My Teacher Told Me Lies: An Essay on Why I Can’t With the Fourth of July

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Since I was very young, I’ve wondered a lot about this curious yet elusive concept: freedom. I wondered why my second grade teacher told me that the United States gained independence on July 4, 1776. I wondered why I believed her even though three of my older cousins, two uncles, and six neighbors from the block disappeared behind prison bars. As a Black man growing up unfree, incessantly in the face of unyielding trepidation, freedom has always felt like a cruel cage—one that mocks but ignores the irony that, in this lifetime, one in three Black men will find themselves lost at some stage in the tragic cycle of mass incarceration.

Fast forward years later: Although I’d forget my teacher’s name, I’d long remember her lesson. Fortunately, I’d also realize that the lesson she taught me was, in fact, a lie. I’d learn that her celebration of July 4th was also mockery but of more than just Black men. It mocks the tragic legacies of oppression that afflict unfree people like me, that still—to this day—afflict the many unfree people across this globe. I’d learn that her definition of “free,” as opposed to unfree, was based solely in a vocabulary to which I’ve never gained access, spoken in a language foreign even to the very people who first planted civilization in the fertile soil of this now morally barren land.

The freedom of which my teacher boasted wasn’t freedom at all, but a corruption of it borne of the stripes scarred to the backs and bloodied to the swollen hands of slaves. It was purchased for cheap through unconscionable acts of evil—theft and genocide, rape and murder. The legacy of this freedom would debase bodies and break apart homes. It would invent divisions based on artificial borders (geographical parentheses that bracket arbitrary and unnecessary “national” fault lines). What my teacher experienced as freedom, I have grown wise to question and have, thus, come know precisely for what it is: a stubborn system of oppression that promotes national and global suffering.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass would allude to this system of suffering, this biased bill of bondage, when he famously asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” For Douglass, the observance of “national independence” seemed much like a farce, but a peculiar kind of prank, one that compelled him to ask: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” Today, July 4, 2015, I firmly believe the the “us” to which Douglass refers must be extended:

What does the Fourth of July mean to a woman who could not vote or own property or even today earn a fair wage for a fair day’s work?

What does it mean to a citizen whose parents exist unfree because of immigration policies that outlaw their human right to travel, to migrate and search out a better life for themselves and their families?

What does it mean to citizens born free but who are made to live obsolete as vagabonds in freedom’s shadows, under the heinous yet cruel veil of slavery—which is emblematic of the vile and inglorious confederate flag?

What does it mean to the irrepressible and striving remnants of First Nation’s societies, people whose liberties, languages, and lives remain at risk and at question, whose livelihoods and lands were lost at the expense of Europe’s unjustified greed and egregious campaigns of global theft and terror?

What does it mean when bodies are constantly groped by hidden cameras, where, as a populace, we are made rigidly to persist under the law of perpetual surveillance?

What does it mean to people who in schools and workplaces, hospitals and courtrooms feel marginalized for speaking and embodying Anzaldua’s mestiza, for possessing non-conforming hips and hair textures, for having hoodie-covered heads and burka-framed eyes that refuse to blink or bow in the face of corrupt authorities?

What does the Fourth of July mean for people who have just gained the right to marry the individuals they love, who have just been granted a chance to care for the ones their hearts, too, keep?

There are millions, perhaps even billions, of people enlisted in the assembly of Douglass’s “us.” We are the globally dispossess, history’s 99.9% for whom freedom has failed, for whom the annual celebration of national independence does not apply.

Don’t get me wrong: The fourth of July is not just another day. It is a dark day that remains as important to me as it is to all of those who will pop firecrackers before this weekend is over. However, I will never observe the Fourth of July as a celebration, as a time to reflect on our national freedoms. (I ain’t free. And you ain’t free either.) Rather, I will use it as a timeless reminder of how far we’ve yet to travel, how long still we must press forward to reach freedom’s door.

How can I celebrate freedom or independence (or whatever one should call this peculiar thing) when across the globe this very nation endorses terror and denies the freedoms of so many? How can I celebrate a day dedicated to freedom’s decadence when U.S. territories, such Puerto Rico, and major U.S. cities, such as Detroit, strive lowly in their debts, when austerity becomes conscript to racist and classist impulses, and when the vitriol of providence beacons transformative sobriety.

In this sobriety, we must acknowledge that there are various and complex forms of slavery still alive and active in our world today: human trafficking and the global sex trade; the lost Nigerian girls (whom we must always remember) and young men like Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray (whom we shall never forget). The very existence of continued suffering, further, makes the Fourth of July a lie.

There is also the Snowden revelations, which has given us some insight into a global campaign of civil surveillance. With eyes surrounding us, and with technologies that merit to men the vision of gods, we must ask on this July 4th: Are we free? Are we truly independent? Will we ever be?

Are we free when random churches in states across the U.S. south fall victim to unknown flames and racist murderers worship alongside the people they would later execute?

Are we free when little girls and boys must hide behind the prison of locked school doors, or play dead under bloodied pews in fear of a madman’s gun and the zeal he finds to exercise against innocence his Second Amendment Right—the right to kill even babies and unarmed civilians.

Are we free when, on city streets, rings of gunshots replace the productive noise of work, when jobs whisk away from places where people have no escape?

Are we free when we care more about convenience stores than the convenience of life?

And so Douglass asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” Perhaps, we might ask—in the spirit of Douglass: What to the so-called free person is the Fourth of July when other persons—women, men, and children—are enslaved, broken between borders, and subsumed by the enmities of never-ending conquests?

