Politics of Breath: Pandemic to Protest

This special section emerged amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. It began as a project to document the creativity and innovation that emerged as the world confronted fear, anxiety, and loss, as well as resilience and hope. However, this section took on new meaning after the death of George Floyd. The video of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis Police Officer that pressed his knee on George Floyds neck for eight minutes, brought to the fore the systemic and institutional racism embedded into the foundation of America.

The right to breathe, the most basic of human rights, became a symbolic thread as COVID- 19 hinders the ability to breathe and racism took the breath of Floyd. In a short period of time COVID-19 stirred both fear and heroism, while the death of Floyd reignited an international movement insisting that Black Lives Matter.

The Black Lives Matter protests that are sweeping the globe remind us of our history of colonialism, police brutality, and the inequity of our society. The problems of systemic racism, White supremacy, and settler colonialism are complex and require unique approaches if we are to begin to eradicate them. Interdisciplinarity is about solving big problems, wicked, complex problems. Problems that require researchers, artists, and activists to collaborate and challenge the status quo. 2020 has brought the world an extraordinary amount of change; we are learning how to live differently with ourselves and with each other.

Each of the artists whose work is included in this special section has uniquely and powerfully connected us visually to the pandemics of racism and COVID-19 that continue to steal breath and life on a daily basis. Tamara Whites mixed media panel No Breath is a startling and coherent reminder of the injustice of inequality in America. The metaphor of the mask takes on multiple meanings and forces us to grapple with the reality of racism, the reality of the pandemic, and the reality that when one of us cant breathe we all suffer. Raúl Manzano illustrates both fear we feel and the fearlessness needed to rise above the uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to every aspect of our lives. His painting reminds us that liberty is more than a symbol. It is an active stance that we must take if we are to survive the pandemics of racism and COVID-19.

Saint Paul photographer Heather M. Swansons trio of photos depicts the local aftermath of the death of George Floyd and reminds us of the rioting and destruction that reached far beyond Minneapolis. These images are silent but loud representations of the need for activism and solidarity. Terae Soumahs mixed media piece You are not alone. was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and is a call to action for a global movement to address human rights issues that are deeply rooted in racial inequality. The piece asks us to work together as an international community to begin to solve disparities in healthcare, economic, educational, and housing security due to racial prejudice and discrimination.

Sarah Sutros paintings are about new, curious connections and confrontations between cultures, at a time when globalized living has scrambled assumptions about closeness and separation and COVID-19 has forced us to grapple with our own assumptions about closeness and separation. The artist says, the drawn ink marks represent energies and forces of the human and natural worlds. They reflect states of mind and being, in one case, being able to survive chaos, and in another, facing dark uncertainty(Sutro). This dichotomy is evocative of the uncertainty and need for survival that is an ever present part of our current reality in the face of racial injustice and COVID-19.

We have seen that radical action and bold steps can make the world a more equitable place – whether that is in addressing systemic racism or community health. We can see clear steps to making amends and taking accountability for a history that denies our Black brothers and sisters the right to breathe; a history that privileges some, not all. How we relate to our family, our friends, and our own histories are all interrogated in this journal. The next step must be to embrace and acknowledge interdisciplinary ways of knowing as a pathway to creating new futurity. Whether we are looking at our healthcare futures or our political futures, the need for interdisciplinary work and connection as a tool for our liberation must be at the forefront. The only way forward is through, together.

In Search of My Mother’s Garden

Abstract: Alice Walker is a Pulitzer Prize winner who has written several best-selling novels and has had her works inspire popular movies. In the work “In Search of My Mother’s Garden”, Walker (1983) explores the lived experience of her own mother through the perspective of African-American women both in the past and present. The words of Walker include the excluded and give a voice to Black women. This article will analyze how Black women used their voices to express their creativity. The article will first explore how Walker used her unique writing style and methodology to shine light on the creative spirit of Black women and how it was expressed in the face of daily discrimination, abuse and violence. The article will explore the various ways Black women demonstrated their creativity. The article will also compare the lives of creative white women and Black women to illustrate the differences in the origin and expressions of creativity. The article will next talk about the idolization of Black women as “saints” and if that perspective is warranted. The article makes use of the words of Walker herself and the author’s personal narratives as examples of the resilient creativity of Black women in support of Walker’s perspective.


My mother’s name was Ora Mai. “Ms. Reese,” as we affectionally called her, birthed and raised eight children, four boys, and four girls, and was a domestic abuse survivor. She supported herself and her children by working as a food service supervisor on the Fort Campbell Army Base in Kentucky for thirty years. My mother had a massive heart attack due to a life of imbalance and working much more than she played. Mom survived a myocardial infarction, but her life changed when she was declared disabled. Her medical condition forced Ora Mai to retire abruptly at the age of forty-nine. For the last twenty years of her life, she was active in her church and passed the time by planting a beautiful vegetable garden. My maternal grandmother Hattie raised fourteen children, nine girls, and five boys. “Mama” Hattie never worked outside of her home. Her husband Peter died early, and she never remarried. Mama Hattie also planted a beautiful garden, which helped to support her family. In the midst of unimaginable challenges they faced daily, both women chose to plant gardens, and I always wondered why.

In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

Alice Walker’s famous work “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” enlightened me when she wrote about Black women like my mother and grandmother. Walker wrote about black mothers and grandmothers throughout the past hundred years or more and portrayed them as hidden artists. Walker explains, “For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not saints, but artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release” (230-231). The black woman was subject to the most humiliating and degrading existence possible. They were treated as sexual objects by the men in their lives, which included their owners, their lovers, or whoever took an interest at the moment. These women were not saints as Walker notes but were made into saints because of the pejorative treatment they received at the hands of others. Walker’s work also paraphrased Okot p’Bitek’s great poem when she wrote, “O, my clanswomen let us cry together!  Let us mourn the death of our mother, the death of a queen…the creator of our stool is lost! And all the young women have perished in the wilderness” (Walker 231). The tone of the poem is beyond melancholic; it is hopeless. The mothers and grandmothers of centuries past endured a midnight that never gave the promise of a new day.

Nevertheless, they found reasons to live where no reason existed. Alice Walker helped me see the gardens of Ora Mai and “Mama” Hattie in a new light. Walker helped me see that the gardens they worked on every day meant more than the food it produced.

The Garden Metaphor

The metaphor of a garden used by Alice Walker can take on different meanings for different persons in different settings. Walker chose to use the metaphor of a garden to represent the fact that every person lives life in search of a garden. In her work, Walker portrays the garden as a space of peace and “somebodiness” where the gardener’s life means something. In the African American experience, the search for a garden space requires a fight from the day they are born against racism and systemic disenfranchisement because of their skin color. The most current example of the fight African Americans are facing every day is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It has again revealed the precariousness of the African American family in this nation. In the beginning, COVID-19 did not appear to discriminate as it spread. However, as collected data has revealed, COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans because of the health disparities between whites and people of color (Godoy). The data shows that African Americans become sicker at a higher rate, are hospitalized longer, and die more frequently than white persons. COVID-19 has proved the adage “when a white person catches a cold, a black person gets pneumonia.”

The Hidden Artist in the Garden

The “artist” in African American women cannot be easily identified. Walker identified artistry as expressed in their spirituality, which is defined as a deep belief in the unseen world independent of religious affiliation. African American women have drawn strength from attending and singing in the church (235). Their active participation in the church was a conflation of church and lived experience that gave rise to creativity that seemed to keep life’s madness and frustration under control.

Walker illustrated the hidden artistry of African American women when she juxtaposed author Virginia Woolf’s life with that of author Phyllis Wheatley. Walker points to the classic work of Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, and commends Woolf because, “in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, a room of her own and money to support herself” (232). Walker points this out to acknowledge the difficulty of all women to be taken seriously as artists and creators in the early 1900s. Walker affirms the difficulty of even white women to express their artistry. However, Walker does point out that because Woolf was white, she could write and use her earnings to rent her own room and make enough money to support herself. Woolf’s life ended when she committed suicide. Walker described the end of Woolf’s life by writing, “any woman born with a great gift would have ended her days… having been hindered or thwarted by contrary instincts that she would most certainly lose her health or sanity” (232). Walker acknowledged both that Woolf’s artistry contributed to her death and that she made a choice in the midst of mental illness to end her life and did not die at the hands of others who hated her.

In contrast, Phyllis Wheatley, a fellow author, battled poor health throughout her life yet managed to create meaning for her life when others saw her as meaningless. The “contrary instincts” Woolf experienced in her life was also the lived experience of Wheatley. She was captured as a slave at seven and forced to work for a cruel master. She lived the entirety of her life, wasting away in loveless relationships while raising children and writing poetry. Wheatley was still able to create great works of art in spite (or some would argue because of) the pain and anguish she experienced daily. The level of creativity she demonstrated was only limited by her circumstances. Unlike her white counterpart Woolf, Wheatley did not choose to die, but, like Woolf, she found a way to overcome her circumstances to express her creativity through her writing.

African American women artists like Phyllis Wheatley lived with two inhumane realities. The first reality was that they were forced to live life in a proverbial waiting room. They had to wait to see if their children would be sold away from their loving arms. They had to wait to see if the man who sired the child would play the role of a guest or a husband, or perhaps would be sold and not have any options. They would often wait a long time hoping for a good outcome for African American women, only to be perpetually disappointed. The other reality is that these artists were forced to live in anonymity. They were unknown and dismissed, except for the few people within their family circle. The gifts of poetry, singing, writing, politics, and architecture went unacknowledged and unexpressed because there was no public outlet for them, and their gifts died with them. Even when these artistic, talented women had the opportunity to make something beautiful out of nothing, their contributions would often be stolen and go unattributed. Walker described one example in the following story, “In the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C, there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures. It is made of pieces of worthless rags that tell the story of the Crucifixion. The art is priceless. There is a note that says by an anonymous black woman in Alabama” (236).

How Artistry Survived in the Garden

Walker asks her readers to consider the following question: What has kept the artistry and genius within these mothers and grandmothers alive century after century despite their circumstances? Poet Jean Toomer took a tour of the Southern states and referred to the African American women he observed: “as mules of the world” (Walker 230). His description denied them of a title that may have afforded them any semblance of humanity. Walker characterized Toomer’s observations in the following way: “These crazy saints stared out at the world like lunatics, or quietly like suicides; and the ‘God that was in their gaze was as mute as a stone’’ (230). In his opinion, African American women lived lives of mundanity and dreamed dreams that no one knew, including themselves. Walker sought to answer several questions about how African American women were able to achieve the impossible. How did these mothers and grandmothers maintain their sanity? How did they not only survive but thrive? How did they continue to create as they performed demeaning tasks like cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children of people who hated them? The author’s own admission took her several years to come upon the answer, but she finally found it in her mother’s flower garden. Walker described her revelation in the following way: “She grew more than fifty varieties of flowers. People would stop by her house and ask permission to walk the sacred space. My mother adorned whatever shabby house we lived in with flowers. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass and laid out new beds” (237).

Walker said that when her mother was in her garden, her face was radiant and there was a peacefulness in her soul. It seems that her mother’s garden was an outdoor cathedral whose members were this variety of flowers. The music was provided by the sounds of the wind. Whatever she planted grew as if by magic. Walker’s description shows that her mother found her connection with spirituality not in a Holy Book nor in a preacher spewing out platitudes that offered no real comfort for everyday struggles. Walker’s mother’s garden was her place of refuge and meaning that had been used by generations of women before her. 

African American women found their voices in their gardens. Their voices were muted by law, tradition, and kin, yet they found their creative expression in small plots of land that they did not own on paper but worked and cared for with their souls. These artists found in their gardens a homegrown hope. The lashes of an angry master could not kill their creativity when they were working in the garden. The mutilations carved into their flesh by men and childbirth would not diminish their inner joy. Walker mused over how African American women’s souls would have been robbed of amazing works of creativity if the world had successfully muted the artistic genius of artists like Phyllis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, Zora Hurston, Nella Larsen, Bessie Smith, Elizabeth Catlett or Katherine Dunham (235).

Portraits of Artistry in the Gardens

This picture is of Rosa Dale, taken in 1925. “Mama” Rosa is the grandmother of Fred Dale, who married my oldest sister Margaret in 1966. The picture shows the land and home where she gardened and that she could own from “providential” means that were never fully known. “Mama” Rosa is the quintessential artist that Walker is celebrating. Rosa Dale had ten siblings and was born on a plantation that is now Camden, Alabama. During the slavery era, the land was owned by the Dale and McReynolds families. A split between the families occurred, and the land was divided between the two families. Their slaves were also divided, and their families retained either the McReynolds or Dale’s last name. “Mama” Rosa never learned to read or write, but she would use her garden’s harvest to provide for her family. Despite her circumstances and limitations, this artist motivated her children and grandchildren to become physicians, educators, engineers, attorneys, and business owners. None of that would have happened without the provisions of “Mama” Rosa’s garden.

