Saturday, January 23, 2016

Racialized Thinking in Maine: A Guest Blogger's Response

So already, every once in a while I share in my blog something written by a friend or colleague that, in my opinion, deserves a broad audience for any number of reasons. Today I share an op ed piece that Margo Lukens, a long-time friend and fellow educator, submitted to the Bangor Daily News. Whether or not her piece is printed there, I hope you will read it here.

Margo--that's her in the photo to the right*--is an English professor at the University of Maine in Orono. She also serves on the board of the Abbe Museum, the mission of which, according to the subtitle of the home page of its web site, is "Inspiring New Learning About the Wabanaki Nations with Each Visit." Located in Bar Harbor, the museum recently developed a strategic plan that has as a principal aim the decolonization of the museum's practices. Margo has been thinking about the encounter of historically less powerful and more powerful groups for her entire career, aiming always for encounter that addresses and corrects that imbalance of power respectfully and productively. As you might expect, she is a strong advocate for White people's acknowledging their white privilege and exploring its role in the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of race-related social inequality.

The governor of Maine's early January race-related comments about impregnated white girls and drug dealers and the aftermath of those comments prompted Margo to write; her piece, in italics, follows. Thank you, Margo, for letting me share it here.

An Open Letter to My White Brothers and Sisters                                   

Gov. Paul LePage has given the State of Maine, and specifically the white people of the state, an occasion to examine the deep structures of our society and the thought processes underlying our speech, actions and policies.
After his remarks about drug dealers from New York with names like D-Money, Shifty and Smoothie who “impregnate young white girls” before leaving Maine, there has been a landslide of public rhetoric repudiating LePage’s speech as racist, and even a petition on calling for LePage to repudiate his own speech.  Mike Tipping and Ron Schmidt both wrote thoughtful reflections on the ways his speech violates the values our communities try to maintain.

LePage’s speech indicates racialized thinking.  His explanations of his gaffe showed even more plainly that he really did mean he was talking about white women being impregnated by men that he pretends he didn’t mean to say were black.  In the minds of most readers or listeners there hasn’t been any question his fictionalized drug dealers were black.  

The BDN  [Bangor Daily News] Jan 11 editorial begins to home in on the problem of systemic and habitual racism in our state, and links LePage’s comments to historic fears held by Anglo-Europeans since the introduction of slavery in North America in about 1619.  These fears persist because the owners used a system of chattel slavery to do the work it took to exploit the land through agriculture and create wealth, which could only be enforced through violence.
The BDN cartoon Jan 9/10** showed LePage’s face as the joker with the caption “The Race Card.”  Actually, we as white people have held all the aces and face cards in the race deck, whether we descend from slaveholders or not.  Whiteness was institutionalized as an identity in North America to separate from and thereby justify the enslavement of African people and their descendants.

The BDN editorial rightly references the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago 15-year-old who fell victim to horrific violence while visiting southern relatives.  The men who kidnapped, tortured and killed him for whistling at one of their wives, acted on the stereotype that white womanhood needs defense against sexual advances by black men.  This was only sixty years ago.   

Last fall my literature students read James Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie”**** which Baldwin wrote in response to the events surrounding Till’s murder. The play contains no suspense or question of guilt—the audience sees Lyle Britten shoot Richard Henry in the first seconds of Act 1.  The action centers upon the relationships among white people: in particular Lyle, his wife Jo, and the town newspaper editor Parnell Jones.  Despite being known for his liberal leanings and his friendship with the victim’s father, Parnell discovers his deepest allegiance lies with his childhood friend Lyle, the murderer.  The play ends on a note struck by Juanita, the murdered Richard’s girlfriend, who to Parnell’s question “Can I join you on the march, Juanita?  Can I walk with you?” responds, “Well, we can walk in the same direction, Parnell.  Come.  Don’t look like that.  Let’s go on on.”   We as white people have much work to do ourselves before we can be good neighbors, allies, or family to people of color.  And I am sure Paul LePage loves his family and wants to do all that is best for them.

So rather than calling for repudiation of this public utterance, we should let LePage’s speech reveal the need for deep teaching among white people by white people about how we have profited and continue to profit through white skin privilege, even if we do not have access to privilege through other means such as social class, gender, or religion.

