the twit

    11.16.2009

    letter to a amherst grad, nervously considering the teacher corps

    my graduation speech to an audience of one. for ameerah.

    it seems that this has been your existential crisis for months now. which is understandable, and in a long tradition of anxious/brilliant amherst grads who look towards the wilderness with unease.

    all i can say is what i've said before: you're going to figure it out. it's less about the right decision (in your case, "knowing what to do"), than in decisions you can live with.

    in regards to the teacher corps, the question is whether you can live with committing yourself for two years to the daily grind of improving the lives of mississippi children, and whether you're willing to commit yourself in full knowledge that (a) you don't know exactly what that daily grind entails, (b) and that all accounts of that daily grind are riddled with exhaustion, suffering, and failure (and rightfully so).

    however, there are many upsides to this commitment, some of which you must come to terms with as being selfish, not the least of which is that it allows you to put off the "i don't know what to do [with my life]" dilemma for two years, during which time you're going to flesh out a lot of those unexamined contours of yourself that someone don't get taken care of in a world of valentine, frost, and jchap--and somehow do get taken care of in a world of incompetent administrators, dehumanized youth, and lesson plans. that was, at least, my experience. and i'm well aware that it's not universal: that many teacher corps folks don't have the experience that i had, and that you can certainly develop and grow as an individual in ways that don't involve teaching people how to graph lines.

    also, let's return to the anxious/brilliant amherst grad dilemma. you probably have other options after leaving amherst (or, if you don't right now, you will): academic, professional, personal, whatever. and this is perhaps the most troubling part of the situation: people have an almost endless capacity to craft narratives to explain themselves and/or their odd journey. which means that, regardless of the decision you make, it is always within your means to re-contextualize the decision, to re-write the context and to re-write the decision. furthermore, given that you're going to be in some sort of self-definition crisis for at least the next 10 years, the context, the decision, and the relationship between the two are all going to stay in flux until somewhere down the line where it seems we all get struck with a kind of amnesia that leaves us with silly things like college being the most formative time in our lives, with otherwise arbitrary decisions being "meant to be," and a strange fascination with raising children (who will themselves become anxious/brilliant grads themselves in shock with the sheer breadth of adult possibility). in short, it doesn't matter which path you take, because even though they both are equally uncertain right now, someday you'll be saying with a sigh that you took the one less traveled, and are better for it.

    so, all of this is to say that this "next step" decision both means a lot, and that it doesn't really matter what you chose. make a decision you can live with, do you damn best to live with that decision, and don't be afraid to change course if things are actually unbearable (but certainly don't change course at first sadness, and for god's sake do not leave a classroom of mississippi children without a teacher). this is also to say that i know that most of what i'm telling you if rightfully meaningless, and has been the last three or for times i said it. which isn't to say it isn't valuable (i hope that it is), but it's a value almost without meaning. because the meaning isn't made yet, which is of course exactly the problem; and i must say that for me it's hardly made just five years removed from my own version of your anxiety. this wilderness has been bizarre, though i'm glad to have my stubbornness chipped away at by way of it: so that i'm starting to get a sense of how young i am, how little i know, and how much i need to listen, and to be patient. along the way, i've been able to teach some math, to help some young people engage in inquiry/dialogue focused on critical citizenship, to support local struggles for reconciliation and renewal, to fall deeply in love with a place (and its many places, often in conflict), and to live alone. i'm glad that i've done these things, both proud and humbled by many of them, and while i'd do it all over again i'm not going to harbor the pretension that these dots were all meant to be connected, and in this order, and at this time.

    this has, of course, become a long letter, and i imagine unexpected in response to your message of seven words. but they are massive words, and they are universal (except the dave part, of course): "I dunno what to do Dave...eek!!!!!!!" so, in responding to them, i seem to have wandered down a rabbit hole of my own struggle with things massive and universal. i hope that's ok; i have my own next-step looming (the search for the big phd in the sky), and my own "I dunno what to do Ameerah...eek!!!" it's different this time, and i'm glad for that, but also sobering to be reminded that i'm so thinly removed from that anxiety of graduating from amherst, and that while i've begun to come to terms with the wilderness and the as-yet-meaninglessness, the accompanying pain is not wholly rescinded, nor the fears resolved. so, i don't know what to tell you. i don't know what to do either; my most productive recourse has been to let go of the knowing and the meaning, at least on the front end. (i'm sure i've abandoned my avoidance of the trite much earlier, but this will certainly kill it:) rather, i'm much more concerned with the "doing" part of that anxiety. i've gotten to a point where i just let the "knowing" and "meaning" piece pass some sort of sufficiency threshold, where i know enough about a particular course of action and enough of its potential meanings fit in well with whatever hodgepodge of values they interact with, and i just start to pick away at the doing part. because, and i've learned this lesson well as a teacher and at the winter institute: most of the stuff we start isn't going to take hold, both in ourselves and in others, and the real returns are so poor on meaningful action that it's not worth my while to wait until everything makes perfect next-step sense to start investing. this is a major divergence from the relatively healthier returns of being an undergrad and investing in meaningful action about undergrad things (most of which get a nicely concrete beginning-middle-end arc at the outset, and culminate in an everyone's-a-winner degree at the end). rather, it's imperative that i keep moving, and in many directions at once, and with a long view towards the big threshold, when meaning starts to collect and leans towards a kind of knowing--that what is happening is a good thing. and, as long as i'm growing and shifting and looking for meaning, it doesn't really matter what i'm doing, so long as i can live with the doing and that i can learn from it.

