At twelve, I caught the magic bug, as many a twelve-year old boy does. I studied with a man named John Novak, an internationally known magician and escape artist. Novak invented new tricks and illusions, had written 25 books on magic, and served as a consultant to David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy, and other big-name magicians of that era. Earlier in his life, he had served as a translator in the Army and later the Air Force, first during the Korean War and later during three tours in Vietnam. He spoke Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, and French. It was with John Novak that my love of languages was born. He owned a magic store where I worked, demonstrating tricks and spending every penny I earned on more props from that same magic store. I accompanied Novak to his shows and helped him set up. I didn’t get paid for this, but I didn’t care. He was my “master,” and I was his apprentice, at least in my young mind. I was a fast and eager learner. I soaked up sleight of hand techniques and practiced constantly. It was a lot of work, but the dopamine rush that I got when I eventually began performing was better than getting all the flash cards right. Suddenly, with John Novak as my teacher, the world was opening up for me.
My parents were not keen on what they must have seen as a strange, symbiotic relationship. They probably felt that Novak was using me for what turned out to be free labor. But the approval I got from my master, was worth any disapproval that might come from my parents. My mother, especially, was so full of disapproval that I hardly noticed any difference. You can imagine how proud they were when I announced that I was switching from magic and had decided to be a clown.
“John Novak says I can get more gigs as a clown,” I said. “And he sold me this clown costume and a make-up kit and a book on how to juggle.”
Imagine a cartoon hole in the shape of my dad in the roof he’d just gone through.
“I’m going to be a clown. John Novak says I can get more gigs.”
“If John Novak said you could get more gigs in a bearsuit, would you get a bearsuit?”
Part of me wanted to say yes, but my training as a provocateur was not yet complete. All I managed to say was that I’d paid for this stuff with my own money, which I had earned, not from them, and it ought to be my choice. I performed as a clown all through high school, at children’s birthday parties and as a busker on San Antonio’s River Walk. My parents hoped this was just a phase, but I kept at it. The more I performed, the better I got and the more I loved it. I made more money as a clown than any of my high school friends did as lifeguards or grocery clerks. I loved making people laugh and I loved the freedom I had to make fun of things, even things that one shouldn’t normally make fun of. I didn’t yet know the word, but I had discovered my vocation.
Neither of my parents had gone to college. As the oldest son who made excellent grades, they had big plans for me. But I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to be a clown.
“You can be a clown if you find a school where you can study that,” my dad said. I’m sure he must have thought that such a school did not exist. At eighteen, I was accepted into Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, an eight-week training program that also served as an audition into the circus. I passed, joined the circus in 1977, and toured for a year. This was where my understanding of diversity really blossomed.
The red unit of the RBB&B circus had roughly 300 people, a herd of about 18 elephants, various tigers and other big cats, dogs, chimps, and a donkey named Peggy. The diversity of the animals was impressive, but that didn’t interest me as much as the diversity of the people. There were families of Mexican trapeze fliers, Columbian high wire walkers, Polish trampoline artists, Bulgarian teeter-board acrobats, German tiger trainers, a British couple with a comedy dog act, a Hungarian clown, and a Dutch couple with trained chimpanzees. Dozens of languages were spoken, and most people knew more than just their own. An amazing man name Ben Said kept his trunk in clown alley, the clowns’ dressing room. He was the whip-master for the famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. This sounds like a fairly kinky job, but it really just meant that he took care of the whips and harnesses and any other leather contraptions associated with training the animals. Ben was born in Egypt and had spent his whole life in the circus. He must have been in his sixties when I knew him. He had no formal schooling beyond the third grade, but by the time I knew him he had traveled the world and spoke two dozen languages fluently. I was more enthralled with Ben Said than I was with any of the performers!
Ben embodied the cosmopolitan nature of the circus—it was indeed a “world city.” He never talked about racism or inclusivity or diversity. He just lived it, as did everyone else on the show. People had conflicts, but that was just because people could sometimes be assholes. Everyone respected each other for who they were. People worked hard and worked together. There were jokes based on ethnic humor, but nobody took it seriously. Nobody got their feelings hurt. Nobody had time for that because people were literally risking their lives every day, twice a day, and three times on Saturday. I can’t imagine anyone who lived that life ever saying, “Your words were a physical assault.” Please.
