What Being #1 Is and Isn’t


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#1 (cropped), May 24, 2018. (http://www.modern-senior.com).

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, Micheal Brown, Elmont Memorial High School, and Mirabeau B. Lamar High School must be very proud of themselves these days. And they all should be. After all, Ms. Uwamanzu-Nna joined Mr. Ekeh as being the only two students in the history of this high school to gain acceptance to all eight Ivy League universities — in back-to-back years, in 2015 and 2016. Mr. Brown was four-for-four in his quest for Ivy League admissions at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania in 2017-18, and went 20-for-20 in college admissions overall. Uwamanza-Nna and Ekeh each went 13 for 13 in their applications to colleges ranging from Johns Hopkins and New York University to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

They are among a very short list of above-the-rim, high-achieving high school students who have the distinction of winning the college entrance lottery. They have credentials (and with full rides, the means) to attend any and every elite institution in the US. That’s just it, though. In so many ways, this narrative of American education as one of  “winners and losers” merely reinforces a society of haves and have-nots narcissistically competing for limited and segregated resources.

With a closer look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s backgrounds, it becomes obvious that despite their amazing achievements, their success was predestined. Both Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh’s families are from Nigeria, and both moved to the US when they were of elementary school age. Uwamanzu-Nna’s father remained a physical therapist after moving to the US, while Ekeh’s parents “left comfortable lives in Nigeria” to take jobs at a Target store in Queens to provide opportunities for their five children. Both families picked places within the Sewanhaka Central High School District to live. The district is made up of a group of Long Island bedroom suburban towns within Nassau County, including Elmont.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna standing next to a picture of 2015 graduate, Harold Ekeh (cropped), Elmont Memorial High School, Elmont, NY, April 5, 2016. (CBS2).

This decision for the two Nigerian families could not have occurred by accident. The Sewanhaka Central High School District and especially Elmont Memorial High School has long had a reputation of providing an atmosphere of academic excellence and being a welcoming environment to students from immigrant families. Uwamanzu-Nna and Ekeh both benefited from such an environment and from families willing to sacrifice in order to push their children to win the academic lottery. In the US, getting into any Ivy League institution — much less all eight — is the pinnacle of being #1.

Brown’s case is a little less obvious in terms of advantages. But clearly Brown’s mother’s continuous efforts to enrich her life and her son’s life academically and socially were critical to his high-flying success. “When I was in elementary school, I saw my mom graduate from community college and that just meant a lot to me,”  Brown said to USA Today last month. Involvement in extracurricular activities in school and year-round after school programs like “QuestBridge, Emerge Fellowship and Breakthrough Collaborative,” where Brown got to mingle with students of color with college aspirations, must’ve helped with both his academic motivations and preparations. This more than made up for whatever deficiencies Brown faced in his education because of growing up in the Third Ward in Houston (where several of my uncles and cousins on my mother’s side lived between the mid-1970s and the early ’00s).

There are a couple of ways to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s success. One is to take the route of racist jealousy. “It’s a little obnoxious because you can only go to one, you can only take one full ride, and you are taking a spot from someone else who worked really hard,” co-anchor Holly Morris said on her FOX5 DC morning show. There was a huge backlash in response. The response implied that Brown’s achievement was a sign of showboating, that Brown was merely an attention-seeker. Keep in mind, the media sought Brown out, not the other way around. Keep in mind, Americans obsess over obvious measures of success. But somehow, if you’re Black, you can’t be joyful and in the moment over such success, even when the press is shining a floodlight on you.

Micheal Brown and his mother Berthinia Rutledge-Brown sharing the news of him getting into all 20 schools to which he applied, Houston, TX, March 31, 2018. (https://www.rawstory.com/).

Another way to look at Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements, though, would be to see their stories as a positive for them as individuals, but a negative for our society as a whole. With the increased emphasis on standardized curricula, standardized testing, and standardized individual teacher evaluations based on this testing has come an obsessive focus on the individual in education. The savior teacher as superhuman, somehow able to make every student into a proficient test-taker. The grinding student, ready to score a proficient or higher score on every school district, state-level, and national standardized test. The tiger mom-esque parent, willing at a moment’s notice to spend money that most Americans do not have to tutor and drill their child into excellent test scores. All involved in education for the greater good, but more and more, for their greater good. All without knowing about what their children have really learned, whether their students can really work in unison on a common goal, or if their kids can create, innovate, or think independently of a test-taking script.

