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September 30, 2017

Heading for a Fall of Massive Proportions

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted the synoptic Gospels when he stated, “A house divided against itself will fall”. At the time, the Abolitioist Movement was growing, Dred Scott had been implemented, and the nation faced a decision: would slavery be outlawed everywhere or nowhere? It had to be one or the other.

His contemporaries were not happy with the speech or him. It was too radical, not good politics. It lost him the election to the US Senate, too.

In hindsight we see the speech as political prophecy. Three years later, America was in the midst of a bitter, violent civil war, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. We like to pretend it’s all over, done, settled, but one look at America today, and I think we can see it’s not.

So here we are, 152 years after the end of that war, 151 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and pretty much we’re still seeing a house divided.

I have never seen the US this polarized in my entire life. Granted, I’m not ancient, but I remember my Republican grandfather swearing that Kennedy stole the election. I remember the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, assorted Clintongates, the GWB election, the start of the Iraqi War. Those were pretty rough times in the US.

Although I very much remember the anger and the hatred spewed by the non-Left members of my family and our neighbors, I don’t remember severed friendships, threats of violence. I heard about violence, but not around us.

Perhaps we were just as polarized, but the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle has changed the world. We hear about everything moments after it happens. It’s not that we’re more polarized; it’s just that we know how bad it is.

Forty years of poor education in large parts of the US has also lead to a nation that is unable to critically think. That’s not me being elitist (though when did elite become a bad word?). That’s from a career college professor. Much of my teaching has been in urban community or four year colleges. Currently, I’m teaching the exact same demographic I started teaching in 1988.

My students today are as bright, as talented, as lovely as the students I had then. Not all are wonderful to be around, but on the whole, I teach good people. But the students today are far less prepared to be in college. Their math, reading and writing skills are hovering somewhere between 8th grade and 10th grade. I’m a writing teacher, but if you need to figure out your grade, you need to know math.

They are ill prepared for college and ill prepared for life. And they know it after about the first three weeks of college. The plaintive cry of “why didn’t I learn this in high school” is heard almost every week. I tell them they might have just forgotten, but anyone in education can tell you just how poorly American secondary schools doing.

I don’t want to make this about education–it’s about polarization and our house being divided–but I also see daily proof that education is a major part of our problem. People can’t think. People won’t think.

They also have lost the ability to listen, to reason, and to have civil debates. This is also a topic I’ve written about in the past. Slap my face and call me Cassandra. No one listens to me.

The current president is not popular, especially here in New York City where I live. But it wasn’t too long ago that I was living in Tennessee, surrounded by his supporters. There are many who do not think his actions are racist or bad for America. We can say “that’s because they are racist” but that’s not the whole story.

He’s also called an illegitimate president because he lost the popular vote. He’s not the first, and until the Constitution is changed, he probably won’t be the last. To those who argue that he lost, I say, by three million votes. The final popular vote for the top two candidates was 62,980,160 to 65,845,063. But that translated into 304 electoral college votes to 227. We all know the numbers.

Three million sounds like a lot of votes, but according to the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2016 was 323.1 million, so that’s a less than 1% margin of the population. Of total votes cast it was about a 2.1% difference.

That’s almost half a nation’s voters supporting him. Sure, we can say sexism or Russian influence (and they are valid, Russia seeming more valid by the day), but we also have to address the fact that we are a nation ruled by fear mongering, hatred, and hysteria.

So right now, two sides of the country are at each other’s throat. I know young people who won’t even discuss politics anymore because it’s become dogmatic, intolerant, and personal.

Every day my twitter feed and even the news sources are full of ad hominem attacks against anyone who makes a point or an opinion known. If one of my freshmen tried that, I’d send the paper back with  “take this out–poor logic” in red letters. Actually, many of my freshmen do try this, because it’s what they see around them daily.

Many of the people I know are only able to do the same. I’m not claiming I’m better, but I do think I try harder to listen to people. When they spew hate, I’m more apt to ask why they think that then to spew back.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings are so deeply ingrained in me that I find it repulsive when I respond with hate. I’m human. I think bad things. I’ve said bad things. But at least I know what I’ve done.

Most people on earth are not horrible, soul less, evil, inhumane. In fact, they are very human. We’re not a very nice species. Racism is evil, but if they knew better, they’d do better. So let’s teach instead of firing back hate and insults. Education doesn’t always change minds, but hate doesn’t ever change a mind. Love can change minds. Love can open doors. Oh, I’ll just say it: love can move mountains.

