Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Guilt, love, and genre fiction: What Asian Mothers, Christianity, and Academia have in common

My favorite teacher of all time was my high school senior year Calculus teacher, Alice Snodgrass.

Today one of my Facebook friends reminded me of one of her sayings, which I use in a paraphrased form all the time: "Don't be sorry, just be better."

So here's a question: When you are complicit (in the system), how do you live with the guilt? When you want to be part of the solution, but you find out that you are still part of the problem, what can you do about it, besides moving to a commune and quitting the game?

You start by recognizing that everyone is already complicit. Even if you are an atheist whose favorite founding father is Marx, you know that we are born that way.

This is what I got for my mom for Christmas:

Fifty Shades of Chicken: A Parody in a Cookbook

I think I realized with some final finality this summer--at age 32--that my mom isn't perfect. It happened when she asked me to read (after I finished my dissertation) Fifty Shades of Grey, so that we could talk about it. She was on her cell phone, and she was on her way to buy the second and third volumes at Sam's Club. Holy moly. Though I have uh pee-ach(e)-dee, I am not one to judge people's taste in reading, as my friends and family members know. But this news, to put it mildly, shocked my fucking--um, socks--off. MY MOM READ FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. My mom, who taught me how to be a feminist, who encouraged me to pretend I didn't have a body a novel that is glorified soft-core pornography! I am rarely stunned into silence, but...holy crap.

Now, trust when I say that this discovery didn't make me lose any respect for my mother whatsoever. She is still my first heroine. But when she told me that she not only loved this novel, but also could not put it down and needed to read the sequels as soon as possible, I was like, "wait, who are you and what did you do with my modest Thai mom who wants to talk about sex like she wants a hot poker in her ear?" She told me that she didn't like the sex parts. My mom is probably the only person who read Fifty Shades of Grey for the story. That's why she wanted me to read it. She wanted to hear what I thought. She was having my dad read it too, but she didn't trust his opinion as much on matters of....what?

In my humble opinion, my mom wanted us to talk to each other about this book as feminists. She wanted to know if I thought that the heroine was really a hero or not. Well, it may surprise you to learn that I do think she's a hero at the end of the first novel, because she leaves the fucker. I know she's going to go back, but that's why I stopped after the first one. I wasn't crazy about the book (even though I couldn't put it down). What I didn't like was how unrealistic it was. I mean, really. A girl from Portland saying things like "chap" and "have a chat"? Helicopter rides from Portland to Seattle in half an hour? Didn't P.L. James do her homework?

She did, of a sort. The novel kind of makes the argument that Tess of the d'Urbervilles has a happy ending.

Now, I don't know how the Fifty Shades trilogy ends, because, as I have already said, I didn't make it past the first one. I found one blogger who was writing chapter-by-chapter summaries-with-feminist-criticism of the second book, but she stopped because she got a job. The Sparknotes aren't out yet.

Aside: oh yeah, I am totally an advocate of using Sparknotes. I especially give them to English Language Learners to read alongside the actual book. I also try to discourage my honors students from using them. I tell them that many Sparknotes were written by good friends of mine, and that their interpretations are biased. (If you are reading, author, please tell me that a non-Yale student would have even noticed, let alone waxed poetical, about the allusions to Chaucer and T.S. Eliot at the beginning of Grendel, and I will give you $5 the next time I see you. Smile.) If my students copy the Sparknotes, I always catch them. I can't catch every kind of cheating--no teacher can--but it's usually pretty obvious, when an AP Literature student starts using words like "subjectivity," that they didn't come up with that themselves. My students used to accuse me of being prejudiced when I caught them plagiarizing, but then I did the somewhat cruel thing of reading one of the more egregious plagiarizers out loud, just to demonstrate how obvious it was. Fortunately, the guilty student was not in class that day, because everyone else died laughing.

My first year in grad school, I learned about a legendary game played by English PhDs called "Humiliation." Here's how it works: you take turns naming a canonical book that you have never read, trying to up the ante until someone "wins." So, if I were playing this game, I would first say that I've never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Then I would say another one that I find too embarrassing at the moment to confess. My ace in the hole used to be Native Son (I finally read it in order to write a seminar paper, which is often how we get those embarrassments out of the way). Now, my winner is that I haven't read all ten of August Wilson's cycle plays. I won't tell you which one(s?) I haven't read. You can try to guess.

But wait! What's so humiliating about this game anyway? There is no canon anymore, so I thought that there was no required reading. Whenever I tell high school English teachers that there is no required reading, they don't believe me. They're partly right--I mean, there is one author listed by name in the Common Core State Standards. I bet you can guess which one. But what were the canon wars for, if not to end this game of humiliation? What's fascinating is how the canons have changed--in private and affluent public high schools everyone reads Their Eyes Were Watching God. In urban and rural public high schools, everyone still reads The Scarlet Letter.* When these kids get to college, will they be able to humiliate each other by playing the dozens about what they have and haven't read?

If you ask me, my mom was both embarrassed and proud to have read this trilogy. I know because, at our family reunion in August, when I was reading it, we found out that my sister-in-law's reading group, all female professionals, also read this book, and many of them loved it. And my mom told all of my aunts to read it and told them how much she had enjoyed it, even though she knew better than to enjoy it. My mom, like me, likes to flaunt her guilty pleasures, because we are the first hipsters (kidding). My mom and I are both crazy about Tetris. She is unabashed in her love of Rachel Maddow. She owns about as many shoes as Imelda Marcos, whom she does not admire, unlike Michelle Rhee.** (Mom thinks Imelda is a Bad Woman, but she told me when I was a kid that she didn't have any shoes as a child, so she's making up for it now.) The worst part about becoming your mother is when you start buying shoes like crazy.

Many well-educated people hate hypocrisy and take umbrage as if it was their job, and as if they are not themselves hypocrites. But, as any teen will point out to you, all adults are hypocrites. Walt Whitman wasn't the first to say it, but he said it well: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." If he wasn't so famous, I would call him an egotistical jerk. But poets have a better chance than politicians of contradicting themselves without getting in trouble. Better, but not great, especially since their reputations are forever.

Second aside: When I taught Whitman at the Quaker school, one of my students refused to read any more after he found out that Whitman was queer. "I can't identify with this," he said. He, like many homophobic boys, just wanted to make sure we all knew that he wasn't gay, in case we were wondering... Anyway, I did win over many of the other students with the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which is my favorite Whitman poem. Quite a few students at the school (about 10%) were there on scholarships that send "urban" students to boarding schools. So I taught many kids from Philadelphia proper, New Jersey, and New York, including Brooklyn and Queens. The ones from Brooklyn and Queens eventually taught me how to take the train to New York to visit my friends. But Whitman was early days in my time at Westtown. One of the Brooklyn students, a very talented baseball player who aspired to the MLB, helped me draw a picture of New York Harbor so that the students could see what Whitman was talking about. This was Back in the Day, 2002, so it wasn't as if I could just pull up a photo on my trusty computer and project it on the smartboard. Even at the prep school, we had only one smartboard. It was brand spankin' new, and it didn't work half the time. I learned very early on what many teachers know: always have a backup plan in case your technology craps out on you.

Anyway, it is now pretty well understood that Walt Whitman was not an egotistical jerk. He was, however, misunderstood in his time, and then a later poet tried to appropriate him to his "side" of things. (This is, by the way, my favorite Ginsburg poem. I'm just not such a big fan of long poems if they aren't by Homer or Milton--and since I didn't mention the Ramayana, that makes me a race traitor, I guess.) What Whitman knew is that everyone, not just every man, not just every American, contradicts herself. As I said in a previous post, I am guilty: I love to eat beef and bacon. I love coffee, wine, and beer. I buy most of my clothes at Target. Do I know I'm a guilty consumer, complicit in capitalism? Yes. Do I try to pretend I'm not guilty? Of course! I drive a Prius!

Further confessions: I don't only eat grass-fed organic beef, either. It doesn't taste as good as the fatty agri-business stuff. I loved, with an ironic eye for the sexist bits, all of the pomp at my graduation. And I enjoyed my wedding, which, though conducted by an Ethical Humanist, still bore some of the scars of patriarchy. And I wear a wedding band, even though I know I am not a slave to my husband, and I also have many gay friends who cannot legally marry in the United States, and I hate that. And I have had family members and students work at Target, but I certainly wouldn't want to work in a sweatshop in China. My grandparents left China for a reason. As my mom always says, life is better in the U.S. than anywhere else she has lived.

