Why I Waited 9 Months to Watch 12 Years A Slave

April 20, 2014

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave (2013) screen shot, January 17, 2014. (http://blog.sfgate.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws -- it illustrates subject of piece.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave (2013) screen shot, January 17, 2014. (http://blog.sfgate.com/). Qualifies as fair use under US copyright laws — it illustrates subject of piece.

I’m usually late to the game. That’s been a running theme in my life since the early ’80s, when, as a result of my Hebrew-Israelite years, I found myself often years behind on pop culture trends. New books, new music, new dance moves, new colloquialisms, new movies. I might as well declared myself as an adult in April ’81, at least as far as the ’80s were concerned. Yet I did catch up, sometimes taking as long as a decade to get a punchline to a joke that my nemesis and classmate Alex made in seventh grade.

But not following the herd has its benefits, too. For one, I’ve gotten to look at things from a fresh perspective (some would even say as an outsider — that’s accurate as well), without succumbing to hype or groupthink about a piece of culture. Waiting also has meant that I’ve often read reviews of movies but managed to miss content-based details and that I’ve read books without forming an opinion based on its popularity ahead of my read (it’s also true about my path to Christianity). Being forced by circumstance to wait has meant that I am less apt to make sweeping declarations like “I grew up on hip-hop” when I in fact grew up with it, not on it like a drug.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. (http://irvine.wikis.gdc.georgetown.edu). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screenshot's low resolution.

Kunta Kinte being whipped, Roots (1977) screenshot, July 6, 2012. (http://irvine.wikis.gdc.georgetown.edu). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of screenshot’s low resolution.

With 12 Years A Slave (2013), though, I wanted to see it even before it came out here in the DC area in August. I’d heard about this film for months even before it was out in “select cities” in the US. Between Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender — two supreme British actors — I knew the film would be good. And depressing. And sad. And anger-inducing. And stomach churning. It would be an emotional roller-coaster-ride akin to my introduction to Roots on ABC in February ’77, when I was only seven years old.

So what stopped me from seeing it? My ten-year-old son. I wanted him to see the film with me. But I also knew that he would have a lot of questions. Outside of family and his visits to watch me teach my American and World History classes, my son has had little exposure to race in popular culture in an obvious sense. Most of his friends in our suburban, middle-class Silver-Spring-world are White, and his other Black friends have even less exposure to race than our deliberate injections (or inoculations) for our son.

I decided not to take him to see 12 Years A Slave because it would’ve been two hours of questions in a crowded theater, with those sitting around us ready to strangle us for ruining their watching experience. But I did queue it via Netflix weeks before it came out on DVD, with the expectation that we would watch it during his Spring Break, Easter Week.

As soon as I told my son that we were watching 12 Years A Slave last week, he became whiny and upset. Whiny because his time away from anime and Disney shows would be interrupted with parenting. Upset because of the movie title and its implications. As my son said to me when he was upset, “You made me watch Roots last year!” Well, we watched three hours of it, enough for him to see the sequence of kidnapping, the Middle Passage, slave auctions, running away, rape, whippings, and Kunta Kinte’s foot cut off. I guess the message of slavery and history really did stick with him!

Noah trying to look cool at  The Gap store, Chevy Chase, MD, March 28, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

Noah trying to look cool at The Gap store, Chevy Chase, MD, March 28, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

We finally sat down and watched 12 Years A Slave Thursday evening. And yes, Noah did have a ton of questions, about Solomon Northrup, about free Blacks, kidnapping, mistreatment and the concept of property, about race, sexual attraction and rape, and about the rule of law. But I was more surprised about two things. One, my son sat through most of the two-and-a-quarter hour film, and only got up twice. Two, he paid serious attention in a way that he hadn’t appeared to in watching serious films before.

Still, my son was more than happy to return to his Nintendo 3DS and the land of Disney shows before bedtime that evening. The fact that he fell asleep right after bedtime, though, made it obvious, at least to me, that we’d given him more thought for food about history, race, and his own heritage.

