“Man on Fire” Documentary: One Man’s Final Atonement for Racism in a Sundown Town

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Last night was the third time in the past few  weeks I have heard the term “Sundown Town.”

The first time I heard the term was when my mother told me the town in which I grew up, Springdale, Arkansas, used to be referred to in this way. She said when she grew up in the 1950s-60s, there was a sign at the city limits that warned black people to not be caught there after dark. She never quite told me what exactly would happen, but my imagination filled in the rest. Mostly, I mused, it was probably just an urban legend. My mother is known for her storytelling.

Watching “Man on Fire” brought it all back to the forefront of my memory.

When I attended Springdale High School in 1987, it was pretty much an all white school. There may have been some Hispanic students, perhaps, but probably at least 95% of us were white kids. I do remember the day we had a black student enroll. It was all anyone talked about. It’s been a while, you understand, but I do remember one thing clearly: the student didn’t stay. Nobody was really surprised. There were whispers of KKK involvement. I don’t know if this is true or not.

Our nearby rival, Fayetteville High School, had a larger black population. One night, before the Springdale/Fayetteville game, somebody broke into their football stadium and hung a dummy, lynching style. The message was clear. I remember feeling horrified and sickened.

My parents taught by example, by commentary and racist remarks,  that we should be afraid of black people, mistrustful. Otherwise hard-working people who loved Arkansas and their neighbors, racism was their Achilles’ heel. They could not move past their own backgrounds. I grew up hearing racist jokes (black people, Mexican people, Asian people…really anyone who wasn’t white) on a regular basis.  In every joke, the white man was the only smart one, the hero.

Springdale has come a long way. It is now a rich, multicultural town. Thankfully, it has changed enough that other races have moved in and settled, and it has become so diverse. I still follow friends who are teachers at Springdale High School, and they cannot keep from gushing about how much they love their students… all their students. Some of my defining influences are teachers from this school. Being a part of the Springdale High School Band changed my self-image and directly impacted who I am (and who my children are) today. As a result of being a part of the Springdale Band Program, both my daughters are middle school/high school band/choir directors.

Recently, my friend Marjay Hignite, one of those teachers I spoke of, wrote a response to a highly controversial happening (so controversial Buzzfeed picked it up and ran with it) at SHS, and she mentioned the term “Sundown Town.” Just reading those two words brought it all back. The racial tensions posed daily in a small Arkansas town is not something easily forgotten.

The second time I heard the term “Sundown Town” was at the movies last weekend. My husband and I went to see Green Book. I highly recommend it. I may show clips of it to my own students when I introduce the Jim Crow laws during my “Fences” unit next time.

The last time I heard “Sundown Town” was in a brand new documentary that debuted on PBS last night, called “Man on Fire.” 

“Man on Fire”, recently debuting on PBS, chronicles the journey of Reverend Charles Moore, who ended his life by kneeling in a Dollar Store parking lot, dousing himself with gasoline, and setting himself on fire. A complex and deeply religious man, Rev. Moore is portrayed as a bold civil rights advocate in a tiny east Texan town where many couldn’t quite understand the need. Using personal correspondence Rev. Moore left behind, “Man on Fire” explores Buddhist notions of self-immolation as a form of protest. The film alternates between personal interviews from friends and family, local clergy, citizens,  and witnesses to the tragedy and a creative reenactment of Rev. Moore’s last few hours. The camera shots are simultaneously disturbing and bordering on voyeuristic, as well as hauntingly beautiful.

My friend, James Chase Sanchez, PhD., produced the film, and his personal connection to Grand Saline and the events that transpired in the town, is evident with each scene. I met Dr. Sanchez in graduate school where we were both trying to just survive our literature courses and working on our master’s degrees. We drank lukewarm coffee at the Writing Center where we tutored, and I frequently heard him talk about his childhood in Grand Saline, both the joy and the heartache.

His work with cultural rhetorics and race theory is not only fascinating, but could not be more relevant in our current times. Watching “Man on Fire” seemed akin to viewing a close friend’s newborn baby: magical and poignant. I felt privileged to witness this culmination of years of painstaking research combined with naked beauty and authenticity. “Man on Fire” doesn’t tell you what to think, it simply shows you the kaleidoscope of theories and viewpoints the citizens of Grand Saline hold about Reverend Moore’s suicide, and lets you decide. In an era where race dynamics are seen in the daily headlines, this film digs deeply into the fabric of Southern racism, painfully exposing racism at its ugly roots.

