I wrote this for and read it at The Arnow Conference In The Humanities at Somerset Community College in Somerset, Kentucky on April 7, 2022. I appreciate them asking me to do it.
It is a heady time to be in the humanities business. We have never been so relevant nor so close to extinction. The emergence of critical race theory as a wedge issue has turned elections, gotten people fired, threatened lives. The renewed zeal for banning of books discussing gender, race, and sexuality has turned teachers and librarians into some of the most controversial figures in our culture. Are we who traffic in the humanities guardians or destroyers of civilization? Are we good? Are we evil? Like the protagonist of the 2008 superhero film The Dark Knight, are we the heroes our culture deserves, but not the ones it needs right now? I feel as close to Batman in this moment as I am likely to get. I am happy and terrified to be here.
Let us begin this evening with an excerpt from The Dollmaker, a novel by Harriette Simpson Arnow, published in 1954. The following is an abridged version of a scene between Gertie Nevels—the tall, artistic, mountain woman who is The Dollmaker’s protagonist—and Mrs. Whittle, Nevels’ son Reuben’s homeroom teacher in an overcrowded school in wartime Detroit.
Here we go:
Mrs. Whittle gave no sign that she had heard [Gertie]. [Her] lipstick needed even more time and concentration than the hat. Gertie came round to the end of the desk, tried to see the woman’s eyes in the mirror, but saw only their lids drooping over the eyes fastened onto the mirrored slowly shaping mouth. The precise red bow was finished at last. Mrs. Whittle turned, looked briefly at Gertie, then spoke as she opened the desk drawer, and took out gloves, “Well, what is the matter? Did your child fail to pass? A percentage do, you know.”
[Gertie said,] “He—he don’t seem to be a doen so good—not in his home room. He aint happy; he don’t like school, an I thought mebbe…”
Her words, though halting and stumbling as they were, caused Mrs. Whittle to glance up from the second glove, and for the first time the two women looked at each other. Mrs. Whittle smiled, the red mouth widening below the old woman’s angry glaring eyes. “And of course it’s his teacher’s fault your child is unhappy. Now just what do you expect me to do to make him happy?”
“That’s what I come to ask you,” Gertie said. “He kinda likes his other classes, and back home he was…”
“Back home,” Mrs. Whittle said, as if she hated the words, her voice low, hissing, like a thin whip coming hard through the air, but not making much noise.
“I have had one mother complain most bitterly. Her son had a toy gun. He was talking to Reuben, teasing him a little perhaps. You know how children tease—learning how to take it is a part of their adjustment to life.” She took out a ring holding car keys. “Reuben lost his temper—he’s forever sullen with a chip on his shoulder—and bragged to the other boy that he wouldn’t have a toy gun….He bragged he had a real gun all his own, and that he’d taken it off in the woods and hunted alone and that once he’d seen a bear. He never tried to kill it, just shot at it and it ran away, the boy said Reuben said. The boy, of course, called him a liar, and Reuben—are you certain he is only twelve years old?—slapped him down.”
Gertie’s face was pale. Her wide mouth was a straight line above her square, outthrust chin, her big hands gripped into fists until the knuckle bones showed white, her voice husky, gasping with effort to keep down all that rose within her. “Reuben warn’t lyen. He’s had a rifle since he was ten years old.”
She drew a long shivering breath. “I don’t want any a my youngens ever a playen with a toy gun, a pointen it at one another, an a usen fer walken canes er anything. Some day when they’ve got a real gun they’ll fergit—an use it like a toy.”
Mrs. Whittle smiled. “Your psychology, and your story, too, are—well—interesting and revealing, but…” She stepped into the hall. “I see no pointin carrying this discussion further. He will have to adjust.”
“It is for children—especially children like yours—the most important thing—to learn to adjust.”
“You mean,” Gertie asked—she was pulling her knuckle joints now—“that you’re a teachen my younguns so’s that, no matter what comes, they—they can live with it?”
Mrs. Whittle nodded. “Of course.”
Gertie cracked a knuckle joint. “You mean that when they’re through here, they could—if they went to Germany—start gitten along with Hitler, er if they went to—Russia, they’d git along there, they’d act like the Russians and be communists—an if they went to Rome they’d start worshipen th Pope?”
