YELLOW/Humanity

MLK’s Supporting Vocals

We’ve all heard the sound clip of MLK’s speech from 50 years ago when thousands joined him and other leaders for the March on Washington. The refrain, “I have a dream” might be even be more recognizable to today’s students than pictures of the man himself. Whatever your social media channel, it has been overrun with pictures and memories from the moment on the mall.

There is no denying that those are powerful words that have a power today few could have imagined 50 years ago. Much has been made about the genius of King who improvised those famous words that day. Somehow they carried a weight and a provocation even more pressing than the fiery words John Lewis had planned for himself that day. He wanted to threaten to march through the South like Sherman but his colleagues convinced him to tone it down, fearing that it would alienate Congress, the President and other supporters.

There were hundreds of voices that made the civil rights movement a movement that could accomplish change. Instilling the story of  Martin Luther King or  the March on Washington with too much magic puts us at risk of losing our ability to recognize the ugly grittiness of standing up to power.

This weekend NPR’s Sound Opinions, “the world’s only rock ‘n roll talk show,” devoted a whole show to the songs of the civil rights movement and they expertly relayed the real experiences of the movement through  its “supporting vocals.” I highly recommend the podcast to you and imagine some of you might even make the same recommendation to your students or children. Jim and Greg, the presenters, do a fabulous job of documenting the ebb and flow of the movement through the history of specific events and the music that accompanied them.

Horrific moments like pulling tortured and mutilated bodies out of the Mississippi River are presented alongside the powerful voices of the Staple Singers who shared their resolve the carry on even as they sang:

Found dead people in the forest

Tallahatchie river and lake

The whole wide world is wonderin’ what’s wrong with the United States

The hour long show expertly navigated around the temptation to celebrate the magic of one day in Washington and instead told the story of the movement with a powerful playlist that more of us should hear:

“Driva Man” by Max Roach & Oscar Brown Jr. featuring Abbey Lincoln, 1960
“How I Got Over” performed by Mahalia Jackson at the March on Washington, 1963
“In the Mississippi River” by the Freedom Singers, 1965
“Mississippi Goddamn” performed by Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall, 1964
A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, 1964
“Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions, 1964
“Freedom Highway” by The Staple Singers, 1965
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by Kim Weston at Wattstax, 1972

I had never heard the track from Nina Simone but instantly recognized its appeal to my punk rock sensibilities. There’s the bounciness of a show tune for a show that, she tells us, is yet to be written. And that bounciness works to emphasize Simone’s raw response to the ugliness of the daily news in “Mississippi Goddamn.”

It pains the imagination to think about what that show might look like…

Perhaps it’s necessary to add a NSFW label to that video but I think there’s every reason to hear the harshness of Simone’s words. Here’s to remembering the thousands who held fast to the courage of their convictions and made it possible for us to remember the magic of the movement while forgetting the horrific stories that challenged their resolve.

 

Reading List: The Warmth of Other Suns

If you’ve ever taught the Civil Rights Movement or even had a conversation about it, there’s a book you should read. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson reminded me of one of my favorite classroom moments talking about the Movement. It also made me re-think what I taught while I was there.

First, that classroom moment… It was Black History month and two of my students asked to interview me about the Civil Rights Movement for the morning’s video announcement program. This was not an easy question for me.

I was not a subscriber to these (sometimes) empty gestures at recognizing the experience of particular groups. I guess it’s risky to admit that. I was sensitive to how these efforts might trivialize real struggles and gut-wrenching experiences. When you walk through the halls of an average school during one of these months, you’ll see faux postage stamps, book jackets and movie posters of the same names and faces. Either the list of famous people for Black History month is short or it’s easier to administer when you provide the same list to all the classes. Consider that students, teachers and administrators do this same dance every year and you can’t help but wonder what we’re teaching students about Black History.*

Did you see Justin Bieber’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live? In a Valentine’s Day / Black History Month mash-up he sings about Maya Angelou inventing the peanut. Or maybe it was Denzel Washington… That’s how silly some of these Black History Month “events” felt to me.

