I don’t even know where to begin.
What do you say to “sum up” your thoughts in a year like this?
Well for one thing, school is over. How and when it reopens is something I would like to address in a separate essay, after having some time to think about it, and seeing what comes of this next wave (which is really still part of the first wave) of illness.1
One thing I know for sure, is that we should take this disruption as an opportunity to re-evaluate how and why we do all of the things we do in school. Since many schools in the US shut down around the middle of March, we have two and a half to three months of data, sloppy as it may be, about what kinds of things worked, and what didn’t. The sudden and extended closings also reminded everyone that schools are not just academic centers, but important social institutions that place the health, well-being and development of our country’s children at the center of their daily mission. Whatever form they take come September, schools will be dealing with more than just delivering lessons and lunches.
And of course, there’s no way to “sum up” this year without mentioning George Floyd2. And Ahmaud Arbery3. And Breonna Taylor4. And the parade of other names that followed, as the nation was reminded that it had been here before. Was reminded that it had heard, “I can’t breathe” before.
A recurring nightmare that used to be dismissed, before it was finally caught on tape that night, March 7, 19915. It was a scene that horrified most people who watched it, as four officers took turns swinging their batons at a man on the ground, writhing in pain, covering his head, obviously pleading for mercy.
Almost thirty years later and this new video was worse, more brutal, even though it was done without a baton. More brutal because it occurred in the middle of the day, right in the open, the officers aware that they were being recorded. For eight minutes and forty-six seconds, an officer of the law, rested the weight of his body on the back of a prone man’s head and neck, using his knee as both fulcrum and weapon, killing him in the middle of the street.
Protests in dozens of American cities erupted. A police station in Minneapolis was abandoned and partially burned down. Cable news stations had multiple journalists on the “front lines” as looting broke out, sometimes associated with marches, other times not.
The White House was surrounded by protestors nightly, and the response was to build higher walls and expand the perimeter of said walls. Then one day, the President had peaceful protestors parted by force (think smoke cannisters, pepper balls, riot shields)6 so he could take a selfie holding a Bible (not even his own) in front of a church he doesn’t attend.
Then the NFL apologized for not taking earlier protests seriously7. Then Aunt Jemima was canceled8, followed by Uncle Ben and Mrs. Buttersworth9. Then NASCAR said Confederate flags were not welcomed at their events any longer10. Then Mississippi said it was removing the Southern Cross from its state flag11. Now statues to Confederate heroes are coming down12 and the nation seems to be in full “culture war” mode. Just in time, as I said at the beginning, for another round of COVID-1913.
So yeah, it was one strange year. But the anger and frustrations that we are watching unfold should not come as a surprise to anyone. In past blog posts here, I have discussed the mass incarceration of African Americans14, questioned why Christopher Columbus was celebrated as a hero15, revealed how cronyism and nepotism kept my wife from advancing her professional career16, and discussed my frustrations with an education system that looks at poverty as an inherent character trait and not as the result of bias and discrimination17 (and lack of funding!). As recently as last November, when I talked about unpacking our new books, I discussed how my world view had been shaped by my awareness that our collective past is riddled with terrible episodes fueled by racism and violence18.
As we head into this summer of uncertainties, I hope you find some time to continue learning more about this history, not from spin doctors on cable news or via memes with forgettable quips, but from writers. There is something intimate and special about the written word, because it is a direct invitation into the mind of the other. It is a special kind of magic listening to the way another mind strings together words to create imagery and meaning.
Below you will find an abbreviated “starter” list of books and writers I think are important to understanding where we find ourselves, and perhaps how we move forward.
Biographies/ Autobiographies/ Memoirs
- The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself
- Autobiography of Frederick Douglass
- Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington
- Autobiography of Malcolm X, with Alex Haley
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
- Nigger, Dick Gregory
- The Diary of Latoya Hunter, LaToya Hunter
- Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman
- Fist Stick Knife Gun, Geoffrey Canada
- Makes Me Wanna Holler, Nathan McCall
- The Other Wes Moore, Wes Moore
- Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, Lerone Bennett Jr.
- The Middle Passage: White Ships/ Black Cargo, Tom Feelings
- To Be A Slave, Julius Lester
- Her Stories, Virginia Hamilton
- Eyes on the Prize, Juan Williams and Julian Bond
- Death at an Early Age, Jonathan Kozol
- Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol
- Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation, Joseph T. Hallinan
- Agents of Repression; FBI War Against Black Panther and American Indian Movement, Ward Churchill
- Black images in the Comics: A Visual History, Fredrik Stromberg
- Black noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America, Tricia Rose
- Voices from the Harlem Renaissance, Nathan Huggins, editor
- Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction, Terry McMillan, editor
- Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
- Medical Apartheid; History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans, Harriet Washington
- They Called Themselves the KKK, Susan Bartoletti
- Sugar Changed the World, Marina Budhos
- 1619: Jamestown and American Democracy, James Horn
- 1919, The Year Of Racial Violence, David Krugler
- Cutting school: privatization, segregation, and the end of public education, Nollwe Rooks
- DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America, Bryan Sykes
- The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois
- Ain’t I a Woman, Sojourner Truth
- No Name in the Street, James Baldwin
- The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
- Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King
- A Rap on Race: Margaret Mead in conversation with James Baldwin
- In Search of our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker
- Fatheralong, John Edgar Wideman
- Race Matters, Cornel West
- Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez
- Native Son, Richard Wright
- The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
- Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, Ernest J. Gaines
- Jubilee, Margaret Walker
- Fallen Angels, Monster, and many more by Walter Dean Myers
- Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, anything by Toni Morrison
- Coffee Will Make You Black, April Sinclair
- How It Went Down, Kekla Magoon
- Today the World is Watching You, Kekla Magoon
- March: Books 1,2 and 3, John Lewis
- Nat Turner, Kyle Baker
- The Harlem Hellfghters, Max Brooks
- Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography, Andrew Heller
- 21: The Roberto Clemente Story, Wilfred Santiago
- I Am Alfonso Jones, Tony Medina
- To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Robert B. Nemiroff
- A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
- For Colored Girls Who Have Contemplated Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf, Ntozake Shange
- The Piano Lesson, Fences, August Wilson
- Fires in the Mirror, Anna Deavere Smith
- Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith
- Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep, Anthology
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Gwendolyn Brooks
- Maya Angelou
- Lucille Clifton
- Nikki Giovanni
- June Jordan
- Audre Lorde
- https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52861726 (Floyd)
- https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/04/us/mcmichaels-hearing-ahmaud-arbery/index.html (Arbery)
- https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2020/05/breonna-taylor-is-one-of-a-shocking-number-of-black-people-to-see-armed-police-barge-into-their-homes/ (Taylor)
Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you have a great summer.
Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved.