Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Reading Ta-Neishi Coates's "Between the World and Me" as a Privileged Middle-Class White Woman #SOL15

The Slice of life story challenge happens each Tuesday thanks to the generosity of the team at Two Writing Teachers. For more slices from this week, click here. 

The day Harper Lee's much anticipated, poorly edited Go Set a Watchman landed in readers' hands, a much more important book also hit the shelves: Between the World and Me by Ta-Neishi Coates. 

Public response to Between the World and Me has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than review the book per se, I've thought about the book as a member of the white privileged class. Coates has written the book as a letter to his 15 year old son. The epistle structure personalizes the argument so that readers soon sense that they, regardless of race or gender, are glimpsing into something very personal and private. There is nothing pedantic about Coates's approach. He's telling his son a story laced with truths about life as a black male living among the white privileged class. 

Writing that phrase white privileged class I realize is itself a potentially polarizing phrase. White folks don't like to think of ourselves as privileged, as having opportunities minorities don't have simply because our skin is white. Myself included--especially because I grew up poor. Isn't economic class, after all, a more important criterion for determining success? Coates would answer "no," and I tend to agree. 

Simply, all that we have in this country we owe to the enslavement of black people for over 250 years. We don't acknowledge this. The recent debate about the Confederate flag's place in the history of historical artifacts has not only opened unhealed wounds, but it also magnified the false narrative that the Confederate states battled for states' rights. Here's Coates on the topic: 

Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains--whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.


The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance--no matter how improved--as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this.

Think about that for a moment. My story, the country's story, is inextricably intertwined with this narrative of enslavement. What would the country have been like without slavery? What would not have been developed? What literature would not have been written? 

I remember thinking about how the North benefited economically from slavery when I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time. It's an important point Stowe makes. Another point about which Stowe raised my consciousness is the systematic destruction of families we owe to slavery. 

Coates refers to the "ownership" of "our own bodies." To his son, and by extension to white readers, Coates says: 

You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you. And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful--the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements. And this is not reducible to just you--the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know....You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.

As a middle-class white woman, I know that when I'm stopped for a minor traffic infraction, my body is safe. I've never been dragged from the car, pushed to the ground, handcuffed, and carted off to jail. How often does the narrative turn to attempts to justify the death of a black person at the hands of police? I don't live with the fear that those hired to protect and serve me will take my body. Nor do white mothers typically need to explain this to their children as part of the rites of passage talks. 

Indeed, it's the way Coates writes about owning one's own body instead of losing one's life or dying that I find rhetorically compelling. It's as though he's saying that even though slavery ended over 150 years ago, black people still don't own their bodies the way white people own theirs. 

To illustrate his point, Coates spends considerable ink recounting the story of Prince Jones who was killed by a police officer, and Prince was an economically privileged college student whose mother is a respected physician. Still, Prince's body was stolen from him. 

I knew that Prince was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth...The truth is that the police reflect America in all its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.

Indeed, the training police officers receive is increasingly grounded in the idea that a suspect is inherently dangerous, that the life of the officer is more important than the oath to protect and to serve. 

Coates acknowledges that the black male experience of having lost ownership over "our own bodies" isn't unique to black people. Blacks owned slaves in the Sahara; the Irish experienced losing their bodies, etc. Yet this does not diminish the impact of his argument. 

I've thought often about what it must be like to be born into a world that espouses a dream built on the ownership of my people's bodies. This is the legacy of being a black person in America. Coates speaks about "the dream" as being that of racial privilege. He does take a critical look at education, and as a teacher, it's hard to swallow but necessary to consider. 

We tell stories. They express who we are and what we believe. America is a nation of storytellers, but the winners, the privileged, the powerful determine whose stories get the widest audience: 

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals.

One may not be a racist cut from the Confederate flag waving apologist cloth, but we benefit from social structures grounded and constructed in a narrative that denies our privilege. Coates tells us that "it is traditional to destroy the black body--it is heritage." But heritage isn't necessarily something good or positive to be coddled and protected.

When the story told dehumanizes and denies the subplots of exploitation and of body ownership, when the dream is one given birth by the nightmare of slavery and the snatching of bodies, we must acknowledge that our freedom, our successes we owe in large part to the forced sacrifices of black people for over 250 years.

The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. The have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. 

At the end of the letter, Coates challenges his son to struggle. Struggle to remember the narrative of his black heritage. Struggle to live within the systemic structures of white privilege. Struggle for wisdom and knowledge. 

We must also struggle, advises Coates. Struggle to understand that the dream on which we stage our lives threatens our world in ways we must acknowledge and fix. 