This is where our work needs to begin—not with the speed bump of Gov. LePage’s words—but with the mountain of unexamined and habitual attitudes that need to change in order for us to move forward and live in the 21st century.  My point is that although we white people may not identify with or understand people of color, we can at least begin to educate ourselves, join the march, and walk in the same direction. 

* This photo is a screen shot of of Margo's LinkedIn profile photo.
** Screen shot of my own FB page on which I shared another person's post.
*** Screen shot of following web page:  "The Joker." George Danby Editorial Cartoonist. Bangor Daily News, 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. <>. 
**** Screen shot of one result of my "Blues for Mister Charlie Images" search: <cinema/photos/2013/03/greatest-african-american-plays.html#!032013-shows-star-cinema-plays-langston-hughes-black-nativiry>

Sunday, January 17, 2016

For Martin Luther King Junior Day 2016

Screen Shot of the Online Version of This Article
So already, I hadn't planned to blog on the occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. But three articles I read recently are compelling me to write. After I posted two of them on my Facebook page, I realized merely posting them wasn't enough.

For a while, I've realized how difficult it is to get White people of my own age group--fifties and older--to talk about racism and white privilege. Silence quickly followed by a change in subject to something either tangential or not at all related is the general strategy. It's made me wonder what kinds of conversations do and don't happen at family dinner tables and among small gatherings of White people who consider themselves to be close friends.

But my assumption as a longtime teacher has been that if those conversations weren't happening among people of my age in homes or other places, they were happening among young people in schools. Maybe not as often, as lengthily, as deeply, and as satisfyingly as teachers and students both hoped, but at least with sincerity and a strong possibility of further discussion. In classes where relationships had been built, such difficult conversations had a chance of being genuine; in classes where there was a presumption of intended respect, difficult moments had a chance of being explored so that all felt more if not fully understood. The group was involved in a process, not a one-time activity that would be a panacea.

But The Boston Globe article about tomorrow night's Boston Children's Chorus "Raw Truth" concert disproved my assumption. Talking about the group of more than 500 young people--the article explains its members represent more than 120 zip codes and are as young as 7 and as old as 18--Anthony Trecek-King, its conductor, explained,

“When Trayvon Martin happened, when Ferguson erupted, Tamir Rice, Kalief Browder, we bring them up and we have discussions. And what I’m finding out — and it’s not surprising — is that not only are they not talking about this in their schools and communities . . . but they’re being discouraged from talking about it. . . . . 
"The exact opposite is true here at the Boston Children’s Chorus. If I don’t talk about these things, if I’m not bringing them up, having the discussion, then I’m not doing my job.”* 
Who was discouraging the kids from talking about racial justice and the deaths of other young people, I wondered--teachers? some kids? most kids? administrators? Was the conversation being officially, overtly, and/or subtly discouraged? Were those who were discouraging the conversation aware of all their reasons for discouraging it?

The second article was a column by a teacher** from extremely White New Trier High School who was responding to an article criticizing New Trier's MLK Day plans to replace a day of regular classes with a "variety of seminars on racial justice." Buckman was writing in response to the objections of some anonymous parents that were published in an article in The Breitbart News.*** 

Two of the objections were especially subtle:

“This is supposed to be a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King. Yet of the 59 classes, over half seem to focus on the color of skin and not the content of character. Why not spend the day to study, reflect and write about Dr. King’s actual words,**** the advancements made and the dreams yet to be realized?… 

“In order to be post-racial you have to live it."

Wow, I thought as I realized I was reading my second article in as many days that was about the active discouragement of talking about racism and race-related history and current events in school. As the first statement suggests, of course there's value in studying MLK's speeches and writings, his legacy, and his character. But "dreams yet to be realized" seems to require an assessment of the present and the past. The second statement takes almost a cognitive therapy approach. After asserting "post-racial" as a societal ideal--lots to unpack there, since in my experience, this word is understood very differently by different people--the person offering that comment argues that if race shouldn't matter and won't matter in post-racial America, our best course is simply to embody the belief that "racism no longer exists and no longer matters." No need to worry about the enduring inequalities that are the legacy of "racial America"--it's all about attitudes, what really should be, not institutions past and present.

