Monday, February 5, 2018

MLK and Letterman remind us to pay attention to our drum major

Reflections on a snow day: On this, our sixth snow day of the school year, I have decided to allow myself a limited amount of time to write while my two unsupervised children make forts and destroy the house. I have a strict time limit, otherwise this entry might stretch into a week-long project.

Dr. King and David Letterman headline my learning today. The iconic late night entertainer was an unexpected answer to writer's block after many futile attempts trying to write about Martin Luther King's lessons for today's world. King and Letterman are a unique combo and their ideas laid out in this blog post are worth connecting.

Dr. King (undated) - AP, creative commons
I spent a lot of time leading up to Martin Luther King Day pouring over his “B-side” speeches and writings looking for something new to help me make sense of the modern political landscape.

That’s when I discovered his Drum Major Instinct speech from February 1968. I was familiar with the portions where he spoke eloquently about his own eulogy (Link here) and famously said, I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others... I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity."

It was the other parts of his 35-minute sermon that made an impression recently though. In light of of President Trump’s January 2018 reference in an Oval Office meeting to El Salvador, Haiti and African nations as “shit holes” Dr. King's words from fifty years ago struck a chord.

Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct?" King declared. "A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.”

I read the speech several times, listened to it and parsed the passages, playing them against the video reels in my head from Charlottesville, Ferguson and news stories about good people recently deported from the United States.  

President Trump continues to both exploit and expose racism in the United States. Sure, Trump’s disgraceful remarks reveal his character, but they also beg the question, who are we?

Who we are is complicated. It is hard to accept a reality where a sizable portion of our electorate either has the luxury to ignore the consequences of Trump's words and actions or worse, chooses to support him despite the negative consequences. Maybe worse, some people are unaware that silently looking away is accepting the Trump world view and that also has consequences that will be difficult to fix. Sadly, children can get swept up in adult complicity and that's where schools can play a vital role in calling out intolerance and bigotry. Even in the age of Trump, American values like diversity, equality and civic engagement can still be taught independent of politics or ideology. This is one of the great social studies education challenges of our time.

The prejudice and fear underlying the current debate about refugees, immigrants and border security (AKA "the wall") are evidence that it will take more than the passage of another five decades to heal our open racism wounds in the United States. With each mean-spirited tweet and hateful rant by the president, the opening for for a worthy policy debate gets swallowed by Trump's shadow. King’s 1968 Drum Major sermon was a warning to Americans about what can happen if unfit leaders obtain power. Meanwhile, in 2018 too many people have taken cover under Trump's shadow and chosen him as their drum major. Acknowledging the intolerance and prejudice espoused by President Trump and making honest efforts to do better is as important today as eradicating racist voting laws was in the 1960's.

About the impulse for people driven by ego and intolerance King reminds us, “...The final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities.” With conviction, King added, God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now.”

King's words in 1968 were a harbinger of modern America. Policies carrying the stench of bigotry cannot be separated from the words and deeds of the man who promotes them. It has become increasingly more difficult to separate the merits of policy disagreements from the ugly insults President Trump uses to disparage minorities, his opponents, the media and sometimes even members of his own political party.

Remaining vigilant and seeking the truth may be exhausting, but not doing so could lead to a crisis.

How was I not aware?

John Lewis (far right) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (center) leading 
a march in Alabama to protest restrictive voting rights for 
African Americans in 1965.  (Public Domain)
David Letterman brought this topic full circle in his conversation with President Obama that recently aired on his Netflix series, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction.

A portion of the interview centered around the courageous work of US Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) during the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis and King organized the March from Selma to Montgomery, later known as Bloody Sunday due to the violence that ensued at the hands of law enforcement.

Letterman and Obama reminisced about the bravery of Americans throughout history who blazed a trail for others in their quest for a more perfect union. In the interview, President Obama marveled at the ordinary people who courageously took action and joined together to make change. He remarked that presidential leadership involves more than governing and he credited his wife Michelle Obama for bringing that fact into focus for him.

One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did, was part of your ability to lead the country doesn't have to do with legislation, doesn't have to do with regulations," Obama said. "It has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness.”

Increasing awareness of the current US challenges may be the first hurdle we need to clear in order to dig into the more complicated work of creating a better future. We need to overcome narratives by the current White House and their allies that tell us everything is just fine and that real problems related to economic inequality, racism and sexism do not belong to all of us to solve.
President Obama made the point that hard work and talent are necessary to lead effectively, but that good fortune and luck also play a role.

To that point Letterman claimed luck helped propel him to a national platform as an entertainer. He made that point by suggesting that the failure to respond with empathy to the real struggles faced by others is part of our American legacy.

President Obama and David Letterman backstage as part of the hour-long 
Netflix special that aired in January 2018. Photo by Joe Pugliese / Netflix
“Mr. President, this is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life: I have been nothing but lucky,” Letterman solemnly stated. “When John Lewis and his friends [marched across the bridge], in April of ’65 me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week, pardon my French, shit-faced,” Letterman quipped.

“Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why was I not aware? I have been nothing but lucky.”

Letterman’s response hit home and made me realize that the American story that we talk about in schools is at worst contrived and at best incomplete. Letterman’s conversation with President Obama has prompted me to raise my own level of awareness.

I never want my students to say in ten, twenty or even fifty years when they look back at this period in our nation’s history, “Why was I not aware?”

Intentionally tackling issues and raising awareness in schools

The challenge to tackle these tough topics does not rest solely on the shoulders of educators, but we are a critical part of the solution. We should feel a profound sense of opportunity as educators because we can help students usher in a better way of understanding our world.

This documentary from 2017 is on my list to watch 
as soon as possible. It was nominated for an Oscar and 
won the Audience Choice Award for the Best 
Documentary Feature at the 2016 Chicago International 
Film Festival.
Yes, we can read and discuss James Madison and James Baldwin. Modern black authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates and the classic standard-bearers like Toni Morrison and W.E.B. Du Bois (List here) can be intertwined with textbook accounts of American history and politics. A start here is better than the alternative of reading chapter three and regurgitating cookie-cutter answers.

“Why was I not aware?” is the same question so many people were asking leading up to and since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. The roles of gender, race and economics in the 2016 election should be examined beyond 2016 though. I cannot answer the question, 'Why was I not aware?' for all of my readers, but I am honest with myself in admitting that I have had the privilege to not be aware.

That unawareness and how it manifests itself in specific beliefs and social constructs has to be part of the American story we boldly navigate in American schools. This is part of my own learning and it has pushed me to wonder if maybe we failed by teaching kids to memorize state capitals at the expense of asking them to think more critically about why inequality exists. My exploration into these topics is fueled by my growing concern that young people are giving up on the institutions and the people who serve them. Civic duty and service to others are at the foundation of the American spirit. We need well-educated and optimistic young people to take the reigns soon. My goal is to cut through the shame and blame and open myself up so that I can be more aware. Teachers need to model curisoity and discomfort with topics like race that are a critical part of the American story.

In doing so, I hope I help my students do the same - whoever they are, whatever their story, wherever their journey originated and whatever their political and ideological leanings. We all have a responsibility to dig a little deeper. For me, this aspect of my teaching and my being is very intentional. President Obama provided some insight about digging deeper and confronting racism in his recent interview with Letterman.

“It turns out that we come up with all kinds of reasons to try to put ourselves over other people,” Obama said. “Racism is a profound example of that, but obviously biologically there’s no actual reality to it other than we made this thing up. We made it up.”

My goal is to spark curiosity in students. We begin with the messy work of diagnosing problems and for me and the 150-plus students I teach, there is not a road map. We are not afraid to create one though.

Lately I have been listening to and reading speeches by prominent American leaders, investigating how their ideas might apply today. In my quest to make some sense of the vitriol and tribalism that is swirling around the Trump Administration, I have firmly landed on a few truths about my role as an educator:
  1. Students and teachers need space to explore important topics in a safe setting where “right and wrong” takes a backseat to “learning and understanding."
  2. It is critical that teachers at every level help young people grapple with the implications of privilege, bias and complicity. A failure to exercise our “empathy muscles” in school weakens the prospects for lasting change.
  3. Mutual respect, trust and solid relationships in a classroom are a minimum requirement and those aspects of a learning culture simply allows for the work to begin. Expecting people to act boldly and truthfully requires a culture of learning that encourages people to change their minds when new information persuades us to think in more enlightened ways.

This book really opened my eyes to how 
much I don't know about the American 
experience. I agree with Toni Morrison 
- this is required reading. 

Read Coates work HERE
and HERE 

As a social studies teacher I have a responsibility to my students to provide an accurate historical context and a fact-based account of the events shaping today’s news cycle. I never expected that agreeing to the same set of facts would be so difficult. The time it takes to digest basic facts should be balanced with lessons about topics like prejudice, inequality and systemic challenges facing all of us. Letterman's conversation with President Obama encouraged me to stay mindful of what is at stake for our students.

I was reminded of President Obama's words following the murder of nine black worshippers in Charleston SC at the hands of a white supremacist when he called on Americans to make lasting change in regard to race in America.

"None of us can or should expect a transformation in race relations overnight," Obama said. "Every time something like this happens, somebody says, 'We have to have a conversation about race.' We talk a lot about race. There's no shortcut."

Perhaps one of the most glaring weaknesses of our republic today is our failure to recognize that racism still infects our politics and intolerance continues to pull the levers of American democracy fifty years after King's passing.

President Obama is right - there are no shortcuts. So, let's get to work today so that this era can mark the point in our history when we finally acknowledge our unawareness and actually do something about it. That is a legacy Republicans and Democrats could all be proud to claim ownership.

NOTE: Dr. King's Drum Major Instinct sermon was adapted from a 1952 homily by preacher J. Wallace Hamilton.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR of CIVICS ENGAGED: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2002. Gregory is a Michigan Education Voice Fellow and he has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students find their passion for learning. You can follow him on Twitter @CivicsEngaged.

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