Friday, November 6, 2015
What does 1917 represent in 2015?
Coming soon is the centenary of the two Russian Revolutions of 1917 – the February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar’s regime and the October Revolution that set aside the dithering government of Alexander Kerensky. Lenin, who had returned to Russia from exile, saw that behind Kerensky’s government was “merely a screen for the counter revolutionary Cadets and the military clique, which is in power at present.” They had to be overthrown. That is what the Petrograd Soviet did.
But the Soviet Century was truncated. It lasted for just over seven decades. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Its departure inflicted a heavy penalty on socialism around the world.
What do we celebrate, then, when we look back at 1917?
Insurrection is an Art
Do we marvel at the work of the tiny left-wing parties who made deep connections with the Russian working-class and sections of the peasantry in the terrible years of the Great War?
In 1914, the international socialist movement crumbled before the prospect of war, with most established parties – led by the most important Marxist party, which was in Germany – voted on behalf of the war. A small minority decided that this was not a war of the people, but a war against the people, an imperialist war. At Zimmerwald, Switzerland in 1915, this anti-imperialist left gathered to regroup. From Russia came a wide spectrum of leaders, from Lenin to Martov, from Trotsky to Radek. Pacifism was not their method. “The slogan of peace is not at all revolutionary. It can only take a revolutionary character when it is linked to our argument for a revolutionary tactic, when it goes along with a call for revolution.” Lenin’s 1902 book,What is to be Done?, provided a guide to many socialists: it counseled the cadre to build organization to prepare for a change of circumstances. When the spontaneous strikes broke out in the St. Petersburg factories in 1896, Lenin argued, the “revolutionaries lagged behind this upsurge, both in their ‘theories’ and in their activity; they failed to establish a constant and continuous organization capable of leading the whole movement.” This lag had to be rectified.
That the Russian revolutionaries found the means to build a network amongst the working-class and the peasantry is no small feat. In early September 1917, as workers and peasants took to their Soviets and passed resolution after resolution for their own government, Lenin wrote, “insurrection is art.” In Jack Reed’s bracing Ten Days that Shook the World, he describes the working-class and peasant energy. “Lectures, debates, speeches – in theatres, circuses, school-houses, barracks…. Meetings in the trenches at the Front, in village squares, factories…What a marvelous sight to see Putilovsky Zavod (the Putilov Factory) pour out its forty thousand to listen to Social Democrats, Socialist Revolutionaries, Anarchists, anybody, whatever they had to say, as long as they talk!” But they also seemed to want something specific – to found a Soviet Republic. It is this specific demand that led to the October Revolution. The Congress of Soldiers’ Representatives wrote to the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets, “The country needs a firm and democratic authority founded on and responsible to the popular masses. We have had enough of words, rhetoric and parliamentary sleight of hand!” They demanded a second revolution. That is what the Bolsheviks, the party of Lenin, led in October. The Bolsheviks did not engineer a coup. They stayed alongside the mass upsurge and led it to fulfill its demands.
Do we celebrate the incredible, but hard won, achievements of the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1989?
“By creating a new, Soviet type of State,” Lenin wrote in 1918, “We solved only a small part of this difficult problem. The principle difficulty lies in the economic sphere.” To socialize production was not going to be easy. An attack by the forces opposed to the October Revolution – including most Western powers – threw the new government into disarray. The Red Army had to be organised to defend the new state, which meant resources began to be drained away from social uses. At no point during its seven decades, did the Soviet Union exist without major external threats. Its entire architecture of socialist planning was constrained by the imperatives of security.
The USSR chose to push for rapid economic growth to sustain the Red Army and to provide sufficient social wealth to improve the livelihood of the population. There was consistently a worry that the use of strategies to build industrial capacity in a hurry and to increase rural productivity would lead to far too centralized a state. “Communists have become bureaucrats,” warned Lenin in 1918 in a letter to Grigori Sokolnikov, one of his closest comrades. “If anything will destroy us, it is this.” Embattled by the siege, driven by the hurry to build the physical plant and the human capacity of the country, pushed by classes adverse to their experiments, the Soviets moved to weaken democratic institutions. Their choices were few. It is in this lack of choices that some of the major institutional errors crept in for the Soviet Union.
