Last year my students—Chicago teachers and teachers-to-be, educators from a range of backgrounds and experiences and orientations—all read The Beautiful Struggle. I’d put Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir on the list of required readings because I thought it was a fitting and important educational book, a useful text for city teachers to explore and interrogate. Some students agreed; several did not. “What’s this got to do with teaching?”
I chose it because it moved me, frankly, and I thought it might move some of them as well. I chose it because in the details of this one life—the challenges and the obstacles, but especially the elements he assembled to build an architecture of survival—I saw human themes of love and beauty and the universal struggle to grow more fully into the light. I chose it because it took readers inside the life of one Black kid, this singular unruly spark of meaning-making energy negotiating and then mapping the territory between his home and the streets and the schools—necessary reading for city teachers I thought.
There was a lot to dig into, much to wrangle about, and a lot to send us off to other readings and further research. Soon students were diving into Crystal Laura’s Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School to Prison Pipeline, Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reap, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Rachel DeWoskin’s Big Girl Small. The book was doing work, as I’d hoped it would.
My students have all chosen to become teachers against a backdrop of corporate-driven school reform accompanied by unprecedented disrespect and hostility toward teachers and teaching. They know that teaching is devalued; they know they won’t earn either a lot of money or a fair share of respect; they’ve been told by family and friends that they could do much, much better. And still they come to teaching, most saying they want to make a difference in children’s lives. Some are motivated by memories of a wonderful teacher who’d reached and changed them, others by bitter experiences they hope to correct. They are mostly idealistic, and I admire them for that.
They bring to class a vague hope that they will do great things in spite of a system that they know to be corrupt and dysfunctional. But this knowledge is not yet deep enough, for they also accept—some with greater skepticism and some with hardly any doubts at all—the predatory system’s self-serving propaganda: test scores, achievement gaps, accountability, personal responsibility.
Into this contradiction steps Ta-Nehisi Coates with an assertion that shaped and marked the course: No matter what the professional talkers tell you, Coates wrote, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail. That simple observation—or was it an argument, a polemic, or an indictment?—led to hot debate on the evening we first opened the book, and those 18 words were still roiling the seminar as the term came to an end.
Coates never lets up, and he returns again and again: Fuck what you have heard or what you have seen in your son. He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home. He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system. But inside is the same sense that was in me. None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.
Some claimed to have evidence to the contrary, while others answered that those contentions skated glibly on the surface of things and failed to go deep enough in search of root causes, accepting as fact the propaganda that locates failure everywhere but in the intentional design of the system itself. Some rejected the idea that they were agents of the state, bit players in a white colonial space, while others argued that teaching could never be even partially useful—let alone reach toward transcendence—until teachers fully faced the friction and gaping contradictions inherent in their teacher-roles. Truth and reconciliation, they argued, system-disruption and radical reconstruction; remediating the students is a ridiculous misdirection.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, Between the World and Me, takes us deeper into life in schools, and especially what the experience means to its captives. I was a curious boy, Coates writes, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.
That nails it: the obsessions that characterize American classrooms today—especially urban classrooms and schools attended by the poor, recent immigrants from impoverished countries, First Nations peoples, and the descendants of formerly enslaved people—are simple: the goal is obedience and conformity, the watchword, control. These schools are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism, dishonesty, and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies of constraint, the elaborate schemes for managing the fearsome, potentially unruly mob, the knotted system of rules, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks and surveillance, the laborious programs of regulating, indoctrinating, inspecting and punishing, disciplining, censuring, correcting, counting, appraising, assessing and judging, testing and grading. The corporate reformers offer no relief, and simply create charter or alternative schools that enact this whole agenda on steroids. They are not concerned with curiosity or imagination, initiative or courage because their purpose is elsewhere: everyone more or less submissively accepting their proper place in the hierarchy of winners and losers.