“How dare you?” Mrs. Whittle was shrill. “How dare you twist my words so, and refer to a religion on the same plane as communism? How dare you?”
“I was jist asken about adjustments,” Gertie said, the words coming more easily, “an what it means.”
The Dollmaker is unparalleled in its unwavering gaze, the fullness of its description of place, its stamina in listening to and recording the words and actions of its characters. Its craft is astonishing, its sadness brutal. In a 1976 interview, Arnow was asked to comment on whether or not it was a feminist novel. She said:
I cannot believe that I am a feminist. I don't think Gertie was a feminist. What was best for her children came first. On the other hand, I'm weary of this talk of women. It's much like the old talk of the proletariat, that woman is woman, and there are no individuals, and all women are alike. It makes me both angry and sick at my stomach, because women are individuals and each should be permitted to follow her own bent, have control of her body.
Arnow speaks articulately to a central challenge faced by the writer of fiction, and the work of storytellers generally: How do we dramatize the issues of our day, the concerns of all of us, while remaining grounded in the stories of individuals, where we are taught drama resides? In this interview excerpt, Arnow refuses to admit Gertie Nevels’ story is part of a larger story, but within the same paragraph claims for her right to equal treatment and bodily autonomy, core tenets of feminism.
Since March 2020, we have experienced quarantine, vaccine, vaccine resistance, businesses opening and closing, interior and exterior debate about whether to attend ball games, funerals, reunions, family gatherings. We have seen brutal election campaigns, election results challenged to the point of riot. We have experienced mass demonstrations focusing our attention on the legacy and persistence of racism in our country and the role of law enforcement in that legacy and persistence. We have experienced the demonization of Antifa, the violent invasion of independent democracies by authoritarian regimes in a manner that evokes the rise of Hitler in the era described in The Dollmaker, and we have seen Gertie Nevels’ son Reuben morph into Kyle Rittenhouse. Through it all, social media has increasingly become a central bearer of our messages to one another, the enabler of swift distribution of the baggage borne in our hearts and heads.
I was reading, in the Spring of 2020, for the first time, The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Zinn suggests the politics and turmoil of our moment were perhaps not a retreat from some idea of progress in this country, but rather the repeat of a cycle, the continuation of a struggle between a powerful economic elite, mostly if not totally male and white, with members in both political parties, committed to the perpetuation of their own power and wealth in the face of challenges from various factions—Black, Indigenous, pro-labor, feminist, to name a few—who sought to bring their own and the nation’s reality into line with its ideals and mythology.
I have been interested in thinking about how things have ended up as they have, and how might have ended up another way. My reading over the next two years has focused on European incursion into North America, and how North America came to be controlled and “owned” by the Europeans who eventually became the United States of America: The Indigenous Peoples History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Liberty is Sweet by Woody Holton, The First American Frontier by Wilma Dunaway. Steve Inskeep’s Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson, Cherokee Chief John Ross, and a Great American Land Grab. A history of east Tennessee published in 1842, Life As It Is by JMW Breazeale.
I began re-reading a book of genealogy that has been circulating in my mother’s family since I was young. Written by Maude Crowe, Descendants from first families of Virginia and Maryland, traced my mother’s father’s family back to their arrival in Virginia in 1620. I started making a timeline integrating the dates and events in the books I was reading with my mother’s family’s history. I found myself paying attention to different things as I read Crowe’s book now. Where once I was interested in which side my various ancestors fought on during the American Revolution and the Civil War, now I was paying more attention to the War of 1812 and fights with Indigenous people.
The Avery Treaty marker I passed every day on my way to school notes that my schoolboy stomping grounds in Kingsport, Tennessee were the site of a “treaty consummated on July 20, 1777, following Col. Christian's subjugation of the Cherokee, who ceded to the whites a broad domain for settlement.” The state sanctioned marker noted “this pact which was soon violated by the settlers.” Down river, closer to Knoxville, stands the marker for the signing of the 1791 Treaty of the Holston, in which US-friendly Cherokee spoke for the entire tribe, promising President George Washington to abandon traditional cultural practice and become “civilized,” adopting European modes of farming and property ownership, including enslavement of Africans.
