Saturday, December 10, 2011

Oscar Brown, Jr.

If you have never heard of Oscar Brown, Jr., don't worry. Allow him to apologize. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Misstra Knowitall's artistic statement

Courtesy of the Artistic Statement Generator 2000:

Through my work I attempt to examine the phenomenon of The Road Runner as a methaphorical interpretation of both Van Gogh and swaying.

What began as a personal journey of Damnism has translated into images of cheesburger and leg that resonates with Black people forcing them to question their own Redness.

My mixed media track suit embodies an idiosyncratic view of Pat Robertson, yet the familiar imagery allows for a connection between River Phoenix, Gators and clams.

My work is in the private collection of Fred Grandy who said 'Big ups!, that's some real bitter Art.'

I am a recipient of a grant from Folsom Prison where I served time for stealing mugs and tie clips from the gift shop of The MCA. I have exhibited in group shows at Burger king and the National Gallery, though not at the same time. I currently spend my time between my kitchen and Berlin.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Narratives of Terror

Shortly after the brutal Gabrielle Giffords shooting earlier this year, the name Jarod Loughner was injected into the American consciousness. Listening to the devastation that he caused, one couldn't help but grimly do what we do when we need answers to things: Google Search. 

The news media studiously instructed that the footage would be disturbing, and it was more than that. All of them are eerie, but America: Your Last Memory in a Terrorist Country, terrified me when I first tried to watch it. With its Death Metal soundtrack ("let the bodies hit the floor" is the refrain), it featured a desert scene with a single American flag posted on a dirt mound, scrapping the ground. A figure appears in a black cloak and a happy face mask.  Happy face mask has only one arm ("his right one!", the on-screen comment prompts). While the music rages, Happy face mask lifts the flag and lights it on fire (patriots burn flags to preserve their honor, fyi). Then he creeps off like a creep.

I felt like I was in that scene from The Ring when that creepo girl crawls out of the TV. I stopped the Loughner video because I thought happy face mask might crawl out of my laptop if I let it run to the end. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, this message directly from a killer was a surreal experience (if we're even allowed to use that word anymore) and a natural extension of our conversation to the digital world. Jarod Loughner probably knew for some time that his name would be searched for. (Afterall, that's what it means to be truly famous; people have to search for you.) He knew that they would search for him and he wanted them to see something special. Not some dumb skateboarding videos. Not some girlfights. Not some stupid mass transit rider beating on some other stupid mass transit rider. No, his videos would explain to people why he was doing what he was doing. Not only would he take lives, but as a child of our culture he knew the most important thing to control was the narrative of his actions. 

It turned out that this became kind of a moot point afterwards. Most of the videos were just rambling PowerPoints about world conspiracies, bad grammar, and the like. He seems to be wanting to say something about the power structures that lay under the ones we see. He wants to uncover the conspiracy that deceives 85% of us. Now, I believe the world is run on conspiracies, but the narrative Loughner kicked just didn't make much sense. There were snippets of truth tied together with a lot of nonsense. That's one of the real shames. He didn't even make sense. All that suffering he caused, that suffering he carries, all because of a war raging in his own head.

So what do we learn from it? If you thought the Giffords massacre would deliver the public support for stricter gun laws, you're crazy. With a Negro as president, we all just feel a little safer if the White man gets to keep his guns. Americans like being able to kill, and they don't need anybody to tell them different.

And as far as people taking the shooting as a message to tamp down the political rhetoric, have you seen "Give Us Your Cash, B****"? If you haven't, you really need to take a look to get an update on what the worst racist and sexist thing you've seen in a while. This is some cutting edge racism and sexism. It's educational. Sadly, the song and video look like they really were directed by an employee of Black Entertainment Television.

But maybe this doesn't have to be a meaningless event. Maybe we could actually learn something real about a danger we face. We are entering the age of narrative reassignment. Now, before someone does something horrendous, their first concern will be how to frame their own story. We've been constantly told that we have to "sell ourselves as a brand" and this is no different. Before they do what they do, killers will actually set the table for the crimes they are going to commit.