There is a vast gulf between the world in which a black person is born and the one in which white people are born, and this has nothing to do with economic class and everything to do with the story that fills the gulf. That's my reading of Between the World and Me, and as a middle class privileged white woman speaking between you and me, I now understand that in ways I didn't before peeking into Ta-Neishi Coates's letter to his son. 

*Watch an excellent interview with Ta-Neishi Coates on Democracy Now. In the interview, he shares a reading from the book.

Update: Minor editing to fix surface errors at 800 p.m. MST.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Remembering Dea Dea with Stories: Slice of Life #SoL15

Slice of Life story challenge happens every Tuesday over on the Two Writing Teachers blog. Check out other slices here. 

Evelyn "Dea Dea" Harwood: December 15, 1942-July 15, 2015
"Don't let the door hit you in the keister on your way out." 

These past few days I've had a heavy heart. My longtime friend and colleague and "adopted" mom Evelyn "Dea Dea" Harwood died July 15, 2015 at her home in Pocatello. 

Dea Dea taught high school for 42 years, most of them at Highland, where I met her in 1989 and shared collegiality and friendship until her retirement in 2006.

Even before I met her, Dea Dea entered my life when my new vice-principal called and asked if I would be willing to teach one section of English so that Dea Dea could have a section of speech. At the time I signed my contract, I indicated that I would not teach English, that I wanted to devote my energies to coaching debate and teaching speech, but when an administrator calls, the request takes on new persuasive powers. That's how I began teaching English at Highland.

When I arrived at school that first day in August 1989, a vase of flowers from Dea Dea awaited me in the office. That was the first of many gifts Dea Dea gave me. For years I had a huge collection of holiday earrings given to me by Dea Dea. 

On February 11 of that first year at Highland, I passed Dea Dea in the hall and she handed me a beautifully wrapped package. "What's this?" I asked. 

"It's your birthday present," Dea Dea said, raising her eyebrow.

"It's not my birthday. My birthday's in November."

"We'll I know, but I still wanted to get this for you since I missed your birthday."

I don't remember when I opened the gift, but the box contained a beautiful, silk, purple blouse. What I remember most about that incident is that February 11 is both my son's and our vice-principal Carolyn Kennedy's birthday. Carolyn is the administrator who called requesting the schedule change. I'm convinced that Dea Dea gave me Carolyn's gift by mistake! 

Her generosity spread to all who knew her and many who never met her. 

If there were funds to raise, Dea Dea spearheaded the efforts. For years she was a member of the Does, the female branch of the Elks. Dea Dea used her persuasive powers to enlist her sisters and others to raise funds for student groups, sick people needing surgery, families short funds for funeral expenses, among many others. 

Often these fundraisers took me to places for activities I never expected I'd try. I played darts. I shot pool. I played golf. All very badly. But I did these things because Dea Dea convinced me that the cause trumped my embarrassment. 

Dea Dea soon shepherded many into her enormous fold of friends. One way she did this is by inviting them to church. "You wanna go to church with me this Sunday," she'd ask. It didn't matter if the invitation were to an atheist, a Christian, or a monk. Dea Dea insisted that her church was like no other. At her service, a friend and neighbor shared her experience being invited to church by Dea Dea:

You wanna go to church with me some time, asked Dea Dea.
'Sure, I'll go to church with you' We headed down the road and soon pulled into a parking lot. I looked around. 'This is a bar.' 
'I know. This is where I go to church.' We went inside and had a lovely time visiting with friends and drinking beer.

The story elicited much laughter among those attending the service. I suspect we all had had a similar conversion experience with Dea Dea. 

Dea Dea's students loved her. The first day of class Dea Dea greeted her students with her unique introduction. She told them that "I slurp some suds and smoke some cigarettes, and the brands I prefer are Coors Light and Winston. If you don't like it or can't accept it, don't let the door hit your keister on your way out." Few students transferred from Dea Dea's class. She was hugely popular. 

My youngest son Corey had Dea Dea for speech. She made those kids present a speech every week, including a pet peeve speech. Corey decided to write his pet peeve speech about his friends whose girlfriends exerted much control over them, although that's not the way he phrased his topic. "My speech is about my friends who are pussy-whipped," he announced when he asked me to listen to him practice. 

"You can't say pussy-whipped in your speech," I argued. "Did you ask Dea Dea about this topic."

Corey assured me he had received approval from Mrs. Harwood, so I decided to ask Dea Dea myself. "Dea Dea, did you tell Corey he could give his pet peeve speech about his friends who are pussy-whipped?"