Paulo Freire wrote:

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind’s central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality.1

The Fourth of July must force us to address questions of Freire’s concept of humanization. It must compel us to finally tell the truth and, in so doing, recognize the various states of incompletion (i.e., dehumanization) in which we live. Incompletion is a corruption of independence, just as dehumanization is the consequence of a dependence irrevocably set in the shades of bondage. Here, as long as one is ensnared, we are all trapped. For if one is slave, then we are all enslaved—prisoners to slavery’s looming threat.

In this light, we must know, and we must teach, that the Fourth of July cannot be a day of celebration as long as there is at least one left to lament the unscalable obstacles of oppression that distances so many from achieving a fuller, truer and more complete humanity.

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1. Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Penguin Books, p. 25.

David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

What Would Jesus Do? On Faith and Marriage Equality

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I am a Christian. Do you know what that means? But before you judge me, know that I fully support marriage equality.

When I first declared my support for marriage equality, other “Christians” professing the Faith looked at me with sudden scorn, a visceral kind of hatred concealed in judgment and in other cloaked sentiments not worthy of discussion.

Over the past few days, I have been accused of apostasy, of promoting/endorsing sin, of being a fraud, and so on. I have been called cruel-and-unusual names and condemned by so-called “friends” and by others who consider themselves faithful. And yet I’m not fazed because Jesus foretold of these events. “As they persecuted Me,” He warned, “will they also persecute you.”

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But today’s blog post isn’t personal. It’s about resurrecting the spark now fallen, raising a light in the darkened skies; it’s about promoting a vision of faith based on Love.

Sometimes people with good intentions, very good intentions actually, approach me. They are stargazers and light-seekers, friends and family members and even strangers who genuinely pursue relief from splintered eyes, clarity from the murky darkness of confusion. They want to see as I see, or at least they want to know why and how I see as I do.

Ever since June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court decided marriage equality would be the law of the land, these light-seekers, these stargazers have questioned. One genuinely wanted to know why I supported marriage equality. She wrote:

I read your article “in defense of love.”  While we all have a right to choose whom we will serve, I’m curious as to how you came to your position given the fact that you love God.  

Putting feelings aside, did you use the Bible in any of your research for this article? If so, what did you find? If not, why didn’t you?

An inquiring mind just wants to understand.

I haven’t responded to her until now. It has taken me a few days to digest her question I guess because my perspectives on politics and faith are personal. However I do think that I merit some responsibility should my explanation serve to enlighten—for one of the chief miracles of Christ was restoring sight to the blind. Having received deliverance of the plank from my eye, I hope my explanation and Biblical defense of marriage equality sheds spiritual light on some.

The Darkness in Light

My faith does, in fact, inform my politics. Indeed, in my decision to fully support marriage equality, the lamp of my faith has guided me. Christianity and many of the other major faiths (e.g., Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Atheism) center values of peace abiding through hope. However, the main premise of Christianity adds to hope, Love.

Love is the final yet enduring element, eternal and imperishable, giving life to the Faith. It is the totality of the Law and all other just laws. It keeps the most holy sacraments of the Faith untraceable, resolved and sustained undeniable.

There is nothing that a person can do to earn this Love. It is given freely, extended by Grace as grace to us. We don’t earn it. We are all sinners, but God grants it to us anyway.

However, those blinded by fictions of faith—the practices that belie Love—believe that they have purchased heaven, that in some meritocratic way, they can own bliss—having rights to include and exclude as by lottery, but in accordance only with the stubborn stirrings of ethnocentrism and hegemonic conceit. They believe that they can negotiate with God—haggle wages not promised to them while denying others God’s enduring generosities.

I believe in marriage equality because those who oppose it also oppose light and yet cling to darkness.

The Dead Word

The clingers of darkness, lost in the seductive obscurity of the night, abide by a doctrine of darkness, and in the spirit of hate-filled intolerance, they persist. These so-called believers, in their exaggerated zeal and with their pompous authority, work as extremists themselves, exalting their domain above righteousness to our collective peril. Their mission is to be right instead of getting it right. They become the worst kinds of believers—fundamentalists who are more-or-less pimps of faith overly eager to use the bondage of people’s devotion to God to control, manipulate, divide and impart hatred.

These are instructed by doctrines of darkness, and their word is dead. Their dead word is, also, often dated. Regrettably, it romanticizes a bygone era, and postures itself along some fixed continuum of history locked in the bronze age—where women and men portray puppets on a stage of strings, outfitted in the drag of gods pretending to be kings.

Moreover, attending faith gatherings (in churches, mosques, and temples) in this historical occult is like moving in and out of a dream or a nightmare (rarely is there a difference). In this space, people masquerade as true believers but through a carnival of medieval compliance lived with an enthusiasm and unrelenting recital of an overly religious Renaissance festival. To practice modern faith, in so many situations, requires this slip in time, a digression to a place where people are actualized uneven—some as peasantry and others as nobility. It is in this disturbing liturgy of people equally born of the common pains, that we, at the whims of power and control, are given titles as inhumane as master and slave. The dead word’s fixation on this oppressive praxis is both sad and laughable.

Perhaps worst is the dead word’s reliance on metaphors of war and devastation. That is, the dead word abides by linguistic systems of pillaging and lexicons of oppression. Its meanings survive through a factory of fears, each foreshadowing mass devastation and destruction, each appealing to perilous pathologies made real by our darkest dreams and nightmares (rarely is there a difference).

The faith of the dead word, too, is lifeless because it is based on contracts of hate, whose only evidence of vigor abounds in clusterings of non-believers (or so-called “saints”) who dine on the promises of scorched flesh. (One would never believe how many so-called Christians demand hell stones to rain from heaven as vengeance for the Supreme Courts marriage equality decision.) Because Love does not discriminate, the “saints” have called on their gods to kill to justify their cause. And this sacrifice of flesh is idolatry, a high sin in most modern faiths.

