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When Beverly Daniel Tatum recommends a book on institutional racism while speaking at Harvard, you take note. When she puts it in her top 3 recently published books you just go buy it. (Or order it during her talk perhaps….) When it comes to understanding systems of racial oppression, Tatum knows what she’s talking about and Daria Roithmayr’s Reproducing Racism blew my mind. Once I got past my initial desire to throw it across the room, that is.

My desire to throw the book (at a slim 180 pages it would have flown well) was not due to any faults on Roithmayr’s part. Quite the opposite. The book is excellent and Roithmayr’s has a very compelling premise that most of our models of racism are wrong. She claims that instead of thinking about racism as individual actions rooted in hatred and bigotry, racism operates much more like an economic monopoly  that has been able to lock in racial inequalities by coming to the market first and then operating like a cartel in favor of white people.

I wanted to throw the book across the room because Roithmayr’s is incredibly convincing. And hundreds of years of racial economic and educational collusion is a pretty depressing thought for a country that purports to run on meritocracy. It’s easy to say that “racism is a problem that wasn’t created overnight, so we won’t fix it overnight” but when presented with a series of economic, mathematical, and legal examples about why inequalities are locked-in and the country is getting more unequal, it got hard to see a path forward.

Positive feedback loops (If You’re White)
The most poignant, and unexpected, example that Roithmayr uses to illustrate this example of lock-in is Polya’s Urns. Polya’s Urn is a mathematical model that essentially works as follows:

  • You have a single urn and inside are 1 black ball and 1 white ball. (2 total with 1B: 1W)
  • You draw a ball, then replace the ball, adding another ball of the same color.
    e.g. if your first draw is white, you replace the white ball and add another white ball. (3 total with 1B:2W)
  • You draw again, not with double the odds to draw white.
  • You keep drawing and replacing and you arrive at some sort of balance fairly quickly.
  • You can run a bunch of different tests of the model at Wolfram Alpha and you will get different results, but those results will be established within a relatively small number of draws and they become very difficult to alter.

headshotThe connection here for Roithmayr is that the first few draws establish a path and then it continues to be come easier to continue down the path that’s already been established. In terms of structural inequalities, the decisions to favor white people in job markets, schooling, housing, and the law all act like draws in Polya’s Urn because they provide preference for white people (draw) and then enrich white people (adding back another ball) thus creating a feedback loop that makes it easier to keep selecting white people. Chattel slavery in the United States can be seen as two-hundred and fifty years of draws in favor of whites that establishes an environment  that is very difficult to change. (And it’s not like we added a lot of resources back to Black people in 1863 and “forty acres and a mule” is still a relevant metaphor for broken promises. But I digress…)

How does the feedback loop work?
bookJust using the book cover (with a small adjustment in sequence)  as a diagram we can think of it this way:

  • A series of high quality schools and teachers will give you access to good colleges and schools in the United States have high levels of racial inequality.
  • This access to education gives white people access to the best jobs. This is true in terms of skills, behaviors, and social networks.
  • Better jobs make it easier to purchase a house.
  • The job and equity in the house enrich those who can access them.
  • This wealth can then be passed down to future generations.

This could be relatively race-neutral on the face. After all, a person of color would benefit from the same access and the same structures. Sure, theoretically I guess…

We don’t live in a theoretical space and neither does Roithmayr. She looks at policies and practices that excluded people of color from accessing schools (segregated schools), housing (redlining and restrictive covenants), jobs (union membership) and legal status (status as a human beingvoting rights, ability to naturalize and establish citizenship). When these historical and structural factors lay on top of one another we get locked-in systems of inequality where if we just stop discriminating on the basis of race (to paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts) we will still maintain and exacerbate levels of racial inequality.

It’s compelling. It’s also depressing as hell for someone who works on anti-racism in schools.

If racism is so locked in, do we just give up?
I was tempted. For a second. But this is why you finish books.

