March 23, 2023
I’ve been proud of, possibly even smug about, my efforts to diversify my reading, to look for texts from around the world to share—The Fat Years; The Power; A Lesson Before Dying; Kiffe, Kiffe Tomorrow; The Unbearable Lightness of Being; July’s People; Master Harold…and the Boys; A Madman’s Diary; Americanah—and I took care in the book lists I curated for my classes. I still had us slog through The Odyssey and pushed some old chestnuts during novel units (everyone picks two: The Sun Also Rises, A River Runs Through It, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Great Gatsby.) I come from schools where families aren’t responsible for purchasing texts, and I told myself financial concerns played a part in my choices. With a limited budget, I wanted to purchase books I’d be happy to revisit again and again.
With all that as context, I read a poem (Danez Smith’s 2014 “not an elegy for Mike Brown”) Friday night which punched me in my fairly smug gut. I read it out loud to my husband Saturday morning and realized that it’s not the beauty of the piece which struck me. As a writing teacher, I might even have suggested changes in some places. And even those thoughts stopped me and made me question my practice. All of that still doesn’t diminish the power of the gut punch. Here’s the poem:
not an elegy for Mike Brown
I am sick of writing this poem
but bring the boy. his new name
his same old body. ordinary, black
dead thing. bring him & we will mourn
until we forget what we are mourning
& isn’t that what being black is about?
not the joy of it, but the feeling
you get when you are looking
at your child, turn your head,
then, poof, no more child.
that feeling. that’s black.
think: once, a white girl
was kidnapped & that’s the Trojan war.
later, up the block, Troy got shot
& that was Tuesday. are we not worthy
of a city of ash? of 1000 ships
launched because we are missed?
always, something deserves to be burned.
it’s never the right thing now a days.
I demand a war to bring the dead boy back
no matter what his name is this time.
I at least demand a song. a song will do just fine.
look at what the lord has made.
above Missouri, sweet smoke.
I’ve been teaching for a long time, and my twins were twelve the year Trayvon Martin, twelve, was shot to death for, presumably, playing while Black. There’s a satirical piece from The Onion (2011) that my family brings up fairly routinely, and, while not fair, feels periodically relevant. I’m not surprised by the violence in our country, though it haunts me.
And this poem hit me. I speed teach The Iliad using Black Ships Before Troy as my reference…and I always talk about it as a struggle between men. The women are not the agents in this story—they’re the prize, the chattel, the survivors of this story in my mind. Lysistrata helps me contextualize. Helen isn’t the real reason for the war, the vanity of the gods (and the entitlement of certain princes) certainly is…and yet, here I am, hours after reading Smith’s poem, struggling with having taught this story and furthered this narrative. Valuing Helen, and Ajax, and crafty Odysseus above the here and now. The stories we elevate tell us about our biases and our values.
Ancient death is so much easier to discuss, digest, and contextualize. It’s clean, it’s distant, it’s over there, and the messy motivations of history, of people not too different from us, are made sanitary by the patina caused by retelling and refining those stories. There’s comfort in the fictional, distant death, and in being able to intellectualize rather than feel hard things. Sure, we spent time talking about the journey home from war (both literal and metaphoric) and PTSD, and the high rates of drug addiction and suicide among veterans of recent foreign wars, but that’s still an abstraction for most of my students.
As the Supreme Court will soon rule, again, about affirmative action, I think it’s past time for us to have another good, hard look at what our efforts at diversity and inclusion amount to.
My literary choices reflect my sense that the world is made up of a diversity of experiences and voices, all of which I want my students to hear and learn from. But I need to ask myself how well my efforts have succeeded in manifesting these lofty goals in the past. And whose voices are centered in the analysis of how well those goals are being met? Is my plan for improvement solely “bring in works by the brown people and that will fix it”? I fear that, for part of my practice, that’s been it. I’ve brought in the books and hoped that the cure for what ails the world will be found in the empathy I know reading can bring.
