Kenneth Warren, a University of Chicago literature professor, asked a gathering of students and faculty in Cleveland this fall to reflect on a famous 1968 classroom experiment – the one that teacher Jane Elliott created as a “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise with her Iowa third-graders.
The day after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elliott divided her class between brown and blue-eyed children, arbitrarily declaring that brown eyes were better.
“The results are almost immediate and remarkable,” Warren said, recalling a famous documentary made about the experiment. “Students with brown-eyes began to treat students with blue eyes, some of whom they had, until that moment, regarded as best friends, as if they are indeed inferior and pariahs, while students with blue eyes began to behave diffidently and sullenly, and, when prompted, readily attribute any mistake or misstep they make to their having blue eyes.”
What’s more astonishing is that Elliott announced the next day that she made an error, and that blue-eyed people are superior. As Warren describes it, “her students do not balk at the seemingly arbitrariness of what has occurred, but rather repeat the previous day’s dynamic.”
In Cleveland, Warren describes Elliott’s exercise as “innocent of history,” in fact, anti-historical in reversing the brown eyed/blue eyed equation. This emphasis on process instead of context points to “a problem that has bedeviled progressive thought at least since the critique of essentialism took center stage in the 1970s. This problem can be expressed quite simply as the observation that despite the fact that we thought we had the correct critique of it (it’s a social construction, not a biological fact), race has persisted as a way of organizing cultural and social life, and racism continues to persist as a social fact.”
In a gentle voice, wearing a black jacket over jeans, Warren turned to works of both fiction and nonfiction to illuminate this conundrum. He quoted from the book by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields called “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life.” The writers align racecraft with witchcraft: powerful systems of belief that people act upon as given truths.
Warren spent much of his lecture drawing upon William Faulkner’s 1948 anti-lynching novel, “Intruder in the Dust.” It is the story of a young white boy, Chick Mallison, who is rescued from an icy creek through the intercession of a black man, Lucas Beauchamp. In the process of drying off and accepting Beauchamp’s food and shelter, Chick’s encounter with what he has assumed were “Negro” food and smells is a revelation. The boy confronts, as Warren argues, “the reality that what he assumed to be innate and given, was, in reality conditional and contingent.” This insight corrodes Chick’s birthright supposition that “to be a Southerner would be forever to smell the odor of Negro subordination as part of one’s heritage.
Gesturing frequently with his glasses, Warren drew his listeners into considering the tension between group identity as a form of vibrancy and a system that preserves inequity. “I am beginning to tread on the discursive territory occupied by #blacklivesmatter, whose name makes evident its concerns, and commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me and his Atlantic Monthly essay on reparations in which he demonstrates a preference for the term ‘the black body’ as a way of describing the target of American racial practices.”
Warren challenged his audience at Case Western Reserve University to think about whether the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement is an echo of the “blue eyes/brown eyes” conundrum of Jane Elliott’s Iowa classroom. What matters is not the putative color of our bodies or our lives, but the processes and mindsets that makes color matter. He pointed out that group identity works better for some groups than others, and “for those on the bottom, not so much.”
Violence permeates nearly every page of “The Education of Kevin Powell.” Neighborhood boys, relatives, authority figures and even the author himself doles out pain aplenty in this memoir and coming-of-age story.
Born and raised in a poverty-stricken Jersey City neighborhood, young Kevin’s early years are a series of grim vignettes—fights on the school yard, nightmares about rats in the walls and a few brief visits from a father scarcely there. From such beginnings he grows into a prominent activist among the post-Civil Rights generation—fighting police brutality, racism and sexism.
Powell, 49, traces his love for words to the Greenville Public Library, where he stumbled upon “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as an 11-year-old. He fell in love with Ernest Hemingway. “If I could not physically leave my hometown, or escape the numbing sensation of being trapped in a concrete box,” he writes, “well at least my mind could be free to go wherever a book or play or poem took me.”
If the library sent him on imaginative adventures, his adolescent temper often landed him in terrible straights: Powell scrapes with a high school classmate and an interfering police officer knocks him out. He draws blood fighting with his cousin. “I don’t think you gonna make it, boy,” his mother says on more than one occasion, usually after a brush with the law. “You been givin’ me trouble your whole life.”