If you haven’t seen “Man on Fire,” I urge you to take a look. It truly is a life-changing film. Dr. Sanchez, Chase, I am so proud to know you, and I will always remember you with a frosty mug of beer, bullshitting about rhetoric.

Again, well done, friend!

 

The Hard Stuff: When Students Need Help

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I’ve been teaching for four years now. It’s really just a drop in the bucket compared to some of my friends who have been teaching 20, even 30 years.

Of course, I’m here to help students with writing and literature. That’s what I’ve been trained for. That’s why I spent almost seven years of my life reading and writing, studying and learning, sweating and praying for. I’ve paid dearly for my education, in dollars and time and sacrifice.

Here’s my secret:no program or lecture could have possibly prepared me for some of the conversations I’ve had with students. As their teacher, whether or not I deserve it, I am placed in a position of trust that I didn’t earn.

Sometimes, questions are a no-brainer. For example, in cases of abuse, I’m required to legally report it. I’ve never had to, thank goodness.

Many times, though, the questions are not so black and white.

Sometimes, the students who I perceive to be the most difficult (or checked out, or angry) are the ones who come to me with questions or situations I don’t know the answer to, like:

How should I tell my dad I’m pregnant?

Nobody knows I’m homeless.

Since I got out of the Army, I’m really trying to do my best in school, but I can’t sleep from the nightmares.

I haven’t been in class for the past two weeks because I was beaten so badly by my ex’s new girl I was hospitalized.

My husband doesn’t really think I should get my degree.

I’m gay and need to come out to my parents. What should I say?

I need to tell my mama I’m transgender. How can I do that?

I’m falling asleep in class because I work three jobs. No I can’t quit, or we’ll be out of our apartment.

I can’t come back to school next semester because I’m pregnant again.

These are hard questions, and sometimes there are really no right answers. As an educator, I’m expected to know the answers. Sometimes, I just don’t.

Sometimes, I just give the student a tissue and let them talk it out. I ask questions to try to guide them. I don’t judge them, ever, because nobody is perfect and there’s no way to tell what someone’s been through by one experience or one talk. I pray with them. I cry with them. I ask them what I can do to help. The ones I can’t help keep me up late sometimes, worrying. Sometimes I feel like I’m their mama and it’s up to me to make everything okay. But I’m not.

Sometimes, they don’t need a teacher, they need a sounding board, a counselor, a mom. I do my best.

Sometimes, I can help. It’s the ones I can’t that haunt me.

 

 

 

5 Things My Mom Taught Me

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For those of you who know me, you also know this: my relationship with my mom has never been easy. Truthfully, is any mother/daughter relationship really easy? We’re so very different–in almost every way. There has never been a time we’ve  understood one another, but I think we’ve both come to accept that.As a teen, I strove to be her polar opposite. I didn’t think I’d ever want to be a wife, and I sure as heck didn’t want to be a mother. She used to drive me utterly bonkers–she didn’t understand my need for college, to get out of Springdale.  I guess she forgot that when she was 18 the very first thing she did was move to Tulsa, all by herself, just to see if she could. Nobody in our family had ever broken free that way before. In the end, she moved back to be near the family and because she loved Arkansas.

I guess I understand that part of her.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be more accepting of my mom and who she is, and I think she’s found the same peace with her crazy, unpredictable firstborn. I’ve also learned that even though I may have resisted her advice and may have believed that she had nothing to teach me, she’s been teaching me all along. Maybe I’m the one who has changed and not she. Here are 5 things my mama taught me.

1. The value of hard work. My mother quit high school her freshman year to get a job. It wasn’t because she hated school or learning, she wanted to help her mother feed and clothe her nine siblings. . My mother worked various waitressing jobs and seasonal farm work–picking peaches, berries, etc.–to help my grandma feed those kids. Then, when my sisters and I were growing up, she worked at a chicken plant, standing for 12 hours a day in a freezer. I know she wasn’t thrilled to work there, but she did it.

As a result, I, too am hard working. I don’t know how to be otherwise. Both my parents instilled a diligent work ethic in me that sometimes threatens to cross the line into workaholicism. You know what they say about anything in excess?

2.  Unreasonable stubbornness/perserverance. This trait has both served me well and been my folly. Sometimes I take a bit of time making a decision, but once it’s made I stick to it, TO A FAULT. I will hold on with nothing but my fingernails until whatever I’ve decided has either come to fruition or is torn from under me. Either way, I rarely give in. I rarely give up. This stubborn streak runs in my blood from both my mom and dad.