And though I don’t think the movie was as epic as the hype-meisters have presented it to be, it was a great film, with great acting — I’m not sure if todays American actors could’ve pulled off Ejiofor’s, Fassbender’s or Lupita Nyong’o’s roles. 12 Years A Slave is also an important film, at least in terms of interrogating the meaning of race and inhumanity in this world. I just hope that those messages made it into my son’s conscious thinking. Time will tell, but enlightenment is a journey, not a race.

On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.

Bow Down to Isabel Wilkerson

March 27, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, front cover (2011), Random House.

I’ve finally read Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) this month, just as I finished teaching a mini-course in post-1865 African American history. If I ever have the opportunity again to choose my own books for a survey-level course in African American history, this would be one of my cornerstone books. I know I stand at the back of a very long list when I say this, but this is a wonderfully powerful and insightful book, with language and a writing style equally as tender.

This was what I wrote regarding my first impressions on Goodreads.com:

My God – this book is a masterpiece! Wilkerson has done what historians and writers as diverse and groundbreaking as Kenneth Kusmer, David Levering Lewis, Joe William Trotter, Jr., Nicholas Lemann, Thomas Sugrue and James Grossman couldn’t (and in a couple of cases, wouldn’t) do. She put flesh, blood and bones on the Black individuals and families who migrated “up North” and out West throughout the bulk of the twentieth century. She didn’t distract with neo-Marxist, post-modern, post-structural, proletarian, or other overly academic theories for understanding the “hows” and “whys” behind Black migration between 1915 and the 1970s.

Reading Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2011) was like reading into my own family’s pasts (my mother and father came to New York City — specifically, the Bronx (Pelham Parkway and Wakefield) — during the 1960s from Arkansas and Georgia/Florida before moving to Mount Vernon). She captured so well the aspirations, the inspirations and the trepidations of the people who migrated, and the things they faced upon arrival. Wilkerson, most of all, grounded herself in the scholarly, but weaved it into a story that was nothing less than literary. If you’re a US or African American historian, a Black Studies, Black Women’s Studies or American Studies scholar, you must incorporate in your curriculum if you haven’t already. If you’re a writer who aspires to tell an important story — one that educates as it entertains — then The Warmth of Other Suns is a great place to start and Wilkerson a great writer to emulate.

Wilkerson called the Great Migration one of the great events of the twentieth century. But it was more than that. It was one of the great events in American history, a silent and gradual revolution on par with westward expansion and more significant than the second wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the US between 1870 and 1914. I and millions of others like me should know. I wouldn’t be writing at all if I wasn’t a child of two Black migrants who left farms in the South for New York City.

Carnegie Mellon Stamp of Approval

March 17, 2014

Approved rubbed stamp in green, March 17, 2014. (http://depositphotos.com).

Approved rubbed stamp in green, March 17, 2014. (http://depositphotos.com).

Two decades ago on this date, I took my oral PhD comprehensive exam. It was on a cloudy Thursday, a day after a late afternoon shower had left a rainbow over the otherwise dreary campus. Like the day after that rainbow, the exam was anticlimactic, more indicative of what I’d learned in two years as a grad student at Pitt than in my two semesters at Carnegie Mellon.

Getting to this exam was sheer torture. Not because I didn’t understand historiography, or hadn’t read at least 230 books and countless articles since my first day of grad school. No, it was torturous because the powers that were had insisted to make my schedule more like the one of a first-semester grad student the previous fall.

I ended up with two courses that I didn’t want and didn’t need, especially since the History Department at CMU had told me that they had accepted all of my master’s and PhD credits from the University of Pittsburgh. Though I had taken four grad seminars in US history (not to mention CMU Professor Joe Trotter’s grad seminar in African American history the year before), I was taking a first-year student’s grad seminar in US history – again! I also had to take comparative working-class history seminar with a combination of anti-race Marxists and brown-nosing sycophants more interested in an A than in actual evidence-based historical interpretation.

Prostate exam from Family Guy (1999-2003, 2005-present) screen shot, July 17, 2013. (http://chattanoogaradiotv.com).