In this picture is my Cousin Naomi. She is the widow of a pastor. Naomi planted a garden that produced the fruit and vegetables in the photograph. All of the produce was given away to persons in the community at no charge. After her husband died in 2012, she continued to grow the fruit and vegetables that supplements her meager pension. Cousin Naomi has received numerous commendations for her produce quality in local newspaper articles, and she shares her gift teaching gardening to other seniors. Naomi is well into her 80s and is still gardening.

“Mama” Rosa and Cousin Naomi are the epitomai of the “head ragged generals” that paved the way for their children and their children’s children (Walker 238). Despite being denied the opportunities to participate fully in society, they found outlets for their creativity in their gardens that provided for their families. They ended up making long-lasting contributions to their communities, even in the midst of their circumstances. These women prove Walker’s point that the artistry they expressed within their homes’ confines allowed them to find meaning for themselves despite the constraint society placed upon them.


Alice Walker’s work In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is a literary masterpiece that provides a rare portrayal of African American women’s resilience as expressed by their gardens. She takes readers on a trip back through time to experience the struggles of African Americans during slavery with her detailed descriptions of the cotton fields, the harsh overseers, the auction blocks, and other atrocities. Walker’s discovery of the garden as the outlet for creativity and a space of refuge in her work provides a great insight into how common people could survive generation after generation of struggling while still maintaining their dignity and self-respect.  My mother, Ora Mai, grew a remarkable garden for the last twenty-two years of her life. Although she has been away from me physically for twenty-five years, I can still remember seeing the faraway look in her eyes that had nothing to do with seeds and weeds. It never dawned on me before reading Walker’s work that the plot of the ground meant so much to her. Alice Walker gave me a portrait of my mom that no camera can capture. I found peace and wept tears of gratitude for what the garden meant to her. There is a dire need for more gardens in America that can eventually grow seeds of peace for our black mothers and women, leading to the systemic change we need to see in our society.

Works Cited

Godoy, Maria. “What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?”. NPR.com. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/05/30/865413079/what-do-coronavirus-racial-disparities-look-like-state-by-state. Accessed 30 May 2020.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. Harvest Harcourt, 1983.

The Rhetoric of Beyonce’s Formation

Abstract: After its release on February 6, 2016, Beyoncé Knowles’s visual song “Formation” garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, scholars, and public figures. If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, Beyoncé’s embodiment of the West African female deity Mami Wata in the video signals engagement in a discourse about history, spirituality, gender, sexuality, power, capitalism, and geography that sets “Formation” apart from the superstar’s catalogue of popular music.

Mami Wata represents the nurturing and destructive forces of nature; women as the purveyors and preservers of culture, and of life. She is a wily and beautiful sea goddess – a divine trickster—known for her ability to enchant men, her fascination with modernity, and her spiritually and materially restorative powers. The Formation video combines elements of Afrofuturist, womanist, and feminist principles to affirm the richness of Black American culture while reminding Black women of their power and the necessity that they use it to ensure black survival. This presentation explores Mami Wata’s (Beyoncé’s) call to action: “Okay ladies, now let’s get in formation” and why it is necessary for black women to do so.

“What are you doing if you are not reflecting the times? That to me is the definition of an artist?”

-Nina Simone

Breaking Down the Discourse of “Formation”

This paper focuses on the ways the lyrics, music, dance and visual presentation of “Formation”, along with Beyoncé Knowles’s ethos as a cultural icon, come together to provide a reflection on the socio-political climate at the time of the visual song’s release, as well as a snapshot of black history, within a coded format that is consistent with the African American tradition of emancipatory artistry. It is important to note that Trayvon Martin’s birthday was on February 5. He would have been 21 years old in 2016. The Lemonade visual album, which includes the song “Formation”, was released on February 6, 2016 and that year the Superbowl took place in Oakland, California, a city well known for its black activism. Additionally, 66% of the athletes in the NFL are African American men. What better way to celebrate Black History Month and black Americans than during, arguably, the most prestigious sporting event of the year, America’s game?

After its release, Beyoncé Knowles’s “Formation” video garnered a variety of responses from popular culture critics, members of academia, and public figures, including former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. In an interview with Hollywoodreporter.com in 2016, Giuliani states:

Can’t you figure out who you’re putting on? I mean this is a political position, she’s probably going to take advantage of it. You’re talking to middle America when you have the Super Bowl, so you can have entertainment. Let’s have, you know, decent wholesome entertainment, and not use it as a platform to attack the people who, you know, put their lives at risk to save us. (par. 9)

If one were to listen to the music and lyrics without viewing the video, the conclusion could be drawn that the song is simply a tribute to Knowles’s southern roots, a declaration of her personal preferences, and a celebration of her agency as an independent black woman. However, when viewing the video while listening to the music, and conducting a close reading of the lyrics, it is clear the narrative Beyoncé presents is far more complex and deeply political, though maybe not in the way that Giuliani suggests. It is not anti-law-enforcement, but rather, pro-black-survival, a celebration of blackness. In her article “Critical Discourse Analysis – A Primer”, Sue L.T. McGregor asserts that:

Discourse analysis challenges us to move from seeing language as abstract to seeing our words as having meaning in a particular historical, social, and political condition. Even more significant, our words (written or oral) are used to convey a broad sense of meanings and the meaning we convey with those words is identified by our immediate social, political, and historical conditions. (par. 4)

The musical style of the song is a subgenre of hip hop known as Trap Bounce. The term “trap music” refers to a specifically southern style of hip hop. The “trap” is the name given to the streets of poor black neighborhoods or the trap houses where cocaine deals are made. Southern rappers usually rapped about drug dealing in the genre’s inception. Bounce music is a style of hip hop which originated in the projects of New Orleans and is influenced by the city’s deeply rooted musical traditions. Producing a song in this musical style immediately signals entry into a creatively, chronologically and geographically black space, rife with suffering and full of triumph.

The language Knowles uses to communicate her personal/public narrative is what Geneva Smitherman refers to as Black Dialect, Black Language, or Black English. Smitherman writes:

Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African Heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America. Black Language is Euro-American speech with an Afro-American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture. The Black idiom is used by 80 to 90 percent of American Blacks, at least some of the time. (2)

Knowles’s use of rhyme, current cultural colloquialisms such as “haters”, “fly”, “twirl”, “rock”, and “trick” (among others), as well as call and response, give the song a hip hop/spoken word quality. This distinction is important because it sets “Formation” apart from the rest of her catalogue of popular music. Hip Hop and spoken word poetry traditionally have been vehicles for black activist rhetoric. A common feature of these forms is their ability to entertain and inform simultaneously, with the goal being to “drop knowledge” while using a rhythmic mnemonic device that can be remembered and repeated.

The name “Formation” itself implies a planned arrangement or structure. This refers to the construction of knowledge about blackness, black womanhood, and black oppression. It also applies to the structure of Black Language, which has historically been associated with a lack of intellectual ability and education. However, this dialect with its regional variations, has a concrete set of grammatical rules that are understood by most black people to some degree due to a shared history and experience, yet more difficult for others outside the culture to interpret. A New Yorker article on the topic of Black English paraphrases the linguist John McWhorter: “…someone who studied Black English as a foreign language would have a hard time figuring out when, and how, to deploy it”. The title of the song is also a call to action, a pledge of solidarity, and the establishment of a structure of protection against an ensuing battle, all of which Knowles directs toward black women as she repeatedly chants, “Ok, ladies now let’s get in formation” (cause I slay)” (“Formation”).

What Knowles seems to be requesting is protection against the decimation of black culture and black bodies. Her enlistment of women speaks to the power of the feminine principal: the role of women as purveyors and preservers of culture and of life. When she says, “Slay trick or you get eliminated”, she is not simply talking about a dancer getting cut from an audition if she does not “kill” the moves (“Formation”). She is imploring women to do what is necessary to save blackness, in all its forms, from being eliminated: historically, culturally, geographically and physically. In this case, the use of the typically misogynistic term “trick”, meaning slut or prostitute, is turned on its head. Knowles uses this as a code word to mean a cunning, or wily woman who can use her wits to outsmart those who underestimate her. This character creation is reminiscent of the trickster character common in African folktales, only in female form. Creating a female trickster is an indictment of sexism and an empowerment of women.

“Formation” was directed by Melina Matsoukas, who was interviewed by The New York Times in December of 2016. The journalist, Wesley Morris, made this comment: “It was exciting seeing the world re-engage with a music video as a formal work. We weren’t just talking about Beyoncé with “Formation”. We were talking about history, current affairs, art and politics” (par. 7). Matsoukas responded:

That wasn’t anything expected. I had no idea that it would have that reaction and initiate those kinds of conversations. That was very satisfying as an artist to be a part of that. I feel there’s been a lot of racial injustice in our community, and we’re hungry for somebody to say something and for somebody as strong as Beyoncé to say something and show value to people of color. (par. 7)

Discourse Analysis

As it opens, the video has the grainy quality of a VHS tape and the words “parental advisory” appear like the digital print out on a desktop computer screen. The message warns adults there will be explicit language. This documentary-like introduction has the power to transport the viewer to the period between the late 1970s and 1990s when politicians; and others such as Tipper Gore were waging a freedom-of-speech war on rap music and any music that had any language or political message that went against “the establishment”. In this context, Beyoncé is bringing forth a powerful message that black people’s fight to speak and to be heard continues, and that she will not be silenced. The first words are uttered by Messy Mya, a queer Bounce rapper and YouTuber notorious in the New Orleans music and social media scenes, who was murdered in 2010. Beyoncé stands on the roof of a police car that is submerged in water, giving the impression that she is rising from the water. She is wearing a red and white dress. This image evokes the West African female deity, Mami Wata, who, according to Edward Chukwurah, “in her most modern incarnation, is sea-faring, openly gender-queer, and has a love of flashy and foreign gadgets. Her attachment to modernity and greater destructiveness are reflections of the scorn of tradition, as well as the cultural anxiety inflicted by Western influences” (par. 1). Mami Wata is also known for her beauty and power to enchant men, as well as her power to offer spiritual and material healing to her people. Messy Mya proclaims (0:04): “What happened at the New Orleans? Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” Then, music plays as a montage of black bodies, violence, nightlife, black neighborhoods, the “Black Church” and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina appear and disappear. This song is as much a personal “shout out” to Messy Mya, as it is a statement about respect for all black identities, black resilience, outrage over the marginalization and oppression of black citizens at the hands of law enforcement and political officials of the city, and a declaration that black New Orleans is back. The feminist and spiritual aspects of this song/video are clearly engaging each other in a discourse about history, religion, gender, sexuality and power.

Beyoncé is stationary now reclining on the police car (0:21). Her demeanor is intensely focused and ripe with ennui as she describes the superficial red-carpet treatment and relentless criticism she receives, due to her stardom. She addresses the speculation about her marriage and her wealth when she speaks the lyrics, “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress. I’m so possessive so I rock his Roc necklaces” (0:33). All the while the music is a repetitive background beat. Then, as she gives what she believes to be her pedigree – her own understanding of who she truly is and where she comes from – the music builds: “My daddy, Alabama. Mama, Louisiana. You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘bama” (1:37). The repetitive beat becomes Bounce dance music, a celebration, an indication that something very important is about to be said, and she is fully, energetically engaged.

Knowles uses metaphor and Black Language to create layers of meaning about her personal identity, female identity, and black identity in general. McGregor contends that:

“Even one word can convey strong meaning—connotations! These connotations are not always, or seldom, in the dictionary, but often assigned on the basis of the cultural knowledge of the participants. Connotations associated with one word, or through metaphors and figures of speech, can turn the uncritical viewer’s mind” (par. 15).

Beyoncé sings, “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson five nostrils. Earned all this money but they never take the country out me. I got hot sauce in my bag swag” (0:45). She is responding to criticisms about her daughter’s natural hair that have surfaced in social media, but using the Black English practice of dropping the possessive indicator so she can be understood to be talking about her own hair as well: “I like my baby hair” instead of “I like my baby’s hair…”. In fact, she is talking about herself, her daughter and all black women being free to make their own decisions about what is beautiful to them, particularly pertaining to hair. This is evidenced by images of black women wearing a plethora of hairstyles throughout the video.

