My Dad always worked. He worked at his job at Howard. Worked when he got home. Worked on weekends and birthdays. Reveled blasphemous in the Lord's Season. When I think of him, work is the first image in my mind. I see him unloading boxes of books. Mashing saddle-stiched staplers. Frying fish. Mixing cornbread from scratch. Whacking kids; Quashing our young brief rebellions.
We were enrolled into his life. And though he would surely deny it, we worked. Hauling books. Counting inventory. Packing and shipping. Hustling our wares at Art-Scape. Pitching the press at African Liberation Day. Remanded to Ayi Kwei Armah. Dommed to Ishmael Reed. Dad would sit in an easy-chair, with reading glasses low, and lecture from Up From Slavery. He had been a late 60s radical. But at his heart he was a puritan conservative dispensing a strange gospel rooted in the acquiring of knowledge, the inevitibaility of violence, and everywhere, the work.
He had labored from the start. Sweeping floors. Delivering groceries. Grasping at whatever his chid-hands could handle. His money went to his mother saddled with three kids, alcoholism. Down on relief. He devoured books even then. He would cut class for libraries and museums. He would walk downtown, running his hand along large buildings, feeling the unrelenting textures, dreaming of something, somewhere, larger than the poverty and despair of Old Philly.
How he came to love French, I do not know. I have asked him, but he can't remember. He's always loved movies, so perhaps a few spare words from the moving pictures. At all events, the salient fact is this--one season he saved his change and sent off for series of records that promised, by sheer listening and repetition, to imbue him with this beautiful language of waves and undulation. He remembers laying on his bed playing the record over and over, repeating the words, summoning France through incantations of greeting and conjugation.
He was, like me, like nearly every Coates boy, a poor student. It is a curse with us. A thing embedded deep in the strands and nucluei. Someday a great scientist shall stick us in a big machine. Electrodes will crown our heads. On a large screen, a teacher puts chalk to blackboard. The scientist grows wide-eyed. Data spits across the scene showing our neurons not so much firing, as stretching back to yawn.
Left alone, my Dad played that record like it was music. Because it was music. This word Bonsoir is its own magic. It is beautiful coming off your tongue. Your mouth make it's own happy ending. Your lips draw in for a kiss. And this magic is regardless of literal meaning. It is held in the very form.
Dad never made it to fluency. But I've thought about him throughout my own experience. And I've thought about ancestry, itself. To be black is to be able to reach back and touch people whose lives were, by law, foreclosed of certain possibility. No one cared about your intelligence, or curiosity. You were assigned to a certain lane, and there you stayed less you tempt all the violence the state brought to bear.
I understood education as a means of warding off death. You went to school to not go to prison. To not get shot. To not be, as my mother called them, an "If I had my gun" nigger standing on the corner. This is a product of the actual environment. In so many neighborhoods education must be about saving lives. But if you are ranger, this is slavery. Wonder took my father to French. And wonder to my father Nam. And wonder took my father to the Panthers. And wonder took him to my mother. And wonder carries me now to you. To see wonder daily reduced to plastic is another kind of death.
I write to you early this Tuesday morning, Brel in the background, from a street that is far from the streets, as a boy, I once knew. Those of us who are rangers have seen so much more than our fathers. But they walk with us. I imagine my father in the evening, sprawled across his bed, a child again. Record on. Lights off. Music forking down through darkness. Striking green imagination. Catching fire.
*The artist is Jean Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. The piece is Boy With A Top. More info here.
“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.
New data shows that students whose parents make less money pursue more “useful” subjects, such as math or physics.
In 1780, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail, in which he laid out his plans for what his children and grandchildren would devote their lives to. Having himself taken the time to master “Politicks and War,” two revolutionary necessities, Adams hoped his children would go into disciplines that promoted nation-building, such as “mathematicks,” “navigation,” and “commerce.” His plan was that in turn, those practical subjects would give his children’s children room “to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.”
