A Great Essay: “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”

220px-Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOCOne of my favorite essays is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 personal reflection “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.”

It’s rightly honored as a classic for many reasons, but one thing about it that doesn’t get enough attention is its humor. Hurston has so much confidence and clarity that she’s empowered to laugh at aspects of life that depress others. Parts of this serious social criticism essay are really quite funny.

That clarity and confidence in her outlook on life present a powerful challenge to the prevailing attitudes today, and offer a very positive role model for all of us. But I digress; this isn’t a political post.

As literature, her writing is just superb. Consider the eleventh paragraph in the essay (the linked version is numbered). It crafts an extended metaphor that viscerally builds a sense of dizzying, pulse-pounding abandon. The style perfectly matches the topic.

But then check out the contrast between that sprawling rave of a paragraph with the short punch of paragraph twelve. The stylistic difference there highlights the difference between her reaction to music and her friend’s reaction. It’s glorious.

There are plenty of other reasons to love this essay, besides those three. Just to give one more great thing about Hurston, though, is this: if you merely remove one little letter “r” from her last name, it becomes even better !  :)

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Reviewed: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

pushout_finalA review in 30 bullet points:

  • In 2005, I read David Shipler’s then-new book The Working Poor, where he used people’s narratives to build a case that the American economy was rigged against those who were poor. The beam in his eye, though, is that nearly all of his dozens of stories read like this: “So-and-so dropped out of high school, got pregnant a few times, and keeps getting arrested for drugs and shoplifting and now she can’t even get a dignified job that pays a living wage, people, it’s a nightmare for this poor victim George Bush is evil!” (His hilarious myopia was perfectly exposed here.)
  • Monique Morris uses the same storytelling strategy to make the case for systemic discrimination against black girls in American schools in Pushout, and she does it by making the exact same mistakes David Shipler made a decade ago. A typical example might look like this: “One student repeatedly cussed out the teacher in front of the class and got into fights and suddenly the random oppressors are giving her grief hey everybody this racist system is broken!
  • Of the many stories in this book, zero ever suggest that any trouble a student ever finds herself in is her own fault, not to any degree. Such a message of null responsibility seems dangerous to give to youth, and unethical for a scholar to promote.
  • Morris constantly alludes to “attitude” and “loudness” among black girls (why is such stereotyping OK for her?), and ascribes these traits to a conscious rebellion against a racist system. Again, this is never defended, nor is any alternative explanation ever explored much less refuted (an inexcusable lapse for a scholar!).
  • The girls’ stories are always treated as objectively factual, with nary a shred of skepticism from the author evident. Not to say that the girls are prevaricating–though why wouldn’t they try to look good for a sympathetic interviewer?–but who’s to say that their perceptions of their experiences are perfect? Why is no space ever given for others involved to explain any shortcomings in the girls’ memories? Or is only one side of the story valid? Only one view is privileged here? (Has Morris never seen Rashomon?)
  • A more accurate–and more honest–assessment of the girls in this book would include a more well-rounded picture of their lives. Do they have two parents at home? Did the adults in the family finish high school? Do their families work and obey the law? If the answers to the above are “no” for most of the girls portrayed in this book, that would seem significant–why hide it? If the answers are yes, that would strengthen Morris’s case, so why not advertise it? Her silence on the subject seems telling. (Or are the “no” answers also the result of racist oppression, in a conveniently permanent self-fulfilling loop of begging the question?)
  • Though Morris often throws out statistics like “X% of all suspended students are Black girls,” she never says how much of the total black female student population that percentage represents. A more useful number would be something like “X% of all black girls in America have been suspended.” A large number there would be indicative of a problem, but as it is, she’s looking at a very narrow area of the whole picture. Such obfuscated reporting is disingenuous.
  • The fact is, the vast majority of black girls are never suspended, never in trouble, and never drop out. The vast majority of black girls in America (and I say this after having taught school at several sites around a large and ethnically diverse city for 16 years) do not match the simplified description of them given by Morris. She derides “caricatures of Black femininity,” but constantly indulges in them herself.
  • Her failure to note all of this, much less deal with it, leads me to wonder why she focuses on such a tiny portion of the population; a minority of a minority, really. I suppose it’s because that’s the only way she can make her case for systemic discrimination.

