In the early 1980s, near the end of my career as a clown, I returned to the States. Through a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, I found myself teaching mime and circus skills to high school and middle school students in Huntsville, Texas. I had been teaching theater and clowning workshops during the off season in Europe and discovered that I liked it and was good at it. At 25, I felt like I was transitioning away from performing and thought that teaching might be a new path for me.
Huntsville is one of the stranger places I have lived. The permanent residents of Huntsville number just under 40,000, but this does not include the roughly 20,000 students who attend Sam Houston State University or the 13,000 inmates housed in prisons around Huntsville, which is also the headquarters for the Texas Department of Corrections. The town has a large African American population, but it still shows the remnants of segregation and Jim Crow. For example, the phone book in 1984 listed the Baptist Church and the Baptist Church (colored) at two separate locations. I attended pep rallies at the high school and was astonished to see all of the black students seated on one side of the gym and all the white students on the other. Because the town could only afford one high school, there was integration in the classrooms, but not at the pep rallies or in the cafeteria, where students were free to choose where they sat and with whom.
I worked with students in grades 7 through 12 in their theatre courses, but I also did whatever I could to participate in the greater life of the schools. One day a journalism teacher asked me to help with an assignment. Her students had written down the names of famous people they wanted to interview. She gave me a folder with the students’ submissions and asked me to pick one of the names and portray that person as part of a practice interview. Most of the names were exactly what you might expect: singers like Boy George, Michael Jackson, and Elton John; actors like Molly Ringwald, Eddie Murphy, and Sean Penn. I didn’t want to portray a woman or a black person or a gay person, not because of any sense of identity politics, but because I thought that would just lead to silliness. The next to last piece of paper had one name on it: not Cher or Sting, but Jesus. Oh, yes, I thought.
“We’ll need to be careful,” the journalism teacher said. “But an interview with Jesus will certainly force students to be more creative with their questions.”
I had fairly long hair and a beard at the time. I borrowed a long linen robe from the costume shop, a relic from some past Christmas pageant. Bare-foot, with a piece of rope tied around my waste, I began the exercise with a disclaimer.
“Listen up,” I said. “As part of this interviewing exercise, I’m going to be portraying Jesus. This is not meant to be disrespectful in any way. I am not an expert on Jesus, and my knowledge is very basic. The point of this exercise is to give you experience interviewing someone that you don’t often hear being interviewed. It is not intended to make fun of or be disrespectful to anybody’s religion.”
Okay. I’d said something like “not meant to be disrespectful” twice. That should be good enough.
“What can you tell us about your early life?” the first student asked. Perfect. I was able to tell the whole nativity story without any problems.
“How did you pick your apostles?” another student inquired. I was less certain on this one, but I did at least remember the “fishers of men” story.
“If God is all powerful,” one student began, but I cut him off, answering his question before he could even finish it.
“Can he create a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?”
The student’s eyes mimicked a character in a Tex Avery cartoon. What the—? How did I know what he was going to ask? I thought I saw him wondering whether I might indeed have god-like powers. I eased his suspicions.
“I’ve listened to that George Carlin album, too,” I said, referring to the “Heavy Mysteries” track from his 1972 album, Class Clown. There was laughter from the other students. The interviewer looked a bit sheepish that I’d caught him out, then smiled when he realized that he’d found another lover of George Carlin in east Texas. The “rock so big” question is actually part of a bigger theological issue called the omnipotence paradox. I didn’t learn this until I started studying the medieval church in graduate school, but when I did it increased my respect for the intellectual aspects of Carlin’s humor. The next question was not so easy to tackle.
“Was Jesus black?” An African-American student posed this question, and it seemed clear that they’d heard something, perhaps in their church, that they expected me to confirm.
Over the centuries, Christ has been depicted as a Greek philosopher, a warrior, a conqueror, a sufferer, an innocent baby, a precocious teen, a shepherd, a magician carrying a wand, long-haired, short-haired, bearded, and beardless. He has been shown with ethnic features ranging from Ethiopian to Chinese. Even Muslims, who know Jesus as the prophet Issa, have offered up descriptions of Christ as a “reddish man of medium height with lanky hair and with many freckles on his face, as if he had just come from a bath.” The Nazis claimed Jesus had Nordic, Aryan features, while Malcolm X famously proclaimed that, “Christ wasn’t white. Christ was a black man. The poor, brainwashed Negro has been made to believe Christ was white to maneuver him into worshiping white men.” The forensic anthropologist Richard Neave “reconstructed” Christ’s face based on a first-century skull from Galilee and writings and art from the time. The image is not meant to depict Jesus, but to show what a contemporary man of the time might have looked like “given the scientific information we’ve got.” The facial features are broader than European depictions, and with an olive complexion—darker, but more Mediterranean than African.
I wouldn’t know any of that until I was deep into my graduate studies years later, but I had heard that “light-skinned Jesus” was probably the invention of white folks, and that black skinned folks probably had their own version of what Jesus looked like.
“He could have been black,” I said. “But I really don’t know.”
