I’ve been asked to speak at Siena Heights University’s annual celebration of Martin Luther King Day.  I am to speak for 5-10 minutes and comment upon what King has meant to me.  Here’s what I will say:

I am very honored to have been asked to share some thoughts on the importance and legacy of Martin Luther King.

As a teacher I often include King’s speeches and essays in my classes.  Whenever I teach my students about King I am reminded that he was a self-described “extremist for love.”  I want to talk about what that means—what it means to be an extremist for love—and then touch on how King’s example inspires me.  To understand all of this, I think we need to understand the strategies King employed in attempting to enact social change and the exceptional courage and pride he carried within himself and awoke within others.  Throughout this brief talk I will quote from King’s very powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

A little historical background.  By the mid-1950s, Jim Crow Segregation had been in effect for over sixty years.  While the NAACP had done much to challenge and slowly dismantle these laws, many African-Americans had begun to lose patience with the long arc of history and its slow movement towards justice.  Centuries of economic abuses had left African-American communities impoverished; and, perhaps more significantly, physical violence and a culture which dehumanized African-Americans left many “living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next […] plagued with inner fears and outer resentments […] forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness.’”  By the mid-1950s, many African-Americans had reached the point where “the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”

In 1955 Martin Luther King was a twenty-six year old Baptist minister in Montgomery Alabama.  After being brought in to help coordinate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King found himself thrust into the national leadership of a new civil rights organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rather than continue to wait and suffer the dehumanization and violence of American racism, King and SCLC embraced a strategy of non-violent direct action.

It is important that we remember how radical this strategy was—and that it was this strategy that made King and the SCLC “extremists for love.”  While their campaigns began with and sought to engage in advocacy and negotiation, King and the SCLC were prepared for the fact that white Southerners were unlikely to admit that there was a problem or engage in honest dialogue with African-American activists.  When dialogue and negotiation fell apart and white Southerners proved once again that they were unwilling to see African-Americans as fully human, King and the SCLC would engage in direct-action campaigns—sit-ins, marches, boycotts—which sought to “create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which ha[d] constantly refused to negotiate [would be]  forced to confront the issue.”  Well aware that these actions would be met with violence and arrest, King and the SCLC were careful to pray and engage in self-purification so that they would be prepared to “present [their] very bodies as means of laying [their] case before the conscience of the local and national community.”

This took immense courage and immense faith.  King and his associates would directly face down segregationists and were threatened with very real violence; many of them were assaulted and some were even killed for standing up against American racism.  But, through his abiding faith in both Christ and the American dream, King found within himself a truly awesome reserve of strength, conviction, and pride.  It was this strength, conviction, and pride that enabled him to stand up to the face of injustice and peacefully face down violence and brutality.  This strength and conviction also lay at the core of his written work and the very eloquent and personal testimonies that have served as inspiration to others who sought, and continue to seek, a more Christian, democratic nation.

By 1965 King and the SCLC had experienced considerable success.  Their direct action campaigns had successfully pushed the federal government to enact laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to consider laws that would be folded into the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  These laws helped dismantle many of the harshest Jim Crow laws and helped speed the nation towards fuller racial equality.   But King’s work was not done.  In the last years of his life he turned his attention to poverty, fair housing, and an end to war.  I think we far too often focus on King’s dream of a color-blind society and forget that this dream was only possible if all people were freed from the oppressive, dehumanizing effects of poverty, poor housing, and poorer education.  So, in his final years, King turned his attention to this structural inequalities which shackled people of all races.

Now, how does this part of King’s work, his status as a self-proclaimed “extremist for love,” influence me?  I have not had to face injustices as severe as those faced by King and his associates.  I am very aware of the fact that the relative comfort and ease of my life would not be possible if Martin Luther King and others had not so courageously faced down forces of discrimination and dehumanization and in the process made our world more just and more free.

But, these forces continue to exist—we still live in a time in which poverty, unfair housing, and unevenly distributed educational opportunities prevent many from reaching the promises of the American dream.  King’s work can continue.  Not only through the continued striving for an end to racial discrimination but also through a struggle for fair housing, equitable education, and economic freedom for all.  King once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  I hope that we all leave here today inspired to speak out against injustice and to devote ourselves, through our prayer and study but also through our time and energy, to making sure our nation continues on a path towards a time and place in which the dignity and humanity of all is respected, honored, and celebrated.  We might not be called to place our bodies and freedom on the line, as King and his associates did.  And, we might not be called to travel the country, as King did.  But here in Adrian we can devote our time and energy to organizations like Habit for Humanity, the United Way, the Adrian Rea Literacy Center, or many of the other opportunities coordinated through Siena Serves.  And, even when we are not directly working to end injustice, we can see as King did, from a place of empathy for all people, and speak as King did, calling out for fuller freedom and justice.

