Teaching What We Do Not Know: Awakening Abolitionists

The story below is fiction. But the concepts and some of the characters are based on real people in my life.

Mr. Middleton had taken an interest in Darryl ever since he did his first essay on Frantz Fanon, the author of Black Faces White Masks.  Darryl cited Fanon’s observation that a person who possesses a certain language indirectly possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.[1]  Darryl’s argument was that because African Americans possessed the language of their enslavers and oppressors, the language itself did not provide black people the medium through which to articulate their “blackness” or their inherent freedom and worth.  In other words they were bound by their language and as such should, in the interest of self-expression and self-realization, make every effort to subjugate the language that was used to subjugate them.  He recommended the use of poetry as one means of wrestling with language until it submits.  His other suggestions were adding to the vocabulary of the language by creating new words in the form of slang and/or inclusion of foreign words that contained the concepts not held by the language of the colonizer or oppressor. 

Darryl used his own experience of being told that he “talked white” by both blacks and whites and how many blacks who could speak “proper English” thought that they were superior to other blacks to argue his point that the language that he was using was not his true intended language. Yet be believed that he had to take responsibility for the fact that his ancestors were stripped of the languages that could have possibly given utterance to the depths of who he was.  Therefore he considered it his duty to make the language of the so called masters obey him and express him in such a way that no one could question him on being the authority on himself. No stereotypes, no preconceived notions, no social conventions would define him.  He would not listen to any limited idea of who he was.  He told himself and his teacher that he would not allow words to ever have power over him again.  His position was so compelling, that despite having added words from other languages, slang, poetry, and even created some of his own words just to communicate his point, Mr. Middleton, who rarely scored students above 93 was forced to pull out his red pen and scrawl 100 A+ on Darryl’s paper.

“Darryl, you are one of my brightest students.  You can do a lot for the world by inspiring others to question what they think they know.  All you need to do is gain a little more perspective,” said Mr. Middleton.  “I love that you chose Fanon for your essay and I have to say that you gave me a lot to think about.  I too have thought about how there isn’t a standard for speaking ‘American’.  Our language is a hodge podge of so many languages that we really should get over the elitism around its usage.  If we understand each other, then that should mean we communicated effectively.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

With a look of contempt on his face, Darryl replies, “If you read my paper clearly you would know that I do not agree. For one thing, this is not my language.  This is your language.  That means that I have taught myself to understand you, but you will never understand me really.  You might understand what I said, but you can’t know how I feel.  This language doesn’t allow me to communicate that to you.”

“Darryl, have you ever received an A+ on anything in this class?”

“No.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Because you think by making a 100 next to impossible, we’ll take you seriously.”

“No.  Because when someone earns a 100 they will know not only that I take them seriously, but that they will take themselves seriously.  You earned a 100.  I did not give it to you.  I just showed honor to your work.  Do you think that I could do that if I didn’t understand you? Or are you so attached to your hypothesis that you don’t want to believe it’s possible?”

“If what you are saying is true then my hypothesis is wrong and I don’t deserve a 100.”

“That’s not how it works Darryl.  You did the work.  You deserve the A+ because you brought your A game.  You put a lot of thought into your argument. It is sound. In addition, you challenged people to expand beyond the limitations of language. The fact is that all language is a prison if the person isn’t free.  You’re almost free Darryl.  You just have to give yourself permission.”

“I am free.  Who are you to say that I am not?”

“What would you do if I called you ‘nigger’?”

“What did you say?”

Mr. Middleton repeats himself. “I said ‘nigger’.”

Before he knew what he was doing, Darryl jumped up and grabbed Mr. Middleton’s collar and pushed him against the chalkboard.

Seemingly not phased, Mr. Middleton stared Darryl into releasing him and responded, “Like I said, ‘almost free’.” Darryl felt deflated.  He let this white man win.  He was ashamed and frankly embarrassed.  He was also afraid even if he didn’t want to admit it.  For all of his talk, he realized that school was important to him.  Being able to win an argument was important to him.  He had something to prove.  He had to prove that he was better than his father.[2]”

“Darryl, don’t worry about pushing me.  I did worse than that when I was your age.  I’m not going to report you.  But in exchange, I need you to do something.”

“Now you want to hold something over me?  You want to control me?”

