Archive for Privilege

Delights

If you have yet to read Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights (2019), here is an invitation to pick it up. A collection of 102 brief essays he wrote over the course of a year, the book is about the possibility — the necessity — of attentiveness to joy in the world. We live in dark times, and the book does not ignore that. Gay’s sense of delight is capacious, including appreciating beauty, understanding fear, enjoying music, considering the insights gained from pain.

Let me give you an example — one I have shared with many friends, since first I read the book back in March.

The phrase “communities of sorrow” does not appear in Gay’s The Book of Delights.  But the idea does.  Gay writes:

     Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.
     And what if the wilderness — perhaps the densest wild in there — thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?) — is our sorrow? Or, to use [Zadie] Smith’s term, the “intolerable.” It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we are all afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. In this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness?
     Is sorrow the true wild?
     And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that?
     For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
     What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
     I’m saying: What if that is joy?

I find myself drawn to this because I’ve come to really appreciate sadness. Sadness connects us to others. As Gay suggests, it binds all of us humans together because we all carry within us sadness and pain. It is an affective opening-up, and in this sense sadness is the opposite of depression. When I mentioned this idea to my therapist, he said that there are many flavors of depression, and that I was describing anhedonic depression.  So, revise the previous sentence to say that anhedonic depression is an affective break with the world, an inability to feel.  But sadness offers — or, at least, can offer — a deeper connection to the world, and to our fellow humans.  On the Venn Diagram of emotions, sadness overlaps with love.

The previous paragraph is one of my delights. Since reading Gay’s book, I have been trying to be more attentive to delights. After mentioning this to Mark Newgarden in New York, in May, he asked was I writing these down? I was not. So, in June, I began keeping a kind of diary. I call it “Daily Delights,” even though I don’t write in it every day. Here are four more.


From 26 June, Manhattan, Kansas. Upon finishing my swim, I pulled myself out of the pool as another swimmer — who had just arrived — remarked to the swimmer in the adjacent lane that she knew she wouldn’t need to wait for a lane because I was predictable.  Smiling, I said, “What do you mean? I warmed up the lane for you.” After a brief, good-natured conversation, I wished her a good swim, said that I was glad to be so predictable, and began to amble off to the showers. Worried that she may have insulted me, she walked a few steps with me to explain herself. I assured her that I understood and that I was indeed predictable.

Our conversation prompted this reflection. “Predictable” is one of those few words that renders a negative judgment both as itself and as its negation. To say that a person is “unpredictable” conveys the notion that he/she is unreliable, potentially volatile, emotionally unstable, or even unhinged. Though it should be complimentary, “predictable” — when applied to a person — generally means “boring.” If we want to compliment someone’s predictability, we instead say that she/he is reliable. Or, if we want to praise unpredictability, we may call a person surprising or, perhaps, exciting. And, yet, of course, we are all of us a mixture of predictability and unpredictability. I may reliably swim for 40 minutes at the same time of the day or typically jog the same two routes. But I also embrace the unpredictability of travel, where my jogging route is not the only thing that changes. Life is a balance between the need for surety and enjoyment of change, the comfort of the expected and of finding joy in what we did not anticipate.


From 7 July, Berlin. I often say that time abroad affords me a much-needed mental-health holiday. Which it does. And lately I’ve taken to joking that I’m hiding from the U.S. — that’s why I’m traveling to so many places. I have to keep moving!

It would be more accurate to say that time abroad grants perspective. It gives me space. It provides a distance from which I can think. It allows me to reclaim my mental space more fully.

Donald Trump is a parasite who colonizes human consciousness. Placing an ocean between myself and the parasite diminishes its power. Temporarily.

It’s a bit like putting some distance between yourself and King Leck (in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels). In the case of Bitterblue and Katsa (though few others in the realm), the distance — and ultimately, the death of Leck — helps the fog lift and clarity return.


From 27 July, Vienna, after spending a long time staring at Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (c. 1666-1668) in the Kunst Historisches Museum: There should be a term for the experience of looking at realistic paintings after seeing a Vermeer. The (unfair) comparison makes everything else feel a bit flat. You feel that you could step into a Vermeer, as if what you have seen is not just canvas but window or portal. I spent more time looking at the Vermeer than I did any other piece of art in the museum. I had a similar experience with Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, on display at the Alte Pinakothek in München in the fall. The experience of looking at a Vermeer is almost hypnotic. And you need to be there, in the gallery, looking at it. No reproduction of Vermeer has quite the same effect.


From 7 August, Edinburgh. Days are so full of thoughts and impressions. Impossible to note even just the interesting ones and keep experiencing the day. I had that thought this evening, darting between and among the umbrella’d and the uncovered, as the rain fell, but more lightly than earlier in the afternoon/evening.

Or, more succinctly: It is impossible to both live life and chronicle it fully.


In conclusion, I’d say this: inasmuch as it is possible, do not let malevolent leaders, oppressive systems, collapsing climate, etc. rob of you your own capacity for joy. I realize this is hard — and harder for those who are the direct targets of the regime’s* cruelty. I am grateful for — and acknowledge my own privilege in having — business, family, and friends that enabled me to travel this summer. I should also add that there are also more troubling thoughts chronicled amidst my delights — omitted from this narrative, even though making sense of my tangled mind is in fact one of my delights. OK. That’s all. Find delight where you can. Take care of yourselves.


