About 40 years ago, I had an intense conversation with a man whose name I don’t remember, so I will just call him Paul. Both of us were nearing completion of our graduate coursework in psychology, and we met while interviewing for a clinical internship at a south Florida university. Following those interviews, Paul announced to me and to the rest of the interviewee cohort, that he needed a ride north to the University of Florida in Gainesville. To this day, I have no idea why I offered a ride to a man I did not know, but I was headed back north to Atlanta, so off we went filling the three-hour drive with chatter about career ambitions and such. Somewhere along the way, I learned that Paul was a white South African Jew who had literally escaped from his homeland just a few years prior. And it had all started with a book.
A friend of Paul’s had somehow secured a copy of a manuscript written by Nelson Mandela, who was still imprisoned on Robbins Island. Paul begged to read it. She begged him not to, warning him that reading the book would change his life. After reading it, he passed it on to another friend who got captured by the police. The friend identified Paul as the source of the manuscript, saying that he preferred to tell his torturers “before they tore off his toenails rather than after”. The first friend was right: reading the manuscript changed Paul’s life. He had to flee his homeland under threat of imprisonment, torture, or maybe even death.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about this experience for many years, but the memory is inescapable now. There is a throughline from 1980s Johannesburg to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Houston, Texas, anywhere in Florida, and possibly a dozen other states (north and south) in the 21st century USA. Corrupt rulers will always want to control the narrative, to promulgate a story of “reality” that the subjugated must inhabit. If they know anything at all, it is that when information becomes knowledge, it is life-changing. When I say “information”, I am making a clear distinction between misinformation, disinformation; alternative “facts”, and flat out lies. Knowledge can be disruptive and destabilizing; it can destroy the illusory foundations upon which corrupt power structures are built. Faced with what historian James W. Loewen calls the “unpleasantries of truth”, corrupt rulers quake and dissemble. Just think about it. The current governor of Florida (who is also posturing as a presidential candidate) enacted anti-WOKE legislation to “stop wrongs to our kids and employees”. Any school or business that resists this ban on knowledge risks loss of essential funding. By the way, now would be a good time to ask which kids are included in the governor’s definition of “our”. Obviously, this legislation couldn’t have passed without co-conspirators who shared this tacit understanding of “our”. In fact, one of the ruses of corrupt power is that the rulers never have to say the quiet part out loud. Who gets relegated to “not our” and with what consequences? Well, one consequence was that Black elementary school students were rounded up and sent to a mandatory assembly where they were reminded of their presumptive place in the school-to-prison pipeline. Once corralled, they were told that their collective underperformance on standardized tests would likely lead them to jail or to an early grave. They were then advised to compete against each other, with the motivating prize being a Happy Meal – or maybe it was a Big Mac. Maybe the artery-clogging, brain-snuffing calories of a Big Mac exemplify what the Florida governor meant when he said that slavery benefited the enslaved. Wow… just wow! Nine and ten-year-old black kids who probably know little to nothing about W.E.B. DuBois were forced to contend with his century-old query: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
And so it goes in state after state after state: hostile power grabs of the public school systems in Tulsa and Houston; the elimination of AP courses that teach all of US history, not just what Loewen calls the heroification of white men. White heroification is not only an unjust seizure of our shared national narrative but also a really stupid pedagogy. This wisdom is lost on Governor Huckabee 2.0 who signed her LEARNS Act into law: a law that prohibits teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) under the pretext that it teaches children hate and divisiveness. Speaking of hate and divisiveness, LEARNS also strips teachers of due process procedures that protect employment status, diverts public funding into private schools, and outlaws “leftist indoctrination” regarding such realities as non-binary gender expression. In other gut-churning news, public school libraries in Texas are disappearing to make way for detention centers called “Team Centers”. LEARNS and “Team Centers”: funny (not funny) how language can be used to promote the aims of corrupt power.
No one thrives under the thrall of a false narrative. It’s true that some folks experience a tenuous comfort in the notion their racial status entitles them to a higher ranking in the power structure of this nation. This taken-for-granted entitlement makes the phrase white supremacy redundant. In other words, white is supreme. As much as that falsity is celebrated, it is an entitlement undergirded with fear and quaking. Every time the flag unfurls, military jets fly overhead, and someone belts out the tortured lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner (all props to Whitney Houston), perhaps we should remember that slave-owning Francis Scott Key penned these words in the same anthem:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
We don’t have to be dumb in order to be happy. Loyalty to this country does not have to be predicated on denial. Again, this is wisdom lost on the perpetrators and sustainers of the big lies about equality and justice in the “land of the free and home of the brave”. The rulers and their co-conspirators who amass and protect corrupt power will always attempt to seize the narrative to protect their tenuous comfort. The same folks who derive their sense of worth from the narratives penned by enslaver Francis Scott Key are outraged by the performance “Lift Every Voice” at the Super Bowl. (And they do wield a certain kind of power: the NFL has blocked videos of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s and Mary Mary’s performances on the internet.)
Let’s just try on this perspective. Our shared narrative is not diminished by stripping it of white supremacist heroification. Our potential for learning from our shared narratives is our narratives are actually enriched. We can actually approach our vaunted ideals of justice, freedom, and equality when we have the courage to unlearn the falsities and distortions that keep us chronically, painfully, and lethally disconnected from each other. The erasure of Black and indigenous histories perpetuates disconnection not only from each other but from ourselves: who we are and who we might become. Let me offer a modest idea to the College Board, to the opponents of Critical Race Theory, and any to inbred race supremacists who have no idea what CRT is: African American people are not tragically black. African American history, indeed, all human history, includes triumphs and atrocities. It allows us to face unsettling truths and access to a more secure way of knowing and being.
I’ll end with a quick coda about Paul. Escaping from an authoritarian, death-dealing regime takes a lot of energy: the remnants of which Paul poured into surviving the rigors of academic life in a new country where he could all but disappear. Then one day in a bookstore he heard the distinctive sound of Afrikaans cadence and accent, and he fell to the floor in sobbing acknowledgement of his homeland. He was growing into a new way of knowing himself. Information becomes knowledge, and knowledge can become wisdom. It will change your life.