“My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.
You are always too young to read Morrison. I was eleven. A teacher had grown concerned. From what I can recall of the report, my eyes glazed over in class and I was sinking into my desk, falling inexplicably ill. “Maybe this will make you feel better?” my mother asked. The copy of “The Bluest Eye” that she gave me was distended, graffitied with epiphanies. It had been assigned to her in an E.S.L. class at Kingsborough Community College, burdening her for all time with a misleading impression of the potential of English. Out of a “discredited vocabulary,” as Morrison once termed it, the author coaxed out a superior written tongue—one that, I more than suspect, each black woman writer who has come after her mimics, to varying degrees. My own mimicry was, at first, automatic. That summer, I stayed indoors, truly possessed. I transcribed the whole of “The Bluest Eye,” in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, at least a dozen times. I memorized whole chapters. My finger pads melted. I ingrained the beat of the novel into the movement of my right wrist.
For years, it went on like this: I would become withdrawn, and my mother would hand me “Sula,” then “Jazz,” then “Beloved.” My early readings of the novels were hungry misuses. Her novels were the boundary between herself and her readers, an instrument of intellectual self-protection, but we violated the boundary, almost deliriously. By the time I was reading Morrison, the novel had allegedly lost its status as an influential factor in the making of society. We didn’t know that. Morrison was our celebrity; it was only right that she appear on “Oprah.” We were poor in imagination, trained to think of our histories as sociological math. Morrison invalidated the lie, which taints black minds especially, that our people are either one way or the other. To her, we were naturally literary and epic. I got inebriated on the image of Pecola Breedlove, who “was a long time with the milk,” soused by a community’s predilection for a certain kind of beauty. The ghost in “Beloved,” swelling as she threatened to overcome the spiteful home at 124 Bluestone Road, made us think gothically. I wanted to build a retreat in the woods, like Denver. I thought that I was destined, one day, to become a Sula Peace, leaving home, and returning under the shelter of a great hat, carting havoc just under my breast.
In a foreword to “Sula,” Morrison wrote, “Outlaw women are fascinating—not always for their behavior, but because historically women are seen as naturally disruptive and their status is an illegal one from birth if it is not under the rule of men.” It is too seldom acknowledged that the greatest novelist this country has ever produced was a single black mother. She had two sons, one who passed before she did, and how many daughters? We know that it is problematic, or maybe just self-indulgent, to claim her as mother. And yet, if the business of mothering is to broker the link between two generations, then what else can she be? During her childhood conversion to Catholicism, she chose the confirmation name that eventually led to “Toni”: Saint Anthony, the patron of the lost. An old-fashioned loss lives between my mother and me, and we tend to it. Ghosts have visited her, and human dramas have haunted her, and erotic moments have freed her, and for reasons both altruistic and proud she will not express these stories to me. I have my own things she will not know. We are secretive. We talk to each other through intermediaries, and their names are Baby Suggs, Guitar, and Milkman. We talk to each other through Morrison.
“Cultural appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or racial stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged takes it for itself.”
-Amandla Stenberg, Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows: A Crash Course on Black Culture, 2015.
This essay is the introduction to Boston Review’s print issue, Race Capitalism Justice. Inspired by Cedric Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, this themed issue is a critical handbook for racial justice in the age of Trump.
“Robinson’s critique of political order and the authority of leadership anticipated the political currents in contemporary movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—movements organized horizontally rather than vertically. His monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) takes Karl Marx to task for failing to comprehend radical movements outside of Europe. He rewrites the history of the West from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, scrutinizing the idea that Marx’s categories of class can be universally applied outside of Europe. Instead he characterized black rebellions as expressions of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” movements whose objectives and aspirations confounded Western social analysis. Marxism also failed to account for the racial character of capitalism. Having written much of the book during a sabbatical year in England, Robinson encountered intellectuals who used the phrase “racial capitalism” to refer to South Africa’s economy under apartheid. He developed it from a description of a specific system to a way of understanding the general history of modern capitalism . . .
Robinson was a challenging thinker who understood that the deepest, most profound truths tend to bewilder, breaking with inherited paradigms and “common sense.” When asked to define his political commitments, he replied, “There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people.”