I believe in marriage equality because the doctrinal principles that oppose it are dead, not living.

The Living Word

The faith that led me to support marriage equality is alive. It survives through the Living Word, and the Living Word, like other living documents that govern and give freedom (i.e., the Constitution of the United States), must be understood in context and in its complexity, but also in the situations of real people. In this sense, the Living Word assumes a dynamic quality, possessing the resplendent prosperities of a flexibility fitted to the changing times and the unpredictable eddies that flow freely from human existence.

Insomuch as it retains relevance today, the Living Word moves and abounds with the people and culture, with love and in the pursuit of life. For this reason, true and lasting faiths boast a kind of resilience, capable of adapting to meet the ever-evolving needs and circumstances of people.

The Living Word doesn’t relinquish the doctrinal rites—i.e., the commandments of God. Rather, it interprets and refashions them in keeping with the greater designs of God. Love God, and in doing so, love others as you love yourself.

These commandments are summed up by Jesus, who said, “I have come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.” Moreover, Paul continues, giving testament of Jesus: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Paul maintains in The Book of Romans that Love, as in Christ, “is the fulfillment of the law.”

So why am I now focusing on the Law–or what can be otherwise understood as the legislated word? The legislated word, if lacking life, is also the dead word. Then, it has little authority over true believers, for such a law is perishable. For example, it was once common (and lawful) for a man to marry a sister, for a man of wealth to take many wives (and perhaps even a few concubines). It has been common (though corruptible) in the histories of humanity for the young to be betrothed to the old, for masters to make of servants vessels of sex. The examples of historical/Biblical revision are many.

I believe in marriage equality because my faith is not static, stuck in the past, nor immutable, captive to inevitability.

The Christian Case for Marriage Equality

On the question of marriage equality, Christianity occupies a peculiar space. In the beginning, it fought an exclusive cult(ure) to include the excluded. And like those who persecute us now for advocating marriage equality, followers of that cult(ure), who lived the dead word, persecuted Jesus for resisting their embrace of intolerance. And so they tried to kill Him. They attempted to bury Him but didn’t know He was seed.

The Bible speaks of these, the Pharisees and the scribes who advanced to kill Christ. The point I’m trying to make is that the persecutors of Christ are still with us, for the persecutors of Christ are little different than those who persecute us today for advocating marriage equality. Thus, having a form of the faith, they are faithless–hypocrites who, in the words of Christ, are merely “a brood of vipers.”

This brood claims to know the mind of God, though filled with conceit and faithless arrogance. When they pray they boast, while also accusing us—we who pray more sincerely—of crimes that they themselves have conjured, of which they themselves are not cured.

Their accusations are pitiful but familiar: “How could You sit with sinners?” they ask while they themselves sit in sin. They falsely declare that we (and our Christ) are devils and deceivers because we refuse the tainted cup from which they drink.

They did not know Him, and they do not know us though they profess Him and condemn us. Yet in their pitiful panics and boastful feats (both equally evil), they often judge, and without love, they have judged too harshly. In so doing, they harm both Him and His people—those of us He loves and sits with, heals and extends unearned Grace, tender Mercies, and the forgiveness of sins.

One can see the darkness in these so-called Christians now given the light that marriage equality has shed. Living in darkness, they do not abide by the Living Word. Hence, they can only oppose marriage equality because they maintain a darkness obscured to the Love that wills it.

Toward a New Light

Indeed, in darkness, we are all victims. For instance, I have a friend who has a son who was born gay. For most of his life, she sequestered him in a secret kind of shame. Her “faith,” which endures in darkness, for years has led her to loathe her son. However, his only fault has been not fitting the fictions of her faith. Of course, she would never admit that her beliefs could be wrong. Instead, she imposes on her son undue blame for being the son whom she bore.

The dead word that stifles relationships like my friend and her son’s and makes rational its own deceits has given us a history of religious persecutions—the Inquisitions and crusades, the jihads and Bibighar massacre, to name a few. The dead word has long waged war against good sense—demanded a stilted solar system that held earth at its center instead of the sun, a patriarchy that maintains a woman’s right to be seen yet unheard. History has proven this dead word wrong time and again.

The Living Word, however, endures because it evolves. In its evolution, it moves humanity forward and closer to God. In so doing, it allows each of us to love a little more and, with that, a little better. It frees us from the tangles of unnecessary religious burdens.

The Living Word—which gives me defense in supporting marriage equality—appreciates marriage, a union of Love affirmed by God and contracted by His love. The marriage bed is undefiled; thus, the covenant of marriage, gay or straight or otherwise, promises a treaty of Life against the thousand daily deaths dealt by loneliness and the anguish of a life lived uncommitted.

If two people love each other, then let them marry, the Bible says. For what God has joined together let no man or woman put asunder.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Not Just Us? Using Classrooms to Get (White) People to Talk about Race

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If a Black body falls in the streets of Baltimore (or Ferguson or Cleveland or Columbia, SC) and no person of color hears it, will a White person (not named Rachel Dolezal) make a sound?

As the country mourns under the shadow of recent racial strife, many rights leaders and activists are, once again, calling for a series of “courageous conversations,” conversations about race that some researchers suggest White people don’t want to have and don’t know how to have.

For White Americans, race is more than just a touchy topic; its one that can often elicit an array of sentiments: shame and anger, guilt and grief, blame and confusion. However, the ongoing tensions surrounding race in this country, which have been amplified by the murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, The Emanuel 9, and so many others, should inspire a more open conversation on race. But how do we have it?

Why White People Don’t Talk About Race

Don’t get me wrong: There are many conversations about race and the various forms of racism happening throughout the United States. Most of them, however, are not happening among White people.

