NO THANKS(GIVING)

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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.

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  1. Alexander, M. (2010). A New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

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.

IN DEFENSE OF LOVE

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. . . the purpose of being here, wherever we are, is to increase the durability and the occasions of love among and between peoples. Love, as the concentration of tender caring and tender excitement, or love as the reasons for joy. I believe that love is the single, true prosperity of any moment and that whatever and whoever impedes, diminishes, ridicules, opposes the development of loving spirit is “wrong”/hateful.

—June Jordan

I am not sure when it happened. I am not sure why it happened. All I know is that today we find ourselves grappling with the untenable truth that love is in danger.

I first recognized this reality recently when I met Justin and his longtime partner Jack. Justin and Jack epitomized the power of the heart’s good intentions. Their love was storied through thoughtful conversations and laughter, sullen hands clasped and whispers, a sincere and genuine concern for one another, and an invincible bond that would make super glue look lax.

Justin held Jack’s endearing eyes in his own, held them with the strength and blind fascinations of seriousness and faith. He held them tightly with the frank qualities of delight, those existential yearnings that twin the dawn of gravity and pretend the draw of magnetism. Jack said that he loved the way Justin first “saw” him. He said that he had never been gazed upon with such beauty and depth, such steadiness and care, that no one had ever humanized him so fully with only a stare. Not only did he feel human in Justin’s ocular embrace; he felt loved.

For their love, the two young men dedicated the promise of a life together, a life that made sense to them, to be led on their terms between the ironies of false abominations and above the lucidity of empty accusations and the revulsions of ignorance and judgment. Their nuptials, however, would be made in secret. They would have to settle for an unspoken ceremony because in Michigan and 37 other states in our country two men cannot marry—at least not legally. If marriage is meant to perform an open act of love, then in 38 states, two men, two people of the same sex, cannot legally stage their love in public. And this is appalling!

Some might think that marriage between one woman and one man is the issue. However, the mere suggestion privileges a definition of marriage that confines love to sets of forced dualities, of conventional commitments that license the heterosexual “norm” over all other possible love configurations. Too often this confining of marriage to one woman and one man restricts the freedom for which love strives.

Others have argued that love in marriage doesn’t exist, only a complex play of interests that wears the disguise of love, the patriarchal masks of tradition and convenience, of woman given to man to leverage personal gain in an otherwise treacherous sea of inopportunity and misogynistic thirsts. Here, love becomes a possession, somewhat of a toy, disposed in random fits, handled with carelessness, like the disheveled certainty of those who feel they own love in ways that permit them to exploit it without exploring its hidden, more illustrious and transformational depths.

Still others have blamed faith, which abides with Love, suggesting that the dogma of entrenched beliefs tied to the morsel of “god” to which their bigotries cling demands that love as expressed through marriage be “pure” and “protected,” unsullied and preserved for some righteous elect for whom, in the name of “love,” they get to bear witness and define.

In all honesty, I don’t know who to blame for this current crusade against love in our country nor am I interested in blaming anyone. However, I do want to make a case in defense of love—the kind of love that Justin and Jack share. In so doing, I hope that we might recall the inspiration to save love and, in the process, save ourselves.

In the coming weeks the U.S. Supreme Court will decide on the constitutionality of two related matters: California’s Proposition 8 (2008), which banned same-sex marriage (the proposal was later overturned by the State’s Supreme Court not long after its adoption), and Congress’s use of the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) to withhold federal benefits from same-sex couples who are legally married in the states where they reside. The impeding decisions have been viewed by some gay-rights advocates as a historic opportunity to establish same-sex marriage (or what I have called non-discriminatory marriage) nationwide. Whether this is true or not, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will require us to look deeply into the core of our national soul and define its location with respect to love.

Regardless of what it decides, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision promises to be groundbreaking because, in many ways, marriage as a legal/civil issue, in the face of love’s danger, has become a moral and personal one. Hence, at issue here are great philosophical concerns with which we must grapple. These concerns go beyond debates about who has the right to propose to whom. At the heart of the issues is a single, crucial question: Who has the right to love?

In both instances referred to above, the U.S. Supreme court will be deciding an issue far bigger than that of marriage rights. As the modern marriage has become merely a ceremonial expression of the heart’s tastes, the decisions will spell out the conditions of our rights as citizens, as human entities, to practice love and have that practice affirmed openly and civically by contracts of the State. The decision will also speak to an issue of governance: Does the State have the right to govern the heart? Here, my hope is that the Court decides to pull away from fear and intolerance, which have led the steady push to legislate the terms of love and the conditions upon which that love might be declared.

Still, in this current cultural struggle, fear seems to be triumphing over freedom. With the passage of the heavy-handed and limited Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), marriage was explicitly defined in federal law as a union of one man and one woman. Enacted in 1996, DOMA prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex unions and allows each state to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states. While over a dozen jurisdictions have legalized same-sex marriage through court rulings, legal actions, and the vote, seven states have prohibited it by statue and 30 other states prohibit it in their constitutions.

Indeed, this outlawing of same-sex marriage across the U.S. is an act of fear (if not terror)—a fear that suggests that our children and we need fences surrounding our hearts not to protect the heart, but insidiously to protect us against the outer limits of love. This fear suggests that we cannot and should not have the freedom to choose who to love, and if we do, that freedom must be limited by gender and number thus making it not a freedom at all, but a farce. Of course, the messinesses of moral dalliance and corruptible beliefs inform such fear, but it is fear, and fear alone, that is the impetus driving our war against love.

In this light, love is revealed threatened by our fear of it. And also in this light, the Court’s decisions concerning love will reverberate through the bend of history, which seems always strained between two impulses: the impulse to affirm our freedoms or hold fast to our fears. As I have suggested, fear has legislated against love that through our laws we might inoculate the heart and the hearts of our children against certain types of love that we deem inappropriate or, worst, “different.”

History has also taught us that, in defense of freedom, our best laws privilege rights over restrictions. These rights, as opposed to restrictions, have made our democracy possible and durable. If you are arrested in this country, you have the right to remain silent and given due process in a court of your peers. You also have the freedom of speech against tyrannical forms of censorship and, yes, the right to bear arms. Given all our rights, given all our “freedoms,” doesn’t it seem ironic that absent from the list is perhaps the most basic of human liberties: the right to love?

Some heterosexual couples who enjoy fruitful marriages might argue that we (as in one man and one woman) do have the right to love. For them, this illusion plays out as true because they ever feel free to stage the scenes of their acknowledged bonds openly. But this play of freedoms is merely a hopeful fiction. Until all people have the right to love whomever they choose, then we all shall be restricted from the right to love freely.

It is this restriction that Justin and Jack has dealt with daily, for daily they must fit their love in a box, restrict it to the shadows away from our most indecent fears so that people afraid of their kind of love won’t be offended. Perhaps Jack put it best: “It’s easy to love Justin, but it’s not easy to show that I love him when everyone’s looking.”

Yet, if we ever truly looked at them should we ever choose to stare at their secret expressions of love, we might understand how tragically insecure we are. Why else would we fence love behind the gates of heteronormativity? But even bound, love is resilient, and it persists. This is true for Justin and Jack. Love found them and many others like them in earnest even while we were writing laws and silent treaties to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

I last saw Justin in a room at a workshop. He said to me that he dreamed to one day marry Jack, to share their kind of love with the world. And looking into his eyes as they leapt across the room to greet Jack, I became convinced that no one has the right to deny Justin this dream, to deny him love. While his dream remains deferred, his love remains alive. You could feel it as Justin’s and Jack’s eyes kiss with an intensity that only true lovers know.