I’m glad I read to the end and didn’t throw it across the room in frustration because Roithmayr’s pivot to solutions argues that once we shift our thinking about racism from individual acts based on hatred into a model where white people have acted as a racial cartel we can think differently about solutions and Roithmayr has some equally compelling avenues for solutions:

  • Limit Feedback Loops – While she does explain how an institution might reduce the power of white positive feedback loops, Roithmayr quickly dismisses this one because it is politically untenable to reduce white access to power in this way. (It’s an assumption that’s worth investigating, but I tend to agree.)
  • Integrate Feedback Loops – Most obviously, this would show up as integrating classes that provide high school students with better access to college. These could be AP, IB, or honors courses as well as world language and high level math.
  • Develop Parallel Loops – These often show up as affinity groups. HBCUs and the National Pan-Hellenic Council are strong examples of positive feedback loops that provide benefit to people of color in a higher education setting.
  • Change Social Norms – This is a slow process and Roithmayr describes this mostly in terms of switching costs. My own work has focused a lot on this idea by trying to normalize conversations about race and racism in schools. We can’t change the problem if we don’t talk about it and silence on race is a strong social norm in this country.
  • Hire A Critical Mass – The key here is to hire a significant number of people of color in a short period of time. This helps people of color develop community within the organization while also acting as a significant influence.
  • Use Legal Remedies – In schools this would be changes to policy and could show up a developing more objective criteria for school discipline.

There can also be substantial interplay and overlap between these areas of influence. By hiring a critical mass of people of color in an organization, you can shift social norms in powerful ways and policies can help you do that.

I’m still digesting a lot of this, and it’s already shaping my perspective to working toward improving racial equality in schools. I’m curious to see of honing my understanding of how racism works, particularly with neutral-facing policies will make the change process more effective. For the first two-thirds of the book things felt hopeless. After reading I am more hopeful because if Roithmayr is correct in her assessment that inequalities are locked-in and getting worse, and if Martin Luther King Jr. is correct in his assessment that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice then the arc only bends toward justice because of the people who are pushing hard to bend the arc. We need to keep applying pressure and Reproducing Racism helps me target where to apply force.

 

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In But What If We’re Wrong?, Chuck Klosterman puts forth a fairly straightforward question and then follows it out to a number of logical and illogical conclusions. Illogical conclusions are not a criticism – they’re part of the point.

klostermanwrongcoverKlosterman’s essential question (as you may have guessed from the title) is whether or not we’re wrong. Not on an individual level, like being wrong about specific decisions, but more globally like whether we’re wrong about things like how gravity works, or how we understand reality. (He specifically stays away from climate change. Then doesn’t.)

A book positioned to investigate questions like “what if we’re just living in a giant computer simulation?” could very easily slip into undisciplined pseudo-inquiry more akin to late nights of questionable sobriety in bars, dorm rooms, or on the roofs of buildings. Klosterman (mostly) saves himself from this by keeping close to the book’s subtitle “Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” and it is this perspective that makes the text potentially useful in a school setting.

Fictional Future History
At the most obvious level, some select chapters could be a really good hook into why we study history and how historians actually purport to know anything to begin with. I could see using these early in a history class to position the study of history beyond “to avoid repeating past mistakes.” The chapters on rock music (4) and freedom (9) are good for this in that they use very specific historical examples to think about how future historians might think about our time. Those two chapters hew most closely to the premise from the subtitle.

My preference, however, would be to use the chapter on television, titled “Don’t Tell Me What Happens, I’m Recording It.” In this chapter Klosterman examines how future generations might use television to understand our present. In doing so Klosterman makes a strong argument for how historians use cultural artifacts by imagining if ancient Egyptians had TV saying: “From a sociological vantage point, the most compelling footage would be the national news, closely followed by the local news, closely followed by the commercials… What we’d actually want from ancient Egyptian television is a way to look directly into the past…” (pgs. 162-163) I think this could make for strong classroom discussion fodder on the purpose of history. Unfortunately the chapter somewhat undermines his overall theme. If anything, the book is somewhat disjointed and could be considered a series of essays. (Klosterman insists that the book isn’t a series of essays in the first couple pages, but does so in a way that doesn’t instill confidence. Again, this is sort of the point of the thing.)

