NORRIS EMERGES: "How could anyone do such a thing?"

THURSDAY, JUNE 10, 2021

Menstrual cycles, lost eyes: Long ago and far away, we took over the daily instruction of a fifth grade class, right here in Baltimore.

We were still 21 at the time. We'd been hired as part of a long-standing intern program, in which college graduates were given an eight-week crash course as student teachers, then installed as full-time teachers.

The program existed because Baltimore had never been able to fill its teaching roster with fully certified teachers. We spent eight weeks in the East Baltimore sixth-grade classroom of NAME WITHHELD, then took over our own fifth grade class in November, replacing a day-to-day substitute teacher who seemed like a very nice guy.

It was November 1969. As almost anyone can imagine, we had very little idea what we were doing. 

Over the next dozen years, we spent nine full years as a classroom teacher in Baltimore—seven years teaching fifth grade (plus some sixth-graders), two years teaching junior high math. 

Questions concerning American history did arise.  Around the time the TV program Roots appeared, a group of thoroughly decent kids gave voice to a memorable question.

Their question concerned the institution of slavery. The question they asked was this: 

How could anyone have been willing to do that?

How could anyone have been willing to do that? these extremely good kids now asked.

They were asking a sensible question. We're fairly sure that we recall the gist of the conversation which followed. We stressed the fact that, while we were willing to share our own opinion about that question, it was only our opinion, and they would have to develop their own opinions and views in the years ahead. 

Also, they should listen to their parents or guardians first. We were just their fifth-grade teacher. Their parents or guardians were their most important people. We were willing to tell them what we thought, but their parents or guardians came first.

These thoughts were triggered by reading the comments to Kevin Drum's new post, How Should We Teach History? After offering a somewhat puzzling framework, Kevin asked readers to opine on how American history should be taught at different grade levels.

(Why puzzling? One commenter wrote this: "The scale implies that teaching history necessarily involves persuading kids to accept value judgements about the 'greatness' of America at one end, or its 'sinfulness' at the other. That's a deeply flawed frame of analysis.")

Back to the mid-1970s! What should those fifth-grade kids have been told about American history? About the institution of slavery? About the sensible question they asked?

The TV show Roots had portrayed many things, but it hadn't portrayed every thing. In proposing a "national conversation on race," Michele Norris has suggested that we adults should spend decades discussing  pretty much every thing, not excluding such things as those which are detailed below.

We're not saying that Norris is wrong in what she's proposed. We're merely presenting specifics:

NORRIS (6/6/21): We can read about, watch and praise documentaries and Hollywood projects about the Civil War, or read countless volumes on the abolitionist or civil rights movements. But these are all at a remove from the central horror of enslavement itself. From the kidnappings in Africa to the horrors of the Middle Passage, the beatings and the instruments of bondage, the separation of families, the culture of rape, the abuse of children, the diabolical rationalizations and crimes against humanity—no, we haven’t had that conversation. We have not had that unflinching assessment, and we are long overdue.

[...]

Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved. Their names. Their fates. Their birth dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families. The conditions of their toil. Imagine how that might shape the way we comprehend the peculiar institution of slavery, its legacy and its normalized trauma. 

[...]

I also find it deeply ironic that there is such a fierce battle to evade and erase historical teachings about slavery because, in the time of enslavement, there was such an assiduous effort to document and catalogue every aspect of that institution, much in the way people now itemize, assess and insure their valuables. The height, weight, skin color, teeth, hair texture, work habits and scars that might help identify anyone who dared flee were documented. Their teeth, their work habits, their menstrual cycles and their windows of fertility—because producing more enslaved people produced more wealth—were entered like debits and credits in enslavers’ ledgers.

[...]

[Professor Daina] Berry compares the sale of two “first rate prime males” named Guy and Andrew sold in 1859 at what was believed to be the largest auction in U.S. history. They were the same age and size and had similar skills. Andrew sold for $1,040, while Guy elicited a larger sum of $1,280. The difference was that Andrew had lost a right eye. A newspaper reporter covering that two-day auction in 1859 noted that the value of a Black man’s right eye in the South was $240.