We all have to pick our battles. As I have written before, for a long time, feminism was a battle I decided to retreat from for awhile, whilst I fought others. When I was growing up, I was a pretty patriotic little girl for someone who experienced prejudice (the positive kind, model minority and all that) and hated injustice. It was because my grandfather loved presidential history, and because I was born and raised in the city that launched Lewis and Clark and has not one, but two museums named after Jefferson, and I believed, at the time, like the President always says, that my story wasn't possible anywhere else. But, of course, it was. We've all seen Miss Saigon, right? (Kidding! But my mom does like to tell people that my dad is a G.I. He's a (retired) gastroenterologist.) It wasn't until I grew up a little more and got a little wiser that I learned to hate America. Boy, did I feel stupid when I found out that Jefferson had owned slaves. I hated America, but I still got in a fight with my entire U.S. History class about how important it was to vote. (I'm still working on knowing when to keep my mouth shut.)

I didn't get to be a better activist until I got to the Quaker school. And then, in grad school, I became everybody's favorite armchair activist. That's a joke: I am in fact acquainted with many an activist and teachers "on the ground" who think themselves superior to us academics, we who sip coffee in the ivory tower and fritter away our days on our laptops, Tweeting about the world's problems instead of actually doing something. I like to point out that there were three men invited to speak to the psychologist Kenneth Clarke on the subject of "The Negro and the American Promise" on television in 1963, just after several of them had met with Robert Kennedy to discuss his response to the violence in Alabama and Mississippi. The three men were all in their late thirties, two of them had been born in the North and one in the South, and they represented three different "perspectives" on the contemporary debate. Have you guessed yet who they were? They were all known nationally by their first names: Martin, Malcolm, and...Jimmy. Did you guess? It's unfortunate that my hero James Baldwin, in an otherwise engrossing, powerful, signature performance, was so insistent that the treatment of African Americans was a form of castration. I lost a little bit of respect for him when I first saw that clip. (But, in his defense, he was aware that he only hated women subconsciously...) By the end of my first year in grad school, I knew how to say all the most politically correct things. But I still felt more like part of the problem than part of the solution. I also felt bad for not being a vegetarian. There's always something to feel bad about, isn't there?

People often ask me how I ended up marrying a Cubs fan. I felt bad for getting married, but I was in love, even though I know that's a social construction. And I was able to easily overlook the Cubs fandom because the Cubs are so pathetic. I've always had a thing for underdogs, you see. But I usually come back at these people by saying, "You think that's crazy? My mother-in-law is a pastor, and her mother loves the Tea Party!"

But do we all love each other? We sure do. And we respect each other's differences, too. And we are even  able to talk about politics civilly at the holiday dinner table. I get frustrated sometimes, and so do they. But they have taught me a lot, and I admire both my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law for their feminism, even though they're not both pro-choice. We're all guilty in one way or another. On Christmas afternoon I teased my grandma-in-law (I just call her Grandma, since she's the only one I've got) that Cornel West is always arguing that Jesus was the first Marxist. She doesn't like that. And I don't like some of her politics, either. And neither of us believes in saints and sinners (at least, not to my knowledge): she's a Methodist, and I'm an atheist. But let she who is without sin cast the first stone.

*"Everyone" is written here with some irony. Not everyone reads anything, and no one can read everything. I had to suffer my own version of humiliation when I discovered that, for literature written in English, the most important thing for me to read, besides Shakespeare, was the book, the one that I had never before felt any need to read at all. I had, in fact, been taught in my raisin' to find the Good Book highly suspect. But you can't help what influences people, and you can only partly help what influences you yourself: you can't choose your family, not even when you choose your partner. I think I would read James Baldwin very differently if I hadn't married into a Christian family and taught quite a few Pentecostals over the years.

**It should be understood that my mom loves Michelle Rhee, not that Rhee loves Imelda Marcos. I don't know Rhee well enough to know how she feels about Imelda Marcos, but I can guess....that she LOVES her. Marcos is, after all, both a shameless opportunist and a very well-dressed Asian. My mom loves Michelle Rhee because she is a successful Asian American woman who appears to care about children. I am always trying to correct my mom's misperception, but that is another post altogether.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where Do We Go From Nowhere? To the movies, of course: A Theater Review

My friend Ben Blattberg has asked me to describe where I think one goes from rock bottom. Here goes...

On Saturday I felt devastated and was laid low by my grief about Newtown and Everything Else that is Wrong With the World. On Sunday I began to feel better again, largely because of two things: I went to a Quaker meeting, and I went to see a show.

The play was Manual Cinema's Lula Del Ray, and if you are reading and live in Chicago, I'm sorry that you missed it, because it has now closed. But Manual Cinema will live again, and soon, and they could use your support, because they are making amazing original art.

I think because of my own research and thought processes of late, this play hit me with its joy at just the right moment. But it was carefully crafted to do that. I got to talk with one of the writer/producer/directors, Drew Dir, an acquaintance of mine, today, and he confirmed a lot of my thoughts about the play, but left me wanting to hear about it some more. And I'm excited, because they're going to keep working and growing, and if you read this, you'll have heard about them at an early-ish stage in their development. (wink!)

The joy of the play and its originality did not come from any one component of the play, but, rather, from its hybridity. It combined an ancient art form, shadow puppetry, with a relatively young one: silent film. (It is literally manual cinema--completely hand-made shadow puppetry, projected by those overheads that we teachers don't use anymore, and the effect looks like the earliest moving images, like stop-motion photography.)

The play told a story that we've heard since time immemorial: Lula Del Ray, a young (wo)man with a lot of hope, leaves home, goes on a long journey, finds out that what she was searching for is not what she thought it was, realizes that she has lost everything, and then finds hope again. The play used that story to offer an overt critique of capital, which plays have been doing since the 1930s. And the play made that critique by using our love of authentic folk music and turning it upside down, just like a true hipster. Plus, the music was live, and mostly singer-songwriter-style whispery scoring on a cello. The whole thing was a pretty terrific experience.

So, with all of this derivation, what made the play so amazing and original? It was just that: it amazed while also feeling comfortingly familiar. It was a beautiful and jarring thing to watch. It told the story so well, in such a gorgeous and fascinating way. The whole time I was watching, I was thinking two things: I love this, and I hope Chris (my husband, the musician/therapist) doesn't hate it, because he likes original stories and original music and he already knows that the music industry is bogus. And then I knocked over my empty beer bottle, which was embarrassing. Afterwards, I found out that Chris loved it too, because the whole time he was watching, he was thinking: this story is not new to me in any way, but the way it is being presented is wholly engrossing, except: I want to know how they're doing that! And also, it's so embarrassing that my wife made such a loud noise.

This is a classic example of a technique and theory of art that the German theater artist Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdungseffekt, which gets translated several different ways, usually as "alienation effect" (and it was sometimes abbreviated in English translations as A-effect, I think even by Brecht himself), but also as "estrangement effect" or "disillusionment effect" or "distancing effect." In the German, obviously effekt means effect, and fremdung means stranger (which the author learned from the lyrics to Cabaret), and ver is a prefix that means something like "the opposite" (I think). For example, the German word verboten is a cognate with the English word forbidden. 

I don't read German all that well, and I don't know anything about German etymology except for one undergraduate course in historical linguistics. But I do know that Brecht re-invented the word Verfremdung when he used it, and he was trying to create a German version of a Russian word. That word was ostranenie, usually translated in English as "defamiliarization" or "estrangement." (And I know absolutely no Russian, so you can forget about (thankfully for all involved) the Cyrillic alphabet or any further commentary on translation).

"Defamiliarization" was coined by Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian poet and critic from a school of Russian poetry critics that English literature critics now call the "Russian Formalists." Shklovsky first started working on the concept of defamilarization in 1916, but he happened to be living in St. Petersburg at the time, so he got busy with the Russian Revolution, decided to turn against the Bolsheviks, got in trouble, fled Russia, went back, fled again, and went back again. The essay that presents the idea, "Art as Technique," was first published in Russian in 1925, though it is usually backdated in anthologies to 1917, the year it was completed. Like many intellectuals, Shklovsky was persecuted by a regime he initially supported. Unlike many intellectuals, he was lucky to live to a ripe old age (a Russian-born-German-Jew living in Berlin in 1923. Moved back to Russia that same year, and managed to survive the Second World War and die in his 80s in Russia. Some people have tried to call him an opportunist. I say he decided to live, and got lucky.)