Barnabas Piper, author of “Why White People Don’t Like to Talk about Race,” suggests that White silence on the topic is a privilege that stems from having grown up mostly “unaffected by” or “unaware of” the racial divide. For Piper, this privilege does not always redound to bigotry. Rather it reflects the extent to which White people are “unexposed to minority cultures (not just Black, but all non-White cultures) and unaware of the complexities, difficulties, and hurts there.”

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, associate professor of critical multicultural and social justice education at Westfield State University, adds that when White people talk about race, they “implode.” Much of this subsidence, DiAngelo explains, derives from Whites being socialized as privileged, which, in turn, renders them “racially illiterate.” Put another way, White people don’t resist conversations about race, per se; they hold the privilege to opt-out because issues of race and racism rarely hamper their qualities of life.

As such, critical race scholars such as Julie A. Helling, an associate professor and director of the Law and Diversity program at Western Washington University, believe that it is unlikely that courageous conversations about race will occur in White homes and White homogeneous settings without public pressure and public space. And though Helling maintains, “We need to talk about the effects of racism in this country, the rac-ing of people in general, and affirm the positive and plentiful contributions of all cultures to this country,” questions remain as to where these important conversations should take place?

Advancing Conversations of Race in Classrooms

In March 2015, Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Howard Schultz made national news when he offered his coffee chain as a site for initiating a critical dialogue on race in the U.S., and a firestorm ensued. Aptly called “The Race Together” campaign, Starbucks employees (baristas) were given the option of writing “Race Together” on customers’ coffee cups to help start the dialogue. While some people appreciated the company’s effort, many others objected, arguing that Starbucks was the wrong venue to host race conversation and that its baristas were unqualified to lead the national discussion on race.

Some critics of “The Race Together” campaign suggested that classrooms, as opposed to Starbucks, were more appropriate (and safer) venues to discuss race. In a new book Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, H. Richard Milner, director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that the classroom serves as a tool for educators who want to talk about race. To his credit, Milner offers comprehensive, evidence-based approaches and practical classroom tips for introducing race dialogues into classrooms, though he warns “such conversations require planning and administrative support.”

In spite of efforts such as Milner’s, there remain skeptics who affirm that classroom time should be devoted to learning core academic skills, such as learning how to read, write, and calculate. However, Mercer Hall and Gina Sipley point out, race is a construct of social status and identity, critical to the development of all American youth. They maintain that as scenes of racialized violence chase our eyes and whispers of hate propaganda haunt our ears, we can no longer pretend that young people are immune to the effects of race because racial stressors exist in the minds and daily experiences of students. Accordingly, they argue, we would be remiss to pretend that student learning is not affected by their social and emotional states. Therefore, teaching tolerance, as Helling has maintained, is perhaps more important than teaching traditional subjects, whereas conversations of “race need [sic] to exist more, not less in classrooms.”

Talking Race in Classrooms . . . We Do We Go From Here?

Talking race in classrooms is about more than issues of black and white. It is about developing and nurturing better human beings. And, while race dialogues in classrooms might give White people an important space to engage in deep deliberations about racial bias in the U.S., the discussion itself will give all people a chance to inhabit a greater humanity.

In her 1992 article published in the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about how all students can benefit from exploring race and that teachers should provide “a forum where this discussion can take place safely over . . . a time period that allows personal and group development to unfold.” In keeping with Tatum’s call, organizations such as Teaching Tolerance have created real models to help teachers advance conversations on race in their classrooms. One example they offer is a unit for teaching Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The unit begins by asking, what is needed to participate in an open and honest conversation about race. What ensues is pedagogical magic.

Of course, there are other resources available, such as Jane Bolgatz’s book Talking Race in the Classroom, which demonstrates ways in which “good conversations are not simply a matter of speaking and listening.” According to Bolgatz, “one must view racial issues through a critical lens that attends to current and institutional aspects of racism” in ways that help students understand that various forms of racism have developed historically and can be contested.

Researchers from the University of Michigan offer a dialogic model for engaging courageous conversations about race. Their Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) is “a social justice education program” that “blends theory and experiential learning to facilitate students’ learning about social group identity, social inequity, and intergroup relations.” According to the group’s website, IGR offers youth dialogues on race and ethnicity as a way of fostering a more inclusive world.

While many models exist, there is no one single approach for discussing race. However, creating space in classrooms for such discussions do help. Regardless of race or ethnicity, we know, too, that discussing race and racism takes courage. “Courage,” as Winston Churchill said, “is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” And there may be no better to place today in which to enact courage than classrooms.

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David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

#Ask Rachel: What does it really mean to “act” Black?

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The day Rachel Dolezal, the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, decided to play loose with her own race, the day she complained about a “hate crime” that would later expose her as a liar, the day she took the minstrel show off the backstages of history, the day she reasoned that being Black was just another privilege of being White, the day she checked the Black box and stained her skin to matched the dark dye she spilled on the truth, on the day she declared that she was Black (not African American–she hates that term), Rachel Dolezal murdered any attempt that she might make to find solidarity with and in the Black community. She–no better than vigilantes or wayward cops, than hooded mobs and the overseer culture that produced them-lynched another Black body.

The type of lynching Rachel Dolezal performed deals less with physical violence than with the cosmetic apparatus of erasure. It is the same motive force operative in gentrification and other physical acts of removal, where folks of privilege invade and otherwise overtake spaces not belonging to them. In Dolezal’s case, the stolen space is the Black body–a body that is sun-bit though not hers, that bears scars of struggle from which history has thus far protected Dolezal.

Acting Black is not the same as being Black. Instead, it is a way of skimming the surface of Blackness, merely performing flesh without having to reconcile the bruises that lie beneath it. Indeed, it is a type of erasure, and what follows from this act of erasing can only be viewed as twisted and sick.