From a certain perspective I agree with Kolsterman and his argument is supported by the value current historians place on items like newspapers, political cartoons and the like. Klosterman’s central premise, however, is about wondering if our current assumptions hold true, so it’s also possible that TV will be treated more like art where were retroactively ascribe importance to works based on their lasting impact. (Klosterman examines this at length in an earlier chapter, referencing Melville coming to a substantially different conclusion about books than he does about TV.) There’s plenty of meat for discussion here as to the purpose of history and how different types of history might place different value on the same artifact.

So How Do I Even Know Anything?
In later chapters Klosterman strays a bit from his subtitle and the book takes on a different feel of using the idea that we might be wrong in order to inform our current life choices. Specifically, Klosterman spends a few pages exploring current societal preferences for certainty, simple answers, and quick resolution, writing:

But I think there’s a greater detriment with our escalating progression toward the opposite extremity – the increasingly common ideology that assures people they’re right about what the believe.

I don’t think the notion of people living under the misguided premise that they’re right is often dangerous. Most day-to-day issues are minor, the passage of time will dictate who was right and who was wrong, and the future will sort out the past. It is, however, socially detrimental. It hijacks conversations and aborts ideas. It engenders a delusion of simplicity that benefits people with inflexible minds. It makes the experience of living in a society slightly worse than it should be. (pg. 239)

This quote (and the few pages around it) are classroom gold when it comes to discussing epistemology. This most obviously fits into a course like IB Theory of Knowledge (which is an epistemology class) and it also fits well into government, or really any class where students are expected to discuss perennial issues like balancing individual and collective rights. I would love to unpack this section with students to see how they interpret Klosterman’s claims that people’s high level of confidence in their beliefs is actually detrimental while attempting to balance healthy skepticism with self confidence. We have to believe something, don’t we?

So Should I Read It?
The book’s arguments are often shallow and there is more than enough internal contradiction to keep a stickler busy for a while. The book also unendingly self-referential and while that works most of the time, it’s a bit overused. But What If We’re Wrong is imperfect, but it’s worth your time. (The whole thing is a quick 260 pages.)

Klosterman is posing questions that are inherently unanswerable at our present moment and “there are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.” (pg. 253) At it’s heart the book is an homage to complexity insisting at every turn that things might not turn out the way we expect and that our assumptions might be wrong. This is a critical message that isn’t being presented very often.

If we want to be open-minded we have to continually maintain the possibility that we are wrong. We have to be willing to change our minds in response to new evidence. It’s healthy to stay reminded that important some things are unknowable. While Klosterman wrote the book before the presidential election, it feels like perhaps the perfect premise for the Trump era of high certainty and declarative tweets.

 

In Yellow Frank Wu takes on the necessary task of expanding discussions of race beyond black and white by specifically investigating how Asians and Asian-Americans in the United States navigate the intricacies and contradictions of being caught in the middle.

fullsizerender-4The racialized Asian and Asian-American experiences are quite different from the black experience in the United States and from the introduction Wu expertly captures the nuances of anti-Asian discrimination while also building common ground. To do this Wu positions racism as a system of control. In describing his own experience Wu states: “In most instances, I am who others perceive me to be rather than how I perceive myself. [In the United States] the inability to define one’s self is the greatest loss of liberty possible.” (p.9) Wu then carries this theme of control throughout the text as he unpacks the contradictions, parallels, and distinctions between how Asians and Asian-Americans experience race in the united states in reference to the commonly discussed black/white dichotomy.