You know Facebook had to get their credit.
This came to mind recently because of the coordinated bombing and shooting that took place in Oslo yesterday. Apparently someone detonated an explosive and then later opened fire at a kids camp, leaving an estimated 80 92 dead in his wake. The suspect in the crime, Anders Behring Beivik, who looks like he stepped from the pages of of Norwegian Vogue, has a twitter account with only one post. What does it say? "One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests." There has also been mention of "disturbing" right-wing internet postings from Beivik. Don't expect to see less of this kind of thing. Whoever conducted the 9/11 operation inspired a generation of murderous auteurs who want to control their own narratives. 

And to be honest, it's not the Loughners and the Beiviks that we really need to be worried about. They commit their crimes and become footnotes. The real controllers of narratives are the Murdochs and the Liebermans and the Bushes and the Bin Ladens and the...wait for it...Obamas. These are the men who sow narratives before they do their killing. 

9/11. The Taliban. Al Qaeda. Osama Bin Landen. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Saddam Hussein. That pretty much summarizes the last ten years of fear. It would almost be funny if not for the thousands of lives lost and the trillions of dollars wasted (stolen). Although the way Loughner and Beiviks managed to coordinate their online presences with their crimes may be disturbing, it pales in comparison to the horrors that await if we don't stop consuming these narratives that explain away murder and exploitation.

Oh, by the way, how's that Libyan petroleum extraction project going? 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Peoples

How often do you look at a blog's links, anyway? They're just there. Half of them don't work. Some of them haven't been updated in twenty years. They're all out of context, with no description or reason for you to want to click on them.

So, as a public service, here's the rundown on my current list of "My Peoples" and why you should read them.

Crystal Wilkinson

Crystal Wilkinson is the author of Blackberries, Blackberries, Water Street, and Birds of Opulence (forthcoming). I had the pleasure of both taking a class and being an associate instructor for Crystal back in the good ole days at Indiana University. Even though I didn't get a chance to have her in workshop, she taught a young(ish) Misstra Knowitall a ton about writing and teaching.

Her blog is a must read because it gives you insights into not only the writer, but also writing and the writing biz. I would recommend starting with her post about how she has to remind her mama that she's a writer and what that actually means. She's also got a dynamite post about the pressures that writers feel now that social media and the writing business have formed such a close (incestuous?) relationship.

Pedro Bell

Pedro Bell  helped develop the P-Funk cosmology and his writing and visual art are essential to understanding any endeavor that purports to be "on The One". This links to Pedro's MySpace account. I haven't heard from my brother in a while, but there's some good autobiographical information and if you leave him a message he might write you back. You should check out the series of interviews I did with him. Dude is deep.

 "So I don't steal nothing." Miss you, ND.

Under the Blue Light: Indiana Review Blog

What can I say about my baby? She's grown up so much *sniff* since I was editor. Now they've got a new design and they do awesome contests and they have interviews and authors reading. *Sigh*. Well, check out the newest posts, but if you want to walk back down memory lane, take a look at the beautiful IR editors at AWP in 2007. 

Cake and Potatoes: Jackson Brown

Jackson Brown and I were roommates back at IU. I thought I had it going on, but this brother is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and one of the coldest MCs to darken (ahem) the hallways of Ballantine Hall. Cake and Potatoes is all that and a bag of corn chips. Funny, silly, searing, smart ass hell, and beautifully drawn. It looks like he's on hiatus (or is that "hi-itis?) but check out his greatest hits. For my taste, Off the Chain is one of my favs.

I so tried to find a pic without a Black hand holding a link card. Alas. 
Jericho Brown

I was lucky enough to meet this brother during my Funk Issue days. This links to the book site for his collection, Please, which if you ain't got, you need to get. It's funky and all that. I also did an interview with Jericho that is, of course, quite funky.

Remember me?
Post No Ills: Kyle Dargan

Post No Ills is Kyle's brain child, which like a lot of his brain chilluns, is both smart and cool. You can find great reviews of the latest in literature, movies, and politics here. They just did a review of Evie Shockley's The New Black, which I gotsta go cop. Oh, what's that you say? Did they do an interview with Misstra Knowitall himself? Well, as a matter of fact they did.

Patrick Rosal

My best memory of Patrick Rosal is at the end of the Indiana Review Funk Issue reading when he jumped on the piano and started everybody to singing Billy Ocean's "Suddenly." (I'm glad he knew all the words because I wasn't doing nothing but humming until "...wake up and suddenly you're in love!") Pat's an amazing poet and someone who writes with his heart. He's been blogging for a minute and on his site you can find everything from poetics to politics to boxing.Check him out.