Holy mother of God! I thought. This was exactly the kind of thing I’d wanted to avoid with this exercise and then, there I was, in the tall grass. There must have been three or four more questions, but none of them lingered in the air like that one. Did I really just say that Jesus could have been black? In Huntsville, Texas, where the white Baptists worship in a separate church from the black Baptists and the percentage of executed black inmates is 3.25 times greater than that of whites? The principal of Huntsville High School called me into his office the next day. I don’t care how old you are, when you get called to the principal’s office, that feeling you experience in your gut returns as powerfully as when you had it in second grade.
“Uh, Phil … a couple of parents have called and complained about something that happened in the journalism class …”
Luckily, the principal liked what I was doing in his school and just asked me to be more careful next time. But that wasn’t what provocateurs do, I thought to myself. I could have dressed as a high school stoner and portrayed Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and everything would have been fine. Maybe funny. But probably boring, because, to my mind, it didn’t push the envelope far enough.
It is all of a piece. It’s all connected to my life as a clown provocateur, which I now realize has also and always been the life of a teacher. I trace my provocateur lineage back through several generations: from Commedia’s Arlecchino and Shakespeare’s fool to Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx to Monty Python and Dario Fo. When the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in literature to the Italian playwright Dario Fo, they praised him as a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” Yes, that sounds about right. But I also trace my lineage through teachers like Socrates and Peter Abelard, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. I aspire to the bravery of these teachers, but have rarely, if ever, lived up to it.
There are two maxims that I tell my history students over and over again, so much so that I’m sure they now mimic me behind my back when I’m not looking. These are not adages that originated with me—I got them from my advisor, who, I know, got them from his advisor, and so on (probably). I don’t mind not being original here. Especially as a historian, I appreciate the sense of continuity. Perhaps someday, one of my students will become a professor and they’ll share these old saws with their students. The first is that no matter what narrative you hold in front of you, the truth is always more complicated than that. Historians and chroniclers, like novelists and con-men, make choices. Whether in a 50-minute lecture or a 400-page book, historians may tell you everything they know, but that does not mean they’ve said everything that can and needs to be said. The second maxim is that it’s different in the south. At first, students usually register confusion over this, then it (mostly) gets a laugh. But if you think about it long enough, no matter what place or period in history you’re talking about, you can always find variation to the south of wherever your topic might be. In a way, “it’s different in the south” is just shorthand for “even when you think you’ve figured things out, expect variation.”
Historians obsess about the past. Okay. Maybe obsess is too strong a word. We think about it, talk about it, teach about it, write about it. It’s nasty work, but somebody has to do it.
I’ll turn sixty-one this summer. I can now say, without blinking, how I did something thirty or forty years ago and I was already grown up and out of my parents’ house when I did it. I now, officially, have a past. It’s my past. And while I might reasonably care about it, why would anyone else? I’ve had an interesting life. At least that’s what other people tell me. I think it’s been interesting because I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do, and that has never been the same thing for too long. When something stopped being what I wanted to do, I stopped doing it and went and did something else. At least that’s the narrative I tell myself. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. And it’s different in the south.
Because I’ve always done what I wanted at any given point in my life, I’ve always thought that I would be immune to anything resembling a midlife crisis. I did not go to law school just because my father wanted me to, and then at 45 run away to join the circus. I started out my adult life by running away with the circus, and I have no intention of ever going to law school. This is not to say that going to law school is bad, or that running away to join the circus is all it’s cracked up to be. It’s more complicated than that. Neither did I marry the wrong woman at much too young an age only to end up regretting my choice and divorcing her many years later. I did not then follow this up by sleeping with lots of much younger women on the rebound in middle age. I started out by sleeping with lots of women, mostly older, then, realizing the limitations of this, opted to sleep with fewer and fewer. This is not to say that sleeping with lots of women is bad or good. It’s not something I say to brag, or to express shame or regret. It’s just the way life went for me, the life that I made for myself. It’s different in the south.
I have had three careers in my life and three major relationships. I’ve had a number of stupid jobs to just get by, and a number of frivolous love affairs for more or less the same reason. I am not world famous, though I have been slightly famous in my chosen fields, even to the point of being recognized by strangers on the street. I have not overcome great social or economic or physical or psychological adversity. I have not changed the world in any dramatic way, though I think I’ve changed it in small, steady, significant ways. I’ve been a circus clown and a graphic designer. I am now a professor of ancient and medieval history. I’ve also been a dog walker, a truck driver, a sandwich maker, a waiter, a house cleaner, a telemarketer, a carpenter’s apprentice, and an art mover. Who cares?
I have raised no children of my own, though that story, too, is more complicated. I have entertained, and reared, and counseled, and mentored, and loved, and now teach other people’s children. Who cares? All teachers do this, even those who have children of their own. People who have children don’t worry so much about leaving a legacy. At least that’s what I imagine. I’m not really part of that group so I may be guessing here, or just making it up. To people with children, their children are their legacy. Of course, they must worry about what kind of legacy their children will be. This legacy could range from lawyer to dentist to university sniper—the latter of which is the walking nightmare that Steve Martin has about his cinematic children in Ron Howard’s “Parenthood.” But without children of one’s own, what legacy do we leave. For business magnates this seems to be the wealth they create. For politicians it’s about the laws they pass and the policies they impose. For college presidents it’s about building new buildings on campus.