But, in the end, these students were excited to talk about the Civil Rights Movement and to share that conversation with their school community. I had to agree to this very special Black History Month interview.

Prepped with an empty classroom at the end of the day and a little red light on the school video camera, we started the interview. Within minutes the students asked me what it was like to march in the streets with Martin Luther King. I took my first breath of life four years after he was murdered so I was speechless. They stopped the camera.

A short exchange revealed this wasn’t about my being crazy old in their estimate. My teaching had made the Civil Rights Movement real enough, substantive enough and provocative enough that they assumed I knew it. That I REALLY knew it. We then returned to the interview with a little better footing for a conversation about why I thought the Civil Rights Movement was still so important.

And, now, back to the book that answers that question so brilliantly while documenting the lives of people who lived through a complete transformation of the American people. In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson offers a beautiful statement about the African American experience of the mid-20th Century, how it re-shaped the country and continues to influence us today. She chronicles the lives of three individuals, from the harsh details of the lives they decided to leave in the South to their final reflections on the lives they were able to make for themselves in the North.

Wilkerson selected three stories, those of Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, to represent the more than six million African Americans who migrated from the South between 1920 and 1970. Six million people! She expertly demonstrates how this migration changed the South as much as it did the Northern cities where whole communities of southern blacks relocated.

The author’s beautiful language helps the reader see the dissonance these Americans experienced and to understand it didn’t end with their arrival in the North.

Many people who left the South never exactly sat their children down to tell them these things. Tell them what happened and why they left and how they and all this blood kin came to be in this northern city or western suburb or why they speak like melted butter and their children speak like footsteps on pavement, prim and proper or clipped and fast, like the New World itself.”

This is the story of the American Dream turned backwards or inside out. And it’s a story that’s absolutely necessary to know and understand before we can claim to understand the mythology of the American Dream that is casually told and retold a hundred times over. Repetition can engender attachment and affection but it can also hollow out an idea that was once meaningful.

The phrase “white flight” has become so familiar that it hardly conveys anything thought provoking, but Wilkerson makes it a proper horror story. A story Ida Mae’s family likes to re-tell about the vanishing house will shock you. I was so angry I had to stop reading. It took 30 years but Ida Mae’s family had finally saved enough to buy a three-story brownstone in a nice neighborhood where her children could comfortably raise their families. They were proud. It looked like the American Dream, the dream she and her husband had for themselves and their children when they left sharecropping, had finally arrived. The day after they moved in, however, a house across the street disappeared. THE WHOLE HOUSE! As the white families left, the whole character of the neighborhood changed while a lifelong accomplishment for an entire family was eroded away.

Wilkerson’s novel itself is as inspiring as the stories she tells about Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. She brings this “other” version of the American Experience out of the shadows to be seen:

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts.

This quote doesn’t just tell you about the book. It reveals the perseverance present in the three stories and the ambition of the author to make real those long fights of everyday life. So real that you begin to wonder if you could have done it. So real that you wonder if it’s folly to ever discuss the American Dream as something that could stand on its own.

So real that you start to wonder if you’ve ever done justice to that experience when re-telling it in the classroom.

—-

*I am very thankful for school administrators who listened (every year) to my lecture about living history together and teaching it that way. The laugh isn’t lost on me that I’m posting this in Black History Month.

Inauguration 2013: The Bridge between Words and Realities

This bridge between our words and the “realities of our time” is how Barack Obama described our “never-ending journey” in the United States. There is much to think about in the words the President chose for his 2nd Inaugural speech yesterday and the various snapshots the media has provided us of Americans who either made the trek to the nation’s capital or their local coffee shop to watch the event as a community of people. This post is a glancing blow, a first shot at sharing some of the ideas in the air this week.