[...]

[S]lavery cannot be an optional part of the national story. It should not be excised from the narrative we teach our children about who we are and what we have become.

We must admit to, examine, reflect, lean into and grow through that history. All of that history.

In truth, the history can get worse—can get more brutal, more "inhuman"—than anything Norris lists. But she does list quite a few things, mixed with expressions of anger at the way we modern Amerikans have behaved, by which she apparently seems to mean everyone but herself.

Norris' national conversation would start at the White House level. It would be aimed at adults, but she mentions children as well. 

At the end of her essay, in the last passage posted above, she almost seems to say that we should teach schoolchildren all of that history. Whether we're speaking of children or speaking of adults, does that proposal make sense?

Those fifth-graders, way back when, had an excellent question: How could anyone have done that? 

They weren't asking a rhetorical question. They were genuinely puzzled by what they'd seen, by the things they knew. They genuinely wanted to know.

At the time, they hadn't heard about the itemization of the menstrual cycles, or about the price of one eye. Today, Norris seems to be saying that we should spend decades discussing all that. 

(We'll admit that we sometimes wonder how many decades we should spend discussing the behavior of Norris and her highly successful, upper-end colleagues over the past several decades. But that is plainly a separate question, one for a whole different era.)

Should those fifth-graders, way back then, have been told about every atrocity? They read books about Frederick Douglass, their fellow Baltimorean, and about Harriett Tubman, who had lived on their state's Eastern Shore. Should they have been told  vastly more?

(During the bicentennial year, one of our students, NAME WITHHELD, exchanged letters with a pen pal out in Westwood about a book she'd just read about Douglass. The pen pal may have been the daughter of UCLA professors. "You must be very proud to be growing up in the city where such a great man lived," that excellent kid wrote back.)

We also recall the way a few of the girls read about Florence Nightingale. One of those girls, the late NAME WITHHELD, spent her adult life as a home health care worker. We'll guess that she gave devoted, heartfelt service every single day that she served.

Would it serve children to hear every fact from within our American history? Would such a national conversation serve the interests of adults? Would some such project help build a better world? Can some such undertaking even be sanely imagined?

There is no answer to such questions. Tomorrow, though, as we struggle to finish our week's report, we'll try to discuss several topics:

We'll discuss the journalistically best part of Norris' essay. We'll also discuss this, the part of her essay we found most striking by far:

NORRIS: On a personal level, this false narrative about America is another act of cruelty, even a kind of larceny. I view the real story, the genuine history—ugly as it is—as part of my people’s wealth. You built this country on the backs of African Americans’ ancestors. Our contributions—in blood, sweat and bondage—must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude, but also to understand that, despite centuries of enslavement and years of Black Codes and brutal Jim Crow segregation, our contributions are central to America’s might. The erasure is massive in scope.

When Norris suddenly went to "you" and "we," that struck us as most striking and instructive part of her essay, by far.

We'll discuss the occasional carelessness of Norris' recent journalism. We'll discuss the moral meaning of an act in which someone like Norris seems to condemn all others, present and past, while only her goodness endures.

(We humans are strongly inclined to construe things that way, several top experts have told us.)

We'll also discuss our most striking memory from the years we spent in the Baltimore schools. It involves the reaction of that initial fifth-grade class to a certain film we all watched late in the spring of that year.

Those Baltimore kids were eleven years old. (Off in Minneapolis, Norris was eight and a half.) Those kids watched a film, then asked this question:

How could anyone treat children like that?

How could anyone treat children like that? those good decent children now asked. 

The film was set in a rural Mexican village. Sitting in a Baltimore school, those kids were incredulous, angry.

