For the past five years, I have been studying the relationship between literacy and incarceration. In public discourse, the relationship seems so normalized that few people question its validity. But how valid is it? Researchers maintain there is a clear relationship between literacy and incarceration in the United States. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that upward of 85% of all systems-involved youth and more than 60% of all prison inmates are “functionally illiterate.” According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Although these numbers are alarming, they do not necessarily prove a link between literacy and incarceration. They might, however, suggest something more inauspicious—that the people we lock up are the same people we fail to teach to read and write. But why?
Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth. –Malcolm X
The daily reminders and the crushing weight of knowing what this country so eagerly denies are disheartening: We live in a racist country. This is not a big secret and should shock no one. The nation, for whatever it’s worth, elected a racist president in some ways to make up for electing its first Black one.
We must stop hiding from the truth that we live in a racist country because this denial is both dangerous and implosive. If we can’t admit to the racism that plagues us, we will never position ourselves to press past it.
The events today in #Charlottesville and the president’s dismissive response to them are both upsetting and sobering. There are too many of us who close our eyes to stories like these, as to wish racism away even as it feasts on our souls.
There are those who will argue that I am racist for writing about/condemning racism, as if their dismissal of me will absolve them of their own racist denial. There are also people who will argue that this president is not a white supremacist even though there is no evidence that he is not. But to the contrary . . .
Our response to racism cannot be passive or polite. I don’t want to read or hear another Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela quotation that tells us that we are something that we are not. I don’t want another whitewashed conversation about how much progress we have made to trick people into “feeling better,” which is more about lulling us into complacency so that we will be less likely to resist this miserable condition we find ourselves in.
I live with the pain of racism everyday along with millions, if not billions, of other people. I am reminded of this as soon as I walk out my apartment and enter my place of work: Racism exists. I notice the trends: the disparities in pay; the questionings of Black intelligence; the infantilization, criminalization, and vilification of the Black body. I bear witness to the scene of racial transgression against Black people, the violence and illogical hatred that spews at us for no particular reason (other than the fascination that God made some of our skins Black). My soul withers within me under this scorching heat–under the flames of bigotry and the suffocating smoke of indifference.
I want the truth, so I will write the truth here: Trump is a bigot, and there is a faction of bigots that makes up a significant part of his base. We would be naive to believe that they are alone.
I direct a research center that focuses on issues of equity. We wage peace against the violence of racism and discrimination in education. And to be sure, some of the people I work with are racists who, ironically and sadly, “engage” in anti-racist work.
I have colleagues, some of whom can quote every racial justice theory popular in the academy, who also do “antiracist” work, who themselves won’t even speak to but loathe some Black people—especially those of us who refuse to be “respectable.”
I know so-called white liberals who in the company of other liberals (in the squalid liberal public) will laugh and “love” on Black people, but when they are outside the coziness and poshness of liberal gatherings, these people quite literally run from Black folk, especially “non-respectable” Black folk, because to them Black folk are like white walkers from Game of Thrones. (This has happened to me at least five times. Each time, I crack up. Note to these people: I’m not gonna rob you. I don’t rob people.)
What Charlottesville means to me is this: that we have a lot of work to do. And we must be honest about this if our intentions are actually to improve the racial situation in the U.S. If we can’t admit this, then I can’t buy the idea that people are as committed as they say they are to getting past our dark and sickening racist past and present.
Racism persists in the shadow of our lies. I am, nonetheless, persuaded that we can end racism when we begin to embrace our darkest truths . . .
On Monday, January 30, 2017, hundreds of patient protectors braved the bitter New York City cold to stand firmly in defiance against the impending appointment of billionaire school-choice crusader Betsy DeVos, 58, for Secretary of Education. The brazen assembly, short on time yet not lacking hope, was among one of many gatherings crisscrossing the nation. Since DeVos’s name first surfaced as President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, a stubborn, nation-wide procession of feet has emerged in stride to protest what many fear is the beginning of the end of public education in the U.S., as we know.
From the march-worn concrete streets of New York City to the rally-fatigued lawns of the National Mall, the rising chorus of dissent to DeVos’s appointment is not without merit. On the eve of the U.S. Senate vote to confirm Devos’s nomination as education secretary, Democratic Senators staged a day-long talking protest to convince a least one more Republican Senator to switch her or his vote. In line with Senate Democratic efforts, there have been countless social media campaigns aimed at convincing legislators in the Senate to reject DeVos as Secretary of Education.
