In an effort to try to move past all the anger in my heart into something productive, I went and found a copy of Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
You may well ask, “Why direct action, why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. I just referred to the creation of tension as a part of the work of the nonviolent resister. This may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
I would like to point out, for the record, that my high school American literature class, in 2001-2002, did not include any readings from Dr. King. We spent a month on the Scarlet Letter, including two class periods watching a terrible movie starring Demi Moore and the dad from Home Alone, and an insane amount of time doing “art and architecture” powerpoints about daub-and-wattle, but not even one hour could be spared for one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. We half-assed the 20th century in general, both in American lit and its sister course AP US History. In fact, in 17 years of public education, including majoring in Comparative Literature, I came across only five works by writers of African descent: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (which was opt-in), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Une Si Longue Lettre by Mariama Ba, a poem by Derek Walcott, and Passing by Nella Larsen. In college I specifically sought out a seminar on the literature of the South Asian diaspora, but in my high school and college survey classes, there were no Native American or Asian American or Latinx writers anywhere. So when people say structural racism, that’s what it means, that even in an affluent, fairly progressive district where half of the student population were first-generation Americans, the only voices in the curriculum were those of Dead White Men.
To be fair, the DWM were generally good writers. (After all, they had a running start.) Mark Twain has been one of my BFF since I read A Connecticut Yankee when I was, like, 12, and he’s good enough that I can even almost forgive him for dissing Jane Austen that one time. Shakespeare’s not so bad himself. You know who else is a good writer? Martin Luther King, Jr. Frantz Fanon. Sherman Alexie. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Zadie Smith. Abraham Verghese. Yaa Gyasi. Frederick Douglass. Edward Said. Jhumpa Lahiri. WEB DuBois. Just about all of these would have been appropriate for high school (ok, maybe not Fanon, I struggled with Black Skin White Masks at age 25, I think I would have been frustrated at 15).
The reasons I’m so worked up about this right now is because a) I’m a reader and a writer, so this is the shit I think about when my bus is stuck in traffic, and b) the scumbags who descended on Charlottesville this weekend are my age. Richard Spencer graduated a few years before me; Jason Kessler was two years after me. That means they grew up exposed to the same general atmosphere that I did, and like me, they probably grew up reading mostly white texts, and seeing people like themselves on TV, and playing characters like themselves in video games. I’m not totally sure that reading other perspectives would help them empathize with other human beings — after all, The Diary of Anne Frank was definitely required reading, and the take-away message from that book is not supposed to be “Hey that Hitler dude had a good idea.” But I think it’s a little like triaging in medicine. There are some people you just aren’t going to save, because the disease has them rotten to the core. But there’s a whole bunch of kids who have literally never heard the voice of an Other, and if you dose your antibiotics (i.e. reading) appropriately, you might, you just might, be able to pull them out of the ICU, and you won’t even have to worry about renal failure.