“Slow down Darryl.  Listen to what I have to say. I just want to tell you a story and have you hear me.”  Darryl nodded his head in agreement and Mr. Middleton continued.  “Darryl, my real name is not Daniel Middleton. It is Dainial ó Maoldomhnaigh.  I was named after my grandfather.  My family is Irish and I’m descended from Irish slaves[3].” Noticing Darryl’s look of bewilderment, Daniel continued.  “Yes, there were Irish slaves. Look it up. My first name means ‘God is my judge’ and my last name basically means ‘servant of the Church’.  I’m not telling you any of this to prove anything to you.  I’m pass that.  I’m telling you to expand your awareness.  Man’s inhumanity to man didn’t start with the African slave trade and it didn’t end with it either.  It will only end when we everyday people do what you did in that paper—take responsibility for who we are and what we know or don’t know and then dare to create something that has never been done.”

“So why the name change?”

“Shame.  Plain and simple.  My father was ashamed of his father and he was ashamed of being Irish.  A lot of my family was shipped to Barbados as slaves.  In the 1800s some of their descendants made their way back to Ireland.  Among them was my great great grandfather who had African blood in his veins.  Why they went back I don’t know.  Despite not being very welcomed my great grandfather managed to survive until the Great Famine.  With other Irishmen they fled to America and barely survived. When my grandfather was born it was like there was nowhere an Irishman could go to get a break.  His parents talked him into the priesthood which he did for several years before meeting my grandmother.  When my dad was born they wanted him to have character.  They educated him about his history and taught him as much as they could about the world.  He was an excellent student and a real good looking kid.  From what I hear, he fell in love with a girl in high school whose parents told her to stay away from him the minute they heard the name ó Maoldomhnaigh.  That’s when my dad started going by Molony.  But for that time it was still too Irish. 

When he applied to jobs he knew that his name was what was giving him such a hard time.  For some reason he blamed my grandfather.  He didn’t want to be the one to drop the Irish name.  With all of the “Irish need not apply” stuff going on, he thought the old man should have been the one to do it.  That’s how he looked at it.  My grandfather told him shame would never fix the problem, only self-respect could.  But when my dad met my mother, he didn’t take any chances.  He told her his last name was Middleton.  She didn’t even find out his real name until she was pregnant with me.  That was the first time she met my grandparents.  To make it up to my grandfather my dad named me after him.  All that time my dad went by Middleton and had my mom share in his lie.  The funny thing was her parents never would have cared.  Long story short, my grandfather died when I was four.  He wasn’t in the grave a week before my dad went to court and changed both of our names to Middleton.  My mother changed hers too.  And that was it. It was the end of the ó Maoldomhnaighs. 

By the time I headed to college, I had done my own research into our history.  I pieced that together with stories I heard from my grandmother on the rare occasions when we visited her.  My parents split up when I was in my teens so I couldn’t get much out of him.  When my dad died in my sophomore year, I decided to reconnect with my family up north.  They filled in the details.  For a while I was hurt. I felt like I missed out.  Speaking of language, my grandparents spoke Gaelic and my extended family had all had a reunion in Ireland and met our other Gaelic speaking family that survived all the hardships there. I wasn’t a part of any of it.  As they showed me pictures and told me all about my family, I felt my hatred for my father increase.  The hardest part was that he wasn’t even alive for me to tell him how much I hated him for hating himself. 

I grieved and mourned for the part of me I could never fully know.  For a while I made up for it by trying to be as Irish as I could be.  But all I ended up being was a bad stereotype.  That just made me feel more embarrassed about my father.  I thought about maybe reclaiming the ó Maoldomhnaigh name.  I even went down to the courthouse and made an appointment. But by that time all of my cousins were going by the common spelling of Molony.  I realized I was just forcing it. And that’s when I stopped trying so hard and just owned my situation and took responsibility for it.  My dad was ashamed.  Middleton was a name of shame.  I decided to keep it to remind me that I had nothing to be ashamed of and through that the shame of Middleton was gone.  I made it mine.  I defined it.  It didn’t define me.  You get it?”

Darryl stood in the silence for a while and then simply said. “Man. I didn’t know.  I thought you were just a regular white person.”

“Are you a regular black person?”

“Ok. I get it.  I guess my grandmother was right. “No one knows where a person’s story is coming from or going except the Author of Life and the one who surrenders”. So now what?  Does that mean we are supposed to be all close and everything? Are you my white savior now?”

“No it doesn’t mean that.  It means that you have to realize that you are not just responsible for what you know. You are also responsible for what you don’t know.[4]  I told you my story and now you know something new.  Life will always give you those opportunities.  Being conscious means being able to see those opportunities when they present themselves. If you get that, I’ll know I did my job as a teacher.”

“How will you know if I got it?”

“It’s not important if I know. You need to know.  You’ll know you get it when you face shame down and see that it has no power over you.”