Given what we know about her–DeVos’s ties to the multibillion dollar Amway Corporation, for which she is heiress–people are well within reason to question and, even worse, fear how she might run the U.S. Department of Education. In this light, it is important to note that DeVos’s husband, Richard DeVos, Jr., inherited his billions from Amway, a company known for exploitative business practices, i.e., multilevel marketing–also known as pyramid schemes–to funnel precious resources from the thin pockets of the masses to the greedy bank accounts of the gluttonous few.
While her record on education appears to be lacking, what DeVos brings to the job of Secretary of Education is an unmatched charisma for fiscal alchemy–the ability to turn other public money into private profit. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the only real educational policy DeVos seems to have durable knowledge of is the Title I provision (the most lucrative provision) under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–better known as No Child Left Behind.
Under No Child Left Behind, in access of $14.5 billion of federal monies were set aside to address education funding inequities by financially bolstering school districts with large proportions of poor children. The stated purpose of the funding was to give poor children greater access to the same types of learning opportunities as wealthier children who reside in affluent districts with schools that benefit from higher property taxes, among other supports.
Further, we know that, as a result of choice policies such as the voucher programs that DeVos champions, 20 percent of all Title I monies earmarked for poor students–roughly $2.6 billion–end up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families. This often overlooked detail could shed light on some of DeVos’s intentions as Secretary of Education, while giving us incredible insight into a department of education that, under a DeVos regime, could resemble a Ponzi scheme.
Much of DeVos’s past efforts in education, an associated knowledge of educational policy, seem to deal with mechanizations for a massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector, that is, from taxpaying citizens investing in a public education project crucial for the development of our nation’s youth and the maintenance of our democracy to the uber wealthy elites who conceal their money in hidden offshore accounts. Many of such individuals, like President Trump, neither pay taxes nor plan to. Thus, in relationship to her lack of knowledge of policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), created to serve vulnerable students, Devos’s focused knowledge of Title I reads as alarming. According to Nate Malkus, a contributor to U.S. News and World Report, “Given DeVos’ long history of advocating for school choice and Trump’s proposed $20 billion investment in it, her pointed position deserves a full discussion.”
According to New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has a passionate record of steering Title I monies away from public schools. For example, the Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts boast the 10 largest shares of students in U.S. charter schools. The State of Michigan sends $1 billion in education funding to charter schools annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation. Moreover, the DeVos family, the most prominent name in Republican politics in Michigan, have been the biggest financial and political backers of education resource diversions into the private sector.
With the selection of DeVos, President Trump seems serious about the $20 billion school voucher plan he rolled out during his campaign. The proposal would redirect huge swaths of the federal education budget away from school districts and toward low-income parents, allowing them to spend a voucher at a public or private school of their choice, including for-profit, virtual, religious, and other predatory systems of schooling.
To be sure, DeVos enters the conversation with enormous conflicts of interest. She and her family have invested millions in divestments schemes, lobbying the federal and State of Michigan governments to open up education markets to opportunistic millionaires. She and her family have also invested in online K-12 education ventures, alternative systems of education that too often prey upon our nation’s most vulnerable students to turn a profit.
Indeed, this playbook on exploitation is not without familiarity, particularly for an administration whose leader, Donald Trump, has become the icon for exploitation in private education. Remember President Trump was regularly dogged on the campaign trail for his own failed foray into for-profit education with the now infamous Trump University.
The other part of this story deals with the policy that DeVos doesn’t know: IDEA–a policy advancing equity in education, assuring rights of otherly abled students to participate and gain an education equal to that of all other students across a range of abilities. DeVos’s ignorance of IDEA could suggest that she isn’t interested in educational equity, or is, at best, indifferent to it. Thus, we must question her public rhetoric on education–especially when she pivots to equity claims to conceal her broader history in support of school privatization (even at the expense of educational equity).
Had she been genuinely concerned about public education, DeVos would have known what IDEA is. Had she been genuinely concerned for the education of all American youth, she would be aware of how disastrous policies that redistribute public funds to the private sector are. If she were really concerned about American youth, she would have regarded her own resume in public education, and pulled herself out the running for Secretary of Education.