One night I opened seminar by telling the class that less than two miles from where we were meeting almost 10, 000 Jewish women were housed in cages. It was an electrifying and terrifying image, and the class rose up, some convinced I was joking (though I wasn’t smiling) others that I was lying, all insisting that it couldn’t be true. I eventually relented—you’re right, I said, it’s not true. The truth is that 10,000 poor, mostly very young Black and Latino men are living in those cages. Everything calmed down; the normal world returned.
And we returned to Coates: the streets and the schools [were] arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state [but] fear and violence were the weaponry of both.
We had worked earlier to name the system, a system built on theft and lies and plundering Black bodies, Coates said. It was surely a predatory system, a racist system, and we looked hard at that word: racism. In one common context it meant ignorance and prejudice, the off-hand comments of Cliven Bundy or Donald Sterling, but there was more: there was the system itself,the plunder, the laws and structures, the schools. Donald Sterling’s filthy mind and mouth is one thing; that he became rich as a swindling slum-lord something else.
“I’m no Donald Sterling,” people say, meaning I don’t utter the hateful words. But Coates won’t let anyone off the hook: the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. Their privileges are earned—they are good and true folks all—or come from thin air; their comfortable lives as normal as noon coming around every 24 hours. James Baldwin decades ago accused his country and his countrymen of a monstrous crime against humanity, and added a further dimension to the indictment: it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
Coates names the schools as central to the system: If the streets shackled my left leg, the schools shackled my right. The shackles were fear and violence, and also lies and denial.
In 2006 Florida passed a law stipulating that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” The law called for an emphasis on the “teaching of facts.” Facts and only facts, without frivolous and messy interpretation, would be permitted by the legislators to guide instruction, for example, about the “period of discovery.” I read that and did a neck-wrenching double-take: Huh? Whose facts, exactly, I wondered? The facts of a Genoan adventurer in the pay of Spanish royalty, the facts of the First Nations residents overwhelmed, murdered, and enslaved, or possibly a range of other facts and angles-of-regard altogether? I’ll guess that the Florida lawmakers went with the first choice, legislating in effect a pep-rally for Christopher Columbus—yes, their own particular constructed explanation and analysis of events and circumstances passing as Fact.
In 2008 a group in the Arizona legislature passed a law stating that schools whose curriculum and teaching “encourage dissent” from “American values” risked losing their state funding. American history is bursting with stories of dissent from the first revolutionaries onward: Abolitionists, Suffragettes, anarchists and labor pioneers, civil rights and Black Power warriors, peace and environmental activists, feminists, heroes and sheroes and queeroes, Wounded Knee, Occupy, Black Lives Matter! Wherever you look and whatever period you examine, dissent is as American as cherry pie, an apple-core American value and the very engine of hope or possibility—except to the lawmakers of Arizona.
A history teacher in a Southside Chicago school was teaching a standard lesson on the legendary 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education. Brown reversed Plessy v. Ferguson and ended racial segregation in US schools, and the lesson was pointedly directed toward illustrating our great upward path as a nation. A student who had appeared to be paying no attention at all spoke up suddenly, challenging the teacher: “So you’re saying this class here is against the law? We’re breaking the law here? Can I call the cops?” Everyone cracked up, but the disruptive student was highlighting the obvious: here was a segregated classroom in a segregated school in a country that had outlawed school segregation decades ago.
It doesn’t take perceptive young people anytime at all to sniff out the duplicity and the dirty-dealing in the nothing-but-the-facts agenda, and to conclude that all schools lie. Teachers lie. Parents lie. In fact the whole edifice of adult society is a complete phony, a tangled and fiddly fraud sailing smoothly along on an enforced sea of silence. Some students submit to the empire of deception, concluding that the price of the ticket includes winking at the massive hoax and promising to keep quiet and go along—they’ll hopefully get rewarded by-and-by. Many other students go in the opposite direction: their insights lead them to insurgent actions and gestures and styles, all matter-of-fact performances of self-affirmation as well as hard-nosed refusals of complicity and rejections of a world that is determinedly disinterested in their aspirations and perceptions and insights.