Knowles goes on to use language in the same way to address criticism that has long been present in the media about her husband’s physical appearance: “I like my negro nose” instead of “I like my negro’s nose…”. Again, though she is directly stating she likes the way her husband looks, she is also talking about her own nose, and black noses in general. She uses the metaphor “Jackson Five nostrils” to make a statement about black noses that is respectful and positive on the one hand, since the Jackson Five is iconic in black culture. On the other hand, she is also speculating on “post-Jackson Five nostrils” and the attendant internalized oppression and self-hatred that could be at the root of the surgical alteration of black body parts to resemble white features more closely. The verse ends with Knowles proclaiming that the money she has earned does not change her. The “hot sauce in my bag swag” line implies a secret spicy ingredient or hidden weapon she has but one that many black women, particularly black southern women, possess.

The bridge between the first and second verses returns to the repetitive background beat, but the precedent has been set. The viewer can sense that more knowledge is about to be dropped. Messy Mya is again featured (1:00) in a sample taken from the YouTube video “A 27-Piece, Huh?”, in which he is expressing appreciation for a woman’s hairstyle, as he randomly talks to people walking around the French Quarter. That sample is immediately followed by a brief commentary by queer Bounce artist Big Freedia, who makes it clear that she did not come to play and expresses an appreciation for “cornbreads and collard greens”, or what is known as soul food in the “Black Community”. Both performers speak in a variation of Black Language that is unique to New Orleans. Their comments make their presence clear and demand acknowledgement. These portions of the song serve to reintroduce Beyoncé, while asserting the right for black people of all identities to exist in a way that centers them.

Knowles uses language that is heavily laden with racist connotations, but she does so in an emancipatory way that requires requalification and redefinition of certain terms. Words such as “negro”, “bama”, and “yellow bone” have all historically been tools of categorization of black people, their level of intelligence and morality, and their proximity to whiteness. She creates a framework in which such language has uplifting prideful black meaning rather than the dehumanizing and denigrating meanings assigned to it by white racists. She says that when she sees something and wants it (2:00), she goes after it and she may use her “trickster” qualities to attain it. Her statement that “I stunt, yellow bone it” implies that she uses white assumptions about black people and complexion to her advantage. There has been criticism of this line as colorist and indicative of her “light-skinned privilege”. However, it is possible that Knowles recognizes the historical significance of this concept – known as passing – as a means by which black folks have been able to gain access to resources and opportunities they would otherwise be unable to access. For many black folks and their families, taking advantage of light-skinned privilege, or passing, has meant the difference between surviving or not. But, for Beyoncé, passing or taking advantage of her privilege as a black woman with a “light” complexion is not a permanent state of being embedded in secrecy or shame, but rather, a means to an end that centers black people of all appearances and identities as valuable and powerful by standards of their own making, as we see in the church pews, the second lines, beauty supply stores, and the family portraits on textured walls.

The second verse of “Formation” can be interpreted as a feminist commentary on women’s independence and sexual agency : “If he fuck me good, I take his ass to Red Lobster” (2:57). This line implies women’s sexual agency, their right to decide whether the sex with a given partner is “good sex” or not, and their ability to provide the man with a good meal as reward for his sexual prowess. However, considering the multiple layers of meaning in the song, this is just one perspective. Knowles is also making an economic and political commentary. Red Lobster, which is a moderately priced restaurant chain that originated in Florida, has become a cultural symbol among black Americans. Yet, footage in the video shows restaurants in black neighborhoods that have been closed down in the wake of Katrina. A take-out box of crawfish, which cannot be found on a Red Lobster menu, but is notorious fare in New Orleans, makes a cameo appearance. The reference to Red Lobster and the subsequent images of closed black-owned restaurants and crawfish can be interpreted as a commentary on how a capitalist system contributes to the demise of a self-sustaining black economy while it allows popular chain restaurants to thrive, although they do not meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Beyoncé goes on to state, “If he hit it right, I might take him on a ride on my chopper. Drop him off at the mall, let him buy some Js, let him shop, uhhh” (3:04). During the Hurricane Katrina event, both Condolezza Rice and George Bush were criticized for their failure to respond to the crisis in a timely manner. Paraphrasing a U.S. News and World Report article, contributor Kenneth T. Walsh reported that Bush flew over New Orleans in Air Force One to survey the area (par. 6-7) before returning to Washington D.C. from a vacation in Texas. Another paraphrase of Snopes.com illuminates the ides that Rice was shopping for expensive shoes in New York City (par. 4). Beyoncé’s lyrics are a codified way of alerting black people to the lack of care exhibited by the administration in dealing with this devastating event. In the video, she flips the double fisted finger. It is possible that those fingers were meant for Bush and Rice as a reflective look at their neglect of duty and obligation to protect the black citizens of New Orleans.

Toward the end of the video (4:00), white policemen stand on the street, in “Formation”, donning riot gear, as a small black boy in black pants and a hoody dances in front of them. He suddenly stops and spreads his arms wide. The policemen raise their hands in the air as the words “stop shooting us”, spray painted on a wall, flash on the screen. This is at once a commentary on how young black males are viewed by white supremacist society as being a threat to “law and order” merely by their organic performance of blackness and of youth, and a statement that black emancipatory artistry is a performance of resistance against this system of oppression. In an NPR interview, filmmaker Dream Hampton shares her perspective:

I think that the image with the boy who’s basically conducting a police lineup is magic. This is about them being in a trance, and them having to do what they usually try to make him do, which is put their hands up. The next cut about “Stop shooting us, it’s not the black power moment that we got in the late ’60s and ’70s, which she referenced on the actual Super Bowl day, with the Black Panther beret, but it is absolutely a message that comes straight out of Ferguson: “Hands up, don’t shoot”.

I think it was incredibly powerful. I think it was also a nod to Tamir Rice, you know. It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful. (par. 8-9)

The video closes with Beyoncé standing on what appears to be the porch of a plantation mansion, dressed in black, as a group of well-dressed black men (also in black) stand watch around her. She says, “You know you dat bitch when you cause all this conversation. Always stay gracious. Bes’ revenge is yo’ paper” (4:30). As she, again, reclaims a word – bitch – her statement is not borne of braggadocio about her personal wealth. It is a statement about the necessity for black people, especially black women, to amass wealth as a form of resistance. Finally, Mami Wata (Beyoncé) sinks into the water reclining on the roof of the police car, returning from whence she came; taking with her something as payment for the injustice that has been perpetrated. From the documentary “Trouble the Water”, which chronicles the Katrina disaster, we hear a man exclaim, “Golly, look at that wata, boy!” Mami Wata was summoned to protect, celebrate, embolden, and incite her people. Now, her work is done.

“Formation” and Womanist Discourse

Aside from being a rich multimodal example of how thoughtfully arranged cultural symbols can create a discourse about Black American history, black culture, and racism, Beyonce’s “Formation” also creates a womanist discourse in which she establishes black female identity and spirituality as a set of qualities, behaviors, and beliefs that run counter to Western notions of feminism, black feminine identity and spirituality.  Womanism is a concept first introduced by writer Alice Walker. In their article entitled “Alice Walker’s Womanism: Perspectives Past and Present”, Izgarjan and Markov paraphrase Walker’s description of Womanism:

Walker defines a womanist as a “black feminist or feminist of color” who loves other women and/or men sexually and/or nonsexually, appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility and women’s strength and is committed to “survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female”. She firmly locates womanism within black matrilinear culture deriving the word from womanish used by black mothers to describe girls who want to “know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for anyone” and whose behavior is “outrageous, courageous or willful” (305).

By positioning herself as both the wealthy powerful, professional woman and the “Texas ‘bama”, Beyoncé unifies  the concepts of inaccessible superstar and the down to earth southern girl from “around the way”. She is making a statement about the wide range of characteristics of black womanhood, many of which are ignored or diminished by a white supremacist society. However, these identities are not ignored within a Womanist context. The video centers women of multiple identities: women twerking, women presenting themselves as southern “ladies”, women as mothers, women with sexual desire and discernment, women as bitches, women as rich and poor, women as beauty queens, women of various sizes, shades, and shapes, women as ordinary and as goddesses.  All these depictions are celebrated, as are the identities of non-binary members of the “Black Community”, children, and men. The focus of Womanism is the well-being and validation of all members of the community within the framework of a holistic embrace of feminine identity and spirituality.

Mami Wata’s appearance in the video underscores Knowles’s message: the black woman as a macrocosm, occupying a place in this world and in the supernatural world. Mami Wata, is often depicted as a mermaid, a creature who is both human and otherworldly. According to Christey Carwile in hamanism: An Encyclopedia of Word Beliefs, Practices and Cutlures, Volume 1, the colors red and white are often used to symbolize Mami Wata’s influence (929). The red is symbolic of death, destruction, masculinity, and power, while white symbolizes beauty, creation, femininity, water and wealth. The combination of the two colors and what they represent is an indication of the complexity of black womanhood. Woman is not only soft, pure, nurturing, spiritual, and beautiful. She is also powerful, sexual, materialistic, and dangerous. There is no qualification of these traits as good or bad within the values of Vodou spirituality. They just exist as aspects of life. The confluence of these two aspects of Mami Wata’s identity shatter the long-edified essentialist stereotypes of black women as either Mammy, Sapphire, or Jezebel, as well as the archetype of woman (Eve) being responsible for original sin, and thus responsible for the evil in the world that Christianity asserts is the nature of womanhood.  Mami Wata’s existence maintains that black women have the ability to be many, possibly all, things in a way that is valued, respected, and sometimes feared – as those with power often are – yet, never sinful. Henry John Drewal describes Mami Wata:

An Efik sculpture portraying Mami Wata as a human-fishgoat-priestess handling a bird and a snake demonstrates her hybridity and powers of transformation. She can also easily assume aspects of a Hindu god or goddess without sacrificing her identity. She is a complex multivocal, multifocal symbol with so many resonances that she feeds the imagination, generating, rather than limiting, meanings and significances: nurturing mother, sexy mama, provider of riches, healer of physical and spiritual ills, embodiment of dangers and desires, risks and challenges, dreams and aspirations, fears and forebodings. (62)

Throughout “Formation” there are scenes of a black male pastor preaching while the congregation, made up mostly of women, rejoices. The juxtaposition of African female cosmology and the traditional Black Church problematizes Christianity and the limitations it places on black women. In an article published in Time magazine in 2016, writers Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley and Caitlin O’Neill describe Beyoncé’s embodiment of the deity, Mami Wata, and the Conjure woman who summons her:

Yes, “Formation” evokes New Orleans’ Hoodoo and Voodoo traditions with Bey in witchy black before an abandoned plantation house. But I also mean conjure in the sense of marrying dreams, work and power to create a new world—a world where black women own their bodies, pleasures, and possibilities. “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ‘til I own it,” Bey sings, and I believe her.

Conjure women have become important figures for black feminists who refuse to accept the world we’ve been given. “In societies in which race and class are defining attributes of one’s life, the conjure woman’s spiritual disposition affords her the flexibility and prerogative to manipulate such confining spaces…to create safe, protective spaces for other people of color,” said Africana scholar Kameelah Martin. (par. 11-12)

According to a nationwide study conducted in 2012 by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, black women are among the most religious groups in the United States. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, an associate professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School, states that “black women’s strong faith is the result of the triple jeopardy of oppression caused by racism, sexism and classism” (par. 15). Yet, according to Anthony B. Pinn, a professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, “their experience of oppression and marginalization are very similar within the church” (par. 16). In the article “Womanist theology”, Emilie Townes states that “womanist theology seeks to address the systemic oppression of women of color, the oppressive appropriation of the Bible by patriarchal churches and issues of black sexuality, among other important issues” (159).

Knowles uses her position as an entertainer to engage in a critical public discourse which transports the ordinary lives and experiences of black women from a micro level to a macro level discourse about power dynamics within white supremacist culture, black heteronormative relationships and sexist religious oppression. She reverses what T. A. Van Djik refers to as the positive presentation of the ingroup and “the negative presentation of the outgroup to challenge existing notions of power as they pertain to race and gender”. Van Djik contends that “powerful groups can control discourse through content, as well as the structures [or Formation] of text and talk” (356). By invoking multiple cultural symbols within the contexts of film, music, song, dance, history, politics and religion, Knowles assumes power and control, which she captures in a definitively black space and invites black people – black women – to occupy with her.

Works Cited

Beyoncé. “Pray You Catch Me.” Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, 2016, beyonce.com/album/lemonade-visual-album/lyrics/.