Limitations
In a post-Obama election, late-2016 some of Wu’s assertions from 2002 read as naïve. Particularly when he makes broad generalizations about the state of racism in the United States. In the introduction Wu expands thoroughly on the concept of invisible racism or “aversive racists [who are] conditioned to regard racism as reprehensible but also reflexively following racial impulses.” (p.13) Prior to the 2016 presidential election I would have been inclined to agree with Wu here, yet is difficult to agree as the new reports Muslim women having their headscarves forcibly removed and increased frequency of white supremacist graffiti and other hate crimes reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Wu is clear throughout the text about what he does and does not cover and as one might expect LatinX and Native American experiences are largely absent. Discussions of intersectionality are also largely absent from the text and Wu acknowledges those limitations without perseverating on the issue. While the above are important issues that educators must discuss and develop their understanding of, Yellow’s value comes in its specificity. The text remains focused on positioning Asians and Asian-Americans within the dominant black/white dialogue on race and does so with great success.

These limitations, however, do not diminish the power or relevancy of the text.

Superb Argumentation
The highlight of the text comes in its argumentation. As one might expect from a lawyer and legal professor, Wu is an expert of supporting his claims with a bounty of evidence. He draws from a wide range of sources including case law, personal experience, mass media, literature, and popular culture. This diversity of sources increases the text’s accessibility and prevents Yellow from being limited to the academy or the legal field.

Additionally, and noticeably rare in discussions of race and racism, Wu is adept at trying on perspectives and following them to their logical conclusion. In his chapter on Affirmative Action Wu takes on whether colorblindness is a reasonable goal by assuming that it is reasonable and trying to follow the internal logic of colorblindness.

Imagine what their lives would be like if they censored race fastidiously. … [Proponents of colorblindness] could not decided that the Chinese restaurant with many Asian diners is “authentic.” They would have to refrain from telling two friends who w ere meeting one another for the first time beneath the clock tower at Grand Central Station that one should look for a white woman and the other should look for a black woman. … In each of these situations they could not use race to draw inferences about individuals, [or] to give complete identifications of them…. (p.151)

Under this type of scrutiny colorblindness immediately collapses under its own contradictions and impossibilities. This takedown of colorblindness is impeccably reasoned while  remaining fully comprehensible to a general reader. Wu repeats this method when arguing against improper use of statistics and how to balance assimilation with diversity. This persistent thoroughness is one of Yellow’s key strengths helping the text to stand apart from more superficially argued peers.

Yellow in Schools
Yellow is not a text aimed specifically at educators, nor does it purport to examine Asian and Asian-American experience in schools. As far as usability for professional development goes, I would likely subdivide Yellow and use it piecemeal due to the incredible depth in each chapter and the limited time that educators typically have in each discrete professional learning experience. (Most chapters also clock in between forty and fifty pages.) I can easily imagine running a single session using one or two individual chapters from the text.

For example the chapters on both the Model Minority and Perpetual Alien fallacies would be extremely beneficial when helping (overwhelmingly white) educators understand the lived experiences of Asians and Asian-Americans and the unique forms of racism they experience. Embedded throughout these chapters are key moments of U.S. History that are not commonly emphasized in the classroom, let alone emphasized with an Asian-American lens. These chapters would provide helpful perspectives for educators of all races when working with Asian and Asian-American students.

I particularly recommend using Yellow in schools and districts with substantial Asian and Asian-American populations. Too few texts on race, racism, or educational equity spend time examining Asians and Asian-Americans because these groups traditionally succeed at high levels (an overgeneralization that Wu investigates at length) therefore rendering Asian and Asian-American experiences largely unexplored by educators.  Even one or two chapters from Yellow would go a long way to filling that gap.

 

Pop quiz, hotshot.

There’s a conversational bomb in the classroom. You have  thirty students and they’re talking about racism. Things might get out of hand. Students might get angry. Students might get offended.

What do you do? What do you do?

Well, if you listen to Judith L. Pace then you lean right into that discomfort and let the students keep talking, providing some guidance here and there to address misconceptions. You let things get messy and difficult. In The Charged Classroom:  Predicaments and Possibilities for Democratic Teaching Pace covers how teachers can effectively let the classroom environment get tense (or charged) in order to promote student learning.