But Rutgers University provides a portal to a better sense of self, history and pride. Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston on the syllabus of a Harlem Renaissance course awakened his ear: “The language that my people spoke, including my mother and my Southern kinfolk, was beautiful poetry, as fine as anything that I ever studied by Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Keats.”
The reader watches the writer organize and clash with campus peers simultaneously, and sees him land a place as a cast member of the first season of MTV’s The Real World in 1992.
Immediately after, Powell joined the staff of Vibe magazine, a new hip-hop publication founded by Anisfield-Wolf winner Quincy Jones. But a few years in, he becomes disillusioned. After criticizing management and confronting other staffers one too many times, Powell is fired. He uses the next two decades to write 11 books, give speeches in all 50 states and launch two idealistic bids for Congress in Brooklyn.
While his professional trajectory makes up the bulk of the book, Powell’s relationship with his mother is its heartbeat. She is his constant companion — their first night apart is his first day at Rutgers. A stern woman who pushed her only child to excel academically, she was quick to dole out beatings for small infractions. Her son vacillates between yearning for her love and choking down his bitterness toward her. When fellow hip-hop activist Sister Souljah attempted to hug him, Powell’s instinct was to pull away. “In my eighteen years of life my mother and I had never hugged, had never kissed, had never said to each other, ‘I love you.'” “The Education of Kevin Powell” falls short in grappling with how this harshness affected relationships with women, and with himself. The writer breezes past his contemptuous treatment of lovers and others, alongside stints in therapy. Powell does, however, open up about his depression and alcoholism, following his dismissal from Vibe.
The book’s pacing is problematic and some of its stories here deserved a stronger arc. Powell’s reunion with paternal relatives after his father’s death should feel celebratory, but it is flattened by brevity.
In spite of such flaws, “Education” is powerful, and worth reading, a searing testimony worth much more than an entire series of “The Real World.”
One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes—one I love so much that I gave all my friends an illustrated copy of it—is: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
So when the keynote speaker at the first Cleveland Single Moms Conference dropped this gem mid-way through her talk, I felt an instant connection. Robyn Hill, a licensed counselor with a practice on the east side of Cleveland, made Angelou the focus of her keynote, sharing with more than 75 attendees 11 insights from the author of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
“Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances” seemed particularly apt.
Professor Michelle Rankins led a lunchtime session punctuated by two Angelou poems, “Phenomenal Woman” and “I Love the Look of Words.” The discussion was so rich around the first that the group hardly had time for the second.
The group read “Phenomenal Woman” in unison, forceful and strong voices booming through the open air of the Cleveland Galleria. “When I read it, it made me think that beauty is internal,” one participant said. “When you find your inner strength,” another noted, “no one can touch you.”
Conference organizer Frechic Dickson, founder of the nonprofit From Lemons 2 Lemonade, reached out to Books@Work to create the session.
“We believed being able to have a table full of women expressing themselves through the pages of poetic literature could become a life-changing experience,” said Dickson, who oversees Books@Work for women in East Cleveland Municipal Court. “The Books@Work session allowed single moms to share their experiences, their interpretations, and most of all, their commonalities with each other through those poetic pieces.”
For her part, Ann Kowal Smith, Books@Work founder and executive director said, “Not everyone works in a traditional company large enough to support Books@Work. Community programs help us meet people where they are–in their schools and libraries and, in this instance, their conference.”
The Single Moms Conference offered Books@Work the chance to reach readers who might feel isolated. “Moms spend so much time reading to their children, but they rarely have time to read for themselves – much less discuss what they read with others,” Smith said. “We wanted to change this, at least for one hour. And by selecting poetry we hoped to show that a reading session doesn’t have to be long to be nourishing for the soul and productive for the mind.”
One participant observed, “The world says [black women] are less than but this poem says what people should look at us and see.”
by Gail Arnoff, adjunct professor, John Carroll University
The first time I read The Color of Water, I was deep in the woods of Otter Creek, a lovely wilderness in West Virginia. In my hammock strung between two trees, with the musical creek flowing just below our campsite, I began to read. From the first page I was fascinated by the story of James McBride and his mother, Ruth Jordan McBride. I didn’t climb out of the hammock until hours later, when I’d finished the book. That summer I was planning a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” for Case Western Reserve University and was looking for pertinent memoirs. I knew immediately that The Color of Water would make the reading list.