Beyoncé. “Formation.” YouTube, uploaded by Beyoncé, 6 Feb. 2016, https://youtu.be/WDZJPJV__bQ.

Carwile, Christey. “Mami Wata Religion.” Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, edited by Mariko Namba Walter and Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Cunningham, Vinson. “The Case for Black English.” The New Yorker, 9 July. 2019, newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/15/the-case-for-black-english. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.

Deal, Carl and Tia Lessin, director. Trouble the Water. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.

del Barco, Mandalit. “Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ Is A Visual Anthem.” All Things Considered from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016, npr.org/2016/02/08/466036710/beyonces-”Formation”-is-a-visual-anthem.

Dijk, Teun A. ” Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis.” Discourse & Society, vol. 4, no. 2, 1993, pp. 849-283.

Drewal, Henry John. “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas.” African Arts, vol. 41, no. 2, 2008, pp. 60–83. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20447886. Accessed 18 Aug. 2020.

Labbé-DeBose, Theola. “Black Women are Among Country’s Most Religious Groups.” Washington Post, 6 Jul 2012, www.washingtonpost.com/local/black-women-are-among-countrys-most-religious-groups/2012/07/06/gJQA0BksSW_story.html. Accessed 6 Feb. 2019.

McFadden, Syreeta. Beyoncé’s Formation reclaims black America’s narrative from the margins.” The Guardian, 8 Feb 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/08/beyonce-formation-black-american-narrative-the-margins. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

McGregor, Sue L. T. “Critical Discourse Analysis: A Primer.” Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Messy Mya. “Booking the Hoes From New Wildin.” YouTube, uploaded by TheeHHGz, 20 Aug. 2010, https://youtu.be/daKqgdcypTE.

Morris, Wesley. “Melina Matsoukas Touched Nerves from Behind the Camera.” The New York Times, 28 Dec. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/arts/music/melina-matsoukas-beyonce-formation-interview.html. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ofosuah Johnson, Elizabeth. (2019, July 9). “Mami Wata, the Most Celebrated Mermaid-Like Deity From Africa Who Crossed Over To The West.” Face2Face Africa, 20 Jul. 2018, https://face2faceafrica.com/article/mami-wata-the-most-celebrated-mermaid-like-deity-from-africa-who-crossed-over-to-the-west. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Parker, Ryan. “Beyonce’s Super Bowl Halftime Show Criticized by Rudy Giuliani as ‘Attack’ on Police.” The Hollywood Reporter, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/beyonces-super-bowl-halftime-show-862947. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Rice, Condoleezza. “A Conversation with Condoleezza Rice.” About Campus, Vol. 20, no. 2, 2015, pp. 3-7. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/abc.21185.

Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha, and Caitlin O’Neill. “Beyonce’s ‘Formation’ Is Activism for African Americans, Women and LGBTQ People.” Time, 8 Feb. 2016, https://time.com/4211888/beyonce-formation-activism/.

Townes, E. “Womanist Theology.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. 57, no. 3–4, Jan. 2003), pp. 159–176, https://ir.vanderbilt.edu/bitstream/handle/1803/8226/Townes-WomanistTheology.pdf?sequence=1. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019. Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003, http://www.kon.org/archives/forum/15-1/mcgregorcda.html. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Walsh, Kennith. T. “The Undoing of George W. Bush.” U.S. News & World Report, 28 Aug., 2015, https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2015/08/28/hurricane-katrina-was-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-george-w-bush. Accessed 22 Oct. 2019.

Ward, Jesmyn. “In Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,’ A Glorification Of ‘Bama’ Blackness.” 10 Feb. 2016 from NPR, 8 Feb. 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/02/10/466178725/in-beyonc-s-”Formation”-a-song-for-the-bama. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Living in this Black Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015)

Abstract: This paper is based on a close reading of Coates’ autobiographical narrative, Between the World and Me (2015). It examines the ways in which the author examines the vulnerability of the black body in America. His question “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream?” (12) is symptomatic of the title of the book which implies that the author is both alienated and dispossessed within the larger American world. However, this dispossession is not his alone, but it is characteristic of other marginalized groups in America, especially African Americans. Coates presents his experiences of living as a black person in America in the form of a letter to his son, Samori, to ensure that the latter does not become a victim of “the American Dream” (11). Written as an autobiographical narrative, the book shows Coates in continual interrogations with himself and his younger self, leading to shifting perspectives about his place and how to survive in “White America.”


This paper is based on a close reading of Coates’ autobiographical narrative, Between the World and Me. It examines the ways in which the author attempts to answer, what he refers to as, “the question of his life,” by narrating his experiences of being a black person in America (Coates 12). Coates presents these experiences in a letter form to his son, Samori. And the purpose of the letter is to ensure that his son does not become a victim of “the American Dream,” a Dream used to enslave and destroy the black body (11). The paper examines his key question, “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” and what this question could mean in the American society (12). In the attempt to answer this question, Coates explores notions like the “American Dream” and concludes that those are abstract ideas which may be limited to those belonging to “White America.” However, his autobiography also demonstrates that belonging to “White America” is not only a function of race or color, it may also come from having economic and social privileges.    

In the memoir, Coates performs his role as the autobiographical narrator by consciously engaging in the act of self-interrogation and re-evaluations of knowledge. He constructs distinct voices for himself as the adult narrator, and a voice for his younger self. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson refer to these voices as the “narrating ‘I’” and the “narrated ‘I’” (16). To make sense of the continued violence of the black person’s experience in America, the narrating I (Coates’ older self) engages in a sustained examination of the experiences of the narrated I, which is Coates’ younger self. This continual attitude of reflection is what constitutes his “struggle” (Coates 97). It is both a struggle with himself to understand his place in the American society and a struggle with the society which, it seems, has no place for him. And in the end, he notes that “it is a struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life” (Coates 97).  

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost In The Dream?” (Coates 12): Defining the Question

The key question in this autobiography is founded on Coates’ realization that his black body is prone to destruction in the American society. The question itself suggests a number of meanings. First, it could be addressing the possibility of staying alive if you are a black person in America. Secondly, it could be addressing the ways to achieve this, that is the measures that one can adopt to achieve this purpose. Thirdly, it could also be a form of lament at the futility of trying to stay alive. In the context of this book, all of the meanings are relevant, and they show the narrator’s fear(s) that the destruction or death of the black American seems inevitable.

The fear which the narrator expresses, is entrenched in his black community. Early on in the book, Coates explains that this fear is visible in the mannerisms and dressings of the black youth on the streets (14-16). It is visible in the violence of black music and in the corporal punishments which parents mete out to their children. However, these are experiences retrieved from the memories of a younger Coates and he did not originally recognize these behaviors in his black community as signs of fear. However, the older narrator tells his son, Samori:

I am afraid. I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was unoriginal. When I was your age the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid. I had seen this fear all my young life, though I had not always recognized it as such. (Coates 14)

A young Coates did not understand that the excessive punishment instilled by parents was driven by fear because they were trying to keep their children from ending up vulnerable on the streets or victims of police violence. Coates (the “narrating I”) is only able to identity this emotion as fear because of his own vulnerability to his son and his examination of his younger self who he poses as the “narrated I” (Smith and Watson 16).

The adult narrator is also only able to properly analyze the past by locating himself within memories of his community. In the context of this autobiography, Coates makes references to shared experiences and a shared slavery history because he is not telling his story alone.  Thus, his narrative voice takes on the role of the “ideological ‘I’” (Smith and Watson 18). Borrowing from Althusser, Smith and Watson argue that as the “ideological I”, the narrator of an autobiography is actually interpellated in a pre-existing history and ideology (76). The narrator is, therefore, not able to tell her/his story divorced of an existing historical or cultural situation. Coates deliberately uses this autobiographical style as a technique to legitimize and emphasize the importance of his story. His references to his immediate familiar situation and his community’s collective past (of fear) shows that the narration concerns a wider audience. 

He structures the autobiography as an intimate letter to his son because this narrative form allows him to draw a parallel between a younger Coates (himself) and his son. This idea is reinforced by similarities in their experiences, like the unresolved cases of Prince Jones (Coates 77) and Michael Brown (Coates 11). In the two situations, the killers were not brought to justice showing that Coates and his son have the same form of vulnerabilities. But more than their personal experiences, the unresolved cases of Brown, Jones, the recent murder of George Floyd (unfortunately dramatized for the whole American/world viewership), and the ever-growing number of African American men, who have been unjustly murdered by the police and other self-proclaimed neighborhood watchers, shows that the vulnerability of the African American is an existing condition.

More than sharing his personal experiences with his son, or warning his son, it is the desire to discuss his community’s experiences that motivates Coates’ autobiography. Borrowing from Nietzsche, Judith Butler discusses fear as a catalyst for autobiographies. She explains that someone can chose to “give an account” so as to explain past actions and absolve him/herself of guilt (Butler, “An Account” 53). According to her, the ‘I’ giving the account is mainly motivated by “fear and terror” and gives the account in order to avoid some form of punishment (Butler, “An Account” 53). Butler’s analysis of fear as a catalyst for writing autobiographies is a useful way to consider the “fear” which Coates expresses in his narrative. In his case, he is not only anxious that his son might be vulnerable to physical violence, he is also afraid that the actions and behaviors of his black community may be considered as random acts of violence by people outside his community who are unable to understand the root of their fear. By explaining how corporal punishment can emanate from love, Coates attempts to show the reader that his community is not unloving but merely conditioned by experiences of slavery and generations of unremitting hardships. Thus, his fear of unfair judgements motivates him into narrating the past.

The fear and vulnerability which Coates expresses is rooted in America’s history of slavery. He recalls this history in the statement, “my own father, who loves you, who counsels you, who slipped me money to care for you. My father was very afraid…my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away” (Coates 15). The idea that his body might be stolen is obviously a reference to Transatlantic slavery when black people were sold almost as if they were commodities like sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold (Coates 71). He critiques this inhuman act by alluding to the fact that the enslaved black people were accounted for in actual monetary terms like mere goods (Coates 101).

The narration shows that the monetary value is not the value of human life; rather, it is the value of labor which African Americans provided for the American society. It seems that the lives of the descendants of those enslaved Americans are still expendable. His discussion brings to mind Giorgio Agamben’s idea of the “homo sacer” who Agamben explains as (a person) who may be killed” (411). In line with Agamben’s discussion of the homo sacer, when you remove people’s citizenships, and they are reduced to bare life, killing those people will not be considered a crime by the state. Thus, when Coates speaks of being stolen away, it is not only a historical reference to stolen bodies that were converted to enslaved people, it is also a lamentation that those bodies are still being molested and killed without accountability.

But it is fair to argue that the citizenship which Agamben talks about was never accorded to the black person. Coates argues that from the beginning, African Americans were not included in “the people” mentioned in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men … That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. (US 1776)

The words of the American declaration of independence, imply that equality, liberty, and fairness are available to all peoples. However, the “men” (people) referenced in the declaration does not include African Americans because they were enslaved. It did not help that those who signed this proclamation of independence were a part of the system which enslaved others, and up to 1863, black people were still treated as chattels.

Thus, from the beginning of the American society, blackness was always represented as inferior and undesirable, allowing the society to marginalize that group. In “The Fact of Blackness,” Franz Fanon shows that the existence of color prejudice was used to marginalize and dehumanize the black person.  

Understand, my dear boy, color prejudice is something I find utterly foreign…But of course, come in, sir, there is no color prejudice among us…Quite, The Negro is a man like ourselves…It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are…I had a Senegalese buddy in the army who was really clever… (Fanon 65)…sin is Negro as virtue is white. (Fanon 79-80)

Fanon also argues that blackness is deliberately constructed as a negative attribute. This form of color prejudice is evident in the America which Coates describes. As he suggests, it is not possible to speak about democracy, or “a government of the people,” in a society which ab initio excluded some of its members. 

Coates tells his son that this form of prejudice against the African American, which also originates from their history of a long period of enslavement, is still in place in America: “Never forget (he says) that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains”(Coates 70; my parenthesis). It is as Alexander Weheliye argues, the black body is still enslaved because they are inheritors of the “hieroglyphics of the flesh” which were created by instruments used to punish slaves (144). The notion of hieroglyphics (borrowed from Egyptian culture) means to carve or engrave sacred writings on an “object.” This means that even after the slave is freed, such engraved markings “do not varnish;” rather, the bodies are “mapped” and the markings or mappings remain as reminders of the past for the bearers (Weheliye 145; Butler and Athanasiou, “The Logic of Dispossession” 128  ). In the first part of his autobiography, Coates writes about what appears to be a dualized America that shows “blacks” as the plundered (60) and “whites” as the plunderers. His narration evidences that fact that the marginalization of blacks in his society is not an accident; it is borne out of America’s history of slavery and deliberate construction of blackness as inferior. 