For teachers, our legacy is our students. Will they be useful? Will they be ethical? Might they be noble? Nothing brightens the day of a professor more than hearing from a former student about what they’ve done with their life, and, if you’re lucky, how you made a difference in it. As a writer, I try to avoid clichés like the plague (!), but this cliché is so packed with truth--Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir With Love, Mr. Holland’s Opus—that it cannot be avoided or denied. I have this vivid memory of watching a teacher movie (one of my many guilty pleasures) and seeing this cliché parodied, I think by Teri Garr, playing a neurotic high school teacher. “Every student has at least one teacher who makes a difference in her life,” the teacher tells a student with whom she’s trying to establish some rapport. Then, manic, she screams, “And I’m that teacher for you!”
The comedian George Carlin, famous for his critique of taboo language, performed this routine to explain context (starting at 1:05):
“They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent!
“I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad. The context that makes them good or bad.
“For instance, you take the word [the N-word]. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word [the N-word] in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about. We don’t care when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it. Why? Because we know they’re not racist. They’re [the N-word]!
“Context! Context. We don’t mind their context because we know they’re black …
“They’re only words. You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth … I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms, because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have a lot of trouble facing the truth. So, they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation.”
I feel like I need to apologize to Carlin for substituting “the N-word” for the N-word in the above transcription, which gives his routine an almost post-modern quality. To be fair, Carlin’s routine about context also has a context: the large theater where audience members have purchased expensive tickets to see a certain performer, fully aware of the kind of jokes he delivers.
Compare Carlin’s routine to an op-ed piece written for the campus newspaper by a college student:
“I hate the n-word. No, not ‘nigger.’ I hate the phrase ‘the n-word.’”
He follows this with the required preamble, that he writes this as a black man in America, but that he does not speak for all black people, etc. He then continues with his argument that “‘the n-word’ is problematic.”
“We may have claimed ‘nigga’ for our own use,” he writes, “but black people everywhere still suffer the vile word ‘nigger.’ And it is a vile word.”
In spite of its vileness, this student editorialist uses the word “nigger” no less than 13 times in his roughly 400-word column. He does not substitute “the n-word” for the word “nigger” because that would defeat his point. It would also make his piece less powerful.
“‘Nigger’ is so vile,” he continues, “that the American public decided to strike it from the list of acceptable words, only to replace it with the surrogate ‘n-word,’ as if not speaking the word out loud would be enough to move past its evils … ‘The n-word’ is still just the verbal symbol of a concept meant to make black people inferior to whites, but this one is somehow palatable to the general public.”
The student then confirms Carlin’s point about euphemisms.
“I wish people would stop saying ‘nigger’ all together. [But] I wish … that we would stop using a hollow substitute to talk about the word ‘nigger’ when it does come up.” He concludes his essay. “It’s about time to have that hard discussion about what “nigger” really means. So long as we still say ‘n-word’ instead of ‘nigger,’ I don’t think America will ever have that discussion.”
I agree. That is exactly the discussion I was hoping to have with my students before I was yanked from the classroom for reading the n-word aloud when quoting from James Baldwin’s novel, The Fire Next Time. Ironically, this student was one of those leading the campaign against my having that discussion in the classroom.
Episode 1: A story from last month’s faculty meeting
A colleague of mine, a wonderful professor who teaches Spanish at Augsburg, gave the opening words at the March faculty meeting. “Adelante!” she said. “Forward!” She then recounted stories of women fighting for human rights in Mexico and Central America. Her words were very moving to me and all who heard them. Then she said (I paraphrase):
“There’s one more thing I have to say, but I’m nervous saying it. In fact, I’m just an adjunct and I could get fired by saying this, but, Augsburg is a racist institution.”
Of course, she is right. Augsburg is a racist institution and always has been. I personally know this because I have written the sesquicentennial history of Augsburg and in four out of ten chapters of that work I attempt to expose Augsburg’s institutional racism, its anti-Semitism, its misogyny, homophobia and trans-phobia. But she is not right about one thing: she is not right that she can be fired for speaking the truth as she understands it. Academic freedom keeps that from happening. Why doesn’t she understand or believe that?
Episode 2: A story from the Faculty Senate
A colleague reported on the findings of the Equity Task Force, whose task it was to collate all the findings of various listening sessions, meetings and workshops that have been happening this semester around the topic of diversity and inclusiveness. To make sure I understood the report, I asked if I could re-cap the Task Force’s finding.
“First,” I said, “the Task Force determined which items required action, rather than just being comments or complaints disconnected from any action.”
“Second, the Task Force determined which actions should be undertaken by the faculty, as opposed to the staff or administration.
“Finally,” I said, “the Task Force determined that the faculty might educate the greater campus community on issues such as tenure, ranks of professors, etc. Did I get that right?”
“Correct,” said the Task Force chair.
Then a colleague chimed in, directing her comment to me.
“Please don’t say ‘educate,’” she said. “It’s condescending.”