I’m sure that Uwamanzu-Nna, Ekeh, and Brown’s have learned a lot in their respective journeys to Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But what does this measure of achievement mean for them down the line? Is it merely their ability to meet the right people and find job opportunities looking for them around every corner as a result of their academic achievements? Or do their achievements mean anything beyond the material, for them and for the rest of us?

The “winners and losers” narrative also plays itself out in insidious ways for parents at the have-nots end of the scale. Because America’s educational resources are unevenly segregated by race and social class across its 14,000 school districts, the opportunities for winning this competition are also segregated. School district boundary hopping has become more prevalent in recent years. This as the competition for better-resourced schools has become more intense, all in the wake of the Great Recession and the resulting reduction in education budgets.

Unlevel playing field (soccer in this case), August 5, 2013. (http://funatico.com).

One famous case of boundary hopping occurred in 2011. Kelley Williams-Bolar, an African American, Akron, Ohio-area mother, was arrested for and convicted of falsifying records to enable her two daughters to attend a more affluent school district in the area for two years. (Williams-Bolar’s now deceased father Edward L. Williams was a legal resident of the Copley Township district at the time.) The real crime here is that a patchwork public education system based on income and place of residence exists at all. That it also promotes an obsession with competition and mostly pre-selects students to be #1 in the line for the elite university is worse still. That is why Uwamanzu-Nna’s, Ekeh’s, and Brown’s achievements look so remarkable. They won an educational game that in so many ways our society had rigged for them to lose.

Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna, Harold Ekeh, and Micheal Brown are among a truly lucky handful. Their parents found a welcoming home in a diverse suburban community with well-resourced (if somewhat segregated) schools, or enriched their child with resources not available to most kids in poorer and segregated urban school districts. They won the competition for #1. For most Americans, though, the education game is rigged, as the system reproduces and reinforces residential, racial, income, and academic inequality. Not to mention, the American idea that there should be winners, losers, and a grinding competition to show who won and lost.

It’s Been A While Since I’ve Been a Sports “Fan”


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Cropped image of seven year-old Linus Van Pelt sucking his thumb and holding his security blanket (like the average American sports fan), May 3, 2018. (http://amazon.com).

If my 25 year-old self and my 48 year-old self met in the same hotel bar on Rolling Rock Beer and Wings night in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Cleveland, they would have so much in common (or explode space-time). But they would have one hell of a disagreement about the quality, purpose, and feeling of being a sports fanatic. We’d both be ex-baseball fans, courtesy of the sports’ over-inflated view of itself, its long history of racism, exclusion, and paternalism, and George Will’s ludicrous books on America’s so-called pastime. We’d both watch NBA basketball, NHL hockey, a fútbol match or a tennis tournament or a golf major here and there. But the reasons for watching, the rationale for whom to root for and why, the purpose for either of us to indulge in such athletic delights? We would be at an obtuse angle, at least 120 degrees apart.

My history of sports fandom began pretty much in middle school, even though I’d been exposed to all of New York’s underdog teams from the womb. Mets, Jets, and Knicks (Mom still doesn’t watch or understand hockey, by the way) were her teams by the time she and my dad conceived me. But me being me, I reinvented the wheel between the end of ’81 and the spring of ’84. I watched/listened to Yankees and Mets games, as well as the Knicks and Nets, the Islanders, Rangers, and Devils, and the Jets and Giants.

I picked my childhood teams based on low expectations, the balance between them being underdogs and being doormats, the players I’d most likely would want to emulate if I ever wanted to be a professional athlete. And, mostly important, based on that team’s ability to help me forget about all that was wrong in my world, for at least three hours per day (in baseball), or six hours a week (between the other sports combined).

