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Chris Hedges – “America the Illiterate” and Empire of Illusion

Here’s an article and video by Chris Hedges that speaks to the concepts of illusion, perception and reality. I’ve really been interested in how his thoughts connect to the questions regarding illusion, perception, and reality in our political discourse…

I must say, though, there’s much to be criticized with Hedges views (at least in the interview). I’d question that, somehow, we’ve “gotten away” from certain “traditional” values. His critique of the “cult of the self” also needs examined more. I’m not sure if I agree with his, seemingly, dismissal of personal ambition. Even the person who he referred to as his “God”–Martin Luther King, Jr.–implored that we bend this “cult of the self,” or the quest for success, towards justice in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct.”

His thoughts regarding illusion and our failure to acknowledge various social ills and the corporate-driven initiative to package and sell conformity are on point, though.

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Filed under: Literacy, Politics

Knowledge is Liberation, Not "White"

Knowledge is Liberation: Using the Black Experience to Confront Myths of “Acting White” and the Prospects for Panoramic Visions of Literacy

–Austin C. McCoy

There is no doubt that teaching the importance of critical thinking skills and educational achievement to African-American youth is paramount. It is no secret that one’s chances for success, after taking into account structural inequalities, are greater for those who reach and complete higher levels of education. Despite this fact, however, if an individual is literate and educated, and happens to be African-American, then one may have had to face accusations from both blacks and whites of “being” and/or “acting” “white.” I recall responding to such charges in my pursuit of higher education. Even the Democratic Presidential Candidate, Barack Obama, has had to contend with such sentiments from the likes of white men like the cellar dweller of presidential politics, Ralph Nader and country music artist, Toby Keith.

Disturbing, frustrating, and confusing as these accusations seem, one cannot help but wonder why this perception has such a hold among black and white individuals and why this issue is often mishandled in the mainstream media. If one looks at American history, one cannot make the judgment that one’s ability to be articulate, literate, and educated is “white” or denotes characteristics prevalent among any other racial group. There is a longstanding tradition of intellectual excellence among black Americans that has been simultaneously beneficial to the development of the United States, and revolutionary. Actually, black Americans have reinforced a panoramic vision of literacy that may be lacking among all Americans. This panoramic view not only endorsed the basic readings of texts, but was one that sought to take particular ideas, concepts, texts, ideologies, and narratives, and reconceptualize and reconfigure them in a way that provoked many Americans, black and white, to act.

One of the most famous examples of literacy and education as subversive can be found in Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. In the work, he realized the importance of acquiring literacy in his struggle for freedom while overhearing a conversation where his master contended that it “ruined” the slave. Why? Literacy skills enabled the enslaved to challenge slavery in a variety of ways, from forging travel passes to reinterpreting crucial texts like the Bible and American founding documents and sowing the seeds of resistance among other slaves. He, as well as many others, also discovered the power of literacy and language to positively define oneself in the face of oppressive circumstances. These intellectual tools—that many seem to take for granted today—were used by various influential black Americans including Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, leaders of the Black Panther Party, and Angela Davis. Imagine if educators and activists can tap into this tradition when discussing the importance of education among young (black) Americans?

So, the question remains, how does one address this perceived notion that education is “not cool” or irrelevant? It is imperative to attack the stereotype. It is difficult to fathom that every single uneducated young black person buys this stereotype. Let’s talk to them. It is imperative that activists call for balanced portrayals of African-Americans in popular culture, contextual analyses of this problem, and a different approach to tackling illiteracy rather than stigmatizing the hip hop community. This is not to let the hip hop community off the hook for misogynistic and/or profane lyrics (depending upon one’s definition of profane), but it is to offer an alternative to the name calling and grandstanding. Really, how is one illiterate, or better yet, ignorant, if they can interpret the lyrics of a Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West, Outkast, Talib Kweli, Lil’ Wayne, or a Common? Granted, rap music and hip hop culture alone may not lead to tangible political action and gains, but influential figures within this community could be of great assistance to the cause of imparting critical thinking skills since they may reach more individuals than many scholars combined. A larger view of critical literacy could serve to reaffirm one’s culture while building the linguistic and intellectual bridge for members of particular linguistic subcultures to traverse back and forth.

An alternative, contemporary, yet panoramic, vision of a critical literacy is in desperate need. When many individuals ponder the meaning of literacy, many assume that it is just one’s basic ability to read (and “get”) words on a page or enunciate “properly.” In this information and technological age, one not only needs to demonstrate the ability to read, but develop the capacity to think critically in diverse settings, and not to just consider ideas through a vacuum, but to interrogate the various social and political implications of ideas and narratives. Literacy, education, and understanding is neither black nor white, it is rapidly becoming global and cosmopolitan.

The development of the internet also impact current ideas of literacy (and grammar) which may cause educators and citizens to rethink the very notion of the logical. Instead of the logical as represented in ideas or narratives progressing in a strictly linear fashion, the “ADD” of children and adults accustomed to technological and intellectual multitasking may actually be the beginning of the reconfiguration of our own cognitive processes where we begin to think and engage various ideas and the world through web-like formations and a broader outlook rather than through often narrow linear progressions.

When one looks at the experience of black Americans, one realizes that language and concepts are not neutral. There may have been moments where the “democratic” discourses and policies did not match the experiences of many African Americans. This remains the same for all groups of people as they have different relationships to certain ideas. They are often colored with particular ideologies that help sustain particular political, social, and economic realities. Thus, all educators and activists need to encourage student-citizens interrogate the meanings of the very words used and taken for granted because they often remain tainted vessels reinforcing harmful stereotypes about, say, the perceived lack of intellect among African Americans. Ironically, this could be done by rethinking what it means to be literate and reinforcing a concept of critical literacy via alternative narratives of the black experience. Only then will a black person reading a book and exercising her or his intellect be more respected, and possibly more threatening, than one who decides to empower the negative racial stereotype of the feared black person brandishing firearms.

Filed under: Literacy, Race

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