Structurally, Pace segments charged issues into four categories: communicating academic expectations, discussing provocative topics, competing curricular demands, and framing performance. In each chapter Pace summarizes relevant research, relates a series of classroom observations (including effective and ineffective examples) and then discusses the feasibility of moving forward in support of democratic education. This structure works well with Pace’s straightforward writing style and each chapter could also stand on it’s own if so desired. The text is quite slim and Pace doesn’t waste any words in getting her point across. Each section is valuable in its own right and the is very little of the repetition that can plague books about education.

In addition to the basic structure described above Pace also carries a thread of educational equity throughout the text highlighting how traditionally underserved populations (low income, urban, rural, racial minority) also typically experience reduced access to the highest levels of democratic education of which they are likely in the highest need of.  This allows the text to be used effectively alongside other works related to equity or antiracist education, even though from the cover the text is not obviously connected to those issues.

chargedclassroomPace’s background is in examining humanities education and that bias is present in The Charged Classroom. Despite this focus, the text is relevant to any level of education because of how Pace examines universal issues. Every educator has a responsibility to communicate academic expectations in a way that respects students’ emotional state while also communicating honesty. The math teacher handing back exams would benefit from this chapter and educators across all disciplines and grade levels would benefit from Pace’s descriptions of how educators effectively provide very difficult feedback to students while also helping those students save face in the classroom.

Additionally, the chapter on discussing provocative topics focuses on humanities classrooms, but no classroom is exempt from controversy or provocation. Pace’s example is same sex marriage, but could just as easily be evolution, racism, or whether girls can do math. In this chapter in particular Pace makes a strong argument that discussing controversial issues is critical for student learning and educators who take her advice on how to approach these issues will likely be more confident in both intentionally bringing up controversy and when issues arise unexpectedly.

The last two sections are similarly universal as all educators have to balance what they know about high quality education with the demands of standardized testing or curriculum. Pace provides no perfect answer here (spoilers: there isn’t one) but she lays out the challenges with enough clarity that a group of educators could discuss how they want to approach the issues given their specific contexts. I think these two chapters would be very effective if read and discuss with a department or grade level team at a school.

As with most texts about education that I read, the section on solutions is quite slim and offers little in the way of novel solutions. We need Better teacher preparation and more professional development. Conduct fewer initiatives, and give them more time.

One area of novelty though is that Pace acknowledges teaching as an inherently difficult undertaking that becomes even more difficult when we ask teachers to specifically address provocative and controversial issues. This is a fact well known to teachers, yet it is not part of the national dialogue about teaching. In fact in the United States teachers are often subject to shame and lower status.

And so while I long for different solutions, perhaps the solution really is as simple as acknowledging that teaching is difficult and training teachers as if that’s the case instead of pretending that we can create effective teachers in shorter and shorter licensure programs.

 

 

Re-visiting a classic is a challenge. I find myself wondering if it will still be relevant or if it will live up to the hype. How much of a universal theme will carry through to an audience many years removed from the original writing.

In education classics age particularly poorly given the rate of research distraction in the field. A ten year old text can feel antiquated and twenty years feels like a lifetime. Educational fads change quickly as the field shoots wildly in hops of finding a silver bullet for student achievement. I’m doubly hesitant when it comes to texts on educational equity. How could a text written before No Child Left Behind and the rise of the education reform movement accurately represent the pressures that teachers feel to educate each child to the highest levels? Equity feels even more tense in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post- Eric Garner, America. (And even more pressing in a post-2016 Election America.)

With these thoughts I began to read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” an unquestioned classic that many educators read in preparation programs.“Why Are All the Black Kids…” is coming up on its twentieth year. Published in 1997, the text essentially covers the basics of racial identity development with a particular focus on Black people in the context of schools.
why_are_all_the_black_kidsThe text is still very strong and deserves its status as a classic. Tatum deftly describes and explores the institutional structures that maintain racism and the ways that people of color, specifically Black people, develop their own racial identities as they negotiate those structures throughout their lives. The chapters on youth and adolescence will be particularly salient for educators as they work to understand their students.

