Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Pedagogical Failures: A Hagiography for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
I do some great impressions. My personal favorites are Mick from the Rocky films and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not content to rest on my past performances, I always try to innovate. For Mick, I push the limits and imagine that he could have cursed out Clubber Lang with the most racially, angry white (black) Irish bigotry infused speech possible. With Brother Martin, I alternate between an inflection that is one part car salesmen turned preacher, and one part preacher turned pimp.
Did I just offend?
I often share stories about the perils, mischievous joys, and unexpected ironies of being a black working class guy tasked with teaching classrooms of majority white students about the relationship between race, American politics and popular culture. As I once hinted at, and fellow traveler Gordon Gartrelle once alluded to in a comment some years back, I am no keeper of sacred flames or idyllic truths.
This speaks to both temperament (kid gloves are just not my style) and pedagogy (I do not believe that teachers should allow students to remain in the dark, laying with the other troglodytes in Plato's cave). On Dr. King's birthday my priors almost always inevitably lead to a moment of reflection where I ask the following question: Should we tell complicated, rich, and nuanced stories about a man who did great things? Or alternatively, ought we stick to the official script and tell a flat story that fits within America's mythology, one that offers a vision of King's life which is more appropriate for School House Rock than for a college classroom?
To that end, let's take a trip down memory lane. For those who have already taken this walk please enjoy it once again...as I never tell the same story the same way twice. For those new to the journey, please indulge me as I spin a tale.
As I have shared before in my not frequent writings on teaching, I have found myself in some interesting dilemmas. I have shown videos featuring Fleece Johnson and the Tossed Salad man when discussing The New Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex. I have also used Paul Mooney and Dave Chappelle to discuss the normativity of whiteness and how race is a social construct. Of course I love to deconstruct the unedited version of Nelly's legendary Tip Drill video when discussing gender, the black body, commercial hip hop, and the pornographic imagination.
While some colleagues and friends have enthusiastically suggested that I should put the comfort of students first, and to "meet them where they are," I reject said position. Why dilute a claim that can make for an exciting and intellectually productive exchange? And how better a way to improve one's skills as a teacher, scholar, and thinker, than to salvage what has on occasion become a metaphorical car wreck?
For me, Dr. King is not off limits. Nor is he safe from critical inquiry and demystification.
Some years ago my students and I were having an interesting exchange about mythologies of resistance and The Civil Rights Movement. There I offered a much simplified version of Dennis Chong's argument that the free rider problem is operative in a person's decision to participate in a mass movement (or not). There are numerous rational and self-interested reasons to opt out. Why did so many black folk (and their allies) choose not to? Conversely, why did the vast majority of African Americans choose to not publicly participate in the war against Jim Crow by taking to the streets?
Our exchange was productive until I named that which should not be named. As an example of a grossly oversimplified--and oftentimes flat-out wrong understanding of history--I pointed out how Rosa Parks was not a tired little old lady with hurt feet who decided to sit down on a bus, a moment from which the Civil Rights Movement magically sprung. She was a trained advocate, resister, and activist who chose to exercise real agency in a decision to stand against power. Moreover, Rosa Parks was not the only person to ever be arrested for "the crime" of refusing to sit in the back of a Jim Crow bus. In fact, she was chosen for this act of political theater precisely because of how she modeled black respectability.
Light match. A firestorm then erupted.
One young sister accused me of lying. When I showed her the relevant part of Eyes on the Prize she then become even more upset and proceeded to stomp out of the room to collect herself...all the while muttering that "I killed her heroes." A compatriot said, "that wasn't true, impossible! The Civil Rights Movement didn't happen that way!"
Not one to stop in the face of weakness, I pushed harder. I asked, "what do you know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? What about Malcolm X? The Black Panthers? Angela Davis? Ida B. Wells-Barnett?" They recited their approved histories of great men, heroes and villains, and quotes taken out of context.
I probed, "what makes these people great? Were they perfect or imperfect? Were they like you and me, or were they otherworldly and divine? What practical lessons can we take from their struggles?" Surprised they looked at each other. I pushed harder: "What about Dr. King's womanizing and adulterous behavior, does this make him any less an important figure, any less monumental and courageous?"
Second explosion. Tears and more anger.
Curious, I asked a flummoxed student to explain the rage. He replied, "we aren't ready to know these things! A racist could hear what we are talking about and use it against Dr. King and black people!" I suggested that we ought not to limit our truth seeking because of what others may do, and that Dr. King as a figure, a 3 dimensional person, is made more complex, his radical Christianity and humanism made more complicated through an examination of the totality of his behavior--as opposed to the "official" Dr. King who is a two dimensional Civil Rights approved mummy or ventriloquist doll.
Ultimately I asked, "Should we not seek out complications in the world around us? Is that not why you are in college?"
Always one to push harder and turn the knife, I spoke plainly and asked, "Should it matter that Brother King was caught on tape mid-coitus moaning that "I am fucking for God!" and "I am not a negro tonight!"
More upsetness. More anger. And no small amount of shock.
On Dr. King's birthday I reflected on that day in the classroom. When not far removed from that moment by years and months I thought it was only youth and innocence which explained my students' inability to come to terms with certain truths, to complicate their stories and understandings of history. But in watching the ritualistic worship of Dr. King on Monday, my sense is that many adults, folks much older than their late teens or early twenties, would have responded in much the same way. Their words may have been different. But the sense that a hero was violated would have quite likely been the same.
This is not a sentiment which is confined to black folk. For some, the fetish object is a reverence for a childish, divinely inspired view of the Framers and the Constitution. For others, it is a pantheon of heroes of whatever ideological camp, political movement or people's struggle that they choose to identify with. Some have the myth of Reagan. While others have the myth of Martin. And more than a few tightly embrace Brother Malcolm.
I understand the need for true lies. I also understand the role of these true lies in a given community's myth of origin. But on a more basic level what explains the need of some for simple heroes? Am I so twisted and strange that the failings and complexities of those who do great deeds makes them more tangible to my eyes? That I am reminded that these heroes are real people who made choices...some for good and some for ill?
On this day after Dr. King's holiday I am curious: How do you like your heroes? On a pedestal too high for you to reach, or at eye level where they can inspire you directly?