    you are, of course, in a different position. it's all happening at once, and it's all happening on the front end. you're trying to make a decision that would involve something you've never done, and because of that there's no way of knowing whether it's a good thing (and, regardless, it seems to be a painful thing). and even if it is something you've done a little of before, the scale and context of it all is a massive departure from extracurriculars and summer internships. i know for sure that there's no amount of writing that will ease this anxiety. but, i can tell you that it's up to you to turn it into a productive anxiety, to make a decision you can live with, and to live with it. whether you come teach public school in mississippi or not, you're going to be fine. you're going to good things. i think that if you weren't going to do good things, then you wouldn't be so anxious. and, even after you make your big-next-step decision, you're going to continue be anxious, and you're going to still have to turn it into a productive anxiety. it is the fire in the wilderness that lets us see ("terras irradient," anyone?), but is fire nonetheless. tend to it: don't let it consume you, don't let it die out. it is often all that we have.

    so that's all i've got. 1500 words and all i can tell you is that there isn't a knowing what to do, if there were it isn't worth your time to wait for the knowing and the meaning before the doing, and that the anxiety that you feel is sometimes the only thing that proves you still exist, and through which you can do good things so long as you don't explode or fizzle out (which you probably won't). and, so long as you can hold on to this anxiety about the knowing and the meaning while in the wandering, it doesn't really matter what you're doing, because you're going to do good things. and it's going to be ok. so just let yourself commit to something, finish your damn degree, and welcome to the wilderness.

    10.22.2009

    book review: “The Education of Mr. Mayfield”

    recently wrote a book review for the jackson free press. a surprisingly rewarding experience--the act of reading, analyzing, processing. hope to do it again soon.

    At first glance, David Magee's “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” (John F. Blair, 2009, $19.95) gives the impression of a Good Will Hunting knock-off set in the rural South. Race replaces class, Ole Miss replaces Harvard, "Dixie" replaces Elliot Smith, and somewhere down the line we've got an O Brother, Where Art Thou? for Grove-tented book clubs. However, Magee's M.B. Mayfield comes across with little of the psychological complexity or mere depth of character of his South Boston analogue, Will Hunting, though it’s unclear as to whether this is a reflection of Mr. Mayfield, the person (which I doubt), or a consequence of Magee's treatment of what seems to be an otherwise compelling story. Though Mayfield often finds himself at the schizophrenic intersection of black working class and white high society, in the text he is only barely self-aware of the conflicted and ambivalent reward of significant talent amidst the inertia of caste. Rather, Magee keeps him on the naïve side of aloof for most of the book—an “unassuming” and “almost apologetic” figure on a strange journey of history, race, and class.

    To best approach “The Education of Mr. Mayfield”, a reader must jettison the notion that M. B. Mayfield---a reclusive, mostly self-taught artist from Ecru, Miss.---is the protagonist of this book bearing his name, or even that Stuart Purser--then chairman of the Ole Miss Art Department and Mayfield's unlikely teacher and patron---shares the spotlight. Rather, over the course of the book a reader must watch Magee abandon the story of these two men in the interest of exploring the book's real main characters: an idyllic Oxford and (always by extension) its symbiotic foil, the University of Mississippi.

    Though in the Ole Miss of his childhood "anything colored in red and blue glistened on even the darkest days," Magee abandoned Oxford in his adult years, "frustrated by the university's obvious historical flaws." Recently discovering Mayfield and Purser's barrier-crossing, history bending story, it seems that Magee has found in researching and writing this book his pathway to reconciling with his "small, picturesque hometown."

    As a heavy-handed parable of the Jim Crow South, the narrative arc in “The Education of Mr. Mayfield” begins reasonably enough. Purser and Mayfield grow up in not-dissimilar settings; Purser on the white side of a Klan-dominated Louisiana mill town and Mayfield on the black side of a poverty-stricken hamlet in Mississippi Hill Country. In adulthood, both men gravitate toward art as a means of escaping their situation---for Purser, out towards college, the Art Institute of Chicago, FDR’s Work Projects Administration, and finally a plateau of fledgling Art Departments in the South waiting to be created or chaired; for Mayfield, in and away from a troubling admixture of social anxiety, physical toil and lingering poverty.

    Mayfield and Purser finally cross paths while Purser is on a search for inspiration in the "less traveled roads of rural North Mississippi," and runs across a house adorned with a prominent bottle tree and large busts of Joe Louis and George Washington Carver. The house, of course, is Mayfield’s—who is living there with his mother and had been creating art as a way to “[channel] his loneliness.” Upon realizing Mayfield's talent, Purser devises a situation in which he can informally instruct M.B.: by hiring him as a janitor, and allowing Mayfield to listen in to lectures (sometimes literally from the broom closet). Two months later, M.B. Mayfield's status at the periphery of both the Ole Miss classroom and Oxford art circles becomes a gentle challenge to the perils of segregation.

