Category Archives: Teaching Literature

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 4

If you missed the first three posts in this series, click the link(s) to access Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. This post is the final post in this series. It seems an appropriate time to share given the current administration’s attempts to prevent educators from teaching Critical Race Theory.

During the course of our study of Song of Solomon, students also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay for Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”

Using this essay along with Song of Solomon and Lemonade, students created questions for discussion. One class generated the following questions: “Why are the struggles of the Black community so consistently talked about and struggled with? Why hasn’t there been a solution? Why is this problem still persisting no matter how much we talk about it?” In preparing for discussion, one of my students connected Beyoncé’s reference to “Becky, with the good hair” to Milkman’s distant relatives, the Byrds, who “pass” for White in addition to Hagar’s belief that Milkman is more attracted to women with lighter skin. She felt that colorism was a pervasive issue, as demonstrated in these examples. Another student mentioned the doll tests used to demonstrate Black children’s internalized feelings of inferiority in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Supreme Court case. Our class watched a film by Kiri Davis that replicated the doll test in the 2000s with similar results.

One student reflected that all of these texts together helped him understand the implications of the novel’s themes with greater clarity, and he set himself the goal of looking for these connections for future seminars.

Students also generated essay topics and brought their ideas to writing workshop for feedback before beginning their essays. Many students connected Lemonade to the novel or even centered Lemonade as the primary text for discussion in their writing. One student applied a feminist lens and explained how both texts explore the oppression of women. The next year, I emphasized Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theoretical framework of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s concept of “womanism,” and students quickly identified how intersectionality and womanism worked in both texts. This topic came up in our Socratic seminars as one student brought in both ideas, prompting another student to reflect,

Originally, when I prepared for the seminar I thought of Guitar and Milkman’s lives and how systematic oppression has stripped them of hope and opportunity, but I had not thought about how the same systematic oppression affects the women in the novel such as First Corinthians and Hagar. This idea pertains to the idea of “womanism” and how the women in the novel, such as First Corinthians and Hagar, not only have to deal with the implications of being African-American, but also the implications of being a woman.

Another student reflected that “it made me realize that these life controlling actions still occur today; not only do White people work to assert their dominance over minorities, but this could also occur between genders. This idea further supports the Womanism movement because Black women have a greater likelihood of facing more inequalities and oppression.” One student remarked that studying Lemonade with Song of Solomon made the latter text more “relevant” because she could see how “themes presented in the novel are present and have evolved in today’s society.” Another student added simply that she “could [better] understand Solomon with the explanations within Beyoncé’s videos.” One student concluded, “I will remember this unit well because it made me reflect on the society I live in today… Not only did watching Lemonade help me understand Song of Solomon, but the novel also helped me identify symbolism and themes in Lemonade that I missed initially.”

The pairing of Song of Solomon and Lemonade presents many opportunities to integrate music into the ELA curriculum. In the second year pairing these texts, I noticed that students integrated music in their projects more often. For an independent novel selection, I asked students to create a project that demonstrated what they took away from their chosen book. One student wrote a classical composition based on the themes in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, while another composed a three-song cycle based on characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. While it’s possible that students may have been inspired to create music based on literature without studying Lemonade in conjunction with Song of Solomon, it is clear that Beyoncé’s film helped them see music as a viable medium for understanding literature and culture as well as a literary vehicle of its own.

References

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299.

Davis, Kiri. “A Girl Like Me.” YouTube, 4 May 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyI77Yh1Gg, Accessed 29 Jun 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Mariner, 2003.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 3

This post is the third in a series about teaching Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade album in conjunction with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. You might want to read the first post and second post first.

Guitar advises Milkman, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (Morrison 179). Before Milkman will be able to fly, he will have to give up everything that prevents him from becoming free (Foster 135). Over the course of his journey, he loses all of his possessions: his car, his shoes, and finally, his watch (Foster 165). Part of what weighs Milkman down is his father. Milkman has learned unhealthy lessons from his father, who taught him to value money and possessions as a marker of his worth. His father insists the only way to freedom is to “own things” (Morrison 55). Macon Dead, Jr. believes that Pilate has nothing useful to teach Milkman, which turns out to be false (Morrison 55).