Wh- What?! To use the word “educate” is condescending?! As someone who has long thought of himself as an educator, I was gobsmacked. I cannot think of appropriate commentary, so I’ll just leave you with these select lines from Augsburg’s mission statement:
"Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders … An Augsburg education is defined by excellence in the liberal arts and professional studies …"
“What is the responsibility of an educated person in a democracy?” This is the central question of one of my courses, which we begin by playing a game: The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC.
The Threshold of Democracy, or "the Athens game," as we call it, was developed at Barnard College. It is one of an ever-growing series of historical role playing games called Reacting to the Past, which have been developed over the last twenty years and which are played at more than 300 college campuses across the country.
The Athens game includes debates on a range of topics that seem eerily familiar: should Athenians allow foreigners to participate in their democracy? Should Athens increase military spending or use more funding for education and the arts. Should the Athenians build a wall to protect themselves? But the most revealing part of the game, in terms of how students revealed their attitudes, was the trial of Socrates.
Historically, the Athenian assembly levied two charges against Socrates. The first was impiety against the gods. For Socrates, the gods described in Homer and Hesiod, with their passions and pettiness, were as flawed as humans and offered no guidance for a moral life. He chose instead to listen to a voice inside his head, which we might call his conscience, but which Socrates called God. For failing to acknowledge and worship the Athenian pantheon of gods, and for replacing the pantheon with his own single god, the assembly charged Socrates with what the Greeks called asebeia, impiety. Because he was a teacher who expounded such radical ideas to his students, Socrates was also charged with the better-known crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens.” In 399 BC, jurors chosen by random lot found Socrates guilty on both charges and sentenced him to death.
We played the trial of Socrates in the penultimate game session. On the side of the defense, there were passionate arguments from Socrates’ supporters. Many of them advocated for the rights of free speech—a concept that was actually foreign to the ancient Greeks. (More on that later.) Like their counterparts in ancient 5th-century Athens, the student jury in our 21st-century classroom again found Socrates guilty. When it came time for sentencing, some of the students playing the game stuck to the views of their characters and argued for the death penalty. The character of Gorgias the Younger, a rhetorician, spoke against death, but only because he feared that Socrates might become a martyr and hence more popular and influential than before. Ultimately, the students chose to ostracize Socrates, to banish him from Athens for a period of ten years with no opportunity to return—at least not until long after they had graduated. Clearly, the historic verdict of death by hemlock offended the students’ liberal sensibilities (and rightly so). The students did show mercy, in a way, but they still chose to punish the teacher who had offended society with his words.
In the final game session, students chose to abandon democracy and elect a tyrant. One of the characters in the game had a secret mission. Throughout five weeks of the game, that student made backroom deals with other players in the game. When one faction supported education for democracy, the student claimed to support it, too. But they said the opposite to the faction that opposed education for democracy. The student supported those factions that wanted militarization, but also those who wanted to support the arts, even though the Athenian coffers could not finance both. The student flattered and made promises that could not be kept, told our 21st-century “citizens of Athens” what they wanted to hear, and in the end was elected as a tyrant, with absolute authority to make all decisions for the city-state.
None of the students in the class were old enough to vote in the 2016 election. Yet as high school students, most of them would have been torn between supporting the first female candidate for president, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the socialist idealist Bernie Sanders. Very few, if any, would have backed Donald Trump. I say this with some confidence because that’s the kind of student that Augsburg attracts: liberal, progressive, activist, sometimes radical. So why did they choose to elect a tyrant as their final act in the Athens game? This might have been ironic, just to game the game, as it were, to do something outrageous just because they could. But I think there was more going on here. I think that, having tried direct democracy, with its muddiness and conflict, its frustrating slowness and disappointment, they chose in favor of getting things done with as little friction as possible. It didn’t matter that the tyrant who promised this life likely could not deliver. Unlike 2016 America, the game was over and no one would have to wait around to find out.
The Athens game is truly a work of genius. It energizes students to take charge of their own educations and I only wish that I had been clever enough to invent it. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to link the game’s outcomes to the moral and political sensibilities of its student players. It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of the games outcomes over the last twenty years. Would students in the George W. Bush era have supported remilitarization in ancient Athens? Would students during Obama’s presidency have supported payment for civic duties so that more citizens could participate in democracy? I acknowledge that my interpretation here might be a load of crap, influenced by the events that recently happened in my classroom. I am definitely looking for answers, for an understanding of what happened. I could be wrong here, but the hypothesis is at least interesting.
I can say with some certainty that a high percentage of my students would not have voted for Donald Trump. Augsburg University began as a Lutheran seminary. It was pietistic in its faith and conservative in its values, for example, supporting prohibition of alcohol. Through the early part of the 20th century, many at Augsburg believed that movies were sinful. Social dancing was forbidden on campus until 1963. As one Augsburg professor put it, dance was “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” But the late 1960s changed the politics at Augsburg, whose students protested U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and civil rights abuses against blacks. Since then, Augsburg has moved increasingly to the left. This fact creates some tension with older more conservative alums, who are capable of making large donations to the school, but who no longer see their values reflected on the campus. For students and faculty, however, this creates an even bigger problem: living within a bubble of political thought.
