Blog Post

Who Passes the Baton? Who Holds on For Dear Life? Legacies of Racism, Revisionism, and History

What a swirling week for literary giants it has been! How fascinating to see the graciousness or the stinginess with which the great and glorious accept or reject the new!  I refer to the range of reactions around the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates's open letter to his son, Between the World and Me, and then in T-Magazine, the reactions to Lin-Manuel Miranda's hip-hop Hamilton moving to Broadway.  

Two young men of color walking onto the biggest imaginable elite cultural stage, the New York Times Bestseller List and Broadway.   There is much to learn from just a first burst of reactions to this particular historical moment, at this charged and mostly tragic historical moment for young men of color. 

NOTE:  I have not yet read Between the World and Me (I've been trying to buy it for weeks without success, but I admire the work of Coates's that I've read online).  Nor have I seen Hamilton.  So I do not have a critical stake in what people are saying about them.  What I am interested in, as someone interested in pedagogy, is how and when one makes room for the new, the disturbing, the different, even the annoying--and how one does everything and anything to dismiss, demean, police (sic), belittle, prevaricate, and, well, block.  

So there is the astonishing fact of the greatest American novelist, Toni Morrison, writing an astonishing endorsement for Between the World and Me.  Coates aspired to write like Baldwin.  He was inspired by The Fire Next Time and wanted to write with Baldwin's unblunted passion and radical clarity of purpose and vision.  Morrison writes:  "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me afteJames Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates."  Now that is generosity. That is more than passing the baton.  it is an annointing. 

And Dr. Cornel West, instead of being gracious, even graciously disagreeing, not only spells our Nobel Prize winner's name wrong, but lambasts Coates for several things that are just not true (being gentle on President Obama, ignoring the actions around Ferguson, not attending to past activists such as Malcom X, being gentle on the white establishment). It is factually untrue, dismissive of the most powerful new young Black voice at a moment when young Black voices are being so decisively, literally snuffed.  Why would an elder Black statesman and intellectual do that?  And then David Brooks, in a silly NYT op ed about "reading while white" (huh?), says Coates gets "history wrong," and, in the process, he gets so much so very wrong, that I'm not even going to dignify it by responding.  It's just bad.  Silly. 

But then . . . before I could stew on these two old guys dissing a young guy, I happened to see T Magazine with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the cover and the names Stephen Sondheim, Questlove, and Ron Chernow.  My first reaction was, "Oh, no, not more of the same?"  But I was pleasantly surprised.  It was all far more Toni Morrison-like than Brooks and West.   One after another, from different realms, the revisionist, anti-racist history of playwright Miranda was seen as enriching and reviving theatrical art and correcting and restoring American history.  What?  Fascinating.  And in a very interesting way, an almost pedagogical way, their commentaries serve in vivi contrast to Brooks and West on Coates.

First there is Stephen Sondheim, for goodness sakes, comparing the rap of Miranda's opening songs to the "Rock Island" opening of "The Music Man" and reminding us of how radical "The Music Man" was, formalistically.  Then there is Questlove of Roots being deferential to how much Lin-Manuel Miranda did his homework, how much he knows about the backpack-rap era between 1994 and 2002, the Rawkus records hip-hop era, and the Mobb Deep historical, musical references that are multi-level throughout "Hamilton" (I am quoting--I don't pretend to know that stuff).  Questlove's respect for Miranda is as deep as Sondheim's.

Then I turn the page and there is Pulitzer Prize-winning Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow talking about his admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda, and particularly the moment of going to the first rehearsal and seeing that all the parts were played by young actors of color and thinking that was wrong and then, within minutes, realizing, no, it was right.  So right.  All the founding fathers, Chernow notes, were young, most in their 20s.  All were misfits.  None would have been aristocrats in England.  All were rag-tag, weird, oddballs in different ways.  This new "Hamilton" doesn't "get history wrong" as Mr. Brooks would so pompously and inaccurately say.  This new rendition of "Hamilton" makes us see how our sanctifying of history obscures whole swaths of history--it is the sanctifying that is dead wrong, so wrong.

Morrison, Coates, Brooks, West;  and Miranda, Sondheim, Chernow, Questlove.  What a cast of characters!  You could write a play about them.

Of course anyone is free to like or dislike an up and coming new writer. But the impulse to squelch and discipline is something else.  It's like good teaching versus bad teaching.  A good teacher doesn't want you to spit back what she says. A good teacher doesn't want compliance and obedience and obeisance.  A good teacher wants you to riff and run, to soar in new directions. And even to misbehave a little.  It's the bad one that wants the same old regurgitated in the same way. 

And it is the really bad teacher who insists that there is only one view of the world--and he (and only he) owns it.    


1 comment

First, I think, with Coates & Miranda you've caught the wave of next generation politics. (Incidentally, the Coates book is available on Kindle.) Polarities fail, reality works. Beyond them, however, I'd strongly recommend that you also look at Grace Lee Boggs - at least where she is now - since all is not new. She just turned 100. After a long, long time of transitions - from communist, to activist, to de-segregationist, to a new resolution was not an easy, simple, nor direct set of movements. And age is a wonderful wildcard lens to see how things that often fall apart can fall together.

Second, the polarities you cite - in terms of race or education - are just shadows of the much larger, often much more painful polarities - rich/poor, powerful/powerless - that now effect politics, economics, housing, energy, health, science and higher education. The increasingly rich literature on the failure of higher education as a vehicle for social mobility also echoes many of the same themes: tradition vs. formulae for innovation, as opposed to student-centered recognition of knowledge gains, skill applications, and career opportunities. We need to renew Dewey and Montessori - and watch what kids do - rather than apply canned solutions with dry and trivial metrics.

In other words, just like in race, the only "solution" is from the ground up, rather than top down. Another way of framing these global questions is Scott's Seeing Like a State, where real solutions are local, site based, and accommodate many seemingly unique conditions. For Coates, Miranda, and Boggs, as just three remarkable examples, racism is "meaningful" to the oppressed, and often so unconscious among the oppressors that formulae have no meaning.

Another was of looking at it is Diane Feinstein's case "for" Obama's agreement with Iran this morning on the Sunday news: her only answer to violence is more violence: enforcement requires military force rather than diplomatic collaboration. Or, perhaps, another example is the US Attorney's response to the Boston Bomber: kill the bomber for a capital crime rather than learn from that bomber - and his peers - what problems really demand more positive and pragmatic solutions. In other words, "rigorous" enforcement of any rule distorts any good rule's intent, which is to protect ALL sides.

When higher education - to return to the core of the HASTAC concerns - acknowledges the learner's interest is the driver, rather than the test, the academic, the department, or the institutions, then (and probably only then) can we re-frame how to teach around how people (of any age) learn. One of my favorite pedagogical stories is about Louis Agassiz, before he ran Harvard, when he gave each of his freshman biology students a dead fish for their biology lab. He then walked around the lab - for six weeks - encouraging them to "watch your fish" and kept them from cutting into it. At the end of that six weeks, he would ask them to draw the skeleton. A week later, he'd ask them to draw the key organs. And then, only in the final weeks of the course, he'd ask them to see if they were right.

Places where you "watch your fish" are a very different kindsof institution than most universities would, today, recognize.