The teachers’ strike in Chicago in in its fifth day at the time of this posting. The coverage has divided into roughly two parallel narratives. One decries the overreach of the teacher’s union, led by Karen Lewis. According to this viewpoint, it is a public relations disaster at best. In these economic hard times, the unions are pushing back against the elimination of automatic pay raises and other job protections. The teachers look like they are not willing to their part in sharing the sacrifices like other workers. The other story about the strike worries aloud about the state of the roughly 350,000 students in the public school system whose largely working class parents have to scramble to find accommodations for them during the strike. Both storylines are incomplete because they overlook important complexities. There are extraordinarily high stakes embedded in this strike because educational inequality is the civil rights struggle of our time. The Chicago teachers have drawn an important line in the sand in a fight for the future of public education.
First, the teachers’ strike demonstrates that union power is alive and robust in the twenty first century. They have always been–and continue to be–a necessary counterweight to management’s interest. The idea that teachers are the enemy is a fallacy. My first and most enduring professional identity is that of a teacher. I began my career as a history teacher in 1999 at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, a public high school in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn. With over ten years experience in the New York school system as a teacher and administrator, I can attest to the necessity of unions to exercise its power to improve the bread and butter issues of working conditions, salaries, and tenure. I found it incredibly useful that I had the freedom to teach U.S. History courses to my students that principally included the voices of people of color, women, poor people, and folks of all sexual orientation in a critically engaging manner. Due to union protection, I taught a curriculum that challenged the great (white) man’s version of American history without fear of reprisal from my supervisors. Read the rest of this entry »
The reviews are in. Both liberal and conservative commentators agree: Michelle Obama gave a barnburner of a speech last night at the Democratic National Convention. She was pitch perfect: sincere and persuasive. And she looked great in her custom made Tracy Reese dress and J.Crew pumps. She earned high marks for performance and presentation. As I digest the speech content today and bask in the warm glow of the Obama’s increasingly solid reelection prospects, there is a thought that rests uncomfortably in my mind as I consider in the figure of Michelle Obama. As a good feminist, can I truly applaud a woman who subverts her own personal prowess in favor of a more palatable “aww shucks, I am a mom” public personality?
A partial explanation of Michelle Obama’s careful construction of her role as first lady rests with the public image that emerged during the 2008 presidential election. According to her most strident critics, she was the fist bumping, angry, and radical black woman who did not love America. Remember The New Yorker cover on July 21, 2008? It was unfunny because it did not critique and merely replicated the extreme right wing caricature of Barack Obama as a secret Muslim and Michelle Obama as gun toting black revolutionary. Read the rest of this entry »
For the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned a superb essay on Barack Obama as Black president. Coates argues that Obama, by not talking about race while sitting as president, has taken an accommodationist stance against white racism. You should read the whole thing, because it really is a spectacular piece of writing. Indeed, it’s an essay that is much better than this blog post in response to it, an essay that so impressed me that I will likely assign it to my “Race and Identity in Judaism” class.
And yet, it’s an essay that I have some problems with, on historical grounds.
As Coates correctly notes, “Obama is not simply America’s first black president–he is the first president who could credibly teach a black-studies class.” In short Barack Obama is an intellectual. America has long been uncomfortable with intellectuals, as can be evidenced by the cult of anti-intellectualism surrounding Sarah Palin and other figures on the far right. I think Black intellectuals make this sector of white America even angrier than than the poor black underclass does, because they want to feel superior to Barack Obama, but they can’t.
Obama’s status as intellectual makes me wary of lumping him in the same accommodationist category as Booker T. Washington, as Coates does. For Washington displayed an anti-intellectualism of his own, as he preached industrial education, economic self-development, and acceptance of segregation for the black community of the South. Washington’s antagonist, W.E.B. Du Bois, argued in favor of integration, in favor of civil rights for African Americans, to be led by a “talented tenth.”
So is Obama an accomodationist in the vein of Booker T. Washington? As president, when he has dealt with race, it has been to engage in the “time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.” Coates is most angry about Obama’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, who was forced to resign from the US Department of Agriculture after the late Andrew Breitbart aired selective moments of an interview with her to make it appear as if she harbored anti-white sentiments. By failing to stand up for Sherrod, Obama followed in Washington’s footsteps by backing down in the face of white racism.
And yet I think there might be another way to understand Obama here.
First, there are important differences between Obama and Booker T. Washington beyond the purely intellectual. The latter preached a doctrine of group uplift through industry and agriculture. His was a separatist, if not segregationist schema. It’s no wonder that Marcus Garvey, who led an even more radically separatist group in his “Back to Africa” movement, looked to Washington for inspiration. Washington, Garvey, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, these leaders and movements rejected integration. Obama, whether he discusses race or not, is an apostle of integration.