Play Vicious: Ro Pulliam

I met Ro in Baltimore during my Americorps days. I lived in a house with four(!) roommates and somebody got the brilliant idea that we needed another one. Thank God we did. Ro's my man. A renaissance man who holds it down with the words, music, and web design. His site is complex and fly, just like him.

Datsun Flambe: Rion Scott

I met Rion Scott during the Funk Issue (see a pattern?) and if you want to read somebody, you should read him. He's smart and funny as hell (see another pattern). He's publishing some great stuff over at PANK magazine, but his updates at Datsun Flambe are keepers. 

The Spire: Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is a writer of Lebanese-American descent that keeps it real. I met her at Indiana University and that was one of the first things I learned about her in workshop. She's thoughtfulness, humility, and honesty shine through in her work. She shares a lot of her work at The Spire, along with life reflections. Cool stuff.
Sorry, I couldn't resist

Tayari Jones

Writer, teacher, hustler. I picked up her first book, Leaving Atlanta, while I was still in the wilds of Minnesota, and I had to keep stopping myself from trying to write like her. This site is not only good for getting insights into her process, but it's essential for keeping up with what's going on with African-American fiction. Oh, and does she have any interviews with Misstra Knowitall? Funny you should ask.

Secret Inside Girl: Vanessa Mancinelli

From her "About" page:  Vanessa Mancinelli: 1. Writes fiction. 2. Teaches literature. 3. Lives in Los Angeles.

I would also like to add: 4. Is obsessive about her teaching 5. Is obsessive about her planning.  6. Sings a mean Bill Withers. You need to check out her Seriously, this just happened post. Hilarious.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ten Amazing Obama Facts

Amazing Fact #1. In order for President Obama to be defeated, someone must beat him.

With his poll numbers flat-lining, the economy in the tank, and the government on the verge of shutdown, things look rather bleak for NeO. But before Rethugs get too happy, to paraphrase Guru from Gangstarr: Who's going to take the weight? After all the speculation and punditry, someone's got to step to the podium against this dude. Who is going to be able to not get blowed away? This fact segues nicely into the next...

Amazing Fact #2: People who bet against NeO tend to lose their money.

Jesse Jackson
Hillary Clinton
Somali Pirates
Bill Clinton
Donald Trump
Jim Demint
Osama Bin Laden


Amazing Fact #3: Incumbent presidents hardly ever lose.

Not only do they have access to the full resources of the United States government, they also have considerable power in shaping the national conversation. Plus, if the President is serving the interests of the rich elite, they are going to give him their economic support instead of supporting an unknown quantity. Tax rates are lower than ever. Corporate profits are at near-record levels. The war business is booming. Isn't this the change that the economic elite believe in?

Amazing Fact #4: Killing Bin Laden will not get Obama reelected.

As much as people imagined that Osama Bin Laden's death would ensure President Obama's reelection, they fail to realize that NeO won't get credit for it because it doesn't fit the narrative we have for him. Dubya was the cowboy, busting his guns, scalping Injuns. In the last act of his presidency, after billions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, he was supposed to be able to bring Bin Laden's head home for the wall collection. Instead, the more he tried, the more the terrorists laughed and called him a dumbass.

Frankly, by the end of his term I just felt kind of bad for the guy--in that Tiki Barber/John Edwards/slow-motion-car-crash kind of way. Bin Laden (and Bin Laden's colleagues at the CIA) so obviously outsmartted Dubya that it didn't seem fair, cruel even. The American people were ready to move on in some respect. New movie, please.

Obama killing Bin Laden is kind of like Superman killing the Joker. There's no emotional subtext to the thing. I mean, thanks and all, but what does Seal Team 6 have to do with Dreams From My Father?

Amazing Fact #4: Osama Bin Laden was assassinated, and we're all cool with that. 

According to, "assassination" is to kill suddenly or secretively, especially a politically prominent person. But assassinate is such an icky word, right? It doesn't seem appropriate. An assassination has a "victim," and a "perpetrator". Bin Laden was evil, so he couldn't have been a victim. America was in the right, so we couldn't have been perpetrators. So, instead, we'll just call it a "military action." Ah, that's better.