Anyhow, Brecht was trying to translate a word that was somewhat untranslatable, so he created another untranslatable word, a German pun. Literary Theorists do this all the time. The V-effekt is what happens when theater is alienating, but also familiar. In my writing, I have stressed that it's important to remember the familiar part. A lot of Brecht's followers and critics (interpreters) tend to harp on the de- part, the ver- part. But if theater is totally alienating, it's not going to get its message across, it will just piss off its audience. It's like how I used to feel sometimes when I would go see my friends' shows as an undergrad: I sometimes thought, but was afraid to say, that their work was pretentious. Now, I'm glad I didn't say anything.

For Marxists, like me, all art always has a message. Sometimes the message is WAKE UP!, and sometimes the message is pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, and usually it's both. But, as W.E.B. DuBois once said, "All art is propaganda." He was talking about the art that we might, even today, consider "neutral" (not didactic), or "merely beautiful," or "just for fun," what the French called l'art pour l'art and what English-speakers called "art for art's sake." DuBois was talking about jazz, or Hemingway's fiction, which both seemed (in 1926) plain, authentic, and unadorned, while also being deep. DuBois argued that even this art was propaganda for a certain way of life, a certain type of man, and a certain definition of beauty. We know that now, thanks to English teachers.

Shklovsky noticed that the Russian novelists and poets got the reader's attention, broke her tendency to become entranced when she was reading realistic fiction, by describing ordinary things very closely, like Anna Karenina's outfits, or the living room furniture in War and Peace. Shklovsky argued that this kind of re-viewing of something that we normally take for granted, that we normally don't even notice, causes us to notice and appreciate the beauty of those things anew. That, he argued, is why humans love to create art. Art is something that makes ordinary things either beautiful or strange, or both.

When Brecht took up this flag, he wanted to re-frame what Shklovsky was saying about art. Brecht said that traditional "high" or "legitimate" theater, like the theater of Broadway, put us in a trance. It provided an escape from life, instead of a new view on life. Like Shklovsky, he wanted art to be jarring and beautiful at the same time. Unlike Shklovsky, he argued that this kind of art would wake people up, not to art, but to society and all of its madness. I've noticed, in my lifetime, that people tend to forget that Brecht believed that familiarity and fun (Spass, also translated as "play") were important sides of defamiliarization. (Credit where very much due: Loren Kruger taught me this.) A lot of theatre that is made in Brecht's name is designed to just GET IN YOUR FACE. And some people like that. But not everybody.

Lula Del Ray was both lovable and alienating for its audience of about 50 hipsters from the north side of Chicago. The problem with all art-against-ideology is that it runs the risk of having its audience miss the point. And this is actually even more risky if the audience is very educated, like hipsters and academics are, because they love to congratulate themselves on "getting it," without thinking too hard about what exactly it is that they're "getting."

According to the theater critic and performance studies professor Jill Dolan, there is also a way around that sort of self-satisfied mis-reading, and Drew and his partner, Sarah, took care of it. After the show was over, they invited the audience to come backstage and look at all the puppets. At the very least, even the self-congratulatory could be amazed (again) at all the hundreds of hours labor that had gone into producing their 90 minutes of enjoyment. It's pretty easy to buy a song on iTunes these days. Most hipsters know that the record industry is a scam, and that $1.99 per song is causing poor musicians to be unable to make money from just selling their music. Katy Perry, on the other hand, doesn't have to tour much. Maybe then they would examine their "guilty" love of bad Top-40 music, or their "ironic" clothes that were made in China. I thought about those things. And I felt bad about them. But, then again, I also believe in forgiving myself (and others) for being inconsistent.

For Dolan, the "utopia" that we find in the pleasure of performance provides an escape from the world that is also educational. The subtitle of her book is "finding hope at the theater." When Brecht's theories first came to the United States, they were called "educational theatre." Now, I have friends from undergrad who actually do educational theatre for children (this one loved Pynchon and Nabokov when we were younger, proving yet again that knowing some stuff about postmodernism and being a great elementary school teacher are not contradictory). When we know that the world is rotten, possibly even rotten to its core, and we've learned to hate everything and believe in nothing, and to be suspicious even of our pleasures (so suspicious, in fact, that we feel "guilty" about them all the time), we can find hope in art that teaches while also comforting us.

When I entered graduate school, I started learning to Hate Everything, or, at least, to feel ashamed for loving all the things I had once loved, because I had been "duped." Atticus Finch, my hero, was a white supremacist. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were, too, and so was everyone. And comics and cartoons just reproduced capitalism, except for early Mickey Mouse and early Bugs Bunny. The most crushing "discovery" was that James Weldon Johnson was secretly a white supremacist! Later on, I forgave myself for believing these half-truths and being really disappointed in myself.

People aren't usually "duped" when they love something. They just love the thing because it speaks to them. In teaching, we call this "meeting students where they are." My grad school friends who are still teaching and I have talked about how long it takes to figure out where students are, and how frustrating it is to try to meet them in the middle. I have tried, but have never succeeded, in teaching a child to tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb on a multiple choice test. But I do have students who can use adverbs and adjectives correctly in their writing. It just takes a lot of time for them to learn it, especially if they're 17 and they didn't learn it the first 8 times.

Students don't like being told that they're stupid, and adults don't like being told that they've been tricked. And teachers hate it when other teachers badmouth them. Everyone makes mistakes, and most people like figuring it out for themselves (which is what good teaching helps them to do). When I read Dolan's book after two years of intellectual despair, I found hope. So I wrote my dissertation about a theater movement that also gave people hope. We live in dark times. I watched Thor (the 2011 Marvel movie) for the first time tonight, and I thought it was brilliant. Maybe art can give us hope again, while also teaching us to notice things better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Everybody's Scarecrow, or, How to Make a Grand Theory of Everything

I'm a teacher, so I sometimes like to give multiple choice tests, because they're much easier to grade, and I'm a busy gal. I know what they do and don't measure, and I like to think I'm pretty good at writing them.

So here's a test for you:

1. Who is to blame for the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut?
A. The NRA
B. one lone gunman
C. the lone gunman's mother
D. none of the above

2. Who is to blame for this country's lousy gun control?
A. Barack Obama
B. Charlton Heston
C. gun toters
D. the 2nd Amendment

3. Who has the best explanation for the tragedy?
A. the academic
B. the preacher
C. the teacher
D. the president

4. Who is Dorothy going to miss the most when she leaves Oz?
A. Glenda the Good Witch
B. The Tin Man
C. The Cowardly Lion
D. Mr. Scarecrow

OK, here are the answers: 1. D, 2. all of the above and then some, 3. none of the above, and 4. D.

How did you do? To meet standards, I think you should have gotten at least 1. and 4. correct, so a 50% or above. Wait, what did you say? 2 and 3 had typos? Those weren't options? You disagree? Too bad. It's a multiple choice test. One of the answers has to be correct. Did you say the test was unfair? Wait, you've never seen the Wizard of Oz? What's wrong with you? If you didn't pass my test, you should have studied harder.
That was fun. Now let's talk about saints and sinners, and being Against Everything.

I remember very clearly the first time I learned the term academic people use for oversimplifying someone's argument: straw man. I wrote my B.A. thesis (called a "senior essay" at my undergraduate institution) on Gwendolyn Brooks's series of anti-war sonnets at the end of her first book of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville. In an early draft of my essay, one of my friends and advisors, the Romanticist Chris (R.) Miller, told me that I was using Wordsworth as a "straw man" by suggesting that Wordsworth was a hypocrite when he claimed to be one of "the people" in his poetry. Chris explained to me that Wordsworth was by no means a rich man. I was wrong about Wordsworth. And I was getting Wordsworth wrong in the service of my argument, which was that Brooks was just as good a poet, that her poetry was just as smart, just as beautiful, and perhaps even cleverer than Wordsworth's.

The the term "straw man" may have originated with Frank Baum's Scarecrow in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, and adapted into the first technicolor film, starring Judy Garland, in 1939. We sometimes forget that Baum's novel--and the movie--was an allegory, which, to remind everyone, is one of the oldest forms of narrative, a kind of story where there is a systematic relationship between the characters in the story and the ideas or people they represent in the real world. I don't remember (if I ever knew) which figure in Baum's Gilded Age the Scarecrow represented.* But, aside from representing a single human being, the Scarecrow represented the danger of an ignorant man. He doesn't have a brain. He points his finger. He's afraid of everything, and he, just like the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (who I always remember is William Jennings Bryan) is always getting Dorothy into trouble.

In academia, accusing a writer of using a "straw man" is our way of saying that the writer is oversimplifying someone else's argument in order to use that person as a scapegoat. It is reducing another author to a talking "man" without a brain (or organs), in order to win the argument.