The Mookie Wilson-Bill Buckner connection, Game 6, 1986 World Series, Bottom 10th, Shea Stadium, Queens, NY, October 25, 1986. (http://halloffamememorabilia.net).

That gradually began to change once my teams started winning championships, or at least, regularly competing for them. The change accelerated once I left the New York area for Pittsburgh and its Western Pennsylvania ways. Between my Mets winning a World Series and my Giants winning two Super Bowls between ’86 and ’91, I found myself no longer a fan of hometown underdog teams. Sports weren’t an escape from my reality anymore. Especially as I began regularly working out and playing sports myself.

But I still saw sports fandom as a good thing, something that could unite people and cross the barriers of racism, classism, and even sexism (depending on the sport). That was my next phase of fandom, beginning around ’93. This view was what fueled my divorce from baseball after the ’94 MLB strike and lockout, and what caused me to begin watching more golf and international soccer, and not just falling asleep to it.

I still rooted for my Giants, Rangers, and especially the Knickerbockers. Too bad only the Rangers broke through in the ’90s, although the Knicks had their chances between ’93 and ’99. With living in Pittsburgh, though, I also began to cheer for the Steelers, the Penguins (except when they played the Rangers), and sometimes the Pirates.

But even in this phase of my fandom, I recognized the basic truth. I was cheering for athletes and their talent and will to shine in competition. That they happened to be a linebacker for the Giants or a pitcher for the Mets was a bonus, but I would’ve enjoyed their talent on other teams and in other athletic contexts anyway. I recognized this already with Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield in the ’80s, and I saw another glimpse of it in ’96, when Dwight Gooden, at this point with the Yankees, finally threw a no-hitter. I wasn’t even a baseball fan anymore, but I was so happy for the diminished Gooden to achieve this feat.

Venus hitting a backhand against Elise Mertens in 1st round of Wimbledon, Wimbledon, England, UK, July 3, 2017. (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/; John Walton/PA).

I think that’s why I started rooting for Venus (who does not get nearly enough credit for being an elite athlete and tennis player) and Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, and so many others while they were still in their teens. I’m sure that’s why I stopped putting up with cockamamie excuses from other fans about too much money in professional sports, about free agency, about the difficulties of running a franchise, when I’d see the same teams losing year after year. It didn’t help that the athletes I rooted for growing up or in the ’90s began to retire, often with a vocal and unappreciative fan base trying to shove them out to door.

Most importantly, I saw the greed and narcissism and conservative politics and racism and misogyny and homophobia that is embedded in the ownership of teams and in the building of franchises. That sports are no more divorced from the politics and malignancies in society than our choices in food and clothing, or the decision of most Americans to berate the poor for their poverty. That sports teams and franchises are about as “clean” and “merit-based” as legacies in college admissions (the ultimate form of affirmative action) and the American election process at any and all levels. Despite this, a hundred million people still entertain this naive view that sports fandom is an essential good, a form of escape, a place for camaraderie. It is not. It’s escapism, a form a narcissism that allows millions to feel a bit better about their lives without doing anything to change their lives and the lives of untold others for the better.

Maybe my jadedness comes from nearly two decades in the DC area, where I regularly root for the local teams to fail, because I love it when the fans here are disillusioned. Maybe it’s because of the poor quality of most of the sports I watch (or in the case of the NFL, have stopped watching for going on three years now). Or, maybe it’s because my Knicks haven’t a title since Nixon was president! Whatever it is, I will continue to root for athletes, but not for teams. Especially those who take a stand, those who have a purpose beyond their athleticism, those whose bodies make me a bit envious, but only envious enough to keep working out, to keep running, to keep draining Js. Also, the NFL is still blackballing Colin Kaepernick!



68 Days in 1968


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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Mason Temple, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968. (http://youtube.com).

Over the next week or two, America will talk incessantly about the fiftieth anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Many Americans will memorialize MLK this April 4th, one day from the actual day of the week James Earl Ray’s rifle shot took the great one’s life at a two-star motel. This was a moment that shook the nation. It certainly was a moment that blew up in the minds of nearly every Black American. There were more than 100 riots — actual riots, and not the random vandalism the media’s all too quick to call a riot — in cities across the country. It changed the nation enough to where, at least for a few years, African Americans once denied educational and employment opportunities could suddenly find themselves at elite White universities, with major corporations, and with big private foundations, and often, for the first time.

