incomplete education, incomplete america

I am the victim of an incomplete education.  Most of us are.  I attended excellent schools and am grateful for the many ways I was invited into excellence, rigor and curiosity; however, like most Americans, I was exposed primarily to curricula written, sourced and designed by white Americans.  The last two decades have revealed the large gaps in my knowledge and the work I must do to find a complete education.  Having now encountered the incredible diversity of thought that functionally shaped America, I realize the insularity—the poverty even—of our educational norms.  Aware of this, I have spent Black History Month as an apologist for a more robust education, as I remind us that American writing, thinking and creating is the product of many distinct voices.  We have an incredible wealth of cultural, literary, historical and artistic legacies from every race, and we are diminished as a people when these voices are not actively taught in our schools. 

When we are primarily exposed to American history and literature through the work of white folks, we are taught to privilege white perspectives.  We begin to believe important cultural trends and innovations come exclusively from one segment of society.  This narrow exposure lays a foundation for cultural racism, suggesting that people of color are physical in nature, while white people, with their higher order thinking and artistic expressions, meaningfully impact our national narratives, our literary heritage, and the production of culture. 

Can we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed? 

American culture and history have been shaped by the voices, inventions and perspectives of a rich variety of people from all walks of life.  The idea of American democracy suggests that every person has value and is capable of contributing to our whole in necessary ways.  It is disingenuous for us to believe this while also pretending as if every important contribution to the common good came from one race of people.  Although this hypocrisy that affirms equality while codifying systems of inequality is one of our great national habits, America itself has nevertheless been deeply influenced by contributions from all types of people. 

In the South we love to think about our culture as one of genuine hospitality, gorgeous grounds, fine food and excellent music.  Because we have a legacy of erasing or diminishing the contributions of people of color, our educations failed to teach us that so many Southern traditions only exist because people of color worked independently or collaboratively with whites to create norms of hospitality in settings we cherish.  In many famed Southern kitchens, black cooks created the recipes published by white chefs, now beloved as Southern heritage.  There is mounting evidence that whiskey distilling was mastered by enslaved men.  Indeed, Jack Daniel’s Distillery now explains that Jack himself learned to distill from a slave named Nearis Green.  Best practices in agriculture, building, sewing and carpentry were perfected by people of color.  I offer these anecdotes to remind us any American historical narrative that does not include the contributions of black people is incomplete. 

Most of us understand that our musical heritage is not complete without the contributions of jazz and the blues, the vast majority of which was created by African Americans.  Jazz and rock n roll were largely commodified by whites but created by black Americans; indeed, Elvis became famous by publishing songs first performed by black folks.  What do we sacrifice if we examine our cultural understanding of ourselves to make room for all those who contributed?  Our educational norms often fail to reflect our entire heritage, but we need not remain in ignorance. 

Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America. 

Some of our best early links between literature, sociology and ethnography were established by black writers like Zora Neale Hurston.  A gifted writer of fiction in her own right, Hurston travelled through Florida recording the stories of African Americans as they experienced the world.  Hurston helped prove that anthropology is incomplete without ethnography and auto-ethnography.  Many of us were taught to celebrate early writers who noticed such cultural differences through travel like Herman Melville or Mark Twain.  Black writers like James Weldon Johnson and Paule Marshall, far less read, continued and advanced this style of writing about the helpful collaborations and differences one discovers as they travel at home and abroad.  Acknowledging the pull of diaspora while claiming our full history speaks powerfully into our current discussions about identity and the ways that we explore national loyalties.  If such voices were celebrated in education then we might be better equipped to now face a world in which citizenship, migration and nationality seem to clash in violent ways. 

In school, many of us were exposed through literature to the tension women face as they struggle to position themselves as whole subjects with needs, wants and the agency to act on those needs and wants.  We read Emily Dickinson or Kate Chopin or Sylvia Plath, celebrating the singularity of their voices.  Many of us were not exposed to writers like Nella Larson or Maya Angelou, though, who wrote compellingly of the intersection of gender and race in a woman’s desire for agency.  Larsen’s work is accessible, exploring the life choices of a disappointed upper class woman in a way that Chopin’s work can’t.  Activists like Sojourner Truth revealed the subtle ways that the voices of black women were diminished, doubted and ignored.  She was a forerunner to feminism, asserting that gender and racial binaries can be used to silence women who do not conform to cultural norms. 