"Yes, I did. It's his speech and he can do whatever he wants." Dea Dea did not capitulate to my protestations that Corey's choice of words were inappropriate and that he'd embarrass me in front of students who would meander into my room and want to talk about the speech. Corey was that kind of kid, but Dea Dea knew how to keep him interested in her class and, most importantly, writing good speeches, which, I must admit, the pet peeve speech was, even w/ the mild profanity. 

"She was a special lady," my former principal Dave Ross said to no one in particular as those gathered after the service felt the same way. Highland has never been the same since Dea Dea retired, but we do have the memorial to students who died that Dea Dea raised funds for, and our current students have a place to sit on the benches Dea Dea donated after her retirement. 

We often speak about some people as having broken the mold. We say we'll never see the likes of them again. Both are true of Dea Dea Harwood. Dea Dea showed us all so much love and generosity. The best we can do is live by that example and make the world a better place. Dea Dea taught us how. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Take Me to Church, Tell Me a Story: Slice of Life #15

In her link to this week's Slice of Life, Elizabeth Moore writes:  If you're new to our community, you'll love reading what other educators have written--these are not just links to whatever was already on our professional blogs for the day. These are little pieces of creative writing. We are teachers practicing what we preach!
Elizabeth's invitation begs the question: What is a story? and What is creative writing? I thought: Am I getting this whole Slice of Life thing wrong? After all, the Two Writing Teachers Blog targets elementary and middle school teachers. I'm a bit of a squatter!

As a high school teacher teaching primarily seniors, I'm not much of a creative writing teacher. The stories I tell in this space typically fall into the nonfiction genre, and to characterize them as creative nonfiction takes quite a stretch of one's imagination. 

The real-life stories often intertwine with various narrative forms. Biblical parables and the importance of biblical allusions have occupied my mind in recent days. 

This past Sunday I attended church. As a child regular church attendance--Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night prayer meeting, every revival service, and vacation bible school--controlled my life. Like the fixed point of a compass, my life moved in a circle from one church activity to another. I even attended and graduated from a Southern Baptist University, and continued the pattern of church attendance into my adult life--until I divorced in 1994. 

This past Sunday I attended church. My son Corey came for a visit and his faith means much to him. Knowing the important space church holds for Corey, I offered to go, so we went to the service at Chubbuck United Methodist Church. 
I drive past the little white church each day on my way to and from school. I walk past it when strolling with my dogs. On Sunday I walked through the church doors for the first time. 

Since the pastor was out of town, a member delivered a short sermon based on Mark 4: 26-34. The passage tells the parable of the mustard seed, and as the speaker shared, I thought about the story's application to teaching. We teachers cast out seeds and await their germination. We rarely see the harvest of our sowing. Yet in April our system of education forces us and our students to endure the indignity of state mandated testing.  These tests constitute the educational equivalent of premature harvesting of a crop. 

Biblical stories live in the texts of American literature., too. To understand our culture, our heritage, and our literature, we must know and understand bible stories. Writing in The American Adam, R. W. B. Lewis says that Thoreau 

was among the first to see Christian literature as only the purest and most inspiring of the fables about the relation of man to nature and about the infinite capacities of the unaided human spirit. The bible...was the finest poem which had ever been written; it was the same in substance as Homeric or Hindu mythology, but it was richer in metaphor. The bible spoke more sharply to the human condition. This was why Thoreau, like Whitman, could employ the most traditional of religious phrases and invest them with an unexpected and dynamic new life. (22)

American writers have employed religious metaphors, retellings, allusions, imagery in their writings throughout American history. Here are just a few:

  • William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!
  • John Steinbeck: East of Eden
  • Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon
  • Herman Melville: Moby Dick
  • Flannery O'Connor: "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
  • T.S. Eliot: "The Waste Land"
I'm currently reading All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and can't help but think about Christ's wandering in the wilderness as I contemplate the travels of John Grady Cole and his desire to save Jimmy Blevins.  The novel challenges romantic ideals about the west ingrained in our collective psyche. Similarly, the parable of the mustard seed invites us to consider the seeds we sow and what they need to germinate. Simply, biblical stories, regardless of one's personal faith, present opportunities for us to think about life. 

Next year I'll be teaching AP Literature and Composition. I wouldn't be doing my job if I neglect to teach students biblical allusions. Without knowing the stories from the bible, the literature we study will be incomplete. Sure, I could give students a list of allusions, perhaps this one from Quizlet, but an incomplete story, like a sermon without scripture, rings as nothing more than "sounding brass and tinkling symbols." 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stories Students Tell about Their Teachers: Remembering Mr. Meadows--Slice of Life #SoL15

Each Tuesday the ladies of TWO WRITING TEACHERS host the Slice of Life Story Challenge. Head over to TWT for more slices. 