Prostate exam from Family Guy (1999-2003, 2005-present) screen shot, July 17, 2013. (http://chattanoogaradiotv.com).

That, and being broke for most of the ’93-’94 school year — I took what amounted to a $2,000 stipend cut in my transfer from Pitt to CMU — made me pretty cranky my first six months at the home of elitist lily-Whiteness. There were days in those courses where I wanted to literally strangle some of my fellow grad students for being so dense (in the case of first-years) or for being so obviously fake in their praise of a given professor’s argument (in the case of two sycophants in particular). Only the late Barbara Lazarus and Trotter kept me grounded enough so that I didn’t spend every moment of Fall ’93 making voodoo dolls out of Steve Schlossman and John Modell for putting me through the hazing process.

Somewhere around the beginning of November ’93 — after some much-needed time in prayer — I began to realize a few things. One, that I’d already done so much reading on topics like immigration, industrialization, slavery and the connections between race and class (and race, class and gender). So much so that unless it was an author of major interest, I could skim or skip the reading, or even find a few book reviews and compare them to my extensive library of notes on the other authors in a given subfield or field.

Two, that my time outside of class was still my time. I knew that I wanted to do multiculturalism as a dissertation topic, and that I wanted to do it in the context of Black Washington, DC. So I began ordering microfilm of Black weekly newspapers like the Washington Tribune and Washington Bee (going back as far as 1915) to look at as much material as possible. It calmed me to know that I was working on my dissertation topic nearly a year before Trotter and my committee would official approve it.

Three, I knew by January ’94 that Schlossman, et al. had agreed that the Spring ’94 semester would be my last one in coursework. I still had to take Modell’s goofy Historical Methodologies course, but having to do things like my oral comprehensives made going to class just bearable enough.

Acting a part quotes from actors, March 17, 2014. (http://thepeopleproject.com/actors/quotes).

Acting a part quotes from actors, March 17, 2014. (http://thepeopleproject.com/actors/quotes).

Finally, I took out a loan. I’d only taken out one student loan since finishing undergrad in ’91, but it was obvious I couldn’t live off of a $7,500-per-year stipend. Really, no one could, not without rooming with another student or having a spouse with a real income. The money came in at the beginning of March, making my march to become ABD that year that much easier.

By the time I walked into the second-floor conference room in Baker Hall to take my orals, I knew there wasn’t a question about what I knew and how well I knew it. It was about whether I could show the folks at CMU that I could play along with them in their version of grad school, which wasn’t any different from any other history doctoral program’s version. And I did play along, for two hours, more than long enough to move on to the dissertation proposal round.

When I said years later to my friend Laurell that Humanities and Mount Vernon High School had prepared me more for grad school than it did for undergrad at Pitt, this was what I meant!

My and Diane Ravitch’s Path to Reign of Error

March 11, 2014

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

Reign of Error (2013) by Diane Ravitch, front cover. (http://bn.com).

I first began reading Diane Ravitch in July 1990, the summer before my senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. It was the summer in which I became interested in understanding magnet programs and their relationship with desegregation and diversity efforts, courtesy of my own experience with Mount Vernon, New York public schools and its now defunct Humanities Program. I read both The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973 (1974) and The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945-1980 (1985) that summer, with education scholar and Ford Foundation director Jeanne Oakes’ Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality (1985) sandwiched in between.

It was the beginning of a twenty-year period of constantly intellectual disagreement between me and Ravitch. Oakes’ work captured inequality in terms of race and socioeconomics so much better than Ravitch, whose writings back then often treated these inequalities and distinctions as afterthoughts. When I shifted my research area to multicultural education and multiculturalism, though, that was when I found Ravitch’s absolutist defense of so-called traditional American democratic education and all things e pluribus unum unbelievably stifling. With all Ravitch knew about the politics of education, in New York and with the US Department of Education, how could she possibly defend a system that did as much to control and exclude students as it did to provide something akin to an equal opportunity?