  • Morris never examines, much less proves, her belief that there even is systemic discrimination. Perhaps she feels this book wasn’t the place for it. Perhaps it’s just received wisdom for her, a commonplace article of faith. At any rate, in light of the above point, there’s an enormous flaw in her theory that she needs to deal with: if there is, in fact, systemic discrimination against black girls in America’s schools, then it must be counted as a spectacular failure, for the vast majority of black girls escape the clutches of its machinations completely unscathed. This would seem to be true for all the other trendy brands of proposed “systemic discrimination” out there, also.
  • The author herself is a black woman. I’m curious what her experiences with this “racist” educational system were. Was she ever suspended? Was she ever in confrontational arguments with teachers? Was she “pushed out” by hostile school personnel? Or was she encouraged by the scores of teachers who live to advocate for minorities? Was she given extra attention and opportunities because she was black and female? And did she herself come from an intact, two-parent, law-abiding family? I wonder what the answers to these questions would say about her thesis.
  • I see from her bio in the book’s jacket that she has an advanced college degree and is married with two children. Looks like she could be a great mentor to these girls. I hope she shared with them how she became who she is today.

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“I’m Black”

On the first day of most classes I’ve ever taught, I ask kids to write some info about themselves on a note card.  I use this to help learn the names and character of the group I’m working with.  One of the last items I ask for is, “Tell me something unique or special about you.”

Many times I have gotten those cards back from kids where that item is answered in two words: “I’m black.”

No other ethnicity is ever used as an answer for that prompt.  Usually people just note that they play an instrument, or moved here from somewhere else, or love kittens, or something like that.

Does this tell us anything about the state of race in our society?

Why I’m Optimistic About the Future of Race Relations

As a high school teacher, I often use articles about provocative current events to stimulate student discussion and writing.  Last year, in one such journaling assignment, we read this piece about how Asian students are discriminated against in college admissions.

The article described how students are asked to check a box for their race on application forms, which may then be used to give them extra “points” or–especially if you’re Asian–be held against you.

I couldn’t have predicted the most common response: students wanted to know what box they should check, because of their multi-racial background.  Several students in each class said that they didn’t identify themselves as any major race at all.

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The Talk: All Races Version

Just before the weekend, John Derbyshire published an essay that can only be called racist.  His advice boils down to making snap judgments, based on fear and faulty assumptions, and avoiding black people in general.  It’s awful.  It got him fired from National Review.

In the last few days, it has become understandably controversial.  Many parodies are going up.  I just finished my own version.  It’s not a parody.  If anything, I hope it’s a clarion call for clear thought and open hearts.  I believe the two go together.  It’s a draft, but I think it’s useful.

Derbyshire’s essay was about what white parents supposedly tell their children about blacks.  Mine is meant to be ready-made for people of any race in America to use with all other races.  Derbyshire said that his essay is what he tells his kids.  This is what I tell mine.

 

(1) You’ve noticed by now that there are a lot of colors of people out there.  You’ve probably also noticed that many people place a lot of value in those colors, both their own and everybody else’s.  What you need to know is that people have a right to claim pride in their heritage, including you.  You don’t have to do anything special to acknowledge the feelings of others, but you do have a social obligation to be polite.  If someone else has intense feelings about their race, don’t disregard it.  If they have no feelings for their race or others’, don’t disregard that, either.  If someone has strong feelings about another race, though, their opinion probably isn’t worth listening to.

 

(2) Don’t be obnoxious and make your own feelings an issue for those around you to deal with, though.  It’s rude.

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What Was the Mark of the Curse in the Book of Mormon?

A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse.  I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed.  However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was.  I felt like I was missing something.  I went back to the text.

I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom.  Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.