In academia, we do a lot of scapegoating. And now, having had the experience more than once in my life of being misunderstood and blamed for things that were out of my control, I have a lot of sympathy for the Scarecrow, who was always one of my favorite of the characters in the movie, because he's the most lovable. He makes mistakes, just like everyone, but he also gets unstuffed, and burned, and he just wants everyone to get along. He doesn't have a brain, but he does have a heart (even though when they open up his shirt, all they see is straw), and he does have courage. Of all the "good guys" in that movie, I thought that Dorothy was annoying, and Toto was a troublemaker, and the Tin Man was scary, and the Cowardly Lion was also annoying. And as I grew older, I also found Glenda annoying, even though she was my favorite when I was a little girl. But I have always admired people with heart and courage more than smart people. Maybe that's because I was raised to believe that smart people are the best people.

It became clear to me, as I grew even older, that Baum intended for us to find everyone in the novel annoying, to find the whole story annoying and stupid, and he succeeded, at least, in getting everyone's attention. Many of the novel and movie's best lines have become the best dead metaphors in the American idiom. "We're not in Kansas anymore." "If I only had a brain," (maybe we could get back home to Kansas). "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." All of these metaphors are references to ideology: the way dogma tricks us, manipulates us, scares us, causes us to point fingers at others, to roar loudly so that they won't know we're scared.

James Baldwin is now himself being treated as a straw man by many academics, who call him a "liberal" (which is a bad thing, because it means he wasn't a radical). These same academics point out how the Civil Rights Movement, which, in some corners of academia and the rest of the world, we prefer to call the "black freedom struggle," actually "just" reinforced the "liberal Cold War Consensus." In other words, you thought that Baldwin was a good guy. But in fact, he was a bad guy. He wasn't really a radical. 

It's interesting to watch these academics try to dance around one of our saints, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't yet know of an academic who has dared to denigrate King. But they do say that King "wasn't radical enough" in his early years, and then they insist that he "became more radical" in his later years. This seems, at least to me, to get King wrong. Lately I've seen lots of my teacher friends posting King quotations on Facebook, and I always pay attention to the dates. King spoke out against "right to work" in 1961, in his "not a radical" days. He also spoke out against American ideology in the early 60s, before the March on Washington. Behind the scenes, he convinced A. Philip Randolph, the President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the founder of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (in 1941), that the 1963 March would get more support if it was billed as a Civil Rights battle, rather than a labor battle. King was a pretty smart guy. In fact, he was a saint.

There were, of course, people outside of academia who denigrated King, both when Congress was considering making his birthday a national holiday, back in the 80s, and when Congress considered authorizing funding for a memorial to King on the National Mall. Some congressmen said he was too much of a radical. He opposed the Vietnam War! He fomented labor riots! Also, he was a sexist! We have FBI tapes that prove that he made sexist and racist jokes in private! King was no saint. He was a sinner. 

In academia, we love to hate Catholicism and Puritanism, because these religious dogmas act as if there are only good guys and bad guys in the world. Saints and sinners. We, in academia, recognize that Most People Are Complicated. Dogmas only make us hate ourselves. 

At least, we always believed that, until this one guy came along and changed everything. His name was Jacques. He was really smart. He created a powerful following. And he gave us something new to believe in: nothing. 

James Baldwin knew that believing in nothing was dangerous. He saw Bigger Thomas, who believed in nothing, and he knew that believing in nothing was a form of psychosis. Baldwin got in trouble, all the time, for putting himself out there and believing in things. For arguing that everybody needs something to believe in. For calling for peace and understanding. For changing his mind a few times.

In his preface to the play Blues for Mister Charlie, Baldwin explained why he had written a play in which the protagonist, at least in his imagination, is the white man. (Like many plays, the protagonist and the antagonist are sometimes interchangeable.) In Blues for Mister Charlie, a white man, Lyle Britten, murders a black man, Richard Henry. Baldwin explained in his preface that he had written the play in order to try to understand and even to love the murderous white man:
But if it is true, and I believe it is, that all men are brothers, then we have the duty to try to understand this wretched man; and while we probably cannot hope to liberate him, begin working toward the liberation of his children. For we, the American people, have created him, he is our servant; it is we who put the cattle-prodder in his hands, and we are responsible for the crimes that he commits. It is we who have locked him in the prison of his color.
Wait a second. Whatchu talkin' bout, James? Who is in prison? Who is "our servant"? Who needs to be liberated? Who is we? Who is he? It is the poor white man, not the black man, who his enslaved. He's a slave because he believes in America, in the America that puts him on top, and black people on the bottom. He's a fool because he doesn't realize how much the America he loves actually holds him down, and feeds him the lie of race to keep him quiet.

In the talk about Newtown, I see my friends and loved ones arguing on Facebook about who is to blame. Is the gun lobby to blame? Yes. Is American masculine discourse to blame? Yes. Is the mom to blame? Yes. Is the stigmatization of mental health to blame? Yes. Is the wretched young man to blame? You betcha. 

Are we going to keep playing "the blame game," or are we going to do something about it by trying to understand what happened?

Baldwin dedicated Blues for Mister Charlie to his friend Medgar Evers, an NAACP secretary in Mississippi who was shot in the back on his own front lawn, in front of his family. He also dedicated the play to four "little" girls: Denise McNair, 11 years old, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, all 14 years old. The four girls were murdered in a terrorist bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, on  September 15, 1963.

Many American high school students learn of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, and I first learned of it when I read Dudley Randall's magnificent poem, "Ballad of Birmingham," as a 7th grader. But a lot of people teach that poem, or the church bombing, out of context. A lot of people don't realize that the bombing happened just weeks after King delivered his "I have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or they don't know that King gave the eulogy at the funeral for 3 of the girls, not all four. They don't know that King promised the bereaved congregation that the deaths of the girls was part of a larger struggle that we could not yet see or understand. He promised the congregation that the girls were in heaven. He promised the congregation that their deaths, which appeared to be so senseless, would make sense in the long run. Lastly, he promised, that their deaths would not be in vain.

That last line is a quotation, without the quotation marks. So was it plagiarism? King was quoting Abraham Lincoln, for some people, the country's Patron Saint, my grandfather's hero and therefore one of my very first heroes, a man whose stature in American history has grown so large that we have carefully examined and forgiven him his inconsistencies. We have decided that he was, on balance, a Great Man. He was a hypocrite, and he was sometimes selfish, and he sometimes weighed certain risks versus certain benefits and made "calculated" choices instead of "moral" ones. He was a white supremacist but he ended slavery. He ended slavery, but only to save a country that is and has always been sick. And at a crucial moment in the country's history of illness and weakness, he stood on a battlefield soaked in blood and promised that the deaths of all those thousands of young men would mean something, in the end. Was he being manipulative or sincere? Was he cold and calculating or warm and caring? Was he crazy or brilliant? That's what hundreds of historians writing thousands of words have been trying to figure out ever since the words came out of his mouth. But we might already know, instinctively, that the answers to all those question are the same as the answer my mom almost always gives when you give her a choice: No. Yes. Um. In other words: both/and.

One of my favorite critics to love and hate is Walter Benn Michaels. His break-out essay, the one that made his name as a critic, was called "Against Theory." In that essay, he and Steven Knapp use "theory," meaning deconstruction, against itself. The argument of deconstruction is that nothing means what we intend it to mean--in fact, there is no such thing as intending to mean something. There is no such thing as intention. There is only language, and language is like an evil robot that has betrayed its master: it refuses to do what you want it to do. It is out of your control. There is no such thing as control; there is only the illusion of control, and we live in a world of chaos. Michaels and Knapp argued that, in fact, if Saint Derrida's original argument were carried out to its final conclusion (final solution?), we would know that, in fact, humans must have intention in order for language to exist at all. Otherwise, they say, language wouldn't even be language. It would just be marks on a page. It's a brilliant essay. Even though it's Against Everything, it is like Pandora's Box: it contains a tiny little sliver of hope, and it gave me hope when I first read it.

I took a class with Walter my very first term in graduate school, which was a seminar offered jointly by UIC, where Walter teaches, and U of C, where I went for grad school. The class was co-taught by my dissertation committee co-chair, Ken Warren. It was huge, for a seminar--it had about 35 or 40 people in it. And it often seemed like the only person who ever talked in that seminar was Walter. He, the professor, was "that guy." I, normally quite the talker, only spoke once, when I had to read aloud an 8-page essay, the one requirement for the class aside from a seminar paper. I was terrified. Every time someone in that class tried to speak, it seemed to me, their idea would get ripped apart by Walter. That's how he teaches. My course advisor at the time, who had been a student of Walter's, encouraged me to take the class and to "get in the mix." But I was, at the time, way too scared. Would it be an overstatement to call Walter Benn Michaels's intellect sublime, when used as a weapon? It certainly scared the bejesus out of me.