I chalked Ravitch up to being another out-of-touch neoconservative, scared to death of race and diversity and multiculturalism. I said as much at conferences like the American Educational Research Association meeting and other conferences. I wrote as much in my dissertation and in my first book, Fear of a “Black” America: Multiculturalism and the African American Experience (2004). Through it all, I always found Ravitch’s writing compelling, but her conclusions wanting, because they lacked perspective and empathy in the context of public schools and diversity.

Then, Ravitch wrote Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform in 2000. Though it contained some of her common themes — overemphasis on the mantra of reform, the need for more testing, support for school choice, denigration of a multicultural curriculum — Ravitch showed growth in this book. She was less hostile to a more progressive curriculum and seemed, for the first time, really, to understand how much race and poverty had shaped the direction and the harshness of school reform going back to 1900. I happily used Ravitch’s Left Back in my History of American Education Reform course at George Washington in 2002. For her book provided a comprehensive and even-handed overview of the politics of K-12 education in a way that any educator of any American ideological perspective could understand.

I’ve finally read Ravitch’s Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013). Reign of Error is Ravitch at her most passionate and energized. If I hadn’t read a couple dozen of Ravitch’s articles from the 1980s and 1990s and four of her previous books, I would think that this was her first book, as there is sense of urgency in Reign of Error that can seldom be found outside of epic memoirs and epic fiction novels.

Ravitch’s argument in Reign of Error is a simple one. Corporate education reform, if allowed to continue unfettered, will destroy public education in the US, and in the process, American democracy. Privatizing public schools (i.e., turning them into “public” charter schools), destroying teacher’s unions, constant high-stakes testing, bypassing school boards and forgetting about racial segregation and poverty — that’s corporate education reform’s agenda. As Ravitch said in Chapter 12 on the fallacies of merit pay for teachers, “Merit pay is the idea that never works and never dies (p. 119).” She could have also substituted the words “school choice,” “creationism,” “standardized testing,” “closing schools,” and “privatization” for “merit pay.”

But Ravitch goes further in her 400-page treatise. That though public education in the US has had its share of problems — the need for more teacher training and time for professional development, racial segregation and high levels of poverty while underfunded — that corporate education reform has compounded these problems several times over. That with corporate education reform, teachers, parents and students will have no say in public education, at least the ones without their own personal foundation with which to endow their own public charter school.

From a writer’s standpoint, this wasn’t Ravitch’s best effort. Her argument is repetitive, one where she likely could’ve cut the main chapters by a quarter (about 100 pages) and made the same points. I likely could’ve become inebriated if I had a shot of vodka every time the words “poverty,” “Gates,” “Walton,” “Broad,” “high-stakes testing,” and “corporate education reform” come up. But given my history with reading Ravitch and with this topic, of course Reign of Error was repetitive — it was like reading my own words on this same topic.

Ultimately, Ravitch’s Reign of Error is a primer for anyone interested in averting the social injustice that is the corporate education reform tyranny of wealthy philanthropists, money-grubbing entrepreneurs and politicians across America’s limited ideological spectrum. For those whom up to now this issue has been of limited interest, or for those who’ve felt the change in public education but haven’t quite been able to articulate those feelings, Reign of Error is for you.

For educators, parents and even students already involved in writing about or protesting against corporate education reform, this book is still for you. Ravitch provides so much ammunition that Reign of Error can be applied in numerous ways to numerous situations. At school board meetings. With #AskMichelleRhee hash tags on Twitter. In job interviews with Teach for America and with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In letters to the editor of the mainstream newspapers and in comments to mainstream TV and radio newscasters. In arguments with neoconservative parents who send their kids to private schools.

“Protecting our public schools against privatization and saving them for generations of American children is the civil rights issue of our time (p. 325).” is how Ravitch ended her Reign of Error. It’s not an exaggeration. But it does beg a question. If we can successfully fend off corporate education reform — and assume that the country will continue to ignore the poverty and racial segregation that Ravitch desperately wants addressed — can she and I then spend five minutes discussing multiculturalism?

