Empty Pedestals

Forrest_Park_Memphis_TN_07Like pretty much everyone else in the US, I have an opinion about statues that honor Confederate leaders. At first, I had mixed feelings. After all, tearing down a statue doesn’t erase centuries of oppression. Moreover, the educator in me wondered if placing the statues in context would be a good compromise. For example, I imagined a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded by statues of every person who was killed by the KKK. However, this didn’t satisfy me either. However, when I read historian Kevin M. Levin’s article in The Atlantic, I saw an answer that made sense to me.

Levin echoes my concerns as an educator who used the monuments as classrooms. He saw the potential of using monuments to discuss the legacy of the Civil War, the rise of hate groups, and resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. Levin said he once thought that “Monument sites became classrooms where I could teach about the long and difficult history of racism in America. Taking them down seemed to represent the antithesis of my goals as a teacher.” Teaching history means exposing the less savory parts of our journey. The monuments embodied these issues.



19dc-partisan-picks-durham-master675Levin goes on to say that his mind changed.  He shares his experience of traveling to Prague where he “noticed almost immediately the concrete foundations and empty pedestals where monuments to communist leaders once stood.” For Levin, the empty pedestals serve as an equally poignant reminder Soviet oppression. Stalin and Lenin are no longer glorified in bronze, but neither is the reminder of their systemic abuse of the Czech people erased. The pedestals are mute but solid.

Perhaps we can learn from the Czech throughout the South. Memphis hosts a number of Confederate monuments, most notably the grave of Forrest and a park around it. I think we would all feel differently if we walked by an empty pedestal instead of a statute of a racist sitting majestically on his horse.


Free to Teach What I Want

In December 2016, Wisconsin State Assemblyman David Murphy lodged a public complaint about the University of Wisconsin’s decision to allow a course entitled “Problem with Whiteness.”  According to the Washington Post, the goals of the course are to “understand how whiteness is socially constructed and experienced in order to help dismantle white supremacy” and to explore “how race is experienced by white people.” Murphy claims teaching a class at the state’s flagship public university is a waste of taxpayer’s money. Moreover, he called to withhold funding if the class goes through.

In January, Steve Nass criticized UW Madison for a program in which young men voluntarily gather and discuss masculinity. Nass claims that the course categorizes masculinity as another “societal ill.”

Is white masculinity under attack? Or, should classes interrogate social, cultural, or political hegemony?

To answer these questions, we have to understand the role of the university. In many ways, our conception of the university as a bastion of liberal ideals and counterculture is a mostly modern conception. The civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1950-70s were supported by young college students who organized on campuses across the country.

Wisconsin Student Association, United Front, and Madison Area Peace Action Council sponsor indoor anti-war rally at Camp Randall (1971)

However, in the Middle Ages, universities educated the men who ran state and religious bureaucracies. Before the university, education occurred in the home or monasteries. But, less than a century after its founding in 1088, the University of Bologna petitioned  Barbarossa for secular powers; the Authentica habita or Privilegium scholasticum gave scholars the right to travel and learn civil law. Universities were not for the most wealthy  of society, but for second sons and the growing middle class.

The Renaissance and the rise of humanist education saw more students attending universities to help build the solidifying nation states. In England, Henry VIII asked professors from all over Europe to rule on his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. In a way, university professors shaped the civic and political history of England and the world.

Universities are not above or outside of politics or corporate interests. They shape and are shaped by politics in that they produce the very people who work and develop policy. Many would argue this is exactly why the university is the ideal place to undermine hegemonic discourses. When we prepare the next generation of law-makers, C-level executives, and teachers, they should be aware of how language and culture shape our ideas of right/wrong, good/bad, smart/dumb.

By interrogating masculinities and whiteness, we can understand the ways that laws, corporate policies, and medicine perpetuate systems that exclude Others. Is it radical to think that a future Senator should be aware of his own privilege when making laws for women or children?







LOLcats & Literacy

This week, my digital rhetoric class took an unexpected turn. When a student presented about icanhascheezburger and lolcats speak, we started a spirited discussion about the difference between a language and a dialect. BTW, here there’s a lolcat translator!


Anyway, as we talked about some of the grammatical differences between a language and a dialect, I asked what’s at stake when we classify something as a language. At first the students were confused by the question, but I shared an example. In 1996 the Oakland, CA school district recognized ebonics or African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as the “primary” language of their students.  When we classify something as a language rather than a dialect, it changes its status, if we can teach it and more importantly if we should teach it.

In the case of LOLcats, whether it should be taught or not is interesting.  As more and more people communicate only by text, IM, and social media, it seems the language/dialect/pidgin of LOLcats may become more relevant.  Moreover, while the class didn’t get to this point, I wonder how much we need to think about the combination of the text and image. The text responds to or builds on the image.  They work together.

Seeing America, Part 1: What Is Southern?

Two years ago, I decided to move to Memphis. When I told my friends and family, nearly all of whom are from great northern states, they were shocked. They said true and practical things like, “but you hate the heat” and “it’s so far away from home.” However, the also said some extremely biased things like, “they’re all racists down there” and “you’re not going to start carrying a gun.” Of course, as a life-long Yankee, I drove through Illinois and crossed the Mississippi uncertain and maybe even a little afraid.

NOLABVMNevertheless, I’ve learned a lot about “the South” since moving to Memphis. I think one of the most important lessons may be that it’s not the South, but Southern people. To think of everything south of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio as a unified whole is both unfair and inaccurate. Sure, they may say “ya’ll” but that doesn’t mean every person who lives down here believes and behaves the same.  For example, I was shocked at how different New Orleans is compared to other Southern cities I’ve visited. In NOLA, diversity pushed beyond race and challenged my ideas of what it means to be Southern. The obvious Catholicism made me feel like I was back in Chicago, New York, or Pittsburgh where the Poles, Latinos, and the Irish dominated for decades. Unlike Memphis, NOLA seems cosmopolitan and open.  Urbane not merely urban.

At the same time, NOLA does share the legacy of racism and slavery with Memphis. Walking around the French Quarter with music spilling out of every door, it’s hard to remember that slaves laid the bricks and were sold on the streets. Similarly, people wandering around downtown Memphis and onto Beale street, might miss the Ida B. Wells plague commemorating her work to end lynching throughout the South. The streets of most southern cities are full of these tangible reminders.

And yet, both cities still grapple with the socio-economic inequalities created by slavery. For NOLA, Katrina destroyed neighborhoods, broke families, and drowned people in the deluge. In Memphis, neighborhoods, families, and people are destroyed by gun violence. Both cities seem helpless in the face of this deluge. But, this isn’t unique to the South. Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis face similar challenges.

So, what does it mean to be Southern?  I’m still not sure. I know it requires thinking critically about race and poverty, but that’s not unique to this region. At the same time, the history of slavery and civil rights movement may require Southerners to act and speak more purposefully about these issues. As a carpet-bagger, I’m not sure I should lead the charge. But as someone who lives here now, I want to embrace the Southern in us all.