* I am thinking of Mad King Donald’s regime, but feel free to insert any of the many others we have to choose from: Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and now — it seems — Boris Johnson…

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Context, Privilege, and Pain

Last month, there was some on-line discussion about this quote (from me) in a CNN.com article:

But Nel argues that the answer isn’t simply removing “problematic” children’s classics like Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which uses the N-word 219 times, from school reading lists.

Such stories, “if used carefully, appropriately and in context can be a way to educate people about racism,” he says.

Teaching problematic children’s classics can allow children of color to critique and disagree with a book, express anger at oppression and find the language to talk about racism while also teaching white children to identify racist ways of thinking and challenge their own racialized assumptions, Nel explains.

My thanks to all who have participated in this conversation, and my apologies for joining it a little late.

Mica Kennedy (@MicaKenBooks on Twitter) embeds the above quotation and then asks, “These texts are inherently damaging — yet somehow, it’s the job of black children to rise above and make this a teaching moment?  I. Think. The. Hell. Not.”

Dr. Debbie Reese (@debreese on Twitter) writes, “This CNN article quoting Philip Nel just makes me angry each time I look at it. Native/Kids of color will do what?!”

In response, Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@booktoss on Twitter) writes, “There is so much wrong with the paragraph. So, so, so wrong. Mostly, @philnel’s white privilege is visible. Hell, his privilege is having a damn parade!”

These critics helpfully highlight the context absent from that quotation, and I am grateful to them for doing so. While such texts can provide a teaching moment, it is not the job of Black children to (if I may quote Mica Kennedy) “rise above and make this a teaching moment.” I can see how the above quotation might convey that impression, but I emphatically do not recommend a pedagogical practice that relies upon Black, indigenous, and children of color to educate their peers. Thanks to Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, and Dr. Jimenez for their critiques.

This blog post is my attempt to publicly counter the potential harm that may be done if people walk away from the CNN.com article with the wrong impression. I wouldn’t want the excerpted quotation to enable the perpetuation of racist harm in classrooms. For example, let us imagine that a child or parent of color objects to a teacher’s inclusion of Huckleberry Finn or Little House on the Prairie, and this teacher then cites that quotation as justification for his or her argument. Indeed, should that (or something similar to that) happen, please direct the teacher to this blog post. Then, you can tell the teacher, “Actually, no. That is not what he meant at all.”

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)Here’s a little context missing from the CNN.com quotation, but present in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (2017). Bowdlerized versions of racist classics aspire to remove the racism but instead re-encode it more subtly. So, if (and only if) one is going to read those books, better to read the un-Bowdlerized versions and to do so in context — in the context of books that offer accurate representations and that debunk the racism.

That said, and as also noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, there are excellent reasons for not teaching or reading such books at all. Here are two paragraphs from Chapter 2 of the book:

Advocates of bowdlerizing or banning these novels correctly point to the powerful role that the original versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Doctor Dolittle have played in dehumanizing people of color. As New York librarian Isabelle Suhl wrote in 1968, “what justification can be found by anyone—and I ask this particularly of those adults who still defend Lofting—to perpetuate the racist Dolittle books? How many more generations of black children must be insulted by them and how many more white children allowed to be infected with their message of white superiority?” Racist texts can inflict real psychic damage on children of all races, but the child who is a member of the targeted group sustains deeper wounds than the child who is not. The racial ideologies of Dahl, Lofting, Travers, and Twain all but ensure that children who are (and have historically been) the targets of prejudice will suffer in ways that White children will not. The White child who encounters the n-word or Prince Bumpo or an Oompa-Loompa has the unearned privilege of not seeing people of her or his race being stereotyped. That said, as Suhl notes, such books damage White children, too, conveying to them that they are more important, and that dominating people of color is acceptable. Prejudice harms different groups in different ways, and its harmful effects are not distributed equally. Even assigning such a text risks reinforcing structural racism.

Indeed, there is a case to be made for removing racist books from grade-school curricula. Julius Lester has admitted that he is “grateful that among the many indignities inflicted on me in childhood, I escaped Huckleberry Finn.” He adds that, “as a black parent,” he sympathizes “with those who want the book banned, or at least removed from required reading lists in schools. While I am opposed to book banning, I know that my children’s education will be enhanced by not reading Huckleberry Finn.” John H. Wallace goes even further, arguing that Huckleberry Finn “should not be used with children. It is permissible to use the original Huckleberry Finn with students in graduate courses of history, English, and social science if one wants to study the perpetuation of racism.” We could develop this line of reasoning further, and argue that the best way to hasten the decline of a racist classic—and thus the racism it may propagate—is not to teach it at all, at any level.

Julius Lester on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn

The chapter then goes on to explore how racist children’s books — used in context of accurate, anti-racist children’s books — might be pedagogically useful. And it is quite specific in calling out the racism of these novels. For instance, as Jonathan Arac, Julius Lester, and many others have pointed out, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is not the progressive anti-racist classic that it’s promoted as being.

Satire or Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry FinnFor more on why not to teach Huckleberry Finn, see Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, edited by James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis (1992). The book includes Julius Lester’s “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and John H. Wallace’s “The Case Against Huck Finn,” both of which I quote above.  See also Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (1997), which addresses how the novel’s “hypercanonization” has obscured its racism.