Responding to the Breitbart article, Buckman passionately justifies New Trier's plans for having its predominantly White student body engage with one another around issues of racial inequality: "It's necessary," "It's not guilt--it's history," and "If we feel guilt, so be it." She explains her third point as follows:  
"That temporary feeling is nothing compared to the histories of inequality and current discrimination faced by many racial minorities--and avoiding these exchanges because of 'guilt' only breeds ignorance that recreates oppression. Guilt will fade. Understanding social location and different perspectives on complex issues is lasting."
Buckman says an awful lot in that short paragraph. And before talking about my own feelings as a sixty-year-old, it seems worth mentioning three kinds of guilt that people of any age might experience: guilt by association, guilt through action, and guilt through inaction. While many sixteen-year-olds--people who've never cast a vote, never participated in a town meeting, never accepted or rejected a candidate for a job, a loan, or a place in a freshman class--may feel some guilt by association, chances are great that they haven't acted in ways that perpetuated systematic oppression on the basis of skin color. So school programs like the one New Trier is planning actually create the opportunity for future enlightened action and less guilt through action and inaction.

Speaking for myself, I don't feel guilty when I learn about institutions and policies that were put into place before my lifetime--I don't take responsibility for their creation. But I do feel guilty about having been the beneficiary of them without having understood that I was benefiting and for having unwittingly helped to perpetuate them. But isn't that privilege--white privilege or any other kind of privilege--in a nutshell--that breezy unconsciousness of the way the deck is stacked in one's favor? And isn't the big problem with that priviliege the way in which it allows one unconsciously to keep restacking that deck? Buckman's right, though: that guilt--really a combination of guilt and feeling pretty stupid for not having understood this sooner as a result of entitled inattention--fades pretty easily once one owns up to it and resolves to act according to one's new consciousness.

It's guilt related to present and future action or inaction that most haunts me: the guilt I do feel and will feel when I don't speak up and when I fail again at getting White people to talk about white privilege and race-related injustice. Most of the White people I know get it that the expression "Black Lives Matter," in asserting the value of Black lives, does not mean that non-Black lives don't matter. They recognize and talk about systemic oppression.

But systemic benefit is not discussed, unless the beneficiaries are CEOs and billionaires. Because many of them don't talk about white privilege with me, I don't know if they don't accept the idea of it or just don't want to talk about it (or talk about it with me in particular). My unsubstantiated theory is that for some--and maybe many--high-achievers, acknowledging white privilege means letting go of cherished notions of being completely "self-made" and admitting to any kind of preferential treatment as a result of "connections" and race-related assumptions. Especially among those of them who've worked very hard in competitive fields--and that's a lot of them--acknowledging their privilege may feel analogous to saying that they didn't need to work hard, didn't work hard, and deserve less credit for their achievements. In my opinion, white privilege generally says nothing about who has and hasn't worked hard. But since we don't talk about it, we don't get to talk about what it does and doesn't mean.

In responding to the Breitbart News article, New Trier School Superintendent Linda Yonke said, “"Current events show us that there is still much work to be done toward creating a world in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin . . .We are proud to spend a day exploring these important topics.” Yonke's right: there is still much work to be done. Let's hope schools are one of the places our youngest citizens can become part of that work and, in so doing, help to reduce the overall need for that work over time. Meanwhile, I'll keep trying to start the conversation, looking for new angles. And if it's one thing this blog has taught me, it's that many people are in ongoing conversation with themselves if not with others around topics like these and others. Maybe this blog will galvanize what I hope it will galvanize. Or maybe it will galvanize something else different altogether, but just as important or more.

* Weininger, David. "Boston Children’s Chorus Pursues ‘raw Truth’ in MLK Concert - The Boston Globe." Boston Globe Media Partners Inc., LLP, 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <>.   
** Buckman, Celia. "Sorry Breitbart--White People Should Talk About Race." The Huffington Post., 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <>.  
*** Pollak, Joel B. "High School Forces Kids to Attend 'Racial Identity' Classes." Breitbart News. Breitbart, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <>. 
**** Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial- Alabama Quote. 2011. Website, Washington D.C. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <>. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ringing Out the Old, Ringing In the Blue!

Grethe Wittrock Wallhanging at the Fuller Craft Museum
So already, maybe it's because I've been learning the song "Taking a Chance on Love"* for the last couple of weeks. It's hard not to smile when you're singing words like

     Here I go again
     I hear those trumpets blow again,
     all aglow again, 
     taking a chance on love.