    Unfortunately, after Mayfield moves to Oxford, attempts at a meaningful relationship with Purser are quickly eclipsed by diversions into a larger-than-life Oxonian menagerie. Loyal Blind Jim Ivy, visionary Johnny Vaught, inscrutable William Faulkner, inflammatory Albin Krebs, and even maverick James Meredith are all there in full caricature, and serve mostly as distraction for the rest of the book. While some inclusions are reasonable---Faulkner befriends Purser and helps purchase art supplies for Mayfield---it's never clear why Magee indulges the reader in the virtues of Vaught's "Split-T offensive formation," or the growing pangs of his "mandated platoon rules" for the university's football team.

    Rather, these indulgences in Ole Miss nostalgia serve mainly to gloss over (or reinforce) unexplored assumptions about gender, sexuality, grammar (perhaps my favorite dangling modifier of all time: "[Mayfield] wiped bits of food from the meals he made from the corners of his mother's mouth"). Above all, race gets superficial treatment. In the same vein as a tense trip to the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in Memphis (a resolvable faux paus regarding segregated operating hours), the author rarely presents racial difference as much more than a jarring anachronism or a nuisance of otherwise-redeemable heritage.

    Over time, Purser grows professionally restless and dissatisfied with Ole Miss’ unremitting segregation, eventually leaving to start yet another Art Department, and Mayfield remains relatively undiscovered but otherwise unruffled, eventually resettling in Ecru to dangle on the precipice of obscurity in between occasional re-discovery. What's left is a book "detailed in outline but scant in depth" (to borrow Mr. Magee's phrase about Mr. Mayfield's work), and glaringly uninterested in its own assumptions, outside the occasional right-thing-to-say about the evils of the Klan, the n-word, the logic of segregation, the assassination of Dr. King.

    What is more, while it's self-described as "An Unusual Story of Social Change at Ole Miss, The Education of Mr. Mayfield” remains well within the bounds of the usual and the never-really-changing. It indulges so much in the noble premise of Stuart Purser's "discovery" of M.B. Mayfield's "primitive" art that it neither questions these terms nor explores their gaping corollaries, while Mayfield is limited to the promotion from janitor to security guard as his sole significant opportunity for job advancement, Purser seems to have the luxury to pack up and go create an Art Department somewhere else whenever he feels restless. This is, of course, not to suggest that Purser shouldn't have been allowed the accolades resulting from his work, nor that those talented artists previously unknown should not benefit from public recognition, only that so much of the distribution of power (and the power of naming) in this and many other situations in the book is racially and/or socioeconomically obvious. Instead of coming across as problematic, it's coming across as quaint.

    Ultimately, it is the comfort of the quaint and the pastoral that drowns out the best interest of David Magee's work, and through which a potentially humanizing and redeeming story barely survives as a kind of historical near-fiction, bloated with allegory and glistening in red and blue.

    7.31.2009

    poempost: buncombe

    an old poem. a villanelle, oddly. was reminded of it during a recent bout of disgust with a mode of writing that promotes a toxic admixture of the confessional moment and the esoteric (self-)reference. twitter can so easily become the world's bathroom stall.


    All you anonymous kings
    - for a gas station in Buncombe, NC


    Caught between the curtains of duty, some
    let the moment bring what it brings,
    others scribble speeches for Buncombe.

    Perhaps, when the service has begun,
    the honey-scroll is all ink and wings;
    stuck on the feverish mind, it must become.

    Or, someone left a whisper in the drum,
    and, fear – lest the ugly-horns sing –
    yields a toneless whistle for Buncombe.

    Maybe it’s truth – bitches crave my cum;
    Friday. 11:30. The Real Thing –

    crammed a whisper away from someone.

    Since dogs hide what they have done,
    it could be the dirt and grass they fling
    to avert the noble eyes of Buncombe.

    But, I am loathe to follow the lonesome
    strings of all you anonymous kings,
    so fixed to a minute’s naked wisdom
    on an awful soapbox in downtown Buncombe.

    6.24.2009

    wellspring article, director's cut

    it kind of saddens me when i think about this, but i've recently gotten much, much better at distancing myself from text once it's sent to an editor for print-ready slimming. i still lack the ability to abbreviate my writing process, much less depersonalize the act itself--but once a piece is out of the nest, it's out of the nest.

    at the winter institute, we have a bi-annual newsletter entitled the wellspring, and every summer and winter staff and interns get quasi-assigned topics and articles to write. as it's been one of the rare moments that i'm forced to (a) write lengthy informational prose and (b) share my thoughts about our work, my articles seem to require a sour gestation--riddled with mood-swinging ambivalence and alternating bursts of writer's block and logorrhea. that being said, once i've hammered out a completed piece, its trip from
    my computer to the printed copy negotiates a minefield of residual pride/vulnerability and territoriality.

    after a heated back and forth during the editing process of piece for this past winter's article (reaching crescendo with the suggestion that i "need to expand my skill set"), i have become determined to, essentially, detach myself from whatever i've written (
    an ironic contraction: writerly addition-by-subtraction)--finding quiet solace in the fact that my semicoloned curlicues can be delightfully unread here in pretentious blog limbo. while i've still reserved the right to try and put my foot down if/when an editor makes an historical overreduction, a rhetorically inappropriate paraphrase, or a grammatical mishap, i've come to terms with the death-to-nuance approach of would-be journalism, and can finally--for the sake of a story being told--admit that i err on the side of: (a) not particularly caring about audience or reading level, (b) caring way too much about word-smithery and/or exhaustive rhetorical precision.