Given the events of the past year, most of my detractors would say "don't even try," while most of my fans would say "why step in front of that moving train?"
But the piece I'm working on requires a Black medievalist to lead the action. I've benefited greatly from an amazing site called Writing with Color, that gives great advice for avoiding some of the most obvious tropes and stereotypes. That said, I'm posting this excerpt, very early in the process, to see if it rings true. I invite readers from all backgrounds to comment honestly (and I hope constructively) to tell me how it reads.
The piece opens with a grad student in a library study carrel. She's just figuring out that she is in the wrong carrel, and doesn't yet realize that she'll be sharing the space with another grad student.
Excerpt from The Medievalist (work in progress)
I knew some of the books from my days hanging out with the SCA and the Texas Renaissance Festival and some I’d read as an undergrad: Maggie Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, Emilie Amt’sWomen’s Lives in Medieval Europe, and Life in a Medieval Village, by Joseph and Frances Gies. There were a few books by Kantorowicz: Crips, Bloods, and Crusaders: Medieval Pre-cursors to Modern Gang Signs. Next to that, The King’s Too Bawdy: Urban Graffiti as Medieval Marginalia, the whole reason I’d come to Yale. Here was another by Kantorowicz that I didn’t know, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Weirdly similar title.
There followed a row of books on a similar theme. Lynn Ramey’s Black Legacies: Race and the European Middle Ages, Cord Whitaker’s Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking, Matthew Vernon’s The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages, and Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. One particularly handsome volume caught my eye, not the least because of its lengthy title: The Image of theBlack in Western Art, Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood,2nd Edition, edited byDavid Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Professor Gates was at Harvard and hosted that “Finding Your Roots” show on PBS. The cover of The Image of theBlack in Western Art had a beautiful cover showing a sculpture of a medieval knight. The knight wears a hooded hauberk of chain maille, over which he sports a surcoat that still shows the original colorful paint across the belt. Most surprising, to me at least, is the face that peers out of the hood. It has a broad nose and full lips and is painted black. I noticed a flyer taped to the wall next to me that has the same image of the black knight. It advertised a grad student “mini-conference” that apparently happened last year called “Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” As I read the flyer, I saw out of the corner of my eye, a face similar to the knight’s peeping into the window of the carrel.
The face outside the door backed away until I could see an entire body with tattooed arms and hands held in the air. One of the tattoos looked like the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral. The other arm also had a labyrinth, but in the Minoan style—the minotaur next to it was a dead giveaway. I was still shaken by his sudden appearance but, somehow, having these images to focus on helped me calm down. My inked-up peeper moved back further and leaned against the edge of a table. I opened the door slowly. He spoke first.
“You’re with Kantorowicz?”
“So am I,” he said. He pulled a chair out and sat down, closer to the carrel, but not too close. “This has happened before,” he continued. “In fact, when I first arrived and was given a key to this carrel, there was another grad student in it. It’s a faculty carrel, but the man doesn’t use it, so he portions its use like a benefice to his doctoral students. I’ve actually had the space to myself for the last two years, but I’m not surprised somebody new has shown up.”
“It is a faculty carrel,” I said, picturing “Use of carrels,” item 5, vividly before my eyes. “Isn’t that illegal or against the rules or something?”
“Oh, it certainly is. But Kantorowicz winks at the librarians and they look the other way.”
I looked down at his right arm.
“Chartres?” I said.
“Yes.” He smiled and stretched out his hand to introduce himself.
“Quigley,” he said. “Dante Quigley.”
“Isaacson,” I said, taking his hand, at first shyly, then more confidently as I remembered dad teaching me to shake hands “like a professional.” I looked Quigley in the eye and shook his hand with a firm grip.
“So how does this work with the two of us both ‘assigned’ to the same carrel?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “If you want to use the space, I can make room for you on the bottom shelf. We can figure out a schedule, if you think you’ll be here a lot.”
I nodded, then looked back at the shelving and all the books I’d been examining before my humiliating scare.
“These are your books?” I asked.
“Then you’re a medievalist, too?”