Tatum succeeds in creating a classic by focusing on timeless issues. While the title alludes to a text about schooling, and the text itself is routinely assigned in graduate schools of education, “Why Are All the Black Kids…” is not fundamentally about education or schools. The text is about racial identity development in the context of an institutionally racist society. The text covers schools and schooling because they are a fundamental player in a person’s identity development, but Tatum also addresses influences of community, peers, and the work world from birth through the entire life of a person.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” most obviously shows its age in statistics and discussion of people of color other than Blacks. This makes sense. The book is a product of its time and Tatum can only use the existing 1997 statistics to make her points. If anything many of the statistics that she presents have only become more troubling in the subsequent nineteen years. Schools are increasingly segregated along racial lines despite rapidly growing Asian and LatinX populations across the country.

At the beginning of chapter 8 where Tatum addresses identity development in people of color who are not Black (or not solely Black) she acknowledges her limits wondering how she might “make the experiences of [her] Latino, Asian, and Native students visible without tokenizing them,” drawing the conclusion that she might not be able to but, ” a sincere, though imperfect, attempt to interrupt the oppression of others is usually better than no attempt at all.” To this end Tatum quickly exposes core issues of oppression that exist for LatinX, Asian, and Native communities without trying to claim expertise. When possible, Tatum also acknowledges other scholars who are more deeply involved with these communities. The ever growing Asian, LatinX, and Middle Eastern populations in the United States and the experiences of those populations in schools highlights the need to include races other than Black and white in conversations of educational equity and antiracist education.

The sentiment that a sincere attempt is better than no attempt is a valuable model. As a white educator focusing on anti-racism in schools I am often concerned with how I show up. I work hard to speak my own truth and avoid speaking for others while authentically working to interrupt oppression and I find myself at times second guessing whether I’m “doing it right.” Tatum’s comment frees me of that concern to some extent as long as I am still willing to hear when I make missteps so as to make continuous improvements.

As “Why Are All the Black Kids…” comes up on its twentieth year I hope that Tatum will revisit the text. In some ways Tatum could simply modernize the text with new statistics and new references. A reference to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice instead of Rodney King. An explanation that the LatinX population is now 16% (up from 12.5% in 2000) and the Asian population continues to grow nationally. It would be fascinating to hear what Tatum has learned about racial identity development in the intervening years as it relates to races other than Blacks.

I wonder if Tatum’s readers would be best served by writing a follow up or companion text – something along the lines of “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the new context of officer involved shootings of Black youth, Black Lives Matter, Charter Schools, the Obama Presidency, and an upcoming Trump Presidency I imagine identity development is also changing and developing for youth of color.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to understand the extent to which LatinX, Asian, or Middle Eastern identity development aligns with what Tatum identifies for Black people. I want to understand the variety of ways in which people of color develop their racial identities and how schools support or hinder identity development. I also want to explore more deeply how schools might develop a positive white racial identity that is not rooted in supremacy or exploitation so that white youth can engage the world with an understanding of systematic oppression, a desire to dismantle those systems, and pride in their heritage.

RashadIsAbsent

The tag screams out at everyone from the school sidewalk in giant blue block letters. #RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Rashad is absent again today because he was brutally beaten by a police office after being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. Rashad is black. The office is white.

This piece examines the full plot of All-American Boys and implications for teaching with the book in schools. I encourage you to read the book first. It’s excellent.

In All-American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely explore issues of racialized police violence in the context of a town named Springfield through the eyes of two teenagers: Rashad, the black high school junior who is beaten, and Quinn a white bystander and senior at the same high school. Rashad is an artist and JROTC member. Quinn is a basketball player. Reynolds and Kiely (themselves black and white respectively) tell the story over a period of a week through chapters that alternate between Rashad and Quinn’s perspectives.