Two-hundred and thirty-five years later, this progression—“from warriors to dilettantes,” in the words of the literary scholar Geoffrey Galt Harpham—plays out much as Adams hoped it would: Once financial concerns have been covered by their parents, children have more latitude to study less pragmatic things in school. Kim Weeden, a sociologist at Cornell, looked at National Center for Education Statistics data for me after I asked her about this phenomenon, and her analysis revealed that, yes, the amount of money a college student’s parents make does correlate with what that person studies. Kids from lower-income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
Most adults can’t remember much of what happened to them before age 3 or so. What happens to the memories formed in those earliest years?
My first memory is of the day my brother was born: November 14, 1991. I can remember my father driving my grandparents and me over to the hospital in Highland Park, Illinois, that night to see my newborn brother. I can remember being taken to my mother’s hospital room, and going to gaze upon my only sibling in his bedside cot. But mostly, I remember what was on the television. It was the final two minutes of a Thomas the Tank Engine episode. I can even remember the precise story: “Percy Takes the Plunge,” which feels appropriate, given that I too was about to recklessly throw myself into the adventure of being a big brother.
In sentimental moments, I’m tempted to say my brother’s birth is my first memory because it was the first thing in my life worth remembering. There could be a sliver of truth to that: Research into the formation and retention of our earliest memories suggests that people’s memories often begin with significant personal events, and the birth of a sibling is a textbook example. But it was also good timing. Most people’s first memories date to when they were about 3.5 years old, and that was my age, almost to the day, when my brother was born.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The unwillingness of the former secretary of state to take questions from the press contrasts sharply with Jeb Bush’s marked affinity for public disclosure.
Howard Kurtz reported on Sunday night that the Hillary Clinton campaign has decided to open itself to more press interviews. Kurtz quoted the campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri: “By not doing national interviews until now, Palmieri concedes, ‘we’re sacrificing the coverage. We’re paying a price for it.’”
Meanwhile Jeb Bush chatted July 2 with the conservative website, the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller interview broke an unusually protracted no-interview period for Bush. It had been more than two weeks since he appeared on the Tonight show with Jimmy Fallon. Bush spoke that same day, June 17, to Sean Hannity’s radio show and ABC News. Five days earlier, he’d spoken to Germany’s Der Spiegel—altogether, five interviews in the month of June. That brought his total, since the beginning of February, to 39, according to the Bush campaign.*
Gentrification is pushing long-term residents out of urban neighborhoods. Can collective land ownership keep prices down permanently?
AUSTIN, Tex.—Not long ago, inner cities were riddled with crime and blight and affluent white residents high-tailed it to the suburbs, seeking better schools, safer streets, and, in some cases, fewer minority neighbors.
But today, as affluent white residents return to center cities, people who have lived there for years are finding they can’t afford to stay.
Take the case of the capital city of Texas, where parts of East Austin, right next to downtown, are in the process of becoming whiter, and hip restaurants, coffee shops, and even a barcatering to bicyclists are opening. Much of Austin’s minority population, meanwhile, is priced out, and so they’re moving to far-out suburbs such as Pflugerville and Round Rock, where rents are affordable and commutes are long.
Chicago has seen a double-digit increase in the percentage of kids graduating from high school. Skeptics say educators and kids are manipulating the numbers—but does that even matter?
Desiree Cintron’s name used to come up a lot during “kid talk,” a weekly meeting at Chicago’s North-Grand High School at which teachers mull over a short list of freshmen in trouble.
No shock there, says Desiree now, nearly three years later.
“I was gangbanging and fighting a lot,” she says, describing her first few months of high school. “I didn’t care about school. No one cared, so I didn’t care.”
Had Desiree continued to fail in her freshman year, she would have dropped out. She is sure of that. It was only because of a strong program of academic and social supports put together by her teachers that she stuck it out. Desiree pulled up a failing grade and several Ds. She gave up gangbanging and later started playing softball. She connected with a school determined to connect with her.