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost In The Dream?” (Coates 12): Changing Perspectives About White and Black America

Coates’ prior experience of being black largely informed his understanding as a child in Baltimore. At that time, he had a monolithic view of black Americans as descendants of slaves, with black skin color. As a child, he did not have a wider perception of other groups of vulnerable people in America. However, from his time at Howard University, he started to experience shifts in his perceptions of blackness and abuse. He started to realize that black people can also represent exploitative power and that this power can be used to abuse others. 

Coates came to his new understanding of “the human spectrum” (60) mainly through his interaction with an unnamed girl who he refers to as “the tall girl with long flowing dreadlocks” (58). This is a significant turning point in his account because it is through this relationship that he acknowledges some of his own biases and ways in which these biases function to disenfranchise people other than blacks. As a younger child, he was unaware of these biases because his understanding was based on the collective system of knowing within his community. Butler explains that this is a form of dispossession where people are limited by the “social conditions of (their) emergence” (“An Account” 52). In Coates’ situation, his prior knowledge of the American society’s socioeconomic circumstances comes from growing up as a black boy in a world where it seemed that only blacks were disadvantaged and abused.

He explains his re-orientation as a form of death and re-awakening: “I slept. When she returned I was back in form…I grew up in a house drawn between love and fear. There was no room for softness. But this girl with the long dreads revealed something else – that love could be soft and understanding…love was an act of heroism” (Coates 61). Through his association with this girl, he came to a re-interpretation of love as something other than what he experienced in his childhood. As discussed in the first part of the paper, Coates’ younger self learnt about love from his community where this emotion was both rooted in violence and often expressed violently. As an older person, his association with “the tall girl” showed him that expressing love softly was equally powerful (Coates 58). It also enabled him to understand the nuances and diversities even within blackness.

Consequently, Coates started to also see whiteness, which is the symbol of power and belonging, as a construct. In the book, he explains that white groups in America are not only those who claim historical and biological whiteness. Instead, they include Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish peoples who have been involved in the “machinery of criminal power” (Coates 7). Although such people were once part of the disenfranchised, they have been able to achieve “whiteness” through economic and social success, as measured by the American society. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek’s critical study on whiteness support his idea. They contend that:

Whatever ‘whiteness’ really means, is constituted only through the rhetoric of whiteness. There is no ‘true essence’ to ‘whiteness’; there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location (293) … the discursive frame that negotiates and reinforces white dominance in U.S. society, operates strategically…This strategic rhetoric functions to resecure the center, the place, for whites. (Nakayama and Krizek 295)

Nakayama and Krizek conclude that people chose what to be called (white or other ethnic markers) because they recognized it as useful marks of identification. Furthermore, those who assume themselves “white,” and are accorded superiority, re-enforce their “whiteness” (supposed superiority) by marginalizing others.

Although Coates explicitly mentions some socioreligious ethnic groups as the “new” whites, his narrative proposes that some socially and politically advantaged African Americans are also privileged and akin to white America. This includes African American police people who contribute to the ravaging of black people. Earlier in his narrative, he had warned his son, Samori, about the police’s random acts of brutality against black people:

The police department of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy…There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers…The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country. (Coates 9-10)

But his discussion of the killing of Prince Jones especially shows that the black police are part of these random killings. Although the “black police” on “black” brutality may support Coates’ earlier point that black people are accustomed to violence because of the historical violence they suffered (14). Nevertheless, in the context of Jones’ murder, the black policeman is obviously part of a system that oppresses African American peoples (especially males) in the name of law enforcement. Furthermore, Coates deliberate reference to Prince Jones’ social background could be read as further proof of the argument that some classes of blacks may have white privileges. Like the black police who derive power from the American law enforcement, the victim was privileged by his Ivey league education and background.

Nonetheless, it would appear that the narrator questions this assumption of privilege because he infers that at critical times, such as when the police are involved, all they can see is just another random black man. This means that in Jones’ case, for instance, the police who killed him may have profiled him, not as a person, but as a black person whose life is expendable. The mini narrative concerning Prince Jones’ killing is important in the book because it shows that the black body is still vulnerable even when cloaked in whiteness factors such as education. The book implies that the danger in such outward markings is that, while it enables the black person to “act” white, it limits their perceptions of their own vulnerabilities (Coates 111).

“How Can One Live Within A Black Body, Within A Country Lost in The Dream?” (Coates 12): Living in The American Dream

Ultimately, Coates’ changing perceptions cause him to question the concept of “dreaming,” especially as it has been historically used within the American context. The significance of dreaming is central to this narrative because it is multilayered. It is used as an idea that can offer someone limitless routes to a “successful” life. But Coates also argues that it has been used as an excuse to limit or exploit weaker or vulnerable groups.

Coates critiques his early understanding of dreams/dreaming, where he uses his dream of a “black race” to cope with his life as a marginalized African American (45). The younger Coates, who arrives at Howard University, constructs a dream on the basis of a fictitious “noble” black history and this is a useful way for him to reject the identity of defeated blackness that the society thrust upon him. However, through learning and constant self-examinations, he comes to realize that this dream is a form of escapism.

Coates also critiques the notion of the American Dream which is presumably the right of every American. But as has been discussed thus far, the liberty and right to life or happiness encoded in the Declaration of Independence is limited to “white America” or those with privilege who act as “white America.” He describes that America as a galaxy” as if to denote that it is foggy and far removed from reality (Coates 20). I suggest that the younger Coates refers to America as a galaxy because it is the only way he is able to understand the differences in standards of living, between the privileged “white America” that he sees on TV, and the world in which he lives. To this younger Ta-Nehisi Coates, this other world can only be a world of fantasy, something in outer space.

Because the so-called inalienable human rights are available only to those with privileges, Coates identifies it as a dream. As he describes, it is a dream in a very basic sense because it is unreal to black and disadvantaged people in America. Furthermore, he insists that the dream, which America likes to wallow in, actually rests on the backs of black Americans (Coates 11). This is obviously an allusion to the fact that the American dream was mainly built on the blood and sweat of black people. This can also be taken literarily because the cotton used as stuffing for the beddings are historically one of the products of slavery. And to him, the idea of keeping the American Dream alive is what causes white America to continue to subjugate the blacks and other marginalized people.

But ultimately, his use of dream/dreaming recalls and questions the assumption of equality and freedom for all implicit in Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech:

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. (King, par. 4)

The words of King’s own “magnificent” speech is from 1963. Yet, it is still relevant in Coates contemporary American context because much of the hope which the speech represents remains in the realms of dreams. In the speech, King reminds the American government, and the unjust society it created, that freedom and the right to life should be for everyone, irrespective of visible differences.

But to a young Coates, the hope which King’s words represent is a type of ideal which he is unable to comprehend. This is implicit in his question: “Why were only our heroes nonviolent? How could the schools valorize men and women whose values society actively scorned? How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?” (Coates 32). This question characterizes the thoughts of the young and inexperienced Coates; they invariably query how the idyllic words of King’s speech will help him to stay alive in a society where black men/people are frequently exploited or murdered. While he advocates for equality, he obviously wonders about the likelihood of the black community, certain classes of the black community, attaining the equality and freedom which is theirs by right. Perhaps, to the young Coates, it seemed like the non-violent form of activism was a form of tacit submission to the society’s unrelenting subjugations. It is for this reason that an older Coates contrasts the dream of non-violent activism with Malcolm X’s emphasis on, not just racial inequality, but the immediate security of the black body. He self-identifies with Malcom X because the latter’s approach represents to him a way to conquer the fear that is always a part of his life.

Similarly, in the light of this autobiography, one could argue that while Coates does not advocate for violence, he wonders how the unjust society can avoid it when it has always enforced violence on some its members. In this he echoes Fanon where the latter speaks about the inevitability of violence during decolonization. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon defines decolonization as:

The encounter between two congenitally antagonistic forces that in fact owe their singularity to the kind of reification secreted and nurtured by the colonial situation. Their first confrontation was colored by violence and their cohabitation – or rather the exploitation of the colonized by the colonizer – continued at the point of bayonet and under cannon fire. (2)

Even though Fanon primarily writes about a colonial situation, the circumstance he describes is akin to Coates’ America. It is a situation that was forged through violence and which may unavoidably degenerate to violence

The violence which these writers warn against is currently playing out around the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a member of the American police. People who are angered by this brutal act demand for systemic change while tearing down values and symbols of oppression. Though many are predisposed to march peacefully, some others are pre-conditioned to address such heinous crimes with equitable violence. As Fanon reminds, the violent protests are exacerbated by the response of the police and public authorities which appear designed to both suppress and incite protests. It is Coates’ awareness of such potentiality for violence that causes his shift away from the idea of dreaming. He emphasizes that any form of dreaming, is not based on reality and may result in the loss of the dreamer’s body.


The purpose of this paper and the autobiography is to explore and attempt to answer Coates’ life question, “how can one live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream?” (12). The question is symptomatic of the title of the book which implies that the author feels alienated from his world or dispossessed within the larger American world. This dispossession is not his alone, but it is characteristic of black Americans and other marginalized groups in America. Coates contends that the progress of (white) America, or those “who believe that they are white, rests on the looting of black America (6).

In the autobiography, Coates shows that the breach which is implied in the title of the book is at some level healed through his associations and learning at Howard University (his Mecca). Howard University is significant because this is where he re-claims his sense of self-interrogation. Coates structures his narrative as a letter and an autobiography to enable him both engage in personal interrogations and involve his larger community. And through the constant re-examinations, he comes to see the vulnerability of his black body as an existing condition.

At the end, the reader is not certain if Coates’ question is answered, is answerable, or if the narrative ends with a sense of futility. The suggestion is that while the author acknowledges death as inevitable, he finds solace in what he identifies as the call “to struggle” (Coates 97). This is the hope he passes on to Samori at the end. Coates explains the “struggle” as a deliberate effort to constantly examine one’s world and oneself. For him, this is the way to be in control of his vulnerable body (97).

Works Cited

Aaron, Michele. Spectatorship: The Power of Looking On. Wallflower Press, 2007.

Agamben, Giorgio. “Introduction to Homo Sacer.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural

Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, pp. 406-14.

Butler, Judith. “An Account of Oneself.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji

Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 49-58.

Butler, Judith & Athanasiou, Athena “Aporetic Dispossession, or the Trouble with

Dispossession.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 119-29.

Butler, Judith & Athanasiou, Athena “The Logic of Dispossession and the Matter of the

Human (after the critique of metaphysics of substance).” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 124-37.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

“Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, 4 Jul. 1776, www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, edited by Neil Badmington and Julia Thomas, Routledge, 2008, pp. 63-81.

—-. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 1963.

King Jr., Martin Luther. “I have a Dream.” Stanford: The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Aug. 1963, kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom.

Nakayama, Thomas & Krizek, Robert. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal

of Speech, vol. 81, no. 3, 1995, 291-309, doi: 10.1080/00335639509384117. Accessed 10 April 2016.

Smith, Sidonie & Watson, Julia “Autobiographical Acts.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 11-30.

Weheliye, Alexander. “Bare Life: The Flesh.” Vulnerability in Life Writing, edited by Tunji Osinubi, University of Western Ontario, 2016, pp. 141-47.

James Baldwin’s Interpretation of Stagger Lee: Poetry and Politics

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James Baldwin’s body of work represents a strong example of the intersection between politics and poetry. His keen sense of Black culture and how it bumped into White culture is reflected in his novels, essays, screenplays, speeches, and poems – he knew the context of racism and translated the context into several different art forms. While many were able to access his essays in publications such as The Progressive and by reading his novels once the first was published in 1953 at the time it was written, Lynn Orilla Scott and D. Quentin Miller bring to life his work today.  In their synopses of trends in literary criticism of Baldwin’s body of work, both illustrate how the relevance of Baldwin’s body of work is resurging so that we, in 2019, can access his art in order to understand the present day (Lynn Orilla Scott; D.Quentin Miller).  In that spirit, this essay will analyze his poem, “Staggerlee wonders”, to illustrate how Baldwin is able to weave together politics and poetry in order for his readers to see how Black and White culture clash with each other.