Like Milkman, Beyoncé has learned some unhealthy lessons from her father in “Daddy Lessons.” In order to understand the “generational curse” of “the historical impact of slavery on Black love,” Beyoncé must “[reckon] with her partner’s betrayal” to understand “how familial, historical, and societal forces have shaped his behavior and [take] action to heal these wounds” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Cuchna and Shodiya argue that the thesis of Beyoncé’s film is “the past and future merge to meet us here” (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”).

In order to become free, both Beyoncé and Milkman will need to confront this past and shed the “Daddy Lessons” passed down from their fathers. In Beyoncé’s case, these lessons include suppression of emotion as a sign of strength (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). In the middle of this song, Beyoncé includes a home video of herself and her father cut with a clip of her daughter, Blue Ivy, jumping on the bed. As Cuchna and Shodiya argue, Blue Ivy’s appearance underscores the importance of Beyoncé breaking the curse—her daughter’s future happiness is at stake (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). A funeral takes place, symbolizing the metaphorical death of this curse with the fictionalized death of Beyoncé’s father (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé”). Milkman has to contend with the fact that his father’s treatment of his mother impacted his own relationships with women. He wonders, late in his journey, about his mother: “What might she have been like had her husband loved her?” (Morrison 300). Milkman begins to realize that Macon, Jr. loved “property… to excess because he loved his father to excess” (Morrison 300). Macon, Jr. saw his own father killed in a property dispute in which his father was clearly in the right, and it has affected his entire outlook on life. Like Beyoncé, Milkman must contend with a generational curse before he can become free. This freedom is represented in the novel by flight.

Milkman discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, was “one of those flying African children” (Morrison 321). In this clip, Toni Morrison talks about using this myth in the novel:

This myth likely arose from the story of the Igbo Landing which was the site of a mass suicide of Igbo people who were taken from what is now Nigeria to Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island (Momodu; Powell). Beyoncé also alludes to the Igbo Landing in her song “Love Drought,” which features Beyoncé leading a group of eight African-American women to wade into the water. The group, however, does not drown themselves, but rather engages in a form of baptism to “be born again into a life of healing from the pain of racial injustice that was outlined” earlier in Lemonade (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This song appears in Lemonade’s chapter “Reformation,” as Beyoncé “band[s] together” with the group of women “to create new lives for themselves,” an act accomplished through joining and raising their hands “in unity, suggesting the communal power of Black women” to effect miraculous changes (Cuchna and Shodiya, ‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé”).

This baptism sets the stage for the next chapter in Lemonade, “Forgiveness.” Like Milkman, now that Beyoncé has come to terms with the truth and understands how history has impacted her, she can become free. While Beyoncé accomplishes this freedom through creating community with Black women, past and present, Milkman accomplishes freedom with the healing assistance of a woman. As Pilate presciently declares early in the text, “it’ll be a woman save his life” (Morrison 140).

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman enters into his first reciprocal relationship with a woman, a prostitute named Sweet. Sweet bathes Milkman both literally and spiritually, after which, he bathes Sweet (Foster 166). The two then engage in domestic tasks of the sort that Milkman has never done, according to his sister Magdalena called Lena, who charges Milkman with “never pick[ing] up anything heavier than [his] own feet” (Morrison 215). One of the tasks Milkman does is to scrub Sweet’s bathtub; earlier, Lena accused Milkman of never “wip[ing] the ring from [his] tub” (Morrison 215). Clearly Milkman has become a new person. In “Freedom,” Beyoncé sings “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / Tell the sweet I’m new” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

In this song, Beyoncé declares freedom from the “chains” of the “curses [she has] inherited” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé”). Similarly, Milkman’s flight represents his attainment of freedom (Foster 136). However, Milkman does not fly until after he realizes that “without ever leaving the ground, [his aunt Pilate] could fly” (Morrison 336). In order to attain his own freedom, Milkman must “surrender to the air” (Morrison 337).