The first accounts of the military action had Bin Laden going out like Tony Montana, guns blazing. And then it turned out he was unarmed, but was "going for something." And then one of his wives said that he was actually in custody when he was shot. And then finally the military said they weren't going to comment further. It's amazing that Bin Laden didn't know better than to listen when the Navy Seals asked him to take out his license and registration. They been getting brothers like that for years. Word to Diallo.

But when you get right down to it, this amounted to nothing more than another instance of CIA downsizing; a former employee got cut from the payroll. Bin Laden joins a long line of other former employees who have suffered similar fates: Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar, Freeway Ricky Ross, Rafael Trujillo. All given similar pink slips. Don't call us, we'll call you.

Amazing Fact #5. The President is a blues comic.

I saw the Obama impersonator who got pulled off stage at the Republican Leadership Conference and I was impressed. The President can be a bit stoic sometimes, so it's understandable that a lot of impressions are overly wooden, but this guy was putting on that Barack Bright Boy comedy swag. Although the audience was initially uncomfortable with the racial themes of some of the jokes, the loud guffaws reflected the reckless abandon one might enjoy at a Republican event, free of the harsh gaze of sensitive Negroes.

Even though the jokes (Barack celebrates half of Black history month; Barack's mom loved a Black man, but her name wasn't Kardashian; Barack and Michelle as Esther and Fred from Sanford and Son) weren't the most clever in the world, they were cringe-inducing like the best of NeO humor. He has a way of implicating his audience in a joke. Kind of like Richard Pryor in Live on the Sunset Strip, joking about the jokes people told after he caught himself on fire freebasing. He tells the joke to not only make you laugh, but also shine a light on what you're willing to laugh at. I think that's also called the blues.
What's that? Richard Pryor running down the street.
Remember the time he went on national TV, called a policeman stupid, and joked that the Secret Service would shoot him down if they thought he was trying to break into the White House?

Remember his first presidential press conference when he called himself a mutt?

And who can forget his "I-don't-come-to-your-job-kicking-****s-out-of-your-mouth" moment at the White House Correspondents dinner? Trumpwnd. 


This Chinese ad for KFC is not only fantastic because it features the President getting squashed by a fried chicken sandwich, it also shows Americans having more enthusiasm for the offending sandwich. And although it's probably racist (having the first Black President assassinated by a piece of chicken is all types of messed up) it seems more like a scathing critique of how dumb Americans are. Good one, China. Oh wait, isn't Kentucky Fried Chicken an American company?

Amazing Fact #6: Lupe was right.

Lupe Fiasco recently called NeO a terrorist. Actually, he said that President Obama and all the past and future presidents of the United States have used and will use terrorism to advance American interests. This statement may be shocking to some, but in the words of Gil Scott-Heron: "America leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately America does not lead the world in deciphering the causes of shocks."

Although he is the first Black President, Obama is beholden and controlled by interests that continue to deploy terrorism to achieve their aims. I think we're sadly learning that the adjective (Black) hasn't done much to modify the noun (President).

Amazing Fact #7: Being an Obama supporter ain't what it used to be.

So, refresh my memory. What does it mean to be an "Obama supporter" nowadays? What exactly are you supporting? I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I had an earlier post about how NeO was encountering the "Presidential" narrative, which is pretty much like the Western Cowboy narrative. Swagger into town, kill some brown skins, and save the day. These days the Obama doctrine sounds more like an OutKast remix: Bombs over Baghdad. Bombs over Waziristan. Bombs over Sana'a. Bombs over Helmand Province. Bombs over Tripoli. Is he going for the record of brown people bombed at the same time? Sad to say, but I think he's got W beat already.

Of course there are reasonable justifications for every one of those conflicts. Something about democracy. Something about terrorist infrastructure. Something about protecting civilians. Something about surgical strikes. Something about insurgents. Something about rebels. Something about regime change. To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, these are just "words walking without masters, all together like harmony in a song." However you sing it, the song is about the control of natural resources at the expense of human life.

 Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you
The depressing fact about our President is that he's good at his job. What other human on the planet would be capable of coping with the kind of crisis that this brother has dealt with? He's phenomenal at his job, but the job is imperial in nature. John Wayne had to bust guns to be John Wayne. And somebody's got to be at the end of that gun. That works for the movies, but it has little to do with ensuring democracy or human rights. So even though a part of me really loves the brother and wants his narrative to keep on teaching and inspiring me, there's an ugly element to this narrative that's more troubling by the day.  

