Our media cycles through stories like a giant dry cleaning operation. The dirt comes in, we churn it over and over until the toughest stains unloose themselves from the original threads, something’s purified for us, and then more dirt arrives, an endless sliding door of sins spotted, scrubbed, forgotten.
We should let our dirty clothes air a little longer. For example, I’ve been wanting to write about the Covington High School boys debacle—you know, those teenagers in MAGA hats and the Native American drummer—a spectacle of our American dynamic writ large only to reemerge from the cleaners as a lesson in call-out culture and journalistic carelessness. How dare we pick on those boys?
Now, we’ve moved on. The primary boy involved put on a pressed shirt his mother picked out, went on the air, and tapped his feet for us. No sneer, all smiles and genuflection. We did our due diligence in tarring Nathan Phillips’ validity (can’t trust those natives!). Now, we’re onto better dirt: a governor and his racist yearbook photos.
But I want to go back, because all the “voices of reason” about the Covington High School scandal missed something important, even the voices I trust. What they missed dovetails right into our latest scandal. What they missed is the power of what Saussure and Barthes would call the relationship between signifier and signified. That’s fancy critical theory talk for: symbols carry meaning whether we intend for them to or not. There’s no such thing as a neutral MAGA hat—or a jesting white hood--even if an altar boy wears it, even if every Black nationalist on the continent hurled vitriol in his face, even if a veteran turns out not to be a veteran, at least in any sanctified war (“Aren’t all Native Americans veterans? insists my snarkiest self”).
Let me back up. We know that the originally released video of the incident edited out some important context. We know that it was released intentionally to bait and stir up political unrest. We know that the boys were caught in a complex American moment. We know even some of the most reputable media outlets weren’t thorough enough on their first stab at the story. However, the dismay from all fronts at our attack on the Covington High School boys in question makes my skin crawl. I say that as a teacher at a mostly white prep school who can imagine the boys in question and imagine loving them too.
First, Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Douthat is unapologetically conservative and Catholic in the way that makes me embarrassed to perform the sign of the cross where anyone can see me, so I’m not primed to love his opinion anyway (in my head he’s always Ross Ass-hat, but that’s…not very Christian). Still, he responded in the obvious way, his “Id” asking, “Oh, O.K., so if a teenager wears a cap associated with the president of the United States he’s asking to have media figures fantasize about punching him, to be doxxed and harassed, to have adults from his school temporarily stampeded into talking about expelling him, even to have half of Catholic Twitter, priests included, briefly damning him as a racist? Blame the victim much, do we?”
I love that: “A cap associated with the president of the United States.” Only it’s not. It’s a cap associated with racial profiling and pussy-grabbing, with an American man who once called someone “Pocahontas” as an insult. Even Douthat admits the hat is “culture-war signaling.” In other words, if you wear one, you’re armed for war.
Then, we’ve got David Brooks in the New York Times, also a conservative -- although our country’s polarized politics have bestowed him with a reputation for moderation that I’m not sure he deserves -- lamenting the moral superiority each side craves. He writes, “The Covington case was such a blatant rush to judgment –it was powered by such crude prejudice and social stereotyping – I’m hoping it will be an important pivot point.“
I love that too: “Such crude prejudice and social stereotyping.” He’s suggesting that a white, prep school male in a MAGA hat should be, in his opinion, afforded the presumption of innocence, that the “crude prejudicing” is not, in fact, already carried inside the hat’s own semiology.
Finally, we have Caitlin Flanagan, NOT a conservative and a writer I admire, admonishing The New York Times’ coverage of the story in The Atlantic. She points out that in the Times' first story the boys are called “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats,” while in a later story they’re simply “Catholic Boys.” She asks, “How had the boys been demilitarized from wearers of MAGA hats to Catholic boys in twenty-four hours?”
It’s a good question. How indeed? Only, while she implies that “Catholic Boys” would have been the responsible moniker in the first place, I think the problem is that “Boys in MAGA hats” is the whole heart of the story here. The problem wasn’t the descriptor, the descriptor was accurate, they WERE boys in MAGA hats, only the dynamics of the situation were more complex than they first appeared. By demilitarizing their description of the boys, the Times made another mistake. They too fell back onto a presumption of innocence in the scramble to cover their own mistake, signaling the boys’ piety rather than their attire.