The small Bolshevik Party now renamed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union drew in three million members by 1933. It was a dynamic party, which enthused popular classes into new activity – including exciting new developments in culture, art, philosophy, technical sciences, and so on. The great advances in the imagination seemed to come from nowhere, but actually they came from the spirit of the revolution and from its instrument, the Party. When the Party began to go against the opposition, it excised the potential richness of Soviet politics and left the Party – in name – but not in spirit. Party members becameapparatchiks in the bureaucracy, denuding the political life of the party for the administrative life of the state. With the Tsar’s apparatus in their European exile, it was necessary to staff the bureaucracy with every capable person – but this emptied the Party of its life. It did not help that so many vibrant Party members –Sokolnikov among them, but so too the linguist Voloshinov, the literary scholar Medvedev, the theatre director Meyerhold, the botanist Vavilov, the pianist Gayibova – were killed in the Purges. The Party suffered greatly from the loss of these talented people, either to State jobs or to the gallows.
The advances, despite the setbacks, were quite incredible. Planning as a mechanism drew the admiration of capitalist state managers. It allowed the USSR to better apportion the meager resources toward rapid industrial growth. This physical plant is precisely what built the bulwark of the USSR against fascism. There is no question that Western liberalism was saved by the might of the USSR in World War II. If the USSR had not broken through as a result of War Communism, the New Economic Policy, and Stalin’s industralisation policy, then Western Europe would have been broken by decades of fascism. As it happened, Hitler’s ambitions died in the factory towns of the USSR, where the steel and mortar emerged to destroy the Wehrmacht. World War II devastated the USSR, which had to once more go onto a War Communism footing to build up its strength. The Western encirclement had once more begun. There was no respite for the Soviet Union, which had lost over twenty million people in the defense of freedom. Not enough can be said of the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in general. Tragically the fruit of their sacrifice was seized by liberalism and not by Communism.
One of the major limitations of the USSR was that it did not enhance the democratic aspirations of the people. In fact, by restriction of democracy, it allowed the West – only formally democratic – to claim the mantle of democracy. Friedrich Engels wrote of the February 1848 uprising, “Our age, the age of democracy, is breaking.” He described the scene in the French Chamber of Deputies, when a worker rushed in with a pistol in hand. “No more deputies,” he shouted, “We are the masters.” It was not to be in 1848. But this is the seam in communism that is irrepressible –the desire for participation and leadership. In October 1917, Lenin addressed this possibility directly. “We are not utopians,” he wrote. “We know than an unskilled labourer or a cook cannot immediately get on with a job of state administration.” The key word here is “immediately.” Training is essential, Lenin wrote, and once trained, every cook can govern. “Our revolution will be invincible,” he continued, “if it is not afraid of itself, if it transfers power to the proletariat.” That transfer of power did not effectively happen – although the Supreme Soviet was much more representative of the working-class and peasantry than in any liberal democracy, and its leadership came from solid working-class (Brezhnev) and peasant (Khrushchev) backgrounds. The full promise of Communism could not, however, be met in the constraints of the USSR.
The lack of effective democracy meant that there became a tendency to bureaucracy and to stagnation – bolstered by the diversion of an enormous amount of the social surplus to the security establishment. Attempts at reform of the system – such as Kosygin’s 1965, 1973 and 1979 reforms – would be ill starred. These were top-down initiatives. They did not emerge from the depths of the party and of the population. It was a similar top-down attempt in the 1980s led by Gorbachev that led to the liquidation of the USSR. Gorbachev went for openness (Glasnost) and economic restructuring (perestroika), introducing these Russian words into English. Similar policies had been pushed in China around this time, and much of what he had attempted was in the framework of Kosygin’s various attempts at reform. What Gorbachev did most dramatically – and which is not enshrined as a crossover word – was to insist on multiparty elections and to essentially frontally attack the role of the Communist Party in the USSR. The was demokratizatsiya, which essentially dismantled the state institutions and left them prey to the opportunistic partyapparatchiks and private businessmen who became the first Russian oligarchs – those men fed on the social wealth produced by the Soviet people. The precipitous break-up of the state allowed unscrupulous politicians such as Boris Yeltsin (along with his intellectual cronies Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar) to drive the USSR off the cliff. In fact, what is often not raised in this connection, is that Yeltsin, with the support of General Pavel Grachev, conducted a coup d’etat against the USSR in October 1993. This was the October Counter-Revolution.
