“No sense of identity” and “menaced by a lack of vision” (James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was born on August 2, 1924, which happens to be the same year my grandmother was born. It is strange to think of them being in the same age cohort. That is a rumination for another day!

If you haven’t seen I Am Not Your Negro, do that as soon as you can. This film was so powerful, and use historical footage so well, that I loved and learned from this even more than I thought I would.

James Baldwin (01c)
“James Baldwin (01c)” by rverc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Creative Commons)

My first encounter with James Baldwin was in high school, reading Go Tell it on the Mountain. I just got it last week to re-read again, as I know there were things I didn’t understand the first time, or things I just didn’t “tune into” as I will now reading it as an adult.

The thing I read in the last year or so that absolutely astounded me was his essay (speech transcript?) “A Talk to Teachers”, circa 1963. It is so relevant to today’s world, especially the tension and misunderstandings around critical race theory and education. You can read it in its entirety here: https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/baldwin-talk-to-teachers

One of the most powerful parts for me in this reading of it is below, not only because it is relevant to today but also because I have found this to be true in my own experience. Both as a white person learning history and as a teacher encouraging students to learn the parts of history they have not been taught before I have seen the power of learning the truth as well as believing the lies.

“…It is not really a “Negro revolution” that is upsetting the country. What is upsetting the country is a sense of its own identity. If, for example, one managed to change the curriculum in all the schools so that Negroes learned more about themselves and their real contributions to this culture, you would be liberating not only Negroes, you’d be liberating white people who know nothing about their own history. And the reason is that if you are compelled to lie about one aspect of anybody’s history, you must lie about it all. If you have to lie about my real role here, if you have to pretend that I hoed all that cotton just because I loved you, then you have done something to yourself. You are mad.”

(I think I am going to assign this piece to my Policy students this semester, early on, and use it as a foundation for looking at policies through our country’s history. )

Tools and weapons: “Worship of the written word”

I have been reflecting on pieces of an article and framework this summer by Tema Okun, on traits of white supremacy culture. You can delve into it here, and let me tell you, it is powerful: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/

It has been hard to read and see elements of myself in these traits. What is helpful (and hopeful) is not just the description of the traits, but also some possible antidotes. In other words, there are some things to consider and think about doing differently, whether I am talking about my teaching, my community work, my faith, etc. Okun is clear to say that these traits have to be understood in context of each other, but acknowledges that it is helpful to pull them apart and look at them separately, and I completely agree.

One trait I resonate with is “worship of the written word” . It has been humbling to see all the ways this is manifest in my regular life: if it isn’t in a memo it doesn’t happen, being a grammar police, placing blame when people fail to respond to written communication, etc. Some of this is embedded into my life because of my profession (a teacher) but some of it is….just me. There are several antidotes shared, but one that I appreciate is: to “dedicate time to practicing and honoring other ways of knowing and expression: oral storytelling, embodied learning, visual and movement art, silence, meditation, singing, dancing” I am thinking about all the times I have filled out assessments and conducted interviews with people (or expected them to complete the forms themselves, per agency policy) but have not really had space, or taken time, to build in different types of expression.

How can I appropriately embrace the power of the written word, and shape and encourage students in their use of it? In other words, how can I use the power of written word as a tool and not a weapon? I want my students (and others) to know that writing can be powerful without being perfect. And how can I also embrace other forms of knowledge building and knowledge sharing, as well as story telling and other aspects of oral tradition? I am thinking about this as we approach the beginning of a new semester!

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

Myles Horton: Ally, accomplice, disruptor

Today is the birthday of Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander Folk School (now called The Highlander Center) in Tenn. Still the site of training for organizers and activists of all ages, Highlander was heavily involved in labor rights organizing and in the the civil rights work in the 50’s and 60’s. The Highlander Folk School, among other things, was a place of respite and planning for Martin Luther King Jr., Septima Clark and Rosa Parks and others, and was also the site of voter registration training sessions for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Police file on Myles Horton, Alabama Photographs and Pictures Collection, accessed at https://digital.archives.alabama.gov/digital/collection/photo/id/1633

If Myles Horton were alive today he would probably be called an ally, or–even more active–an “accomplice”. He surely was a disruptor and someone who knew what it meant to love his neighbor. He was not afraid to get in “good trouble”. He grew up in poverty in rural Tennessee, and while he was able to gain education in a traditional sense (completing an undergraduate degree at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tn) he believed in the power of “problem posing education”, espoused by Paulo Freire. Like Freire, Myles Horton believed in the value of the relationship among teachers and learners. It is through relationship and engagement with each other and the world, along with critical thinking, that answers are found.