“In that case I’ll keep my eyes open.”

“I know you will.”

“But we still have to talk about you saying ‘nigger’. That still wasn’t right.”

“You’re absolutely right that I was wrong. There’s no excuse. But there was a reason. I took a calculated risk and was willing to face the consequences if you reported me. I still am if you ever decide to report me. Here.” Mr. Middleton grabs a folder and hands it to Darryl.

With a look of both suspicion and curiosity, Darryl looks in the folder and finds a letter written by Mr. Middleton confessing to having said “the n word” to him on this very day. The letter went on to say that, while he doesn’t experience himself as racist and didn’t have racist intent in using the word, he takes full responsibility for the fact that he benefited from a racist system that even afforded him the audacity to take the risk of saying the word to Darryl in the first place. And regardless of his intent, he was willing to accept whatever consequences the administration deemed fit.

“Why would you do this? What do you gain?” Darryl asked incredulously. “I don’t get it.”

“You know how the protestors have been saying, ‘No lives matter until Black Lives Matter’?”

“Of course.”

“I believe that’s all of our truth. We’re all trapped by this BS Darryl. One body many members like it says in the Bible. A system that uplifts Black People uplifts us all. And one that oppresses anyone corrupts everyone. This system can’t be changed. It has to be abolished. But that can’t happen unless a contingent of us who benefit from it are willing to take the hits.”

“Who taught you this?”

“Life with a little help from some folks who love truth. One of these days, I’ll tell you about my white African studies professor from NSU, who came to school with a shirt that said, ‘There’s no ‘n words’ from Africa’. He gave all of us an education. And man did he take some hits. When I asked him why he was the way he was, he said it was because he was an abolitionist. At first, I didn’t get it. But he made sure I did before I graduated.”

“Hold up. What? NSU? Are you telling me that your irregular white ass went to an HBCU? Why?”

“Minority scholarship.”

“What the hell?”

“Look Darryl, when we were training for the lunch counters in the South, we had to know how to take all kinds of insults and worse. We knew what we were fighting for and we had to know that we were putting our lives on the line. 

“Lunch counters? Now, you got me looking like a real a-hole. How come you never said anything?”

Mr. Middleton rolls up his sleeve and reveals a tattoo with “1 Corinthians 13” indelibly inscribed on his forearm.

“You know who you’re fighting. But do you really know what you’re fighting for? I mean really. Because when you do, there’s nothing anyone can take from you. When you know what you’re fighting for, it means you know who you really are and that you’re of infinite worth. With that knowledge, you live everyday of your life knowing that you’ve won even before your fight began. You get it?”

As a sign that he got it, Darryl tore up Mr. Middleton’s confession and asked, “Do you have a light?”

“You are the light Darryl.”

As the two nodded in agreement, the silence between them communicated what words never could. They were truly in this work together.

Reflection Questions

  1. How did you experience the tension between Mr. Middleton and Darryl?
  2. Do you think Mr. Middleton’s use of the “N-word” was instructive or absolutely inappropriate?
  3. What do you think about the idea Darryl presented that the English language is basically inherently racist and biased and incapable of articulating the liberation of the people it was used to oppress?
  4. Could you see yourself participating in a conversation that was as seemingly confrontational as the one between Mr. Middleton and Darryl? Why or why not?

Please feel free to answer these questions in the comments.

[1] Fanon was a French Creole psychiatrist from Martinique who studied post-colonialism extensively.  His works were a major influence for the liberation movements in Cuba, America, South Africa and even Iran.  Fanon observed the effects colonialism had on the consciousness of those colonized and how such overlooked factors as language and social mores worked to create binds for people even when they supposed themselves to be in a time of post colonization. 

[2] In his book, Realizations: Personal Empowerment Through Self- Awareness, Dr. William Guillory teaches that trying not to be inferior by being superior is a losing battle. We will always be at the effect of it.

[3] The enslavement of the Irish by the Brits is not well publicized; however, millions of Irish people were affected by mistreatment, abuse, and torture over a period of several centuries.  Irish and African slaves were even forced to copulate in order to breed a desired type of slave. Information can be found online at http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-irish-slave-trade-the-forgotten-white-slaves and other books and resources.

[4] In Realizations: Personal Empowerment Through Self- Awareness, Dr. William Guillory explains that beyond awareness, there is a level of consciousness where we can be aware that we are unaware of some critical information required to live responsibly.  Knowing that there is much we do not know keeps us open minded to learning and transforming.  This is a level where the unaware takes responsibility for learning.

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