We have seen this kind of erasure play out over and again in history. In the heartbreaking case of First Nations’ people, not only were lands stolen, bodies also fell subject to this cruel carnival of theft. Hollywood, for example, has given us a history of White actors playing indigenous, and beyond the movie screen exists a dark and regrettable tradition of Whites claiming First Nations status.

Beneath these examples is a sordid tale of people who subjugate, occupy, and otherwise delete other people from history and then reinvent themselves in their place. The final injury of erasure, of fatal cultural appropriation, is viler than the first.

Some would find my characterization of Dolezal’s Black pose as extreme or harsh, considering instead Dolezal as a kind of cultural opportunists, someone benefitting from being Black. In this light, the story of Mindy Kaling’s brother, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, comes to mind. Ingam, who is the son of Indian immigrants, posed Black to take advantage of affirmative action policies to gain admittance into medical school.

In so doing, Chokal-Ingam sought to dramatized a silent narrative in American mainstream consciousness, that of “Black privilege.” Black privilege is the belief that Black Americans gain social advantages through policies such as affirmative action. Individuals like Chokal-Ingam, whose deep belief in Black privilege led him to pose as a Black medical school applicant named Jo-Jo, maintain that being Black can play a significant and positive role in the social advancement of otherwise unexceptional non-Blacks who might pass as Black.

However, there is an irretrievable flaw in the logic of “Black privilege.” Programs such as affirmative action, in fact, benefit non-Blacks as much as, if not more (especially in the case of White women), than they do Blacks. Another problem with the logic of Black privilege is the lofty, but statistically unsubstantiated, idea that Blacks are privileged. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

Black mortality rates around the globe are among the world’s highest. Unemployment, mass incarceration, poverty, employment and educational discrimination, racial profiling, and so on (in what feels like a never-ending list of constraints) suggest that, more likely than not, Blacks sit on the side opposite privilege. That is, in many (if not in most) indicators associated with social success, Blacks occupy the bottom. And among indicators associated with social failure, Blacks tend to sit atop. This isn’t what privilege looks like.

Programs such as affirmative actions are crumbs swept off the main table, given to the historically disfranchised, like pig intestines once were tossed to slaves to grovel over. So what Dolezal has done–in posturing herself as a Black woman to gain influence and perhaps even a job–can be compared to a privileged person who, though having access to the main table and the hearty course it affords, squats over and steals the crumbs (and even the chit’lins) from the less fortunate.

Let me put this in perspective: Dolezal’s story is little different than the story of Alicia Esteve Head, a Spanish woman operating under the alias Tania Head. Head claimed to be a survivor of the World Trade Center September 11 attacks and joined the support group World Trade Center Survivors’ Network. She later became a spokesperson and president of the group and was regularly mentioned in media reports of the attacks.

In 2007, the world learned that Head’s story was fabricated. She was not in the towers at the time of the September 11 attacks but had traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 2003. Once discovered, Head disappeared, only to resurface in 2010 at the White Plains, NY memorial. This time, she posed as Ester DiNardo, a supposed victim’s mother. Survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks who knew Head personally speak of the incredible pain and sense of betrayal they felt when they learned Head was in imposter.

While the comparison might seem a reach to some, the sentiments of survivors and family members of those who perished in the September 11 attacks help to put the Dolezal scandal in perspective. Black Americans are, themselves, survivors of historic and continuing trauma. Therefore, the incredible pain and sense of betrayal stemming from Dolezal’s decision to act Black cannot be understated.

Even still, many people remain baffled over the immediate and deeply personal responses to Dolezal’s betrayal of both her race and mine. They wonder, what’s the big deal? If Dolezal wants to pose as Black, then let her. They reason that we live in a post-racial world where the so-called exaggeration of race as a static reality lends itself less to new and fluid imaginings than to the old, stale realities of race. There are some who even take this logic to the extreme, suggesting that Dolezal has perhaps set us on a course for new racializations–where we are not only post-racial but magically transracial, whatever that means.

Dolezal, and perhaps her defenders, will never fully get that being Black means having to carry the full weight of a history that daily scars you, pins you in hard-to-beat corners, and presses against your unyielding back the immensity of inequity. She’ll never understand that being Black means having to bandage and manage a thousand little cuts endured each day for simply being Black. She’ll never understand how being Black means convincing yourself (and too often the rest of the world) that you are good enough (i.e., Black lives matter) because you live in a world that constantly tells and actively teaches you the opposite.

Unlike acting Black, being Black means endurance. It means enduring the tragedies of loss–of sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, mothers and fathers and friends, who are sometimes literally and often prematurely snatched from your life. It means enduring the long journey to freedom, which you have heard about and, thus, still believe, though this place is mystical, set on the other side of some ecclesiastical horizon that you cannot always see.

It means being forced to live small in a big but stolen land, rich from the wealth of your people’s sweat and blood–their free but involuntary labor. It means being restricted to laws you never had a chance to make–laws that where, in fact, never made for you or to benefit you but to protect others from you while elevating them above you. It means dealing with the feelings of being trapped, the unsettling helplessness that sits violently in the soul after being violated, ripped off, and robbed.

Dolezal must know she isn’t Black. According to her adopted brother, “She puts dark makeup on her face and says she Black. . . . It’s basically blackface.” Hence, seeing Dolezal in blackface, knowing the painful history behind her familiar act, is like witnessing again the theft of Black culture. It’s like being forced to believe the story I was told as a child that the people who erected the pyramids at Giza were White. It’s like being forced to believe that Black musical art forms such as jazz and rock roll (and perhaps soon even hip hop) were invented and pioneered by Whites.