All this seems too late now. What matters is this: President Trump did not select Ms. DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her affect toward the vulnerable, her love of public education, or her knowledge of disability legislation. (Remember he is the only president in my lifetime who has publicly mocked disabled Americans.) President Trump choose Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her record, which is replete with examples of diversions of crucial funding away from the vulnerable and into the pockets of the rich.
Trump, himself, has a rich history of this kind of profiteering. So does DeVos.
David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: email@example.com.
On November 17, 1999, a Michigan jury found, then-13 year-old Nathaniel Abraham guilty of second-degree murder for a killing committed when Abraham was 11. At the time, the young African-American boy was believed to be the youngest American ever charged and convicted of murder as an adult. Abraham’s story reflects the heightening, yet longstanding, public spectacle of viewing Black bodies through prisms of racial and developmental bias – lenses through which Black innocence evaporate into the (il)logics of prejudice.
Such prejudice is often masked socially in a painful ritual of rhetorical charades. For example, many media accounts used sensational turns of phrase such as “adult crime equals adult time” to justify the erasure of Black innocence in Abraham’s case. In the more recent cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, some media outlets have used descriptors such as “petty criminal” and “dangerous thug” to justify the murders of these young men.
By now, it is common knowledge that, over the course of two days, two Black men lost their lives to police terror. One was Sterling, a father and family man gunned down by police in Baton Rouge, LA. There is graphic video of two police officers pinning down the 37-year old Sterling before shooting him as he lies on the ground. The other is Castile, who while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter, was gunned downed by a police officer after being asked for his identification.
With tragic events of police killings of Black people happening almost daily across our country, we are reminded of how powerfully perceptions play out in the real world. Thus, there is no longer room to deny the power of perceptions and the dangers of ignorance in maintaining racial biases that cost us daily innocent life. In the context of unchecked bias, skin color argues as convincingly as words for some, where in the American imagination race can condition one’s perceptions of innocence and guilt.
For example, a recent report from the Human Rights Watch found that, in the state of Florida, 12,000 children – a disproportionate number of whom are Black – have been moved from the juvenile to adult court system in the past five years. While they make up 27 percent of those who enter Florida’s juvenile justice system, Black boys account for more than half of all transfers to the adult system. Florida isn’t alone in this tragic neutering of Black innocence.
In Cook County, Illinois, Black boys are much more likely to be tried as adults in criminal court as well. The Juvenile Justice Initiative reports that, although only 44 percent of the children in Cook County are Black, 83 percent of its juveniles tried as adults were Black. Given such instances, it comes as little surprise to many when innocent Black teens such as Trayvon Martin are gunned down by armed and hostile vigilantes, such as George Zimmerman. In contexts of over-policing and hyper-punishment of the Black body, perceptions of Black innocence would likely disappear beneath the erasure of a public gaze, distorted by silent systems of prejudice prevalent in the American mainstream.
It is meaningful, then, that Trayvon Martin, like Nathaniel Abraham, was merely a boy when he perished. The same meaning holds for twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who while wielding a toy gun, was murdered by a Cleveland police officer who saw Rice as older and less innocence than he actually was. Not unlike Zimmerman or the Cleveland officer who gunned down Rice, a significant population of Americans, including a vast number of White Americans, fail to recognize the innocence and humanity of their fellow Black citizens. The language ascribed to Black people tends to frame them as, in the cases of Sterling and Castile, hostile and criminal, and, in the case of Martin and Rice (and a litany of others), vicious and less innocent.
In our quest to achieve greater equity in society, we must better contextualize humanity beyond race and in spite of (and to interrupt) systems of disparity that are likely reinforced through racial stereotypes.
In so doing, I have been wondering about the role of schooling in shaping better people. For example, I’ve been asking questions such as how does one finish school still holding discriminatory perceptions of people? Are we not doing our jobs as educators?
Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read, write or calculate, why must we let them finish school unable to love and accept others? What if we made being human, like being literate, a prerequisite to graduation? What if our school systems made it an absolute priority to ensure that each student leaves more human and more respectful of life than when they entered?
These are important questions that we must ask in this time of national reflection – questions that deal with fostering fully humanized citizens sensitive to other humans. In asking and daring to answer such questions, we demand more of our schools and also of ourselves. Perhaps equally important, we position education as a site of hope to eradicate all forms of ignorance and nurture people who are fully responsive to how we can best share our world.