But as much as I want to memorialize Dr. King, his life and his death, I do not want to resurrect him as a zombie-like poster child for ridding the US of racism. Especially when I know all too well that it’ll likely take the The Rapture, and not a rally, to make this impossibility a reality. I’ve long since tired of King as a marble statue of unattainable goodness and perfection for Whites and conservatives of color who use him as a cudgel against any Blacks who haven’t materially progressed or who have exposed the nation as racist. I’m also tired of progressives who call out racism as only hate, and King’s life and death as an attempt to fight it, when King was speaking truth to power, and organizing poor people to siphon that power. That’s what King died over, ultimately.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech on Vietnam and not running for reelection, White House, March 31, 1968. (http://gbpnews.com).

Even more than King, though, is the reality that America has a string of fiftieth anniversary milestones to contemplate. In a sixty-eight day period in 1968, the true nature of American power dashed the delusion of an easy path to ending systemic racism and gross economic inequalities in which millions of naive Americans had once believed. Between LBJ’s refusal to run again on March 31st, MLK’s execution on April 4th, and RFK’s assassination on June 5th, any traditional Democrat, White liberal, or even someone with some sense of hope in America’s future must’ve been devastated. If I’d been at least ten years old in 1968, I would’ve been, too.

Sadly, President Lyndon Johnson tried to fight a War on Poverty and build the Great Society while also escalating a war over communism in Vietnam and in the rest of Southeast Asia. He bled the nation’s wealth and its poorer class of men dry in Vietnam, and starved his modestly radical domestic programs in the process. While so much of Johnson’s legacy remains, none of it remains strong. Every administration since Johnson announced, “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President” has weakened his attempts at a comprehensive welfare state. Including Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and of course, aid to single parents with younger children.

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the weeks after President Johnson’s “no mas” announcement was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY). His victory in winning the California primary on June 5 had mostly sealed that deal. He barely had more than a few minutes to enjoy it, though. After his victory speech that night, Sirhan Sirhan killed RFK, and with it, the center-very-very-very-slightly-left Democratic coalition of the 1960s. Johnson, of course, died in 1973. No president has come close to being transformative since.

A facsimile of the JFK, MLK & RFK painting that used to hang over many a Black home’s mantle, August 27, 2013. (http://robertktanenbaumbooks.com).

I was born in 1969, so I didn’t get the chance to experience living through these horrible events. But I did learn about them early on. Seeing paintings of MLK, JFK and RFK (or of MLK, JFK, and LBJ) in the living rooms of my mother’s friends. Through John Lennon’s music and CBS’s All in the Family. That sense of lingering hopefulness in changing the world that I did see at the end of America’s Vietnam era. In some ways, I’m as much a “child of the 60s” as anyone who was ten or fifteen years old at the time of RFK’s death.

Yet I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time in which most White liberals and Democrats decided to forget about the overall message of change and social justice that LBJ, RFK, and MLK represented. The youthfulness and motivation that was JFK in the early 60s. The sense that by breaking down barriers and encouraging the end of those practices that leave many Americans behind, our nation would retain its strength as a beacon of democracy, freedom and equality. Of course there was a great tension there. And in that tension, America returned to its center-right script, symbolically using a marble and granite King while chipping away at welfare state protections and regulations, and promoting virulent racism.

Those 68 days in 1968 proved more than anything else that while Americans can envision a multitude of Americas, there was and remains only one America. The one in which money, power, racism, misogyny, and homophobia rule the day. Americans can fight for a better nation, and Americans should, if only to blunt the full fury of America’s ills. But make no mistake. The America that assassinated MLK, RFK, and JFK, and put LBJ in an early grave. That’s the same America that elected 45 and allows police to shoot unarmed Black and Brown people like rabid dogs. This. Is. America.