The book explores Rashad and Quinn’s personal reactions to the situation, their families, the community, and very specifically, the high school. Each boy experiences a clear developmental arc as they examine racism, what it means to have courage, and the definition of “All-American”. Reynolds and Kiely show great skill in immediately humanizing each character including the boys’ families, their friends, their teachers, and the police officer in question. There is a poignant sense of history in the community that is evidenced without resorting to lengthy exposition.

AllAmericanBoys CoverIf you interact with adolescents in any appreciable way you need to read this book.

If you live in the United States you should read this book.

If you’re in education you need to read this book.

If you’re a teacher, you need to seriously think about teaching this text. I understand the political challenges of adopting a novel in public education. This book is worth fighting for.

The reading level should be comfortable for middle school and my only hesitation (and it’s slight) is that there’s harsh language in the book that could be tough for younger students. The characters are in high school and they speak like they’re in high school. I don’t see any issues with 8th grade and up, but each school is a unique environment and should be considered as such when selecting literature.

Educators I speak to are wrestling with ways to address racialized officer involved killings as they come up in the news. Which ones to address, which ones to not address, how long to spend, what to do when students get riled up, what to do if they think their administration is unsupportive, the questions are endless. These questions are increasingly heightened when the incidents are local. Reynolds and Kiely have the beginning of an answer. They provide an entry point for the conversation.

All-American Boys speaks to me like “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, where Tim O’Brien posits that fiction can be more true than non-fiction. Reynolds and Kiely strip away the talking heads, media analysis, and theoretical objectivity and instead bring us immediately to a human level that cannot be easily accessed through other means. Reynolds and Kiely do the essential work of novelists by localizing and humanizing essential questions of humanity and providing readers with a set of circumstances against which to examine our lives.

Thankfully, Reynolds and Kiely avoid simple solutions to complex problems. Quinn is not a white savior coming to Rashad’s aid. Quinn is a confused teenage boy who wrestles with competing influences in determining right from wrong. Rashad is equally complex wrestling with his desire to avoid conflict while also feeling strong anger at having his rights violated and a growing commitment to broader social justice. Paul, the police officer who beats Rashad is equally complex seen primarily through Quinn’s eyes and their previous big-brother-type relationship. Each character is fully human and provides a potential platform for discussion and inquiry into motivations and understanding. There is great potential for students to cross identify with characters from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. Springfield is a town full of complexity and nuance.

There are many lessons for students to pick up. There is an obvious lesson about racism’s continued presence in American society and how racist acts can come in many forms including inaction. There are strong lessons about strength and courage and how courage is about doing what is right at all times, particularly when you are afraid to.

There are also more subtle lessons for educators to examine. Throughout the book, the school and the basketball coach barely respond to the incident, encouraging students not to discuss the issue and the basketball coach actively threatens to bench any player who discusses Rashad’s situation on or off the court. The students react to the school’s decision in a very human way, making it clear that the topic is unavoidable. The students’ experience in All-American Boys parallels the real experience that Rich Milner discusses in Rac(e)ing to Class when a school chooses to ignore a local robbery. Local issues always come up in the classroom and we teach students important lessons when we actively close topics of conversation. All-American Boys challenges educators to actively engage in challenging conversations for the benefit of our youth. It is a challenge that education can rise to.

Ultimately the book’s power lies in how the authors complicate humanity. Each character, even small characters like Rashad’s nurse, are fully realized human beings with history and motivation. Each one is complex and that in and of itself is an important lesson for students. There are no obvious stereotypes at play and the reader cannot easily categorize or dismiss any of the characters. This to me is the most important lesson, and the one that can make lasting change in a student’s life. If we can help students understand that each person is a worthy and important human being we can help create a future in which we can treat each other with dignity and compassion. I wanted to dismiss Paul. I wanted him to be a clear villain, not worthy of my consideration. I couldn’t do it. Paul is just as human as Rashad and Quinn.