    so, an article will be published in this summer's wellspring, and it will bear passing resemblance to the following:


    ***

    Wellspring – From Dialogue to Action: St. Andrew’s “Welcome Table”

    In March of 2008, parishoners from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson reached out to the Winter Institute in an effort to initiate dialogue about the legacy of race in the Jackson Episcopal community. As is the case with the origin of many community dialogue groups that the Institute works with, those participating were trying to come to terms with what they felt were critical issues in their community for which real solutions required an honest, open engagement in the way race and its legacy play a role—either implicitly or explicitly—in their community’s history, identity, and outlook. In regards to the cathedral community, dialogue participants initially centered on two major spaces of inquiry: the need for a more comprehensive narrative of the Episcopal community’s response to local civil rights and desegregation activities, and concerns about diversity of access to and equity of benefit from the Jackson area’s increasing interest in downtown development and urban renewal—in which the cathedral’s location in the heart of downtown Jackson would make participation nearly unavoidable.

    Dialogue centering on race, the Episcopal community, and urban renewal in the Jackson area continued through the fall of 2008, as the group expanded its circle of participation beyond the cathedral community (as well as beyond the Episcopal community), and hosted meetings throughout the diocese—at St. Mark’s, St. Christopher’s, and St. Alexis’ Episcopal churches—as well as St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Through this process, recurrent themes emerged as key areas for further study and action: economic justice, neighborhood organizing, media activism, young people/education, diverse and representative participation, and anti-racism training. Furthermore, by August group members were anxious for action steps to compliment what had already become an empowering and challenging conversation about race in the Jackson area—itself “a sign of hope,” and something “valuable even if we all want to be out there doing,” as group participant Chuck Culpepper, pastor of St. Alexis Episcopal Church, noted in a June meeting.

    Thoughts of action gravitated towards both youth engagement and a desire to help ensure that that Jackson equitably maintains its urban fabric—seen by the group as a “unique blend of economic, racial, and cultural diversity”—in the midst of increased downtown development. In September of 2008, the University of Mississippi’s hosting of the first Presidential Debate—between then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain—offered the group an unexpected opportunity to jump-start this shift towards action. In late August, the Jim Hill Civil Rights/Civil Liberties (CRCL) group, which the Winter Institute was assisting in coming to Oxford to participate in pre-debate activities, reached out to the St. Andrew’s group in search of a potential site to host a Jackson youth viewing and discussion of the debate. The viewing, which was attended by a diverse group of over fifty youth from public and private schools throughout the Jackson area, solidified the St. Andrew’s group’s commitment to youth—as evidenced by the fact that since the debate viewing CRCL members have regularly attended and actively participated in group dialogue and action.

    In January of 2009, the commitment by members to develop a single, comprehensive action project that would encompass the central themes of their nearly yearlong conversation about race finally bore fruit. The group, its own composition moving towards the racial, economic, cultural, and faith diversity that comprise Jackson’s “urban fabric,” began to envision an institution that would attract a diverse and representative constituency, serve as an anchoring imprint of the group’s vision for a unified Jackson, and address the group’s concerns about downtown development and urban renewal. Discussions of such an institution’s mission eventually centered on the essential and universal task of preparing and sharing food, which took the form of a non-profit restaurant that would engage diverse constituencies as stakeholders in each stage in its establishment and operation—literally, a “Welcome Table,” as the group would come to refer to itself.

    Specifically, the St. Andrew’s Welcome Table project seeks to establish a non-profit restaurant that doubles as a youth mentoring and workforce development site and is committed to the inclusion of local, organic, and sustainable agriculture in its menu. It is inspired by many similar projects throughout the county—most notably Café Reconcile, a similar institution established in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. In operation since 1996, Café Reconcile and its accompanying Youth Workforce Development Program (established in 2000) “meet the needs of youth who [have] experienced an array of socio-economic challenges, including poverty, homelessness, arrested educational achievement, substance abuse, and participation in the juvenile justice system.” In its first seven years of operation, the program successfully graduated 400 young men and women between the ages of 16 and 24—many of whom go on to work for Café Reconcile’s many partners and advocates in the New Orleans entertainment and hospitality industry. In February of 2009, a group from the St. Andrew’s Welcome table project traveled to New Orleans to tour Café Reconcile’s facilities and—of course—to try out its cuisine. This trip provided members with both a strong sense that the Welcome Table was a feasible—albeit ambitious—project, as well as an invaluable source of firsthand knowledge regarding the mission, challenges, and triumphs of a like-minded organization.

    Back in Jackson, the Welcome Table entered its second year of dialogue and action with a flurry of planning and partnership building. In April, the group completed a mission statement and project proposal, and began to seek out funding and grant opportunities for the establishment of both the restaurant and the accompanying youth workforce training and mentoring program. Around the same time, the St. Andrew’s Cathedral leadership showed its support of the project by offering to temporarily host the Welcome Table on cathedral grounds—with the hope that the restaurant would utilize the cathedral’s beautiful courtyards and full kitchen, and that the youth workforce and mentoring program could utilize its amble classroom space.