I am, by nature, a Pollyanna, a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, a person who is going to believe the best will happen. But I’m also a student of human nature and of history.

We are on a collision course in this country, and we’re pretty much split down the middle. There are nuances, of course, but the polarization is stretched pretty far and pretty tight. It is read to snap.

I do not want to see civil war, violent revolution, or an armed civil rights battle.

But I see it coming.

August 28, 2013

One Summer that’s Not Fading Fast Enough

“The sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

On today’s 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it is more than appropriate to quote from it.  This is a speech that looms large in my life. I was only two when it was given–and at the time, I had a brand new baby brother in the house, Just two weeks old. The actual speech didn’t register.

But as I’ve mentioned in the past, I was blessed to have a mother and grandmother who believed in equality, who raised me to know that we’re all brothers and sisters, end of story.  So Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, these were childhood heroes whose influence stays with me today.

I’ve taught this speech in many settings for decades. Over 22 years ago, in a memorable public speaking class of adult women (there were just no men in that course), all at least a decade older than me, we watched the video of the speech. All of us sat there, tears streaming down our faces, not just because of the beauty of the words and the eloquence of the speaker, but because we realized the dream hadn’t been achieved yet.

In the past 50 years, there have been some cool days–some thought that summer was ending–but it never seems to stick. People say to me, but the president is Black! Two secretaries of State have been Black. Look at Oprah!

Yes, I know this is not the America of my childhood. Things are better. Marginally. But I teach in schools that are predominantly non-white. I see the difference between the lives of Black folk and White folk every day. More Black young men got stopped and frisked in NYC last year than there are young Black men in NYC. My students get to college primed for lives of mediocrity, and it breaks my heart.  Ask them. I go on rants weekly, because I expect magnificence, not mediocrity.

I live in a country that is not fulfilling its great promise, and this infuriates me. Yesterday, in my other blog, I also quoted Dr. King: “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  I was writing about my students, but it stands for my country, as well. I love this country, truly and deeply, but I am sadly disappointed in the place it has become. Or perhaps I am disappointed in the place it has not become.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are in worse condition than they have been in decades, and a disproportionate percentage of non-White folks are on the poor end of the spectrum.  The middle class, the hope of America, is disappearing at an alarming rate. I like to think that it’s not a racial problem, but a class problem, but that’s me ignoring facts I don’t like.

How can I look my students in the eye and say we were ever on an even playing ground? Me? The green-eyed blonde? That they have the same opportunities as my child, my nieces and nephews? That it’s no harder for them? That people aren’t pre-judging them?

Actually, I do know the truth quite well, as my son has a Arabic name. Try being a 20-something young man with an Arab name on your passport in this country.

There are glimmers of hope. Proportionately speaking, young people today don’t “see” race. They understand that it’s a meaningless societal construct. After all, these are the kids raised by my generation, and many of us bought the message of the Civil Rights Movement.

There are other indicators of progress, but for every indicator, there’s something to remind us that it’s dangerous in this country for people of certain complexions.  A Black young man in a hoodie is perceived as a thug. A White young man in a hoodie is perceived as a skater boy. A Black young man in a nice car is perceived as a drug dealer. A White young man in a nice car is perceived as a hard worker or the scion of rich parents.

On the other hand, a young Black woman dressed in sexy club clothes is seen as tart. So is a young White woman. Ah, equality. I oversimplify there. Black professional women aren’t always seen in the same light as their White peers.

So the conditions of the summer of ’63 stretch out. Many of the things I’ve read in the anniversary of the March on Washington have asked: “What would Dr. King think?” No one can answer that. The one person who had the deepest insight was Coretta Scott King, a brave civil rights activist who probably knew her husband’s true attitudes better than any of the rest of us. But married people can tell you, even wives don’t always know how husbands will react. And anyway, she’s gone, too.

I think he’d see some progress, but not enough. Not enough. That promissory note  has yet to be redeemed.

April 4, 2013

In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Filed under: heroes,New Broads,poetry — by maggiec @ 10:49 am
Tags: , , ,

I wrote this today. I felt I wanted to say something for a man whose ideals guide me every day.

 

“In Memoriam: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Early evening, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

From “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by Bono

 

Snippets of memory.

Only seven, but I know that name—

Reverend King.

With Bobby Kennedy, the Irish hope,

Peace and justice will come.

Mom and Nana’s view.