In the past eight years I have introduced McBride and his mother to more than 135 students. The Color of Water tells the story of Ruth, born an Orthodox Jew, who leaves her family to marry an African American man and is, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, then considered to be dead. When her husband dies she is pregnant with her eighth child (James). She then marries another African American man and has four more children before he dies. With very little money but an unusual amount of “chutzpah” (nerve), Ruth gets her children into the best schools and sees them all graduate from college. Then Ruth, her maternal job done, earns her own degree in social work. Although McBride writes that his mother had “little time for games, and even less time for identity crises,” my students — most of them in their first year of college — are at a perfect age for questioning who they are. Reading The Color of Water not only provides a forum to discuss race, religion, and identity, but also models a way for them to tell their own stories and those of their family.
While teaching at Ohio State University, McBride wrote a story he felt compelled to tell. I ask my students to write a story in a similar urgent vein about themselves or someone else in their family. One student wrote about a brother’s suicide attempt; for this paper he spoke to his brother for the first time about what had happened, a family secret that was never discussed. Another wrote about her father’s desertion of the family when he returned to Colombia. Other students took a lighter tack, describing humorous family stories. When I first present the assignment, some worry that their story won’t be significant, and certainly not as dramatic as that of McBride’s family. Once I assure them that any story they choose to tell will be significant, I am amazed at the papers they write.
At the end of the semester, many of the students choose The Color of Water as their favorite book. Some years I change of few of the titles in the syllabus, but I have no plans to eliminate this memoir.
In 2014 I began facilitating discussion groups for Books@Work, a program which brings professors and books into various workplaces. For one session I met with mentors and parents from the Intergenerational School. Without knowing much about the participants, I decided to use The Color of Water. In each of four sessions, we discussed a topic illuminated by the Jordan/McBride family, as well as our own. I began by asking each person to tell us where she came from, and I suggested that the group members could interpret that in any way. By the time we had gone around the room we knew that we were women of all ages, of various educations and several religions. And we discovered that we all had stories to share.
We talked about Ruth’s refusal to reveal anything about her background; childrearing; and racial and religious exclusion. In the last session, we discussed the burden of family secrets – in the book as well as in our own families. Most of all we talked about our identity, and the places from which it comes. So many passages in the book triggered discussions, including McBride’s own declaration: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul….[When] I look at Holocaust photographs…I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.”
The Color of Water is a marvelous text for young people and adults, an evocative opener of discussion. I never tire of teaching this book. Italo Calvino defines a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” On each reading—and there have been many—I find something new in The Color of Water. James McBride offers us lovely writing, as well as a memorable family story which I feel privileged to share with my students.
Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates is very clear on his role: Dig for the truth and get out of the way. “If you are going to be a writer you have to write into the wind. You have to say, ‘I’m prepared to do this and give my all, even if only 20 people read the book.'”
Many thousands have embraced Coates’ Between the World and Me, which caught fire immediately upon its July release and topped the New York Times bestseller list. It is a National Book Award finalist and earned a jacket blurb from Toni Morrison, who crowned Coates the successor to James Baldwin. “I’ve been writing for 20 years—all of this is recent,” he said. “I liked what I was doing before this happened and I’ll like what I’m doing when this goes away.”
Sitting across from City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop, Coates said he works hard not to be distracted. His focus is “to map out and discover” the cumulative narrative of racism: Why have we not grappled with 350 years of government-sanctioned plunder of black communities?
The 40-year-old Baltimore-born writer took inspiration from James Baldwin’s short 1963 book, The Fire Next Time and wanted Between the World and Me to deliver that same punch—inquisitive, lyrical and haunting, all in a quick 150 pages.
His goal with Between the World and Me, he told the audience gathered at Cleveland State University, was not to “speak for all black people” but instead to “speak to something in all Black people.”
When asked what white people could do to eradicate white supremacy, the newly named MacArthur “genius” said that the burden of creating an equal society lies on the shoulders of those who maintain it. “The first step is to not ask black people what to do. You then are throwing it back on me to figure out a problem you caused. If I have my foot on someone’s neck and I say to you, how do I get my foot off your neck, well, you’re doing it.”
One woman asked Coates about his phrasing of race—”people who think they are white,” “people who think they are black.” He answered, “There’s no real consistent notion of race across time and geography,” mentioning Brazil’s racial constructs and the shifting classification of Italian immigrants over time. “Any definition of race always depends upon power.”