    Last May, a participant in one of the Welcome Table meetings noted that “hope comes from giving up the things we can’t control, and loving and helping things grow in the way we can.” In many ways, the group’s journey from dialogue to action exemplifies this sentiment: their initial year of honest, open, and often difficult engagement in the history and legacy of race in themselves and in their community can been seen as a meticulous identifying and untangling of those things that they could reasonably control in regards to realizing their vision for progress and reconciliation. Incredibly, what has emerged from this process is a comprehensive, ambitious plan to create an imprint of their vision in the heart of downtown Jackson—through an institution that will provide diverse and representative stakeholders, community members, and hungry customers with a place at the table of a unified, equitable Capital City.

    6.14.2009

    buttons!

    for a couple years now i've been making found-art buttons and collage from old magazines. i've just started up a shop on etsy.com to see if they're of any interest. still testing out pricing, shipping, etc. so only listing a few at a time.

    will have a badge on the right of the blog layout. like this one:

    6.02.2009

    what i've been up to recently

    teaching myself the drupal development platform, and setting up the county project site (www.mscivilrightsproject.com) to host and stream media. given that i have a very meager grasp of html, php, css, etc. the work is 70% learning curve, 27% messing something up, 3% blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut.

    what should follow is an embedded video that i've been using to configure the video player i've installed. the clip is an excerpt from a interview/oral-history i did with my great aunt, sister mary william sullivan, who is a retired nun and was active in chicago's south side during the 50s and 60s. by "active" i mean engaging in and organizing neighborhoods around issues of educational equity and housing access. so, she's a bona fide OG.



    next up on the site development: figuring out image uploading & hosting and image gallery construction. then setting up streaming audio. then teaching interns on how to post and upload. then developing an educational resource template, which essentially will be a wik-ed 0.9 (if you were once a beardy-face vaguely-to-very jewish teacher corps member--or dave jones--you'd know what that meant).

    that being said, it's all work perfect for the mississippi summer, which amounts to floating between refrigerators and saunas.

    5.22.2009

    James Meredith begins "Walk for the Poor" on Sunday

    i know very little about this, other than it's happening. just got details today. there is only one james meredith.

    an interesting opportunity for some twitter/youtube/flickr-engaged spontaneous visibility. word-of-mouth as web-of-link.

    James Meredith's Walk for the Poor James Meredith's Walk for the Poor hennahackles

    4.14.2009

    teacherpost: rec letter for KB

    an overly-common observation: i have a love-hate relationship with letters of recommendation. most of this is derived from the fact that i can never bring myself to write anything that feels like a template or a re-write (enter margaret with an i'm-dave-molina-i-question-the-very-premise-of-your-question jab); i force myself to construct some sort of custom narrative of personal involvement with whomever i'm writing for (enter jake with a stop-making-it-about-yourself jab), and i often ask people i haven't talked to in a while to send me a couple key moments or experiences that stand out in our work together (enter sarah roth with an actually-you've-just-desciribed-a-template and/or a skip-the-parentheticals-and-get-to-the-point jab). the flipside is that i've always regretted not giving myself a more consistent and/or thorough structure for reflecting on my teaching experiences (now that i'm out of the classroom and have new context) and my work at the winter institute (now that i'm in it and have little or no context), and that shoehorning myself into a place where i try to remember what it was like to meet and/or appreciate someone for the first (or second, or third) time tends to dislodge enough material for unexpected reflective high notes to nestle in the stitching as i pull myself back from the vertigo of half-memory to some sort of near statement of why some young person or other is likely to "change the world," or whatever the accolade, scholarship, or institution begs for.

    anyway, i spent a bit of time this afternoon on a last-minute rec letter for a former CRCL member, and in looking it over i've noticed the following:

    (a) though the narrative details are particular, much of the nature of the appriciation and praise holds common ground with my experiences with so many of the CRCL leaders

    (b) i think i'm starting to get better at unraveling what happened (and what didn't) at CRCL, and

    (c) i'm hopeful that (b) implies that i'm going to get better at unpackaging the innards beneath the birth, life, and death of these groups.

    ***

    I first met KB in the spring of 2007, when she came to Jim Hill High School to attend a visit by former Mississippi Governor William Winter. The Jim Hill Civil Rights/Civil Liberties (CRCL) group, a group I helped establish while I was a mathematics teacher at Jim Hill during the 05-06 and 06-07 school years, sponsored the event. At that point, CRCL participation included students from both Jim Hill and St. Andrew’s Episcopal school, and Gov. Winter’s visit provided an opportunity to reach out to more schools in the area. If I remember correctly, KB had heard about the event from her Latin instructor, Mr. J, and decided to attend with her mother. Afterwards, I remember KB staying to talk about CRCL and asking if she could come for the regular group meetings. Though it was immediately clear that CRCL had found itself a new member, it became quickly obvious that the group had gained so much more: a new leader.