Amazing Fact #8: The President, for one, welcomes our robot overlords.

Did we really need to reauthorize the Patriot Act by robot? Has everyone forgotten that Skynet went operational on April 19th and by now is well on its way to annihilating human civilization? As if we didn't have enough to worry about.

Today's Word: Judgment Day

Amazing Fact #9: NeO can still save America.

The health of American democracy depends on the balance of powers. NeO has failed so far to reign in the executive branch. We've got more secrets. More wire taps. More restrictions on civil liberties. Less transparency. This type of environment lends itself to the type of efficiency that is attractive in times of crisis. However, this type of environment serves to weaken democratic institutions in the long run, and it ironically foments more times of crisis. Whatever you may think of NeO, you have to concede that it could always get much worse. If he doesn't work to restrain executive power we'll be destined to have a crazy president with immense, unchecked power. Need an illustration? Three words: President Michelle Bachman.

In related news...

Amazing Fact #10: He's probably not going to do that thing that you thought he was going to do.

Remember that thing that you were really hoping NeO would change way back on election day in 2008? If he hasn't done anything on it in his first term, it's probably not going to happen in the second term either. Just so you know.

Amazing Fact #11: If he doesn't do it, we have to do it ourselves. 

As true today as it was in 2008 or 1908 or 1808.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Don Belton: Truth Teller (Revisited)

Yesterday Michael Griffin was convicted of killing novelist Don Belton. The jury put aside Griffin's nonsensical defense that the former Marine was driven into an insane rage after being sexually assaulted days before by his victim. The truth of the matter is painful, because of its awful consequences for both men and the people who love them, but this truth is easy enough to see: this crime was not about who Don was, it was all about who Griffin was afraid of being.

In a way, Griffin was asking the court for the same thing he sought from Don on that chilly December morning. He was asking for absolution for his actions. Not denying the act, but the responsibility. This act couldn't be a part of who he was. This act had to be the fault of someone else. Not someone who had served his country in war. Not someone who had a girlfriend. Not someone who had a son. Not someone who was all man.

It was important that the justice system rejected Griffin's argument and recognized this as the brutal murder it was, but it's hard to feel that justice has been fully served. Part of the reason Don died was that he recognized love and integrity as two sides of the same coin. His love for himself, and presumably for Griffin, wouldn't allow him to give the absolution his murderer sought for making love to another man. He knew that the only person who could find Griffin innocent was Griffin himself.

And that's what doesn't feel all the way right about this. Don's physical presence was stolen away from all of those who loved and respected him and that absence can never be filled no matter how many years Griffin is punished. But the only person who can bring true justice to the matter is Griffin himself.

Novelist/lawyer Alyce Miller, who posts to an excellent blog started by friends of Don, asked that in the spirit of Don we extend peace to Griffin and his family. Additionally, I wish Griffin the courage to face whatever it is he was running from on that fateful day. The person who took Don's life lacks the bravery to recognize his own guilt for his crime, but, just as importantly, this person lacks the bravery to recognize his own innocence in loving a man, a great man, like Don Belton.

***Link to the earlier Don Belton article

***Link with  Don Belton's brilliant work

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Coming of the Light

What a difference a year can make. Misstra Knowitall is living the aphorism these days as he celebrates the birth of his first child, Lucille Pauline Shakur. Some things I learned:

People still ask me from time to time whether I wanted a girl or boy, and I say that it didn't really matter to me, which it really didn't. I have to say that having a girl has already given me a brand new appreciation for women. This whole thing about them being the life-givers is not just feminist propaganda. Men are great and all of that, but women are closer to that divine energy that gives life.

Case in point: during the ultrasound our nurse showed us where we could see Lucille's sex. All you saw was just three little lines. That's it. But looking at those blurry three lines I remembered that a female has over 500,000 eggs in her ovaries at the time of her birth. That means that within the black and white confines of that ultrasound was not only my living child, but enough potential life to populate a small city. Deep.