When Beyoncé reconciles with her partner in “All Night,” our class discussed how the healing accomplished through intimacy compared to Milkman’s relationship with Sweet. I suggested that some critics argue that the album should have ended with this song rather than “Formation” because it signaled reconciliation. Before I had finished the thought, one of my students interjected, “No.” I asked her to elaborate. She said that “Formation” is necessary because it declares Beyoncé’s intention to join with other women to stop racial injustice and gender inequity. This intention is not only displayed in the chorus of the song when Beyoncé sings, “Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation” but also in the lyric, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

 

These lyrics announce Beyoncé’s intention to “affirm her daughter, just as she is” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Formation’ by Beyoncé”). Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman holds Pilate in his arms as she dies and says, “There must be another one like you… There’s got to be at least one more woman like you” (Morrison 336). At this moment, Milkman’s “symbolic acceptance of an alternative African-American beauty ideal,” represented by Pilate’s rejection of White beauty standards pursued by her granddaughter Hagar, finally gives Milkman the freedom to fly (Ashe 589).

Morrison says in her foreword, the flights of the men in Milkman’s family “are viewed differently by the women left behind” as evidenced by the “Sugarman” / “Solomon” song passed down to Pilate (xiv). As Morrison says, “to praise a woman whose attention was focused solely on family and domestic responsibilities, Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground she could fly” (xiv). Because she accepted herself, as she was, she has always been free. The cryptic final sentence of Morrison’s foreword reads, “My father laughed” (xiv). I asked my students why they thought Morrison’s father laughed, reminding them she wrote the novel to explore what the men he has known “are really like” (xii). One of my students said, “I think it’s because even though she was writing about men, she still managed to make this book about women.” We laughed, too.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll move from analysis of the texts’ connection to what activities and assessments we did in the classroom.

Works Cited

Ashe, Bertram D. “‘Why Don’t He Like My Hair?’: Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. African American Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 589-592.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Daddy Lessons’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 19 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/4o4BiQlgkVPAC7ORLK115t?si=CpbfA7d0TmCyrqYblnf5ng, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Freedom’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 16 Jun. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/73TaovV5bMxDMICYqnvlTe?si=jLafOY69Rp2u4iIH7JcWdQ, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Love Drought’ by Beyoncé.” Dissect. 26 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/1DGACEEJICFbSYCF3RVJZX?si=gpBgSsdjQp2rd6dNWdFeMw, Accessed 27 Jun 2020

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Revised ed., Harper Perennial, 2014.

Momodu, Samuel. “Igbo Landing Mass Suicide.” BlackPast, 25 Oct. 2016. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/events-african-american-history/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803/, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Powell, Timothy B. “Ebo’s Landing.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2004, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebos-landing, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 2

Yesterday, I shared a little bit of background into the connections between Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album and Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Today, I am going to explore those connections more deeply.

Song of Solomon is the centerpiece of a unit on Identity and Culture in our AP English Literature curriculum. We focus on essential questions such as

  • What makes us who we are?
  • How does culture influence us?
  • Is defining identity based on difference a divisive or a constructive force in society?

I think the text could work well in a variety of units, however, and one of the reasons I teach it in AP Lit is that it is a good text for Question 3.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon (2018-2019), I did not teach the entire text of Lemonade. I pulled out specific songs from the visual album. However, the power of the paired texts prompted me to teach the entire visual album the following year. Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya argue that Lemonade is a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” a concept borrowed from nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner, who “believed varying art forms, such as poetry, music, dance, theater, costume, and set design should be seamlessly synthesized to create an artistic expression that was much more than the sum of its parts” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).