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Earlier this month, McGraw Hill found itself at the center of some rather embarrassing press after a photo showing a page from one of its high-school world-geography textbooks was disseminated on social media. The page features a seemingly innocuous polychromatic map of the United States, broken up into thousands of counties, as part of a lesson on the country’s immigration patterns: Different colors correspond with various ancestral groups, and the color assigned to each county indicates its largest ethnic representation. The page is scarce on words aside from an introductory summary and three text bubbles explaining specific trends—for example, that Mexico accounts for the largest share of U.S. immigrants today.
The recent blunder has to do with one bubble in particular. Pointing to a patch of purple grids extending throughout the country’s Southeast corridor, the one-sentence caption reads:
The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.
The photo that spread through social media was taken by a black Texas student named Coby Burren, who subsequently texted it to his mom, Roni-Dean Burren. “Was real hard workers, wasn’t we,” he wrote. Roni-Dean quickly took to Facebook, lambasting the blunder: the reference to the Africans as workers rather than slaves. A video she later posted has been viewed nearly 2 million times, and her indignation has renewed conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement while attracting coverage by almost every major news outlet. “It talked about the U.S.A. being a country of immigration, but mentioning the slave trade in terms of immigration was just off,” she told The New York Times. “It’s that nuance of language. This is what erasure looks like.”
McGraw Hill swiftly did its damage control. It announced that it was changing the caption in both the digital and print versions to characterize the migration accurately as a “forced” diaspora of slaves: “We conducted a close review of the content and agree that our language in that caption did not adequately convey that Africans were both forced into migration and to labor against their will as slaves,” the company said in a statement. “We believe we can do better.” Catherine Mathis, the company’s spokeswoman, also emphasized that the textbook accurately referred to the slave trade and its brutality in more than a dozen other instances. And McGraw Hill has offered to provide various additional resources to any school that requests them, including supplemental materials on cultural competency, replacement textbooks, or stickers with a corrected caption to place over the erroneous one. But Texas school districts were already in possession of more than 100,000 copies of the book, while another 40,000, according to Mathis, are in schools in other states across the country.
“We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees. We are teaching twig history.”
If nothing else, the incident may serve as yet another example of why social studies—and history in particular—is such a tricky subject to teach, at least via textbooks and multiple-choice tests. Its topics are inherently subjective, impossible to distill into paragraphs jammed with facts and figures alone. As the historian and sociologist Jim Loewen recently told me, in history class students typically “have to memorize what we might call ‘twigs.’ We’re not teaching the forest—we’re not even teaching the trees,” said Loewen, best known for his 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. “We are teaching twig history.”
This is in part why a growing number of educators are calling for a fundamental shift in how the subject is taught. Some are even calling on their colleagues to abandon traditional models of teaching history altogether. Instead of promoting the rote memorization of information outlined in a single, mass-produced textbook, these critics argue that teachers should use a variety of primary-source materials and other writings, encouraging kids to analyze how these narratives are written and recognize the ways in which inherent biases shape conventional instructional materials. In an essay for The Atlantic earlier this year, Michael Conway argued that history classes should focus on teaching children “historiography”—the methodologies employed by historians and the exploration of history itself as an academic discipline:
Currently, most students learn history as a set narrative—a process that reinforces the mistaken idea that the past can be synthesized into a single, standardized chronicle of several hundred pages. This teaching pretends that there is a uniform collective story, which is akin to saying everyone remembers events the same. Yet, history is anything but agreeable. It is not a collection of facts deemed to be “official” by scholars on high. It is a collection of historians exchanging different, often conflicting analyses. And rather than vainly seeking to transcend the inevitable clash of memories, American students would be better served by descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many “histories” that compose the American national story.
But according to Loewen, the shortcomings of the country’s history teachers make the improvement of its instruction, let alone the introduction of historiography, a particularly difficult feat. Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)
MORE ON HISTORY EDUCATION
The Problem With History Classes
Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past?
Why Civics Is About More Than Citizenship
In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.
A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.
“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”
“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history. They just happen to be assigned to it.”