Many of our alumni are welcoming students back to school today and one in particular is leading a group of students back home from Washington, D.C. I hope they’ll consider sharing their reflections and those of their students. I hope you will also consider sharing your ideas or those you find in the media that are meaningful. Until then, check out some of these stories…

Saying he was inspired by Walt Whimtan’s idea that America contains multitudes, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today,” during the ceremony. Blanco also represents a uniquely American story that enabled his words to convey a certain kind of heft. It’s impossible to choose one verse as the most moving. Perhaps what is the most interesting is how the ONE and the MANY reverberate through each and every stanza. So, you must read the whole thing but here’s one moment in the poem that was especially meaningful to me:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

 

Commentary on the meaning of the moment flooded Facebook and Twitter where the White House’s graphics to accompany the text appeared alongside tributes to Martin Luther King. Too often in this era of 24/7 cable news, commentary is cheap, meaningless and whatever the opposite of thought provoking is (maybe mind-numbing?).

I was grateful for two pieces where the authors aimed to reflect on the moment and the context. James Fallows wrote about “The Two Most Powerful Allusions in Obama’s Speech” for The Atlantic. The two themes he discusses briefly are the “lash and the sword,” which he shows connects to the closing passage of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.” After sharing an excerpt from Obama’s speech, the very first sentence which he claims summarizes the entire thing, Fallows demonstrated how Lincoln, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and George Washington lined up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis:

As in the one-sentence summary at the start of the speech, Obama wants to claim not just Lincoln but also Jefferson, Madison, Adams, George Washington, and the rest as guiding spirits for his kind of progressivism. In this passage he works toward that end by numbering among “our forebears” — those honored ancestors who fought to perfect our concepts of liberty and of union — the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King and other veterans of Selma including still-living Rep. John Lewis, and the protestors 44 years ago at the Stonewall.

After reading much (maybe too much) about the rhetoric and watching a video of Conrell West ranting against Obama’s decision to use MLK’s bible for the swearing in, I went looking for what Ta-Nehisi Coates writing. Also posted on The Atlantic, his reflection on the President’s remarks made an essential point. This is the reason why we should always be careful about dismissing something as “nothing but rhetoric.” Coates writes:

As surely as it has always mattered to homophobes, white supremacists, and chauvinists what was and wasn’t said in the public, it should matter to those of who seek to repel them. What ideas do and don’t get exposed in the public square has to matter to any activist, because movements begin by exposing people to ideas. “I Have a Dream” is not simply important because of whatever civil-rights legislation followed, but because it put on the big American public stage a notion that was long held as anathema — integration. The idea extends beyond legislation.

The moment wasn’t lost on a Chicago high schooler who attended the inaugural event and shared her thoughts with NPR, “I think this is the first time he bluntly said everything he believed in outright to the public and I thought that was phenomenal.” The NPR piece that focuses on this group of Chicago teens and their ideas about Obama was short but invaluable.  That might be what I appreciated most yesterday… hearing the voices of the future consonant with the voices of the past and taking to task the voices of now.

***I very much want to “color code” both texts, Obama’s speech and Blanco’s poem, to bring out each of these groups of people, the past, the future, the now and the people of all times. Expect a future post. If you have ideas for different ways to present these words or to put them into conversation with other familiar forms, please do it and share it with us.

UPDATE: Todd Heuston is trying to escape D.C. with his group of students from South Anchorage High School but shared a sound clip from Alaska Public Radio. Now we can add his voice and those of his students to this collection of reflections on the inauguration. Listen to Todd’s thoughts about Obama’s “broad strokes” and the issues that interested his students this most here.

Politics on the Inside

No, we’re not talking about political insiders. Not those hideous creatures that live inside the much maligned Beltway. We’re talking about one man’s perspective on the truth about politics as he understands it through human experience.

For rapper El-P, all politics is internal to one’s self or to mankind. In an interview on Sound Opinions, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot asked the rapper about the subversive or personalized politics they heard embedded in his music. Jim and/or Greg (I’ve been listening for years but can’t tell their voices apart) asserted that El-P’s music had captured something important about the “tenor of the times.” The host continued to describe a vibe going around the world, and permeating El-P’s music, that urged people to rise up, defend themselves and speak out. It says, “they may not win the battle but the struggle is worth fighting.”