Cienna Davis argues that the visual storytelling in Lemonade situates “Beyoncé within Afrodiasporic genealogies and alongside histories of Black trauma” (24). One might argue the same for Song of Solomon. Milkman undertakes a journey to discover himself and his family, but this journey also helps him uncover “the story of his ancestors and the trauma hidden in it that has affected his family generation after generation” (San José Rico 153). This knowledge helps Milkman feel connected to a larger community and begin the process of stopping the cycle of trauma passed down through his family (San José Rico 153). Both Beyoncé and Toni Morrison employ African-American folklore to explore this history of trauma.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon, my class’s first encounter with Beyoncé’s album occurred after we had read up to chapter X in Song of Solomon. Hagar has just been unceremoniously dumped by Milkman after they have been lovers for twelve years. She has taken to stalking him in the evenings and threatening to kill him. Following a discussion of the chapter’s events, we viewed Beyoncé’s video for “Hold Up.”

In the video, Beyoncé evokes the Yoruban orisha Oshun, dressed in yellow and striding out into the streets with a rush of water (Roberts and Downs). Oshun is a goddess of water and sensuality, and folklore describes her legendary temper, especially when she has been wronged (Roberts and Downs). Beyoncé wields a bat and carves a swath of destruction throughout the video. I asked students if perhaps Hagar could be considered alongside Beyoncé. These lyrics for “Hold Up” became the basis for our discussion:

What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade)

Had Hagar decided she’d rather be “crazy” than be “walked all over lately”? Suddenly Hagar’s anger and desire for destruction made more sense to my students and was grounded in both folklore and a modern story of infidelity. One student described the connection between the texts as a “eureka moment.” Seeing the way that Beyoncé wielded folklore led students to a deeper understanding of Morrison’s use of folklore.

Hagar internalizes Milkman’s rejection in a startlingly similar way to Beyoncé. Hagar is driven to murderous rage after seeing Milkman with “a girl whose silky copper-colored hair cascaded over the sleeve of his coat” (Morrison 127).  At the end of her song “Sorry,” Beyoncé sings, “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

She repeats that last line. Students understood the woman with “silky copper-colored hair” means nothing to Milkman as she occupies only Hagar’s thoughts (the text never mentions Milkman’s thoughts about the woman, which led us to conclude he doesn’t have any). My students quickly nicknamed the mysterious woman with silky copper-colored hair “Becky,” drawing a straight line to Beyoncé’s lyrics.

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Hagar catches sight of herself in the mirror and says “No wonder… I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?” (Morrison 308-309). Hagar concludes that Milkman does not love her because of her appearance, so she decides to “fix [herself] up” by buying new clothes and makeup and having her hair done (Morrison 308). While waiting for the hairstylist to be ready for her, Hagar walks in the rain, and all of her plans are undone as her bags fall apart in the street (Morrison 313). Hagar herself falls apart, contracting a fever (Morrison 314). As she lies dying, she asks Pilate, “Mama… why don’t he like my hair?” (Morrison 315). Remembering the woman she saw with Milkman, Hagar assumes that Milkman loves “silky hair” and “lemon-colored skin” (Morrison 315-316). In the Lemonade film, Beyoncé incorporates the poetry of Warsan Shire, including “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love.”

One student drew a parallel in his essay between Hagar’s dying words and Beyoncé’s rendering of Shire’s poem, citing the lines “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier, less awake” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade). Both Beyoncé and Hagar express a belief that changing themselves will make them more deserving of love.

Tomorrow I will share some connections between the song “Daddy Lessons” and the lessons Milkman learns from his father.

Works Cited

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Davis, Cienna. “From Colorism to Conjurings: Tracing the Dust in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 7-28.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Roberts, Kamaria and Kenya Downs. “What Beyoncé Teaches us About the African Diaspora in Lemonade.” PBS News Hour, 29 Apr. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade, Accessed 6 Jul. 2019.

San José Rico, Patricia. Creating Memory and Cultural Identity in African American Trauma Fiction, Brill, 2019.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, my manuscript for English Journal was not accepted, but I also don’t have time right now to revise it, so you get to read it in its rougher unpublishable state. In this series of posts, I will be discussing what happened when I decided to teach Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and also offer some scholarly background into why the two texts work so well together. The short version? It was magic.