The eight or nine people from U of C who took the class all became close friends of mine through the hazing experience that was that class. And the rest of them all had their own frustrations with that class. One of them hated that Walter turned every beautiful work of art into a racist text. One of them hated how Walter took her paper on Their Eyes Were Watching God and told her that she was wrong to defend Saint Zora, then proceeded to use all of her evidence against her. She turned that paper into her dissertation. When Walter did the same thing to me, it hurt my feelings, but I wrote a way better paper on a different novel--George Schuyler's satirical novel Black No More--for my seminar paper, and since Ken was the one to grade it, I got very helpful feedback and learned a lot. (Schuyler, by the way, was a prophet, but is considered a sinner, because he remained a Republican, though a Socialist, and then became very conservative in his old age. He even wrote a memoir titled Black Conservative. He was a reactionary.)

So was that the hate part or the love part? Both. I have noticed, in my travels, that Walter is incredibly misunderstood by even some of the smartest academics. They think he is "conservative" when he is really radical. They think that he wants to abolish the humanities, when really he has only suggested abolishing private education. They think that he hates Jews, when he himself is a (secular) Jew. They think that he is against anti-racism, when really he is against multiculturalism. He has, in some sense, suffered or achieved the fate of every great thinker: he has become everybody's straw man. And we could read this, in the words of Malcolm X, as Walter's chickens having come home to roost. When you try to make a Grand Theory of Everything, you get too big for your britches, you give the Cyclops your home address, the gods will smite you. When Walter fought Derrida, he was David. Now he's Goliath, and people throw rocks at him.

Sometimes I feel sorry for him, but then I check myself, because I'm guessing he doesn't feel too sorry for himself. He makes a great living and he loves his job. Is he happy? Most academics, like most radicals, are unhappy. I don't know Walter--I barely spoke to him at all when I was his student, and I haven't spoken to him since except to attend some of his talks and watch him eviscerate everyone who tries to disagree with him, which I find obnoxious but also very entertaining. My guess is that Walter also finds it entertaining that everyone misunderstands him, because he can recognize why they misunderstand him. When James Baldwin felt misunderstood, he became angry and vitriolic as well as pained and raw. When Langston Hughes felt misunderstood, he made jokes. He, one of the first great critics of the blues, called the blues "laughing to keep from crying." Sometimes it feels like all you can do is weep. But that's when you have to laugh, just so you can keep going.

*My husband, who Knows These Things, reminded me that the scarecrow in the 1939 film represented the Dust Bowl Farmer. I shoulda known that. I'm a historian of the 30s!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown: A five minute morality play, in the style of Suzan-Lori Parks

Setting: A Hospital Emergency Room. Time: Today.

Triage nurse: doctor, there's been a massive terrorist attack over at the school.
Doctor: how many can we expect?
Nurse: Millions.

Doctor: Was it a biological attack?

Nurse: Yes. They used ideology that induced mass American Psychosis.

Doctor: Wait, ideology is not biology. And what is American Psychosis?

Psychiatrist (pushing glasses up nose): Actually, it is a very common illness. Symptoms include terror, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, inconsistent thoughts, intense anger, intense sadness, heart failure, and death.

Doctor: How is it possible that I've never heard of this condition before? I refuse to believe it exists.
Psychiatrist (in German accent): Your belief has no impact on wheser or not eet exeests.

Doctor: Well, what's your evidence? You see, I'm a doctor. I need evidence.

Psychiatrist: I, too, am a doctor. And you'll see ze evidence when ze patients arrrrrrive. I predict zey vill be members of ze NRA, ze President of ze United States, several senators, some prrrriests and prrrrreachers, some intellectuals, and talking heads of all sorts. Plus many, many children. But ze children will be DOA.

Nurse (in tears): Lord help us.
Theorist (vague European accent, a combination of French and German): He's not going to. Zere eeez no God. Religion eezs ze opiate of ze masses. God eeeez dead. Long live Michel Foucault.

Doctor: Well, how do we treat it?

Psychiatrist: We'll need to consult with several specialists. Doctors, preachers, intellectuals, and artists.

Doctor: What about the President?

James Baldwin (crying): Fuck the president. Fuck this country. Fuck the fucking white supremacist NRA. Fuck Christianity. I love America.

Doctor: Who let that crazy black man in here?

Nurse: it looks like our first patient has arrived.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sometimes, there are no words but the poet's words.

A lot of people have said that the deaths of these four girls galvanized the Civil Rights Movement at a time when it needed a boost. Maybe we can learn something similar from the tragedy in Connecticut yesterday about the need for real gun control, and the need for real, affordable, widely available treatment for and knowledge of mental illness. I'm proud of our president today.

Ballad of Birmingham

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

Dudley Randall, “Ballad of Birmingham” from Cities Burning. Copyright © 1968 by Dudley Randall. Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Dudley Randall.

Source: Cities Burning (Broadside Press, 1968)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Remembering Derrion Albert: James Baldwin and The Dead

This post is dedicated (if blog posts can be dedicated!) to my dissertation advisors, Ken Warren and Jackie Goldsby, as well as to the many, many other people who have taught me about race, class, and gender. It is also in memory of the many thousands gone. May their deaths not be in vain.

Here's a riddle. Read it, and don't look ahead!

Two people are walking down the street, alone, at night, in an "urban" area. Person A is headed east. Person B is headed west. They both notice each other. What happens next, and why?

Your answer will say a lot about where you're coming from, but you should not feel ashamed. "Political correctness" does a lot of shaming, and so does anti-racist discourse in general.

We used to use a less generic version of this scenario when I and several other grad students, under the tutelage of my advisor, ran discussions as part of the "diversity" component of freshman orientation at University of Chicago (we called it something else, but that's what it was). In that scenario, Person A was a black male. Person B was you. Is that what you imagined? In the orientation, we asked students if they would cross the street. This has, in fact, long been how green, entitled young people are introduced to an urban university setting. If you're uncomfortable, they tell you, then cross the street. Be extra aware of your surroundings. This is a crash course in "street smarts."

The freshmen would always get really uncomfortable at this point because many of them knew in their hearts that they would cross the street, but to do so is not "politically correct." They would often then make naive--not ignorant--statements about how the man was dressed, or how old he was, or what he looked like. Both times I ran these sessions (over two years), the same thing happened: eventually, a  young black woman would announce that she, herself, would cross the street in this scenario, and the rest of the students would appear incredibly relieved. But then, ideally, there would be a male student of color in the session as well, who would describe how being treated that way makes him feel.

So, who was Person A in your scenario, and who was Person B? Here are some options:

  • A: a robber B: you
  • A: your daughter B: a rapist or kidnapper
  • A: George Zimmerman B: Trayvon Martin
  • A: Emmett Till B: "a white woman"
  • A: a "gangbanger" B: a rival
  • A: Henry Louis Gates B: a policeman

Misunderstandings caused by bias range from the profound to the ridiculous. When the graduate students who ran these sessions would debrief about this topic, there was always tension. The female students would profess their ambivalence about this particular scenario, given their own fear of walking alone in Hyde Park. Other students would also profess ambivalence: of all my friends living in Hyde Park over the last 8 years, only about half a dozen of them have been assaulted, but the fear of it looms. When I spoke with my 11th graders this year about the same scenario, they had similar feelings. They said that they, as Person A, always cross the street when they are alone, if Person B is a stranger of a certain age, dress, and gender. They also said that it hurts their feelings when they are made to feel like they are Person B, and another person crosses the street to avoid them. We talked about this puzzle in a discussion of Trayvon Martin's death, him of the hoodie, iced tea, and Skittles. My students told me that they thought Trayvon could have been one of them.

I've been thinking a lot in the last month and the last week about both Trayvon and Derrion Albert, as well as another child whose name achieved infamy in death: Emmett Till. I have been mourning the children that we've lost in Chicago and the country. Derrion Albert became famous, in his death, as an example of youth violence. Last year, Harper High School, a CPS school in the Englewood neighborhood, lost sixteen students to violence.