On the potential dangers that racist literature poses to Black, indigenous, and children of color, see Oyate’s “Living Stories”.


For advice on how to tell whether a book is racist, see Oyate’s “How to Tell the Difference” and “Additional Criteria.”

Racism damages everyone, but inflicts greater pain on its targets. As I say in the CNN.com article, “The stories that children read at a young age tell them who matters and who doesn’t matter, who’s human and who isn’t human. A story doesn’t have to tell us that explicitly. It can tell us that by failing to represent certain groups of people — omission tells us that these groups of people are not important.”

*   *   *   *   *

Thanks to Allie Jane Bruce for alerting me to the existence of this debate. When the CNN article ran, I was (and still am) traveling, and so I noted the appearance of the piece but didn’t have a chance to do more than glance at it.

Goodbye Facebook

As you may or may not have noticed, my use of social media has declined over the past year or so. I check in on Facebook once every couple of weeks. I am still on Twitter, but (with the exception of three days in Atlanta and two in England) have been on Central European Time since the first of August. So, I am sure I’m missing conversations that I should be noticing.

I also don’t fault the CNN piece for lacking the full context. Several reasons. First, the exigencies of news media tend to lose the nuances. Elisions are endemic to the medium. Second, journalism is a tough job: writers have to balance a range of information in a very compact form, and yet manage to sustain a reader’s attention. They also may not have full editorial control. A third reason that this may not be the journalist’s fault at all: I have no recollection of the interview. When the journalist kindly wrote me to say that the piece had been published, I then noted (via our earlier embedded emails at the bottom of the note) that we had talked back in April. So, during our interview, it’s entirely possible that I failed to emphasize the context provided above. If that’s the case, then the fault is entirely mine.

Two more concluding thoughts. First, I should not take for granted that everyone is aware of the unavoidable elisions and compressions of the news media. Over the course of my career, I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. As a result, I take for granted that the entire arc of one’s argument may not appear in full. However, I recognize that my experience is unusual and so I need to do a better job monitoring — and, in cases like this, responding to — how statements are represented.

Second, and as noted in Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,

While it is impossible to grow up in a racist culture and not absorb some of its messages, it is very easy to be unconscious of what you have absorbed. That is how dominant ideologies work: their messages seep in subtly, persistently, without your noticing. When I was preparing to teach the book in a college class, I picked up Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo for the first time. As I read it, I had the unsettling experience of realizing that I already knew the story. This was not the first time I had encountered Little Black Sambo. Had I read Bannerman’s version? Or perhaps an edition with more grotesque racial caricature, such as John R. Neill’s? What other half-remembered stories (suffused with racial caricature or otherwise) were lurking in my subconscious? As I mentioned in the introduction, only when I reflect upon the racist culture of my childhood—the Gollies, the Uncle Remus stories, Little Black Sambo, the near-absence of narratives featuring people of color—can I begin to contemplate how it shaped my own racial and, yes, racist assumptions about other people. A writer, artist, or critic may not intend to perpetuate stereotypes, but—especially when left unexamined—ideology trumps intention…. [W]ell-intentioned people can still act in ways that reinforce racism, unaware that they are doing so. Since the United States is such a segregated country, White people live in an environment structured to prevent our awareness of race and racism. These geographies and the culture itself make it easy for Whites to avoid reflecting upon our raced selves. All who work in the field of children’s literature and culture need to reflect, and strive to do better.

As the critiques generously provided by Ms. Kennedy, Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez and others indicate, I need to do better.  Here are some resources to help all of us do better:

  • American Indians in Children’s Literature, established in 2006. Debbie Reese’s site offers “critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.”
  • Brown Bookshelf, established in 2007: “A group of authors and illustrators who came together to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers.”
  • CrazyQuiltEdi‘s Diversity Resources, from Edi Campbell.
  • Latinxs in KidLit. As it says, “Exploring the world of Latinx YA, MG, and children’s literature.”
  • Lee & Low Books have many diversity initiatives, including the Diversity Baseline Survey for publishers, its Diversity Gap Studies, and many blog posts on diversity, race, and representation.
  • Oyate’s Resources “that teach respect for Native peoples, and help parents and educators to provide their children with historically accurate, culturally appropriate information about Native peoples.”
  • Reading While White, a group of White librarians pledges to “hold ourselves responsible for understanding how our whiteness impacts our perspectives and our behavior.” They publish thoughtful essays and book reviews, and offer useful resources. As they say, “As White people, we have the responsibility to change the balance of White privilege.”
  • Research on Diversity In Youth Literature, open-access journal edited by Sarah Park Dahlen and Gabrielle Halko.
  • Teaching for Change, founded in 1990, is dedicated to using education to promote social justice. As its website explains, it “provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world.” The organization offers an anti-bias curriculum, resources for teaching about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, recommended books, and ways for parents to get involved.
  • We Need Diverse Books is Ellen Oh, Malinda Lo, and Aisha Saeed’s “grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.” It includes resources for writers (including advice, awards, and grants) and readers (on where to find diverse books), and opportunities for you to get involved.

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Again. And Again. And… ENOUGH!