In order to redress the consequences of racial bias – which, I believe, are at the root of the murders of Sterling, Castile, Martin, Rice, and many others – we must promote a counter-campaign for ideological justice, where we renew the importance of heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, it is important that we begin to demand that formal education endorses standards (such as Common Core Human Standards) and curricula (such as anti-bias curricula) that challenge longstanding racial biases and logics associated with discrimination (and each of their consequences including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on).
But the use of education to eradicate racial bias cannot be limited to communities concentrated with people of color because the origins of racial bias are rooted in indifference and White privilege. Privilege is when you don’t think something is a problem because it’s not your problem. While it has become vogue to teach about race, social justice, and equity to students of color, students who attend schools that are overwhelmingly White may need this kind of education the most. Exposing such students to new standards, curricula and pedagogies that center a love and respect for all humanity will broaden their worldviews.
What I am proposing is a paradigm shift in education, transferring the focus of instruction from skills, content, and capacities to relationships, from disparity and discrimination to a focus on our needs and capacities as human beings to bridge empathic, cooperative, and social gaps that hinder learning, development, and societal harmony. This is an education for greater compassion because it affirms all students equally, whereby challenging us to commit ourselves to the hard work of interrupting biases and dismantling systems of historic violence against our nation’s (and our world’s) most vulnerable citizens. Left unchecked, such systems promise to play out in patterns of death and destruction rehearsed repeatedly each day (as we are now seeing).
Then let us commit space and time in formal education to reconciling that the true value of learning is in greater compassion and saved lives. Though histories and institutions of inequity and oppression are deep and resilient, our courage and resolve cannot only match the depths of this particular kind of despair, they can exceed them. However, change will start in classrooms with teachers seeing, treating and listening to all students so that no one graduates our school systems unable to trust, respect and understand people who do not look like they do.
We will need an education first, but in the end love will win.
- This article first appeared on July 17, 2016 in NY Slant as an op-ed. The article can also be found here: http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/in-the-end,-love-will-win,-but-we-will-need-an-education-first.html.
David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I wanted to write you because I hear your heart. It beats at me with an urgency that refuses to wait.
But don’t lose hope. We can’t lose hope. If we lose hope, we lose. Period. And if we lose, what reason is there for us to be here?
Besides, that’s what they want. They want us to lose hope because they don’t want us to exist. And just as some see our lives as optional, many others see them as a threat to theirs. (Isn’t that what the Trump movement is really about?)
I tell you: as a rose wilts under the heavy heat of the summer sun, the sound of the morning will continue to echo a silence so severe that it mutes the songs of birds. It is in this quiet that we must stand together, even though we languish in great confusion, frustration, and trepidation. These are my solutions for you!
I know you are hurting because I am hurting too. Many don’t understand our pain, the depth and deep, deep terror of it, the grief or the perpetual paranoia we feel from the constant anticipation of an ever-looming death. That’s why we’ve become so practiced at holding onto things—things we cannot hold forever like sand passing through fingers or brothers and sons and fathers (and even sisters, mothers, and daughters too). Yet, we hold on anyhow with a grip so stingy as to express the abiding fear that we may never see them again. So we hold on so that we don’t have to surrender to Next Time (which we know doesn’t always come).
They won’t understand what it feels like to live in hoods designed to kill every part of you—your heart, your soul, your body, your ambition, your memory, and even your lineage. They won’t understand what it feels like to inherit schools that mimic prisons to cage your dreams. They will refuse to see you, and you will be invisible to them. And because of the heavy haze of contempt cast against your dark flesh, they will try to deny your right to exist.
I know you can’t make sense of all of this or all that’s happening and has happened over the past few days, months, years, decades, and even centuries. (The ridicule of our complaint is historic and runs deep.) You can’t make sense of it because the massacring of innocence (both Black and otherwise) is senseless, rooted in logics of perdition so fundamentally destructive to humanity that it has the power to eat planets and, perhaps most pressing, threaten lives.
Over the past few days, you have asked for answers to tough questions: “Where is God in all this?” “Will it ever end?” “How can I hold onto Love in a time of hate?” My response is simple: Let’s not cast our pearls among swine. Our faith is an asset and so is our patience. The night will end. It must end. So that morning can come. Love will be our thousand suns.