Reynolds and Kiely close the book with a student lead march that shifts focus from Rashad being absent from school to the student population being present for upcoming hard work. There is no trial. The march is not presented as a panacea. Many questions are appropriately unresolved. Reynolds and Kiely opened a large door with All-American Boys and they’re encouraging us to step inside. I hope that schools and teachers have the courage to do just that.

 

StrangeFruitCoverIn Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History Joel Christian Gill collects nine snapshot biographies of exceptional, yet largely uncelebrated, black men. The stories are situated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and predominantly focus on black experiences in New England, where Gill felt the need to stay out of neighborhoods in Boston after growing up in the South. Gill’s explicit goal is to “cut the rope” off of the lynching tree and harvest the strange fruit referenced in the title by shining a spotlight on stories of black excellence under highly oppressive circumstances. Gill’s mission is sorely needed in the U.S. History classroom that has a tendency to portray sweeping universal narratives that lack human complexity.

Gill’s book is essential material for any U.S. History class due to its overall mission and the highly accessible presentation of material. This would be useful for any class working in the time period, or on the black experience in America more broadly. The comics medium allows students of varying reading abilities to jump right into the stories and Gill makes the stories extremely poignant without removing the narrative’s clarity. Strange Fruit also broadens the story of black experience during slavery, reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras. Gill’s work acts in direct opposition to history’s tendency toward the single story; a highly valuable resource for the classroom.

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It is easy to tell stories of oppression in black history. There are innumerable resources, but oppression alone is too simplistic to be an accurate representation of human experience. We need stories excellence and defiance alongside stories of oppression and Gill provides that much needed complexity by helping readers explore how black people excelled despite systematic oppression, thus adding strength to their already remarkable feats. It is incredible to be a dominant cyclist, even more so as a black man in the 1890’s like Marshall Taylor. This complexity is further highlighted in the story “Richard Potter’s Greatest Illusion” in which a mixed race man presents himself as an Indian magician to great commercial success, bringing up issues of skin color and the concept of “passing”. Other success range from mastery in chess, excellence in law enforcement, and the recovery of a man’s daughter during the Civil War. By exploring a range of successful of black experience, Gill also brings humanity to the narrative of black experience, something often lacking in the U.S. history classroom’s focus on great men and great wars.

Gill’s work on New England’s black history, much like Jack Jaxon’s work on Texas History, stands as a strong example of comics as a serious historical product. Gill is not out to tell children’s stories or invent fictions. Gill and Jaxon both explicitly identify their motives and intentions through the introduction and afterwards as well as by providing a bibliography. Gill sets a strong example that students could easily follow by creating snapshot biographies of their own. There is strong educational research on the power of summary to help students understand material, and creating an illustrated snapshot biography, that is highly accessible to many audiences, would take a great deal of research and summary to produce. With appropriate structure and support students should be able to produce highly engaging work that requires the development of research, narrative writing, and historical analysis skills. There is no shortage of potential subjects.

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The structure Gill presents could also be easily extended into a research project for other groups of people and other historical time periods. What would it look like for students to actively research stories of how Native Americans excelled despite consistent oppression? How powerful would it be for students to investigate the myriad of experiences involved in the Tejano experience in the American Southwest to overcome the narrative of all those of Mexican descent as being immigrants? This could even be focused to a very narrow time period and location to provide much needed depth to U.S. History and an excellent vehicle for local history projects. Time constraints and curricular guidelines can often lead to teachers covering history in broad brushstrokes  and leaving details aside, but by including more individual stories students can better understand the complexities of history and marginalized groups can be brought into more deliberate focus.

If there is any major fault in Gill’s work, it would be that he includes no stories of women. There is one story that focuses on a community off the coast of Maine, but the other eight stories are all stories of black men. This does not at all take away from the qualify of Gill’s stories and I’m hopeful that in following volumes Gill spends time with stories of black women as well.