Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pedagogical Failures: A Hagiography for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

I do some great impressions. My personal favorites are Mick from the Rocky films and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not content to rest on my past performances, I always try to innovate. For Mick, I push the limits and imagine that he could have cursed out Clubber Lang with the most racially, angry white (black) Irish bigotry infused speech possible. With Brother Martin, I alternate between an inflection that is one part car salesmen turned preacher, and one part preacher turned pimp.

Did I just offend?

I often share stories about the perils, mischievous joys, and unexpected ironies of being a black working class guy tasked with teaching classrooms of majority white students about the relationship between race, American politics and popular culture. As I once hinted at, and fellow traveler Gordon Gartrelle once alluded to in a comment some years back, I am no keeper of sacred flames or idyllic truths.

This speaks to both temperament (kid gloves are just not my style) and pedagogy (I do not believe that teachers should allow students to remain in the dark, laying with the other troglodytes in Plato's cave). On Dr. King's birthday my priors almost always inevitably lead to a moment of reflection where I ask the following question: Should we tell complicated, rich, and nuanced stories about a man who did great things? Or alternatively, ought we stick to the official script and tell a flat story that fits within America's mythology, one that offers a vision of King's life which is more appropriate for School House Rock than for a college classroom?

To that end, let's take a trip down memory lane. For those who have already taken this walk please enjoy it once again...as I never tell the same story the same way twice. For those new to the journey, please indulge me as I spin a tale.

As I have shared before in my not frequent writings on teaching, I have found myself in some interesting dilemmas. I have shown videos featuring Fleece Johnson and the Tossed Salad man when discussing The New Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex. I have also used Paul Mooney and Dave Chappelle to discuss the normativity of whiteness and how race is a social construct. Of course I love to deconstruct the unedited version of Nelly's legendary Tip Drill video when discussing gender, the black body, commercial hip hop, and the pornographic imagination.

While some colleagues and friends have enthusiastically suggested that I should put the comfort of students first, and to "meet them where they are," I reject said position. Why dilute a claim that can make for an exciting and intellectually productive exchange? And how better a way to improve one's skills as a teacher, scholar, and thinker, than to salvage what has on occasion become a metaphorical car wreck?

For me, Dr. King is not off limits. Nor is he safe from critical inquiry and demystification.

Some years ago my students and I were having an interesting exchange about mythologies of resistance and The Civil Rights Movement. There I offered a much simplified version of Dennis Chong's argument that the free rider problem is operative in a person's decision to participate in a mass movement (or not). There are numerous rational and self-interested reasons to opt out. Why did so many black folk (and their allies) choose not to? Conversely, why did the vast majority of African Americans choose to not publicly participate in the war against Jim Crow by taking to the streets?

Our exchange was productive until I named that which should not be named. As an example of a grossly oversimplified--and oftentimes flat-out wrong understanding of history--I pointed out how Rosa Parks was not a tired little old lady with hurt feet who decided to sit down on a bus, a moment from which the Civil Rights Movement magically sprung. She was a trained advocate, resister, and activist who chose to exercise real agency in a decision to stand against power. Moreover, Rosa Parks was not the only person to ever be arrested for "the crime" of refusing to sit in the back of a Jim Crow bus. In fact, she was chosen for this act of political theater precisely because of how she modeled black respectability.

Light match. A firestorm then erupted.

One young sister accused me of lying. When I showed her the relevant part of Eyes on the Prize she then become even more upset and proceeded to stomp out of the room to collect herself...all the while muttering that "I killed her heroes." A compatriot said, "that wasn't true, impossible! The Civil Rights Movement didn't happen that way!"

Not one to stop in the face of weakness, I pushed harder. I asked, "what do you know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? What about Malcolm X? The Black Panthers? Angela Davis? Ida B. Wells-Barnett?" They recited their approved histories of great men, heroes and villains, and quotes taken out of context.

I probed, "what makes these people great? Were they perfect or imperfect? Were they like you and me, or were they otherworldly and divine? What practical lessons can we take from their struggles?" Surprised they looked at each other. I pushed harder: "What about Dr. King's womanizing and adulterous behavior, does this make him any less an important figure, any less monumental and courageous?"