Rich, Lorde, and What I Care/Don’t Care About


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Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, and Adrienne Rich after leading a writing workshop, Austin, TX, 1980. (K. Kendall/Flickr, July 15, 2007). Released to the public domain via CC-SA-2.0.

Among the literary arts, poetry is somewhere between okay and blech for me. At least most of the time. That doesn’t mean I hate all poetry or all poets. I fully appreciate the rhyme and meter (and lack thereof) of so many, from James Weldon Johnson and Archibald MacLeish to Phillis Wheatley and Langston Hughes. I love the emotional layering in the choice of the words, and in more modern times, the delivering of such words, with The Last Poets, with Gil Scott-Heron, and of course, Maya Angelou. Rap legends like Tupac, Nas, Eminem, Public Enemy have lyrics that are essentially spoken-word poetry put to bass, beats, and music loops. Heck, I’ve even enjoyed W. E. B. DuBois’ forays in the art in my scholarly research (when I more regularly did it) over the years.

But as a writer of prose (and often, long-winded prose), I also find the form of poetry ill-fitting. For me, it’s like being a home-run hitter in baseball playing hard-court tennis. It’s not that I can’t hit a baseline winner or an ace. But for every one of those, I could easily hit four tennis balls in a row out of the court, and literally onto the roof of a house half a block away. I prefer the ability to lay out my thoughts and explain them in full sentences, without worrying over every single word and the rhythm that a sequence of carefully chosen words may or may not bring.

I barely read any poetry during my Humanities years, unless my English classes forced me to. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Alexander Pope, all for 10th grade English, and with the exception of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” not particularly entertaining. I was convinced after high school in ’87 that I’d never read poetry again.

What brought on a new interest in poetry came from my sophomore year at Pitt. I had to take a General Writing class in Fall 1988. I had to because if I wanted to take upper-level History classes as a History major, this general education requirement needed to be knocked off.  But I had an enthusiastic graduate student as my instructor. When I say enthusiastic, I mean someone who knew their students wouldn’t be, but whose passion for teaching and literature of all kinds made the class and the readings more interesting. She told me early on, after reading one of my first essays, that I should’ve been able to pass out of General Writing through the diagnostic tests Pitt gave my freshman year. “I wasn’t exactly awake when I took it last year,” I said in response.

Ways of Reading anthology book (2nd edition), used in 1988. (http://ebay.ca).

When we got to the poetry portion of the course, I thought at first I was going to die from boredom. But our instructor didn’t assign us the usual suspects. The main poet we read that week was Adrienne Rich. She was someone I’d heard of growing up, but that was about it. Until the assignment of reading both Rich’s poetry and her essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” that is.

There were three things I’d never considered before reading Rich. One was the idea that writing was both art and craft, and that most writing was editing and re-envisioning one’s work. Two was the notion of transforming and being transformed through the writing process, and all as a proxy for a meaningful life. Three was the positioning of poets and other writers in literature, the privileging of men over women, of White males over feminists, of White heterosexual feminists over lesbian feminists, and especially Black lesbian feminists.

That last one about power, privilege, and positioning, it really grabbed me. So much so that I read more Rich that October weekend, in between pangs of hunger from lack of money and my Saturday evening shift at the Cathedral of Learning computer lab.

And the more I read of Rich, the more I decided to read about one of Rich’s contemporaries. I moved on to Audre Lorde the following week. She wasn’t among the long list of readings we had for General Writing, but she should’ve been. I couldn’t believe that someone who lived only miles away from my growing up experience in Mount Vernon and in New York could yet have such a vastly different experience with the city and the area.

I picked up Sister Outsider (1984) for the first time near the end of that fall semester. Lorde’s collection of essays about civil rights, about Black feminism (or womanism), about what we now call intersectionality, opened my eyes to how even Rich’s brand of feminism could be problematic. But more than that. Lorde, along with Rich, helped me realize, and not for the first time, that I didn’t care if the person I read or learned from was straight or gay, male or female (or later on, transgender), Black, Brown, or White. This despite what the Hebrew-Israelites and the evangelicals tried to teach me. They just had to be excellent in their work.

Excerpt of Audre Lorde’s Power (1978) (screenshot). (http://poetryfoundation.org).