I can’t watch the latest videos of police murdering black men. I feel that I should watch them, to bear witness. But… the depressing regularity of these videos threatens to engulf me in despair. So, I am not watching the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Instead, I will write a few words — expressing sentiments I’ve shared before and that others have expressed more eloquently.

#BlackLivesMatterLet’s start with three words: black lives matter. If you are tempted to respond “all lives matter,” please don’t. Of course all lives matter. But all lives are not equally at risk. Black lives are much more susceptible to being cut short — by police, by stand-your-ground enthusiasts, by others. And that’s why we need to say black lives matter, but we don’t need to say all lives matter. If I see red flashing lights in my rear view mirror, and a member of the police signaling me to pull over, I do not fear for my life. I am calm because I am white. When a person of color sees those red flashing lights, his or her experience tends to be quite different. Hundreds of years of brutalization at the hands of the law can make a non-white person view representatives of that law more warily.

To say the least.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American LyricAs Jesse Williams observed a couple of weeks ago, “we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day.”

Or, as Claudia Rankine writes,

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

If you haven’t read her Citizen or watched Williams’ speech, please take the time to do so.

I don’t for a minute believe that adding my words to their (far more eloquent) words will end police brutality, or transform America’s profoundly racist system of justice. Did the oxymoronic coupling of those last four words pass you by? Let’s revisit them: racist system of justice. In other words, it’s a system of justice which is not just. Until it is not racist, it is also not justice. This is why Williams also said, “we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor on people routinely targeted by police

While I do not believe that my individual words will make a difference, I do believe that if enough people speak up, we can change the system, move it closer to justice.

I also believe that, as the primary beneficiaries of white supremacy, it is white people’s responsibility to end white supremacy. Stay with me here, fellow white people, and I’ll explain what I mean.

As a white person, I am a direct beneficiary of American racism. Every day. Let’s start with the fact that I have never been the target of racism. I’ve never been asked why I speak so “white.” Nor have I ever been asked to speak for all white people. While shopping, I’ve never been tailed by a store detective. My job application has never been passed over because my name looked “ethnic.” And red flashing lights in my rear view mirror do not make me mortally afraid. I could write a much longer list, but my point is that the unearned privileges of whiteness accrue over time. For non-white people, the penalties and their attendant psychic stresses also accrue over time. In other words, white supremacy not only grants me advantages; it actively penalizes non-whites. Every day.

I say this because a lot of white people fail to realize that you don’t have to actively support white supremacy in order to be a beneficiary of white supremacy. All white Americans are beneficiaries of white supremacy, whether they want to be or not. Our privilege conveniently conceals itself from us, and so we don’t notice our unearned advantages. As a result, we also don’t notice that those privileges are built on the oppression of others.

In other words, recognizing white privilege is not an occasion for hand-wringing or white guilt. It is instead an occasion for recognizing that whiteness makes all white people complicit in a system that disenfranchises, terrorizes, and murders people of color. Yes, we whites can and should mourn the loss of yet another black person. But we also need to ask ourselves what it feels like to be beneficiaries of the system that murdered Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and so many others.  As Naomi Murakawa puts it, rather than trying to imagine that you can feel black pain, you should instead ask yourself what it feels like to live in “a country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people… What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name?”

Start there.  Start with recognizing your complicity.  And then act.

Further reading

  • James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers” (originally published in The Saturday Review, 21 Dec. 1963). “any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic.  On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war.  He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.”  He is part of a country in which anyone can become president, and so forth.  But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization – that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”
  • Britt Bennett, “White Terrorism Is as Old as America” (New York Times, 19 June 2015). “This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. … A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Reparations for Ferguson.” (The Atlantic. 18 Aug. 2014). “The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations” (The Atlantic, 21 May 2014). Long and well worth your while.
  • Michael Eric Dyson, “What White America Fails to See” (New York Times, 7 July 2016). “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”
  • David Graham, “The Second Amendment’s Second-Class Citizens” (The Atlantic, 7 July 2016). “The two shootings give a strong sense that the Second Amendment does not apply to black Americans in the same way it does to white Americans.”
  • Sally Kohn, “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter” (Washington Post, 6 Aug. 2015).
  • Chuck Wendig, “I Am a Racist and a Sexist and Probably Some Other –Ists, Too.” (Terrible Minds, 23 Nov. 2014)
  • Dan Zanes, “Be Less Racist: 12 Tips for White Dudes, by a White Dude” (The Mashup Americans, n.d.)

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For Mom

My mother was my first best friend. My mother is the reason I have succeeded in life. My mother is the reason I managed to live through adolescence.

There have been many other important influences. Let’s not forget my sister, stepfather, friends, teachers, neighbors, and the many patient people who have managed to put up with me over the years. It takes a village, as they say. Growing up, I needed several villages, plus the occasional hamlet, borough, and suburb. My path to adulthood (such as it is) hasn’t exactly been smooth.

When I was in first grade, the teacher asked us, “What’s your favorite thing to do?” I answered, “Special Time.” A few times a week, my mother would set aside time — maybe 15 minutes, maybe a half hour — when she would play with just one of her two children. For that period of time, you had her undivided attention. She called it “Special Time.” It was.

Gloria and Phil read Richard Scarry, 16 May1971

This is why I say that she was my first best friend. True, despite my shyness, I did make friends with kids from the neighborhood and from school: there were several best friends during my grade-school years. But mom was the first.