And I mourn for this world around me, and the struggle I know in my brown sons’ faces. I’m tired, and I had the privilege of spending the first 19 years of my life not thinking about racism, having grown up as part of the majority in a small town. I can empathize with folks who’ve had no choice but to wrangle with racism and social change daily. In the book group I love, mine was the one voice against reading novels about American slavery—it’s a period of time I know well as a teacher, both of history and literature—and one I really didn’t want to spend any more energy on. I’ve watched my husband teach my sons about how to minimize their risk, and have talked with their girlfriends about that as well—I spend a lot of my life with a low-grade, second-hand awareness of racism. And that glimpse is enough to be exhausting. I’m empathy-ed out, some days, and need to recharge with laughter, not more systemic racism and injustice.
I take a degree of comfort from the idea that the problem is not a lack of empathy—there’s plenty of empathy. A larger percentage of my classes come to me with a sense that racism is real, and a real problem, and are taking pains to be thoughtful in their actions and words. They come ready to support their classmates in their choice of a romantic partner, academic pursuit, moniker, and interests. And it’s rare that a student will even comment on a narrator being different from them and therefore not interesting. At the beginning of my career, it was accepted practice that boys wouldn’t read books with female narrators—that the girls could easily put themselves into Holden and Huck’s shoes, but asking the boys to empathize with Jane Eyre was just too much. It was accepted that To Kill a Mockingbird was a better book for teaching about race in America than any of James Baldwin or Richard Wright’s books. In the intervening 28 years, I’ve seen a shift. Thursday Next and The Hitchhiker’s Guide are both just funny; The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 are both grim and haunting. And students believe Black Like Me and Black Boy equally in the descriptions of race and class. And they empathize, with the claim made by one of my students, “regardless of whether [you have] an innie or an outie.”
And it pains me to think that while we’ve been building empathy, we’ve been building resentment, particularly among young white folks who believe that privilege should have translated into ease, or wealth, for them and their families, and don’t recognize what privilege actually is. Outside of the privilege of wealth, it’s an invisible advantage. It’s the difference between hoping a blind date likes you and hoping a blind date doesn’t rape you. Privilege is not being someone who walks with their keys between their fingers like Wolverine, or can even be not knowing other folks do that. It’s the fact that most English departments I’ve worked at are staffed with folks who look like me (JUST like me. It’s actually weird.) Privilege is not worrying that holding hands with your partner might put them at risk. Privilege is not having folks ask to pet your hair. It’s the statistics about maternal and infant mortality. It’s the rate of home ownership—it’s minuscule and huge and rarely translates into something tangible that a privileged person can actively see at work in her, or his, life.
Without affirmative action, poorly understood as it is, as a legal construct, where does that leave diversity as a value and a goal? It was enough, as a goal, when Archibald Cox argued before the Supreme Court in 1977. And there’s value in diversity, as Emily BazelonLeonhardt, David. “Diversity vs. Fairness.” The Morning Newsletter, 15 February 2023. New York Times online, accessed 20 February 2023. reports “research shows that students learn more in diverse groups and employees are more productive,” and helping make those relationships less fraught is one of the laudable goals of a well-rounded reading list. Throughout much of America, however, the goal of diversity is depicted as an attack on white people and, more dishearteningly, an attack on American values.
So, what can I do in an English classroom? In the part of the world where I have agency, I can continue to affirm the experiences of my students and their families, elevate stories that reflect the complexity and joys of modern life, and work with my students to develop their skills as communicators and human beings.
You may also be interested in reading more written by Alli Minch for Intrepid Ed News.
|↑1||Leonhardt, David. “Diversity vs. Fairness.” The Morning Newsletter, 15 February 2023. New York Times online, accessed 20 February 2023.|
2 thoughts on “Affirmative English: The Stories We Elevate | Alli Minch | 8 Min Read”
You kick ass Alli!!! What a great article !’
Hauntingly, lyrically accurate. Thanks for sharing, Alli.