Sister Outsider also opened up my eyes to the possibility that even my poetry-loathing ass could appreciate a true master at work in the art. So early on the following semester, I read Lorde’s poetry for the first time, likely some poems from her Coal (1976). Lorde talking about her upbringing, her relationship with her mother, and her issues with her own skin color, resonated with me.

But that was it with poetry for me until I borrowed my friend E’s recording of The Lost Poets 1971 album, and then read Angelou’s poetry, both in the summer of ’91. By then, I knew that while I’d never be a full-fledged fan of it, I could still appreciate the work, the art, and the layering of ideologies, emotions, and ideas contained in the best of poetry.

Is “Never” the Best Time for a Critique?


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Rev. Billy Graham, 2003. (David Hume/Getty Images). Cropped slightly; qualifies as fair use due to cropping and subject matter.

I’ve been watching the variety of responses to the death of the late great Billy Graham over the past seven or ten days. Most people have been in mourning, which was something to expect. Many, like UPenn religious studies professor Anthea Butler, have reminded the world of the White nationalist, segregationist, and sexist views Graham either represented or excused during his six-decade-long run on the national stage.

And like mechanical clockwork, those who have Victorian and transactional notions of Christianity have defended, deflected, and denied on Graham’s behalf. It’s led to this series of questions for me When can we critique the legacy of a famous person? While they’re alive? “No siree! That would be disrespectful.” If they claim to be serving God, “That would be blasphemous!” When they die? “Now’s not the time — can’t you see they’re family’s in morning? The Bible says, ‘Judge not, lest thou be judged’.”

Translation: apparently, we’re never supposed to question what some famous person has done. Especially if they have the word “reverend” or “pastor” as part of their official title. It’s a thought process that imbues power to religious leaders, so much so that we might as well make them god-like, since our job is merely to obey and stay quiet.

But as I’ve learned over the past three-and-a-half decades, religious leaders are fallible. They aren’t sacrosanct. And while seminaries or other religious institutions have ordained them, that doesn’t mean that every vision they’ve ever had came straight from God. Meaning that we can question. Meaning that we can critique. Meaning that we can provide evidence that humanizes whom others would consider a pedestal perfect being. For those whom aren’t Christian, it certainly means they can judge Graham, too.

To err is human, no? Which means we shouldn’t have any sacred cows. Graham might’ve saved millions of souls for eternal life. But that shouldn’t automatically exempt him from a critique of his unwillingness to help those same souls while they were still here on Earth.


We Need a Partnership for a Gun-Free America


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With all of the fierce courage and eloquence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas herself, students from the Parkland, Florida high school have stepped up and reignited a movement. Emma Gonzales, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Sophie Whitney, and so many others from the school have turned their grief, sorrow, and anger into activism in the past seven days. This in the wake of a mass shooting that left 14 classmates and three teachers dead and another 17 wounded. Not only this. High school students from my son’s in Silver Spring to those all across the US have declared this chapter of the gun control movement “Never Again,” and have already staged walkouts and protest demonstrations that could be a watershed in a long-suffering push to end wanton gun violence.

I, for one, hope that they never stay quiet again. I hope, for their sakes (and for mine) that there is never another mass shooting at a public school or anywhere else. But I’m a historian and an educator, not Pollyanna. I cannot afford such a lofty wish, not when there’s so much work to do. That’s why I’m glad that post-millennial teenagers are standing up and taking on this issue. With enough pressure and long-term strategizing, they may well be able to achieve some measure of gun control in the US for the first time in the nation’s history.

Five Stoneman Douglas students speaking out (see names above), February 20, 2018. (http://mediamatters.com).

But we’re not going to get there with mealy-mouthed proposals and idiotic ideas. Arming teachers? Arming veterans as volunteers? Putting more police in schools? Really? How stupid does anyone have to be to believe that more people with guns in public spaces with large numbers of other people to stop a potential threat is a good idea? That’s like saying every country in the world should have as many nuclear weapons as Israel or Pakistan. Because everyone sleeps better knowing that on the wrong day and with the wrong person, they and their families could be vaporized!