This is the kind of teaching and learning that changes us, and when I first learned about Horton (and Freire), I knew I had found “my” pedagogy.

This Bill Moyers interview with Myles Horton is long, but beautiful. I have shared sections of it with students in my community organizing class:

Here is the website for the Highlander Research and Education Center: https://highlandercenter.org/ where you can learn about its history as well as its current work and opportunities you can be a part of, whether it is you, your students, family, church group or others.

This is also a great resource, the SNCC Digital Gateway/ The whole site is great, but this specifically is a link to the page on Myles Horton: https://snccdigital.org/people/myles-horton/

The Water Dancer

This book was both hard (on the heart) to read and impossible to put down. This is a narrative about families who were torn apart by enslavement, and people who became family to each other. It is about people who played at Christianity and hung onto power at the expense of others” lives. It is the backdrop of our present. It is about the power of remembering and being remembered. And the words throughout are haunting and beautiful. “May you find a love that love you, even in these shackled times.”

Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story

I have written here before about Dorothy Day and her lived out principles of personalism, “the little way” and the works of mercy: https://teachingbeloved.com/2020/10/31/dorothy-day-and-some-early-thoughts-for-post-election-intentional-living/) Today while going through some old emails that I had saved, I came across a reminder for this episode of the Tokens show podcast, Dorothy Day: Traditional, Radical, Christian: https://www.tokensshow.com/blog/s1e7-dorothy-day-traditional-radical-christian

In this episode, I learned about the film Revolution of the Heart: The Dorothy Day Story and found out you can access it online via PBS online: https://www.pbs.org/video/revolution-of-the-heart-the-dorothy-day-story-lwz697/

I love the history and the implications for current times (Christian faith and progressive social action) and the interviews with Dorothy’s granddaughter that shed more light on how the pursuit of justice and the true attempt to live out the reality that “I am my brother’s keeper” shaped her and her family.

My “deep gladness” and the world’s “deep hunger”, and conversations with my children

I have not felt motivation to write lately, or frankly, to do much of anything. I am struggling some with post-quarantine re-entry and while I am thankful to have the vaccine and some safety to “move about the cabin” of the world, I am not feeling quite myself in terms of being with people. I am thankful for my people who have, and who are, hanging in there with me while I go through this season.

I have been trying to be intentional about showing gratitude, even (or maybe especially) in this season and one of the things that brings me joy and helps me find purpose is working with students. I am grateful for a way to earn a living and live out my calling in the same context.

Frederick Buechner, Presbyterian minister and author, says that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. I believe God has called me to this place of working with students and helping them learn to engage with the world and its needs. This calling into higher education is an evolution from my initial calling into social work practice, which is a call I still hear and still heed.

I have also been hearing another call in the past few years, to speak out, in little ways and large ways, about oppression and racism. Of all my callings, this is probably the hardest one for me to feel confident in and I wonder… maybe I am not supposed to be fully confident as my discomfiture keeps me humble.

I have the honor and privilege of having a good many conversations with students about their callings (even if they use different words) and I have a gracious plenty resources on the topic. But of all the ones I have, the two I refer to the most and the two I keep coming back to are this one by Buechner, and the piece by Vincent Harding (theologian, leader in the Civil Rights movement, father, teacher, etc) entitled, simply, “I hear them calling”.

In this piece, Harding recounts the voices that have shaped him over the years: his family, the church of his childhood, his teachers, the media, the voices of his ancestors. His calling to be in the Movement made him realize how little he knew of history. His calling to be a husband and father transformed him. Throughout his life he continued to heed the call of the creation of the beloved community, and he “heard voices more loudly than ever before”.

Me, a white southern woman “of a certain age”, raised to be polite, in a faith tradition that has not historically heard the voices of women….I feel an unlikely candidate to speak out against racism and oppression. But, as Harding said repeatedly “callings are strange things”.

In my not-actively-writing phase, I have been jotting down ideas that I want to capture about this calling, and how it is showing up in my teaching and in my family life and other relationships. Hopefully, I will eventually get to writing them.

