This commentary is written by Daisha Bagley, Dillon Dang, Raquel Fredette, Saniyah Jenkins, Joshua Kouassi, Tiffany Roberts, Amy Snodgrass, and their teacher, Geoffrey Winikur. It is being published as part of the Philly School Media Network (see below for more information). Winikur begins the piece.
Our students are growing up in a time when it is quite evident that the past is present. Still teenagers, they know that they are loathed by those occupying seats of power in Washington, D.C. They know that the president thinks his own daughter is “a piece of ass.” They know that the same individual was elected despite the fact that he sexually assaulted numerous women. They know that Donald Trump thinks that some white nationalists are “fine people.” They know that the president thinks that an NFL player who kneels for the anthem is a “son of a bitch.” They know that Trump and his conservative white base would rather elect a pedophile than a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.
They know that racism, misogyny, and xenophobia are so entrenched in American soil that its citizens are willing to elect a criminal so long as he makes America great again. They can only imagine what he thinks of them. And they know this before they are even old enough to graduate high school or vote – every day they may be taught, consciously and unconsciously, by the media and images emanating from the White House and onto their screens.
Consequently, this year has compelled me to engage in reading and writing with students in ways that are flipping the script. The writers featured here represent a fraction of their peers for whom Obama-reality has been turned upside down. Our students are living amid a serious pedagogical problem requiring solutions, the most obvious of which is that they need texts that transcend the present moment by offering a detailed analysis of how we arrived.
Although there are many suitable resources, I chose Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, a film based on Remember This House by James Baldwin. Such texts require a method of teaching that is deeply informed by learning with and from students. Invisible Man has achieved canonical status, yet is probably not widely read in high school. However inscrutable, it is an unflinching mirror. Peck, a Haitian film director, has given this country a gift by reinscribing the lives and work of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into our national memory. Ellison imagined a story speaking the past that will always be present. In my class, thanks to Emily, we sometimes call the narrator “Imaginary Man.”
Ellison, Baldwin, and Peck all possess the art of juxtaposing history, imagery, and sound in ways that can make the reader question the ground s/he stands on.
It is common for students of color, when discussing race and other complex issues, to qualify their remarks by saying things like, “No offense, but … .” Early in our viewing of I Am Not Your Negro, students were routinely offering such qualifications. I, taking the teacher stance, encouraged students to stop apologizing before bearing witness to racism. I said something like, “You’ll be going to college soon. You may have white friends and you can educate them without apology.” I reminded them that much can be learned from any discomfort that may surface when discussing race across racial lines. Students insisted that that is not possible, and I genuinely did not understand their arguments.
That night, in a journal, Tiffany set me straight. Building on Buddy Guy lyrics included in the film ("I can’t win/’Cause I don’t have/a thing to lose"), Tiffany wrote:
[I Am Not Your Negro] compares pictures from the civil rights era to the pictures of today, people protesting police brutality and the only difference is that the pictures today are in color. Back-tracking isn’t a new thing in the black community. We were stolen from our homes in Africa and sold into slavery. If and when we escaped our masters, they made laws for people to hunt us down like animals and return us to our owners, as if we don’t bleed the same blood, as if we aren’t all a part of the human race. “I can’t win” means we can’t get fair treatment. “I can’t win” means we won’t be valued the same as whites. “I can’t win” means we have to watch what we say in front of whites because we fear for our lives. The African American race is an endangered species. It is ingrained in our brains to show respect to the white man, even if we don’t realize, by softening the truth to make is easier to hear, making it more bearable, making it so that we don’t blame the whites for how unjustly they treated and continue to treat us. “WE CAN’T WIN!”
Who can argue with that!
John Kelly’s and Donald Trump’s pedagogy of violence
Tiffany’s pessimism makes sense when contrasted with two recent events emanating from the White House. The first was perpetrated by Gen. John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff. Kelly doesn’t speak to the public often, but when he does, his presentations are carefully staged pedagogical constructs. As a man of war, Kelly has an abiding respect for the use of violence in the maintenance of power. Kelly’s presidential pedagogy assumes an invisible violence, and he is a first-rate marksman.
On Oct. 31, 2017, in an entrenched eradication of history, he argued that Robert E. Lee was “an honorable man” and that the Civil War was fought due to “a lack of compromise.” His reason is that Confederates were fighting for states’ rights, and people on both sides followed their consciences. His evidence is that that’s just the way it was. He is, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, attempting to “transform banditry into chivalry.” This position affirms the legitimacy of slavery, and he knows that his lies will embolden his conservative, white nationalist base. Just look at Alabama voters who were forced to decide between an alleged pedophile over the man who prosecuted Klansmen who killed four African American girls in 1963 in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Not to be outdone by his staff, Trump regularly participates in a different kind of pedagogical violence. On Nov. 27, 2017, Trump honored the World War II Navajo code talkers in the Oval Office. He compelled them to stand in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson and referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” Trump knows very well that Jackson was a slaver and mass murderer, and his own politics suggest that he admires these dimensions of Jackson’s public life. When the man whom New York Times columnist Tom Friedman calls “Chump” says he will make America great again, he is hearkening back to the days when presidents made their bones on theft and terror, even though he can only offer theft and hatred of others. Like Kelly’s lies about the Civil War, Trump’s racism and misogyny require a pedagogical response.
