Tag Archives: james baldwin

I, Too, Sing America

On this 4th of July, Independence Day in the United States, I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, Langston Hughes’s response to Walt Whitman.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Langston Hughes wrote other poems advocating for America to live up to its stated ideals. James Baldwin said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” He also said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”

Frederick Douglass wrote the powerful speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” NPR released a video of his descendants reading excerpts from the speech.

Rapper and Hamilton star Daveed Diggs performed this remix of Douglass’s speech that was created by artists W. Kamau Bell, Safia Elhillo, Idris Goodwin, Nate Marshall, Angel Nafis, Danez Smith, Pharoahe Monche, Carmonghne Felix, and Lauren A. Whitehead.

My husband and I watched Hamilton last night (like a lot of of the rest of the country), and I thought Aja Romano’s article at Vox offered a really nuanced critique of the musical. I definitely encourage you to read this article, whether you’re a fan of the musical or not.

Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant mind, the architect of some of the United States’ most glorious ideals; he wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third President of the United States. He also owned people, and DNA evidence is fairly conclusive on the fact that he fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved (and who was actually his sister-in-law, as his wife’s father was also her father), and held his own children in slavery until his death. He also wrote the following about Black people (you can read the whole text at this link; spellings are his original):

Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarfskin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? … Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

He goes on like that at length, but you get the gist. It’s extraordinarily racist. Clint Smith has an excellent poem “Letter to Five of the Presidents Who Owned Slaves While They Were in Office”:

I think many people have difficulty with an expression of patriotism that includes critique. I see a lot of “love it or leave it.” Why can’t you love it and want it to be better, too?

Update, 3:14 PM: My husband made me aware of Drew Gardner’s American Descendants project from Smithsonian Magazine. I found the picture of Shannon LaNier, the descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, really striking. He has his ancestor’s brow. You can see it. I would include the picture here, but I’m not sure if that’s allowable under copyright, so I urge you to check it out on the site I linked. They also have a really interesting video about how Shannon LaNier’s portrait was created and another featuring a conversation between descendants of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass.

 

Radical Love

love photo
Photo by duncan

My thoughts in this blog post are incomplete, as I am still trying to figure out how to articulate what I am feeling about teaching in our current climate. I finished reading both Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and James Baldwin’s  The Fire Next Time this week. Thinking about the implications for the future of education and for our country (and perhaps even the world) as a whole, I have realized that what we need in this political moment is radical love.

My AP Literature students just finished King Lear. I’m in the midst of reading papers. I actually assign them to write a “rumination paper.” I learned about these types of essays while at the Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers. It is part literary analysis and part personal narrative—an excellent way for students to connect with the literature they are reading. At least one of my students wrote about her admiration for Cordelia for refusing to flatter Lear in Act I, Scene 1, when she tells him she loves him “according to [her] bond, no more, no less” (1.1.102). The student sees Cordelia as speaking truth to power. She knows how her sisters feel about her father, and she is unable to lie as they do. She doesn’t see love as a business transaction. After Cordelia dies, Lear is inconsolable and can barely speak:

No, no, no life?
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou ’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never. (5.3.369-72)

Lear does not say “I loved her.” But that is what he means. In her essay, my student connected Cordelia’s response to her father’s request to flatter him with her own response to a friend who lashed out against NFL players “disrespecting our flag.” Speaking up has cost my student her friendship, but she had to speak up, just as Cordelia did. Cordelia wavers for a moment, wondering what she will say when her father calls upon her to speak, but when he does, she stands firm, even in the face of his unfair treatment. When he gives her a chance to “mend [her] speech a little,” she refuses to retract her words (1.1.103). However, by the end of the play, Lear realizes he has wronged Cordelia and asks for her forgiveness, which she gives freely. It is an act of radical love for Cordelia to deal honestly with her father. It is an act of radical love for my student to help her friend understand why NFL players are taking a knee.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire argues that

The oppressor is solidary with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love. (50)

Later in the text, Freire says, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue” (90). He adds that dialogue cannot exist without humility, faith, hope, and critical thinking (91-92). Freire says that “love is an act of courage, not of fear” and “love is commitment to others” (89).

Baldwin tells his nephew in The Fire Next Time that “To be loved, baby, hard, and at once, and forever” will “strengthen [him] against the loveless world” (7). However, the problem we encounter is that “When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believe as we did” (40).

I don’t understand a great deal of the hatred I have seen since the election. We have slipped into loving only those who believe as we do, and we have lost our way. If we are truly to understand one another, we have to engage in dialogue with them. And as Freire says, we cannot have dialogue without empathy and love.

This lack of love leads to oppression, as Freire and Baldwin describe in their books. However, oppression enslaves not just the oppressed but also the oppressor. As Baldwin says, “Whoever debases others is debasing himself” (83). Freire echoes this argument in claiming that in freeing themselves, the oppressed also “can free their oppressors” (56). Hating others is a way of imprisoning one’s self. One of the reasons we are seeing so much hatred and so much lack of understanding is that we as teachers we are still subscribing to what Freire describes as the “banking model” of education in which treat students like “‘containers,’ into ‘receptacles’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher” (72) rather than asking students to “investigate their thinking” (109) and teaching them to think for themselves and to listen to others, acknowledging that they may think differently, but that we can still engage in dialogue and try to understand each other. It’s perhaps the only way forward in our current moment.

Reading these two books back to back helped me understand why we are where we are—as educators, as citizens, as fellow human beings. Fear dominates our landscape. We are afraid of a group of people—any group you might consider the “other”—moving out of their “place.” As Freire says, “For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are ‘things.’ For the oppressors, there exists only one right: their right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival” (57-58). We feel threatened by so many things at this moment: immigrants, people of other races, people of other religions, people with other political views, people of other genders, people of other sexual orientations. We find it impossible to enter into dialogue with others because we find it impossible to love them. We are so preoccupied with hating others that we are unable to view them as fellow human beings. I’m convinced that almost all the violence we perpetrate against others, whether physical or mental, is the result of not being able to view others as fully human, like ourselves. When we do not empathize with others, it’s much easier to hurt them. And in dehumanizing others, we dehumanize ourselves.

I wonder sometimes if we are in the last gasp of clinging to our fears and hatred before we embrace others in dialogue. I hope so. I’m not sure I believe it is so. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m afraid that ice might be quite a lot more dangerous than fire. As educators, then, we need to embrace radical love. Baldwin says that “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within” (95). We need to accept others as they are and meet them where they are. We need to love ourselves as we are. We need to talk with others so that we can understand them. We need to listen to them. We need to be open to each other. We need to love each other.

Now is not a time for teachers to be fainthearted. I know I’m afraid. It’s a difficult time to be an educator. In particular, it’s a difficult time for any educator who is taking risks that our test-driven culture does not cultivate or encourage. However, if we are to teach the next generation how to save the world, we need to be radical. As Freire says,”The pedagogy of the oppressed… is a task for radicals” (39). And we need to practice radical love.