Politicolor has weighed the political statements of favorite songs from the audience’s perspective on several occasions.  We looked at the messages in the music to determine what resonated with a Federalist way of thinking, how certain titles communicate revolution and constituting a new people, and when music seems to multiply the effect of a moment. Prompted by a NYT op-ed written by Bono, I wrote about how music motivated my own early activism as my young self believed whole-heartedly what Bono suggested in that piece, music has the power to change the world. This all made the interview with El-P even more interesting as the artist was asked to comment on the political ideas a couple of avid music-listeners found in his music.

Remarking that many people walk away from his music thinking it’s all negativity, El-P described the message of his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, as one of hope, “but not un-battered hope.”

The artist suggested that transcendent moments come with a price of discussing what is uncomfortable and difficult. Transcending those difficulties, El-P says, requires knowing them and understanding them. He explains that his music is his attempt to explain his perspective on the human experience from his own eyes but also, “from another part of me [El-P] that I’m having to contain on these records. This other voice in me that is terrified and angry and confused. Doesn’t really know how to get to point B from point A without wanting to scream.”

El-P’s admits his latest album, Cancer 4 Cure, sounds like a struggle but he hopes his fans finish the album thinking it  was a good fight…

To me the battle is not out there. I mean, it maybe to some degree, but…

To me the battle is internal. And that’s what the record is about. The idea of cancer for cure, the idea of us being the cancers for our own cure; Of fighting ultimately internal battles. I always had in my head something that someone  told me that said ultimately we all have cancer to some degree and our immune system is just constantly fighting it back.

And I believe that, ultimately, that these are the real truths of the struggles that you’re seeing in the streets right now; and the struggles you’re seeing in the world. Nothing happens and nothing gets emanated from anywhere else except from things other than inside mankind, internally. There are no external factors except weather.

I choose to make my political statements from a personal perspective. Because the times will change and the movements will rise and fall and the talking heads will rotate and there are truths that will remain the same. There will still be a struggle.

 

 

Being Human

We are a people who need a frontier. Carl Sagan provided these words as he reflected on space exploration long before Atlantis launched into space for the last time.

You’ve seen these reflections on Politicolor through our imagined conversation between Cicero and astronaut Michael Collins. As Sagan notes in this video, the space program did not provide “bread on the table” results that changed our everyday. It’s value might be best understood in what it revealed about us and the human experience.

Shifting perspectives reveals as much about previous commitments as it does new ones. We do in fact have plenty of “housekeeping” to do a little closer to the surface of Earth. Do we necessarily have to neglect one or the other? Science dollars are scarce and pushing boundaries doesn’t always require rocket boosters. Another favorite web find last week was Radiolab’s show on “Talking to Machines.” The show  focuses on the idea of artificial intelligence and includes interviews of “The Most Human Human” and the world’s most sentient robot. The universe of an individual’s experience and how that influences the way we relate to one another has proven difficult to program.

My favorite bit from the interview with the world’s most sentient robot:

Q: What does electricity taste like?

A: Like a planet around a star.

Nonsense and brilliant. What’s more interesting than the exchange itself is the quantity of data behind the responses, the algorithms that assess what will make a reliable answer, and the debate over what’s a valid question. Many humans approach chatbots with impossible questions like the one above. When is the last time you asked a colleague what electricity tasted like? Or what the letter M looks like upside down? Or if she has a soul? Perhaps being human is a perfectly banal proposition until we encounter these frontiers of physical space and human intelligence.

For more on this topic of what it means to be human, look to Brain Pickings which posted perspectives from an evolutionary biologist, a philosopher and a neuroscientist. The author wanted to better understand the whole of being human and the wholeness of humanity. Whether it’s a question we confront everyday or only on special occasions, our answer to what it means to be human influences much of what we do. Our struggle to bring order to political societies or even our local communities relies on this understanding of wholeness, of being human.

What then do our frontiers, the ones we pursue and the ones we abandon, reveal about who we are, how we think, and what we want for the future?