The Controversial Verses

First, look at the relevant text.  There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2).  Here are the most controversial verses:

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Censoring Huck Finn Dilutes Power

The new, redacted version of Huckleberry Finn (replacing all instances of the n-word with “slave”) is still a major topic of discussion, which is impressive enough, and more so as this hasn’t exactly been a slow news week, with the Arizona shooting.  Clearly, this event has brought out a lot of passion and opinions.  Much has been said about honoring Mark Twain’s intended language, about the nature of reality in the period that Twain wanted to depict in all of its ugliness, and about revisionist history (and censorship) as narcissistic navel-gazing.  All of that’s true, so I won’t labor the points here, but I think I have two good ideas to add to the discussion.

1)  There’s already a high school in a predominantly black part of my town where Huck Finn has been under a de facto ban for years, as the staff is worried that its use of the n-word will inflame the community.  I hope the community’s maturity would surprise them, but their worry exists with good reason for, as our attorney general has noted, when it comes to race, we are a nation of cowards.  We’re afraid to discuss race for fear of being offensive.  If a group of white people is talking about race, and a black person is present, the mood changes, and everyone tiptoes on egg shells.  Whatever your race, you know this is true.  This isn’t because we’re all secretly hiding some bias, but because we’ve been trained to see racism everywhere, and we’re paranoid about our peers being suspicious.  Isn’t this sad? 

Censoring the n-word in Huck Finn will only make such problems worse, because it implies that there’s something wrong with the text, and if there’s something wrong with the text, it must be racism.  One of the problems with our society is its growing inability to see shades of gray, and this censorship will only reinforce the tendency to say that if something is frank and realistic about race, it must be racist.  The irony of this tragedy is that in Huck Finn (which is about racism, but not racist itself), the poor, oppressed black man is the ultimate hero (see below).  In a setting that Twain filled with white idiots, Jim is one of literature’s earliest black heroes. 

2)  Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?  Of course you do: Goldilocks goes exploring and finds a cottage in the woods.  She walks on in and, finding the place vacant, helps herself to their porridge and beds.  She falls asleep until the three bears come home and find her, whereupon she runs off.  The end. 

Ever realize just how pointless that story is?  That’s because that isn’t the story–like so many of our old fairy tales, our storybook version has been edited to protect us.  In the original, the bears come home and eat Goldilocks.  This ending carried a clear moral to it: straying too far from the established path into a wilderness, by yourself, is dangerous (also, breaking and entering is bad).  The edited ending not only “protects” us from violence, it renders the whole story meaningless. 

So also with a censored Huck FinnContinue reading

Unconstitutional and Racist

The Clark County School District has a little discussed program called Minority-to-Majority which, according to one of the few references to it in school district documents, is “a transfer request for a student to attend a school where the student will bring both the sending and receiving schools’ minority average closer to the district-wide minority average (m-to-m transfer).”

Even the name of this program, let alone the primary definition of it, is profoundly racist. 

This would seem to be a stark violation of the landmark 2007 Supreme Court decision where any kind of racially based busing, even for the purpose of integration, was struck down as unconstitutional.  In the memorable words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” 

The program was started in 1999, long before the Supreme Curt decision, but how is it still in practice?  Has nobody challenged it?  Is it secretive enough that not enough people are aware of it? 

Defenders might assert that Minority-to-Majority has good intentions–that integration fosters diversity and gives transfer students more opportunities, etc., etc.  However, my practical experience shows that this does not work. 

I live in the zone for one of the “minority” schools in this program, and I work at the “majority” school where many of those students go.  In fact, most of the teenagers in my neighborhood seem to go to the school where I work.  These transfer students, by and large, hardly seem to benefit from the environmental change, producing disproportionate failure rates and disciplinary infractions, as far as I can objectively tell. 

Whether or not the program is successful, though, the fact remains that it is undeniably illegal and racist.  Such bald facts should give even the most sympathetic social engineer pause.