Futures of Communism
More than a quarter of a century has passed since the USSR collapsed. Many of the problems experienced by the Left – the decline of the political fronts of the global working-class and peasantry – predate the fall of the USSR. The Third World debt crisis, the new technological innovations such as container ships, satellite technology and computers, reasonably low fuel prices and the new intellectual property regime allowed for the creation of the global commodity chain. Commodities now travel this circuit outside the territorial sovereignty of states – which means that not only do states not have power over their economies, but unions in the factories and fields are much harder to organise. The basis of Communism – the organised working-class and peasantry – was much weakened from the 1980s onward. The fall of the USSR politically expedited the ability of the imperialist states to enhance their position in this new phase of capital.
No alternative bloc remained to withstand the dynamic of capitalism. Those haunting lines from theCommunist Manifesto (1848) linger, “The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which [the bourgeoisie] batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production.” The phrase “on pain of extinction” is resonant of the violence of the process. Even the adoption of the bourgeois mode of production is slight – it is enough to formally become attached to the ravenous desires for capital to accumulate, not to really subsume social relations to those of the right of workers to sell their labour power (slavery and debt peonage remain alive and well in the maquiladoras of Mexico to the slum factories in Bangladesh). The USSR as a bulwark is no longer available. Even less the USSR as the provider of support – as well in the bleak Brezhnev years – for guerrilla movements in southern Africa and central America. Western unipolarity (with the US in the lead) began to define the world system.
Nostalgia is not the mode with which to look back to the USSR. It is important to see it for what it was able to provide human history – an alternative to capitalism, a defense against fascism, an experiment – with failures – of the construction of socialism and socialist democracy. There is a great deal to learn from the USSR, a great deal to admire and a great deal to censure. Communism is not a system that will emerge easily out of our present. All the maladies of our human history will sneak into these new experiments. Vigilance is necessary, as is creativity. The Peruvian Marxist Jose Carlos Mariategui (1894-1930) wrote that Communism “must be a heroic creation.” It does not emerge full blown. It has to be fought for, its errors understood, and its achievements digested. Communism, Mariategui wrote, “is formed in the class struggle, carried out with a heroic spirit and passionate will.” There are human beings here. Nothing is perfect. The essence of Communism is to strive to break away from guaranteed suffering to a new epoch that shall bring its own challenges.
Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor at LeftWord Books. His most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (2015).
The Top Cop in the country, FBI Director James B. Comey, is in a blue rage and on a public relations rampage.
He’s worried, he tells audiences and media outlets across the country, that “a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year” has led to an increase in violent crime.
The police are being “sidelined by scrutiny,” as the New York Times put it.
“Lives are saved,” Comey continued, “when those potential killers are confronted by a police officer, a strong police presence and actual, honest-to-goodness, up-close ‘What are you doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning’ policing.”
You don’t need to listen to the critics—Comey’s out front with a clear statement about a particular police perspective on public safety and the place of the cops in a free society: let the cops loose everywhere; let them do what they do without oversight or constraint or citizen/community scrutiny; don’t watch; trust us.
The culprit in Comey’s perverse world is Black Lives Matter!
If they would just stop watching, things would be fine.
He brushes breezily past the ongoing serial assassination of Black people by militarized cops and the state, claiming there are no reliable statistics. Lies! Read the Guardian—they have a counter running.
This isn’t new: the Black Freedom Movement was accused of creating civil unrest and disrespect for the law in the 1960s and 70s by reactionary politicians and racist police leaders. That was a lie too.
But it’s key to the agents of power to change the frame, to blame the victims of police murder, their allies, and the activists who rally in the name of justice and humanity.
Oh, and when the cops ask “What are you doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning?” ask them what the fuck they’re doing on this corner at 1 o’clock in the morning, and catch it on camera.
Poets Quraysh Ali Lansana and Kevin Coval discussed their new book “The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop” with educator and activist Bill Ayers at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park last Sunday afternoon.
“The Breakbeat Poets,” edited by Coval, Lansana and Chicago poet Nate Marshall, gathers work from 78 poets representing a broad spectrum of racial, sexual and gender identities. Coval and Lansana described the project as the first of it’s kind – a true recognition and compilation of poetry as hip hop. Sally Bergs-Seeley, a DePaul University English professor who attended the event, was excited by the pioneering work the three poets are doing.
“This is the newest edge of poetry,” Bergs-Seeley said. “for hip hop poetry to actually be published in anthology, that’s new – that’s a new frontier.”
Both poets also emphasized the book’s vital aim of increasing the representation and credibility of marginalized and underrepresented voices.