    Looking back, much of the continuity and growth of CRCL throughout that spring and the entire 07-08 school year relied on the involvement of KB. She was one of those rare young people whose composure, diligence, and intellectual maturity completely masked her age; every year since KB was a freshman I’ve been convinced she’s a senior. Her natural capacity for critical inquiry provided a steady anchor for the group’s youth-directed philosophies, and in time developed into an outstanding and unobtrusive model for other students in their quest for critical citizenship. Furthermore, KB’s clear commitment to intercommunity dialogue ensured that the group would always push to maintain CRCL participation from as many school and neighborhood communities as possible. She not only cultivated a core of Murrah students to attend Jim Hill meetings with her, but in the spring of 2008 KB and some fellow Murrah students attempted to establish a stand-alone group at their own school, which brought even more young people to CRCL despite the group’s short lifespan. For example, a current CRCL standout, Murrah junior HW, found her way into the group by way of KB’s leadership and outreach.

    Although KB’s active participation in and promotion of CRCL meetings played a huge role in the group’s continued activity, the most crucial role she played was behind the scenes. That is, KB so valued a space after school to state her own views and engage responsibly in the opinions of a diverse set of her peers that she spent a considerable amount of time—Friday after-school meetings at Cups in Fondren, phone calls throughout the week, endless debriefing after weekly CRCL meetings, etc.—helping the group transition seamlessly through the loss of its original moderators (Mr. Jake Roth and myself) and into a new phase of increased student management and oversight. Through KB’s initiative, manifesting itself in everything from planning and running meetings to typing and printing agendas, the Jim Hill CRCL evolved into a student organization that can constantly reimagine itself—surviving not only changes in adult leaderships, but in its youth leadership as well.

    In my current position as project coordinator for the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, I spend much of my time trying to develop a systemic approach to cultivating what KB and her peers at the Jim Hill CRCL have done so naturally: establish, support, and maintain a space committed to critical inquiry and intercommunity dialogue. Through looking back on now four years of the group’s activity, and in meeting other groups throughout the state, I am constantly amazed at what these young people at CRCL have been able to do, and KB especially. Though it is incredibly cliché to remark on children as our future, I can not help but wonder that hope for democracy, citizenship, and civic responsibility lies in young people like KB, who are ready to engage directly in the crucial issues of our time, and just need space to do so, faith that they will, and equal parts challenge and encouragement.

    3.04.2009

    winterpost: SA oral history project + the jackson movement

    for ben guest

    1. SA oral history project

    over the past couple of months i've been helping out with an oral history project that's grown out of the work of a self-sustaining CRCL group that's started at st. andrew's episcopal school in jackson.

    (n.b. for those unaware with the acronym, CRCL stands for civil rights/civil liberties--and these are civil engagement high school groups dedicated to critical inquiry and intercommunity dialogue. throughout its four years of activity, the jim hill CRCL group has had members from jim hill, st. andrew's, murrah, lanier, and wingfield. murrah was the first school to attempt to start up its own building level group, but that didn't stick.)

    the st. andrew's oral history project will focus on the school's journey through external and internal changes in regards to race relations and access to education in the jackson metro area from the 1940s to the 1980s. this particular project grew out conversations starting last fall, wherein a small core of motivated st. andrew's students reached out to the winter institute in an effort to spark a critical dialogue on campus that would hopefully lay the groundwork for the development of a CRCL group there. some of the students had at one point been regulars at the jim hill meetings--and wanted to start a satellite at their own school so they could expose their peers to a more accessible CRCL and build a foundation before reaching back out to jim hill. others were students who knew about the jim hill CRCL but hadn't been able to make it over for a meeting.

    dialogue around the questions "what is the story about your community that isn't told," and "what is frustrating about the community you belong to" led to a couple realizations:
    (1) while st. andrew's is admirably diverse when it comes to race and ethnicity, students felt that economic and neighborhood diversity was lacking. furthermore, there seemed to be some connection between this set of observations and the post-segregation development of madison county, just north of jackson: which made the usual quick transition from farmland to a middle- and upper-middle- class suburb.

    (2) when it comes to race at st. andrew's, many students felt that the conversation begin and ends with "we're not a segregation academy," meaning st. andrew's wasn't established during the 1969-1973 emergence of private academies and white citizen council-developed "council schools" throughout mississippi--which effectively re-segregated schools (likewise, maintained age-old channels of social/political/economic capital) in nearly all communities that had significant black populations (i.e. somewhere over 25-30% i imagine; it's a statistical analysis i'd love to take the time to do); in mississippi that means a lot of communities. in many ways, this is the historical retort to the popular red herring that "90% of MS's school-age youth attend public school." that and the fact that white attendance is often front-loaded in elementary and middle school in areas where there is a significant black population; many academies (many of which are still or nearly all-white) don't start until 7th or 9th grade, simply because it's not economically or educationally viable for many communities and parents to develop a PK-12 private institution, though many certainly do exist. nevertheless, the trump card of "we're not jackson prep" seemed to gloss over a couple things in these student's minds: they had no sense of the circumstances surrounding st. andrew's admittance and graduation of its first african american student, no narrative of race relations at st. andrew's through the civil rights era, and no narrative of the relationship between desegregation and the development of st. andrew's school over time--which in the 1980s moved from a site in jackson proper to a site in madison county, a move planned sometime after acquiring "75 acres of open, rolling meadowland" in 1976.
    momentum from these conversations--participated in and encouraged by teachers and administrators--lead to the conclusion that these stories should be told, thus birthing an oral history project. armed with flipcams and a .ning site, the CRCL group has been steadily building a vision for the project, training themselves in oral history, and educating themselves on relevent historical context: the history of school desegregation in MS and general civil rights related history in the jackson area.