Diversity at Augsburg has increased dramatically over the last ten years, with an entering class in 2018 with 45% students of color. Diversity of ideas, however, has not kept pace. We have a liberal administration, a largely liberal professoriate, and a largely liberal student body. For their part, the students don’t seem to see a problem with this. They feel more comfortable around those with similar political views. I share many of their liberal views. But living in a bubble—with no exposure to other points of view, where the few conservative students on campus are afraid to express their opinions—is dangerous. It is especially dangerous when so many of our brothers and sisters have opposing views and we are unable to speak to each other.
This is why I assigned William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.
In 1951, when Buckley was only twenty-five years old, he published this first book, which he dedicated to “God, country, and Yale, in that order.” In it, Buckley critiqued what he considered to be religious and political biases at his alma mater Yale University. He called out professors whom he felt were disparaging to religion, even in the religion department. He exposed professors he saw as promoting collectivism, discouraging individualism, and forcing students to embrace liberalism. He reviewed course reading lists for signs of indoctrination toward Keynesian secular socialism. The book received mixed reviews, but it launched Buckley into the public eye. He became an intellectual celebrity in the days when such a thing existed—think Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and yes, James Baldwin. Buckley started the National Review, an important conservative editorial magazine, and eventually hosted the public affairs show Firing Line. Some suggest that Buckley started the modern conservative movement. He was certainly its herald.
Although I disagree with almost everything in Buckley’s book, there is no denying the importance of his work, especially for understanding American conservatism. God and Man at Yale still resonates almost 70 years after its first publication. The 50th-anniversary edition has an opening essay by the conservative intellectual Austin Bramwell, an introduction to the 25th edition by Buckley, a foreword by the conservative journalist and economic historian John Chamberlain, and a preface by Buckley, all of which account for almost 60 pages. The book itself is only 180, not counting the appendices. This is all to say that the book is worthy of our attention, especially for a group of liberal honors students living in the bubble of a liberal-leaning liberal arts college like Augsburg.
To a person, every student in the course hated God and Man at Yale. The one exception was an exchange student who had grown up under a dictatorship, who said that they loved Buckley’s work. Interesting that such a student should love a book by the founder of America’s conservative movement. I have no idea what to make of that.
The students who disliked the book are close readers, and they quickly assessed many of the flaws in Buckley’s arguments. They noted his cherry-picking of evidence and at times his lack of evidence at all. As students at a Lutheran university that is welcoming to all faiths and no faith, they pointed out the hypocrisy of Buckley’s desire for Yale to return to its “true Christian” roots, by which he seemed to mean Catholic, though Yale had been founded by Protestants. Students also noted how frequently Buckley made accusations from his class lecture notes, which would be impossible to verify.
Students showed the most clarity in their critique of chapter 4 of God and Man at Yale, which is entitled “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” To begin with, they recognized that Buckley is all over the map in his attempts to define academic freedom, though he largely sees it as a tool to protect liberal professors, i.e. those identified as anti-religious and/or anti-capitalist. My students recognized the hypocrisy in Buckley’s argument against “laissez-faire education,” where all sides of an argument get an equal hearing and students get to decide the views they want to hold on their own. For Buckley, academic freedom exists only up to the point that it challenges the orthodoxy of Christianity and capitalism. The students uniformly balked at this notion. But did this mean that they saw academic freedom as absolute? If they didn’t accept Buckley’s limits on academic freedom, did they have limits of their own? Where the matter of “trigger words” is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Mid-morning on a Wednesday. I am riding the 21 down Lake Street, and the bus is only about 1/3 full—a rarity. I’m sitting in the front seats, so I can see down the length of the bus. A Muslim woman dressed in a black burqa that barely reveals her eyes and nothing else is seated in the front-facing seats on the aisle, two rows away from me. Next to her is an empty window seat.
An African-American guy, mid-thirties, boards the bus and, for whatever reason, wants to sit in the seat next to the Muslim woman. This will require her to move, either to scoot toward the window so he can sit on the aisle, or to shift her body to let him pass so that he can sit next to the window. Neither of these things happen.
The African-American guy becomes offended by what he seems to perceive as rudeness. He takes a seat right behind the Muslim woman and begins to complain at a good volume to assure that his lament is shared with his fellow riders.
“You don’t want to sit next to somebody, don’t ride the bus. People on the bus have the right to sit anywhere they want. Won’t even move over to make room for somebody else.”
He goes on for a bit, sometimes talking into the Muslim woman’s ear. Other African-American passengers take up his cause.
“Yeah, that’s just crazy,” one woman says. “It happens to me all the time.”
“You don’t want to sit next to other people,” a man chimes in, “get a damn car.”
Keep in mind that there are plenty of empty seats on the bus. Many of them do not require climbing over another passenger or asking them to let you pass. Then things escalate. The original man almost yells at the woman in the burqa.
“You dress like a terrorist on this bus, you see what you get. People in my neighborhood dress that way, we take care of business.” Other passengers echo these comments. The Muslim woman, staring intently toward the front of the bus, doesn’t respond.