“But you’re …” I stopped myself before I said it. It was a ridiculous, horrible, stupid thing to think and I almost said it out loud. Yet there were those ellipses, hanging in the air like cartoon cannon balls that would soon drop on my head. I searched for a different word to fill in the blank. “You’re …”
“American?” he said. “Yes, I know. Exactly. So many people think that only Brits or Europeans can have any insight into medieval history. The same way they think that only Blacks can study Black history, or only Jews can study the Holocaust.”
“Yes,” I said, grateful, but quietly embarrassed.
White people are so …
Condescending, ignorant, arrogant, fragile, capricious, privileged, controlling, fascinating, adorable, fearful, uninformed, ill-informed, misinformed, hateful, dangerous.
Yes. I could’ve knocked on the door and stood back, offering a gentler, less threatening first encounter. But she was in my space, or at least I’ve thought of it as my space since what’s-his-name left. I submit that any normal person who walked up and saw a light inside their carrel where there shouldn’t be a light would justifiably peek in the window to see what the fuck was going on. And suddenly I’m Henry Louis Gates trying to explain to the Cambridge cops that I’m breaking into my own house because I’ve locked myself out.
Screams! She screams?!
And I back up, offering my best Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Hands up—Don’t shoot! Because mama trained me from the moment of my birth to code-switch into the least aggressive posture my melanized body could muster, lest I put my life at risk, though from the moment of my birth it was already too late.
Was it just that I caught her off guard? Or was it my black face catching her off guard? Hard to say, in and of itself. But her follow-up reveals all.
“You’re a medievalist? But you’re black!”
No. She said, “You’re a medievalist, too.” She’s just starting with Kantorowicz. His newest little rabbit.
Okay, little rabbit. You just got here and you don’t know a thing about POC in the Middle Ages. Hell, outside of Kantorowicz, most of the older generation don’t know anything either. Cut her some slack, Quigley. She’s probably never been exposed to anything but the all-white “real Middle Ages.” Probably started her medieval fandom as a festie or a rennie, driving every summer weekend to some “Ye Olde Ahistorical Faire,” wearing a laced bodice and playing the part of the wench.
On the other hand, she did recognize the Chartres labyrinth in my ink. She must have some knowledge beyond bad Robin Hood movies. Does she know anything beyond the image? That the Chartres labyrinth signifies a penitential journey to Jerusalem, the return to God? Does she know the difference between the Chartres labyrinth and the Minoan labyrinth? The former, a continuous path on which you cannot get lost, but can only travel deeper into the self. The latter, a path intended to disorient, to deceive, to contain the minotaur—shameful halfling aberration, product of an illicit union—until Theseus can kill it. One labyrinth to contain the “darkness” in men’s souls, the other to set the soul free.
Was she getting all of that, any of that, from looking at my ink? Or did she remain on the surface, marveling perhaps at “how vivid and vibrant the colors seem against my tawny skin”?
A tawny-skinned minotaur am I, born of a white father and a black mother, brought together in true love in the age of Third Wave Feminism—thanks, Anita Hill. Dad, a historian at Princeton, advocating a theory of “inclusive diversity as a core value of Western Civilization, in contrast to Plato’s dualism.” That’s how he talked at the dinner table and he expected me to keep up. He was way ahead of his time and the bright star of his career might have continued to rise if he hadn’t gotten side-tracked by conspiracy theories of secret societies. Ironic, for me at least, was his obsession over a group called the “Round Table,” allegedly founded by Cecil Rhodes for economic and political control of the whole world--orbis non sufficitand all that. And mama, a leading voice among the Black feminists of the 90s, matching dad’s inclusive diversity theory with her own theory of intersectionality: the notion that women’s oppression occurs on many levels at once, not just gender, but also race, class, etc. Her own star rose steadily if not quickly. She might have achieved greatness had dad not ended up in the looney bin. Conspiracy theories will do that to you. Mama’s career, hijacked by a severe case of single motherhood.
That’s me then: an ABD Minotaur trapped in the labyrinth of Yale’s graduate program in history; a PhD candidate with father issues, working with an adviser who has father issues of his own.
“Why the Middle Ages?” dad asked practically every time I visited him at Greystone Park. Mama was less blunt, but I could tell that she, like him, hoped that I’d do something more relevant, something that’d have an impact on the world. Both of them are long dead but their disappointment still follows me, which I suppose is less aggravating than the expectations that precede me. The expectation that a Black man must come from an impoverished background or from uneducated parents. The expectation that a Black man in grad school must be studying law or medicine or business because that’s how he can really help “his people.” The expectation that a Black man can’t be a medievalist.