Here’s something: we finally finished our family read aloud of Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism and You. This is geared toward middle schoolers but unless you are a very intentional student of all (and I mean ALL ) of the world’s and US history there will be learning for all ages in this book. We had some good conversations that stemmed from it, and also some periods of discomfort and anger: as we should.

“Nothing but legal, modern slavery, however kindly intentioned” (Malcolm X)

I have written here before about my work in child welfare (on disproportionality here https://teachingbeloved.com/2020/07/06/reflections-of-a-baby-addict-we-have-to-address-disproportionality-in-child-welfare/) and on the Do No Harm podcast here https://teachingbeloved.com/2021/01/08/teaching-with-the-do-no-harm-podcast/ and possibly some other mentions here and there about my love for children because it is a love that is deep and wide.

This is a picture book about Malcolm Little, who grew up to be Malcolm X. In his biography, Malcolm X talks about how the child “protection” system decimated his family

And yet…the past few months I have been reading some proposals on and calls for the abolishment of the child welfare system as we know it. And I can’t help but agree. Even when I was doing child welfare work as a young (possibly too young) professional, I knew that there were families we (the system, and my role in it) had made less stable because of our work. And there were other families where the court ordered supports we offered them were not what the family would have found to be the most helpful. While I felt lucky that I worked at an organization that wasn’t CPS, and thereby had more degrees of flexibility, I knew that there was inequity in the system. I saw it.

The increasing attention we are paying to ACEs and to the need for strengthening parent capacity is one piece of an answer, I think. We are recognizing that we need to be proactive in supporting families before crisis happens. However, until our practices catch up completely, we also need to attend to the fact that our current system of child protection too often falls short of the general child welfare goals of SAFETY, PERMANENCY AND WELL BEING .

Here is one of the pieces that has been the most convicting to me, https://www.risemagazine.org/2020/10/conversation-with-dorothy-roberts/ and I plan to use one of Dr. Roberts’ books the next time I teach a child welfare class. The excerpt below is a useful frame for thinking about what alternatives could look like:

Ending the system doesn’t mean leaving people to fend for themselves in a society that is structured unequally. We are talking about transforming society, including making structural changes at a societal level and changes in our communities. Ending structural racism is a tall order, but we need to work toward that. We need to care for families by providing housing and food, as well as universal, equal and free health care and education. At a community level, we need to care for each other without relying on violent systems like police, prisons, and child removal. It involves mutual aid and figuring out how to deal with families’ problems and needs and the conflict and violence that occurs in families, in ways that are not punitive, inhumane, violent and terroristic.

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (James Baldwin)

One of the things I am proudest of for this spring semester is that I was able to get students interested in history…the history that isn’t often told in school, to be specific.

The first session of my Social Movement/Social Change class happened on January 13, a week after the events at the Capitol. I started the first class with sharing a poem by Lucille Clifton (see below) and we talked about that poem and what they thought it meant.

Out of a class of 26, not too many people offered their thoughts on this first day. Throughout the course of the semester, though, they became so engaged in discussion on various topics that we never got finished with all I hoped we would in a session. We were learning about the abolitionist movement, and about early resistance by indigenous peoples, and about workers’ rights movements at various stages, and women’s movements from suffrage to #metoo, and the United Farmworker’s strikes and the Chicano student sit ins and so much about the Civil Rights work in the south…throughout all of these sessions and more, at some point a student would say “why didn’t I learn this in school?” I heard this from students who went to private schools, academic magnets, charter schools, and public schools of all spectrums (rural, urban, suburban).

The book we used for the course is one I featured here, https://teachingbeloved.com/2020/11/21/we-the-resistance/ and I still heartily recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about what they didn’t learn in social studies or history. The book is made up of primary documents with just a little bit of overview in front of each by the editor, Michael Long.

There were numerous other resources I shared with students over the course of the semester as well, and some of the ones were related to envisioning how we could teach history in a less whitewashed fashion. These were the favorites in terms of usefulness, and a couple of students even used them for their final assignment in which they created lesson plans for elementary, middle school, or high school teachers with respect to specific topics.