Second explosion. Tears and more anger.

Curious, I asked a flummoxed student to explain the rage. He replied, "we aren't ready to know these things! A racist could hear what we are talking about and use it against Dr. King and black people!" I suggested that we ought not to limit our truth seeking because of what others may do, and that Dr. King as a figure, a 3 dimensional person, is made more complex, his radical Christianity and humanism made more complicated through an examination of the totality of his behavior--as opposed to the "official" Dr. King who is a two dimensional Civil Rights approved mummy or ventriloquist doll.

Ultimately I asked, "Should we not seek out complications in the world around us? Is that not why you are in college?"

Always one to push harder and turn the knife, I spoke plainly and asked, "Should it matter that Brother King was caught on tape mid-coitus moaning that "I am fucking for God!" and "I am not a negro tonight!"

More upsetness. More anger. And no small amount of shock.

On Dr. King's birthday I reflected on that day in the classroom. When not far removed from that moment by years and months I thought it was only youth and innocence which explained my students' inability to come to terms with certain truths, to complicate their stories and understandings of history. But in watching the ritualistic worship of Dr. King on Monday, my sense is that many adults, folks much older than their late teens or early twenties, would have responded in much the same way. Their words may have been different. But the sense that a hero was violated would have quite likely been the same.

This is not a sentiment which is confined to black folk. For some, the fetish object is a reverence for a childish, divinely inspired view of the Framers and the Constitution. For others, it is a pantheon of heroes of whatever ideological camp, political movement or people's struggle that they choose to identify with. Some have the myth of Reagan. While others have the myth of Martin. And more than a few tightly embrace Brother Malcolm.

I understand the need for true lies. I also understand the role of these true lies in a given community's myth of origin. But on a more basic level what explains the need of some for simple heroes? Am I so twisted and strange that the failings and complexities of those who do great deeds makes them more tangible to my eyes? That I am reminded that these heroes are real people who made choices...some for good and some for ill?

On this day after Dr. King's holiday I am curious: How do you like your heroes? On a pedestal too high for you to reach, or at eye level where they can inspire you directly?


Henri B. said...

I remember learning as a teenager that Dr. King cheated on his wife. I was disappointed but not shocked.

One of my favorite books is Lies My Teacher Told Me and I think because of it I prefer my history as complete as possible. In that sense, if we're always at the ready to talk about the so-called founding fathers and their "activities" we need to be able to hear the truth about our heroes. That doesn't make what they did less valid and it makes us all less brainwashed.

Scott MacNeil said...

"Warts and all" is the only way to go in history. One-dimensional hagiography's and iconography's be damned. Lived lives in the past can only be understood in context. And when that context is impinged upon by "warts" - they must be examined to better inform our grasp of the actions, decisions, and triumphs, and shortcomings of the figures in question. Anything less, is but branding - - and branding IS NOT history!

Unknown said...

great post. that we live in complexity should be permissible in our classrooms. these sorts of stories always made my heroes and heroines more approachable and like me, which i prefer to uncritical, sanitized, unromantic idolatry.

Plane Ideas said...

I always approve of the unabridged version of life it gives the subject matter, the person, the essence a reality based proposition..

I think I have been at the game of being an activist longer than CD in fact I am a OG. There is a part of keeping it real that ignores the parallel reality of fiction which is real to many people.

I have been in many situations where I have shocked the world like CD does to his students and I have taunted folks with reality just like CD did especially to the young sista.

Yes authentic truth is better than artificial sugar ...Yes Ella in person is better than Ella on memorax tape BUT all of life is not in the same frequency and some students, people, truth cannot be dumped in the universe and be embraced and understood..

