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.