More concretely you’ve wanted to know: “How can we end police terror, the devaluing of Black life, and the destruction of the Black soul?” You’ve asked sincerely: “How can we make a broken nation finally whole,” and “how can we preserve innocence, set new normals and a course of fate where the brutalities of innocence are forever banished?” And yes, I’ve promised you solutions. Hence, I’ve given our crisis tremendous thought, and now I humbly submit to you a list of 11 things that we must demand/engage in order to fix our broken world. I do note, still, that no one person has all the answers. That includes me. Please take these thoughts as humble beginnings.
Let me begin my list of solutions with a preamble, of sorts, centered on where the hurt lies. I know that the reflex of our hurt is anger and that anger is hard to contain. I know that you want your fist to brag, for bullets to avenge your frustrations, for the debts of one life to be compensated with another life. I know that you are tempted to yield to the hate that burns hot within and against you, to turn it more deeply inward to alight your own soul, to twist the godly formation of your creation into its lesser, darker possibilities. I know you want to turn that hatred inside-out, point it at your enemies, and place fences around your heart so that it might be protected from those who wish you harm. But at some point, we must salvage the courage to put away violence which begins the vicious cycles of our demise: for hatred only begets hatred, and the harsh consequences borne of its allegiance feed death.
Some will lie to you by saying violence is courageous. However, it takes true, deep courage to deny the violent impulse so as to reason compassionately in a way that nurtures life. So I need you to know that violence won’t save us. It can only deepen our oppression, for the moment we choose violence we become ensnared by it, and even if we win with it, we lose the promises of our freedom to the longing chains of vehemence. Then, in succumbing to violence (even if we win), we become the very thing we used violence to resist—instruments of destruction rather than creation, a force of oppression rather than liberation. Audrey Lorde puts this best: “You can’t dismantle the masters house with the master’s tools.” Violence won’t save us because you can’t kill weeds by planting more weeds. You must uproot them.
Then let’s get to the root of the matter. I know that you have been praying, marching, sitting in, shutting down freeways, and so on. Keep up the fight! It has a purpose. It has incredible promise. Now it deserves direction. Indeed, we have protested in the past and will continue to do so because our liberation requires a protest that is ongoing and relentless. Still, our true solutions are not behind us; they are ahead of us.
At its root, our current crisis is a crisis of compassion. This crisis is less episodic than it is systemic—though it is not only systemic. It is also deeply personal, bearing the heavy weight of social trauma and its associated consequences. It is also ideological, peculiar logics borne of our crippled world that live in our minds. That is, the crisis of compassion that we are facing is a manifestation of how we’ve been conditioned to think less compassionately and less humanely. To resolve this crisis, we must tackle the issues at the root of the crisis at multiple levels. Thus, our solutions must bold, creative, and courageous at personal, ideological, and systemic levels.
1. Collective and individual therapy. We must commit to a campaign of collective and individual therapy to respond to the wounds we bear. For each of us who are hurting and who hurt others needs healing because hurt people hurt people. Therefore we must admit to our pain so that we might respond to it more productively. In so doing, we must equally destigmatize mental and emotional health intervention and initiate collective pathways toward healing. This therapeutic approach to our movement must happen first in homes. It must also live more formally in structures such as faith institutions and schools. One cannot carry trauma in the soul and elide its effects. We cannot heal (ourselves and others) broken.
2. Mindfulness and meditation. Inequity is a great noise. There are few ways to imagine beyond it while we live, presently, in it. Thus we must, daily, find shelter in silence not only to calm us, but also to heighten our consciousness and deepen our sensitivities toward what lives around, within, and beyond us. Each of us must begin a daily routine of meditation. We can do this alone and/or in groups, but we must do it in a way that make sense to us individually. Families, faith institutions, and schools must also instill practices of meditation in their everyday habits. TV stations must broadcast breaks so that we might master the habit of breathing. Communities must carve out meditative spaces, where people can breathe and take refuge from the constancy of noise. In this stillness, might we find ourselves. Perhaps more, might we find that most elusive of states the soul transcends the body—Nirvana.
3. Positive support systems. We live in a society based on antagonism, disparate acts of criminalization and vilification of the darker masses. Too often, we fear the very people who live among us. And out of this dark place, we’ve fallen into an endless abyss of negativity. MLK has taught us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” Then, if darkness is negative, so light must be positive. We can help repair ourselves by helping others. Let’s commit each day to sharing at minimum five good words and five good deeds. This is a discipline of compassion. We should also, as we grow in our compassionate states, accentuate words and deeds with gestural expressions of our kindness—hugs, smiles, and other forms of enacted light that might pierce a seemingly impenetrable darkness. Our Light will lead us.