Are these children martyrs? Maybe. A martyr dies for a cause. An end to structural racism is certainly a cause, but it's a cause that is so ongoing that we all have compassion fatigue. Instead of noticing that we are not living in a post-racial society when these things happen, we get angry at the President for pointing out that he, too, is black, that Trayvon could have been his son. We get angry at the President for saying that the police officer who arrested Gates did a "stupid" thing. We excuse Gates because he was a Harvard professor wearing a three-piece suit. We excuse the officer because Gates is black. Beer summits take place. Meanwhile, children keep dying.

When James Baldwin was writing, we did not yet have compassion fatigue, and he wrote with compassion and rage about the deaths and murders of his closest friends and more distant acquaintances: Eugene Worth (d. 1946), on whom he based the character Rufus Scott, who, in Another Country (1963), commits suicide by leaping from "the bridge named for the father of his country"--the George Washington Bridge. Medgar Evers (d. 1963), to whom he dedicated, along with the four girls killed when a terrorist bombed a church in Birmingham in 1963, the play Blues for Mister Charlie, which was based on the death of Emmett Till (1954). Malcolm, d. 1965. Martin, d. 1968. Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, 1969.  The unknown thousands killed by lynchings or in race-related uprisings in Detroit (1943 and 1967), Harlem (1919, 1935, 1943, 1964), East St. Louis (1917), Los Angeles (1943, 1965, 1992), Oakland/Berkeley (1967-68), Ole Miss (1962), Tulsa (1921), Newark (1967), Washington, D.C. (1919 and 1968), and Chicago (1919, 1951, 1961, 1966, 1968).* Many of these cities had further issues with race-related protests-cum-violence after Baldwin's death. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. L.A. again in 1992. Detroit again and again. Oakland in 2009. And Ole Miss....last month!?!? Is it possible?

It says something, to be sure, about our "nation of nations" that we boast the longest list of "ethnic riots" in this Wikipedia article. If Baldwin were alive, he would take one look at us and say something like: "Post-racial society, my ass." Outside the U.S.? We're considered by many not a racial utopia (which is what I was brought up to believe, being biracial), but, rather, a racial dystopia, where if you're young, black, and male, you have a better chance of ending up dead or in prison by the age of 25 than you do of going to college.

Baldwin wrote Blues for Mister Charlie between 1954, when Till died, and 1963, when Evers died. It was first performed in 1964. Baldwin made Richard Henry a cross between Till, Evers, and his friend Eugene Worth--Richard is a young adult, 20-ish, who has spent some time in the north trying to become a jazz musician, and has come back home south, addicted to drugs and penniless. I sometimes wonder why Baldwin didn't make Richard a child. Till was 14 when he was murdered "for whistling at a white woman." Perhaps Baldwin wanted the actor playing him to be really good. Perhaps even Baldwin couldn't stand the idea of putting a 14-year-old on stage and then having the audience watch while he is murdered by racism.

Much of the history of racial violence in Chicago takes place at the beach. This is not a coincidence. Chicago's beaches were informally segregated for years because no one wanted black boys to wade in the water with white girls. The "myth of the black rapist," as it is called, has probably killed more black men than the Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined (though those wars are also killing predominantly black, brown, and poor-white American men). Thousands of men, women, and children were lynched in the South in the hundred years between the end of the Civil War and the passing of the Voting Rights Act. Many of these were black men, and the majority of them were accused of raping white women, touching white women, or just looking at white women the wrong way. Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird isn't just a fictional character. He's real. I first learned about this kind of injustice from children's literature. I read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry at 10, and To Kill a Mockingbird at 14 (and then once a year, every year thereafter, for a long time). I credit those books (and my Grandpa Barton (nee Bortugno) and my mom) with teaching me to hate racial injustice at a very early age.

But there is a problem with Blues for Mister Charlie, as with Native Son and Invisible Man, and it's this: those great black male authors, my heroes, were sexist! Bigger Thomas stuffs a white woman's body in a furnace and then beats a black woman to death with a brick. Ellison's Jack-the-Bear sexually manipulates a rich white woman. In Blues, Jo Britten, the white woman that Richard Henry flirts with--on purpose, to make her uncomfortable--is a stupid harpie. And Juanita, the black woman whom everyone is in love with, is a magic negress: Richard loves her, Richard's father loves her, all of the other students love her. Even Parnell James, the Atticus Finch-esque newspaper editor, is in love with her. All of them think that she can fix their lives. Perhaps the worst version of racist-America-as-white-woman was LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Lula in Dutchman. Man, I love-hate that play. Lula, a symbol for America and the very first manic-pixie-dream-girl, murders Clay, a young black man with all the world before him. Racist America sure is a femme fatale. What about the black girls and women? What about Sweet Lorraine, and Alice Childress, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker, and Paule Marshall, and Ann Petry, and all the unknown babymamas? Many thousands gone, indeed.

But I'm still thinking about martyrs. The Southern Poverty Law Center's list of Civil Rights Martyrs ends with King's assassination. Could we or should we think of Derrion and Trayvon as Civil Rights Martyrs? I know that Derrion's name has been coming up a lot in talks of school closings in Chicago. I have a friend in the history department at U of C who also made this argument last spring, when U of C had a conference on how to write the history of Jim Crow, now that we live in a "post-racial" (sarcasm) society. Toussaint Losier, who has spent his entire graduate career advocating and agitating for workers' and prisoners' rights in Chicago (and therefore I don't think he'll mind my using his name), gave a brilliant (to my mind) paper about mass-incarceration, referring to Michelle Alexander's bestseller The New Jim Crow. But the introduction to his paper was about Trayvon and the response to his death.

What have we learned from the deaths of these children? This summer, Rahm Emanuel went on the CBS Evening News and begged the gangbangers to go into the alleys and shoot each other up.
"We've got two gangbangers, one standing next to a kid. Get away from that kid. Take your stuff away to the alley. Don't touch the children of the city of Chicago. Don't get near them."
Man, you sound tough on crime when you say shit like that, Mayor Rahm. When you talk about "family values" like some sort of drunk (on power) Reganite. But you forget something. Gangbangers are children, too. Anyone who has watched The Wire, or actually worked in a Chicago Public School, or read an article about the death of a teen promising that the dead teen was not a gangbanger, but rather an honors student, knows that the ones who die are usually the children. Calling them "thugs" is an attempt to make their lives worth less than the life of another human being. All due respect, Mr. Mayor, but gangbangers don't deserve to die any more than any other child does. SIXTEEN dead in just one Chicago high school in one year. What must it be like to grow up knowing for certain that someone you know, maybe someone close to you, won't live past 18?

The group CeaseFire has been doing amazing work trying to get the word out about this, in part through the incredible and sad PBS Frontline documentary The Interrupters. I showed The Interrupters to my students, and the reaction was mixed. Some of them were fascinated, some thought it was kinda boring. After all, they're living in it. If you're a young man in the neighborhood where I teach, you can't wear a hoodie, they told me. At least not with the hood up. If you have your hood up, people will stop you and ask you who you are, which means, "With whom are you affiliated?" Children on the south and west sides of Chicago plan their routes to school so that they don't cross gang boundaries. They won't walk to the library if it means someone will not-recognize-them and jump them. I have students who have joined gangs just so that they'll feel safe walking around their neighborhood. "Gangbangers" is a term that dehumanizes them, turns them into criminals, when a lot of them are just kids trying to survive.

On the last day of school last year, my principal told our students to stay safe and stay indoors. That is the hell that our children are living in, Mayor Rahm. So yeah, it makes me pretty angry when you end funding for the "Culture of Calm" program that was started in response to Derrion Albert's death, just because it hasn't fixed structural racism in three years. And yet you pour money into charter networks that will treat the children like they're already criminals, making them wear uniforms and walk in single file, not speak unless spoken to, cover up all their tattoos. And then you, Mayor Rahm, and you, President Obama, and you, Arne Duncan, do photo ops at these schools, elementary schools with silent hallways, where the kids raise their hands "crisply" and SLANT, just like good little robots. And the teachers and principals say that it's all for the children, that this is how children succeed. They're wrong. That is structural racism. Teaching students how to love dead white poets, how to eat at a restaurant, how to "do school." It's true that they need to learn to play the game. But they need to play the game in order to change the game.

But shame on you, Mr. President! The "melee" that killed Derrion Albert was caused by school closings that included kids from Altgeld Gardens, where you once worked as a community organizer. Remember where you came from, for once in your life!

When I was in my second year of graduate school, Lauren Berlant told me that I needed to write with more rage. My hero(es) for this kind of writing are Baldwin (and Berlant). If 16 dead children in one school in one year doesn't fill you with rage, then maybe it's true that you're not paying attention.