I did not, at the time, think of her as my first best friend. I’ve only come to realize this in retrospect. About a year ago, while listening to the Dear Sugar podcast on “When Friendships End,” Emily Chenoweth spoke of her mother being her first best friend. And I thought: Exactly! My mother was my first best friend, too.

Unlike most friends (best or otherwise), my mother loved — and loves — me unconditionally.

I took this for granted at the time. Now, however, I realize how truly miraculous such a relationship is. I know people who had a mother addled by addiction, or who left the family, or whose own childhood left her too damaged to love well, or who died young, or who failed to protect her children from an abusive spouse. I know plenty of folks who have had wonderful mothers, too. But the unconditional love of a parent is not a given.

Her love kept me from killing myself. As a depressed teen-ager, I thought about suicide more often than I’d like to admit, and considered many different ways of doing it (slit wrists & lie in bathtub? use sleeping pills? asphyxiate in garage with car on? Etc.). To quote Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé,” a poem I memorized when I was a teen:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The reason I lived, however, was not the inconvenience of the methods. I could never kill myself because I knew it would break my mother’s heart. Her love penetrated the fog of my depression.

From the relative emotional serenity of adulthood, I look back at my teenage self and think: What an idiot I was! Or, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “What a ma-roon!” (For those who neglected to squander their youth watching cartoons, that’s Bugs’ mispronunciation of “moron.”) However, when I was so depressed, I just wanted to end the pain. In hindsight, this “solution” seems daft. At the time, it seemed to offer a way out.

The better way, provided by my mother, was a first-class education. Most (though not all) of my public school education deadened my curiosity, sapped my motivation, nurtured my indifference. Having arrived at school already able to read, I began my formal education bored and then quickly tuned out. I could get A’s without paying attention …until about fifth or sixth grade, when I couldn’t. At that point, my grades began to slip, aided — no doubt — by the public-school ethos of just getting by. (Effort was frowned upon, coasting encouraged. Seeking my peers’ approval, I coasted.)

Gloria and Phil (dressed for Last Hurrah) at Choate, 1988

Then, mom got a job teaching at a private school, which allowed children of faculty to attend tuition-free. Suddenly, my sister and I were getting a first-class education where effort — not coasting — was the norm. After two years at the one school, she got a second job at an even better private school where, again, my sister and I attended at no additional cost. It took a few years for me to embrace this new emphasis on actually paying attention: I tended to work hard in classes that interested me, and to neglect those that did not. But, eventually, I got with the program. After repeating my senior year to get my grades up, I managed to get into a good college, and then into a good grad school, and ultimately became an English professor.

I owe this career to mom. She gave me a second chance. Had she not become a private-school teacher, it’s unlikely that I would have attended college, much less become a college professor. Indeed, when I think of my younger self’s half-assed approach to education, I blink and pinch myself: How could such an indifferent pupil become a teacher? Unlike most people in the world, past failures did not sabotage my future.

In addition to the incredible luck of having such a caring, intelligent, devoted mother, I of course reap many other unearned privileges. As a white person, I’ve never struggled under the daily (hourly!) burden of racism. As a man, I’ve never felt the sharp lacerations of sexism. As a heterosexual, I’ve never had my love used as a pretext for others’ hatred. I would never deny these or any other unmerited benefits (class, ability, etc.) that have helped me along my way.

Yet of all the advantages I did not earn, my mother’s care is the one I feel most deeply. Her devotion is a debt that I can never repay. When asked to express my gratitude, language falters, looks shyly at its feet, and stumbles off the stage. What else can it do? Its words are inadequate, clumsy.

I can only say: Thank you. And: I love you, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Gloria and Phil, Oct. 2014


Photos: 1. Mom and me (age 2) reading Richard Scarry. 2. Mom and me (age 19), just before I went to the “Last Hurrah,” a.k.a. senior prom. 3. Mom and me a couple of years ago.


Notes:

  1. For Mother’s Day in 2015, I sent mom a version of the above. I had told her these things several times, but never chronicled them in such detail. She told me that she was “very moved” by what I had written. I mention this because we should tell the important people in our lives how important they are to us!  Incidentally, I didn’t post it then because I was contemplating trying to publish the essay beyond this blog. Doubting that it would find a wider audience, I’ve since decided to publish it here.
  2. To address what may seem an omission in the second paragraph, I’m keeping my promise never to mention on this blog the person whom I’ve omitted.

Selected autobiographical writing (on this blog, unless otherwise indicated):

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Charleston, Family History, & White Responsibility

In response to concerns expressed by some members of my family, I have removed this blog post. This marks the first time that I’ve removed or changed something for reasons other than finding an error or a typo.

This post will not reappear here.  But nor will it completely disappear.  I plan to revise and expand it, with the aim of publishing it somewhere else in the future. If I can initiate a dialogue with family members, I want also to incorporate their critique into a new and better essay.  As I said in the original piece, I refuse to deny the truths about racism’s legacy.  But I also want to do a better job at expressing those truths.

As James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time (1963), white people “are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it” (8).

[The links that accompanied the original post remain.]