During my recent reading of Crowe, I was considerably more attentive to the amount of enslavement of people of African descent that went on in my own family. Despite living in the mountains of East Tennessee since the 1790s, where supposedly there wasn’t much slavery, there was a considerable amount amongst my forbears documented in Crowe’s book.
I read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi, and The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, created by Nicole Hannah-Jones. By the time I finished The 1619 Project in early 2022, the politicization of critical race theory which had begun in earnest during the run-up to the 2020 election had picked up steam and The 1619 Project was at the heart of it.
Some may have issues with the theses raised by various of the books mentioned above, but they are filled with historical realities that illumine the times described. For example, there is not much dispute among historians that in 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses ruled that a child is enslaved if their mother is enslaved, even if their father is white. That state of affairs, which survived until Emancipation, incentivized white rape of enslaved African women as it is increased the wealth of the rapist/enslaver. Nor is there much argument among historians that enslaved people, collectively valued by antebellum banks at many tens of millions of dollars, served as collateral for loans and mortgages that allowed white owners to accumulate wealth that was passed from generation to generation into the present. Nor is their much debate among historians that rebellions of the enslaved such as the 1739 Stono Rebellion, the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion, and the 1791 Haitian Rebellion led to laws that made it illegal for Blacks to assemble, grow food, earn money, and learn to read and write—and that such laws existed in both the North and South at one time. Nor do historians much debate that African American military personnel serving in World War II were systematically excluded from the GI Bill, a primary source of economic upward mobility for hundreds of thousands in the postwar era.
People can debate the meaning and significance of these events, but there are many of us who want to know what happened, and make our own judgements about what they mean. Banning or stigmatizing the books, throws a great deal of baby with bathwater that may or may not be faulty argument. Banning and stigmatizing insults the intelligence and stunts the intellectual growth of all of us. It says “you are not capable of figuring out what is reasonable and what is not, and we must do it for you.”
The notion that somehow there would be one book, one theory, one documentary that can carry the sum the truth is a notion that has no place in a democracy. Critical thinking is not about being negative. It is an act as common as barber shops—one must assess the source of whatever narrative is being distributed. One must consider one’s source and hear a story from a variety of angles before one can assemble a truth.
As I understand it, Critical race theory, which has been around since the 1970s, is a way to think about social, political, and legal structures and power distribution through the lens of race. It is a tool for thinking about things, not a belief system. I want our public schools, our public spaces, to be places where we think about things. Who profits by people not thinking about things? That it is children we are protecting when we don’t talk about things that have happened in history, seems a suspect proposition. Not that the issues raised by a critical examination of our history are not difficult, potentially triggering, traumatizing things, but perhaps it is worth considering that those who are protected by the not telling are more the perpetrators of that history than the students of it. The perpetrators of racism, sexism, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, healthcare rationing, educational rationing, and their enablers have much to lose.
This is heavy talk. Let’s shift gears and talk about art for a minute. About comic books. About the Holocaust and banning books. Some of my favorite books have been banned lately, including two of my favorite graphic novels: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. And Maus, by Art Spiegelman. According to a recent interview in New York magazine, Maus tells the story, in comic book form, of Spiegelman’s father Vladek’s experience the Holocaust. Spiegelman weaves his father's story together with his journey to get the story told, employing mice, cats, and pigs in the place of Jews, Germans, and Poles. In 1992, Maus became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize. Maus hit the news earlier this year when the McMinn County (Tennessee) school board removed Maus from the eighth-grade curriculum after a few parents objected to the nudity and use of profanity in it.
Maus describes, among many other things, how, in 1968, Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, killed herself. Spiegelman’s father Vladek found her dead in the bathtub and burned her diaries, which were intended for Art. In Maus, Art depicts himself raging at his father and dead mother. The curse words and his dead mother’s visible breast have been a problem for some McMinn county parents. “A lot of the cussing had to do with the son cussing out the father, so I don’t know how that teaches our kids any kind of ethical stuff,” one of them, Mike Cochran, told the board, which later voted unanimously to ban Maus.