So many voices shaped American identity, and we need not privilege African American contributions at the expense of Anglo Americans.  Our cultural norms, heritage, conceptions of self, and identities are, in fact, shaped by the many brown, black and white voices of America.  Our educational norm is to celebrate and memorialize the white voices, rather than to openly teach a wide variety of perspectives, recognizing the myriad voices that shaped American culture, literature and history.  We are not products of black labor and white innovation; we are the culmination of many voices expressing their God-given giftedness to help us translate and understand experiences of life in America.  Historical erasure ensures that we are victims of this incomplete education.  The hope of this moment is that diminished voices have always existed, we only need to recognize our deficits and do the work to complete our education.  All month I have tweeted books written by people of color.  Follow @ExpandYourUs if you want to start reading!

the destruction of defensiveness: the dodge ad

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, viewed by nearly a third of all Americans, Dodge aired an advertisement found wildly offensive to millions of Americans.  The ad was a mashup of quintessential “American” scenes shown while the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr spoke passionately about the virtue of serving others.  Dodge produced the ad in order to bring awareness to a campaign—called Ram Nation—that is meant to advocate for and celebrate volunteerism in local communities.  In the ad, King reminds us that the desire to be great, to lead, and even to do good are wonderful instincts, but that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”  

Today King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.

The excerpt was taken from a speech King gave at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA, a few months before his death, and is called, “The Drum Major Instinct.”  In it, he discusses the human need to feel superior, and forcefully argues that in individuals this need leads to violent and unjust notions of white supremacy, while at the national level, “the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy,” and that America won’t stop “because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”  The content of King’s speech makes it very clear that he is presenting a new way to find meaning in life, and that new way is accessed when we use our power in order to serve those overlooked by powerful people.  He goes out of his way to reject the idea that abject power and the accumulation of “stuff” (like a Dodge pickup truck, for instance) could ever hope to bring peace.  I’m not here to defend or condemn the ad; instead, I think our response to it offers an excellent showcase of our tendency to get defensive when we encounter points of view that are different than our own.

Defensiveness destroys conversation. 

I understand the instinct.  For many white folks, at times it can feel as if we walk through a field of land mines when it comes to race and history, as if any misstep will cause an explosion.  For many black folks, the constant demand to justify experience, to legitimize a point of view, is diminishing and exhausting.  These common experiences can make everyone feel like their opinions are offensive, or as if they are only safe with “their kind.”  This preference for similarity, combined with countless experiences of being misunderstood or even accused, can make us all defensive instead of patient and engaged when we encounter others. 

I personally found the ad to be an attempt to appropriate a black cultural icon for the profit of a business.  I thought it was in bad taste, as it commodified the words of King in order to sell a brand.  Regardless of my perspective, I am fascinated as I watch the debate unfold.  Friends who live and breathe the work of justice, who see America as King did—a mixed bag of courageous, democratic idealism and hypocritical, oppressive systems—are frustrated by the idea that a company could try to use King to make a profit.  It smacks of a history laden with powerful folks using black labor and creativity to make profits.  On the other hand, I have seen sincere folks begin by saying they were moved by the ad, only to feel attacked, and then react defensively by saying something like, “Am I not allowed to have an opinion? Everytime I even try to talk about Dr. King I end up getting yelled at for doing it wrong!”

Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for.

While millions of people—black and white—have condemned the ad, millions more thought it was a moving tribute to King.  Because defensiveness destroys conversation, we cannot have a productive discussion about why we might (dis)approve of it. Twitter rants about black sensitivity and white appropriation of King abound from every possible angle.

It goes something like this…

Tweeter A: What a moving ad, spot on. Thankful the words of Dr. King are being celebrated and remembered.

Tweeter B:  Only white privilege could make you think that honors Dr. King in any way.

[Tweeter A either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in shame, unsure of why it is bad to celebrate Dr. King.]

Or like this….

Tweeter X: Of course a giant company thinks it’s okay to appropriate Dr. King to help them sell cars, they love black culture but won’t speak up for black lives.

Tweeter Y: You are impossible to please. Only you would complain that Dr. King’s words are being celebrated.

[Tweeter X either explodes with name-calling and defensiveness or withdraws in frustration, feeling unheard and misunderstood.]

Can't we do better than this? It strikes me that this particular ad, and our reactions to it, offer us a fabulous chance to LISTEN to the perspectives of others.  Our country experienced the same ad in vastly different ways, and our responses not only reveal the toxicity of quick defensiveness, they also reveal the deep divide over how we view Dr. King and what he stood for. We love him for his soaring oratory, for dreams he painted in our hearts, for his vision of collaborative respect, his insistence on the power of light, and above all, the centrality of love in the way forward.  We struggle, however, to celebrate the part of him who argued majority culture was “more devoted to order than to justice”; we bristle at his critique of the man who “paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom”; we feel exposed by the man who said the church is in danger of being “dismissed as an irrelevant social club”; we take issue with the leader who proclaimed “we have no alternative but to protest.” 

Our love of Dr. King rises over a society that has escaped what he called the “inescapable network of mutuality”, a society that struggles to hear and honor the hurt experienced by many people, a society so steeped in delusion that we actively work against our pledge to act “with liberty, and justice, for all.”  Our response to the Dodge ad reveals the truth that King is a man largely misremembered by largely delusional people.  Perhaps we would do well to listen to all of his words, and to reflect on our own defensive postures when we encounter disagreement.  As this debate fades from the public sphere, notice how you listen, how you react, and how you appreciate the experience of others before defensively aborting the conversation.