*I'm sure I've left some out. See here and here for somewhat comprehensive lists.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I Write: Baldwin, Orwell, Didion

The title of this essay is an allusion to two of my heroes who wrote essays of the same name--George Orwell and Joan Didion. (Didion also wrote an essay called "Notes of a Native Daughter"--a response to Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son."

There is this song that have been listening to on repeat throughout this fall to keep myself going. The lyric is: "Dr. King, I think often of you, and the love that you learned from Jesus." It's by Mason Jennings, and it's called "Dr. King." It's a beautiful song, and the message means a lot to me.

Many of my friends and colleagues will see this as an oversimplification of King. But it's an oversimplification that I think is worth remembering, and I try to remember it every day. There is King hagiography and King denigration, and he was a complicated and egotistical man. But King's ministry was a ministry of love.

I am not a Christian. But lately I have been thinking a lot (shout out to my mother-in-law!) about the gospel of love. Baldwin knew that King believed in love and sacrifice, which is why he respected King. But Baldwin wished that King would include more rage in his ministry. Baldwin was, himself, a lapsed Pentecostalist youth minister--he knew a lot about Christian love, Christian hate, and Christian rage. Also he knew that these three things--love, hate, and rage--could exist in one man: his father, and himself.

My friend "Jim" wrote me this note today:
I had an awfully self-helpy thought about "selling oneself" this morning -- at least, it helped myself: it occurred to me that a better formulation than selling, with its connotations of commerce, commodification, prostitution, etc., might be giving an audience or readership permission to find you complex, pleasurable, etc. Audiences are made up of all kinds of people with all sorts of defenses about the prospect of allowing you the quasi-intimacy that reading creates. A writer's job is to contextualize herself in such a way as to make that possible. I realize as I write that sounds weirdly erotic, which is not quite what I mean. Because adapting one's work to a trend, having reputation or pedigree, etc., are all ways of building trust -- and it's very hard to reach people without that. Rambling. But what do you think?
Jim, who is English, always beats himself up for Rambling. He even had a blog once upon a time that made a punny joke about this and what the British call "Rambling," which means walking long distances for fun. But anyway, his point here is a good one--which is that you need to remember your audience, and that the relationship between teacher and student, writer and audience, is a love-hate relationship.

Baldwin knew a lot about psychology, about which I will be posting later this week. But for today, I wanted to answer this question: Why do I write? Why am I writing this way right now?

Didion said: "I. I. I. [...] I write to know what I am thinking." Yes. Writing, teaching, being an academic: these are endeavors in which the human has to balance between feeling selfish (egotistical) and selfless (a martyr). Nobody likes someone who acts like a martyr when they're not literally dying for a cause. And nobody likes an narcissist, either. The humanist professions--writing, teaching, academia--attract people who wrestle with this duality. But we're kidding ourselves if we think that we write only for the sake of our audiences. The problem that Jim is talking about above is the problem of recognizing your audience. Do you write for yourself (narcissist) or for your audience (martyr)?

The answer, of course, is both/and. Martin Luther King may have been quite egotistical. There is certainly evidence to support this. But even people with narcissistic tendencies actually do most of what they do out of a sense of mission. (All ad hominem attacks on Obama aside, no one would run for President of the United States and then keep doing that job unless they actually cared about changing the world. Well, maybe one guy....who ran to please his father. But enough psychoanalysis of the presidents.)

King's mission was not one of self-aggrandizement. Movements need leaders. He knew that. He tried to balance of self-aggrandizement with self-sacrifice. And, since he was murdered at 39, and lived his entire short career of celebrity under the threat of imminent death, I should say that the balance was on the side of sacrifice for him. So it kind of annoys me when people dishonor his memory by talking about what he said in private company, which we only know about thanks to the U.S. government SPYING ON HIM. No one is all good. But he was, on balance, one of the better ones.

Orwell said that he wrote for four reasons: (1) sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! Do you, dear reader, see why I love and worship these writers?

So what am I writing about now? And has it changed? My husband pointed out to me that I appear to have taken a slight turn from my previous postings. I can understand his point of view. I rarely used to talk about Foucault in my previous writing on this blog. But, at the same time, I think it is consistent with what I've always tried to do on this blog, which is to create dialogue where I could not find it in my working life.

Dialogue, cooperation, collaboration--I sound like Mr. President! But the man has a good point. We live in a  world right now that is so with-us-or-against-us that we have shut our ears to ideas. A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from your friend or your enemy.

I don't want anyone who has read this blog before the last week to think that I have stopped writing for you. I don't entirely know who you are, but you are still my audience. Many more of my academic friends have started reading since I posted "A Defense of English." What I have noticed, and I will keep repeating it until it gets heard, is that the dialogue between English Literature departments and English Education departments is pretty impoverished, except at the few universities where these two types of specialists co-exist in one department.

To put this point another way, what I posted about Orwell was somewhat taboo for me, as an academic writer, to put out there, on a couple of levels. As a junior, junior, junior, "jobless," just-about-to-be-minted PhD, it is presumptuous of me to write about Orwell. Orwell, as an author, falls outside of my field of specialization--American and African American literature and drama. And I'm by no means an Orwell specialist; I've just read a lot of his books. I haven't read all of the criticism that's already out there about Orwell. I haven't paid attention to that conversation. So who am I to write about him? Well, I have taught a lot of Orwell to high school students--Animal Farm and 1984; Homage to Catalonia and "Shooting an Elephant" and "Politics and the English Language" and "Such, Such..." and the essay he wrote on the Spanish Civil War. So I've read him pretty carefully; and I've tried to assemble a picture of him that makes him make more sense to other people, younger people. Non-experts.

That's what teachers and critics of literature do: we try to give people a bigger picture.

On a second level, I'm way too googly-eyed about Orwell for this writing to be considered "academic." In the academy, we don't love the authors we write about. If anything, taking a position that shows that we love the author is likely to be challenged--"Why do you defend this person's thinking so much?" "I can understand why you might want to, but it's causing you to be blind to this persons flaws." In academia, we are all about pointing out people's---er, wait, arguments'--flaws.

Critics often feel sad about themselves because they feel so unwanted and unneeded by society. But society needs critics. Critics help us read better. And that's what we need to do. Orwell knew that. He saw--firsthand--all of the madness of modernity, and he wrote about it for multiple audiences. For adults and for children. For intellectuals and for ordinary people. And he wrote in a way that most people could understand, because he prized clarity above many other things (more on that in a future post).

Baldwin believed in love. I want to write like him because he believed in pouring his love and his rage into his writing, which is what I've tried to do on this blog, more than once. Most people now call Baldwin a "liberal" (in a bad way) for believing in love. But he did, and he wasn't wrong to. He was an ex-Christian and he understood the teachings of Jesus better than the people who write about him now. He understood King because he understood Jesus. He believed in love, and was sorely disappointed, because he had believed in Jesus and then watched many of his closest friends die as a direct result of American racism.

I think, in academia, it's time we had a little bit more love, and a little bit less hate from the haters. Paranoid reading is annoying and boring. There are only so many times that you can point out that an author from the past was duped. Hindsight and all that. It is presentist and unfair to judge King's gender politics by today's standards, or Harper Lee's race politics, for the same reason, or Baldwin's politics, period. Most people in this world who aren't psychotic narcissists (like Hitler and Stalin and Castro) have good intentions. In teaching, we call this giving the benefit of the doubt, or assuming positive intent. Baldwin was a liberal because he knew that being one would give him a platform. And he wanted to be heard. That's why he wrote. That's why I write.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Words, Words, Words: George Orwell and the Theorists (Part 1 of many)

My Orwell post turned into a 7-page essay when I wasn't looking. So here's part 1: the Prologue.

A young Indiana Jones, played by a young River Phoenix (RIP), once said, “Is everyone lost but me?”

This was ironic, of course. Indiana was the one who was lost. But Indiana Jones, though a narcissist, is often right when lots of people around him are wrong, especially those pesky Nazis. There is a certain kind of person—we can call him a narcissist, or a smarty pants, or a schizophrenic, or a prophet—who often looks around and thinks that nobody sees what he sees.

I am learning a hell of a lot from watching Homeland (just two episodes left in Season 1, so no spoilers, please!). I connect with the show a lot, and with a lot of the characters, partly because of how it uses flashbacks to explain people (which Baldwin did, too—but I’m saving that for my Baldwin post). I'm in a mind-set right now to talk about how my past helps me understand my present. That's what Baldwin knew too, and what Homeland gets right: people are people, and all people, whether they are POWs, or terrorists, or CIA directors, or presidents, or mood-disordered, have baggage.