When Tiffany addressed the existential stasis that many Americans feel and experience, Daisha identifies the foundation buttressing the white supremacy entwined in both Kelly’s and Trump’s narratives. There is a scene in I Am Not Your Negro showing a white person holding a sign that says, “Who needs niggers?” It quite obvious that Trump and Kelly do, though their n-words needn’t necessarily be a person of African descent. Immigrants, Muslims, gays, transgender people, women, and victims of pedophilia and sexual assault will do just as well. Kelly’s revisionist comments about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War, as well as Trump’s iconographic use of Jackson, stand in stark contrast to Daisha’s analysis of a scene from the film:
“Who needs niggers?” says a sign displayed at a white supremacist rally. This country needs “niggers.” Although I do not like to use this term, I think it is mandatory in this context. I️t is ironic how a white person could display a sign saying such a thing when African Americans were wrongfully seized from their homeland by Europeans because they needed them. Slaves were responsible for helping to maintain and upkeep the early colonies, which resulted in tremendous economic growth for the country and later paved the way for America to be known as one of the most self-sustaining countries in the entire world. Keeping in mind that the success of this country probably would not have been possible without slaves being as though they have made monumental impacts, not only through hard labor but also morally and philosophically. The basis of this country was built by slaves, because the Europeans needed them. So if anyone is wondering who needs “niggers” anyway, America needed and still does need “niggers” in every way.
Daisha’s actualized reading stands on its own. The reality is that she will always wonder who is waving the “who needs …” sign at her, given that white supremacy needs an object of hate.
Meanwhile, Joshua, a man who knows a lot about history and therefore understands that Trump and Kelly are just a part of the white supremacist continuum, suggests:
Studying Ellison and Baldwin in Trump's America is a sort of refuge from the ongoing storm happening all over the world. It shows us that there are voices of reason which can be trusted, rather than the senseless babblings we get from our nation’s capital. Ellison and Baldwin are like Sherlock and Watson respectively. Ellison, being born into a generation still fresh in the aftermath of slavery, had a vision of what America should be but also what it was in essence. Because of this, he was able to write his own truth about what he thought should be and these ideas were so intricate that others adopted this as their truth as well.
The difference between Ellison/Baldwin and Kelly/Trump is that the authors were willing to die in order to not be targets of institutionalized white supremacy, while the latter two hearken back to times when white men lynched and raped in order to assert their absolute power.
Saniyah, shrewd, furthers the argument:
Studying Ellison and Baldwin in Trump’s America is very eye-opening, especially being an African American female. Throughout Trump’s presidency, I was shown things that I would’ve never imagined the leader of the free world to do. And because his actions are being justified and tolerated is even more shocking. I am able to actually see the power of white supremacy in the United States. A place where a black man can get killed during a traffic stop, but people look the other way when our “president” mocks and openly engages in sexual abuse. A place where terrorists can lead a violent protest injuring several innocent citizens but are still looked at as being good people. Studying Ellison and Baldwin in Trump’s America has assured me that the country I am being raised in has enabled a strategic system for me to fail.
Amy believes that such misogyny goes hand-in-hand with Trump’s vision of white supremacy:
These are the type of people who have power in our country, people who treat women and people of color as objects and animals. “You’re disgusting,” says Donald Trump to a breastfeeding mother, or we can’t forget about when he openly allowed Howard Stern to call his daughter a “piece of ass” and joked about dating her on national television: “Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father ….” However, Ralph Ellison and so far James Baldwin have only shed light on black people in America, which is also shown little respect in the eyes of Trump or just the government in general. Ellison and Baldwin fight for their rights, which is shown in their artworks, but someone similar to Trump wouldn’t even realize how hard it is for people like Ellison and Baldwin to earn the same rights others were born with.