Tomorrow: Separation re-emerges

Spoiler alert: That film can be seen on YouTube today. The Steinbeck Center says this:
“The Forgotten Village” was [John] Steinbeck’s first direct engagement with the art of film. The project was born out of Steinbeck’s desire to break away from Hollywood productions and produce an authentic portrait of Mexican culture. Featuring the real inhabitants of a rural hamlet in the mountains of Santiago in Mexico, this ethnographic cross between a documentary and a fictional film deals with the basic conflict between the deep-rooted indigenous culture and the sweeping tide of modernization...
In a village in Mexico, children were dying. Inside a very warm Baltimore classroom, other kids were incredulous—angry, disturbed. 


42 comments:

  1. You don't expect us to read all those brain-dead quotes of brain-dead dembot Norris, do you, dear Bob?

    Sorry, there's no chance of that.

    "...Also, they should listen to their parents or guardians first. We were just their fifth-grade teacher. Their parents or guardians were their most important people. We were willing to tell them what we thought, but their parents or guardians came first."

    We're not sure we agree with the thing about "parents or guardians", dear Bob. We'd suggest something like: 'here're the basic facts (wars, revolutions, other major events). If you're into this sort of thing, go read books; these are the books we'd recommend.'

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "We'll discuss the moral meaning of an act in which someone like Norris seems to condemn all others, present and past, while only her goodness endures."

    Whites are desperately trying to avoid such condemnation by lying on bridges pretending to be a dead black man, or throwing a Molotov cocktail at a cop while trying to burn down a police station in the middle of the night. But are such acts enough for whites and other non-Blacks to secure the blessings of people like Norris? Will we every be told what whites would have to ultimately do to please her, and her fellow judges? Words certainly aren't enough. I won't be convinced that they aren't closet racists until I see Anderson Cooper and Rachael Maddow offering themselves up as slaves to impoverished Blacks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe suppressing the votes of rich white people will help.
      It couldn't hurt

      Delete
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  4. Today Somerby tries to deter the teaching of the history of slavery by threatening to traumatize young children with the most horrific details, as if activists had no common sense and were demanding that we all expose white children to horrific things in the name of racial justice. This must be seen as the ploy that it is.

    He also reads into Norris's essay things that she did not say. These are his own inventions, including the dramatic shift to "I" and "you," language that merely indicates that she is talking more personally, not that she is dividing the world up and putting Somerby himself on the hotseat.

    His frantic defensiveness couldn't be more obvious. Because Somerby grew up in Boston, it is hard to see what he is so defensive about, historically speaking. But maybe he now identifies with Baltimore, to the point of accepting guilt for its specific atrocities (see https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1999-06-20-9906220293-story.html). In any case, no liberal would work that hard to stave off a little knowledge.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "...Norris seems to condemn all others, present and past, while only her goodness endures."

    This is ridiculous. Norris isn't saying that. If this were true, all activists proposing change could be charged with thinking that they are the goodest people on earth. Norris doesn't deserve to be treated this way.

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  6. Why would Somerby show that Steinbeck film to a class of 5th graders? Or maybe this is the reaction he is hoping to provoke, so that he can claim that telling children about slavery would have a similar impact. Never mind that watching a film has a great deal more immediacy, especially a semi-documentary, than being told about historical events that have the distance of being in the past.

    No doubt Somerby hopes to reinforce the shock value of slavery by showing us a controversial film about Mexico, but his purpose is to deter those who want a more accurate history told in textbooks. This exaggeration to extremes so that the extremes will provoke a negative reaction is a kind of reductio ad absurdam argument against telling adults the truth about racism in our country.

    I remember being shocked when I read Black Like Me in middle school. But I was also shocked when Bambi's mother died. It didn't scar me for life. Somerby doesn't know much about parenting or children, judging by his description of his teaching days and his reaction to Norris. A child who became a slave would be traumatized. Hearing about Boko Haram doesn't traumatize children, it teaches them empathy.

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'It was November 1969. As almost anyone can imagine, we had very little idea what we were doing. '

    Well, some things have changed. Bob does seem to know what he's been doing for the last 4 years, namely defending Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz and most of all, Donald Trump -- in short doing a perfect emulation of a Trumptard.

    ReplyDelete
  8. We're supposed to deny present-day African Americans social equality because 5th graders might as "how can people do such a thing?"

    ReplyDelete
  9. B0b,
    I know you love Black people, especially when they are murdered.
    So I give you the authority to designate which events of the last 400 years should be remembered.
    I'm depending on you.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I had about Somerby’s students having pen pals on TDH archives.

    I loved the reply to one student’s letter then and I still love it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. are you stupid enough?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This question is better than the liar’s paradox.

      Delete
  12. I'm talking about stupidity. You're talking about "liar's paradox".
    You are as dumb as a Donkey.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That’s your political party’s emblem, Einstein.

      Delete
  13. This is one of Somerby's best posts.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Somerby's buddy, Kevin Drum, says this:

    "No one thinks we should teach third graders the full, gruesome facts about slavery and native genocide. At the same time, nobody (I hope) thinks we should withhold this kind of thing at the university level."

    I wish he would whisper this in Somerby's ear.

    ReplyDelete
  15. If 5th graders might ask "how can people do such a thing?"
    It's the same reason the media isn't honest about the Republican Party. It's too scary for children and white people to hear.

    ReplyDelete
  16. No matter how much knowledge of slavery Norris wants to force on people, its would remain unlikely that people of any race would stop fearing and avoiding poor Blacks and their culture of drugs and violence. Middle and upper class people of all races would still see no advantage to sending their children to schools with poor Black children. A perfect example of this is Orpha choosing a to live in mansion Santa Barbra County where the Black population is only 1% rather than build one in South side Chicago where poor Blacks are a majority. Why didn't she? It would have employed a lot of poor Blacks?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes I wonder if stealing the generational wealth from a group of people might lead them to be so despondent they turn to a culture of violence and drugs.
      Fortunately, Fox News was specifically built to disabuse one of such thoughts.

      Delete
  17. Would more knowledge of slavery have kept the Arab manager of Cup Foods form calling the cops on George Floyd? Would he let his store become a magnet for Blacks passing fake $20s and let himself go out of business once he learns how bad slavery was?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sparing the hurt fee-fees of white people hasn't stopped thug cops from killing unarmed blacks, so we shouldn't spare hurting the fee-fees of white people.

      Delete
    2. The Arab guy still calls the cops right? The Asian store owner still calls the cops on Michael Brown for assaulting him, right? The Black baby-momma of Jacob Blake still calls the cops when he steals her car keys and sexually assaults her, right?

      Delete
    3. Excellent work, Glaucon X.
      Now you have me thinking about all those times no gun owner shot a cop to spare the life of an unarmed black person.
      Time to scrap the useless 2nd Amendment, too.

      Delete
    4. "The Arab guy still calls the cops right? The Asian store owner still calls the cops on Michael Brown for assaulting him, right? The Black baby-momma of Jacob Blake still calls the cops when he steals her car keys and sexually assaults her, right?"

      Not necessarily. Just this year, Congress was broken into, and the lives of Senators and a Vice President were threatened.
      I didn't see the Republican Senate call the cops, or even want the break-in and violent threats investigated.
      I'm thinking it's all individual choice.

      Delete
    5. The 2nd Amendment is long overdue for repeal.
      It provides no value to the people.

      Delete
    6. Coincidentally, or not, the 2nd Amendment is a relic of white supremacy, as well.

      https://www.wnyc.org/story/white-supremacy-foundation-second-amendment/

      Delete
  18. Glaucon X's point that teaching about slavery isn't adequate, rings true to me.
    The Arab guy, the Asian store owner, and the black baby-momma of Jacob Blake are still going to call the cops if we don't start handing black people more $$$, education, housing, jobs, and equal opportunities in our society.
    Teaching the nation's history of white supremacy isn't enough.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. 11:37 and Glaucon X have made the best arguments for Reparations for Slavery that I've heard in ages. It's hard to believe someone wouldn't support this.

      Delete
    2. Yes he did, but Norris won't do it because Bezos would fire her.

      Delete
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