I wrote a tons of words about the appropriate time to teach Huck Finn with all of his nigger words in a classroom as a child being on the end of such a barrage in class still stings me...When I was a young boy my dad graphically told me my momma was his woman and don't ever get in his way when he spoke to her( real fucked up ) it fucked me up for years..I once gave a speech at funeral about the deceased's true nature and it was out of order not because of it was false but it was not the moment to keep it "real'

When one is engaged in changing the world there are those who can only act in concert and provide the outcomes you want if you give them a sanitize romantic oratory speech which inspires them to hold up signs protesting the local bodega and health center on a cold chicago morning.. The speech with it's ballon filled text impacted them and our objective was achieved..

So yes CD people like me and others who post here we are down with you and the raw uncut version of the truth..We are in your bandwidth YET to add color and clothes to a naked man does not alter the truth he is still a man..We don't have to be bullies when we do what we do..

Knowing MLK was fucking his ass off did not alter our history not knowing this fact also did not alter history..

Because We can does not mean We should is a lesson it took decades for an OG like me to finally learn..

Mrs. Chili said...

I would much rather have my heroes at eye-level, thank you very much.

I get a lot of grief from my students, too, because I "complicate" things for them. I encourage them to think about something, then I'll ask them a question which throws their line of thinking into directions they weren't ready for. They hate it, but I love it. I think the more we are able to think about the complexity of things - the nuances between the neat and easy black and white that everyone seems to want - the better humans we become. I'm going to keep frustrating my students, and I'm going to keep pushing them to resist the easy answers because, really, how often is ANYTHING ever easy?

Plane Ideas said...

Mrs. Chili,

Question for you is what CD did in his classroom teaching or just tabloid exhibitionism at the expense of good ole MLK..

I am not an educator and I am all in with your post about teaching if that is what CD did than I agree with his pedagogy as well..if that is what he was doing;-)

Your thoughts Please??

DEK said...

What surprises me about your description of discussing the "real" Dr. King or the "real" story of Rosa Parks is how upset your students became. (Although I'd never heard the Dr. King sex tapes. Eww.) When we discussed this at my own university I didn't feel like much of the class was upset. Perhaps they were shocked at how different this story was from the version we were taught as children, but at this point I think most students are used to those types of shock. You can't take a course in american polisci, economics, history, religious studies or afro-american studies without having your preconceptions challenged constantly.

For me, one of the most dissappointing parts of college was learning that Martin Luther (the German) was a disgusting anti-semite and monarchist. They didn't teach me that one in Sunday school.

Plane Ideas said...

When I was in college a big deal was made about the state of Israel and how they were only civilized people in the mideast etc..I took a class of African politics and I discovered how Israel was arms dealer with South Africa which was still an aparthied nation and how South Africa was was a refuge and haven for Nazi's after WWII..I was stunned and shock but I also knew that was not the whole truth.

I like a world with heroes even flawed ones...

Invisible Man said...


You show do be ah Edumucated Negro fo show!

But on the real. MLK was/is a "hero". And any a concern about who he was F*cking( similar to Bernard Rustin)
is nothing but America's sexual immaturity and fear, which IS a the topic of concern.

But Rosa Parks is a lot more complicated because she represents the "class divide" that Negroes continue to sweep under the rug. Rosa Parks was less a hero compared to Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith who truly were heroes and the pioneers of the Bus Boycott that Parks got all the credit for. She as a women should have called foul, but didn't.

What I'm saying, Shortie, is that teaching this( real) history empowers young people, especially young poor people.

Yours in Chicken Gizzards and Grease Droppings


chaunceydevega said...

@Tanya--That is a great story. Funny, some schools are resistant to it. Should we teach students the "truth" or convenient lies?

@Fat--Branding isn't history? hmmm...isn't history a first draft, written and rewritten to serve certain purposes?

@Gary. Glad I am not alone in disliking idolatry!

@Thrasher--Who do you think is dumbing it down? To what end?

@Mrs. Chili--How can we spread our religion on this one?

@Dek--"You can't take a course in american polisci, economics, history, religious studies or afro-american studies without having your preconceptions challenged constantly."

Is that true? Or is it dependent on the teacher?

@Spook--Class divide in the black community? What are you talking about!

Voluminously Yours said...