Thank you.

Hiatus, Hiatus

January 16, 2011

Just a note that this blog has been on indefinite hiatus since May, 2010.  In the past eight months I’ve seen my family expand from a trio to a quartet, and have started my first permanent academic position as an Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University.  I am not sure if I will ever revive this blog, but I do have ambitious writing plans for the summer and may use this space to post notes and ideas on those projects.  In the meantime, check out my bare-bones home page for links to my course websites and other places I frequent on the internet.  Thanks.

Later today I am participating on a panel discussion as part of Defiance College’s McMaster’s Symposium. The conference theme is “Democracy and Education in the Face of Rural Change.” I will be giving a short overview of my academic perspective on the theme; I’ve elected to simply reflect on Ethnic Studies and Composition as tools for community empowerment and democracy. This is merely a sketch:

My academic home is divided between American Ethnic Studies and composition. And, while these fields are rather divergent, I think that many of the tools and orientations enacted in Ethnic Studies can powerfully contribute to the teaching of effective, constructive discourse in the composition classroom; and this can prove crucial to our identities as citizens and foster cohesive bonds which are essential to a democratic society.

Ethnic Studies is largely concerned with the social and historical construction of race, though, as we will see, it is also concerned with gender, sexuality, and class. Ethnic Studies is not the only academic discipline which examines race and ethnicity. The social sciences often examine race as a factor in human behavior and community; and the humanities take multiculturalism very seriously.

What sets Ethnic Studies apart are its academic orientations, its research methods, and its goals. First and foremost, Ethnic Studies examines the social and historical construction of race by adopting an emic or insider approach—it recognizes and validates the experiences of individuals and societies who have experienced and lived racial constructions. It then orients itself among these multiple experiences by placing ethnic identities within the matrix of race, class, gender, sexuality and, more recently, place. By listening to human experiences with race and racism and then reading those experiences as intersecting with other social constructions, Ethnic Studies works to develop an intricate, evolving portrait of the ways race is lived in the U.S. This sympathetic, intersectional approach to identity is then enacted in research which is often community-based and self-empowering and is always designed to combat inequality.

In order to clarify what Ethnic Studies is and does, we could consider how Ethnic Studies might help us better understand a community like Defiance. Ethnic Studies research into social change and cultural identity in Defiance would not simply chart the causes and effects deindustrialization, globalization, and suburbanization. Rather, it would examine the ways residents of Defiance have negotiated and influenced this process; a major goal would be examining the ways Defiance residents have been active participants, not simply pawns, in rural change. Moreover, this research would be inherently comparative and would seek out commonalities and divergences among the diverse populations of Defiance, with an emphasis on intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and place. A major project would be considering the role race and racial difference and processes like immigration, both recent and historic, have had on Defiance and placing those discussions in communication with other forms of identification, most especially class. Lastly, although inherent locally, this ethnography would seek out broader patterns and work to place Defiance in communication with other communities, both those nearby, like Bryan and Napoleon, but also Fort Wayne, Toledo, and Detroit, and those far away, including locations outside the U.S. which are connected to Defiance through networks of human or capital.

The orientation of this research—localized with a sensitivity to comparative and intersectional experiences—and its methods are designed to foster community empowerment and community engagement. By listening to and documenting the agency of its subjects, Ethnic Studies helps encourage and empower its subjects; and, by tracing community dimensions and comparative cases, Ethnic Studies can point out fault lines and sources of strength that can be used by civic leaders and community activists.
So far I’ve tried to explain Ethnic Studies and its application to a community like Defiance. But, I am also a composition teacher and I think our work in the writing classroom can positively interact with the community empowerment of Ethnic Studies.

Obviously, the first and foremost goal of any writing class is the cultivation of capable, confident writers. Our first job is to teach the foundational skills and conventions of academic writing. To achieve those goals, I take as a guiding principle the centrality of process. On the one hand, I organize my classes around the writing process and structure assignments and the semester around teaching students to explore, draft, and revise.

On the other hand, I emphasize to my students that writing, like all cognitive skills, is a life-long process which begins with our earliest acquisition of language as babies and doesn’t stop until our final breath. By taking this long view students can, hopefully, see that writing is not something to be learned and mastered in one semester; it is a skill and a craft to be consciously cultivated over their lifetime.

By orienting ourselves thusly, I and my students can better recognize and account for the diversity of writers we have within our classrooms. Any single writing class will have outstanding, accomplished writers and students who have basic literacy problems, not to mention all those other students who fall somewhere between these two extremes. By taking the long view, I can help my accomplished students see that they have further to go and I can empower the weaker writers in my class by reminding them that though they have a long way to go, they can succeed as writers. And, by helping students see this about themselves and each other, I can ideally help build a community of writers which is comfortable with difference, confident in its cohesion, and committed to better all its members.