There’s a genre of jokes that all end with the same punch-line: in one version, a man comes unannounced and unexpectedly upon his partner in the intimate embrace of another, and explodes in accusation. The accused looks up indignantly and says: “Who are you going to believe? Me, or your own lying eyes?” Kids get it viscerally: schools are asking them to ignore their immediate experiences and their direct interpretations—their own lying eyes. Who you going to believe?
In The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing offers a compelling statement about modern education as a dominion of deception:
It may be that there is no other way of educating people. Possibly, but I don’t believe it. In the meantime it would be a help at least to describe things properly, to call things by their right names. Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this:
“You are in the process of being indoctrinated…What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture…You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system…you…[must] find ways of educating yourself—educating your own judgment…”
Schools chug along on the rails of indoctrination and propaganda: everywhere you look and in every direction lies the hype of the curriculum and the disingenuous spin about young people. Students are routinely subjected to an alphabet soup of sticky, inaccurate labels, mistrusted and controlled, and defined as lacking the essential qualities that make one fully human. On a daily basis and as part of the normal routine, schools engage in the toxic habit of labelling students by their presumed deficits, and officially endorse failure—especially for children of the least powerful—in the name of responsibility and objectivity and consequences.
And everywhere you look and in spite of it all, youth are making their wobbly ways toward enlightenment and liberation, the twin pillars of an education of purpose. From Youth Speaks in Oakland to the Baltimore Algebra Project and the Chicago Freedom School, they are having their say and forging their unique pathways. And right next to them are wondrous teachers in countless spaces and places organizing small insurgencies and underground railroads, bursts of purpose and power growing through the cracks in the concrete. These are teachers whose faith in the young calls them to dive into the contradictions, to find ways through the mechanisms of control, to tell the truth when it must be told, and to take the side of the child.
Between the World and Me will be required reading for those teachers, and it will be on my syllabus in the Fall. Get ready.
James Comey, director of the bloated and corrupt, deeply dishonest and deadly criminal enterprise known as the FBI, is usually quick-on-the-draw when it comes to labeling acts of violence “terrorism”—after all he has an annual $3.3 billion dollar budget to counter terror—but he hesitated in the case of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African-Americans in the Charleston Emanuel AME church on June 17. Why?
It was “horrific,” he acknowledged, but “terrorism” is “more of a political act and…I don’t see it as a political act.”
The perpetrator himself saw it as a calculated and willful political act, painted his self-portrait in the posture of a partisan actor on an explicitly political mission; his “manifesto” is as thoroughly articulated a political document, filled with apocalyptic fantasies and white supremacist day-dreams, as you’re likely to find.
The farce of Comey’s ambiguity is telling: it highlights the fuzziness of the word itself, but more important it reveals the selective and hypocritical deployment of “terrorist/terrorism” as propaganda by the paid agents of the ruling class. “Terrorism” is a mindless term of art for “the stuff the powerful don’t like.” Comey’s FBI has labeled acts of vandalism “terrorism,” including breaking windows, hammering on nuclear silos, disabling tractors in ancient forests or airplanes set to bomb civilians, freeing caged animals, and more. As a founding member of the Weather Underground in 1970, I know from close experience just how sweeping—and sticky—that label can become.
Having myself been called (falsely) an “unrepentant domestic terrorist” for decades now, I’m reluctant to use the word at all—it flows so automatically into the rushing propaganda stream unleashed by the so-called “war on terror,” screaming insistently for permanent war, more US aggression, more assassinations and torture, more ethnically-based surveillance and repression, more suspicion and fear, more targeting of Arabs and Muslims. But I’ll make an exception here: Dylan Roof is a white supremacist and a terrorist, his actions part of a long legacy of terrorism carried out against captured Africans, and later the descendants of formerly enslaved people.
What is terrorism for real, and why is this guy exhibit one?
Nicholas Lemann attempted a definition of “terrorism” a couple of years ago in the New Yorker. He claimed that the expert consensus included a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims. Good enough, but then: terrorists are non-state actors, he claimed, which conveniently exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, the US bombing of villages in Vietnam, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause fear and panic toward a political goal. Terrorists, he continued, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s an expedient tautology: whenever and wherever the US military marches in, the space becomes, by definition, a “field of battle;” if the US decides to pound a village to dust—as in, say, Fallujah—that’s a field of battle, but if a villager kills a US soldier in the exact same spot the day before the invasion commences, that’s “terrorism.”