Even half-baked measures like age limits, more extensive background checks, and a ban on assault rifles (the old 1994 Brady Bill and the 1994 Crime Bill, really) do little in the end to prevent mass shootings. After all, Jonesboro, Columbine, and the Georgia day trader massacres all occurred between 1994 and when the federal assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Even if it was possible, turning the clock back to the 1990s would still mean that most Americans willing to use guns to kill themselves and others indiscriminately will be more than able to do just that.

Though “Never Again” is overused (think Holocaust and 9/11 here), the idea of working without ceasing on making America as gun-free as possible should be the long-term goal. I think that the nation should mobilize for a War on Guns, just like it did in the 1980s for a War on Drugs, and in the 1970s against drunk driving. Only, without an eye toward racial stereotypes of Black pathologies and cultural dependency on the one hand, and the assumption of White goodness on the other. After all, White males own the vast majority of guns in the US. I think that children, teenagers, and the young adults that are part of my son’s generation should lead the charge. Not conservative dumb asses who believed weed was a gateway drug to cocaine and heroin (look where that got us).

Just like we have a Partnership for a Drug-Free America, we need a Partnership for a Gun-Free America. We need graphic commercials demonstrating what occurs when a bullet rips through flesh, disintegrates bone and nerves, and pummels brain matter. We need commercials where a mass shooter kills a bunch of people and then is somehow captured. One where the father asks

“I learned it by watching you, Dad!” PSA, July 1987. (Partnership for a Drug-Free America).

“Where did you get the guns? Who did you learn this from?”

“You, all right! I learned it by watching you!,” the son would and should say.

Why? Because, despite the relatively diversity of the student body at Stoneman Douglas High School and despite the pain of what those students went through, they are hardly alone in their suffering. So many Americans of color know this pain, too, between crime-related shootings in poorer communities and the police state that is all about shooting and killing much, much, much more than deescalation of potential threats. While I would’ve been proud to have a daughter like Emma Gonzales, I also want to not worry that some racist, trigger-happy cop or some random White supremacist/misogynist (the typical profile of a mass shooter) will one day cross paths with my son.

So many Whites know this pain as well. For their access to guns has ripped apart their families, between the accidental shootings, suicides, and family annihilators. So many own guns out of fear of crime (really, a proxy for their fear/hatred/disdain for the Black and Brown) or a need to feel powerful, this despite the evidence that most people never get to use their guns when they are the victims of crime.

What I want ultimately, is the repeal of the Second Amendment. The US needs to go the way of Japan, the UK, and so many other countries, where some older firearms or some guns that are specifically for hunting may be kept, everything else must go. This means no firearms for law enforcement as well. This is what the more radical of us want. This is what Black Lives Matter wants. I’m sure so many who’ve survived these mass shootings would at least strongly consider this proposition.

There will be those who’ll say, “Not a chance in Hell! If someone comes for my guns, I’ll put them in a bodybag!” I’m not arguing the Second Amendment will be gone today. Or that it’ll be gone tomorrow. But with the kind of sustained effort that only youth, mass mobilization, and coalition-building can bring, maybe America can get part of the way there in the next decade or two. Or not.

Du Bois Was a Marxist. Aye. So?


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W.E.B. Du Bois at 82 (cropped), New York, NY, 1950. (Keystone/Getty Images). Cropped photo qualifies as fair use under US copyright law.

In recent months, a few people I know have brought up the fact that at least since the mid-1930s, the great W. E. B. Du Bois had professed himself a Marxist. The poet E. Ethelbert Miller, one of my co-panelists at a talk a couple of months back, made a point of interrogating notions of Blackness with the idea that Black activists were/are afraid to identity Du Bois as a Marxist. Certainly by the time Du Bois broke free from the federal government’s McCarthy-era ban on his international travel in 1958, he was. Du Bois re-obtained his passport, traveled the world, and ended up in Ghana in 1961. There, at the age of 93, he renounced his US citizenship and declared himself a Communist. Two years later, on the eve of the March of Washington, Du Bois died. The end.