This past week brought news of the death of one of my high school teachers. Charles Meadows taught World Geography and coached wrestling and football in Webb City, Missouri . He was my World Geography teacher in ninth grade (1973-1974).

According to his obituary, Mr. Meadows died suddenly. He was 69, much younger than I realized.
My classmates have been sharing their memories of Mr. Meadows and the influence he had on their lives over on Facebook. Their stories include:
  • Coach Meadows was a jewel! I owe my love of world geography to him...sitting directly in front of his desk in freshman World Geography made me a bit more studious than I really was! He had an amazing gift of making a kid very attentive and never wanting to miss a single word he spoke! Rest in Peace Coach Meadows, you'll always occupy space in the hearts of so MANY of your former students!!!  (Teri Edwards)
  • In remembering D-Day and America's hero's, Kirk Ellis says, Charlie Meadows from Vinita, Oklahoma was a real hero. Not only during his time of service in Vietnam, but also as a teacher and friend to the students he loved and that loved him. His countless stories that we sometimes believed, to his funny laugh that we will always remember. His so-called ability to pole vault, even though we never saw him clear the bar. This was a hero.                                     I do want to tell my favorite Coach Meadows story. He told us while he was in Vietnam a guy was coming at him and all he could hear was "karate". He said he reached into the back of the truck and responded "tire iron". That was his sense of humor and only one of a hundred stories that "Chopper" told us.
  • Charlie...was one of a handful of adult males that had a positive impact in my young life and in the lives of many young men at WCHS. I celebrate knowing Charlie and all of his Chopper quotables. There are some that I've used on occasion to this day, i.e.; skillet paws, panzy-ass, drink milk at lunch, we'll make cottage cheese during practice, and the list goes on. (Kevin Howard)
  • I loved Mr. Meadows. He teased me mercilessly ... and I enjoyed every second of it. I always felt like he and I shared a special kinship but I think he made every student feel like that. The world is a sadder place today. A much sadder place. Thank you for all the sweet memories Mr. Meadows, you made WCHS a lot of fun. Below is a picture from our "Slave Day" ... those overalls are certainly not flattering ... but anyway, he made me do every thing Earl Mahaffey wanted me to do. I cleaned his locker ... and there were still cookies from summer two-a-days, I had to go to his shop class and sand a car, got his lunch (Earl's), and Mr. Meadows made me take notes in class for him during the hour he had Mr. Meadows. He checked on me periodically throughout that day to be sure I was earning the money Earl spent. I can guarantee you I did. I never saw him laugh so hard ... at my expense ... which in turn made me laugh as well. (Margaret Ann Lundien)
Margaret Ann Lundien's photo.

I, too, have memories of being in Mr. Meadows class, and like Teri, my desk butted up flush w/ the teacher desk. This enabled Mr. Meadows to stare directly at me as he spun tall tales, which he always followed with a snicker. "Did you know that Russians only wear red and black, Cowen?" If Mr. Meadows ever called me by my first name, I don't recall it. His head bounced up and down, and I could see his crooked, dimply grin. I believed this Russian narrative for many years and have told this story to my students on occasion.

Kirk's anecdote about Mr. Meadows' time in Vietnam jarred my memory as did Kirk's and Kevin's recalling Mr. Meadows claim that he pole vaulted. I never questioned the veracity of Mr. Meadows' stories. In ninth grade naivete governed my worldview. 

In Mr. Meadows class I learned much about world geography and cultures. We memorized maps and must have read the entire textbook. However, the stories Mr. Meadows weaved into the curriculum kept me nervously riveted to my seat. In those days teachers scared me a little, and I worried about being singled out as the object of Mr. Meadows' teasing, which I soon realized was his way of validating his students, his way of noticing each of us, his way of making us feel important. 

As my high school friends and I share our stories about Mr. Meadows' stories, I'm reminded of the absolute necessity that we do this:

To deny the centrality of narrative is to deny our own nature. We seek companionship of a narrator who maintains our attention, and perhaps affection. We are not made for objectivity and pure abstraction for timelessness...As humans, we must tell stories (Thomas Newkirk in Minds Made for Stories)

Reminiscing about my time at Webb City High School and my time in Mr. Meadows' class, I wonder about how students will remember me when I no longer roam the halls of this earth. What stories will they tell? What stories must they tell?