It’s what Black musicians prior to the 1970s must have felt when they wrote songs for Black artists only to hear them performed by others, or when they released albums only to see White faces glossing their album covers. It’s what Kendrick Lamar must have felt when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won the 2014 Grammy for Best Rap Album. It’s what Azealia Banks must have felt when she appeared on NYC’s Hot 97 and blasted Iggy Azalea for cultural appropriation (did she really “do dat”). It’s what so many of us feel when we know that some things just aren’t right, yet they happen anyway–and usually without consequence.

What feels most reprehensible about Dolezal’s act is that she has been close up; she’s been in my kitchen, so to speak. She’s had a proximity to Black struggles that most Whites will never have. This proximity must have given her some deep sense of our struggles. She attended Howard University (an HBCU) and presides over the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She teaches The Black Woman’s Struggle, African and African American Art History, African History, and African American Culture, and Intro to Africana Studies as a part-time instructor at Eastern Washington University. She must have become intimately familiar with the history of violations against Black bodies. She must have understood the damage that Whites posing as Black does to our people. She must have witnessed first hand the relentless pain of our people in its rawest and realest forms. She must have known.

Her actions–as deliberate as they may or may not have been–feel even more egregious in this light. Her being close to Black people, to the Black community, must have shown her that her actions were not okay but potentially harmful. In knowing us, one must ask, did she plan to hurt us? And if she did, how sad and how utterly sadistic was her acting Black.

Having spent considerable time in the Black community, she would also have known how forgiving we are. While being Black entails a kind of suffering, it also involves a permission to rise (i.e., a gift–or curse–to forgive). While it may take a few days or a few weeks or even a few years, we will forgive her.

So let’s pull back our stones so that she might go away . . . and act Black no more.
____________________________
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also the incoming Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

Making Black Lives Matter in Classrooms: The Power of Teachers to Change the World

Race, Rights, and Responsibility Image

On Saturday, May 16, 2015, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools held a conference titled, Race, Rights, and Responsibility: What Educators Can Do to Help Our Students Think Critically about Protest, Law Enforcement, and Civil Liberty.

This conference was not for everyone. And while it was a conference for teachers presented by teachers, it was designed mainly for teachers who care deeply about racial justice and tenets of teaching for change. It was for those teachers struggling to find pragmatic classroom solutions that might interrupt dangerous patterns of policing that brutalize Black and Brown bodies and terrorize communities of color.

As we’ve come to realize in recent months, police overreach–even to the point of murder–is not an isolated incident. It is not coincidental. It happens daily in settings such as New York and Baltimore, where the students we teach are striving and struggling to make sense of the contradictions of democracy–the gross juxtaposition of ironies: freedom for some tied to the slavery of others, a light of hope set against the darkness of despair, a national dream that rests firmly upon a social nightmare. The questions are intrepid but real. Yet real solutions and spaces to engage in important thinking to overcome structural injustices in society are diffuse and lacking.

At one level we are witnessing what Cornell West calls “a democratic awakening,” the unique union of rights groups with poor and vulnerable people who are asking the right kinds of questions and demanding immediate answers. Still at another level, too many of us are still fast asleep, entranced (and sometimes deeply hypnotized) by the symbolism of the post-racial mythologies that typify the Age of Obama. It is my sincere belief that teachers will lead the democratic awakening because we can arouse to action the youthful but energetic masses lulled to complacency by the seductive and sedating rhetorics of post-racialism.

While it celebrates its first Black president, our nation also continues its disregard for Black lives and Black life. The massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black and Brown bodies; the de facto legalization of murder against the Children of the Rainbow; chronic and mass un(der)employment; devastated, wasted, and occupied communities; heightened state surveillance; and the like are but a few of the looming examples of our current state of inequities. For Black lives to matter, for Black life to endure, these inequities must be dismantled. To dismantle them, we need a revolution as active and as committed as the systems that sustain human suffering and psychologies that maintain a deeply entrench yet murderous racial caste.

In this time of political slumber, we can’t afford to sleep. Indeed certain things in our world endure. Every 28 hours, a bird flies free of a lonely nest. A day, depending on the season, gets longer or shorter. Every 28 hours a mother kindles a novel wish for her vibrant, young child. Every 28 hours, a fresh day is beginning for some, but not for all. Every 28 hours, there is a new Freddie Gray . . .

. . . Michael Brown

. . . Renisha McBride

. . . Rakia Boyd

. . . Eric Garner

. . . Remarly Graham

. . . Amadou Diallo

. . . James Powell

. . . Edmund Perry

. . . Oscar Grant

. . . Sean Bell

. . . Yvette Smith

. . . Victor Steen

. . . Steven Rodriguez

. . . Aiyana Jones

. . . Carlos Alcis

. . . Christopher Kissane

. . . Deion Fludd

. . . Justin Slipp

. . . Duane Brown

. . . Akai Gurly

. . . Walter Scott

. . . Trayvon Martin

. . . Etc.

The use of deadly force has become so standard in the U.S. that every 28 hours an unarmed Black person is shot by a police officer or vigilante acting as a proxy for the State. So I list the names, understanding that this list could be much longer. But only this ceremony–the painful yet powerful procession of pronunciations–can move us to understand and finally act.

Some say this moment is about Black lives, but mostly it’s about Black death–not some medieval plague caused by filth and rats, but a composite of suffering and plight faced by darker-skinned human beings whose true “crime” is being born darker skinned. As a result, we are left to witness the folly of justice made more perverse by a tragic orgy of haunting and desperate scenes–an image we’ve come to know too well over recent years of Black men and boys dying. Our death is not always literal, but nonetheless it’s painful and tragic. Before the physical death there is the fatal violence that hinders our dreams, the brutal slayings of hope and inspiration that too characteristically typify our experiences in school.