Biographical and Historical Context

Born in 1924, James Baldwin experienced the Great Depression first hand and intensely: Baldwin came of age in Harlem in a family of 11. In biographical interviews, he reveals that he did not experience overt discrimination based on race until his late teens, after he graduated from high school and worked in New Jersey laying railroad tracks (Field). To add to his mystic, Baldwin served as a preacher at a Pentecostal church while in high school in Harlem; one of his teachers in high school was another aspiring writer Countee Cullen (Field; J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street).

By 1958, at the age of 34, Baldwin was an established American writer. His life as a writer enabled him to meet several well-known thinkers such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957, just as King was in the midst of writing Strive Toward Freedom (Field). Baldwin found King to be “a younger, much-loved, and menaced brother” who was “very slight and vulnerable to be taking on such tremendous odds” (Oates 128). There was a sense of awe of King by Baldwin, who, a few years after their first meeting, was present during a sermon that King preached in Atlanta after King had stood trial in Montgomery, Alabama. In the sermon, King surmised that Whites, like those who were part of the trial, “who knowingly defended wrong,” were ruled by fear, to which Baldwin reflected: “He [King] made the trials of these White people far more vivid than anything he himself might have endured” (Oates 156). In several historical accounts of King’s life and of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin emerges as a muse, a critic, and an activist (L. V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; L. V. Baldwin, Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr.; Oates; Payne).

Baldwin, the Poet

Nikki Finney, who wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Baldwin’s poetry called Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, argues that Baldwin’s writing style was poetic in and of itself, and, further, that he wrote poetry to distill his thinking (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems). Baldwin’s need to distill is supported by his prolific writing. For example, by simply reading the first paragraph of the two-page epilogue to No Name in the Street, the reader is exposed to the breadth and depth of Baldwin’s reflection upon the 1960’s. Read with a 2019 lens, Baldwin’s perspective is utterly profound:

This book has been much delayed by trials, assassinations, funerals, and despair. Nor is the American crisis, which is part of a global, historical crisis, likely to resolve itself soon. An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessary evolving skill. (J. Baldwin, No Name in the Street 196)

His use of metaphor brings to life the intense cultural evolutions that America experiences at it evolved from its independence in 1776 until now, and easily defines our role in the evolution: we need to support the evolution. Or we readers need to serve as midwives in America’s re-birth to follow Baldwin’s metaphor.

This re-birth that Baldwin sees can be found in “Staggerlee wonders,” a poem that was originally published in 1982, just a few years prior to Baldwin’s death in 1987. In this poem, Baldwin takes on the voice of Stagger Lee, who is legendary (Brown). One legend has it that Stagger was a pimp in St. Louis and that he shot Billy, another Black man from the underbelly of society, because Billy stole Stagger’s white Stetson hat. It is a legend pregnant with symbolism and is revisited over and over again through generations of African Americans (Brown). White folks celebrate the legend in songs, including those by The Grateful Dead and Amy Winehouse (the Dead have a twist on the story where a woman takes down Stagger, for killing “my Billy”) (Hobart; Andrewes; The Annotated “Stagger Lee”). On the one hand, this is a legend that reinforces the White stereotype that Black people will kill each other over a hat – especially Black people who live in the city; especially Black people who are pimps; especially Black people who drink while gambling in the wee hours of the morning. On the other hand, Stagger can represent truth and justice, because sometimes in the oral history of Stagger Lee, Billy is a police officer. Baldwin presents this representation of truth and justice masterfully (Miller).

The Poem: Staggerlee wonders

Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” poem is seventeen pages, written in four parts, and alternates between statements by Staggerlee and imagined conversations between Staggerlee and White folks such as “the Great Man’s Lady” – these conversations are indicated by italicized words: “Ma! he’s making eyes at me.” Taken as a whole, the poem serves as a near-perfect mirror of how minority and majority cultures bump into each other and tumble with each other and how Black people persist through their oppression by White people.

The first part begins with Staggerlee wondering what “pink and alabaster” people think of Black people. Baldwin poignantly uses the term “nigger” to refer to Black people, emphasizing the negative origins of the word, after all, it is Staggerlee who is wondering ­– Staggerlee, the legend, whose story emphasizing negative stereotypes of the other is told over and over again in song and verse (Jerry; Mencken; Motley and Craig-Henderson). While this dehumanizing term is used for humans that Staggerlee relates to best, “they” is used to explain a culture that he at once understands, yet does not understand. In setting this stage about how Staggerlee wonders about Whites, Baldwin sequences observations about how they (White people) interact with the world:

They have never honoured [sic] a single treaty

made with anyone, anywhere.

The walls of their cities

are as foul as their children. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 4)

This section ends with a conversation between Staggerlee and a White lady:

No, said the Great Man’s Lady,

I’m against abortion.

I always feel that’s killing somebody.

         Well, what about capital punishment?

I think the death penalty helps.


That’s right.

Up to our ass in niggers

on Death Row.


Oh, Susanna,

         don’t you cry for me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 6)

This opening part gives portraits of the hypocrisy that sometimes exists with oppression, particularly with the image of who is most likely on Death Row: Black men who White people are okay killing. In this case of hypocrisy, Baldwin illustrates how absurd it can be to fight for the rights of the unborn, yet not fight for the rights of the living. Why not stand up for those who land on Death Row, especially given what we know about police discrimination and, in particular, unlawful practices in the South? (Alexander; Stevenson). This illustration sets the stage for the subsequent parts that lead the reader through the evolution from this oppression.

Part two begins with Staggerlee wondering “how niggers should help themselves,” again from a majority perspective. The lyrics to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” are used to emphasize that a common answer for the majority is for divine intervention. Or maybe the hope that the minority would just disappear (Brown). Yet, Staggerlee moves on to emphasize the difference between he and the majority culture:

My days are not their days.

My ways are not their ways. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 7)

Then Staggerlee begins to wonder about the notion of color blindness, which when one takes into account that this was written in the early 1980’s, highlights a concept that began to emerge in the popular press by people who aimed to raise awareness about race (and to quell racial incidents) (Vogel). This notion of color blindness led Staggerlee to wonder about what they do not want to see:

What is it that this people

cannot forget?

Surely, they cannot be so deluded

as to imagine that their crimes are original? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 8)

After a list of ways Whites have attacked Blacks, Staggerlee wonders whether or not they realize that “we are all liars and cowards” but then a thought occurs to him:

Then, perhaps they imagine

That their crimes are not crimes? (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 9)

These philosophical questions bring to the forefront one theme of the poem: the hypocrisy of the majority White culture in America. Baldwin keenly points out that Staggerlee is not engaged in these thoughts to clarify the beliefs of the majority:

They know that no one will appear

to turn back time,

they know it, just as they know

that the earth has opened before

and will open again, just as they know

that their empire is falling, is doomed,

nothing can hold it up, nothing.

We are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 10)

Rather, Staggerlee takes the reader step-by-step through the evolution of America that occurred in the mid- and late-20th century, acknowledging that change has occurred. And Staggerlee anticipates the change will not stop: the majority will become the majority-minority population by the mid-21st century (Frey).

Part three – the shortest part – begins in a similar tone to part two, but acknowledges a change: that “the niggers made, make it…the niggers are still here.” In this section, Staggerlee is wondering about how Whites think about Black survival, and ultimately debates what survival means. Staggerlee illustrates one survival technique using a character named Beulah, who works for “the alabaster lady of the house” – she “gives me a look, sucks her teeth and rolls her eyes in the direction of the lady’s back, and keeps on keeping on” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 11). This alludes to a shift in the conversation between Beulah and the alabaster lady, who “changes the subject to Education, or Full Employment, or the Welfare rolls” as if there was a start to building a more equal relationship:

Don’t be dismayed.

         We know how you feel. You can trust us.

Yeah. I would like to believe you.

But we are not talking about belief. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 13)

Staggerlee is acknowledging that the road to restoring the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor is long and hard; the road is not about belief, but about action.

The fourth and final part represents a shift from Staggerlee thinking about the “Great Man” to thinking about the “Kinsmen” in this life.

Ah! Kinsmen, if I could make you see

the crime is not what you have done to me! (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 17)

The reflections that Staggerlee cites in this part explain how White domination is ending and how his people survived:

During this long travail

our ancestors spoke to us, and we listened,

and we tried to make you hear life in our song (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

Yet, in the last lines of the poem, Staggerlee knows there is not hope even if there is kinship and focuses on “life everlasting” and to

…decline to imitate the Son of the Morning,

and rule in Hell. (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems 19)

This final part as a whole ties together much of Staggerlee’s thinking throughout the poem and grounds his life experience in that of his ancestors, creating imagery that makes the reader recall all of the wonders of Africa. There is a strong sense is that White domination is ending in Staggerlee’s mind – literally and figuratively.


Every stanza in the seventeen-page-long poem “Staggerlee wonders” can be unpacked to reveal how Black and White cultures clash with each other throughout American history, and in particular throughout contemporary American history – about the period of time that Staggerlee is reflecting upon (1950s through the 1970s), about the period of time Baldwin wrote the piece (early 1980s), and about the present day (2019). It is a stunning example of how a poem can be political and remain beautifully poetic. It recalls heartache, yet raises up humanity. It gives White people the benefit of the doubt, yet also questions whether or not the oppressor will really change. What’s more, Baldwin does so without using the word Black or White. Rather “nigger” and “Great Man” and “pink alabaster lady” are used to describe the people who are in Staggerlee’s reflections.

Given this significant example of a poem that is political, there are only two published literary critiques of “Staggerlee wonders”: a comparison of Staggerlee in Baldwin’s and Toni Morrison’s work (Miller) and a quick analysis within a broader conversation about the legend of Stagolee.[1]  This poem seems like gold for literary critiques. For instance, there might be much to learn from the fact that Baldwin does not use “Black” or “White” throughout the piece, which in and of itself is a strong statement on social constructions. Baldwin makes a statement about how language can be used powerfully to illustrate truth and justice. Nikki Finney’s Introduction to the Jimmy’s Blues and other poems –  by itself, an example of the power of language – explains the impact of Baldwin’s language:

I do not believe James Baldwin can be wholly read without first understanding White men and their penchant for tyranny and “unrelenting brutality.” If you read Baldwin without this truth, you will mistake Baldwin’s use of the work nigger as how he saw himself, instead of that long-suffering character, imagined, invented, and marched to the conveyor belt as if it was the hanging tree, by the founding fathers of the Republic, in order that they might hold on for as long as possible to “the very last White country the world will ever” (J. Baldwin, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems xiv)

Finney’s framework leaves no doubt that Baldwin’s poem “Staggerlee wonders” is a political statement about Black-White relations. Indeed, Brown suggests that Baldwin might have used Bobby Seale, who was integral to the rise of the Black Panthers during the 1970s, as his mental model for Staggerlee. If so, this is a strong political statement given the Black Panthers’ effect on politics, which at one point led then Governor Ronald Regan of California (Republican), to call for a ban on guns. In other words, Black people led White people to ban guns, a concept that seems foreign today when many White people refuse to give up their Second Amendment right to own a gun.

As Baldwin is analyzed with this political lens, several other nuggets of contextual clues emerge within the notes peppered in his publications of the few scholars who analyzed “Staggerlee wonders”. For example, the politics that Baldwin engages in with “Staggerlee wonders” are the same the politics described in less-than-beautiful ways by Lee Atwater, who was Republican strategist – an advisor to Presidents Reagan and Bush in addition to serving as the Republican National Committee Chairman in the 1980s. Atwater was recorded in 1981 as saying:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’— that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.” (Rick Perlstein, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy,” Nation, 13 November 2012)

Atwater is explicit in his description about how Black and White culture clashes, so explicit that one cannot help by wonder: Can there be hope for America? Baldwin’s writing and his way of framing the two cultures give some rays of hope because of the poetic nature of it. A poem is not the likely place to confront race. Yet, this concept is exemplified in “Staggerlee wonders”, as the poem disarms readers and makes them think. The prose clarifies that Baldwin listened to the various meanings of the legend described within other forms of art – music and oral histories – and continued to ask questions about the meaning of the legend. Then, Baldwin created a poem illustrating his thoughts on race as the politics of America ebbed and flowed during his lifetime. 


The nature of poetry and politics has a foundational question: when is poetry political? If politics is a fight for change, when we know the context of the poet, we begin to understand how the poet translated the political context into art and, therefore, the poem becomes political. A deeper analysis might be to understand who was able to access the art (in this case a poem): where was it published? Did librarians buy it and include it in the stacks? Another analysis could be to understand the impact of art. For example, organizational theorists have introduced the multiple stages of grief as a way to understand the change process (Kübler-Ross). And, to manage grief, sometimes a poem is in order.