    a project description clip from some of the CRCL members themselves, shot on flipcam and uploaded to .ning:



    Find more videos like this on St. Andrew's - Winter Institute Project

    2. the jackson movement

    on the winter institute end, i've been advising students on the project, and developing oral history training and historical context materials/presentations. this brings us to the "for ben guest" header on the post: a few weeks ago i began to develop a condensed timeline of essential civil rights related history in the jackson area. surrounded by obsessively highlighted and tabbed books, i was on the hunt for any local civil rights activity as well as any national/regional civil events that passed through the jackson area. i had a sense of a couple obvious landmarks (though many of them i'd never really researched): the formation of the white citizen's council, the tougaloo nine, the woolworth's sit-in, the freedom riders arriving in jackson, the jackson state shootings, the march against fear, medgar evers' assassination, etc. what i didn't have a sense of was that there was a bona fida jackson movement, albeit short-lived, intense, and rather tragic--in the sense of organizational territory and politics draining local momentum (and in some way foreshadowing bigger meltdowns in the late 60s), and in the sense of the loss of someone as talented as medgar evers in the midst of an internecine maelstrom. on that note, over time i'm realizing more and more how important medgar was to mississippi civil rights veterans: after asking hollis watkins (the first local mississippi youth to join SNCC’s work in mccomb, and now president of southern echo, one of the best community organizing/empowerment and youth activism vehicles in the state) what he did for inauguration, he calmly replied, his eyes still with memory, "i went by medgar's house."

    synopsis of jackson movement:
    1961, march: the jackson NAACP youth council protests segregated libraries in jackson. given that they're "the only such group still active in the jackson area and composed mainly of black high school students," and given that direct action isn't usually the NAACP's cup of tea (litigation/legislation and voter registration is) here we've got a local initiative.

    1961, may: the SNCC freedom riders come into jackson, refuse to post bail upon arrest, and make the call for more buses to head to mississippi. 328 riders are arrested that summer, and many spend their time in parchman. once they get out of jail, we've got some lingering SNCC and CORE presence in MS.

    1962, december: the jackson NAACP youth council form a picket line outside of woolworth's in jackson, and try to initiate a city boycott of downtown merchants. they receive little support from SNCC (now drawn to greenwood), CORE (who feel like the boycott is started without sufficient community organization), and NAACP (again: they don't really do direct action). so, still a local initiative but now we've got some attempted coordination with regional/national organizations.

    1963, may: NAACP switches course and makes jackson boycotts a priotity. reasoning: mlk's recent success in birmingham; roy wilkins is worried that jackson will be SCLC's next target. an ultimatum is made to jackson mayor allen thompson, negotiate or else face mass demonstration. after waffling for a bit, the mayor rejects all demands. the next day is the woolworth's sit-in by jackson NAACP youth council and moderator: a three hour, very violent affair. picketing increases dramatically; high school students begin walk outs and marches, with violent police response. we've got momentum, but we've got ulterior motives.

    1963, june: increased activism has drawn in staff from national NAACP, but this results in a shift in the movement coordinating committee from an activist, youth-oriented aproach to a more conservative, NAACP/black minister & businessmen-led effort to broker a deal. right when direct action begins to escalate into a snowballing youth movement, mass marches and protests are halted, community momentum is lost, and attendance at nightly meetings declines. june 6: the city of jackson obtains an injunction forbidding further demonstrations. june 8: first day without demonstration or picket line. afterward: a "coalition of national NAACP officials and the traditional middle-class leadership of jackson [agree]... that although the boycott should continue, there [will] be no further mass demonstrations and that the movement should initiate another voter registration drive in the jackson area." june 11, medgar evers assassinated (more below). after his funeral procession, several hundred young people begin singing freedom songs and walking towards capitol street area. they are met with police, and, for the first time, fight back. a riot is only narrowly avoided. june 18, the movement's strategy committee announces a deal struck with mayor thompson, which amounts to a set of concessions previously rejected by black leaders: an agreement to hire six black policemen, a handful of promotions in the sanitation department, and a promise to "continue to hear black grievances." in essence, jackson remains a jim crow city. we've got ideological shifts that cut the legs out from under the movement, which crumbles: taking medgar evers and leaving nominal progress and entrenched segregation.

    aftermath: jackson continues as a central headquarters for civil rights organizations in the state, but never again sustains a movement of it's own. we've got a locally initiated movement that gets coopted by national interests, leaving a community in the dust.
    medgar:
    throughout the entire jackson movement, NAACP field secretary medgar evers "[straddles] the divide" between the direct action campaign of the jackson NAACP youth council and the hesitant involvement of the national NAACP. in the process, evers becomes the "acknowledged leader" of the jackson movement, "the one who [stands] up to mayor thompson, who [negotiates the young people's] bail, who [receives] nearly all the death threats." on tuesday, june 11, the day "john kennedy gave the strongest civil rights speech of his administration," evers is at a poorly attended mass meeting, where "instead of singing inspiring freedom songs and listening to fiery oratory, the audience [hears] staff members promote the sale of NAACP t-shirts." he returns home after midnight, extra t-shirts in hand. as his wife myrlie and his children come to meet him at the door, evers is shot in the back by greenwood citizen's council member byron de la beckwith. he dies that evening.