Twelve Notes About Summer School

Today was the first day of the second session of summer school.  Twelve notes about this summer so far:

  • On the first day, I asked kids to write down a few hobbies and interesting things about themselves so I could learn their names better.  One boy put down for his first hobby, “smoking.”  A girl wrote one word: “lesbian.”
  • One boy put down “tattooing” as a hobby.  I can’t help but notice just how many kids have tattoos now.  They’re not small, either.  Maybe a quarter of the boys in summer school have large tattoos on their arms, and it’s long since become very common for teenage girls to have lumbar tattoos.  These aren’t amateur tats done by friends in their bedrooms, these are professional store-bought works.  Clearly, they’re getting these either with parental approval or money, or at least without opposition.  What are these parents thinking?  Permanently scarring the body of a teenager?  How do they think this will affect them in life, already setting the bar of acceptable behavior that low?  If they’re getting tattoos at 15, what do they think their children will they be doing at 25?  Volunteering to read to blind orphans at the hospital? 
  • On the first day of class, I noticed two kids who spent their down time between assignments doodling in their notebooks.  They drew mushrooms and one girl decorated a graffiti-styled “420,” a popular reference to marijuana smoking.  She also had a 504, which isn’t surprising–I’ve come to believe that much of America’s special education, therapy, and remediation for teens is just treating their drug use. 
  • When I asked students to write interesting things about themselves for first day introductions, several put down their ethnicity. Continue reading

Some Sad School Stories

There are forty students enrolled in my third hour class.  Thirty showed up today: one had been suspended, nine others were truant. 

For the previous two classes, their homework—as explained at the beginning and end of each class and posted on the board—was to get a copy of a novel from a list I’d given them, and merely to bring it in to class today.  The list included authors such as Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury (and, for that matter, J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer) among two dozen others, the only other requirement being that the book they choose be at least 250 pages long.  I told them that our school librarian had a copy of the list and could help them find a book.  Obviously, they had a few hundred books to choose from.

Out of the thirty students in class today, only ten had a book.  A few others probably had a book but left it at home.  However, the vast majority of the unprepared twenty clearly hadn’t put forth any effort at all, hadn’t bothered to write down or remember the assignment, and had lost or thrown away my handout list.  They didn’t even care enough to try to do it.  Keep in mind that the assignment was merely to have a copy of the book with them.  That was it. 

And only one-fourth of the kids in that class will get credit for it. 

Is this a remedial class?  Far from it.  Continue reading

Idea For Public Service Announcement

Camera opens on a bus interior from the front; passengers settle in as the bus prepares to start moving.  A subtitle shows, “1955.” 

A new shot gives a close up of a black woman sitting near the front, looking seriously but distractedly out the window.  A voice with a Southern accent off camera says, “You need to give up your seat and move to the back of the bus.”  She looks over and up at the man off camera and, after a brief pause, says, “No.”  Camera cuts to a side view of bus driver standing over her, grimacing menacingly.  Camera cuts back to the woman, who turns her head slowly now and looks resolutely ahead of her.  The bus driver’s voice is heard saying, “If you don’t move, I’ll call the police and have you arrested.”  The woman calmly says, “You do that.”  Camera cuts once again to the back of the bus, where several rows of black passengers look on; camera then shows a few quick close-ups of black passengers nodding in approval.

Fade out and back in: camera now shows the same scene as at the beginning, but this time the subtitle says, “Today.”  Several black boys are shown from behind walking down the aisle of the bus.  They have sagging pants, bandanas, etc.  The bus is mostly empty, but they swagger past every seat to the very last row, where they rough house and yell.  Camera pans to the side, showing an elderly black woman sitting near the front.  Her head sags a bit and she sadly, slowly shakes her head in disapproval. 

Scene moves to the outside of the bus, behind it, showing it pull out and drive away.  As it moves, a narrator reads a slogan that appears on the screen: “Don’t move back.  Keep moving forward.” 

[Note: I realize this is a drastic simplification of Rosa Parks’ protest, but it’s necessary for brevity.]