For many Black males–myself included–classrooms bury potential, and good-intentioned teachers evict from the pliable imagination of young people a limitless real estate of fluid possibilities. It is in this reality that we define Black males as failing, and we use national statistics to scandalize this myth. We have failed them. To offer hope, human rights workers are now demanding changes in public policy–policing reform, as it were. However, this moment demands something greater than policy resolutions. By changing laws, we would find ourselves lucky to somehow change people’s behaviors. We need heart and mind solutions; we need to change how people think and feel. For that we turn to education. We turn to educators.

Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers. Classrooms are never neutral sites. They are contested spaces, where the imbrications of competing interests wrestle daily for ethical real estate. Just as they can harm, classrooms can heal. In this light, classrooms matter. Healing and humanizing classrooms matter most. They have the power to move our assumptions away from the stale and negative deficit assumptions that strip away Black humanity and toward those complex narratives of people that build humanity and nurture sensitivities toward that humanity in ways that abolish pre-existing internal and external contracts of bigotry and violence. In such spaces, teaching takes on a new meaning. Here, teaching means teaching the mind as well as the heart. It means teaching for justice, which is always and only about teaching (to) love.

On May 16, 2015, close to 500 educators assembled as Justice’s (or, better put, Love’s) soldiers. This assembly of transformative intellectuals, activists, thought-leaders, human-rights workers, and passionate individuals came committed to addressing key issues at the heart of race, education, and policing. The conference was empowering, as it encouraged our assembly to teach our truth with more certainty and candor, a grander conviction and clarity, with greater credibility and courage.

About 500 hundred educators throughout New York City have gone back to their classrooms to teach change. One of those teachers emailed me today, saying: “I did a Black Lives Matter lesson with my students. They get it now.” In the end, isn’t that what it’s really about: Getting it! In a world were so many people continue to not get it, we would be remiss to ignore the power of classrooms and teachers to change the world.

____________________________

1. A version of this blog post appeared on The Huffington Post on May 28, 2015: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-e-kirkland/making-black-lives-matter_b_7453122.html

SUMMER OF 2014

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This poem is a response to the fatal and tragic circumstances surrounding the malicious murders of several Black males in the summer of 2014 (and prior). It is eulogy to innocence loss, premature departures, and the disappearance of hope, which seems suddenly obscured by a dark veil of nihilism blanketing this “time past race.”   

* * *

The night was long—

Black dreams were missing like Black bodies buried beneath mahogany mud— stretched from Mississippi to Mandingo sands.

Dark souls descended upon hot streets blazoned by ghetto flames,

Burning upon the breast of fiery dark places,

And streams of red blood crept six feet beneath the hard surface of Ghetto Earth.

The night that challenges the light of the Sun,

the darkness of the night stalked the Son—

At once closing his eyes.

He is now blind to his Blackness,

While hues of crimson Blues encroach upon his dark skin.

The night, the shadow of his Blackness, appears so with emptiness—

Eclipsed stars, the fallen dreams in his skies,

Give way to a broken moon—which is his crescent heart.

Then, I felt his mother’s tears, drenched upon Black garments that draped her supple, sable lap.

Prevailing in audacious echoes were sorrow songs,which provoked shrieks of wild thunder beneath the Black veil that hid her eyes.

We forgot about her because she was hidden behind the shade of our darkness.

She is our tomorrow—the sparrow and her song

which bear the light of morning, piercing the darkness of today

like the full moon and moonlight that leads to a new day.

Weeping, though it endures for a night,

Joy sits at the edge of dawn—

A new day forthcoming, which says to us . . .

The Son will arise

once more.

                                                                       —By David E. Kirkland

* * *

  1. Please check out the following links for more information about the murders of unarmed Black males in the summer of 2014 and the chronic, historic violence aimed at them in recent years:

If We Must Die: An Open Eulogy for Trayvon (and for Justice)

Trayvon-Martin-2

* * *

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay*

For four hundreds years, across the deep straits of wading waters, through the interrupted tides of justice, far from the humble shores of equity, in the base pits of subjugation, we have endured. In our endurance, we have stood still—and even today we stand as we stood then—brokering an ancient hope against our losses, managing pride through the audacious enterprise of an unwavering faith that firmly abides against the shades of mourning. In mourning, as much for Justice as for Trayvon, our frozen tears cling fast to the inextinguishable fountains of fire that cry out from beneath our mother’s bellies and burn fervent in the desperate hearts of men, the common colors of compassion, ornate and unsullied, where we find ourselves petitioning but to little avail to the quiet, churning, idle ears of Isis.

It is not mercy but memory that calls us to this moment, as The Trayvon Martin Verdict is as palpable days later as it was on the day the jury declared it, as tangible now as it was then, burying a discontent already bottled in broken dreams. If it has not yet made its full impact upon the social establishment, then the nature of The Verdict itself is the reason that a beleaguered, discouraged, but nonetheless proud people have gathered across a globe to mourn and remember, yet again, the crimson fall of a young Black son—an American son, an African son, an African American son, Sybrina Fulton’s son, a sun set too soon. For the break between the revolutionary masses and the complacent mainstream is, perhaps of necessity, clearer now and more decisive than the noisier and more dramatic break between the militants of the past and traditional political and institutional structures that our neglected dealings now support. In death, Trayvon should teach us all to live.

Trayvon was no symbol, however. He was a boy who held symbols in his hands, who brandished hoop dreams big enough to eclipse the American psychotic nightmare that resigns boys like himself to prisons or graves. He was a boy, traveling as many boys do along unfurled paths of (im)possibility, the road to which—if it ever existed at all for young Black men—cannot, by definition, lead from main street to the valleys of promise. Which is to say that few commentators have or even will look upon Trayvon’s dreams with sympathy, even if a number of them might be daring enough to concede that Black boys do dream.