“There’s no hip hop without women, there’s no hip hop without folks from the LGBTQ community, there’s no hip hop without Puerto Rican brothers and sisters,” Lansana said.
The discussion covered topics ranging from police brutality to beat poetry, all through the lens of examining hip hop – what it is, its heritage, and its legacy. Throughout, Ayers, Coval, and Lansana articulated a vision of hip hop centering youth and knowledge as vital components.
“When the south Bronx turned their back on a crew of primarily young people of color, they continued to create despite the lack of arts funding, despite the criminalization, the rise of the privatized prison industrial complex,” Coval said. “They took to the public space to reclaim it for themselves and for their community.”
Most at the event expressed feelings that the legitimacy and centrality of hip hop as a poetry movement cannot be ignored – it is too ubiquitous and preeminent in youth culture and too prolific in its ability to inspire people to pick up the pen.
“This particular movement in art, this particular upsurge in the last couple of decades of hip hop and spoken word is really the largest poetry upsurge in the history of the world and it’s inviting people to share their voices,” Ayers said.
However, some in the poetry community continue to ignore the voices that Coval, Lansana, and Marshall highlight in their compilation. In a recent article in The New Republic, poet Cathy Park Hong derides the lack of racial sensitivity of esteemed poets like Kenneth Goldsmith. Coval says he has little time for those who are dismissive.
“It’s undeniable, man,” Coval said. “If you’re still in those same arguments that this is not art, you have not paid attention, you have not been involved in anything new for 40 years and you sound old as f**k and you’re going to die tomorrow if you’re not dead already.”
Despite the lack of recognition from some, the work Coval, Lansana, and Marshall are doing is gaining traction, with a feature in Poetry magazine’s April 2015 issue. Bergs-Seeley says the three poets are making a positive difference.
“Poetry saves lives,” Sally said. “I love what they’re doing, taking kids who feel vulnerable and giving them a voice and a place to express themselves.”
Memo to Bernie:
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a socialist, and so was Jane Addams, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Eugene Debs, and Julian Bond.
King said in 1967: The US is on the wrong side of the world revolution…We need a revolution in values in order to get on the right side.
Glory in it.
Memo to Anderson Cooper: You haul out “supporting the Sandinistas” as if that’s a shameful historical mistake and a sin? Millions of us supported the national liberation movements there and around the globe because it was the morally and humanly right thing to do. In your universe is supporting imperialism, invasion and occupation, and fascist reaction what makes someone “electable?”
Who writes your shit?
American corporate journalism—institutional stenographer for power.
Schools are an obvious venue for the creation of a public space, a site of freedom. People are coming together, searching for something better, deciding what we value, what we hope to pass on, who we want to be. But schools are seldom constructed as sites of freedom nor places for the practice of freedom.
An urgent challenge to teachers is to see each student as a three-dimensional creature — a person much like themselves — with hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with a body and a mind and a heart and a spirit; with experience, history, a past, a pathway, a future. This knotty, complicated challenge requires patience, curiosity, wonder, awe, humility. It demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment, inquiry and investigation. It requires wide-awakeness since every judgment is contingent, every view partial, every conclusion tentative. The student is dynamic, alive, in-motion. Nothing is settled, once and for all. No view is all views and no perspective every perspective. The student grows and changes — yesterday’s need is forgotten, today’s claim is all-encompassing and brand new. This, then, is an intellectual task of serious and huge proportion.
As difficult as this challenge is, it is made tougher and more intense because teachers typically work in institutions of hierarchy and power, command and control, where the toxic habit of labeling kids by their deficits has become the common-sense and a common-place. The language of schools is too often a language of labeling, a language of reduction, a language lacking spark, dynamism, imagination, or the possibility of freedom. Whatever the labels point to—even when glimpsing a chunk of reality—are reductive and over-determined in schools. In this way they represent un-freedom—repression, coercion, entanglement. The thinking teacher needs to look beneath and beyond the labels, to reach toward freedom.
Another basic challenge to teachers is to stay wide-awake to the world, to the concentric circles of context in which we live and work. Teachers must know and care about some aspect of our shared life — our calling after all, is to shepherd and enable the callings of others. Teachers, then, invite students to become somehow more capable, more thoughtful and powerful in their choices, more engaged in a culture and a civilization. More free. How do we warrant that invitation? How do we understand this culture and civilization?