Publishing it this way might enable me to make the story more of a multimedia experience, so I’m calling it a win. Credit to my former student Geethika for the title of this series. A note on citations: I transitioned from using MLA to APA on this blog because I found I liked APA better and it’s also more commonly used in education, but I used MLA in this article because it is English Journal’s citation style, and I didn’t want to revise all the citations.

Image credit Kristopher Harris, used under Creative Commons License

Pop culture phenomenon and megawatt music star Beyoncé opened her film Homecoming, a recording of her 2018 Coachella concert, with words borrowed from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it” (qtd. in Knowles-Carter, Homecoming). Song of Solomon differs from Morrison’s other novels in that its protagonist, Macon Dead III, known as “Milkman,” is a man. In the foreword to the 2004 edition of her novel, Morrison explains that she began writing Song of Solomon after the death of her father (xii). She asked her father, by way of hoping for inspiration, “What are the men you have known really like?” (xii). Morrison describes that “radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” as a “challenge” (xii). However, as my students and I discovered when we paired our reading of Song of Solomon with a study of Beyoncé’s visual concept album Lemonade, Milkman’s relationships with women in the novel drove his development as a character, ultimately teaching him that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337).

As Beyoncé explains in an interview with Vogue, “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes us both bruised and beautiful” (Knowles-Carter, “Beyoncé in Her Own Words”). Lemonade has been described as a journey (Edgar and Toone 12). Indeed, Tidal, the music and podcast streaming service owned by Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z, described Lemonade as “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” in its announcement of Lemonade‘s release (Pinkard). Morrison contrasts the “stereotypically male narrative” with its “accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air” with this feminine journey (Morrison xii). However, Beyoncé incorporates many of these motifs, including a trip through earth and into water, in Lemonade. University of Pennsylvania professor Jeanine Staples argues that Lemonade’s cultural references create a “tapestry of journey method through iterations of consciousness and experiences that are tied to a feminine and Black feminist tradition/s” (29). Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya describe Lemonade as a “deeply personal exploration of identity, history, and spirituality, a visionary expression of a woman’s journey from betrayal to redemption, from tragedy to triumph, from subjugation to freedom”(“Beyoncé: Lemonade”).

Like Beyoncé, Milkman must make his own journey to reckon with his family’s history, including a similar lineage of romantic and familial relationships, and it is only once he learns this history that he is able to fly.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade album and accompanying film explore the threat of infidelity in a relationship between a Black woman and a Black man, but Cuchna and Shodiya explain that more deeply, the visual album is “a gateway into an education on how America’s history of slavery and systemic injustice affect the structures of the Black family” (“Beyoncé: Lemonade”). Reviewing the film for Humanity & Society, Corey Miles argues that the film’s chapter titles, beginning with “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” then advancing to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” and “Redemption,” develop the “emotional progression for how black women negotiate their relationship with black men, specifically their husbands and fathers” (136). Miles contends that the first half of the album wrestles with Beyoncé’s anger about the infidelity of both her father, Mathew Knowles, and her husband, Jay-Z (136). The middle of the album underscores feelings of apathy that gradually give way to redemption, forgiveness, and empowerment. After the Lemonade album was released, writer Candice Benbow collaborated with African-American women to produce the Lemonade Syllabus, a compilation of recommended reading celebrating Black womanhood. While several novels by Toni Morrison make Benbow’s list of recommended fiction, Song of Solomon is not among them, likely due to its male protagonist; however, my AP English Literature and Composition students found many connections between Song of Solomon and Lemonade.

Tomorrow, I will delve more deeply these connections.