 

Dad’s very different.

No use for Kennedy. Or King.

Or Negroes.

(it was 1968, and he used a worse word)

 

Tears flowed.

For the man, the idea,

For the widow and children.

The beginning of the end,

Though they didn’t know that yet.

 

45 years later

Still fighting the fight.

There’s been change

But too slow, not enough.

 

Requiescant in pace,

Reverend Doctor.

We don’t forget.

We do the work.

January 17, 2011

Martin Luther King, a childhood hero

I was brought up in a house where dad out Archie Bunkered Archie Bunker and mom and her mother were fighters for social justice. Luckily mom’s view took root in me. So in my house, Martin Luther King was a hero. I was seven when he was assassinated, and even with all the things we hear about him today, he’s still a hero to me all these years later.

Surprise, surprise! He was a human being, and humans are flawed. But the good he did far outweighs any of the bad and in my accounting, that’s what counts.

I’m a professor at a public university because education is the way to change lives and promote equality. I believe this deep in my soul. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I really do believe that love is all we need and love will light the way and all that hippie stuff of my childhood. Or more precisely, all that Transcendentalist stuff I drank in when reading Alcott as a child. And all the charismatic Catholic social justice stuff my mom taught me. I was doomed from childhood to be an idealist, and that’s all there is to it.  No wonder I have an activist Christian preacher as a hero.

But this is a rough world for idealists. Lately I find myself discouraged. I have students in the South Bronx of New York City who tell me that they never heard of Martin Luther King in school. I’m not sure whether or not to believe them, and I suspect they never heard of King because they weren’t listening, but still, this is disheartening.  I know my students overseas know King. In fact, America’s civil rights struggles are very interesting to those abroad.  They love reminding me (as if I needed it) that America has a troubling past when it comes to race. Find me a place that doesn’t, though.  Sometimes I sense a little spite in their glee.

I seem to live in a world consumed by hate, anger and nastiness. Reading the papers is a chore that I will put off for days at a time sometimes. I used to read three papers a day, but lately Twitter is about all I can handle. Actually, Twitter keeps me abreast of most things, and 140 characters on the topic is about all I can take at times.

I think that’s one reason why I haven’t been blogging as much as I used to. I’m so overwhelmed. There is so much that needs fixing.  What would Dr. King think if he were still alive?

Things are definitely better than they were in 1968. There are President Obama, Secretaries of State Rice and Powell for starters. I know many young people who don’t even “see” race and this fills me with joy.

Statistics still stink, though. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, Blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates than other groups (see NPC’s Poverty facts). A lot of this ties to education. Blacks, especially Black men, are less likely to finish high school, especially here in NYC.  In 2006, two-thirds of young Black men in NYC didn’t graduate on time. These statistics chill me. We are wasting one of our most precious resources! Black men are also over represented in correctional facilities, which leads in turn to the finishing high school problem.

I teach a number of the success stories, the young men who graduated high school or earned a GED. Like their female counterparts, most have terrible academic skills, weak vocabularies and below par reading ability. They are bright, and they want to succeed, but they don’t know how. I’m told by people who study these things at my school that nationwide, 75% of those who start at community colleges in America never finish. How can they succeed when they aren’t prepared?  Of course, I have a number who do graduate. And many of them go on to four year schools, even Ivy Leagues. As I tell my students, anyone can get into CUNY, but if you get out with a diploma, you can go anywhere.

Black and Hispanic women have similar problems, of course, and they are over represented in the teenage pregnancy statistics. Too many American teens are getting pregnant, but Black and Hispanic women are three times more likely to been teen moms here in New York.  Going to school takes hard work. Going to school with a baby? Not good odds there. Not impossible, though. Some of my best students are former teen moms who have realized the importance of education in order to make their children’s lives better.

It all gets back to education with me, doesn’t it? But I think Dr. King would agree. After all, his doctorate isn’t honorary. He earned a PhD from Boston University in 1955 at the incredibly young age of 26.  He pushed through and got the degree. PhDs aren’t worth much in American society, believe me, but they represent something. They show, on some level, that education is important. It’s not the only thing, but it’s something.

So today as we remember Dr. King, I want to thank all those who still work for the dream. I’m a battered idealist, but I’m an idealist all the same. And as long as there are people out there working, the Dream stays alive.

And I can only say Amen to these famous words:

“Now, I say to you today my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: / we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I Have a Dream Speech, 1963.

 

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