Teachers choose — they choose how to see the world, what to embrace and what to reject, whether to support or resist this or that directive. As teachers choose, the ethical emerges. James Baldwin says:
The paradox of education is precisely this–that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Teachers are the midwives of hope or the purveyors of determinism and despair. In Beloved, Toni Morrison’s searing novel of slavery, freedom, and the complexities of a mother’s love, School teacher, a frightening character with no other name, comes to Sweet Home with his efficient, scientific interest in slaves and makes life unbearable for the people there. School teacher is a disturbing, jarring character for those of us who want to think of teachers as caring and compassionate people. School teacher is cold, sadistic, brutal. He is all about control and management and maintaining the status quo. He and others like him are significant props in an entire system of dehumanization, oppression, exploitation. They show us teaching as un-freedom, teaching linked to slavery.
Toward the end of Amir Maalouf’s dazzling Samarkand, a historical novel of the life of Omar Khayam and the journey of the Rubiayat, Howard Baskerville, a British school teacher in the city of Tabriz in old Persia at the time of the first democratic revolution, explains an incident in which he was observed weeping in the marketplace: “Crying is not a recipe for anything,” he begins, “Nor is it a skill. It is simply a naked, naive and pathetic gesture”. But, he goes on, crying is nonetheless important. When the people saw him crying they figured that he “had thrown off the sovereign indifference of a foreigner”, and at that moment they could come to Baskerville “to tell me confidentially that crying serves no purpose and that Persia does not need any extra mourners and that the best I could do would be to provide the children of Tabriz with an adequate education”. “If they had not seen me crying”, Baskerville concludes, “they would never have let me tell the pupils that this Shah was rotten and that the religious chiefs of Tabriz were hardly any better “.
Both teachers show us that teaching occurs in context and that pedagogy and technique are not the well-springs of moral choice. Teaching becomes the practice of freedom when it is guided by an unshakable commitment to working with human beings to reach the full measure of their humanity, and a willingness to reach toward a future fit for all.
In a Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines creates a riveting portrait of a teacher locked in struggle with a resistant student, wrestling as well with his own doubts and fears about himself as a teacher and a person, and straining against the outrages of the segregated South. Grant Wiggins has returned with considerable ambivalence to teach in the plantation school of his childhood. He feels trapped and longs to escape with his love, another teacher named Vivian, to a place where he might breathe more freely, grow more fully, achieve something special. He had told his elderly Tante Lou, with whom he lives, “how much I hated this place and all I wanted to do was get away. I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here. But she had not heard me…”.
The story begins in a courtroom with Tante Lou and her lifelong friend, Miss Emma, sitting stoic and still near the front. Emma’s godson, Jefferson, had been an unwitting participant in a failed liquor store stick up–his two companions and the store owner are dead–and as the sole survivor he is convicted of murder. The public defender, pleading for Jefferson’s life, plays to the all-white jury with zeal:
“Gentlemen of the jury, look at this-this- this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man…I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong…
“Do you see a man sitting here?…Look at the shape of the skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand–look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?…A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited form his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa–yes, yes, that he can do–but to plan?…No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans…A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton…That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes…Mention the names of Keats, Bryon, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose…Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying ‘man’…
“What justice would there be to take this life? Justice gentlemen? Why I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”
But it’s no good. Jefferson is sentenced to death. He has only a few weeks, perhaps a couple of months, to live. As devastating as the sentence is, it is that last plea from the public defender — that comparison of Jefferson to a hog — that cuts most deeply. “Called him a hog,” says Miss Emma. And she turns to Grant Wiggins: “I don’t want them to kill no hog”. She wants Grant to visit Jefferson, to teach him.
Wiggins resists: “‘Yes, I’m the teacher,’ I said. ‘And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach…They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store’”. More than this, Wiggins is shaken by the challenge and the context. He explains to Vivian:
“The public defender, trying to get him off, called him a dumb animal,” I told her. “He said it would be like tying a hog down into that chair and executing him — an animal that didn’t know what any of it was all about…Now his godmother wants me to visit him and make him know — prove to these white men — that he’s not a hog, that he’s a man. I’m supposed to make him a man. Who am I? God?”…
“What do I say to him? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?”…
“Suppose…I reached him and made him realized that he was as much a man as any other man, then what? He’s still gong to die..so what will I have accomplished? What will I have done? Why not let the hog die without knowing anything?”