Works Cited

Benbow, Candice. Lemonade Syllabus. Issuu, 2016, issuu.com/candicebenbow/docs/lemonade_syllabus_2016, Accessed 6 Jul 2019.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “Beyoncé: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Edgar, Amanda Nell and Ashton Toone. “‘She Invited Other People to that Space’: Audience Habitus, Place, and Social Justice in Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Feminist Media Studies, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé. “Beyoncé in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” Vogue, 6 Aug. 2018, www.vogue.com/article/beyonce-september-issue-2018, Accessed 15 Jun. 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Homecoming, Netflix, 2019.

Miles, Corey. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade: When Life Gave Us Lemons, We Saved the World.” Humanity & Society, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 136-38.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Pinkard, Ryan. “The Formation to Lemonade.” Tidal Magazine, 29 Apr. 2016, www.tidal.com/magazine/article/the-formation-to-lemonade/1-25900, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Staples, Jeanine M. “How #BlackGirlMagic Cultivates Supreme Love to Heal and Save Souls that Can Heal and Save the World: An Introduction to Endarkened Feminist Epistemological and Ontological Evolutions of Self Through a Critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 29-49.

Representation

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Me

I am reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Dr. Kendi mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. I captured the screen from my Kindle book and sent the following tweet:

I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.

In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.

I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.

In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.

Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.

I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.

If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)

Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.

I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.

There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.

#TeachLivingPoets: Introduction to Literary Analysis and Critical Lenses

Books

I’ve been a little bit frustrated by my first unit in AP Lit. since my first year teaching it. Since this year is my fourth, it was time to make some changes or scrap it altogether, and since I felt it had some real potential, I decided to rethink the selections I was using to introduce literary analysis tools and critical lenses. I’m a little embarrassed it took me three years to figure out the solution. Even more embarrassing? I stumbled on this solution by accident after forgetting I was a day ahead of where I thought I’d be in my lesson plans. But after that serendipitous change went well, I knew what I needed to fix the rest of my unit: student agency.

I started peeking into discussions on Twitter at the hashtag #TeachLivingPoets some time ago. I asked which collections teachers using the hashtag recommended, and they offered a great list. I already had Clint Smith’s Counting Descent, which I highly recommend, and Wisława Symborska’s Poems New and Collected. I found Second Space by Czesław Miłosz, The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, and Miracle Fruit by Aimee Nezhukumatathil in a classroom, presumably left behind by a teacher who departed our school.

I ordered the following:

I put all these collections in a box I called my Box of Books by Living Poets. Of course, Miłosz and Symborska are not living poets, but they are at least 20th-21st-century poets. I carried the box with me to class.

The books that generated the most interest were Counting Descent and Citizen Illegal, though students also looked into Calling a Wolf a WolfElectric ArchesAmerican Journal, Miracle Fruit, and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. To be honest, no one cracked open either Miłosz and Symborska. Some students elected to focus on poems they knew and loved by poets as diverse as Rupi Kaur, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. Suess, Eminem, and Emma Lazarus.

The first thing students do with the poems is learn how to use one of several literary analysis tools to help break down the poem. In my AP Lit workshop a few years ago, I learned about DIDLS, TWIST, and SIFTT (video). Lisa Huff had already introduced me to TPCASTT (weirdly, this TPCASTT post on my blog is the one that consistently receives the most traffic). If you know who invented any of these strategies, let me know so that I can give proper attribution. I do not know who created them, but they’re widely shared.

Students worked in groups to use the literary analysis tool to analyze a poem of their choice, create a presentation using Google Slides explaining how to use the analysis tool, and demonstrate their application of the tool to their own poem analysis.

In between using the literary analysis tools and learning critical lenses, students discussed Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.

Students created a second presentation using critical lenses to deepen their poem analysis. They could use the same poem as before or a different one. Most students chose a different poem, again from the Box of Books by Living Poets or one of their own choosing. Again, students analyzed the poem using one of the literary analysis tools and added the layer of the critical lens.