Teaching for the Culture: https://teachingfortheculture.com/

Learning for Justice: https://www.learningforjustice.org/

Teaching for Change: https://www.teachingforchange.org/

Facing History and Ourselves https://www.facinghistory.org/

On the last day of the semester, I ended where we began, with the Lucille Clifton poem above. They had SO MUCH to say about what it meant, and it was rejuvenating to hear it. Like, “I wish I had recorded it” level of inspiration.

My favorite line on a student’s reflective paper at the end of the semester was how they planned to do some independent study on their own this summer about social movements and change efforts in their own state, both current and past, because “…I am now suspicious that the state of Texas didn’t teach me everything I should have learned about Texas history.”

“…it takes a whole hand—both hands—to grab hold of hatred”

Today is the anniversary date of what is often referred to (in Tennessee) as the Waffle House shooting. That is an accurate description as far as names go but one that has always felt too impersonal, because part of the loss of life in this shooting was personal to me. One of the people who was killed was my student, DeEbony Groves. She was a social work major and a student to me; more importantly, she was a daughter, a sister, a friend. She frequently ran late, she was a lover of Chick-fil-A, she was a hard worker, working 2 part time jobs while taking a full load of hours each semester. She made bold choices in hairstyles. She was generous with what she had. She believed in sisterhood. She had faith. She had amazing facial expressions and when she sat in the front row of class, you always knew exactly what she was thinking in terms of whatever was being discussed. I could tell you other things about her, but here’s the most important thing:


Her life, and the lives of three others, were cut short due to a senseless tragedy. Beyond the 4 people who were killed, there were others wounded and they along with others who still deal with the trauma of this event.

There are many ways you can honor and remember their loss and pain, across classroom and community settings. On the first anniversary, I had a “teach in” and students learned about public safety measures in their own states that were proposed to address gun violence. Whether you have in person discussions or virtual events or just point people to information and ask them to call or visit their decision makers…we have to do something.

Jason Reynolds is talking about racism in STAMPED: Racism, Antiracism and You when he says “we must be players on the field, on the court, in our classrooms and communities, trying to do right. Because it takes a whole hand—both hands—to grab hold of hatred. Not just a texting thumb and a scrolling index finger.” But, the same principle applies here (and heaven knows there are crossovers in the issues).

If you don’t know where to start in terms of information, here are some of my “go to” sites: Moms Demand Action (https://momsdemandaction.org/) and Every Town (https://everytownsupportfund.org/) and the APHA (https://www.apha.org/Topics-and-Issues/Gun-Violence)

And, De Ebony’s amazing, strong, resilient mother has created this foundation to serve and support others: http://deebonygrovesfoundation.org/ Check it out too.

“Joy is an act of resistance” (and into every life a little RAIN must fall)

In 2020 I happened upon a group called the Resistance Revival Chorus and they have been on steady repeat in my playlists ever since. At the end of one of their songs, they share that the poet Toi Derricotte says “Joy is an act of resistance”.

I have said that many times since then, and I agree with it, but in the past few days I have wished I could feel it on a cellular level. I am “pandemic good” (i.e. good all things considered) but so weary of so many things. I feel burnt out in so many ways and have a hard time remembering what even brings me joy. I feel unvalued and unworthy and did I mention exhausted. I had both rage and tears, all before 7:30 this morning. It was a dark beginning.

And I do believe that to be able to choose joy in these moments is an amazing act of resistance. But I didn’t have any pool of joy to pull from. Enter RAIN.

I am not a woo-woo person, and sometimes when people talk about mind/body connections I just don’t get it. I see the importance of it but I don’t get it. I don’t like to meditate in a traditional sense. I am not really good at practicing mindfulness but I am working on it.

So…about a year ago I learned this RAIN method of tuning in to what I am feeling and sensing what it is I need. As I mentioned, I am still learning to practice this and learning it is okay to feel my feelings, the whole range of them. You can learn more about it here and practice the technique with a guided recording as well: https://www.mindful.org/investigate-anxiety-with-tara-brachs-rain-practice/

R—Recognize What Is Happening

A—Allow Life to Be Just as It Is

I—Investigate ­with a Gentle, Curious Attention

N—Nurture with Loving Presence

I have practiced this a couple of times today alone. (As I mentioned, it has been a day.) And there was a space in between where I had a chance to choose joy, and I did. And it felt good.

As Victor Frankl noted: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Here’s to recognizing more spaces.