 Perseverance is different from stubbornness, because perseverance is usually a positive thing. To persevere means to endure even when things get crazy difficult and complicated. It means to hang on and not give up. One way I saw her persevere was with her caretaking of my grandfather. When my grandfather became old and ill, she took care of him. Incidentally, he also was unreasonably stubborn–so much so it took FIVE heart attacks to kill him. Even though his doctors warned him to quit, he chewed tobacco and drank until his dying day–well into his 80s.  I really thought he was never going to die–I thought even death was a bit scared of him. My grandfather was cranky and hard to please–but still my mother checked on him and bought him groceries and took him to the doctor. I didn’t understand why–he was mean to her, often complaining about the brands she chose or how she paid the bills, and he was often hurtful in word and deed. Yet, she never gave up on him.

3. To not waste anything. My mom is the queen of reusing and recycling before it was cool to do so. She rarely throws anything away, which can sometimes be a bad thing, but you could never accuse her of waste.

4. How to make a meal from nothing. When I look back now, I know my family was poor, but Mom saw to it we always had food in our stomachs. I never felt the sting of poverty in my belly. As an adult, I know now that many times we probably had very little and we rarely had an excess of anything, but we were never hungry. Mom never used food stamps, though we probably qualified. We did make use of the free lunch program at school, though. Mom would make the best pinto beans, fried potatoes and homemade biscuits ever. Understand that this was before anybody cared about carbs, ok?

5. My love of writing. My mom often jotted down short stories on notebook paper, and I would sometimes find them. She wrote about her childhood in rural Arkansas, her parents, her family, working in the fields, and meeting my dad and falling in love. I credit much of my love of writing to her.

Anyway, I hate it when people blame their mothers for everything and never give them credit for what good they did. Sure, we will never see eye-to-eye, but that doesn’t really matter. My love for her remains. I will never forget the sacrifice, the hard work, the devotion she demonstrated–these are the things that endure.

Thank you, Mom.

Hillbilly Scholars: Studying Poor Whites in Academia

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While working on my graduate independent study, I wanted to see if I could find evidence of prejudice against female students with Southern accents. It took a lot of sorting through quite a few books on dialect, sociolinguistics and feminism before I found what I think are the best sources around. Because working class studies and dialects link closely together, I looked at both.

Jennifer Beech’s “Redneck and Hillbilly Discourse in the Writing Classroom: Classifying Critical Pedagogies of Whiteness” goes a step further in not only claiming “middle-class” as identity but daring to proclaim oneself as “redneck” or “hillbilly” in an academic setting (172). Finally, someone is using the terms “redneck” and “hillbilly” in a non-threatening way. She also discusses “Writing With and Even as Rednecks and Hillbillies: Critique and Advocacy” which closer approaches the subject of a Southern female student (177). Though not gender-specific, it comes perhaps as close as any scholarship thus far.

Edward W. Morris’s “From “Middle Class” to “Trailer Trash:” Teachers’ Perceptions of White Students in a Predominantly Minority School” touches on a crucial issues: social class based on teachers’ opinion of the “whiteness of students” within a “predominantly minority school” (99). Morris contends that in his experience, white teachers were more racist towards the poor whites than teachers of color.

This is important because it focuses race and classism in the classroom and how being “poor white” is sometimes considered an allowed biased. This is an integral concept because it introduces the topic of inter-racism within the classroom. Teachers were found to look down upon the poorer white students attending the minority classroom without quite being conscious of it. His book An Unexpected Minority:White Kids in an Urban School delves deeper into interesting questions regarding race and perceptions of race in the classroom.

Casie Fedukovich is one of the first (and few) to broach the idea of Southern women in the classroom. Her work “Strange Imports: Working-Class Appalachian Women in the Composition Classroom” really delves into issues of seemingly impossible binaries of student and hillbilly, as brings to light certain issues and strengths working-class women bring to the university. This work, outside of Working Class Women in the Academy, is perhaps most directly relevant to my experience as a southern woman in academia.

By taking a good look at the roots of when the Southern accent became acknowledged initially, this paper attempts to trace its transformation from merely being accepted to being a legitimate mouthpiece for expression for an unrealized marginalized group.

Interested in Morris’s book? Here’s a link http://www.amazon.com/Unexpected-Minority-White-Urban-School/dp/0813537215/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1401827466&sr=1-1&keywords=edward+morris+unexpected+minority