It is this last point which brings us back to Ethnic Studies’ orientations and goals and, in a roundabout way, to democracy. I believe strongly in cultivating communities; and, I believe strongly in cultivating constructive, community-oriented discourses. By embracing the insider perspective and community empowerment of Ethnic Studies and marrying it to a process-oriented writing classroom in which community and constructive discourse are emphasized we can, I hope, foster a better awareness of our own identities and, more importantly, a sensitivity to the locations, experiences, and perspectives of others. And, if we are more aware of our interrelations and are more practiced in constructive, sensitive dialogue we can rebuild the communal ties which are essential to a functioning democracy.

Disinclined by temperment from public displays of political or cultural emotion and painfully aware of the repurcussions that can be visited upon those who place themselves in a public setting, yet fundamentally disturbed and endlessly frustrated by the state of public and private discourse across our nation, I begin this journal with both trepidation and purpose.  And while the viciousness of our national discourse, especially those discourses surrounding important political and cultural issues, discourages me from raising my voice, it is this very viciousness that I will attempt to address and work against.

My immediate reference for this introductory post is the ongoing spectacle of impassioned, violent dissent foisted at Democratic representatives and senators during “Town Hall” meetings.  While I support healthcare reform and hope we achieve a healthcare system which meets the needs of all regardless of their income or citizenship status, my dismay at the ongoing spectacle of the Town Halls is not the presence of dissent nor is it the quickness with which so many dismiss any public or socialized option for vital services such as healthcare.  Dissent is protected and ought to be respected and we need a full airing of the costs and challenges of healthcare reform.

What disturbs me, chills me, and shakes me awake at night is the negativity of the discourse, the violence and isolating quality of so much that is offered forth in public venues.  I do not mean to suggest that we need bury our passions in a public setting.  Nor do I expect that public discourse be a dry recitation of facts and figures. 

Far too often public discourse employs phantoms of dissent and flames of passion to incite spectacles which reassure us of the intractablity of the situation.  And these spectacles are most visible when memes resonate in contradictory ways and driving us into stolidity or vehement agression.  There are countless examples of destructive gestures made in Town Halls with which we are all example.  The jokes about “lynching” the democratsThe evocation of Nazism and the HolocaustThe parading of guns and the whispering of death threats.  These moments freeze me, shock me, disturb me.  They make me shake with anger as a heavy weight of fear and frustration overcomes me.  I lose the ability or the patience to speak clearly and constructively.  I lose sight of my beleifs and my patience.  I cease being a contributer to or dissenter within discourse and either shut down or flame anew with angered passion, feeding the spectacle.

I recognize, of course, that polemic and agitprop are deployed to elicit that reaction, among others.  I get angry and froth.  Other become excited, energized, the base awakens.  And, I am fully aware that some form of polemic will exist and needs to exist.

My underlying frustration, however, is the seepage of rancorous, divisive rhetorics into most public discourse.  We’ve lost the ability to solve problems–to move forward in positive, constructive ways–because we have lost the ability to talk with each other. 

How can we reshape discourse and thereby move society forward to a place in which the common good is both the ways, the means, and end purpose of our decision making?  More importantly, how can our educational institutions help craft a more inclusive community and a more inclusive discourse?  I want to use this space to consider how we can respond to and refashion public discourse through education, specifically how we can use the spaces of the composition and cultural/American studies classroom to form stronger, more inclusive discursive communities.

Although I have strong feelings regarding political economy, I do not structure this space as a venue for left/liberal proselytizing or organizing.  Rather, I want to take seriously inclusive, productive discourse which solves problems by hearing the voices of all and serves the common good.  I have named this space “For the Commonweal” and would like to use this forum to offer commentary and invite dialogue which will seek to examine and pursue an inclusive, progressive discourse in which the greater good is the motivating force and the purposive end. 

This will not be a “political” blog.  That is, it will not be concerned with public policy or economic challenges.  Nor will it be a social blog.  I will not be considering or engaging in armchair social speculation.  Rather, this will be a blog rooted in and often about pedagogy.  My entries will draw heavily from my observations of public and mediated discourse and will consider them as evidence of the discourses which impact our students and our classrooms, to say nothing of ourselves.  More importantly, it will reflect upon and reference my own work in the classroom teaching composition and American Studies as well as my work researching race and communal identity in the cultures of the postwar U.S. South. 


A small point of clarification: I recognize that Commonweal is the name of a longstanding Roman Catholic publication.  While the importance of Commonweal’s liberal voice in the church community merits my admiration in equal measure to my respect for the Catholic faith in which I was raised and the deep commitment to social and environmental justice of many Catholics, including those in religious orders and lay people, I do not mean to suggest affiliation or attachment to the journal.