Well, fuck you, little rabbit. You’ve brought your own expectations to this first encounter and I saved you from the embarrassment of a racist utterance. That one’s on the house. But we’re done. I’ll share this space with you ‘cause that’s how it goes, but I won’t be the magical Negro or sassy Black best friend in your grad school romcom action adventure movie. You’re on your own there. I’m here to subvert the dominant paradigm, to fight stereotypes with my scholarship and with every ounce of my being, not to play a game invented by White people.
And if a Black medievalist disrupts your worldview, what of it?
"On the ninth day there came riding towards them a knight on a goodly steed, and well-armed withal. He was all black: his head was black as pitch, black as burnt brands, his body, and his hands were all black, saving only his teeth. His shield and his armour were even those of a Moor, and black as a raven. But in all that men would praise in a knight was he fair, after his kind. Though he were black, what of it?"
As Sir Morien shows us, there were Black folks in the Middle Ages, and not just a few.
What of it?
Dear blog readers,
Yesterday, President Paul Pribbenow sent the official notice announcing my retirement from Augsburg University. Before he did so, I sent this note to select colleagues, and now to you.
"My decision to retire from Augsburg was not made lightly, but it was made freely and by me alone. I look forward to focusing on my writing and research and see many exciting and fun opportunities ahead. I taught at Augsburg for almost two decades. Many of my fondest memories and deepest friendships formed there. I’ll miss all of you, but only in the sense of not seeing you with regularity on campus. I hope to see you elsewhere, and often."
Big changes. Time to update this writer's platform. Thanks for your patience while we undergo some construction.
Next blog entry: what will I do now?
I lived in Kreuzberg, a poorer neighborhood of West Berlin that was a haven to artists. Kreuzberg was also full of Turkish Gastarbeiter, guest workers who had helped rebuild Germany after World War II but then “outstayed their welcome” by having children who became citizens under Germany’s birthright citizenship laws. This conflict was as old as the metics of ancient Athens and as fresh as the “dreamers” and DACA students of the 21st-century United States. Many more lessons on racism in those days, but I resisted it rather than passively letting it seep into my brain.
I had a German girlfriend and we regularly visited her parents on their farm in the village of Kisdorf in the Schleswig-Holstein region of West Germany. On one visit, in 1978, the nine-and-a-half-hour, American mini-series Holocaust aired on the WDR network over the course of four evenings. Panel discussion with historians and other experts followed each evening’s episodes. My girlfriend’s siblings and their partners and I all wanted to watch. Her parents, who had both lived through the war, had very different responses. O—, the mother, ran from the room, almost crying, insisting that these constant reminders of the Holocaust were unfair. After all, she had not been involved and didn’t she know some Jewish people and hadn’t she been perfectly nice to them while they were still around. B—, the father, said that he would watch with us. Hmm. B— was an uneducated farmer and one of the kindest people you could ever meet, but in his youth he had bought into the Nazi propaganda, enlisted in the Wehrmacht, and only escaped death on the Russian Front—according to family legend—by missing his troop transport train and, not knowing what else to do, walking back to the farm. B—’s viewing of Holocaust was somewhat comical. The program aired late at night, and after 9pm, the 68-year-old dosed in and out. He seemed to waken whenever anyone in the show said something about “the greatness of Germany,” then resumed his snoring whenever the Jews were being boarded onto trains for the death camps.
In “Fear of the Past? Notes on the Reaction to Holocaust,” the historian Julius H. Schoeps described similar responses in households across Germany. WDR had set up phone banks to take viewers’ calls during the broadcast. Some callers expressed latent anti-Semitism, making claims that the program had been financed by Jews, or was broadcast as a way to disparage the German people. A few callers were more overt, denying the Holocaust or claiming that the Jews were to blame for it. But as the mini-series progressed, as Germans of the post-war generation kept watching, most of the calls expressed sadness, consternation, shame, and guilt. “How could it have come to that?” viewers asked again and again. According to Schoeps:
"After four evenings … after roughly 10,000 incoming telephone calls … something was set in motion … More than just a few became aware for the first time that they had repressed the murder of the Jews that was committed in the name of the German people and had previously avoided dealing with the past. Did the Hollywood film “Holocaust” signal a turning point in these attitudes? Only the future will tell."