For example, a recent biography of Baldwin by Joseph Vogel analyzes Baldwin’s life in the 1980’s. At the time, Vogel argues, Baldwin felt a strong force pulling him back to America from France, where he sought intermittent sanctuary throughout his life. Baldwin needed this sanctuary in the 1970’s as he needed time to reflect on the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s. In one interview given during the 1970’s Baldwin offers thoughts about intersectionality, a term that summarizes his life as a gay, Black man rather succinctly:

I’m in the process of experimenting. I say a new language. I might say a new morality, which, in my terms, comes to the same thing. And that’s on all levels­––the level of color, the level of identity, the level of sexual identity, what love means, especially in consumer society, for example. Everything is in question, according to me. (Vogel 25)

Baldwin’s poem and the chance to analyze it offers us the chance to take steps to understand the long and deep history of racism in America and to read beyond the canon of literature that is present throughout the curricula in high schools, in colleges, and in graduate schools – even when you are an activist scholar. And, in perhaps the best way to honor the legacy of Baldwin’s body of work, to use the fodder that Baldwin gives the reader to identify ways to be a co-conspirator in making the dream of a just society – a society where its members care for each other regardless of race – a reality.





Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010, http://www.ebrary.com.

Andrewes, Simon. “The Story of the Story of Stagger Lee.” International Socialism (00208736), no. 154, 2017, p. 179. edo.

Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014.

—. No Name in the Street. Dial Press, 1972.

Baldwin, Lewis V. Behind the Public Veil: The Humanness of Martin Luther King Jr. Fortress Press, 2016.

—. There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. Fortress Press, 1991.

Brown, Cecil. Stagolee Shot Billy. Harvard University Press, 2003.

D.Quentin Miller. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2010–13.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 3, Iss 1, Pp 186-202 (2017), no. 1, 2017, p. 186. edsdoj, EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.3.12.

Field, Douglas. James Baldwin. Liverpool University Press, 2011.

Frey, W. H. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America. Brookings Institution Press, 2014, https://books.google.com/books?id=t_aZAwAAQBAJ.

Hobart, Mike. “The Life of a Song: Stagger Lee.” The Financial Times, 2018.

Jerry, Anthony Russell. “The First Time I Heard the Word: The ‘N‐Word’ as a Present and Persistent Racial Epithet.” Transforming Anthropology, vol. 26, no. 1, Apr. 2018, pp. 36–49.

Kübler-Ross, Elizabeth. On Death and Dying. Scribner, 1969, https://books.google.com/books?id=pPP0-om_SFMC.

Lynn Orilla Scott. “Trends in James Baldwin Criticism 2001–10.” James Baldwin Review, Vol 2, Iss 0, Pp 168-196 (2016), no. 0, 2016, p. 168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.7227/JBR.2.11.

Mencken, H. L. “Designations for Colored Folk.” American Speech, vol. 19, no. 3, Oct. 1944, p. 161. edb.

Miller, D. Quentin. “Playing a Mean Guitar: The Legacy of Staggerlee in Baldwin and Morrison.” James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays, edited by Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 121–48.

Motley, Carol M., and Kellina M. Craig-Henderson. “Epithet or Endearment? Examining Reactions Among Those of the African Diaspora to an Ethnic Epithet.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 6, July 2007, pp. 944–63.

Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. HarperCollins, 1982.

Payne, C. M. I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. University of California Press, 1996.

Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau, 2014. edshlc.

The Annotated “Stagger Lee.” http://artsites.ucsc.edu/GDead/agdl/stagger.html. Accessed 8 Oct. 2018.

Vogel, Joseph. James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era. University of Illinois Press, 2018.

[1] (Brown 206–11) This citation also highlights how the legend of Staggerlee also has varying spellings of his name.

Engaging in Difference Using Restorative Practices

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Six hundred people from diverse backgrounds were seated in a hotel listening to a panel discussing the impact of Restorative Practices in schools. A director and a White woman shared the promising results of a randomized control study; elementary schools implementing Restorative Practices had decreased suspensions (Augustine et al. 1). Even more encouraging, this was the first time a disciplinary intervention had significantly reduced the racial disparities of school suspensions in this large urban district. Throughout the district, staff reported stronger relationships, and surveys indicated a more positive school climate when implementing Restorative Practices(Augustine et al. 2). Also on the panel was another school’s Chief Officer, an African American man, who spoke about the racial disparity within school districts. He challenged the audience of restorative practitioners, stating that before we begin the work of Restorative Practices, we must first address the inherent bias in our schools. He criticized the prominence of White administrators and teachers instructing Black and Brown children, stating children need to see more people like them in positions of authority. Calling for more equity, he stated that White people will need to make space for emerging leaders of color. When asked what he meant, he took a breath and clarified that this applied to some of the White people here at the conference today; White people will need to step aside to make space for minorities. Met with some applause, there was also a tension in the room. After the panel members spoke, the microphone became available to take questions from the audience. A White man, who identified himself as a retired teacher, congratulated the panel on addressing bias. Trying to signal his own repugnance towards racism, he continued “we are colorblind here” and went on to talk about diversity while members of the audience murmured.

While one panelist is seeing data that shows progress in achieving racial equity, another panelist reads the data as addressing only a symptom. I recognized the familiar arguments of Critical Race Theory. The slow pace of racial justice has created a phenomenon termed, “a contradiction-closing case” (Delgado and Stefanic 38). There is a perception gap; one person sees the changes, the other sees the hindrances. To unconsciously defend the gap between ideal and practice, we simplify the narrative to demonstrate incremental progress and point to a reduction in suspension in these piloted elementary schools. The Chief Officer saw the suspensions of Black and Brown children part of a larger systemic racial problem, one of bias in the classroom, that is exacerbated when people of color are denied authority to lead our school systems and educate marginalized children.

As a restorative practitioner, I felt proud of the research making a dent in discipline inequity. And yet, I felt a moment of shame when I looked around the room and noticed the prominence of Whites, like myself, in leadership positions. Were the White leaders blocking progress by taking seats away from others?

Where I work, I feel pride that women are well represented in leadership. However, I cannot help but notice that though we employ people of color, fewer minorities participate at the leadership level. Perhaps I am too quick to embrace incremental gender diversity while overlooking the Whiteness of leadership. While Restorative Practices is about sharing power and authority, it is scary to think that my White colleagues would need to step aside to make jobs for others. I would like to think we could make space by widening our circles. Rather than perpetuate hierarchies, Restorative Practices can provide examples where widening the circle of participation distributes power. Perhaps by understanding race, and looking to other examples such as workplaces, social services, and courts, we can glean lessons to understand how Restorative Practices might help create more just systems.

Roots of Restorative Practices

Restorative Practices is an emerging field focused on improving relationships building social capital and relational networks through participatory learning and decision making (Wachtel, Defining Restorative 1). The fundamental hypothesis of Restorative Practices is “human beings are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes in their behavior when those in positions of authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them” (Wachtel Defining Restorative 3). At its core, it affirms people’s dignity, needing to feel a sense of belonging, and have more voice and choice in decisions that impact them (Bailie 11). Beyond interpersonal interactions, to impact civil society we must examine normative assumptions that shape society. Naturally, through evolution we tend towards tribalism;

This bias is to favor those that are closer to us in general- it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on. (Bloom 95)

The dialogue processes inherent in Restorative Practices prompt empathetic conversation to help people recognize the humanity in one another, thus combating the tribalism instinct. My experience in the field has allowed me to work with people across the globe, of many backgrounds, that all shared a value of honoring the dignity of others and wanting to create more empowering relationships. Specific elements of Restorative Practices are built on community-based justice; having dialogue in circles and honoring the primary influence of family over larger governing systems trace back to many indigenous models of community building (Mattaini and Holtschneider 130; Hopkins 21). When applied in schools, as was being discussed at the panel, this dialogue process brings a struggling student together with peers, teachers, and administrators to engage in effective communication. Facilitators pose questions and people respond with an emotional tenor that encourages empathy that brings the participants closer together. Rather than expel a student as punishment, the student is held accountable for poor behavior and attempts to repair the harm caused. In the circle process, cognitive empathy strengthens social connections and builds more resilient relationships that can counter natural biases.

Restorative Practices builds upon Jürgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action in which dialogues within communities can create new shared understandings (Finlayson 57). Habermas explains, there exists a modern discord between the life-world, in which community and family are connected through networked relationships, and the system-world, in which institutions and paid professionals networks have authority in law, economy, and social structures. In modern society, “the colonization of the life-world” prevents the effectiveness of interpersonal communication (Finlayson 56). Similarly, Nils Christie perceived that when lawyers escalate crime into the state’s justice system they “steal” the conflict from the community and take away the “potential for activity, for participation itself”’(Christie 7). The question of who owns these conflicts in our schools, and who is best suited to address the racial inequity, persists. Howard Zehr saw wrongdoing as a violation of people and their relationships (183). By changing the lens to focus on relationships, there is a path forward towards healing. Through dialogue, people can identify the needs caused by misbehaviors and the obligations in these relationships. Inclusive dialogue and mutual agreement could then heal and restore relationships.

Restorative Practices has been used to address issues caused by individual and structural racism. For example, in 1979, a Truth and Reconciliation committee was established after five people were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina (Beck 395). To tackle systemic racism, in 1995, the government of South Africa used restorative justice to convene a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that offered amnesty to perpetrators of crimes during the era of apartheid in exchange for taking accountability for the harms they caused (Tutu 45). The government selected restorative justice, as opposed to traditional public trials, with the intent of creating a shared understanding of the impact of racist policies. Participants hoped that by creating a shared understanding and reminding the public of the humanity of the perpetrators as well as the victims, they could restore a divided country and build a new national identity.

Since race itself is a social construct, Whiteness is best understood and defined as a “constellation of processes and practices rather than a discrete identity” (DiAngelo 56). Race is based in a historic, political, economic, and social position that places Whiteness in a place of privileged cultural normativity. The effects marginalize and silence other perspectives and allow public narratives around race to be constructed by those in positions of power (Delgado and Stefanic 9). At the panel, it was possible to overlook the absence of people of color in positions of authority because it was what White leaders have been used to doing and have come to accept as normal. It was not until the Chief Officer challenged the assumption that the current education leaders assume a universality, having an unracialized identity, that we can explore how others see themselves as outsiders, defining themselves and their culture. Recently, as part of conference proceedings, Tim Chapman posed that practitioners’ focus on harm has diverted us from the critical work of undoing injustice (The future of Restorative Practices – Big questions for the 21st century). Perhaps while school administrators were focused on diverting students from punitive measures, they overlooked the deeper structural racist systems that favor Whiteness for employment and economic justice.

Displays of White Fragility

In the United States, following the Black Freedom Movement, there was a sense of national progress as constitutional amendments and state laws sought to remedy the marginalization of African American citizens (Eisenberg). However, these social interventions failed to achieve real equality in schools, workplaces, and at the voting booths, resulting in new cultural myths that “the real thing holding people of color back – especially black folks – is not racism, but rather their own behavioral pathologies, personal choices, and dysfunctional cultural values” (Wise 40). This was constructed as a narrative in which America had just displayed valiant leadership to overcome racism, that in our country people should be able to work hard to overcome barriers based on merit (Sue 38). Harking back to our racist past would only keep minorities in a victim mentality.

Probably the myth of merit is most played out in our segregated neighborhoods where the loss of people of color and access to good education goes unnoticed (DiAngelo 58). Schools that serve African American students employ teachers with less experience, have fewer advanced courses and are “also more than ten times as likely to be in places of concentrated poverty” (Wise 33). Segregation creates a coded language that hides race;

White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good”; Whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “White.”(Johnson and Shapiro qtd in DiAngelo 58)

When the White man stepped to the microphone at the hotel, I imagine, like me, he might be uncomfortable that the Black man had pointed out that he was a White man with more access to power. It is a challenge to the very socialized codes we practice, directly addressing individuals by their racialized identity (DiAngelo 57; Delgado and Stefanic 8). White people are not used to the moment of racial discomfort, yet for most minorities, it is a daily occurrence. The very construct of Whiteness has allowed us, White people, to be unracialized, while people of color are the ones described as “the Black man” (DiAngelo 60). The White man at the microphone wanted to deny his place in this reality. But as Myles Horton notes, when confronted about his place as a White man amidst the Black Freedom Movement, “when acting out of guilt, you’re trying to get rid of guilt, that means you’re trying to serve yourself, not the other people. That’s never constructive” (Horton 197).