Ubuntu and the Birthplace of Cool

I’ve been recently reminded that my own activism has roots in the campaigns for Africa in the 80’s. I convinced my mother to make a donation so I could order a Live Aid t-shirt. I’m sure she hoped the purchase would buy her some quiet time but it wasn’t about the t-shirt for me. I wanted to be a part of something. The t-shirt connected me to concerts in the U.S. and Great Britain, so I wasn’t going to leave the TV when the concert was broadcast.

I know I announced each performer to the whole house. I was convinced my parents and siblings must care as much as I did. I reveled in the idea that music could change the world as Queen, U2, Elton John and George Michael performed. The memorials of Michael Jackson took me back to a few of those moments and Bono’s recent op-ed in the NY Times brings the question of music changing the world back down to earth.

Well, there is a moment where he suggests a tourism slogan for Ghana, “the birthplace of cool” where he imagines “the music of Miles and the conversation of Kofi.” This isn’t the most grounded moment of the piece but demonstrates Bono’s ability to toggle between the celestial possibilities and gritty facts. He celebrates what Ghana has contributed to the world of music and walks through its political and economic accomplishments. Bono suggests Ghana is the new face of Africa where aid money makes the difference we all hoped it would. He looks to the news from the G-8 summit and calls for more aid for Africa. He pleads to a world he believes should see itself in the success and failure in Africa:

Africa is not just Barack Obama’s homeland. It’s ours too. The birthplace of humanity. Wherever our journeys have taken us, they all began there. The word Desmond Tutu uses is “ubuntu”: I am because we are. As he says, until we accept and appreciate this we cannot be fully whole.

This question of wholeness and the suggestion that one people’s success or failure reveals the nature of people in countries far away resonate with the work of the National Academy. Music is a representation of our experience, the world as we know it and sometimes imagine it to be. Changing the world still requires people who are moved by the music and the words to take action. Bono uses both and recurs to political ideals recognizable across international boundaries.

Project Citizen

Having been briefly introduced to Project Citizen at the National Academy, I decided to try it out this year.  It’s an ideal, outcome-based activity as much about the journey as the finish.  And the great thing about the finish is that it’s really just the beginning, for students receive the tools to research and formulate public policy.  In the end, it is incredibly empowering for the kids to discover the pathways through which they can enact change.

A few words from my fourth-graders (non-speakers) when asked today by the panel what they had learned from the experience: “I learned what private domain is.”  “Compromise.”  “Better research skills.”  “How a bill becomes a law.”  “How long it takes to pass a bill.”  “A lot about pollution and landfills.”

In our first few sessions, my 4th-6th grade students narrowed their choices for the project to these rough ideas: Save Bears, Clean-Up Michigan’s Rivers, Fix the Litter in Detroit.  The more we delved into the text, students discovered that those topics really weren’t clear proposals for public policy.  They also gained a ton of knowledge regarding sovereignty, as well as private sphere/civil society/ government.  The more they learned, the more focused their idea became, and their eventual choice–EXPAND MICHIGAN’S BOTTLE LAW–ended up as a wonderful combination of the early favorites.

P1040614 P1040612 P1040613 P1040611

The four areas of the portfolio–PROBLEM, ALTERNATIVE POLICIES, OUR SOLUTION, and ACTION PLAN–serve as a fantastic outline for anyone of any age attempting to bring about change.

The panel presentation in a committee room at the state capitol was the pinnacle of the experience.  Having misjudged time, our project came down to the wire (lesson learned: start early!); as a result, the kids didn’t first benefit and learn from a local session.  However, they could not have done any better than what I witnessed today.  Thorough preparation pays dividends, and I was so proud of my students for presenting without reading from a page.  (It does make a difference, I can tell you, as we were able to observe a high school group who did just that.)

P1040621

We will be participating in Project Citizen next year, and in the years after!  Sincerely, the entire process has been one of the most valuable of my entire teaching career.

If you have any questions about Project Citizen, right down to the tooth ‘n’ nails, feel free to contact me at [email protected], or pose your questions here.