Hindsight is a blessing and a curse: I can see very clearly the chain of mistakes and misunderstandings that got me to this surprisingly confused place I am in (If you've been reading between the lines, or you know me personally, you know that I am in a confused place. My body and soul are fairly damaged, but I am healing, partly through the soul-searching writing that I do here, in front of lo you dozens of friends and loved ones. (Aside: Blogger stats are kinda crazy scary Foucauldian surveillance kinda stuff. Who is reading in Sweden!? Turn off those cookies!))

Baldwin thought that racism was a failure of interpersonal understanding. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and so many other martyrs, then and now, bear him out on that score. But that post is coming up...later.

Dualism--that is our problem. Binary opposition. Black and white. Good guys and bad guys. Enemies and friends. If you're reading this blog, then you probably already know it, just as the makers of Homeland, who seem to have read/watched The Manchurian Candidate 1,000 times, know it: we have been living in a second Cold War since 9/11. Or, put another way, pace Fukuyamathe Cold War never died, it just changed shape.

"Theorists," that motley collection of modern philosopher-kings everyone in humanist academia thinks are really important, but hard to understand, and everyone outside humanist academia thinks are useless, and bad writers, have understood the deadly danger of extremism for a really long time, not least because many of them were persecuted, imprisoned, and killed by various European regimes. So why haven't reason and insight won out, lo these many years since the "rises" and "falls" of totalitarianism, empire, and injustice--in other words, modernity

If you ask me? The problem is the writing. Many of the most brilliant literary and cultural theorists (and why are they called that instead of philosophers?) never wrote clearly enough for a non-expert to understand them. Or else they write with so much baggage, so much required background knowledge, so many freakin' footnotes and hyperlinks, that these writers take a massive effort--years of specialized training and expertise--to understand. My family members are very educated people, but even they can't get through my dissertation, any more than I could read one of their articles. Specialization is the enemy of knowledge, if you ask me. Most people don't have the time, as in SIX FULL-TIME YEARS, just for a start, to begin to understand a body of knowledge where a 10-page article can take multiple slow readings and many more hours of discussion just to get the main idea, as we call it in K-12, pace ACT (and not for the last time). 

(Here's where I thank all of my friends who took LIT300 with me senior year, many of whom are now working artists, and my friend Nick, who is now an academic librarian, and my grad school friends, especially the one I fake-named Jim, for the many reading groups: in pairs, in threes, by the dozen. You all made theory way less scary.)

Judith Butler, who helped us realize that gender is a social construction, argued, in the New York Times, that she is not a "bad writer." Complicated ideas require complicated writing. But it seems like fewer and fewer people--certainly fewer than in the heyday of the Great American magazine intellectuals--are learning how to read complicated writing and long, complex arguments. And we're doing that less and less (see my post "A Defense of English"). 

The Humanities are dying, people! And, honestly, who has the time to even worry about it? My blog posts are way too long-winded for many readers, I'm guessing, and my dissertation is 60,000 effing words of boring, alienating jargon. Spit it out, Barton! they tell me. Even my advisors tell me that. Find the nugget. What's the claim? Give it a good title. (And then give it one-or-several subtitles--when I look at the shelves of bound dissertations in the English department at U of C, it's pretty hilarious to see how short the titles used to be. The title of my dissertation is "Staging Liberation: Race, Representation, and Forms of American Theatre, 1934-1965." And most science dissertations just say what-it-is right there in the title: "A gene therapy approach for the treatment of retinal degeneration," by my cousin, Dr. Brian J. Spencer, for example.) It's a sad fact that nobody reads Ph.D. dissertations. All that knowledge, undiscovered, gathering dust until someone else says it better or just gets noticed. Scientists, at least, have a much better chance of actually building upon their discoveries, instead of just repeating them. The humanities could learn a lot from how other academic fields do the publications thing, imho.

Sigh. I don't know, old fogies and change-agents have this way of exaggerating when they say that the newest generation is dumber than the generation before. We progress, we regress. But I am worried, to say the least, about how oversimple and how reactionary the conversations have gotten, how attached we've become to quick fixes and simple solutions to complex problems.

Many of the great Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers thought it was the job of intellectuals to explain, to clarify, to help everyone else understand. "Everyone else" goes by many names, but they are always the group without power: "the proletariat" to Marx, "the folk"* to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, W.E.B. DuBois, and many other black intellectuals, "the subaltern" to Gramsci and the postcolonialists, "the people"* to Kenneth Burke and a buncha other folks, "the rest" to Jacques Ranciere (for which he credits Plato...I think). But the intellectuals have always struggled, way more than the artists, to figure out how to expose the machinery to ordinary people going about their everyday lives. How can we "wake them up," how can we "sweep aside the curtain" (Baum) or "lift the veil" (DuBois)?

And the intellectuals also feel really anxious (and, yes, paranoid) about it, because intellectuals are usually people with power, not people without it, so it feels paternalistic. Ralph Ellison noted in Invisible Man that the statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee called "Lifting the Veil" often looked, to him, like The Founder was pushing the veil down, pulling the wool over the young man's eyes. Ideology can't be escaped. Without something to believe in, we are lost. That's why, when Derrida started what became known as "The Structuralist Controversy" and then "The Turn to Theory," which took hold at Yale (in the belly of the beast!), he sounded a little bit terrified, and a lot playful. Derrida's is that kind of joking where everyone is terrified: if you take away the center, all you have is emptiness.** Deconstruction is not a productive, optimistic form of analysis. Derrida knew this, and so he tried to make light, while keeping it serious. He loved a good pun as much as the next guy (Who is the next guy? Depends on whom you ask--but here's a hint: it's another theorist with another double-entendre). But Derrida is an incredibly challenging read. His name is synonymous with "hard to understand." And he liked being hard to understand. If one thing is clear, it's that someone who could invent a word like "ontic-ontology" did not care how much work it would take for him to be understood. Clarity, to many theorists, means oversimplification, and oversimplification is always dangerous, often deadly.

Puns, and figures of speech in general, are a good way to capture complicated ideas in fewer words. And in our field, we have lots of them, often in English, French, and German cognates: differance, presence, signifyin(g), misprision, interpellation, alienation/estrangement/defamiliarization, discipline/punishment/police/vigilance/surveillance, immanence, performativity, representation, the well-wrought urn, Critical Inquiry, the title of the U of C-sponsored English journal. We have a lot of jargon. We like misspelling words, adding hyphens and parentheses to make the puns and dualisms clearer. The End(s) of American Studies. (Con)testing blahdey blah. (Re)presentations, the title of another important poststructuralist English journal. I was tempted to use "Liber(aliz)ation" in the title of the diss, but I refrained, hoping it would be understood. 

All this is to say, English is fun! Playing with words is fun. Because theorists, and literary critics, and poets, and that crazy guy who wore black all the time, and the famous guy who invented that guy, whose name is theonly author's name mentioned in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, knew what all those humanism-destroying, STEM-loving, vocational-and-professional-school-remaking (de)formers*** don't get: Words matter. Stories matter.

Orwell knew that. So more on that tomorrow.

*One reason that these two terms in particular--the folk and the people--make many academics squirmy is that they were used by the biggest bad guy: Hitler. Nazism started out as a political party called National Socialism, and Volkswagens started being built....Populism can go bad really easily, and not just in Germany: also in Cambodia. Also in the rest of Southeast Asia. Also in the USSR. Also in China.....Also in the U.S. (See What's the Matter with Kansas?, etc, etc, etc)

**Teachers rarely credit each other, because teachers are able to share ideas without wanting or needing to cite each other. (My students often accuse me of plagiarism when they see another teacher's name on one of my handouts, though.) When I taught Deconstruction, I always used the Stevens poem, and Paul Fry was the teacher who showed me that first. His lectures for LIT300 (which is now ENG300--how times change!--were a model for me in how to make theory clearer to people, so thank you, Professor Fry.

*** This is sort of a silly pun, if you ask me. Reform can be bad. Change can be bad. The problem is that everyone right now thinks that change must be good. But "progressive" and "conservative" or "left" and "right" don't even begin to get at the problem. The problem is "common sense," which is another word for ideology, or what Gramsci called hegemony. Gramsci equated common sense with hegemony from a prison cell in the '30s. But Gramsci's Prison Notebooks weren't published until the '50s, and they weren't translated into English until the '70s, right about when Derrida and DeMan and all those guys were stirring up all that shit at Yale. Cause and effect relationships are a funny thing to try to tease out, pace the ACT. But that's why I love writing history. Because it's fun.