The question is, what should I do?
My university-provided, intercultural awareness training, as well as decades of experience, have taught me that a white dude stepping in and telling the black dude to back off won't go well. Who do I think I am to tell him what to do? And there isn’t just one African-American passenger persecuting this woman, but three.
That same training, and my own natural inclination, tells me to stand up when someone is being bullied. That’s what I really want to do, but my confidence is low. Can I intervene without escalating the scene even further? Plus, I have to get off at the next stop or I’ll miss my appointment. I try to make eye contact with the Muslim woman, to offer a supportive glance, but she continues to stare straight ahead.
My stop. The best I can think to do is tell the driver to watch out for the Muslim woman, that other passengers are ganging up on her.
I step off the bus, feeling worried and ashamed.
“Our long national nightmare is over.” The provost has resolved Augsburg’s “N-word controversy.”
I chose Gerald Ford’s famous line, above, without hyperbole. The story of the N-word at Augsburg has indeed felt like a nightmare for me, and I imagine for others in our community.
It garnered national and international attention. A Harvard law professor criticized Augsburg in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Stories appeared in Copenhagen’s Kristelig Dagblad and in London’s Spectator.
Most of the public discourse favored academic freedom. Yet whether or not students feel included and able to participate fully in classroom discussions is also important. Not more important than academic freedom, but this need not be an either/or choice.
Feel free to oppose this idea: to see my pedagogy as wrong, to take sides, to set arguments in stark contrast rather than nuanced tones, to get angry, to protest. The only thing not allowed is to shut down debate.
The provost has resolved that Augsburg will not pursue my formal dismissal. This makes me happy. She further resolved that I should no longer serve as Honors Director. This makes me unhappy, but I resolve not to appeal her decision or to seek legal remedy against the school I love.
Not everyone will like the provost’s resolution. Some will think she went too far, others, not far enough. But she has taken action, which is what concerned students insisted that she do.
I harbor no ill will toward any member of Augsburg’s community. I hope we can all continue to discuss concepts like academic freedom. Even when we disagree, I hope such disagreement occurs with mutual love and respect.
The year 1967 seems to have been a big one for my encounters with racism. At nine years-old, my mom remarried and we moved out of my grandparents’ house and into a small, single-level ranch home on a cul-de-sac at the corner of Green Acres Street and Robin Hill Drive. It was a 12-minute walk to Colonial Hills Elementary School. The layers of meaning in that school’s name only now occur to me: Colonial Hills = colonialism = white folks. Was the school board, or whoever named the school, conscious of all those layers? No matter. In only three generations, my previously non-white Italian family had made it, happily ensconced in an upper-middle-class, white neighborhood.
San Antonio’s residents of Mexican decent have always been the majority. The latest numbers show “Hispanics” (excluding black and Asian Hispanics) at about 63% of the total population, with about 90% of that number claiming Mexican descent (the rest are Puerto Rican, Cuban, or South American). White (non-Hispanic) residents make up only 25%. In spite of being a clear numerical minority, whites live in more affluent neighborhoods and, because schools in most parts of Texas are financed by property taxes, their kids go to better schools. My family lived on the north side, and I attended Colonial Hills in the very well-funded Northeast Independent School District. I most definitely did not attend school on the south side, which was poorer and (in my mother’s mind) overrun by gangs.
The city of San Antonio grew up around the site of the Spanish mission of San Antonio de Valero. Franciscan friars named the mission for their patron, Saint Anthony of Padua, a thirteenth-century friar whom my grandfather claimed was Italian, though he was really Portuguese and only died in Padua. My grandfather was just like Michael Constantine’s character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who thought that every great person in history had been Greek, except that for my grandfather it was Italian. Saint Anthony of Padua was Italian, which you knew from the Venetian city in his name. Anthony Quinn—who was Mexican—was Italian because he had been in a Fellini movie. Alexander Graham Bell was Italian because he was played in the movie by Don Ameche, who was Italian, which, according to my grandfather is why people used to say, “I’ll call you up on the Ameche.” But Don Ameche was actually only half Italian, the other half being a combination of Scottish and German, just like me. I hope to God my grandfather was kidding about Alexander Graham Bell, but I never got to ask him.
The mission of San Antonio de Valero is also known as the Alamo, as in “Remember the—,” etc. I think I must have been ten when grandpa and my two brothers went downtown to watch the filming of a comedy called Viva Max!, which was released in 1969. It’s the story of a contemporary Mexican General who marches his men into modern-day San Antonio to retake the Alamo for Mexico. Hilarious premise! We looked all around the Alamo but we didn’t spot any film crews. Later we learned that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) had protested the film and did not want to allow it to be shot in or around the Alamo.
The DRT were descendants of those who “rendered loyal service for Texas” prior to February 19, 1846, when the Republic of Texas ceded its power to the state of Texas, now the 28th state in the Union. They were also the caretakers of the Alamo, saving it from certain decline by managing the narrative of Texans fighting to win independence from Mexico. When I was growing up in Texas, every eighth-grader was required to study Texas history, which in my case was taught by the basketball coach. The Battle of the Alamo was likened to the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which Leonidas and “the 300” defended Greece from the massive Persian army for days, but were ultimately wiped out. The DRT opposed the film because they found it to be “a mockery and a desecration of our heroes who died for our liberty there.” To my knowledge, no Chicano/Latino activists protested the film’s portrayal of Mexicans.