Amateur Eugenicists: Why Smart Poor Students Have a Hard Time

March 5, 2014

Scientific racism, using "evidence" to compare the Irish to the African, by H. Strickland Constable, Harper's Weekly, 1899. (JasonAQuest via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Scientific racism, using “evidence” to compare the Irish to the African, by H. Strickland Constable, Harper’s Weekly, 1899. (JasonAQuest via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I do generally loathe reading the comments sections of most news sites (any sites, really), but the one on Robin J. Hayes’ “Why Ivy League Schools Are So Bad at Economic Diversity” in The Atlantic is a real trip. There are dozens of comments in which people are playing amateur eugenicists, as they’ve connected wealth & poverty to intelligence. For these folks, the poor perpetuate themselves because they are stupid, and when they have kids, they’ll be born stupid as well, and therefore, will remain poor. As if structural inequality and structural racism have nothing to do with creating the gaps in wealth and education for millions of Americans.

I’m sure I haven’t seen more Social Darwinist /scientific racist /pro-eugenics comments anywhere, including on neo-Nazi websites. Apparently, the only thing The Atlantic’s commentators read while in college (as this is allegedly the profile of their readers) was Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve (1994), as their arguments came out of studies that are now well over 100 years old. (I defy anyone to say they’ve read all 838 pages, though!) What these people should’ve been reading is Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen (2005) and Nick Lemann’s The Big Test (1999), both of which indicate the Ivy League’s long history of high racial and socioeconomic bias, not just high selectivity.

The Chosen (2005) front cover, March 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

The Chosen (2005) front cover, March 5, 2014. (Donald Earl Collins).

So I responded, using the lessons I’ve learned from my life and from writing Boy @ The Window, pointing out along the way that “Yale and the others offer what they offer to us po’ folk because they want to appear like they’re doing good, knowing full well that actually working to increase economic diversity is too much for them to fathom.” It elicited this counter-response from someone calling themselves Christy2012:

Pardon me for being so blunt, but you seem to imply that you were somehow obvious Yale material based on your top 2% status. However, you indicated on your blog that you earned a 2.6 GPA at University of Pittsburgh, a much less competitive institution, in your freshman year. Do you suppose you would have attained a higher GPA at Yale? Many rich people get turned down by Yale with even better credentials and Columbia is a fairly elite school itself. That Columbia offered you at chance and that you didn’t exactly hit it out of the park at UPitt is not exactly evidence that the schools are biased against the poor (maybe even the opposite).

Maybe there was (or is) an issue relating to how they consider deadbeat fathers in financial aid and scholarship consideration. It seems you should probably focus on that and that is probably an issue for more middle class applicants too.

It turns out that Christy2012 made these personal swipes from an extremely selective and incorrect reading of my blog because she believes all poor students and students of color really aren’t smart. I/we apparently benefited instead from “affirmative action and/or the pity of bleeding-heart White liberals,” and “not because of our abilities or because of hard work” (my translation of her other comments, by the way). Of course, Christy2012 never revealed anything personal about herself. It’s likely she never attended an elite college and has never met a poor person — especially one of color — that she didn’t feel superiority over.

From The Matrix: A sea of pods in which humans are fusion batteries (the future of the poor, as viewed by The Atlantic's amateur eugenicists), March 5, 2014. (http://www.tony5m17h.net/MatrixNet.gif).

From The Matrix: A sea of pods in which humans are fusion batteries (the future of the poor, as viewed by The Atlantic’s amateur eugenicists), March 5, 2014. (http://www.tony5m17h.net/MatrixNet.gif).

If this set of comments is any indication, it will be hard for Yale or any other school — even if they’re sincere in their efforts at racial and economic diversity — to fulfill them. So many folks even without holding positions of power or serving as gatekeepers decide before looking that poor folks and poor folks who look like me are incapable and unqualified for anything other than a mop, a broom or a jail cell. Is there any wonder that so few of America’s poor and of color have a chance at any higher education of significance, forget about getting into an elite or Ivy League institution?