4. Truth and restoration (as opposed to reconciliation). To echo the sentiments of so many others, we must have courageous conversations in our homes and in our communities. At municipal, states, and national levels, we must demand that our governments and elected/appointed leaders convene forums for “truth and reconciliation,” using restorative approaches and circles as a function for deep dialogue. We must also demand apologies for each indignity we’ve endured. As part of this process, we must also genuinely grant forgiveness, and be willing to move beyond our past so that the cold jaws of bitterness will not bite us. This act of forgiveness is not for others; it is for us because forgiveness is one of the highest acts of self love.
5. Counter-oppressive public education (for all students, and for majority students especially). In order to redress the consequences of systems of ideological injustice, we must promote as campaign of ideological justice, where we renew an importance to heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, we must demand that formal education endorse curricula that critiques and disrupt hegemony and White privilege, White supremacy and the logics of western Eurocentrism (and all of its associated logics including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on.) Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read or write, why must we let students finish school unable to love or accept others? Thus, we must demand more from our schools. We must insist that the greater goals of education deal with fostering fully humanized citizens, sensitive to other humans—people who are fully responsive to how we might live with others in our world we share.
6. Public relations campaigns. Let us demand an ongoing public relations campaigns to promote awareness of and respect for differences.
7. Full-throated critique of faith-based institutions. We can’t pretend that faith institutions are innocent. Religion is directly responsible for the crisis of compassion in our world and the violence, hatred, and inequities that derive from it. Thus, part of our protest must be aimed at religious institutions until they denounce theologies of hatred and injustice. We must be willing to boycott them or create new, more just faith institutions based on ideals of love, equity, and justice.
8. Reshaping masculinity and the mindsets of men. We must acknowledge that our boys and men are hurting in ways that they are not socially permitted to express. As consequence, much of that hurt manifests in proclivities that, ultimately, hurt others. Therefore, we must demand space to (better) raise our sons (much like the space in which we raise our daughters—to love and to be sensitive, to nurture life and to find strength in vulnerability). We have to interrupt notions of maleness—chiefly the problematic gender binary not big enough to encapsulate all the possibilities of who and what boys and men can and school be. Then we men need to get it, be honest about our B.S., and do the hard work to evolve.
9. Dismantling capitalism. We must demand new economic and political systems of organization. Capitalism is fundamentally corrupt; thus, the current systems we live under are insufficient for meeting our desires for peace and justice, equity and life. Capitalism fuels terror and strife, injustice and inequity. It cheapens life as opposed to enriching it. It must go!
10. Uprooting racism from national, state, and local policies. We must demand the abolition of all racist policies. This means demanding that we rethink immigration policies that shrink God’s open borders. This means demanding an end to profiling policies from corporations to airports, and unfair lending and housing policies from New York to New Mexico. This also means demanding legalization of drugs and the decriminalization/destigmatization of their use. It means demanding a ban to death penalties, zero tolerance policies, features of health/welfare legislation that are fundamentally rooted in racism. The list can’t end here. We must listen experts by creating panels in every field of public policy to critically examine our laws for explicit and implicit biases.
11. Imagination consortium. Let us convene other kinds of thought panels, ones that might help us to reinvent our world. This panel must include our imagination leaders—committees of writers and other kinds of designers/artists/creators who might imagine a new world of possibility not based on heteronormative, Western, White, Eurocentric, hegemonic, imperialist, patriarchal models. Too often those who get to peddle policy lack imagination and the deep drive to imagine beyond perception. Thus, I strongly believe that artists and writers can invent, for us, new worlds because they do this all the time. Imagine a team of science fiction writers, for instance, imagining new worlds for us much like Tolkien invented Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. My point is, here, that there are people gifted with imaginations that could breed endless utopias.
Of course, there are an array other structural solutions posited in other places. To the extent that they help us disrupt structures of oppression and reimagine the world that we live in, I am endorse them. Some of these include the 10-point platform initiated by Black Lives Matter. While my sense is that this 10-point platform only deals with symptoms of the problem forsaking, for now, its root causes, I think it must be taken up too, as it’s necessary to sometimes deal with symptoms immediately to stop the hemorrhaging while we work toward other solutions to heal the root. Regardless of what path change takes, we’ll need people on every front, working in areas that best fit them and their abilities. Our greatest struggle, perhaps, will be in tuning our efforts to a global harmony where we co-exist as one collective body reshaping the public will.