    other stuff medgar had been involved in: investigating the emmett till murder, attempting to enroll at ole miss (and thus setting the stage for legal campaign culminating in james meredith), assisting with organizing on the gulf coast--site of an early mississippi direct action campaign (the wade-ins) and voter registration push, filing a school desegregation lawsuit against the jackson public schools, which culminated in a freedom of choice ruling in 1964: a crack in the wall that leads up to the 1969 forced desegregation victory.
    expanded text, with source list, included here.

    3.02.2009

    prosepost: dream: two rats & twenty and sixty snakes

    in line at a movie theater with mother, brothers, sister. have a hard time finding the ticket; stumble through pockets in my jacket and pants, and eventually come upon it: nondescript, red, "admit one." hand it over to the ticket collector, an older black woman, large, dressed as a bellhop, blue and gold. takes the ticket, hands over a styrofoam cup of hot water, and points to the refreshments area.

    supposed to use the cup of hot water to make coffee. a week earlier, i went to the movies with my father and brother. the coffee stand only had a fully-automatic espresso machine and a hot water spigot; all "coffees" were actually americanos, and for each drink the attendant would walk from the automatic espresso machine to an otherwise unused industrial-size percolator, which would dispense hot water. told to take one the small plates of food spread out on a cafeteria table with a white table cloth. all of the plates have french fries on them.

    reach out to a plate, but my sister warns there are rats on the table. look across and see two portly rats wandering around, trying to get some french fries. stuck now between stopping sarah from petting the rats carley told me she had a pet rat as a child and stopping rats from stealing french fries. little success.

    one of the rats--the yellow one; the other is the usual dusty gray--does not have a face. has a mouth, but nose and eyes are reduced to a fleshy twig. try to scare the faceless rat away with a lighter i had failed to get a fire started two evenings in a row but, disinterested, it grabs a french fry and ambles away.

    french fry plate in hand and turn to go to the movie. take a sip of coffee: something moving in my mouth. try to wash it down with more coffee. more things in my mouth. purse my lips and pull at something barely fixed between thumb and forefinger. a tiny snake; thin, about three-inches long. fling it away and another appears--tail just breaching my lips. frantically pull about twenty out. look into my coffee cup. just below the thinly brown water: tangled, dormant coils.

    later. at a child's birthday party in the party room of a party warehouse. talking to a young latino boy--chocolate hair, caramel skin, t-shirt, jeans. in the midst of conversation, picks up a cup of coffee. warn him of the snakes. doesn't seem to mind; tells me he'll just eat them. after drinking a bit of the coffee, smiles at me with a tangle of purpley snake heads and tails in his mouth. a dramatic munching gesture, smiles again, and says "60."

    2.22.2009

    poempost: another from the hermitage

    cabin: afternoon

    the drunk wasps--they
    come from under the wall.

    the farthest they make
    it is the screened windows,
    my chair, the light

    in the kitchen. i kill them
    with my shoe or magazine

    and sweep them under
    the wall, where they are
    reborn. air in the ice

    in the bourbon whistles;
    it either rains or snows.

    2.18.2009

    2.16.2009

    poempost: two from a january hermitage

    1. highway seven

    In the hills, a mountain
    fog: each house consumed
    despite all anxious light,
    and ghosts too soon.

    The car ensures the road
    beneath—a drive both dream
    and ritual: exit right,
    three lights, twenty-seven

    miles before the turn.
    The last match crumbles
    cold against the box—its
    smoke would last forever.

    Between rains, some dogs
    beside the road: a cloud
    of orphans—delinquent notice
    to feed the withering gods.

    2. the death of the impatient tree
    or: a seasonal poem
    or: a poem written in the voice of a seventh-grade literature textbook

    The death of the impatient tree,
    who thought each sun was spring,
    the forest all considered strange—
    though hardly a surprise.

    “He trembled,” said the oak,
    “for every landing bird.
    As if each winter rest would bring
    an hour more of sun.”

    “And hoped in every leaping fish,”
    returned the nearest pine,
    “an oracle of thaw, so thirst
    more than ice would give.”

    “So fully did each season love,”
    joined his mistress birch,
    “that hardly could he sleep,
    nor hardly wake, in such

    “Uncertain times as winter fades
    to spring. We could sit
    more calm in ambiguity;
    an early bloom, a late

    snow were such a mystery
    that hardly do I doubt
    he worried through more vital truths
    than any our roots could tell.”

    Throughout the spring, as Nature’s hand
    distributed their friend,
    each considered quietly
    and with different claim:

    whether the impatient tree
    had rings so tightly wound
    as to approach infinity,
    or whether he had none.

    1.08.2009

    poempost: untitled night poem

    it is the cuyahoga snow.

    it is a whippoorwill--
    it is ten whippoorwills.

    it is a ranch house bay window,
    barely divulged.