James Baldwin

From Baldwin to Coates: Denying Racism, Ignoring Evidence

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

[1] Our Silence Means More Violence: An Open Letter to Fellow White People, Carl Gibson


Race matters in school discipline and incarceration

Illinois School Bans Discussions of Michael Brown’s Death

#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.

Parents and Language: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Middle-class and affluent parents are good because they pass on to their children good cultural capital (such as good literacy).

The Bad

Impoverished parents and working-poor parents are bad because they pass on to their children bad cultural capital (such as bad literacy).

The Ugly

Many, if not most people, in the U.S. embrace the above class- (and race-) based views of parenting and language (vocabulary, grammar, reading, and writing).

This ugly social mythology is identified by Pierre Bourdieu in Acts of Resistance:

I’m thinking of what has been called the “return of individualism,” a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy which tends to destroy the philosophical foundations of the welfare state and in particular the notion of collective responsibility….The return to the individual is also what makes it possible to “blame the victim,” who is entirely responsible for his or her own misfortune, and to preach the gospel of self-help, all of this being justified by the endlessly repeated need to reduce costs for companies….

In the United States, the state is splitting into two, with on the one hand a state which provides social guarantees, but only for the privileged, who are sufficiently well-off to provide themselves with insurance, with guarantees, and a repressive, policing state, for the populace. (pp. 7, 32)

But these deficit views that feed an environment of victim blaming also have been echoed in the comment section of a recent piece of mine refuting those very deficit views (see the reposting and comments at The Washington Post‘s PostEverything).

The ugliness rests on two separate and related issues—parents and language.

Parenting: Good or Bad versus Scarcity or Slack

Within a cultural of individualism, perceptions of  good or bad parenting are strongly correlated with social class—as noted above. Unpacking why and how those perceptions exist reveals the ugliness.

Despite evidence to the contrary—evidence that shows class and race are more powerfully correlated with success than effort—impoverished parents are blamed as bad and affluent parents are praised as good when we assume that individual effort of those parents has determined their status.

The focus on the individual also feeds assumptions about whether or not parents can, will, or even want to provide the necessary care and initial teaching for their children. See this comment as one of several such claims:

Being poor is not the problem…..acceptance of poverty and the social position it implies is the problem. When the poor decide that they would like their children to be better off than their parents, efforts will be made in that direction…..but, if the poor decide to instill in their children the idea that being poor is better than being rich, and that the rich are the bad guys in the play, the poor will remain resentful and poor which will define them and their children.

What is often missing in all of this are the tight margins of living in scarcity (poverty) as compared to the slack of living in affluence.

For example, good but impoverished parents may appear to be “bad” when compared to poor or neglectful affluent parents who appear to be “good”—especially when we focus on proxies for the quality of parenting such as a child’s vocabulary.

Good and conscientious but impoverished parents, doing the best they can under the stress and within the tight margins of poverty, may be accurately associated with a non-standard home language, and as a result, their children may enter school with measurable literacy that is deemed behind affluent children, whose parents may have been neglectful. However, those affluent children raised in the slack of affluence may have had surrogate people and experiences that mask the weak parenting.

Impoverished parents, on the other hand, have all of their decisions and all of the factors outside of their control amplified negatively by their poverty; while affluent parents have their weaknesses masked or even mitigated by their affluence.

Class-based differences in child rearing are not “good” versus “bad,” as much as more affluent children’s rearing matches social expectations, ands thus appears “good” in that context. [1]

Poverty creates reduced circumstances, razor-thin margins, and relentless stress; as Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir note, people cannot take vacations from poverty.

Affluence, however, allows slack, an abundance of time and money that buffers mistakes, carelessness, and behaviors that would otherwise be considered “bad.”

Whether parents are “good” or “bad” is profoundly impacted by status (class and race)—more so than by individual qualities alone.

The Lingering, but Flawed, Connection Between Language and Character

The related ugly is our lingering, but flawed, connection between language and character. Many in the U.S. remain convinced that vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation are signals of not just intelligence but the “good” or “bad” in a person.

Non-standard English is associated with race and class, revealing more about our classism and racism than about linguistics or individual character (again, read the comments section linked above).

Deficit views of language perpetuate beliefs that the poor and racial minorities speak broken or inferior forms of English; that their language is not merely different, but inferior.

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, a story told in letters. As impoverished, black women, Celie and Nettie create a rich tapestry of using language to confront and recreate their worlds. Walker’s novel, then, is a powerful rebuking of the belief that poverty and racial minorities are the provinces of flawed or deficient language.

The impoverished do not pass on “bad,” but socially marginalized language to their children; we must admit that non-standard forms of language trigger the dual ugliness of classism and racism in the U.S.

In 1963, novelist Ralph Ellison confronted this language stereotype directly:

“Language is equipment for living,” to quote Kenneth Burke. One uses the language which helps to preserve one’s life, which helps to make one feel at peace in the world, and which screens out the greatest amount of chaos. All human beings do this.

Further, Ellison rejects the deficit view held about the language of poor blacks:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

Also unmasking deficit views of language related to class and race, in 1979, James Baldwin asked, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”:

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

Like Ellison, Baldwin recognizes poetry where others see deficit:

Now, I do not know what white Americans would sound like if there had never been any black people in the United States, but they would not sound the way they sound. Jazz, for example, is a very specific sexual term, as in jazz me, baby, but white people purified it into the Jazz Age. Sock it to me, which means, roughly, the same thing, has been adopted by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s descendants with no qualms or hesitations at all, along with let it all hang out and right on! Beat to his socks which was once the black’s most total and despairing image of poverty, was transformed into a thing called the Beat Generation, which phenomenon was, largely, composed of uptight, middle-class white people, imitating poverty, trying to get down, to get with it, doing their thing, doing their despairing best to be funky, which we, the blacks, never dreamed of doing–we were funky, baby, like funk was going out of style.

Ultimately, then, Baldwin states boldly his own recognition of the ugly:

The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.

And now we are still confronted with “the brutal truth,” as Baldwin puts it. Why do we cling to deficit views of poverty and language, and why are so many angry and bitter toward people—families and children—who find themselves in poverty—while simultaneously praising the affluent?

It may well be that neither the quantity or quality of words children bring to school nor that both are strongly correlated with the socioeconomic status of those children’s parents matters as much as our cultural bitterness, callousness.

More important is how adults use words to demonize the marginalized and create an Other so that they do not have to confront themselves. [2] Again, if you doubt me, return to those comments that suggest to me that if we wish to judge parents by their children, there we have ample evidence to draw some pretty harsh conclusions.

[1] See Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, who explains about the differences in child rearing by class between middle-class and working-class/poor families:

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

[2] See the ugliest of ugly here.

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.


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