Miss Emma and Tante Lou, along with their preacher, insist that Grant join them in their visits to Jefferson. It is an alliance filled with pain and tension — Grant has refused to go to church for years and, outspoken in his agnosticism, is looked upon by the elderly trio as, in turn, the devil himself and Jefferson’s best hope. The sheriff doesn’t want Grant visiting, “Because I think the only thing you can do is just aggravate him, trying to put something in his head against his will. And I’d rather see a contented hog go to that chair than an aggravated hog”. Grant is haunted by the memory of his own former teacher, a bitter man: “You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away — peel — scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years. You’ll see”. The former mentor’s message is that nothing a teacher in these circumstances does can matter, can make a difference. Worse than that, Jefferson himself is wracked with hopelessness; he is uncooperative, resistant: “It don’t matter..Nothing don’t matter” he says, as he refuses to eat unless his food is put on the floor, like slops for a hog.
Grant begins by simply visiting Jefferson, being there, speaking sometimes, but mostly just sitting in silence. Witnessing. He brings Jefferson some small things: peanuts and pecans from his students, a small radio, a little notebook and a pencil. He encourages Jefferson to think of questions and write down his thoughts. And sometimes he accompanies Miss Emma, Tante Lou, and the reverend to the dayroom for visits. There he walks with Jefferson and talks to him. This monologue begins with Grant encouraging Jefferson to be kind to his grandmother, to eat some of the gumbo she has brought:
“I could never be a hero. I teach, but I don’t like teaching. I teach because it is the only thing that an educated black man can do in the south today. I don’t like it; I hate it…I want to live for myself and for my woman and for nobody else.
“That is not a hero, a hero does for others…I am not that kind of person, but I want you to be. You could give something to her, to me, to those children in the quarter…The white people out there are saying that you don’t have it–that you’re a hog, not a man. But I know they are wrong. You have the potentials. We all have, no matter who we are…
“I want to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them, you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Nothing else–nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning those things. ‘Teach these niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers’. And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so…
“White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth–and that’s a myth. The last thing they want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth…
“..all we are, Jefferson, all of us on this earth, [is just] a piece of drifting wood, until we — each of us, individually — decide to be something else. I am still that piece of drifting wood…but you can be better. Because we need you to be and want you to be…”
He looked at me in great pain. He may not have understood, but something was touched, something deep down in him…”
After Jefferson is electrocuted, a white deputy sheriff drives out to bring the news to Grant:
“He was the strongest man in that crowded room, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said, staring at me and speaking louder than was necessary. “He was, he was…he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked.’ And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked”…
“You’re one great teacher, Grant Wiggins,” he said.
“I’m not great. I’m not even a teacher.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You have to believe to be a teacher.”
“I saw the transformation, Grant Wiggins,” Paul said.
“I didn’t do it.”
“Maybe he did it himself.”
“He never could have done that.
I saw the transformation. I’m a witness to that.”
A Lesson Before Dying is a story of teaching as the practice of freedom. Every teacher appreciates the irony of teaching what we ourselves neither fully know nor understand. Each of us can remember other teachers who counseled us not to teach, and each of us recognizes the resistant student, the student who refuses to learn. And we can each uncover moments of intense self-reflection, consciousness shifts, and personal growth brought on by our attempts to teach.
Many teachers also know what it means to teach against the grain. Against oppression, opposition, and obstinacy. Against a history of evil. Against glib, common-sense assumptions. When the sheriff compares education to agitation, and the teacher to an organizer “trying to put something in his head against his will,” one is reminded of Frederick Douglass’ master exploding in anger when he discovers that his wife has taught the young Douglass to read: “It will unfit him to be a slave.” One is reminded as well of the charge “outside agitator,” hurled by the bosses at the union organizer, or by the college trustees at student radicals. When the sheriff grins at Wiggins for giving Jefferson a journal, because a hog can’t write authentic thoughts or experience real human feelings, we are in a familiar space. And when Jefferson writes in the journal, “I cry cause you been so good to me Mr. Wiggin and nobody ain’t never been that good to me an make me think I’m somebody”, we recognize something close-in about teaching, too. Both Grant and Jefferson begin as isolates, solitary men, each facing a profound and troubling crisis in his life. It is through their coming together, and through their reluctant but inevitable relationship with the aspirations of a larger community, that each is transformed. Their ability to name a barrier, to resist and then transcend it, brings them into a public space, a site of freedom.