Activism

Essays on the 2015 Charleston Massacre

Resources

Related posts (on this blog)

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Regarding the Pain of Racism

When people ask me about the steps to empathize with someone who’s been incarcerated, as if — and in some ways, there is a grand liberal tradition of wanting to imagine that you can feel black pain, which is itself almost always an exercise in violence and privilege. Not just something that can’t be done. It is actually an exercise in violence. And so I actually think the challenge is to turn back upon yourself, and rather say: What would it feel like to feel that — to actually turn to yourself and say — what does it feel like to be in this moment, in this country that incarcerates a greater proportion of its citizens than any nation in the world, and that has built an elaborate system of cages that actually does cage black people, and that’s how it came to be? What does it feel like to be on the side of that where I pay taxes for that, and the defense happens mostly in my name? And see if you can get yourself there, rather than imagining [that you can feel black pain]. And I think if you can feel that, yourself as someone who is inflicting massive pain, then that can become your barometer for where we are.  My barometer for where I am is not how I imagine black criminality.  My barometer for where we are is: How complicitous am I for this massive amount of systemized, enforced extraction of pain and death?

— Naomi Murakawa, from “Naomi Murakawa and Eddie Glaude in Conversation — The First Civil Right,” Princeton Community Television. Recorded at Labyrinth Books, 12 Mar. 2015.  (The above statement begins near minute 54.)

No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.

— Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), p. 7

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

— Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated on this day in 1968 and quoted in Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 203

Naomi Murakawa’s remark resonates deeply because I have been reading and thinking and writing about racism — a form of social violence that I have never had directed at me. I’m writing a book, currently titled Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature. To reiterate, I’ve never been on the receiving end of racism. Yet, as a white male, I have — every day of my life — benefitted from institutional racism and sexism.

But writing about privilege has a tendency to shift the focus too much to the oppressor. While addressing the oppressor’s role is important and necessary work, it can have the unfortunate, even immoral, consequence of shifting attention away from those in pain. Beneficiaries of racism and sexism do have a much greater moral responsibility to fight these structures of oppression, but narratives about white men (such as myself) voicing this awareness have a tendency to become self-congratulatory. And, frankly, you don’t get a cookie for doing the right thing.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessMurakawa’s comment nicely illuminates the ways in which affect can mobilize oppressors to challenge their complicity in that oppression. Since my taxes underwrite the nation’s prison industrial complex, I’m responsible for the pain and death inflicted. That’s a helpful — and, of course, profoundly soul-crushing —  way of shifting the emphasis away from the facile, ersatz empathy of merely imagining someone else’s pain, and towards acknowledging one’s role in perpetuating this systemic violence.

As Murakawa says, empathy is not only impossible but is itself a form of violence against the oppressed. And, as Susan Sontag says, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.” Sympathy, however, is possible — so long as it’s cognizant of its limits. Certainly, sympathy is insufficient on its own, but it can motivate people to take the next step that Murakawa describes.

Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American LifeIf the second paragraph’s concluding sentence implies that I’m “doing the right thing” in undertaking this book on structural racism in children’s literature, I hereby redact that implication. Yes, I would like to be doing the right thing; I hope my work makes some sort of positive difference. But it’s presumptions, even arrogant, to suggest that. The profound limitations of my raced subject position enhances the likelihood that I will come up short. Obviously, I’m doing the research, reading works by Michelle Alexander, Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Nell Irvin Painter, Randall Kennedy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Michelle Martin, Kate Capshaw, Rudine Sims Bishop, Robin Bernstein, Claire Bradford, Zetta Elliott, and many others. (I have not yet read Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, but it’s now on my list.)

Yet, somehow, in this project more than any other I’ve undertaken (including the biography of Johnson and Krauss), the research feels insufficient.

I think it comes down to this. I aspire to be an ally, but I would never call myself an ally. If and when a member of an oppressed group calls me an ally, I feel grateful and humbled. But a member of a dominant group cannot confer allyhood on himself or herself. Nor, of course, does the power to designate allyhood reside in one member of a group facing institutional oppression. However, that one individual has a better ability to evaluate allyhood than I do. Straight, white men do not get to call ourselves allies. But we can and should try to be allies.

In other words, it all comes down to the work itself. And, on that note, I should get back to work.

A tip of the hat to Brian Herrera for sharing the Murakawa video, via Facebook.

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25 Years After; or, 10 Things I Learned at My High School Reunion

Philip Nel, fall 1987.I am not nostalgic for my high school years.  As a teen, I was acutely self-conscious, chronically insecure, often depressed.  Yes, I also experienced a wider range of emotions (including joy and laughter) during those years, but my dominant impression of teen-age-hood is gratitude at having survived it.

But I returned for my 25th reunion last week. After all, I did have a few close friends, and (via Facebook) have connected with a few others. How many more opportunities will I have to see them? So, I returned. Here are ten observations.

1. As adolescents, lots of people were insecure, full of doubt, consumed by self-loathing. This is not news, but it is affirming to hear others admit this. “I was so angry then,” one classmate told me.  Adolescence can be a confusing, volatile time.

2. Memory inheres in places. Many glimpses of the past. At the edge of an athletic field, I vividly remembered a conversation, one evening during the spring of my senior year. I know who I was talking to, can remember what we both were wearing, but have no idea what we were discussing. Walking past the Arts Center’s cement cavern, I remember its echo chamber where, we — the male a cappella group — sang earlier that same year, also in an evening. Standing almost anywhere on campus revived memories.