Some of my takeaways from the change:

Students were much more engaged in this unit this year. It’s probably obvious, but the reason why I think they enjoyed the unit more was the selection of poetry. They had an opportunity to either analyze poetry they really like or they were introduced to poetry by living poets, with the immediacy and relevance of those voices bring with them. Students were really enjoying Clint Smith’s poetry. They were excited by the fact that José Olivarez’s book had been released just weeks ago, and they were probably some of the first students to analyze his poems.

Students were reading more poetry than they had in previous years. They had to find the poems they wanted, which in itself was a process. Students also shared their poems in presentations, reading the poems they were analyzing before sharing their analyses. Because of the large variety of poems available, students were simply reading more of them.

Students were able to bring in literature that was important to them. One student lamented in a recent discussion that she didn’t feel represented well in our school’s curriculum. She had read one major text by an author with her background, and to quote her commentary, “It was weird.” Because of these projects, she was able to bring in poets with backgrounds similar to her own background and share those poems with her classmates. Another student brought in her own poem to analyze. Two other students brought in a poem by a student their age at another school (video).

Students understand the literary analysis tools better. They are better able to articulate why they selected certain tools. For example, they noted the diction was interesting, and it prompted them to use DIDLS. If tone seemed really important, they chose TWIST. They loved TPCASTT for its versatility.

Students understand the critical lenses better. Purdue OWL has revamped their pages on critical lenses, and they are amazing. Having really good introductions to the critical lenses made a huge difference. Also, I think choosing their own poems asked students to think more about which lenses could be used to interpret the poems. For example, students with experience reading Clint Smith’s poems for the first presentation knew he would work well for critical race theory in the second. A student who loves Eminem knew his song “The Monster” was ripe for a psychoanalytical analysis. As a result of having to select their poems, students had to use higher-order critical thinking skills of application and evaluation to do their analysis as opposed to the past, when I selected poems I thought would be good to use for the critical lenses.

I was more engaged in the classroom, too. No, it’s not about me as the teacher, but I was way more interested during the students’ presentations because their own engagement and interest showed through in their work. Watching the presentations this year was really a lot of fun.

My prediction is that students will use both the literary analysis tools and the critical lenses more this year than they did in past years. I am hoping to grab a few minutes to ask their feedback on the unit in the upcoming week, but one student remarked as she left class Friday that “this is fun English.”

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Slice of Life: Improvisation

My AP Lit Class

This morning my Keurig decided to break. I have a single-serve Keurig that I have to fill with a cup of water each time I use. Only half a cup came out. I knew there had to be water trapped inside, but I wasn’t able to open it to see. So I turned it upside down over the trash can, and super-concentrated coffee went everywhere. Including the legs of my chinos. I knew they’d dry fast based on the kind of material they’re made out of, and my previous experiences getting them wet taught me I could try to wash the coffee out of my pants in the bathroom, and they’d probably be dry by class time.

I sat down and checked Blackboard. I started my doctoral program yesterday, and we are introducing ourselves to each other in both of my classes. I also wanted to see if my professor had answered my question. She had.

Then I thought to check my plan book to see what my AP Lit classes had on the docket for today, and I realized with horror that I’d made a big mistake. I had actually finished a project with them a day earlier than I had anticipated when I created my plans. I didn’t have anything for my students to do.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to create a meaningful lesson out of whole cloth, and I couldn’t move ahead because I had given my students until tomorrow or Thursday (depending on which class they are in) to finish Thomas C.  Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  It wouldn’t be fair to tell them they had to create seminar questions today when they might not be quite finished reading.

The project my students had just completed was to learn how to use a literary analysis tool (one was TPCASTT) and teach it to their peers in a presentation in which they also share their analysis of a literary work using the tool. In past years, I’ve been frustrated that the tools have been introduced early in the year and haven’t gained any traction. The students thought they were useful, but later on, they simply didn’t return to them when they were analyzing literature. We fall back on habits and methods that we know. We forget.

I thought fast. What if my AP Lit students worked in groups to choose a poem in one of my new collection of books by (mostly) living poets, chose a literary tool they learned last week (not one they themselves presented), analyzed a poem, and shared their findings with the class?