Obama’s story, then, is not one of accommodation and separation, but of accommodation and integration. In order for this integration to occur, Obama has had to avoid the perception of succumbing to “black rage,” of being an “angry black man.” And in that way, the black leader he most resembles is baseball player Jackie Robinson.
When Jackie Robinson entered the major leagues in 1947, he made a promise to Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, the man most responsable for signing him in the first place. Robinson promised Rickey that no matter how many taunts he received from players and fans and teammates, no matter how many baserunners slid into him spikes high or pitchers who threw at his head, he could not fight back. He had to take it, grit his teeth, and remain silent. Robinson promised to do this for three years. Rickey knew that if Robinson retaliated, he would be labeled an angry black man, other owners would refuse to sign African Americans, and the great experiment at integrating America’s national pastime would be rendered a failure.
Barack Obama is the Jackie Robinson of the white house. He has effectively integrated the presidency. But in his first term in office he has behaved like Jackie Robinson did in his first three years in the majors. After those first three years, Robinson was free to retaliate, to yell and fight back, and he did so vociferously. The metaphorical gloves came off. He succeeded in integrating baseball, and could then assert himself, as a black man, and as an individual.
Obama has not faced the degree of racism that Robinson did, but he has faced racism, both overt and subtle, in large part coming white resentment in the face of a changing national makeup. He is living in the post-Civil Rights era, indeed, HE IS PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. One would think he would have the ability, the power, to speak his mind more forcefully on racial questions.
Or maybe it’s precisely because he is president, because he is blazing a trail, that he needs to keep a low profile on race issues. The question remains: will Obama, if elected for a second term, take the gloves off? Will he be the tough-as-nails player that Jackie Robinson was his whole career, while still putting up Hall of Fame numbers?
This question may be related to the left’s criticism of Obama, that he promised change but then governed from the center. If a re-elected Obama changes course on race, will he change course and veer left on other policy arenas?
As we enter the latter half of August, many Jewish campers all across the Diaspora are asking themselves an important question: “Have I gotten enough play this summer?” In this week’s issue of The Forward, the progressive Jewish paper published out of New York, Emily Shire has written a wonderful article titled: “Hooking Up at Summer Camp? Is a Little Nookie the Key to Jewish Continuity?” Shire, telling us what we already know, notes:
In addition to the kosher canteens and morning prayers, there’s another activity unlisted in any brochure but no less synonymous with Jewish sleepaway camps: hooking up. Ask any alumnus of the dozens of non-Orthodox Jewish overnight camps in North America, and you’ll get stories straight from an episode of “Glee,” with softball fields and squash courts as the backdrops to teenage hookups — everything up to but mostly excluding sexual intercourse….
Administrators at Jewish sleepaway camps say they discourage campers from getting frisky with each other. But former campers tell a different story, of counselors who turned a blind eye or even gently egged their campers on. The unspoken subtext, they say, is Jewish continuity. Like a PG-13 version of Taglit-Birthright Israel — during which Jewish 20-somethings are known to fall for each other while they fall in love with Israel — Jewish summer camps acquaint adolescents with their religious tradition, but also with each other. Many former campers say they had their earliest romantic episodes at camp, paving the way for adult relationships with other Jews. Today, hooking up at camp is a hallmark of the American Jewish youth experience.
I suggest you read the whole piece. It certainly resonated with me.
Though the message is more subtle than Birthright’s almost explicit efforts at matchmaking and procreation, Jewish summer camps without question seek to facilitate romantic relationships among Jewish campers and staff (but not between campers and staff). Particularly in the non-Orthodox camps, the Jewish content is fairly minimal. And teaching Judaism is not the real purpose of these camps. The real purposes is to encourage hookups and ultimately marriage between Jews, to keep things within the Tribe.
Think about it. Summer camp is the great equalizer. Everyone’s a little dirty, so hygiene becomes less important. Since the camp consists mostly or entirely of Jews, it’s easier to impress potential suitors with athletic prowess. Nobody has more money than anybody else, and there is no possibility of winning someone with a fancy date. Because hookups are officially frowned upon, there’s the thrill of doing something bad. And though there are lots of activities, from sports to arts and crafts to Judaica, there is still a lot of downtime. What else are young horny teenagers going to do?
As Shire notes, there have been no systematic studies of sexual relationships as Jewish summer camps. But there is evidence to suggest that Jewish summer camps offer something of a bulwark against intermarriage. Whatever the data reveals, there is no question that, as Shire writes: “for many, camp hookup culture was a formative part of their Jewish adolescence.”
There really is a fascinating historical/sociological book project that needs to be done about the role of summer camps in the North American, or perhaps even global Diaspora Jewish community. Hookup culture would be an integral aspect of that project. Maybe I’ll write it one day. On that note, Shabbat Shalom!