Martin and Malcolm are two black men fighting the same battle, but with two totally different strategies. Martin Luther King ultimately wanted whites and blacks to be able to coexist with each other in several different public settings. He fought heavily for desegregation and equal rights for African Americans. MLK was also a strong advocate for nonviolence. King often supported and/ or taught classes to blacks on how to impassively deal with whites when they would terrorize them. Malcolm, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of MLK. X wanted nothing to do with white people and believed that they were devils. He believed that blacks and whites had too much negative history to even consider coexisting with each other. Unlike MLK’s nonviolent views, Malcolm did support violence to an extent. He strongly believed that when someone initiates violence with you, it is your job to retaliate against them. Malcolm’s words were often misconstrued to portray him as being an advocate for initiating violence against whites. Although both men have several differences, they both share the same genuine goal in receiving justice for their race. This goal was driven by their strong belief in their religious faiths. For MLK ,his faith was Christianity, which is the reason that he is so willing to embrace whites with open arms. As for Malcolm, he followed the Muslim faith, which drives his strict policies. Both men asserted their legendary practices, speeches, and ideas into reshaping the dynamic of race relations in America. Without the help of these two heroic men, the U.S would still have its blatant segregation rules and practices that followed the abolition of slavery.
John Kelly commanded forces that helped quell the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and apparently has never forgotten what he thought he learned there. In other words, he, unlike Malcolm and Martin, has only fought for the preservation of empire.
Raquel offers this perspective:
“By the time each met his death, there was practically no difference between them.”
Baldwin believed that although Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had started out from contrasting backgrounds, they slowly grew more similar as their paths intertwined. I think it’s almost impossible for two men to want the exact same goal and not at least be similar on more than one different level. Certainly, the two had a different idea of how to fix racial injustice, and their religious and family backgrounds had set them on two different paths. However, their similarities are not only more abundant, but also more significant. For example, though Malcolm encouraged violence as self-defense and Martin urged his followers to “turn the other cheek,” or protest nonviolently, both could agree that the white man obviously needed to be fought in one way or another. Even many of their methods were the same. Both used their religions to fight against whites and bring black people together. And finally, they had similar endings in that they were fatally shot. Neither of these men could have died peacefully with the burden of other’s hatred and jealousy to carry on their shoulders.
Our children are experiencing the consequences of history and hopefully will carry this knowledge forward as they navigate the aftermath.
According to the New York Times, John Kelly said: "When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life – the dignity of life – is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well."
This is really something from a guy whose boss hates women, called for the death penalty for the wrongly accused Central Park Five, and aligns himself with a politician who thinks slavery was good for black families. Young Kelly was old enough to witness police-state brutality in the Jim Crow South, so although his lies are transparent, it is important to remember their real purpose is to remind his base that erasing history is essential to preserving their own privilege and imaginary power. What they might not know is that this generation may one day become a formidable foe.
The political opinions expressed are entirely my own. Whether my students agree or disagree is immaterial. The reason we share authorship of this commentary is that they pushed me to further understand how reading their words and lives transforms my own understanding of texts that I know well. I have learned to respect their minds as much as I do my own; their words and ideas are as much a part of this commentary as are mine.
I must be willing to take risks and withstand strong challenges when I am wrong. I can help them learn certain skills, but that’s all. In turn, they teach me how to read the texts for real. I am genuinely afraid of the country that our students are growing up in, and so it seems that we have to learn to love each other in a way, as defined by King, when the love is “something strong and that organizes itself into something powerful, a direct action.”
Dillon has the last word:
Studying Ellison and Baldwin in Trump’s America is a requirement in order to survive this tyranny for the next four (or maybe even less) years. As a minority, I feel as though it is your duty to learn and study history about your own race or about other minorities. Studying history will present you with facts and ideologies that had existed in the past. Many of these ideologies have lead to the genocide of certain groups of people. By studying Ellison and Baldwin, you are exposed to people that “used their dreadful journey to instruct the people they love so much” (Baldwin). Learning about people like that can give relief and inspire people that are being oppressed. By acknowledging the past, you realize that some tragic events that have happened, like police brutality, unfair justice system, genocide, segregation, etc., are still being presented, if not being presented more than ever due to a recent election. Living in a country run by whites, you have to be aware of different views, other than the ones that are in power (whites). A good example of that would be how Ellison writes about how students in the HBCU were being brainwashed and used for the benefit of whites. Students are living in a society where the people on top get to decide what they can and cannot learn (about history). I feel as though reading Ellison or Baldwin can fill in the gaps that had been missed from the teachings of the school system. By doing so, one will truly understand what Trump has planned for this country and the people living in it.
Philly School Media Network is a collaboration between the Philadelphia Writing Project (PHILWP), the School District of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. It offers students and teachers opportunities to learn about journalism and writing by publishing student newspapers for their schools and for a broader audience on the Notebook website. Through this project, students gain an understanding of the role journalism plays in informing students and the wider public, along with the ways in which journalism can provide opportunities for civic action on many levels. Students journalistic writing includes identifying issues, exploring sources and evidence, and writing and producing published pieces.