This disconnect can take a serious toll on the instruction kids receive, according to Loewen. Absent a genuine interest in history, many teachers simply defer to the information contained in textbooks. “They use the textbook not as a tool but as a crutch,” Lowen said. And chances are, that makes for a pretty lousy class. Loewen suspects that these and other textbook woes are largely why students frequently list history and other social-studies subjects as their least favorite classes. And perhaps it’s why so few American adults identify them as the most valuable subjects they learned in school. In a 2013 Gallup poll, just 8 percent of respondents valued history most, while just 3 percent voted for social studies. (First place, or 34 percent of votes, went to math, while 21 percent of respondents selected English and reading.)
And as the McGraw Hill example demonstrates, the textbooks teachers rely on so heavily are prone to flaws. A National Clearinghouse on History Education research brief on four popular elementary and middle-school textbooks concluded that the materials “left out or misordered the cause and consequence of historical events and frequently failed to highlight main ideas.” And the flaws can be much more egregious than isolated errors, disorganization, or a lack of clarity—sometimes they’re fundamental distortions of the contexts leading up to many of today’s most dire social ills.
The death of Dr. Maya Angelou provided us the opportunity to once again delight in her memoirs, which chronicle the eclectic, bohemian first half of her life. Yet, we know from her writings that such praise was often withheld as she pursued her dreams of being a dancer and poet while raising a young child as a single mother. How many times must she have been urged to settle down and give up her artistic and cultural pursuits, which time and time again left her broke and broken? While we now refer to Angelou as a renaissance woman, until she published I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in her 40s, her life resembled what is referred to in ghetto parlance as a hot mess.
This messiness is what we all fear. It is why rather than pursue our dreams, we settle into the lives expected of us. Cubicles and cul-de-sacs become the things of our imagination. Only happiness and satisfaction studies suggest they are not enough. A GALLUP Poll last year found that only 30 percent of U.S. workers are passionate about their work. The majority (52 percent) are unhappy with their jobs and put little energy into their work while another 18 percent actually hate their jobs and actively work to undermine coworkers. We sacrifice our dreams only to find ourselves restless, bored and frustrated in midlife having realized what Angelou told us all along; “making a living is not the same thing as making a life.” Worse still, we recognize the irony in discovering after layoffs, financial setbacks and divorce that the “mess” is unavoidable.
These unmet expectations and realization that youthful aspirations have been abandoned are suspected as the cause of feelings of discouragement and depression among those in midlife. The British think tank NatCen Social Research found that studies show that people between 35 and 55 suffer a dip in well-being. A separate study that analyzed data from “nationally representative” surveys in Australia, Britain and Germany found that the bell curve in well-being dips to its lowest point around the ages of 40 to 42.
Even those who choose to pursue unconventional dreams don’t escape these feelings, especially if such pursuits have come at the expense of nearly everything else. I abandoned life as a lawyer in favor of one as a writer, activist and entrepreneur. Now having entered midlife without any of our culture’s success markers — husband, children, two-car garage — I have had to answer, both to myself and to others, the question of whether the path I’ve chosen was a wise one. Reflecting on Angelou’s has helped me find the answers.
1. Be uniquely you.
Angelou described herself in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as “a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.” She knew such a girl would’ve perished trying to conform to mainstream conventions. “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” Instead of fretting over not being a swan, Angelou reinvented herself as a rare bird. As many biographers have noted, she won’t be remembered for her poems or plays, but for her memoirs and for being Maya Angelou. The key to discerning one’s authenticity is quite simple: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
2. When it comes to failure, be courageous.
Angelou was a marvelous failure. Her most noteworthy stage performance, playing the seamstress in the two-woman play Mary Todd Lincoln, earned her a Tony nomination but closed on opening night. The rolling stone never stuck to one thing for long. She moved from coast to coast, continent to continent, sometimes making poor childcare decisions, one of which resulted in her son’s brief abduction. She didn’t have a stable home or steady job until she was in her 50s, an age at which many are preparing for retirement. She divorced several times but would would never confirm the exact number, “for fear of sounding frivolous.” Aware of all her failings, Angelou was brave enough to look at herself. “We have to confront ourselves. Do we like what we see in the mirror? And, according to our light, according to our understanding, according to our courage, we will have to say yea or nay — and rise!”