Here’s the thing, though: a MAGA hat is a weapon. It may not contain bullets, but it certainly has a chamber eager for loading. The self-righteous protection of these boys makes them complicit in a national gas-lighting incident. They started the fight (unwittingly, perhaps), and now everyone’s mad people fought back. But those hats provoked the conflict whether we like it or not.
Those boys might not understand that they’re walking around, for all intents and purposes, openly carrying a weapon, and as an educator, that’s the saddest thing about this to me. How badly are we educating our children if they don’t understand their own messaging? How badly are we parenting if we help our children divorce hatred from its symbols? Many people have asked where the adults were in this scenario; they were there, it turns out. What I want to ask is where were they before? Politics aside, why would you let high school students walk around in Washington, D.C. in MAGA hats if you had any semblance of understanding of our socio-historical moment? That borders on negligence, and certainly disregards their bodily safety. It also prevents them from entering a beloved community; it potentially isolates them. If my black son were older, I’d tell him not to interact with a stranger in a MAGA hat. I'd have to. We ask our children to redeem us all the time, and we expect them to resolve the sins of our past with each other. How can they do that if we don't disarm them first?
Sigh. I feel like I’m always writing the same essay, one about the white innocence our country so desperately needs to believe in above all else. I can already imagine the comments, “But they didn’t mean anything by wearing the hats. But Governor Northam didn’t mean to be racist by celebrating Halloween costumes based on our country’s most shameful history.” Maybe. But as my senior high school students (hopefully) know, the New Critics, mostly white males, would remind us of the Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter, in art or representation, what we intend. It matters what we do.
We want to take our dirty clothes to the dry cleaners and emerge as an ideal America. We want, understandably, for our children—especially the white, male ones--to have lives untouched by ethical and historical inheritance.
Meanwhile, we’re cloaked in it.
Comic books aren’t really my thing. At least they didn’t used to be my thing. Reading them infuriates me—which bubble am I supposed to read next? I want the stodginess of left-to-right prose on the page, or the visual pacing of poetry’s line breaks. But right now, I’m co-teaching a course on Marvel’s Black Panther with a colleague of mine during my school’s Interim period. We wanted to teach together, and oddly, I threw out the idea, in part because I loved the film and in part because I knew comic books ARE his thing. He could be the expert on comics and character; I could teach storytelling, archetypes, Postcolonial theory.
Two things have affected me most during this experience: 1) the shift in classroom dynamics when black students have a black teacher and a curriculum that privileges black life, and 2) Erik Killmonger.
If you’ve seen the film, you’re picturing Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger—T’Challa’s forsaken cousin, left to his own defenses in 1990s Oakland, whose sense of injustice and vengeance turn him into Black Panther’s evil shadow. In the comics they’re not related, but Ryan Coogler’s decision to increase their kinship, at least in terms of bloodline, works to amp up racial and historical subtext. Viewers end up watching two brothers, wrought from the same DNA gold: strength, intelligence, beauty. But they’re different too. One respects women, one doesn’t. One has the capacity for humility and change, one doesn’t. The story becomes a case study in environmental influence on character.
It’s hard for me to watch Erik Killmonger and not love him. For one thing, despite his acting prowess, whenever I encounter Michael B. Jordan on screen, I first see Vince Howard, the big-hearted quarterback from seasons four and five of Friday Night Lights. I assign an immediate vulnerability to any exterior toughness. Vince and Eric share some similarities—missing fathers, economic hardship, and danger’s temptations beckoning from every corner. But Vince has a loving, if flawed, mama, and a loving mentor in Coach Taylor. Erik Killmonger has himself. He embodies the worst effects of diasporic exile, which estranges people from community and geography and cuts clean the through line to ancestral identity and inheritance. He is a character who senses the wreckage of chance.
Our students empathize with him too, although they want T’Challa and Wakanda to prevail. He delivers hard truths like “Didn’t life start here on this continent? So ain’t all people your people?” and “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.” At the end of the film, when he finally witnesses a true Wakanda sunset and remarks, “It is beautiful,” his voice breaks. As do our hearts. Each time I watch that scene I want the sun to set on his pain, on the poison that racism plants in wounded soil. Some of our students even cried—I think they know what I know, that while Killmonger’s anger is righteous, his killing is not. He has to be defeated, but his defeat takes a toll on Black Panther.
What does Erik Killmonger have to do with classroom dyamics?