I was not clear on how the whole feeding thing went between the mother and the child she was carrying. Basically, I thought it was important for the mother to eat so that the baby wouldn't go hungry. But the doctor set me straight. She said that whether the mother gets enough food or not, the baby will eat regardless. As terrible as it sounds, if mother is not supplying enough nutrients to feed the baby, the baby will take nutrients from the mother's body. That's right, baby eats mommy. And when you think about it, that makes perfect evolutionary sense. This generation sacrifices for the next.

They say a baby is more likely to look like it's father at birth. Why, you say? Well the thinking goes that displaying traits from the male of the species may help motivate said male to stick around to raise the little rugrat. Word to Maury P.!

I married a superhero. You haven't seen nothing until you see your wife bring your child into the world. Not to get into too much detail, but it gets real, real. Yes, I will wash the dishes. Yes, I will put the seat down after flushing. Yes, I will even go to the store for you.

There's a big difference between teaching other people's children and loving your own child. I can feel it already. As a teacher I feel very strongly about my students, but I always have to keep in mind that they are not my children and boundaries are important. Professions of love to any student, even if they are true, are more apt to backfire than benefit. But when it's your baby there is no one more responsible for letting them know they are loved in the world. That's my new job. And Missus Knowitall, of course.

To take a page from Chris Rock, you want to spend your money in your own community, but it's hard. We recently took a trip to our local medical facility for an infant checkup and witnessed two grown women get into an altercation over divergent methods of child rearing. This altercation resulted in three police cars out front, too too many cuss words to mention, and one call to DCFS. Good bye, West Side. Hello, Oak Park.

And what about this world, right? What a time to be born. Earthquake, tsunamis, nuclear fallout, oils spill, economic collapse, Tiger Woods missing putts, Arab revolutions, wars everywhere, 2012 coming up. Lucille, what have we gotten you into? Well, when the last days do finally come, odds are that we're not going to know anything about it. Civilizations throughout time have been convinced that they were the ones who were going to have to turn out the lights on their way out. I'm betting that statistically we aren't even that lucky. That's not to say that the world isn't about to transform in ways that we could never even dream of--of course it will. But the smart money says that things, for better or worse, are going to keep on keeping on.
We should also keep in mind the number 223. Let's say that chattel slavery lasted for somewhere around 400 years in America. That's 20 generations of people. Probably even more with life expectancy being what it was. In order for us to get to the point that we're at now, generations had to live and die through agonizing enslavement, with little hope of a better life. So when it seems like things are getting too bad and we should throw in the towel, just think of being born in the 223rd year of slavery. Somebody was, and they didn't give up. In the words of James Baldwin, who gave you the luxury of such elegant despair?

Finally, my baby is funky. In my experience, creating funk actually makes her happy. A starchild: my type of baby.

Friday, March 18, 2011

We Almost Lost...

In light of current events.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things that make you go "Hmmm..."

Richard Daley unexpectedly announces he will not seek a record seventh term as mayor of Chicago. The announcement leaves potential candidates scrambling to prepare for an election that will happen in just five months.

Shortly after the announcement, White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emannuel resigns and announces his candidacy for mayor. His name recognition, political connections, and financial resources make him the overwhelming favorite for the job.

Then President Obama announces his pick for the new White House Chief of Staff: William Daley, who just happens to be the brother of the retiring mayor.


And now this dude is involved:

Double Hmmmm...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Beloved Community

Back in elementary school, it seemed like every year we did the same art project involving the likeness of Martin Luther King, Jr. We cut his profile from construction paper, colored his face with rainbow crayons, and pinned him to a multi-hued bulletin board near the front of class. This activity was usually followed by the teacher telling us about dreams and how this man, the one with the wide mustache and shiny forehead and chubby cheeks, had had a dream, and how this dream was about a peaceful world without Black and White, and how we were a part of his dream, and how we should never let go of our dreams because he hadn’t ever let go of the dream he had for us. George Washington had a cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln had a stovetop hat, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. That’s what I learned.

And as a young child, King seemed like a kindred spirit. In those days, I too did a lot of dreaming. I dreamed
I would finally get a little brother, I dreamed I would make webs shoot from my wrists a la Spiderman, I dreamed I would finally get to kiss a girl. Rarely did you hear adults talking about their dreams, especially to us kids, but here was a man who was unafraid to share his, indeed had died as a result of his sharing.
But as I got older, and I became (sadly, perhaps) less of a dreamer, King fell out of my favor. I started to realize that it wasn’t just enough to dream about things, that without action, dreams were forever deferred. I started to notice how his talk of dreams was used more often to pacify than inspire people. By high school I was rocking an X hat, a neck full of African medallions, and had little time for a preacher’s dreams.
It wasn’t until I became a teacher myself that I started to see the error in my thinking.