Lead actors Peter Ustinov and John Astin (who are not Mexican) adopted comical accents and portrayed stereotypes of bumbling Mexicans. Since the 1990s, critics have referred to this kind of casting and portrayal as “whitewashing.” In the late 1960s, the Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (MAADF) did not protest the portrayals in Viva Max, even though they were very busy at the time protesting comedian Bill Dana’s character of “José Jiménez”—a hapless Mexican who failed at every job he tried, including NASA astronaut. Dana, the descendant of Hungarian Jews, retired the character after learning that Mexicans found it offensive. Around the same time, the MAADF also protested the “Frito Bandito,” a cartoon advertising mascot based on the stereotypical Mexican bandits found in every Western: big sombrero, gold tooth and stubble, pistolas packed into his belt.
The premise was simple. The “Frito Bandito” went around robbing people of their Fritos corn chips, a snack food invented in San Antonio, as every kid growing up in the Alamo city knows. (The original recipe for Fritos was created by a Mexican-American named Gustavo Olguin, then bought for $100—stolen!?—by Charles Elmer Doolin, a gringo confectioner in San Antonio during the Great Depression who later made millions off the recipe.) The “Bandito” was voiced by Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame, with roughly the same accent he used for the cartoon mouse “Speedy Gonzales.” Following protests, Frito-Lay did clean-up the “Bandito” character, removing his gold-tooth and stubble. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the “Frito Bandito” no longer wielded a gun. Frito-Lay retired the character in 1971. Nowadays, if you happen to find “Frito Bandito” commercials posted to YouTube, they come with trigger warnings: “Politically Incorrect Ad from the 70s. This was when stereotypes were okay and children’s cartoon characters shot guns at each other.”
All of this, but no protest from people of Mexican descent about the Mexican caricatures in Viva Max! The Daughters of the Republic of Texas were outraged, but no one else seemed to be.
San Antonio’s city council allowed filming in front of the Alamo, since that was city property. But the DRT refused access inside the mission or its courtyard. Film crews constructed a fake Alamo set in nearby Bracketville, Texas, where most of the interior scenes were shot. I’m sorry to have to say this, but the movie is pretty funny. For example, Ustinov and Astin use codenames to gain entry to the mission, based on the stars of the 1960 film The Alamo.
“I’m John Wayne,” Ustinov’s character says, referencing the actor who had played Davy Crockett.
“I’m Richard Widmark,” Astin’s character replies, referencing the actor who had played Jim Bowie.
Maybe this stuff was only funny to people who had done some of their growing up in San Antonio, as was the case for Jim Lehrer. The distinguished PBS newscaster went to Jefferson High School in San Antonio, the same school my dad attended. Lehrer wrote the 1966 novel Viva Max!, upon which the film is based. Part of the comedy came from the ridiculous notion that Mexico could ever win back any of its former territory in Texas. It was the myth of the Alamo turned on its head. This wasn’t 1836! It was 1969, and it was the Mexicans who were outnumbered this time by the overwhelming power of the United States military.
It was funny, but was it racist? Was Jim Lehrer, respected PBS journalist, a racist? At one point in the movie, we learn that Max has invaded the Alamo in order to impress his girlfriend back home, who told him that “his men wouldn’t follow him into a brothel.” This makes the lead character seem pathetic rather than heroic. Where was the post-colonial rhetoric that might have linked Max to Che Guevara? There is one moment of nobility for the character. At the end of the movie, Max is shot while attempting to surrender by an armed militia of crazy Texans who think Max is leading a communist invasion. Max orders his men, who are unarmed, to attack the armed militia. His leadership has finally inspired them. Max’s men attack and the militia flees. Max uses the age-old military tactic of “advancing in retrograde,” as opposed to retreat. He mounts his white horse one last time and rides out of the Alamo and downtown San Antonio to the cheers of his soldiers, “Viva Max!”
It’s a cute movie. Maybe. I spend so much time on it here because it had such a huge impact on my understanding of Mexican-Americans and their culture—as did “José Jiménez” and the “Frito Bandito.” Even though I was surrounded by it, most of my knowledge of Mexican-Americans and their culture came from television and the movies.
The worst thing you could call someone when I was a kid growing up in my mostly white suburb, was a “Mexican.” This seems like an odd racial slur. Why not say “wetback” or “spic” or “greaser”? That’s because my mother taught us that those were bad words. That last one, “greaser,” was also used to describe Italian Americans in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe that’s what tipped mom off to the others. Either way, she would have washed our mouths out with soap if my brothers or I had used any one of them. “Mexican” was just the name of someone from Mexico. Completely innocent, right? But to us, “Mexican” meant lazy, stupid, illegal, possibly criminal. It was the perfect term to hide our elementary-school racism.
“You’re just a Mexican!” I would yell at my brother.