Okay, besides the questions concerning whether or not these people fall from grace when we show their complexities, I believe there is a much more important reason to explore our heroes' lives.

When we know that Dr. King said things like that on the sex tape, we get a chance to realize that WE don't have to be perfect to affect our world. That even if we have doubts and behave in ways that make our personal lives complicated--even contradictory--we can still go out there and make some good shit happen.

The question isn't whether or not we'll rip our heroes from their thrones, but rather whether or not we teach people that "warts and all" they can become heroes too.

fred c said...

Great point, Voluminous. Besides, Dr. King's pecadilos were relatively mild, nothing that should put the memory of his great works in jeopardy.

And yes, I prefer to know what's really up, and I don't appreciate being condescended to.

Plane Ideas said...


Please elaborate of your questions to me?? Thanks

Plane Ideas said...


Great Post!!!

asherbertrand said...

I want my heroes to be human, seeing how I'll never be able to attain godhood anyway. Really, what's inspirational to me is that someone struggles with the same kinds of things I do and then manages to soar, anyhow.

Who was it who said, "If you meet the Buddha walking toward you, kill him"? Idealizing the person isn't the point. The point is that a person, a flawed human being like you and I, can be capable of accomplishing so much.

Perfection? Can't relate to that.

A friend mentioned this blog to me the other day. I'm glad I found it - real, complex thought-provoking material is too hard to come by. Thanks!

chaunceydevega said...

@ashertbrand--thanks for the compliment. I keep asking though, and no one has given me an answer--why do some want their heroes to be superhuman? To use another example, I have a few relatives who are all into being "saved" and "Jesus this and Jesus that." As you know I have little use for things. I am spiritual and I do believe in a prime mover. And I will confess I find Brother JC Number One's Life--what I call him--very inspirational. Now, not for some silliness about miracles that some find compelling, but because he fought power, saved hoes, fought the credit card companies of the day, and died for what he believed in after having a a hell of a partner for his people.

Why would some say that is blaspheme?

Plane Ideas said...


I want my hero to be superhuman so I know that among my peers no one is a superhuman and everyone is no better than me..I like to level the field:-)

xulon said...

Do I want my heroes superhuman? No, but I can't get over the idea that this is false choice. I am way past college age so I am not talking about teaching or teaching the barely out of childhood. One could write a book on the immaturity one can witness at college.

On another board I frequent (Christian theology the main deal there, but since it is American Christian Theology, it is very conservative politically and they cannot see that these two are not the same thing) someone started a thread "honoring" Dr King on his day. In the end, it was lip service about nebulous "things he did that were good" followed by how he really was not one of us ("I'm not sure he was a real man of God but probably more a liberation theologian" said one) and gosh, what is wrong with those blacks who would rather look for a "black" church than fellowship with us? When I complained to the thread starter (via PM) he wrapped himself in King's "Judged by the content of their character" line saying he was honoring King on his day by doing what he said "and besides, I have not brought up his adulteries or that he was a communist".

So I guess, the question is why we "honor" someone. At the risk of tautology, it is because they did something honorable. I have no interest in blindly lionizing someone or whitewash anything, but on the day to honor someone we should think of honorable actions, or words or movements. Like someone posted earlier, one lesson is that I have - within me, the weak, selfish and prone to failure - the wherewithal to do honorable things. Yeah, King committed adultery, but he also got out of bed and lived his faith, marched for his people, rallied other people to march with him.

fred c said...

Professor, I'm not sure why some people seek perfect heroes, but I know that some people need to believe in the perfectability of man. Perhaps to allow hope for themselves. I need neither thing. I might be easily pleased though. After all, I think there's a little bit of the heroic in you!

Oh Crap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Oh Crap said...

Ultimately I asked, "Should we not seek out complications in the world around us? Is that not why you are in college?"

Why did you ask that.

You already know the answer is 1- so I can get job 2- to make lots of munny 3- to get fancy house and car to show off to peers and 4- please parents 5- to get inheritance.

I cannot do that without A's. You are standing between me and my A, now get out of the way!