To follow up on Afrah’s excellent post on Gabby Douglas, I thought I would reflect a little bit on another American gymnast who won gold in London, Aly Raisman. The 18-year-old Raisman, an American Jew, proudly celebrated her heritage by performing her gold-medal winning floor routine to “Hava Nagilah.”
In winning the gold medal, Raisman also did her part in undermining certain stereotypes about Jewish women. Particularly in the post-WW2 period, two comic images of Jewish women emerged, both with a decidedly negative edge. The first was the overbearing Jewish mother, the second the Jewish American Princess, or JAP, personified in either the nagging wife or the spoiled daughter. These images were on display in American Jewish fiction, but they also caused real harm in gender relations between American Jewish men and women.
In her 1996 essay “Why Jewish Princesses Don’t Sweat,” anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell argues that the archetypical JAP is allergic to work. As an example, she points Brenda Patimkin, the leading lady of the 1959 Philip Roth novella Goodbye, Columbus. In both the book and the 1969 movie, Patimkin (as portrayed by Ali MacGraw) is seen playing tennis. To Prell, the message is that JAPs can sweat, provided that the sweat is not productive, i.e. that it comes from exercise or a leisurely activity like tennis. The Jewish woman is thereby denigrated as unproductive, lazy, and spoiled.
Of course, this stereotype is far from true: Jewish women work, and certainly sweat while working. This is where Raisman comes in. Here we have a wonderful real-life example of a Jewish woman whose work is athletic, sweat-producing, and medal-winning. Mazel tov Aly!
Gabrielle Douglas is the 16 year old two-time Olympic gold medalist (at the time of this post) in the team and individual all around gymnastic events. Her success is a testament to the almost single-minded drive of a young woman, her family, and coaches. In a few short days she has been transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. She is, first and foremost, an Olympic champion. Gabby has also become America’s sweetheart. Finally, she is a black girl. The three identities are inextricably embedded in her public personae. The gold medal-winning athlete and surging popularity will follow a well-established path in the public consciousness. It is the fact of race that both complicates and potentially deepens her impact on cultural history.
Gabby Douglas’ story can be easily recounted in the familiar terms that world-class athletes use. She spent thousands of hours in the gym, sacrificed greatly, and continued to perform through pain. She moved from Virginia Beach to Iowa at 14 years old in order to train with a winning coach and live with a host family. She talks convincingly of blood, sweat and tears at the gym because one must remember that she has shed them all in pursuit of the top spot in the world. She has the nickname of the “flying squirrel,” due to the ”height on release moves on the uneven bars.” The name reflects her skill, power and precision. Gabby Douglass joins Dominique Dawes, an African American woman, who won the gold for the team gymnastic event in 1996. After winning the individual gold, Gabby posted the following on her blog: “I was ready to seize the moment, to focus and to trust in what I can do.” She stands alone as the first black woman to win the individual all around gold medal. Read the rest of this entry »
In the latest round of “Historians Who Hate Each Other” I give you Michael Kazin and Sean Wilentz. Ok, so I don’t know if these guys actually hate each other. But it sure seems like they do. I’m talking about Georgetown US historian Michael Kazin (son of old Jewish left royalty Alfred Kazin) and Princeton US historian Sean Wilentz. The dispute goes back at least to the 2008 American presidential election. Wilentz backed Hillary Clinton, Kazin sided with Obama. They argued in The New Republic, ostensibly about Lincoln but in fact about Obama.
Wilentz’s review, titled “The Left vs. the Liberals,” runs like this: Kazin says the radicals did X, but actually it was liberals, or at least, mostly liberals. X could be emancipation of the slaves, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, you name it. I haven’t read Kazin’s book, but Wilentz’s attacks seem pretty devastating.
The debate here is not just about liberals vs. radicals, but about top-down political vs bottom-up social history, Wilentz preferring the former, Kazin the latter. So who’s right?
The answer, as any good grad student should know, is both. There is no question that both radicals and liberals, both elites and the disadvantaged helped bring about progressive social change.
I’m sure these two historians would agree on that. The difference is one of emphasis, but that distinction is, well, academic. In any case, I’m in no position to declare a winner here, but I would like to lament the fact that the dispute has gotten nasty and perhaps personal. Wilentz refers to Kazin’s discussion of the Civl War as a “skimpy caricature” and later writes that Kazin’s analysis of the post-Civil Rights era “begins to go haywire.” (the New Republic exchange is even nastier). I hope that whatever animosity these two historians feel towards each other does not cloud their scholarship. Still, I can’t wait for the exchange of letters in The New Review of Books that is sure to follow.
Thinking about this dispute brings me to an interesting quandary for the grad student: what do we do when we are required to interact with scholars who intensely dislike each other? Should we pick sides? Try to stay above the fray? Deceptively placate both? What if we feel a greater affinity for one scholar’s position on a given topic, but we are working closely with another professor who takes the opposing view? Basically, in scholarly disputes, do grad students get caught in the academic crossfire?