(Written January 7th, at about 1 am while watching members of the US House continue argument over opposition to the certification of electoral votes from Pennsylvania)
I woke up this (Wednesday, January 6th) morning to finalize and upload new rubrics for discussion prompts in my Contemporary Issues class. In those rubrics I laid out the criteria of success for building an effective argument – to make a clear claim that directly addresses the prompt or situation, to provide evidence for that claim from diverse sources, and to explain how that evidence supports the claim. To demonstrate an exemplary argument in the discussion board, also anticipate and respond to counter-claims and identify particular solutions or resolutions, as applicable.
The second part of the rubric lays out the requirements for demonstrating the ability to disagree with people whose experiences and/or ideas are different from yours, while maintaining community and respect – criteria such as engaging with ideas while connecting with people, by doing things like addressing each other by name and identifying points of agreement where possible.
Hours later, we (my 9th and 10th graders and me – I want to make sure to clarify the “we” I refer to) began class with a recap of the news, as we usually do – recognition of the proceedings in the Congress over the electoral college certification had just begun and that there would be objections. We also noted that one GA Senate race had been called and the other was pending (it was called within the hour – what an hour in US history!). We proceeded to share our hopes and dreams for 2021, as it was our first day back together after winter break. Following, we listened to excerpts of the Trump/Raffensperger call from the New York Times Lesson of the Day this week and began to discuss the goals and arguments of both Trump and Raffensperger. We were just turning to analyze it using the rubric when student DMs and news media alerted me that the US Capitol had been breached by the mob of insurrectionists.
I quickly wrapped up the day’s essentials, and we watched together as white terrorists wearing Trump gear proclaiming “Civil War,” waving banners proclaiming “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President,” and bearing firearms and zip ties and explosives, invaded the US Capitol building (a building in which on my last visit I had the miracle of passing John Lewis in the hallways of the Congressional offices, but that is a story for a different day). I had almost no words for my students except to say that what we were watching has never happened before. While our (and when I say “our” here, I mean “America’s”) past has been continually violent, this particular scenario has never occurred before in our country – a domestic attack on the US Capitol over the refusal to allow a peaceful transfer of power. Even so, certainly to anyone with knowledge of history or who has heeded Dr. Angelou’s words about what to do when people show you who they are, it came as no surprise. But that’s the thing with violence – it doesn’t have to be surprising to be traumatizing.
As we watched, most kids were quiet. One young man made references to the fall of the Reichstag in Nazi Germany, and one young woman stopped us all before class ended and required we note the contrast between the response of police to the armed Trump insurrectionists today and their response to peaceful BLM protesters just months ago. The young people know what’s happening, even if adults all the way up to the heights of power will rush back as quickly as possible to “nothing to see here” or “let’s move on from this” and “restore order.”
As I sit up tonight (Tuesday and into Wednesday) and watch Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania (among others), seated just three days ago, based on November election results, continue to oppose those same election results by which they claim their power and which have been refuted as baseless by their own state legislature and courts of multiple levels, I am wondering if I should go back and change those rubrics. As I consider the same rhetoric used in the call with which we began class and witnessed throughout the day from their feckless leader, I wonder what “success” is for which I’ve listed criteria.
Perhaps I should adjust them: your argumentation will be effective if – you claim a lie, repeat it loudly, cite no evidence at all or evidence which you generate out of thin air. Continue talking until even you can’t remember how your explanation supports your claim. Perhaps I should characterize effective discourse with your peers – name call, threaten, beg, plead, and well, anything you have to do to maintain your power – so long as your skin is lily white. If not, it doesn’t really matter how correct, dignified, affable, or brilliant you are, because people cannot hear your voice while they’re blinded by the color of your skin.
But I won’t do that. For several reasons.
First, because one of my great learnings of 2020 was that hopelessness is a privilege. As I watch and read and listen to and follow and vote for and buy from Black organizers and creators and authors and leaders, I am held accountable to hope. And to recognize that their motivation, while it will create a better world for me and my own kids, too, lies in fighting for survival, for the right to send their kids out to play in the park without fear of being killed. I don’t think they’re organizing in Georgia because they love the Democratic Party so much, they’re doing it because they refuse to give in to the white supremacy actively suppressing their vote in ever-more-creative ways. They’re doing it because they know the stories (and often the families) of Ahmaud Arbery and Jordan Davis shot in cold blood because of the level of melanin in their skin, and even 17-year-old John Lewis getting his head bashed in on a bridge 55 years ago, are not simply historical events, but daily possibilities.
The stories and arguments of Black leaders today are echoes of Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell, and countless others – a deafening chorus of truth. And while white ears may have opened briefly this summer and maybe for a moment this afternoon – as Van Jones, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, and Joy Reid, among countless others, tried to explain – I fear that they will be closed again by morning, trying to explain today’s events without directly engaging race. That’s one of the strongholds of our whiteness – we attempt to explain a situation before it is even over, using the language and examples with which we are comfortable. As I write, I am listening to that happen overnight in the very place where a treasonous mob waved a Confederate flag hours ago.
In my other classes I’ve taught the last two days, we have closed class, and begun the semester with the poem “Invitation to Brave Space” by Micky Scott Bey Jones. And I’m glad we did – because it will take bravery to hold the conversations that we must have. I think the rubric for those conversations might need to include these criteria for success, beyond discussion norms: the imagining of a different reality, the courage to enact those visions, and the hope of a beloved community. Although bravery is needed for the conversation, what will take real courage is transforming them from hot air to effective action.
As I sit awake watching the House continue to deliberate beyond 1 am, I am reminded of staying awake the night of the 2016 election – wondering if what I had taught my own children about extending kindness and seeking the common good was folly. I am reminded of imagining the worst-case scenarios under a Trump presidency – many fears that have come true. It is disconcerting, even terrifying, but certainly not surprising. This day is the natural end of the hate and fear emboldened by the Republican leadership, arm-in-arm with Christian nationalism, and fed by desperate white supremacy.
As I acknowledge my fears, I also recognize where my trust and my hope lie. First and ultimately it lies in the sovereignty of a merciful God, whose dominion has no boundaries, and if it did, those boundaries would most certainly NOT line up with the boundaries of the (Dis)United States of America.
And second, my trust and hope lie in the recognition that while this day might be one of the scariest of my lifetime for me, I can follow the leadership of Black women and men, who have walked through and continue to lead despite and through trauma that I will likely never know. The leadership and mobilization that liberated itself from slavery 150 years ago and flipped Georgia yesterday is more than worthy and able.
And third, I can love well and learn with my own three kids and the young people in my classroom. Today and every day, as we build brave spaces in beloved community. And also as we learn to build effective arguments, if ever they become relevant again.