When the man at the microphone stated the familiar microaggression; “we are colorblind” his intent was to show solidarity, but instead, he dismissed the Chief Officer’s concern about a lack of minority role models in our school. The microaggression disregarded the evidence of racial bias that impacts the daily lives of people of color and makes a hurtful denial of their reality (Sue 32). Because people fear appearing racist, we sometimes keep our mouth shuts. Sometimes are words belie our intent. The Chief Officer did not criticize this man’s words, he patiently tried to listen for the speaker’s intent.

But as a White woman in the room, I am left thinking about White privilege, the advantages afforded to people perceived as White. I may feel “other” at times based on my gender or religion, but I am still part of the White identity. Judith Butler notes the institutionalized separatism pits forms of oppression in competition with one another rather than uniting for social progress (Butler 21). As restorative practitioners, we might become defensive because we, White restorative practitioners, can see ourselves working to empower others. Rather than becoming defensive, what might we do? Exercises that look inward help us understand the intersectionality of our identity and how that affords us privileges and power (Delgado and Stefanic 58). Fania Davis suggests that before trying to implement restorative justice in schools, it is critical to couple bias training, especially Whiteness trainings, in order to dismantle the prevalent racism in our educational system (55). Restorative Practices demands we reflect on our willingness to share our privileged power. White people sitting in positions of authority can question the narrative that we got here solely on our merit and look at our own individual bias, face the norms of Whiteness and the resulting practices and policies. Fortunately, there are some good examples around the world that show how implementing restorative practices can create redistribute power.

Examples of Inclusive Restorative Practices

There are lessons we can learn from restorative practitioners applying specific processes in workplaces, criminal justice, and communities. First, in the United States, Black Lives Matter has called for restorative justice and urges workplaces to look beyond individual offenses to lead restorative conferencing processes that create a safe place to discuss various perspectives to understand impacts of bias (Opie and Roberts 711). Second, in Canada, the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission paired with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People has funded their own court systems (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation). Lastly, in the Netherlands, laws have been developed in accord with principles of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF et al. 9) to ensure the rights of children to participate in family group conferencing ensuring their voice in decisions that impact them whenever possible. Each of these examples points to intentional changes made by people in positions of authority to widen their circle to share their power.

In the United States, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to create fair and equal workplaces but never truly addressed Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for economic justice and failed to protect basic human rights (Honey 7). Whiteness was no longer a privileged legal category to be protected, it simply transformed into a social norm (Bhandaru 233). This caused subtle forms of bias to become more difficult to prove in the court. If an employee fails to prove overt racism and harm, a manager can easily ignore the dynamics that led to the racism. Even if proven, managers might attempt to individualize any action and try to weed out one offending coworker rather than look at the hostile work climate. Similar to how we address the individual suspension rather than the racial bias in the schools, in a workplace a manager can disregard the climate in the workplace that caused “institutional and cultural dynamics that reproduce patterns of under participation and exclusion” (Eisenberg, Sources of workplace inequalities).

Discrimination, like microaggressions, attacks one’s sense of self; “Violations of identity are like gunshot wounds to our heart” (Hicks 38). Instinct might have the hurt person try to exert more power to control the situation and sometimes this can cause more retaliation in the workplace. Therefore, the acknowledgment of harm is critical to healing and stemming further harm. Rather than have a cross-examination, a restorative conference can create a structured, and dignified dialogue. “When dignity is engaged, it is assumed that both parties are in need of understanding – that both contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, that both played a role, though perhaps not an equal role” (Hicks 191).

Restorative conferencing provides an alternative mechanism to address bias in the workplace. Increasing the interaction between races through dialogue provides an opportunity to gain perspectives of different races is and is critical to improving workplace climate (Opie and Roberts 711). Restorative conferences do not focus on determining intent and then assigning blame for bad motives or declaring a singular truth from the point of authority. Because conferencing’s aim is not to dispute facts, there is an opportunity to develop a shared understanding of how harm occurred. Instead, as Habermas explains, using the power of relationships, social order gets constructed based on creating a shared meaning through dialogue (Finlayson 43). It is about pulling in multiple truths, taking turns in a dialogue, and then through hearing perspectives, turning together to a new understanding. Instead of asking the offender why he did something, the dialogue is based around questions of; what happened, what were you thinking at the time, what have you thought about since the incident (Wachtel et al. 166). This leaves room to discuss unrecognized bias; what one was thinking at the time of the incident might evolve based on hearing other perspectives. The person harmed gets to share his perspective responding to what happened, what was his reaction, what has he you about since, and most importantly, what was the hardest part (Wachtel et al. 166). Further, because it is not punitive, it is a safer place to begin to explore and learn about difference and create a new shared understanding. Using a restorative conference, the dialogue focuses on hearing perspectives from people in their own words. People who are witnesses, or even silent bystanders, have a voice to share their perspectives. Together they take responsibility for their actions and identify harms that were caused. Together they discuss what needs to happen to make things right and ensure that people are reintegrated back into prosocial norms of the workplace. By hearing from those involved restorative conferences create a learning environment and also build stronger social networks (Eisenberg). Facilitating opportunities for diverse groups to participate in sharing perspectives has been shown to reduce prejudice (Opie and Roberts 712).

Another example of how people of color successfully challenged White authority using Restorative Practices can be found in Canada’s justice system. Following Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process exploring harms against indigenous people, new court systems were created by First Nation, Inuit and Métis people. Unlike the United States, where Lady Justice appears blindfolded atop many court buildings, the 1999 Gladue ruling mandated Canadian courts to consider the indigenous background to culturally relevant sentencing in the justice system and consider restorative justice principals (Nicholls). According to Don Nicholls, Director of the Department of Justice and Corrections in the Cree nation, restructuring the shape of courtrooms into circles allowed all people to see and be seen, offenders and prosecutors all sat on the same level, and the inclusive nature of the circle that ensured “no issue gets trapped in the corner” (Nicholls). Conducting dialogues in circles is a symbolic way to show equality and non-domination (Pranis 34). Members of the Cree community now attend court administered by the Cree, not by the Quebecois justice system, and ascribe to their own definitions and deliberations. This ensures people are having court proceedings governed by their peers, with outcomes deliberated by their peers, to support community reintegration. For example, in the Cree system, a youth offender can be as old as thirty years of age. Instead of thinking that a nineteen-year-old boy struggling in school has the cognition to control impulsive behaviors, the indigenous way recognizes that even in their twenties an individual is deeply dependent upon community connections to develop sound judgment. If they are a danger to the public and need to be incarcerated, they remain in local confinement, so their families can visit and participate in rehabilitative services. But often youth may be diverted from prisons to receive social services improving physical and emotional health, to attend summer camps building a positive sense of community, or to engage with elders identifying ways to offer material and symbolic reparations for their harms.

As a final example, in the Netherlands, the restorative circle process has been used to ensure families, rather than government systems, are empowered to make decisions for their children with the intent of keeping families intact whenever possible (van Pagée). Family Group Conferences are circle processes that protect the rights of children by creating space for them to learn, speak and participate in decisions impacting them. Before a child is removed from any home, the child’s support is widened by pulling in not just immediate family members, but extended members of the family, and people who are in their circle of care. Following Christie’s observation, when the family conflict is not pulled out of the family into the government’s welfare system, power remains within the family. In the Netherlands, EigenKracht, a social service organization, has successfully trained more than 800 volunteers who speak dozens of languages to facilitate circles to help families make plans to help themselves (van Pagée). Instead of relying on social workers employed by local municipalities, they train community volunteers. National law mandates volunteers are to be used as facilitators, and while professionals can offer knowledge of resources they are mandated to allow private time for families to meet and decide what is best for them (Wachtel, “Restorative Practices and the Life‑World Implications of a New Social Science.”). What would it look like in our schools if instead of a White professional deciding what was best for a Black child, they provided resources and trusted children and their families to decide what to do to support the struggling child? The rights of children to have Family Group Conferences have been formalized into national legislation in the Netherlands based on data-driven studies of the successful results of this restorative process (van Pagée).

Continuing My Journey

One of the most compelling challenges of the Black Freedom Movement was how leaders could marry the principles and practices of nonviolence to achieve social change. Today, we still must attend to the alignment of our principles and practices to advance social justice. The assumptions of Restorative Practices are based on creating participatory and empathetic dialogue processes. But how we express ourselves is bound by culture. A reliance on restorative circles tries to create nonhierarchical communication mechanisms speaking sequentially and listening to others. While a White normative view might agree that giving everyone chance to speak without interruption distributes power, some studies have shown that positive interruptions actually encourage African American women to speak up and persist in being heard (Mendelberg et al. 27). African American girls are tone-shamed and their questioning in school can be read as confrontational rather than as curiosity (Morris). Recent research examining bias in Restorative Practices warns that basing communication on verbal expressions favors those that work in the service-economy confident in their “people skills” to express themselves (Willis 12). This can adversely affect people who feel inadequate expressing themselves in front of others. It is, of course, possible to sit in a circle, hear others, and remain closed-down to your own social reflection and social responsibility. With this in mind, we must keep our field focused on community dynamics, not just prescriptive processes.

So we require a sensitivity to others and the willingness to discover and confront our own biases. In examining my own racism, the hardest part for me to decipher is my own sense of individualism. As a White American, I was raised thinking of myself as having agency and seeing my parenting and social success as earned by my intellect and hard work, not as the benefits afforded a girl with access to a solid education, born into a family where I did not have to worry about affording my time to study, nor having to fear about being treated with dignity as I traveled between communities. Unlike some mothers, I never had to miss time from work because my daughter was seen as a troublemaker because of how she was asking questions at school, and I never worried about my son’s physical safety when he was stopped by the police. As I have grown to have more power and authority, perhaps now I must stand as an agitator, challenging the institutionalized patterns of oppression where I’ve been privileged.

Engaging with others is one of the best ways to ensure that my sense of the world is not based on any singular story but creates a diverse and interwoven tapestry of connections. We would benefit hearing more stories and developing more sensitivities to other’s stories. Like the comments at the panel, the truth was not either or, it was both opinions and truths, even the perspectives that are hard to hear. Storytelling prompts self-reflection, and in a group environment, listening will create an opportunity for dialogue and true reconciliation (Fellegi 213). We must create a space where it is safe to have difficult conversations. It is sometimes hard to be honest, sometimes our words fail us, but we need to hear each other’s intents and aspirations. How we move forward matters, we must focus on our goals as well as the dignity of one another.

Participation, reparation, and reintegration are fundamental ideals of Restorative Practices. It is not something one just learns. It is something one must practice in the lived interactions of day to day life. In my family, in my studies, in my work, and in my community, I must be vigilant not just to my own bias, as the Chief Officer asked. In addition to looking out to others, I need to be mindful of the structures that sustain my privilege and be willing to challenge them. Only then will we make bigger steps to a more inclusive civil society.



Works Cited

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Wise, Tim. Dear White America. City Light Books, 2012.

Zehr, Howard. Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times. 25th Anniv, Herald Press, 2015.

Faculty Colloquium at the Country Club

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I take my seat and look over the sunlight room.

Fourteen tables draped with white

privilege. Four speakers: two white men,

one black man, one woman.

Each scrupulously earnest,

as they circle the wild dogs and boars

of critical race theory, social construction,

white privilege, power and prejudice, oppression.


I glance around the room.

Eurocentric Christian whiteness.

Doctrine of Discovery whiteness.

The faculty and administrators

are mostly men, white men. Two black men.

Few women. Most, like me, white.

No black women, one Latino woman, one Asian woman.

Gay? Trans? Bisexual? No one knows.


It makes me want to spell out words with pills:

headache tablets, antidepressants,

whatever I can gather: try harder and inclusion,

and most of all What The F–.


These hours are a calendar of loss.

I drift away to where I’m sprawled on the grass

reading poetry, then walking in the rain,

floating on water, dancing barefoot

on the beach, drinking coffee in Paris.

I wonder if it’s true that blue eyes are a genetic mutation,

that all people with blue eyes can be traced back to one man.


I see the man leaning in to see if I am listening,

hear the woman uhm-hmming the speaker’s points.

It is an undertow that sucks me back into myself.

I return to sift through words, searching

for something to nourish me.

Their words are bruised like ripe fruit,

handled too much, the juices running.

Soaked in the blood-dyed skin of young black men,

I find: Signifier: dark skin; Signified: criminal


My sons are young men, but they are not black.

They do not walk the streets shadowed by death

They still have fire in their souls.

I don’t have enough words

to both rage and weep.