In the interest of consistency and fairness let’s define “terrorism” more precisely: the use of violence intended to intimidate a civilian population in order to accomplish some specified political end-point. If we focus on the use of coercive violence we can see clearly that terrorism can be the work of a religious cult, an individual warrior, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself. And the state throughout history takes first prize.
The history of organized terror against African-Americans begins with the capture and kidnapping of Africans, tortured and transported to the Americas as chattel, none of them willing volunteers on the Middle Passage. This massive crime against humanity was state-sanctioned, legal terror.
Enslaved people ran away and resisted in a thousand ways, and after hundreds of years legal slavery was abolished. A decades-long campaign of terror against free Blacks began immediately—pogroms, arson, displacement, false arrests and imprisonment, night-riders, and thousands of public-spectacle lynchings. White gangs rampaged on a whim through African-American communities in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Rosewood, and hundreds of other places, and the message was clear: white supremacy would police the racial boundaries and punish any transgression.
Dylann Roof’s murderous outburst must be located in that long history of organized violence against African-Americans to accomplish a political goal: the maintenance of white supremacy. The legacy continues, and the resistance must be mobilized and energized. Part of that resistance is to educate and organize around abolishing the whole structure of the war on terror, including the vague language that points toward indistinct enemies. There is no good reason to call for the state to pursue a terrorist enhancement charge against the terrorist Dylann Roof. He should and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And we should continue to oppose endless war, the construction of a Prison Nation, mass incarceration, the militarization of the police and the serial murder of Black people, surveillance and repression.
This could be a moment of unusual clarity for all of us.
Grace Lee Boggs turned 100 years old on June 27, 2015.
Her 95th was a noisy intergenerational riot, and an uprising is what we all need this time around. Grace goes on and on, and she inspires and challenges us to do the same.
To celebrate her 100th, get the dazzling documentary, “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs,” by the young film-maker Grace Lee. The documentarian Grace was filming “The Grace Lee Project,” a collection of interviews across the land with everyone she could find who shared her name. The idea was cool: show the vast range and diversity of Asian-American women simply by following this one thin thread. And then she met the wondrous revolutionary Grace, and a whole new film project was launched.
Grace Lee Boggs has one of the most interesting minds you will ever encounter. She is always restless, always awakening and rethinking, forever astonished and moved to act, never standing still or entirely satisfied. Even at 99 she’s the most forward-looking person in any room she walks into. She’s a great believer in the power of the unfinished conversation—she loves the unscripted, surprising ideas that percolate in-between when we speak with the hope of being heard, and listen with the possibility of being changed. Since every idea contains its opposite and nothing is fixed or final, she dives into dialogue with unmatched fervor. It’s a sight to behold, and a gift to participate.
Grace wears a t-shirt these days that reads: [r]evolution. She says that we must work for revolution, but not in any old stereotypically scripted way. We must fight for revolution, yes, a huge transformation of all that is before us, and we must embrace evolution—becoming new men and new women capable and worthy of the changes we envision and struggle toward.
Grace challenges us to grapple with the big questions: What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century? How will we grow our souls? Who will we choose to be in a world not of our choosing? What can we imagine and how will we get there? What time is it on the clock of the world?
Happy Birthday, Grace!!
Please and thank you.
Joy and Justice, Bill
The smart and radical Steve Clark has written a provocative and helpful pamphlet under the pen name VI Lenin, and yes, it’s called WHAT is to be DONE? Get it here:
It’s an ebook so you don’t get a hard copy. If you have a Kindle, iPad or smartphone, you can buy it for any of those formats. If you want to read it on your computer, you can download the free Adobe Digital Editions reader. Then, you order the book in epub format. It’s available now at Smashwords, Amazon, iTunes, Kobo and Barnes & Noble.