As a young man, it’s hard to shake the crippling feeling that no one is qualified to tell you a daggone thing. I describe it this way because that feeling keeps you ignorant to how dependent you are on other people, and this limits your world-view. But as I became responsible for the education of young people myself, and as I read more of King’s writings and speeches, I saw another side of things. I saw that I had been wrong to think that this man was all about dreams and not about action. I discovered that although he was buoyed by an incredible faith in the goodness of the human spirit, he also took a pragmatic approach towards countering the grim realities of the world in which he lived. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than his advocacy for “Beloved Community.”

King describes the Beloved Community as a system of individuals working together to promote justice and nonviolence in thought, speech, and action. This Beloved Community is by no means perfect, it can only rise as high as the imperfect potential of its human members, but it is based on the premise that all of humanity shares a single spiritual connection. 

It goes like this: If you do violence to your neighbor, than you too are subjected to that same violence. And if you choose to ignore your neighbor’s pain, than you increase and perpetuate your own suffering. King believed that the Beloved Community should strive to provide a social, political, and emotional framework for its members to resolve conflict without violence. He believed that if we could get a critical mass of people to commit to these principles than we could move the larger masses of peoples and governments as well.

Members of the Beloved Community must have an open heart and a capacity to give and receive love. This helps to keep people strong, hopeful, and inspired, even in times of trouble and doubt. But members of the Beloved community must also possess the critical faculties to discern truth from what we merely wish, or fear, was true. These critical faculties provide structured thought that allows for the movement from feeling to action. And King was all about action. He wouldn’t have called people together just for the sake of hearing his own voice. He knew his time on Earth was short, and that the task before all of us was great, so he didn’t have a moment to waste.

For me, teaching is an important part of how I am trying to create and support a Beloved Community. King wrote that the community’s individuals should strive toward a three-part balance. The first part was the degree to which they showed care and concern for themselves. The second was the degree to which they showed care and concern for their friends and family. The third, which of course was the most difficult, was the care and concern they showed for the larger world, all of humanity. As I see it, King’s description of three-part balance should be the standard for any successful education. In a word, school should make us better people, more thoughtful, more capable of community.

This outlook has had a profound affect on my approach to teaching. One of a teacher’s primary objectives, in any subject, should be to foster an environment where development of critical faculties is not only encouraged, but expected. This expectation lays the foundation for Beloved Community because it requires students to interrogate the rigid structures of identity they bring into class and hopefully enlarge their self-concept to include the needs and concerns of others in the classroom and the world.

No matter if we’re rich or poor, from the city or country, Black or White, we all suffer. And we all need to learn to cope with that suffering in ways that don’t create more violence and injustice in the world. If we fail to teach our students this lesson, then we’ll be merely training perpetuators, instead of educating reformers. 

Some students aren’t ready for this type of community; maybe they’re afraid, or brainwashed, or even worse apathetic. And sometimes I’m not prepared enough, or I don’t articulate the message clearly enough, or I don’t even believe in it enough to help my students. But sometimes we do get it. Sometimes we start to truly understand the necessity of striving for non-violence and justice. When that does happen, and when we are able to make our little class a Beloved Community, even for just a few moments, a tremendous power courses through the room. There’s a connection, like we’re doing important work and maybe what we’re learning will help change things for the better. This feeling, unfortunately, often passes when I hand back graded essays, but hopefully some students leave my class hooked enough on the experience to seek opportunities to build more communities, Beloved Communities. This is the critical mass of which King spoke.

I think the real genius of King’s Beloved Community is that it requires so much action from us. It’s not about creating a perfect state devoid of all our woes. It’s not a club you enter to leave your earthly concerns at the door. (King would gently remind us that there’s a name for that place already.) No, this club has a different type of membership policy. It’s not predicated on degrees earned or bank accounts filled or church services attended or essay contests entered. This membership is renewed daily, in our spirit, in our thought, and in our action.