Well, at the risk of simplifying complexities into tidy analogies, students can feel exiled too. At my school—a predominately white, wealthy and traditional college preparatory—black students rarely enter classrooms with more than one other student, maybe, that looks like them and even more rarely do they greet a black teacher at the door. Moreover, they rarely encounter stories about people of color that aren’t stories of victimhood or oppression. To Kill a Mockingbird, Othello, The Bean Trees, even—I admit it--Citizen.
Twice now, I’ve co-taught a unit or a course with a black colleague. Here’s what I can attest to: students of color immediately gravitate to and revere the teacher of color and I become….less important in the room. It’s not that students don’t respect me, or even love me, but I’m incidental to something bigger happening, something akin to lineage, to the restoration of homeland.
This week I’ve tried to infect my eldest son with a love of Black Panther. He asks questions, “Where is Wakanda, Mama?” and “Who are the bad guys?” I don’t really have answers—I want to say things like, “Wakanda is inside us,” or “Bad guys were good once,” but I don’t. I let him skim through Christopher Priest’s images and words on his own.
“Black Panther is the same color as my brother,” he says one night while he’s shoving spoonfuls of macaroni and cheese into his mouth.
“Yes,” I say.
And then I worry about ancestral exile. And then I love my colleagues. Children like my second, black son will need them in the room if only to remind them that beautiful sunsets exist, and so do kings, so do warrioresses.
And Vibranium too.
Yesterday my husband and I toured Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. We're in the last days of our winter break, but our children have gone back to daycare, so we had the rare opportunity to spend time together, alone, in daylight hours. Because we have a membership to the museum, we get access to special exhibits. Currently, the museum houses a special exhibit--a gallery of portraits--on the British Royals from the Tudors to the Windsors. Neither of us felt drawn to the exhibit; we're not Anglophiles that way, and aside from the one summer I read three entire 800-page history books on the Tudors because of a brief flare-up of Anne Boleyn obsession, we don't know much or care. I don't ooh and aah over royal weddings or royal babies or royal anything. Perhaps I'm a little too aware of my Irish Catholic ancestry to idolize Britain. But, we had free entry, so we thought, why not?
Like most curated exhibits at the MFAH, the gallery enticed us into caring: the strange femininity of men renowned for their brutality toward enemies and subjects, the largess of the paintings, the intricate ancestral webs. Around us, museum visitors sported tour guide headphones, and others huddled up their children saying, look, look while the children giggled.
Then, I turned a corner and stood face-to-face with George II's mistresses, one of which was Louise de Karoualle. She was an agent of the French ambassador during her love affair with the British king and widely disliked by British people--apparently--but a favorite of his nonetheless. Her portrait renders her much more beautiful than the actual royals of her time, and her beauty and benevolence, I was informed by the adjoining placard, were meant to be heightened by the artist when he placed an African child under her arm. The dark-skinned girl blends into the background, while de Karoualle's pale white face glows from the center of the frame like a sun. Adoring, the child tilts her chin up toward the sunlight, modeling the appropriate response from viewers to such splendor.
I side-eyed my husband.
"Yeah," he said. "Gross."
"But, a portrait of me with W. could look like that," I said and grimaced.
"I think you'd at least be smiling," he said.
We passed through the rest of the gallery in silence, from Victoria to Elizabeth II to Diana to Meghan Markle.
I was thinking of all the children, black, brown and white, moving past de Karoualle's portrait. I was thinking too of postcolonial theorist, Edward Said, who wrote, "The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe." On the stage of that portrait, the African girl is a prop, there merely to adorn and mimic her subject. Of course, this portrayal of white women's lives as center stage to a backdrop of brown supporting actors is not new, and not infrequent. Consider the following Anthropologie ad:
But what I was really thinking about was my own potential complicity as an artist. My black child is not a prop in the performance of my life--I certainly didn't "aquire" him to highlight my white goodness; we didn't go looking for any particular color of child in our adoption process as though children are collectibles--but when I use him in my writing about race, I risk making him a prop.
Inevitably, this website will constitute one "portrait of a white woman," a representation, carefully curated, and one meant for viewing. So I must create more thoughtfully than Sir Peter Lily when he placed that African child at the foot of Louise de Karoulle's lap. Of course, I have the advantage of loving my child and knowing his divine specifics--throaty laugh, bow-legged gait, maple syrup eyes--but the challenge to me remains: paint the messy truth.