Whatever the reason, the new year has me ringing out the old, and ringing in the blue--the bright blue. I'm walking around with the feeling that "things are mending now/ I see a rainbow blending now." It's a feeling, not an accomplishment, and I'm grateful for it.

The friends who told me that adjusting to retirement takes about two years were right. Right now, retirement is sitting on my shoulders like a familiar cloak. Often when I walk out the door wearing it, I don't know where I'm going or where I fit. But sometimes I do know. Meanwhile, just as one retired friend had foretold, people have stopped asking me what my plans are and what I'm doing with myself. I still have no overarching purpose, no big goals except to say yes to projects and activities that I feel immediately excited about, to keep writing, and to trust "the process," which is what I'm finally actually doing. I suspect that my energy and optimism reflect that I'm finally trusting that way will lead to way, and way-to-way is the only way I can go. It's taken two years to get to this point.

As December wound down, my time increasingly became my own. With my parents relatively settled in their new independent living community and the flurry of holiday rehearsals and socializing behind me, I looked toward the horizon at the fast-approaching new year with a sense that certain challenges had been met. New and different ones would no doubt surface in the future, but for the moment, the sea was calm and the coast was clear. With the second anniversary of my retirement from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School just weeks away, I had more choices than I'd had in a long time because I had more time and fewer worries. 

That combination made me feel a lot like I felt two years ago when, for the first time in forever, I wasn't struggling to bring the first semester to a coherent close while trying to plan an inspiring second-semester launch. I recalled the mid-January Saturday that my husband Scott and I hung his M.F.A show** in the gallery of Johnson State College in northern Vermont. As approaching evening turned the snow-covered quadrangle blue, we acknowledged to each other that each of us thought his work looked wonderful in that space. Ahead of us both lay a next phase. But in that moment, we relished being surrounded by his powerful paintings and sculptures. Then we savored the first feelings of freedom from all the effort and hours that had made that moment and that achievement possible.

But such moments don't last, and seldom do we stand at junctures that so dramatically restructure our lives. Days later, Scott went back to work, teaching his community college students, most of whom didn't know that he'd just achieved something major. And I began "the adjustment."

Fortunately, times and people do change, however. When mid-December of this year brought familiar feelings of being mildly adrift rather than joyously empowered to do exactly as I pleased, I had a thought that I'd never had before: while I'm often not sure what will most please me in a given moment, I know for sure that there is much that does please me--much that has meaning for me, much that I believe is important, much that I love. Why spend so much time worrying about trying to match the right pursuit to the right moment when there are plenty of moments, I wondered. So in the final days of December, I resolved to become a creature of habit--or habits. Multiple habits that please me in a range of ways. 

The thought of habits sent me back to two books, one of which I've read countless times--The Plague by Albert Camus--and one of which I've never managed to read through--Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin. Camus first mentions habits in The Plague's first chapter in which he describes the character of the city of Oran: "The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits" (4).  Sentences later, after enumerating the unexamined routines of Oran's citizens when they're not "'doing business,'" Camus explains that while "these habits are not peculiar to our town," "there exist towns and countries where people have now and then have an inkling of something different" (4). While Camus views habit as the antidote to boredom and the unhappiness that often accompanies it, Rubin is concerned with the habits that transform us in order to bring us closer to our goals. In Rubin's world, inklings--especially about ourselves--are to be heeded and appreciated, especially if the purpose of our habits is to reach our goals and feel happy as a result.

I think I've resisted reading Rubin's book because--and I could be wrong about this--it's so much about the goals and happiness of the individual. The world and its needs--momentary, perpetual, and eternal--are of secondary if any importance. Yes, I know I should read the book (and writing this is making me question my assumptions about it). But any habits I'd want to develop would have to lead, or at least have the potential to lead, to more than just my personal satisfaction. Not that self-care habits aren't important: if we don't take care of ourselves, we're likely at some point to be less effective at taking care of others.  But I want habits that help me to have inklings about the world, grow in my comprehension and appreciation of it, figure out how to contribute to it in this evolving next phase of my life. I want others to have inklings, too, and for the same reasons.