Spiegelman read the parents’ comments: “The thing that really upset them was me yelling at my father for burning the diaries. I guess it would’ve been better, for the school board, to say, ‘Gee whiz, Pop — I wish you hadn’t done it!’ But that would not have been accurate to my intensity of horror.” The New York magazine article notes, “As Spiegelman sees it, the real reason for the board’s decision may be that the narrative of Maus offers no catharsis, let alone comfort, to readers. There are no saviors. No one is redeemed. The characters — Spiegelman’s family — remain the imperfect people they were to begin with.” Spiegelman says, “Vladek didn’t become better as a result of his suffering. He just got to suffer. They want to teach the Holocaust. They just want a friendlier Holocaust to teach.” Spiegelman also reminds us, “I never wanted Maus to be for children.”
Perhaps not all eighth graders and their parents are ready for Maus. Eighth graders are one year older than Reuben Nevels in The Dollmaker. Kiese Laymon writes about his own eighth grade self in another banned book, Heavy: A Memoir. The following is an abridged section of a chapter from Heavy called “Meager.”
We were new eighth graders at St. Richard Catholic School in Jackson, Mississippi, because Holy Family, the poor all-black Catholic school we attended most of our lives, closed unexpectedly due to lack of funding. All four of the black girls from Holy Family were placed in one homeroom at St. Richard. 4 All three of us black boys from Holy Family were placed in another. Unlike at Holy Family, where we could wear what we wanted, at St. Richard, students had to wear khaki or blue pants or skirts and light blue, white, or pink shirts.
LaThon and I sat in the back of homeroom the first day of school doing what we always did: we intentionally used and misused last year’s vocabulary words while LaThon cut up his pink grapefruit with his greasy, dull butter knife. “These white folk know we here on discount,” he told me, “but they don’t even know.”
“You right,” I told him. “These white folk don’t even know that you an ol grapefruit-by-the-pound-eating-ass [youngster]. Give me some grapefruit. Don’t be parsimonious with it, either.”
“[Youngster], you don’t eat grapefruits,” LaThon said. “Matter of fact, tell me one thing you eat that don’t got butter in it. Ol churning-your-own-butter-ass [youngster].” I was dying laughing. “Plus, you act like I got grapefruits gal-low up in here. I got one grapefruit.”
Seth Donald, a white boy with two first names, looked like a dustier Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, but with braces. Seth spent the first few minutes of the first day of school silent-farting and turning his eyelids inside out. He asked both of us what “gal-low” meant.
“It’s like galore,” I told him, and looked at LaThon. “Like grapefruits galore.”
LaThon sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes. “Seth, whatever your last name is, first of all, your first name ends with two fs from now on, and your new name is Seff six- two because you five-four but you got the head of a [youngster] we know who six-two.” LaThon tapped me on the forearm. “Don’t he got a head like S. Slawter?” I nodded up and down as LaThon shifted and looked right in Seff 6’2’s eyes. “Everythang about y’all is erroneous. Every. Thang. This that black abundance. Y’all don’t even know.”
LaThon’s favorite vocab word in seventh grade was “abundance,” but I’d never heard him throw “black” and “that” in front of it until we got to St. Richard.
While LaThon was cutting his half into smaller slices, he looked at me and said Seth six-two and them didn’t even know about the slicing “shhhtyle” he used.
Right as I dapped LaThon up, Ms. Reeves, our white homeroom teacher, pointed at LaThon and me. Ms. Reeves looked like a much older version of Wendy from the Wendy’s restaurants. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and kept cutting our grapefruit slices. “Put the knife away, LaThon,” she said. “Put it down. Now!”
“Mee-guh,” we said to each other. “Meager,” the opposite of LaThon’s favorite word, was my favorite word at the end of seventh grade. We used different pronunciations of meager to describe people, places, things, and shhhtyles that were at least eight levels less than nothing. “Mee-guh,” I told her again, and pulled out my raggedy Trapper Keeper. “Mee-guh.”
While Ms. Reeves was still talking, I wrote “#l tape of our #1 group?” on a note and passed it to LaThon. He leaned over and wrote, “EPMD and Strictly Business.” I wrote, “#1 girl you wanna marry?” He wrote, “Spinderalla + Tootie.” I wrote, “#1 white person who don’t even know?” LaThon looked down at his new red and gray Air Maxes, then up at the ceiling. Finally, he shook his head and wrote, “Ms. Reeves + Ronald Reagan. It’s a tie. With they meager ass.”