3. I can’t believe I once attended school here. Choate is an extraordinary place. It has an Arts Center, a Science Center, a Humanities Center, athletic buildings, classrooms, and dorms — all of which rival or surpass those in the best universities. I was a student here because my mother taught here, and children of faculty can attend for free. My parents otherwise could never have afforded such an education for my sister and me.

4. That most children lack access to such high quality education is morally wrong.  In addition to the school’s extraordinary facilities, the ratio of faculty to students at Choate is 6:1.  Most public high schools are at least 12:1, and some are as high as 22:1. In the past few decades, Choate made the decision to admit fewer students, in part (so I understand) so that it could achieve such favorable ratios. In contrast, at the national and state levels, government has been cutting funds to public schools, resulting in larger class sizes and worse ratios.

5. The Reunion Industrial Complex.  I suspect this is a phenomenon of elite private schools (and universities), but the reunion was a very swanky, very professional affair. There were huge tents on the Great Lawn (I’d no idea that lawn even had a name), catered meals beneath those tents, bartenders serving (free) drinks at all events, live music, and lots of waitstaff on hand. OK, it lacked ice sculptures, but the reunion otherwise had all the trimmings of a fancy wedding. It must have been very expensive. As one classmate remarked, “If they get a big donation, the reunion will pay for itself.”

6. Teachers made a big difference outside of class. This is a reminder to me, as a professor: often we help our students more as mentors than we do in the classroom. In another blog post, I talked about how the late Terry Ortwein’s decision to cast me in a minor role in Our Town allowed me to glimpse a different self: acting showed me how to shed my shyness and become more outgoing, confident, competent.

Of all my Choate teachers, my mother had the greatest influence on me. I had been languishing in public school until she began teaching in private schools (thus enabling me to attend gratis). Having arrived in kindergarten able to read and write, I found public school boring, never learned to study, and just coasted along — daydreaming, paying scant attention. This strategy worked well, … until it stopped working well, and my grades slipped. Public school culture emphasized getting by; private school culture emphasized not only doing the work but striving for excellence. Had my mother’s job not enabled me to attend private school, I doubt I’d have gone to college, much less graduate school.

The lessons of private school did not take immediately. Fortunately, John Ford, then a dean, allowed me to repeat my junior year at Choate. Doing so granted me the time to get my act together. (1) I was unlikely to pass three years of Russian, which I’d chosen as my foreign language. So, I switched to Spanish, completing three years’ worth in two years’ time — thanks to a semester in Spain. (2) I also started paying attention consistently, worked harder, and improved my grades to the point that I was able to get into a good college.

I’d forgotten that my Choate classmates sometimes wondered whether my sister and I were twins. We’re in the same graduating class because she started school a year early and I repeated a year. For many years, when people would ask me if Linda (who speaks five languages and runs marathons competitively) were older, I would reply: “Only in terms of accomplishments. In terms of age, I’m actually two years older.”

7. Professionally, many people have found their niche in life. It may not have been the job they imagined themselves doing, but they find it’s a good fit for who they are. Lobbyist, teacher, IT professional, intellectual-property lawyer, stay-at-home mom, personal trainer, actor, director of community relations for Google, Oscar-winning screenwriter, executive producer of The Life of Pi. Yes, those last few are more exceptional than typical. But a number of my classmates are quite high-powered people. It’s very impressive!

8. No one works 9-to-5 anymore. I often think that my 60-hour weeks, in which I work during evenings & weekends, are typical for an academic, but unusual in the rest of the working world. However, such a “flexible” work schedule (in which work expands to fill any available time) is normal in most careers. This is one reason that it’s hard for us to describe what we do. We are all of us multi-tasking, juggling life and work, constantly in motion.

9. Only connect. . . (yes, I’m quoting E.M. Forster). I of course enjoyed catching up with people who I knew, but I also enjoyed catching up with those I did not know. During the weekend, I actually made a few new friends — which, as we grow older, is too rare an occurrence.

10. As the song says, “The years go by, as quickly as a wink. / Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think).” I don’t mean embrace hedonism, but rather we are here now, and then we are gone. Several times during the weekend, I found myself thinking: It is good to be here, right now, in this moment.

I hope all of you fare well over the years to come, though I know not all of you will. I hope to see everyone in the future, though I know some of us will not cross paths again. I hope that you find meaning and purpose in your life, that you nurture your friendships and relationships, that you love and are loved.

*  *  *  *  *

The day after the reunion, I visited a friend whose job prevented her from attending. She was on call that weekend — she’s an M.D. who specializes in geriatrics. Or, as her spouse (an M.D. in pediatrics) puts it, “She has a 100% mortality rate.” Though that can be hard, it’s also very fulfilling. She (and sometimes her children) get to meet people in their 80s, 90s, 100s — people who’ve lived long lives and have stories to tell.

Except for one. She told me of a man, very accomplished in his field. I forget the precise job, and (for reasons of confidentiality) should alter the specifics anyway. But he was the president of a major insurance company or corporation, a very wealthy man. In devoting time to his career, he neglected his friendships and relationships. At the end, he lay there dying, not surrounded by friends and family — but quite alone. He turned to my friend, and asked “Is that it?” Then he died.