I know we can do this. I know that we must.
To be certain, there are things, manifold things, for which to be thankful: family and friends, smiles and laughter, surprises and second chances. There is the breath of life that animates lungs, and the distant sun that rubs warmth on burdened backs. There is also the never-ending menu of fresh produce that, as if by magic, erupts from dust to nourish the soul and the clean waters flowing free from the heavens to refresh our seabeds. Our manna derives both from above and below. We have so much to be grateful for, though Thanksgiving is not one of them.
The Thanksgiving story comes to us unusually romanticized: Set in the early 1600s in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the story is told as one of hardships survived, where so-called Pilgrims endured their first grueling winter in a captive land to celebrate life in their “New World.” The settlers, as they have come to be called, survived that first winter no doubt due to help received from their indigenous hosts. The people who found and rescued the Pilgrims taught them how to brave the cold; cultivate the riches of winter; find food and shelter; plant kernels of corn; locate, hunt, and preserve game; exhaust the natural resources around them (animal furs, skins, and snow). In addition, the Pilgrims learned other lessons from the indigenous that made life more possible.
The compassion and deep humanity of the Pilgrim’s indigenous hosts are rarely highlighted in the Thanksgiving story. These hosts did not seek to kill strangers shipwrecked in their border or erect walls to keep the strangers out. The indigenous did not call the Pilgrims illegal or alien or rapists or savages (labels that history would suggest did, in fact, apply to some Pilgrims).
For these indigenous people, lives mattered, even the lives of foreign-born people with skin the color of mogra. In their humanity, the indigenous submitted to primal though sublime instincts of kindness—welcoming the stranger who fled foreign borders seeking refuge from the persecutions of tyranny and the confines of an oppressive crown.
Thus, the irony of the Thanksgiving story is obvious: As debates on immigration become hotly contested throughout the globe, the predominant themes of Thanksgiving untold shed light on our own national hypocrisies—a country of strangers condemning strangers, a band of refugees blocking access to other refugees (i.e., people trapped in the world’s darkest and most desperate situations).
Such is the case in Syria (and elsewhere throughout our globe), where people—human beings—are fleeing countries set ablaze. They are seeking safety within borders set away from the global atrocities of terror mostly fueled by Western avarice and the arrogance of our global wars. We’ve now seen babies washed up on distant shores, dead. We’ve heard leading political figures label the descendants of our modern indigenous citizenry, people with colonized accents yet Aztec blood coursing warm through their veins, “rapists.” We’ve fully embraced the rhetoric and violence of division: “us” versus “them.” Yet Thanksgiving has done little to remind us of a time past when we were strangers, and they saved us.
Usually the Thanksgiving story ends in a feast of friends—Indians and Pilgrims. The legend of Thanksgiving finds these “friends” eating together, basking in a kind of strange and ludic harmony. However, we know that this story is as much incomplete as it is fiction.
Though the Pilgrims would persist despite the bitter cold of winter, the light of the indigenous sun would soon set along the Western horizon. While the Pilgrims would learn to live off an old land posthumously made their New World, the indigenous would learn new ways to die. Thus, while the story of the Pilgrims was set to begin, the story of the indigenous was doomed to end.
Only history knows the tragedies we obscure by celebrating Thanksgiving—long forgotten rapes of indigenous wives and of daughters juxtaposed against campaigns of terror that would eventuate in a tragic saga of human annihilation. The children of Pilgrims would steal indigenous lands and plagiarize their technologies. They would plant disease in indigenous blankets, butcher indigenous flesh with weapons of death and mass destruction.
The children of Pilgrims would force the children of the indigenous to walk from one end of their country to the other. They would lay claim to the open indigenous borders—confining indigenous bodies to concentration camps deplorably named reservations (or, as one Native young man put it, “sovereign ghettos”). The children of Pilgrims would kill the indigenous young, put suicide in their thoughts and the slow death of whisky lacking mercy in their cups.
The children of Pilgrims would cut off indigenous tongues and utterly destroy indigenous histories. They would turn the sacred images of indigenous people into their costumes and would batter indigenous shrines into their ruins. The children of Pilgrims would paint indigenous faces onto their mascots, making mockery of people ancient and original to this land—from Cleveland to Jacksonville, from Juneau to the District of Columbia.