I balled up the note and put it in my too-tight khakis while Ms. Reeves kept talking to us the way you told me white folk would talk to us if we weren’t perfect, the way I saw white women at the mall and police talk to you whether you’d broken the law or not.
I understood how Ms. Reeves had every reason in her world to think I was a sweaty, red-eyed underachiever who drank half a Mason jar of box wine before coming to school. That’s almost exactly who I was. But LaThon was as close to abundant as an eighth grader could be.
LaThon brilliantly said “skrrimps” instead of “shrimp” because “skrrimps” just sounded better. He added three s’s to “mine” so it sounded like “minessss” no matter where we were. I once watched him tear open a black-and-white TV and make it into a bootleg version of Frogger and a miniature box fan for his girlfriend. One Friday in seventh grade, I saw him make the freshest paper airplane in the history of paper airplanes in Jackson. For five minutes and forty-six seconds, that plane soared, flipped, and dipped while LaThon and I ran underneath it for three blocks down Beaverbrook Drive. When the plane finally landed, LaThon kept looking up at the sky, wondering how the pocket of wind that carried our plane could find its way into a city like Jackson. LaThon could do anything, but the thing I’d never seen him do was come close to hurting someone who hadn’t hurt him first, with a knife, his hands, or even his words.
“It’s not a knife. It’s a butter knife,” I told Ms. Reeves. “And it’s dull. Why she acting like a [youngster] got fine cutlery up in here?”
“You know,” LaThon said. “’Cause they preposterous in this school.”
“Preposterous-er than a mug,” I told Ms. Reeves.
I sat in the principal’s office thinking about what you told me the day before we started St. Richard. “Be twice as excellent and be twice as careful from this point on,” you said. 1 “Everything you thought you knew changes tomorrow. Being twice as excellent as white folk will get you half of what they get. Being anything less will get you hell.”
I assumed we were already twice as excellent as the white kids at St. Richard precisely because their library looked like a cathedral and ours was an old trailer on cinder blocks. I thought you should have told me to be twice as excellent as you or Grandmama since y’all were the most excellent people I knew.
LaThon got whupped by a black woman who loved him when he got home. I got beaten by a black woman who loved me the next morning….I knew that if my white classmates were getting beaten at home, they were not getting beaten at home because of what any black person on Earth thought of them.
The next day at school, the teachers at St. Richard made sure LaThon and I never shared a classroom again. At St. Richard, the only time we saw each other was during recess, at lunch, or after school. When LaThon and I saw each other, we dapped each other up, held each other close as long as we could.
“It’s still that black abundance?” I asked LaThon.
“You already know,” he said, annunciating every syllable in a voice he’d never used before walking into his homeroom.
We can do this, humanities traffickers. But what is “this?” This is staying on message. Black Lives Matter. Thinking matters. Caring matters. Judge not lest ye be judged matters. Love thy neighbor as thyself matters. Taking our time and not hot-taking ourselves into oblivious erroneousness matters. Complicated matters. Celebrating our shared abundance matters.
Support your teachers that teach a child to think and not to believe. You can challenge those teachers. You can ask them to justify. But support the work of the Jessica Salfias and the Matthew Hawns of the world in making citizens. Support those who encourage us to use our heads. Support examining who stands to profit from the things that don’t feel right.
Finally, Organize. Stick together. Be an ally. Act in concert with allies. Don’t go it alone. Seek connection. Common goals. Divided we fall. Arizona cut out a Mexican-American Studies program through a state law forbidding public schools from offering race-conscious education in the form of "advocat[ing] ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” It’s fine to treat people as individuals. But individualism has been over-hyped by those who are scared of people joining hands. Individuals, even when they’re some kind of superhero, don’t save Gotham. Trying to be a super hero or depending upon an heroic individual does not, as Nicole Hannah-Jones suggests, allow us to generate the political will to lead this country to live up to its stated ideals. If we stand together to create that will, we could manufacture life, liberty, and happiness for everybody, and roll out the steel of our potential as easily as if it were biscuit dough.