So given the literature on habits and my own needs and desires, what would it mean for me to become a person of habits? I knew it would mean, in part, re-establishing some old habits, like walking regularly, daily if possible; taking lots of photographs; writing "morning pages" in the journal an old friend had given me in late September; and making at least one vegetarian soup or entree every week. All of these routines, often good for both my personal well-being and my need to step beyond myself, had fallen by the wayside this fall as my parents tackled the question of "to move or not to move"; made a final decision; and then sorted, discarded, packed, and actually moved--all with much advice and help (sometimes wanted, sometimes not) from my sisters and me. 

And I also knew it would mean establishing some new routines--not necessarily daily habits, but regular focusd efforts--that would help me move toward certain goals and resolves, some related to work and some to play:
  • Having resolved to reconnect with good friends whom I haven't seen in a year or more, I've committed to contacting one old friend per week to hatch a plan to get together. I have two "old friend" lunch dates on my calendar. 
  • Having received This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry as a Christmas present, I plan to read--and I've already begun--a year's worth of Sabbath poems (there are on average twelve poems for each year from 1979 through 2012) every day until I've read the whole book. Berry's relationship with the woods near his home, the ones about which he often writes in his Sabbath poems because his habit of walking in them on Sundays, has always fascinated me.
  • I've also decided to read one chapter a week--I've yet to begin--of Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth to help me think about the mythic and mythological aspects of Scott's paintings. A professional storyteller fan*** of Scott's work who recently saw  "Autumn Spring" (at the right) was surprised to learn that Scott had no knowledge of the Greek myth in which Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree to avoid Apollo's advances. Is Scott's imagination giving him access to some primordial dream-truth that others learn through myth? Might a deeper understanding of mythology's sources and functions help both Scott and me to create a context that would invite more people into the sometimes unsettling world of his paintings? Might a carefully curated exhibition of Scott's works create a setting in which other artists could perform their mythology-inspired art and music? 

So I've begun to cultivate most of my "new" habits, which often means fitting them in around prior commitments. But a funny thing happened on my way to the CRLS Teachers' Resource Center last Tuesday, where I was headed to facilitate some of the curriculum development work the Kimbrough Scholars Program****  teacher team is currently doing. When I signed in at the security desk to receive the yellow badge that's required of any official visitor to the high school, I actually felt like a visitor to the high school for the very first time. That new feeling felt more right than strange. The people who had said adjustment to retirement would take two years had called it just right.

When I first renewed my habit of carrying my camera with me, I noticed pale blues, grays, and whites dominating my photos. Winter, I thought, as I explained to myself the predominance of muted colors in my nature photos. But time of year didn't explain the softened colors of the collected quilts and wallhangings in the Art as Quilt: Transitions in Contemporary Textile Media exhibition at the Fuller Craft Museum. Strange coincidence, I mused.

As days passed, though, and I walked more, took more pictures, and more fully enjoyed the unseasonable early January weather, I began seeing the vibrant, and it was blue. As I looked toward Squantum from the northern stretch of Wollaston Beach one morning, one facade of a bright blue house cheerfully commanded my full attention--and in so doing, obliterated the pale winter-world conception to which I'd been clinging. When I got home, I looked back through the photos I'd taken recently: there were swaths and patches of bright blue in many of them. How had I managed to overlook them in the quilt landscape I'd photographed at the Fuller Craft Museum?

Sometimes it takes something shifting within us, and despite us, for us to see, feel, and set out anew. At mid-January, I'm feeling eager and grateful and surprised, ready to make a habit of taking a chance. Here's to the mystery of it all--and the hope. 

Latouche, John, and Ted Fetter. "Lyrics-"Taking a Chance on Love"" - Google Play Music. EMI Miller Catalogue Inc., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2016. You can watch this YouTube video if you want to hear Ethel Waters sing this song in Cabin in the Sky.
** You can check out my husband Scott Ketcham's paintings on his web site, <>.
*** The professional storyteller visitor was my fellow Unicorn Singer, Joan Gatturna, who researched and wrote the script for Unicorn Singers' "'All is Calm, All is Bright': The Christmas Truce of 1914 in Song and Narration." I wrote about this program as part of a December 2014 blog post, called "Crossing Lines and the Christmas Truce of 1914": <>.
**** Working with this group has been one of the most satisfying, clarifying, enlightening experiences of my retirement; stay tuned for a future blog post on this topic.