Perhaps worst of all, the children of Pilgrims would assume the identities of those they have destroyed—practicing a cruel and wicked alchemy of identity theft. The original Rachel Dolezals of history, they would enroll the flesh of mogra into the census of roses. Not only would they kill or displace almost all people indigenous to the Western Hemisphere, the Pilgrims and the children of Pilgrims would dare to replace them, stealing all that could be precious to indigenous people left behind—a memory, a history, a language, a right to live, a land, and even a separate identity. All became property of the Pilgrim—and the shameful inheritance of her children.
So every year, on the last Thursday in November, we commit time to celebrating a lie. In so doing, we ritualize the most unholy of communions—a national feast in remembrance of a grave and inhuman scandal. Thanksgiving, a holiday that honors forgetting and the genocide of people, is by far as sick as it is superfluous. There is no other way to describe it—to destroy a people and then every year feast in memoriam is beyond calloused; it’s wrong!
Not only does the celebration spit in the eyes of compassion, it disavows the power of gratitude. “Thanks” is a high term denoting praise and indebtedness. It yields best to those things we humans humbly appreciate. The honest prayer of the grateful, “thanksgiving,” then, is a word of reverence, kept sacred by the meek and by those of us who understand the grace and fierce power of gratitude found in the humble recognition for God’s manifold blessings.
Placed in the context of a broken and twisted holiday, that beautiful word—thanksgiving—that awesome submission and prayer, can only mean something crude, tantamount to an insult. That we’d term this holiday—a day who’s emblem is a turkey—thanksgiving is not only sad; the tragedies it obscures make it scary.
The holiday continues primarily because of the fog by which it persist. This fog features our dysconscious consent, a constant of act of indifference to the suffering of others. This indifference is itself a kind of brokenness, a dangerous kind of racism, which according to Michelle Alexander, forms “the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems” (p. 242). It is in this process—the act of becoming indifferent—that Thanksgiving erases the perspectives of hurting, vulnerable, and victimized people. Thus, celebrating Thanksgiving outside historical context and without needed critique is a kind of indifference that reinforces a profound erasure of people and the crimes committed against them.
Many people would love to continue to observe Thanksgiving, though in the comfort of forgetting and through the myth of “colorblindness.” However, remembering history, thus, seeing race whole is not the problem. According to Alexander:
Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. . . . We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. . . . That is a goal worth fighting for. (p. 244)
Every year on the last Thursday in November so many of us cede the fight. On this day, many shall gather and swell their stomachs with food yet little deliberate knowledge of the great historical travesty they help conceal. Many will dine on dishes, not knowing that they are paying tribute to one of the most scandalous events in the history of a nation.
On the last Thursday in November I choose to fast instead of feast. I spend the entire day alone, reflecting and protesting the lavish feasts of systematic amnesia that sweeps the country. Thanksgiving is not a holiday and is certainly not a day for celebration, for it venerates events in which we should not find joy but collective regret—events for which we might beg forgiveness rather than give thanks.
- Alexander, M. (2010). A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
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 joke—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 peoples 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 stripes scarred to the backs and bloodied to the swollen hands of slaves and other captives. 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 to know the Fourth of July 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, 2017, I firmly believe that 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 outside the shade of freedom’s protective shadow, but under the heinous yet cruel veil of slavery—which is emblematic of the vile and inglorious confederate flag, acquittals of officers who kill vulnerable people, and the sufferings of people denied the right to live?
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 stolen at the bequest 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 laws of Perpetual Surveillance and the disciplining gaze of the State?
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 do 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 week is over. However, I will never observe the Fourth of July as a celebration, as a time to reflect on our national freedoms. (We ain’t free. Or as Jay-Z put it, “Still nigga.”) Rather, I will use today as a timeless reminder of how far we have 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 the settler colonial state persists in places 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 various and complex forms of slavery are 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, Freddie Gray, and Philando Castile (whom we must never forget). The very existence of continued suffering, further, marks the Fourth of July as a lie.
There is also the Snowden revelations, which have 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, screams 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 the address questions involved in 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 dependence irrevocably made to feel like 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 and our complicity in its mere existence.
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.
Today, I will lament the death of Freedom with hopes that she can be reborn.
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: email@example.com.