All the above is true, but not so fast! The thing I’ve known in all my years of reading Du Bois’ work, writing about Du Bois, and in reading others who’ve written about Du Bois, was that Du Bois wasn’t just one thing. Nearly every social science and humanities tradition in the US can claim influence from Du Bois’ work. Poetry, theology, philosophy, psychology, economics, and American literature would be one set of his influences, and that’s just with The Souls of Black Folk!

E. Ethelbert Miller, Mirtho Languet, and Me, Anacostia Arts Center, Washington, DC, November 18, 2017. (Keita Stephenson).

Though Du Bois’ Harvard doctorate was in history, he’s widely recognized as one of the founders (if not the actual founder) of American sociology. His 1898 study The Philadelphia Negro is really the first urban sociological study ever conducted in the US. His dissertation on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was the only major work to cover the cost of the Middle Passage for kidnapped Africans (and estimate the total number of Africans stolen for slavery in the Western Hemisphere) for nearly seven decades. And there’s Black Reconstruction, probably Du Bois’ magnum opus of scholarly work.

With almost 70 years’ worth of Du Bois’ writings alone, anyone who’d think that Du Bois was just one thing would be guilty of a gross oversimplification of the man. Really, Du Bois was a mess of contradictions. He believed in elitist ideas like The Talented Tenth. Yet Du Bois also fought Booker T. Washington in books and in the press for more than a decade over the latter’s prominence as the “race man who Teddy Roosevelt and “liberal” White philanthropists talked to about uplifting Black folk.

He was a founder of both the NAACP and the Niagara Movement that preceded the organization. He befriended White philanthropists just as easily as Washington, though, and kept a personal war between himself and long-time NAACP president Walter White going for nearly two decades. On more than one occasion, Du Bois punned White’s last name as an insult, as the man was biracial, and could’ve easily passed for White.

Du Bois was also a Pan-Africanist. One, though, that used his editorialship at The Crisis to discredit Marcus Garvey and his ill-fated “Back-to-Africa” movement. David Levering Lewis in his Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume biography of Du Bois has even documented the likelihood that Du Bois helped the FBI (née BOI) in their mail fraud case against Garvey.

Du Bois was also a socialist. Though for most Americans, socialism and Marxism is a distinction, socialism in Du Bois’ mind meant alleviating the worst effects of market capitalism, not necessarily doing away with capitalism all together.

Du Bois was also a pacifist. But like so many of Du Bois’ positions, this one evolved over time. When the US became a military participant in World War I, Du Bois wrote essays where he argued that Black involvement could provide evidence of the need for full integration and citizenship rights for African Americans. By the Cold War, Du Bois was giving speeches about the threat of American imperialism and nuclear war.

Du Bois was also a multiculturalist. One of his more well-known extramarital affairs was with Rachel Davis DuBois (White, no relation), a key founder of the intercultural education movement, which had its heyday between the late-1920s and early 1940s. The idea of a diverse and inclusive curriculum was first fully demonstrated in DuBois’ work, which Du Bois endorsed in the mid-1930s. At the same time, how much can anyone believe from a man who at this point in his career was also serial adulterer?

Even saying Du Bois was a Marxist isn’t the full truth. “I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.” This was what Du Bois wrote soon after renouncing his American citizenship in Ghana. Technically, this would be socialism more than communism. But more to the point, it’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. It’s really Du Bois using Marxism to protest American imperialism and capitalism through his Pan-African affinity for Ghanian revolutionary and prime minister Kwame Nkrumah, not to mention, with America’s archenemy, the Soviet Union.

The one thing I wish those in the scholarly community would stop doing is taking the pyramid that was Du Bois’ life and reducing it to a two-dimensional square. Why can’t we just call an idea whose main source is Du Bois, well, Du Boisian? Like, Du Boisian sociology, or Du Boisian economics, or Du Boisian politics? Is this an example of Whiteness rearing its ugly head, where it’s too difficult to give Du Bois his own due without subsuming him under another White guy? It seems to me that so many are attempting to use Du Bois for their own ideological purposes, when it’s better to just let him be the so much that he was.