3. Know who your friends are.
One would be hard-pressed to identify a significant black figure Angelou didn’t know. She danced with Amiri Baraka. Billie Holiday visited her home and explained the meaning of Strange Fruit to her young son. While a calypso dancer she worked with Alvin Ailey. James Baldwin gave her the introductions that would lead to the publication of her first memoir. These were people she deeply cared for, but in anEssence interview, she had this to say of friendship.
There’s a marked difference between acquaintances and friends. Most people really don’t become friends. They become deep and serious acquaintances. But in a friendship you get to know the spirit of another person, and your values coincide. Friends may disagree, but not about serious matters. A friend will stand for you when you are no longer able… Years ago one of the slick White women’s magazines asked if they could photograph me with my closest friends for an issue they were doing on friends. The editor wanted me to bring Oprah. I have 30 years on Oprah. She calls me her friend, her mother, all that. I am very close to her in a motherly way. So I told [the magazine], ‘I have three dear friends — Dolly McPherson, Jessica ‘Decca’ Mitford and M.J. Hewitt — they are sisters to me.’
4. Believe you can do anything.
For Angelou, inexperience was never a reason not to take on an interesting job. Angelou’s only criterion was seemingly that a new occupation share little to no similarities with her previous one. At sixteen, she became San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductor and later passed herself off as an experienced Creole chef. She held jobs dancing in a nightclub, stripping paint from old cars, and singing Calypso. She knew nothing about being a journalist when she accepted a position as an editor for The Arab Observer,” an English-language magazine. She said of the experience,
I stayed at the Arab Observer for over a year and gradually my ignorance receded. I learned from Abdul Hassan how to write an opinionated article with such subtlety that the reader would think the opinion his own…I received a raise from Dr. Nagati, the respect of my fellow workers and a few compliments from strangers…
She made her television debut as Kunte Kinte’s grandmother in the acclaimed television adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. And in the one-time high school dropout who never attended college became the Reynolds professor of American studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
5. Forgive others and yourself.
In addition to enduring the injustices that came along with being poor, black and female in the South, Angelou was also raped as a child and beaten as a young woman. In a May 9th interview at her home she told Armstrong Williams, “I’ve learned that forgiving is one of the greatest gifts that I can give myself…And as soon as I do I feel lighter, brighter and better.”
In Gather Together in My Name, Angelou shares one of her lowest periods when she served as a pimp for two lesbian prostitutes and sometimes worked as a prostitute herself. In one interview, she said of the experience.
If you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home — wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it.
In A Song Flung Up to Heaven, Angelou tells of her midlife crisis which was accompanied by great sorrow. Returning to the States after the end of a romance in Africa, Angelou became a Civil Rights activist only to be witness to the Movement’s greatest tragedies. She was working with Malcolm X to establish his foundation when he was assassinated New York City. Three years later she was working as the northern coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was gunned down in Memphis on Angelou’s 40th birthday. For a time, Angelou withdrew from society unable to deal with the tragedy, but eventually she harnessed her grief and regrets to write her seminal work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. From then on, she would rise at dawn and set out for the motel room where she would write. Her only companions were a Bible, a dictionary, a thesaurus, a stack of legal pads, and a bottle of sherry. Having written her way out of the worst time in her life, she credited it with her survival. “All my work is meant to say, ‘You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated…Nothing will work unless you do.”
Angelou was a master of reinvention. She didn’t settle on a name until after her first marriage, claiming her childhood nickname and a twist on her first husband’s last name. For Angelou, change was essential. Perhaps more so when one decides nothing can be done at all. “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Hello and welcome to another edition of UDC Forum, a program series about the learning, teaching and research here at the University of the District of Columbia. I’m Dr. Sandra Jowers-Barber, assistant professor of history at the University of the District of Columbia and your host. Dr. Raymond A. Winbush is the Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Oakwood College in Alabama and received a fellowship to attend the University of Chicago, where he earned both his master’s degree and Ph.D. in psychology. He has taught at Oakwood College, Alabama A&M, Vanderbilt University, and Fisk University.