Academia’s Silence Must Be Heard

February 24, 2014

At Eternity's Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

At Eternity’s Gate, by Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas painting, Kröller-Müller Museum (The Netherlands), May 1890. (Eloquence via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I’ve learned the hard way how the world of academia treats folks who break its unwritten covenants. The ones that say  accept all of our strictures about what to publish, how to write, when to write it, about tenured/tenure-streamed vs. non-tenured, adjuncts and graduate student TAs and unionization, among so many others. Those of us who make trouble, who question the archaic wisdom of those in our world, are often cast out, rendered invisible or otherwise completely forgotten about.

The funny thing about going against the grain of academia — or at least, my fields of US/African American history and American education/ed policy — has been that criticism can serve as a better sign of acceptance than hearing nothing at all. It was like this for me in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, and even my first five years after finishing my doctorate. Whenever someone said that my work on multiculturalism and Black history was “interesting,” the flatness with which a professor or grad student said “interesting” was the key for me. If the “interesting” was completely flat, it meant “but I completely disagree with your line of research” or “this thing is too simplistic and boring for me as a scholar to get excited about.” If the “interesting” had a lilt to it or even a slightly raised eyebrow, it meant that one of my colleagues or more senior folk really found my work intriguing.

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC's Laugh-In (1968-73), saying "Very interresting..." per usual,  September 4, 2011. (http://photobucket.com)

Actor Arte Johnson as the Nazi German character Wolfgang on NBC’s Laugh-In (1968-73), saying “Very interesting…” per usual, September 4, 2011. (http://photobucket.com)

That term “interesting” was my indication that some people acknowledged and understood the importance of my work, and that some absolutely couldn’t and wouldn’t. But over the past decade, as I’ve complained about the nature of academic writing, about the limits of scholarship and about the changing nature of academia itself (from a hiring perspective), the one thing I’ve noticed the most has been academia’s silence. The collective silence has been deafening, so much so that I finally concluded it meant not only disagreement, but a shunning as well. Like the Amish, only without the Rumspringa.

I had fleeting moments when I noticed the silence, like at my second OAH presentation in Los Angeles in ’01 on Black women intellectuals and multiculturalism. Even though my research was sound, I knew I needed to work on drawing clearer connections between how I’d been defining intellectual and connecting it with notions of cultural pluralism, and thus, multiculturalism. With forty people in the audience, and with thirty-five minutes of Q and A, no one asked me a single question. No one in the audience, it seemed, was interested in multiculturalism or historical contributions to the idea from Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Church Terrell or anyone else.

I noticed even more as I submitted my first book Fear of a “Black” America for publication with the university presses prior to ’04. At least with the likes of Praeger and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I’d frequently get a detailed response, good and bad. But with the university presses, it was deadly silence. I guess me working full-time in the nonprofit world and only teaching ed foundation courses part-time was one of my deficits.

The final set of hints of silence that came my way was in the year after I published Fear of a “Black” America. I decided in ’05 to write an article on the overuse of the term scholar-activist, an article I published in Academe Magazine that fall. Grad students tended to like it, activists outside of academia have cited it hundreds of times, and my immediate circle of friends in academia loved it. But my relevant fields within academia remained silent about it. They were silent about my argument that exercising academic freedom doesn’t automatically make one an activist, and that academic writing, even writings that lean hard to the left, don’t make an academician an activist either.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

Dante in Exile (n.d.), painting by anonymous author, Archivo Iconografico S.A., Itália, June 3, 2006. (Fernando S. Aldado via Wikipedia). In public domain.

I realize then I had evolved as a writer to the point where I wasn’t just uncomfortable with academic writing, the tenure process and the lack of unionization for adjuncts and grad students — I’d been uncomfortable for years. No, I wanted a teaching, even administrative relationship with higher education for sure, but not one where all of my eggs were in the academic writing basket. Unlike Joshua Rothman’s grand assumption in his “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” piece in last week’s New Yorker, that “[p]rofessors live inside that system [of academic writing] and have made peace with it,” I have not and will not make peace with this. Ever.

I think Nicholas Kristof is a hack, and that most of the columnists of The New York Times are hacks as well. But in knowing the sadistic silence of academia as well as I do, I also know that this world of higher education can and does grind many of its participants up, often without making the slightest sound. It’s a wonder that I’m still teaching and writing anything at all.


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