My wish for everyone is this. Live well so that, before you face that final curtain, you have something more to say.


Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988Image source: Choate Rosemary Hall Facebook 1987-1988.  Yes, back before the social media phenomenon of Facebook, the school each fall published a Facebook — for each student, a photo, name, address (both on and off-campus), and class year (or academic speciality, in the case of faculty).  The photo above comes from the Facebook of my final year at Choate.

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If I Were a Middle-Class White Kid

Gene Marks’ instantly infamous “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” column (Forbes, 12 Dec. 2011) is a classic example of how privilege remains invisible to the privileged.  Though he acknowledges that he is “a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background” and so “life was easier for” him, the rest of his column betrays too little of the awareness expressed by those early sentences. For instance, “If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study” assumes that the kid in question would have access to this technology.  Even a claim as benign as “If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have” overlooks the fact that it takes an unusual student to rise above the limitations of a “lousy school.” Sure, there are students who do this, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

Mr. Marks assumes that opportunity is equally distributed. While we might admire the personal optimism conveyed by a claim like “I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed,” the article does not sufficiently acknowledge that some people — those with access to better schools, those who do not go to bed hungry, those with health care — have a much, much better chance of success.

I owe my own success to precisely that sort of privilege. Don’t misunderstand: I have worked hard, and I continue to work hard. But my success in life derives not just from my work ethic. It also comes from unearned privilege.

If I had stayed in public school, I’m not sure that I would have gone to college at all. On my first day of first grade, the teacher asked which of us could read. I was among those few who raised my hand — I’d been reading since I was 3 years old.  She gave us literate students a book to read. I finished it first, and raised my hand. “I’ve finished,” I said.  Her response: “Read it again.” I began to read it again. On my first day of school and subsequent ones, I learned that school was boring.

The author, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit

The result was that, though I still read for pleasure, I became a terrible student. I’d finish the worksheet first, and then devote my free time to amusing my classmates. I paid attention only when it suited me, trusting that I’d be able to master the material on my own. For a few years, this approach worked well. However, by the time I reached sixth and seventh grade, it was no longer working. My grades were slipping, and I began to slip behind.

And here’s where that unearned privilege saved me.

Just before I entered eighth grade, my mother got a job teaching at private schools —  first, Shore Country Day School (in Beverly, Mass.), and second, Choate Rosemary Hall (in Wallingford, Conn.). Her employment allowed my sister and me to attend both schools for free.  That’s right: in addition to receiving a salary (and on-campus housing in the case of Choate), her labor enabled her offspring to attend gratis. Had she lacked a college degree, had she lacked experience teaching and working with computers, I would not have had that opportunity.

She’s also a great example of how privilege — or its lack — gets compounded over time. She worked hard, overcoming both the diminished expectations accorded her gender, and discrimination from male bosses. But she also benefited from privilege.  As a white South African, she had access to educational opportunities that black South Africans did not.  I can say with certainty that if my mother were from the same country but of a different race, I would not be where I am today.  That’s unearned privilege.

Attending private schools made all the difference for me. Although I had peers in public school (a perfectly adequate public school) who did well and went on to college, I too easily succumbed to the prevailing attitude (among the students) that one should do as little as possible.  In private school, however, the prevailing attitude was that we all needed to work hard.  The work was challenging, and we had to rise to our teachers’ expectations.

That was just the nudge I needed. I didn’t become an “A” student overnight. Indeed, I had to do an extra year at Choate to pass the language requirement (there was no way I was going to make it through third-year Russian), and to get my grades up enough to get into college.  Aided by a semester abroad (in Valladolid, Spain), I did three years of Spanish in two years, improved my grades, and got accepted at a couple of good colleges.

At the University of Rochester, I became a model student, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in both English and Psychology. But, here, too, privilege came to my aid. Having that excellent private-school education meant that I knew how to study. During my freshman year, many of my public-school friends were shocked by the amount of work. I wasn’t. The work may have been harder, but I knew what I had to do.

In calling attention to the role privilege has played in my own success, I do not mean to dismiss the role of a solid work ethic. Mr. Marks is correct to emphasize the importance of hard work. For most of college, I worked two jobs — one via Work/Study, and one as a Resident Advisor (which paid for room and half of board).  I say “most” because I became an R.A. my second year; indeed, I was one of two sophomore R.A.s that year.  (The others were all juniors and seniors.)  In addition to those jobs, I studied hard, spending long hours in the library.  I carried those work habits on to graduate school and into my career as an English professor.

However, I must point out that I was not working, say, 30-hour weeks in addition to doing schoolwork. The hours of the R.A. job varied, and the Work/Study job was, to the best of my recollection, about 8 hours a week, give or take. I have students now who work full-time, are the sole caregiver for their children, and are pursuing a B.A. That’s a much steeper hill to climb.

The problem in this country is not laziness. The problem is unacknowledged, unearned privilege.  It’s not that people lack industry; they lack opportunity. But the privileged — unconscious of the degree to which their own advantage has aided them — fail to see this, and so write well-intentioned, naïve articles like “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Mr. Marks means well, but his prescription for success would not have helped me.  And I was a middle-class white kid.

The photo is of me, at about age 11, reading The Hobbit.

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