“I am not!” he would yell back. “Mom, Phil called me a Mexican!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother would say. “You’re Italian.”
Man, was she tone deaf. And man, were we racist, in the way that only stupid, mean nine-year-old boys can be. To this day, I still have trouble using the word Mexican. I am able to say “For lunch, I had Mexican food,” without batting an eye. But if I call a person a Mexican, even if they come from Mexico, it brings up the horrible intent with which I used that word as a kid.
In his 1984 essay for Essence magazine, “On Being White ... and Other Lies,” Baldwin discussed how whiteness is constructed. Whites became white, James Baldwin argued, “By informing their children, that black women, black men and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.” A great example of this comes from Carl Zimring’s book, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in America. Zimring relates the story of a Slovakian woman, recently immigrated to Connecticut, speaking to a researcher in the 1930s.
“I always tell my children not to play with the nigger people’s children,” she said. “But they always play with them just the same … This place now is all spoiled, and all the people live like pigs because the niggers they come and live here with the decent white people and they want to raise up their children with our children.”
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I had similar experiences, though these only came into my consciousness as racist much later. At the age of about four, my biological father skipped town never to be heard from again. We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was about nine. Among my most vivid memories from that period was the annual Fourth-of-July trip I took with my grandparents and my two younger brothers from San Antonio to Kansas City, for a reunion with my grandfather’s large, extended family. Grandpa was the youngest of ten siblings, great uncles who pinched my cheek and great aunts who buried me with hugs in their large-bosoms. There were dozens of aunts and uncles, my mother’s cousins (though mom never came on these trips), and somewhere short of a thousand cousins of my own, all with good Catholic names like Michael and Anthony and Margaret Mary and Josephine. All the clichés of large Italian families were there for the taking. The women were constantly cooking, except for the barbeque, which the men tended to. Because I was named for my grandfather, I was called “little Phil,” a name still assigned to me in some circles.
In 1967, when I was nine years old, the men at this annual gathering were headed to the liquor store to get more beer and pop. I must have had some really pathetic look on my face because one of my great uncles asked if they should take me along.
“Little Phil?” another great uncle said. “Sure, why not?”
We piled into somebody’s station wagon and headed for the North Side, Columbus Park, the Little Italy of Kansas City. In those days, Columbus Park had a long history with the mafia. The crime boss Nick Civella was born there in 1912, the same year as my grandfather. In 1969, a Senate committee identified Civella as the leader of the Kansas City mafia, though Civella denied the existence of organized crime, stating coolly in a 1970 interview, “I’m not a joiner. I’m not even a member of the Knights of Columbus.” Civella was buried with full Catholic rites in 1983 in Columbus Park’s Holy Rosary Church. This was the neighborhood where my grandfather and great uncles went to buy beer and pop.
We went into a liquor store where the men greeted each other with hugs and handshakes. They talked about all sorts of things, without, as far as I remember, ever getting around to ordering the beer and pop. I was left to wander around the store. Peeking behind the counter, I discovered a two-way mirror, something I’d never seen before. I went back and forth, poking my head into the store room and looking through the mirror at my grandfather and great uncles, then back out to the store, where I only saw my own reflection.
“What is this?” I asked. “Why do you have this?”
“That’s so nobody robs the store,” the man behind the counter said.
“Has anyone ever robbed the store?” I asked.
The men rolled their eyes and winked at each other, in gestures meant to acknowledge my naiveté.
“They tried,” the store owner finally said, smiling at me. Then to the men, he said, “Couple o’ Black Panthers.” Everybody laughed.
“What happened to them?” I asked. At that point my grandfather hurried me out of the store and back into the car. “But what happened?” I asked again. “What’s a Black Panther?” No answer. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand the meaning of their silence. Two black guys had tried to rob a store in a protected neighborhood and they got “taken care of.” Maybe they were Black Panthers and maybe they weren’t. I’m guessing to the bent-nosed Italians in that liquor store, and probably to my great uncles, all black folks were Black Panthers, or they might as well have been. Hey, the Italians were only protecting their own, they must have thought, and those two [N-word] got what was coming to them, etc. None of this was in my consciousness at nine years old. I did not heroically stand up to my elders and declare that “black lives matter.” I didn’t do anything but stupidly take it in. It’s remarkable to me that this episode from my nine-year-old life sticks out. I now understand it as one of my first experiences of how my people dealt with issues of race.
Less than a year after the encounter with the two-way mirror, in April 1968, there were race riots in Kansas City. Police fired tear gas on student protesters on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. The protest turned into a riot that included looting, vandalism, and arson. So many fire alarms went off that the Kansas City Fire Department couldn’t keep up. Joel Rhodes, a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University, wrote his dissertation on the riots.
“When you look at the looting and the arson and the vandalism,” Rhodes said, “people had specific reasons for why they targeted some businesses and why they didn’t hit other businesses.” I have no idea if that liquor store in Columbus Park was hit. By the time the riots ended, property damage was in the millions, over 100 people were arrested, and five black men and one black teenager had been killed at the hands of police.
We did not travel to Kansas City that summer for the family reunion.