In 2000, the German television station ZDF produced a documentary called Holokaust, amid a fresh surge in anti-Semitic and racist hate crimes.
Subtle racist indoctrination was everywhere. Not just television and the movies. It was also being transmitted in school.
Colonial Hills Elementary, fourth grade class of Mrs. D—. Before interactive educational computer programs, pedagogy ran on flash cards. Mrs. D— had flash cards for everything. One set had silhouettes of all the states in the Union. Another had all the countries in the world. See the shape, guess the right country, and get a shot of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain. Capital cities and major crops and industries were listed on the back of these cards for extra points. I was a master of any and all flash cards. Without realizing it, I was also a slave to the rewards (approval, love) that their correct answers promised. Mmmm, dopamine.
In the pre-Powerpoint era, flashcards also served as presentational tools. One day, Mrs. D— was presenting cards that showed “families of the world.” There was a photo of a Japanese family in which everyone wore a kimono. A family from an unspecified country in Africa wore dashiki. A generic Arab family had the men in burnous with the women in hijab. Everything was going well until she got to a card depicting a white family. The father in the family wore a grey suit with straight lines. The mother wore a pleated skirt with petticoats. The daughter dressed like the mother, but the son wore dungarees and a striped shirt that let you know he was made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” As she flipped through the flash cards, Mrs. D— provided minimal commentary.
“This is a Japanese family,” she said.
“This is an African family.”
“This is an Arab family.”
“And this is a normal family.” You could almost hear the brakes in her mind screeching to a halt. “Oh, no,” she corrected herself. “I mean, this is an American family.”
There is something beautiful about the way my fourth-grade teacher caught herself in her own normative bias, recognized the problem, and attempted to redirect the attention of her young charges. All of the families were “normal,” she must have realized, and she didn’t want to give her students the idea that American families are more normal than others. What was the point of having “families of the world” flash cards if not to teach intercultural understanding and diversity? Of course, I don’t recall Mrs. D— using those phrases. The fact that she caught and corrected herself is likely the only reason that I remember this episode, but the memory is so vivid that I can smell the mimeographed worksheets and waxy crayons in the room; I can feel the cool linoleum floor where we sat on cushions watching the “families of the world” flash by. I’m sure I must have been wearing dungarees and a striped shirt as I watched. My family had been “normal” for a split second, then we became American.
This ridiculous set of flash cards is so rife with racism that it’s almost impossible to figure out what to unpack first. The depiction of families in “native costumes” is a good beginning. Were we meant to believe that everyone in Japan only wore kimonos? The costumes were bright and exotic and grabbed our attention, but where was the harm in showing Japanese businessmen wearing grey suits with straight lines as they rode the high-speed rail to work? Or the school uniforms that Japanese children wore? Or what the children wore when they weren’t at school? This wasn’t feudal Japan in the age of the samurai for God’s sake! This was 1967, when many Japanese people shared the Western fashion choices of Americans. That idea is problematic, too, but at least it represented contemporary culture. And an “African family”? Not a family from Benin or Zimbabwe or Tunisia? Did the creators of “families of the world” flash cards believe that nine-year-olds were so unsophisticated that they couldn’t grasp different people from different countries? Benin is a country that is shaped like Vermont. Zimbabwe is shaped like Ohio. Tunisia is shaped like New Jersey. And Africa, which is a continent and not a country, is shaped like … well, Africa! I learned to distinguish all of this from the flash cards produced by the same company that made “families of the world.” If I could differentiate all of those countries and states, why didn’t they trust me with more nuanced depictions of people!?
The most infuriating piece was that Americans were depicted as white and upper middle class. The family on that flash card came right out of central casting for every TV sitcom of the 1950s. I didn’t know anything about Japan or Africa, but even I knew that there were all kinds of ways that an American family might look. The racist subtext of these flash cards seeped into my brain. But, thanks to my teacher’s slip-up, I also started to carry the tiniest nugget of discomfort about what the school was feeding me. I began to “question the dominant paradigm,” as I would later say in grad school. I was on my way to ... something.
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.