I tossed my poetry books in a box and made my way across campus. It was just starting to rain. I was glad I had remembered my umbrella so the books would stay dry.

All went well in my first class. After you’ve taught for a while, you come up with some handy go-to techniques you can use to stretch a lesson.

As I made my way back across campus slowly and carefully in a torrential downpour that was the remains of Hurricane Florence, I tried to keep the books dry and succeeded in making my pant legs wet all over again—the puddles were unavoidable—and arrived back at my office about ten minutes late for my “office hour” ( really half-hour). Thankfully, no one was waiting for help. I dried off my shoes with a paper towel from the bathroom and prepared to do the lesson again in my second class.

What started out as a mistake turned out to be serendipity. The students dove into the poems and presented thoughtful analyses. They considered which tool to use thoughtfully, thinking about what their chosen poems included in terms of diction, literary devices, imagery, symbols, and other elements. It was brilliant. And I think it may have helped me along the path to achieving my goal of convincing students to use these tools to analyze literature.

Thank you to #TeachLivingPoets, and thank you to generous AP teachers everywhere who share their ideas. In spite of me, I had some great classes today.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

How I Changed My Mind Once

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.

We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.

I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”

As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:

  1. Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
  2. Justify it in some way.
  3. Ignore or dismiss the new information.

We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.

A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.

In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.

Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.

Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).

I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.

I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.

“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.

Thank you to my friend Glenda for 1) reminding me to write about The Bean Trees, which has been much on my mind lately, and 2) to challenge educators to write about this issue.

Tim O’Brien: Story Truth and Happening Truth

My AP Lit students read Tim O’Brien’s story “How to Tell a True War Story” from the novel/collection The Things They Carried for today. I used the ideas O’Brien expresses in his story “Good Form”—that there is “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and “story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth”—as the center of my class’s discussion of the story we read.

I began class by showing students Eddie Adams’s iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photo Saigon Execution.

Saigon Execution, Eddie Adams, AP Photo

I asked them what they thought the story of this photo was. I gave them a few minutes to think (and write, if they wished). Then we had a class discussion. The students generally came to the same conclusions that many people do when they see this photo: that it depicts the execution of a civilian, that it represents the brutality of war.

The true story behind the photo is more complex. Really, read the article I linked. It’s quite an incredible story.

I used this introduction to set up O’Brien’s ideas regarding “story-truth” and “happening-truth,” and then we discussed O’Brien’s story, starting with the students’ own selections for lines they found particularly powerful. They had many lines to share, and we took the conversation where they wanted to go for a while. I shared a few of the notes I took at Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick’s session at NCTE last November, mainly his ideas regarding the obscenity of sending young men to war and condemning them for their use of language when a student noted a line that really stood out to him was Rat Kiley’s description of Curt Lemon’s sister as a “dumb cooze.” Why does that word work so much better than “bitch” or “woman,” which O’Brien says Rat Kiley did not say? I asked them. Because it’s truer, they said.

They totally got it. Tim O’Brien would have been proud.

We talked about Rat Kiley torturing the baby VC water buffalo. They argued it was somehow important that it was a baby. That it was VC. That it never made a sound. Somehow, if it made a sound, the story becomes something else. I read them “Good Form,” and we discussed the ideas he presented in that story.

I showed them this interview with O’Brien:

We came full circle at the end of class with the image Saigon Execution. So this image’s “happening-truth” is that the man holding the gun was a South Vietnamese general named Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. He executed the young man because he was a VC terrorist or guerrilla fighter, for lack of a better word, named Nguyễn Văn Lém who had participated in killing 34 people that day.

But the “story-truth” is that the man is a civilian caught up in the brutality of war.

And in a way, that story is also true. Maybe, because it’s the narrative that won the day, it’s “truer than happening-truth.”

As they were packing up, students expressed how much they enjoyed the story. “I liked it so much I read it to my parents,” one student said. Another said, “I could talk about this story for a week.”