By evoking race—as in acknowledging that Trayvon is a Black boy and that Black boys brandish dreams—I might be reviled as a “racist.” Here the term racist is taken to refer to anyone who acknowledges the proto-existence of race and its monumental social consequences, and performing unto themselves a heinous but racist act of hypocrisy, such dissenters will fling opprobrious terms, such as racist, lightly at Black people now, particularly in the aftermath of this unfortunate verdict. Yet in so doing, they must also now—in the resident silhouette of Trayvon’s hoodie-framed face and fallen shadow—finally own up to all the long layers of rejection and abuse that Black people have experienced and endured at the hands of injustice—with few voices raised in objection.

Is this too harsh and sweeping a generalization? Some people might think so; many other people will not; which is a way of stating the problem and the prospect before us: We are divided, not as a nation occupying the same space but as people capable of empathy and love for another. In the pit of this chasm our approbations are revealed. Here, Black men are assumed to be “violent,” as if violence is the sole invention of Black masculinity. But violence heralded against Black men in the U.S. and throughout the globe is in-built in the established social order, particularly in American society. There is no need for the ruling race to take to the streets to clobber our boys, although there certainly is enough of that, or struggle for him; brutalization is inherent in all the customs and practices which bestow privileges on some and strips them from all others, relegating Black males in particular to the status of social outcast—criminals and deviants.

These are old and well-worn truths, which hardly need repeating. What is new is the reaction to them. Rapidly now, a nation that clings preposterously to the fiction of post-racialism is turning onto that uncertain road, and we are doing so with the approval of all kinds of groping injury. In our desire to appease the wound, we have become too fast to forget that there are many Trayvon Martins who daily languish in our secret social shadows; they are continually reminding us that the foundations of our American Dream, weakened by legalized social injustice and undermined by socialized legal injustice, are broken, unnecessarily lost in burdens of self-hatred (via identification with the oppressor). To awaken from this bemused and diluted trance, we will have to develop a keen faculty for togetherness, identifying, fractionating out, and rejecting the absurdities of the conscious as well as the unconscious racism inflicted upon all of us—regardless of race, united to one bag like Skittles—while making our progress our bait in the truest moral examples of the spiritual goods that have so kept us enraptured.

This was Trayvon’s unknowing message to us all. Though it seems ironic now, he held in his hands the symbolism of our discontent and the candy-coated emblem of its resolution. I do not find it ironic that in one hand Trayvon clung to an Arizona Ice Tea, for Arizona has come to represent the face of national injustice to which Florida now chooses to mimic. There is also insight in the emblem of ice tea, as in the American rapper Ice-T, whose infamous protest song “Cop Killer” is itself witness to the violence of injustice to which Trayvon would fall prey.

If one hand indicts us, then the other might redeem us. In his other hand, Trayvon held onto a bag of Skittles, a candy known for its many colors, suggesting that our variety is not a verdict but a treat. To this latter message, I find it apropos that Trayvon was carrying candy to our future, to a young relative—a child of tomorrow—who on that listless night would not taste the blend of many flavors. His, like ours, would be craving deferred.

Still, despite the stark symbolism, many will ask, was The Trayvon Martin Verdict about race? Of course it was about race, if little else, but it was about race and more than race, all the same. It was about the long-awaited ending to that enduring procession of justice for which many have marched and died; it was about a dying dream whose pulse, withering like leaves of winter, finds itself frozen and asleep in the terrestrial slumber, which tempts our patience in purgatory to further wait. As we have seen and heard in recent weeks, conscious and unconscious racism is everywhere, and in spite of our fatigued and waiting souls, we find it infecting all the vital areas of national life. But the revolutionary intransigence of new generations carved from this waiting, like a new rainbow of hope stretched across the sky, have bred of a young, interracial coalition of witnesses, who are themselves declaring that racism will no longer exercise its insidious control over us.

I take as example a white female Twitter friend, who courageously spoke against the ignorant racist rants of a man responding to one of my recent tweets on the Trayvon Martin trial. There is also the young Chaldean female Twitter friend, who was as demoralized by The Trayvon Martin Verdict as I. If the tag of “racist” is one that the racist will chain to us in dismissing our cries for justice, then we are more than willing to bear that. He will not separate the cause that we seek, the unfortunate reality for which Trayvon gave his life; he will not delight himself in our sacrifice of tears, for these young non-Black Twitter friends know as millions of unheard Black people in this country have long known—that on the other side of that great conversation that this nation must hold, on the other side of our struggles together with race—should we ever authentically choose to struggle with it together—there is healing.

In spite of the injuries that injustice has inflicted upon our souls, I am hopeful still because across this country, many young people—regardless of social identification—have been infected with a fever of discontent. We are no longer satisfied with an unjust status quo. We are finally saying, “Enough!” Social media is reacting with a liberating shock of realization, which transcends mere objectivism, cronyism, complacence, and even race. We are rediscovering the strength to bind a new heritage, the courage to write a new history, the will to love. And with newly focused eyes, we have become struck with the wonder that this strength which has enabled us to endure and, in spirit, to defeat the power of prolonged and calculated oppression after centuries of being told, in a million different dialects, that some are more beautiful than others, that lighter skin is more valuable than darker, we have, in the recesses of our deep developing psyches, revolted.

The trend has not yet reached the point of avalanche, but the future can be clearly seen in the growing number of young people—like Trayvon, friends of Trayvon, children of Trayvon—who are snapping off the shackles of intimidation and are wearing their Skittles across their skins, perfuming their hair in the fragrances of justice, and inclining their features with the ruddy brush of struggle.

So if we, too, must die—

. . . let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain . . .

* * *

1. The title and poetry in this piece is take from the poem “If We Must Die” by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. The poem can be read at the following link.