Because 2016 Was Surreal, So What’s Next?

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In honor of the announcement by Merriam Webster Dictionary that “surreal” was the word of 2016 I am re-posting a older piece I wrote for United Opt Out almost one year ago. Now… more relevant than ever. Annual standardized testing has given way to Competency Based online delivery systems, all…the…time. Race to the Top has been replaced with ESSA.

And the socio-political climate against which we are fighting? Well…it speaks for itself.

Merriam Webster site states: “Surreal is often looked up spontaneously in moments of both tragedy and surprise, whether or not it is used in speech or writing. This is not surprising: we often search for just the right word to help us bring order to abstract thoughts, emotions, or reactions. Surreal seems to be, for 2016, such a word.”

“Struggle is par for the course when our dreams go into action. But unless we have the space to imagine and a vision for what it means to fully realize our humanity, all the protests and demonstrations in the world won’t bring about our liberation” (Robin D. G. Kelley)

Let me begin with an important premise. Education reform is:

  • Carceral (feeds the school to prison pipeline). The fear and punish surveillance systems we have in place in the name of “accountability” would impress even Jeremy Bentham.
  • Corporeal (regulation and ownership of the body). Visit page 44 of this document to understand how grit and tenacity will be measured on our children’s bodies.
  • Colonizing (through global outsourcing of PUBLIC education products and services to PRIVATE interests). Most notably but not limited to, charter schools.
  • With Citizens United and ALEC, we have private/corporate control of every facet teaching and learning: curricula, materials, assessment, and staffing.

I have to situate myself in this struggle as a white middle class mother and teacher who cannot claim to have lived or experienced the inequities and violence faced by so many others. I, with many others of racial and economic privilege have been asking, “How can we bring communities of color and indigenous peoples into the opt out revolution? What are the connections we need to make? What are we missing?” There are a lot of critical and complex ways we must deconstruct those questions and tirelessly examine responses from multiple perspectives.

Ceresta Smith’s “Why People of Color Must Reject Market-based Reforms  provides a compelling argument supported by factual evidence why organizing resistance and ultimately effecting change from the standpoint of people of color is necessary. No doubt they must take a militant stance and become full participants in the resistance movement to end corporate reform; but to expand further on her argument, I present the following.

We must re-frame the opt out revolution as a global effort- with our brothers and sisters in other counties like Spain, Mexico, Liberia, Puerto Rico. Colonization, neo-colonization, and neo-liberal economic policies have impacted the way educators teach and children learn. The history of the Black Radical Imagination emanates from those places; spaces where ultimate dreams, visions, and end goals of freedom are articulated, visualized and specified via artistic mediums, inspirational dialogues, and theatrical resistance.

I am thinking of notable artists and art theorists such as bell hooks, David Stovall, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and the surrealist artist Aimee Cesare (and a thanks to Bettina Love whose 2016 AERA conference presentation snapped this into focus for me). They argue for a radical imagining of “the possibilities of relational, transitive, and creative solidarity as a strategy for recasting not only human relations but also the very notion of what it means to be human” which is “crucial for decolonization” (Gatzambide-Fernandez, 2012). Also, see P.L. Thomas notable scholarship on James Baldwin. These artists created, and stemmed from, the surrealist movement which was largely a radical and political response to fascism and colonialism of the 19th century.

Why the framing of the radical (surrealist) black imagination for the future of the opt out movement? Because “surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought” (Kelley, p. 5).

Resistance requires application of the radical black imagination and indigenous people’s frameworks for radical democracy—resistance MUST draw from historical narratives that are rooted in their understandings of freedom and opposition to oppression and spring forth visions of where we want to be. The surrealists’ art of this movement spoke to the idea that, “it is not enough to imagine what kind of world we would like; we have to do the work to make it happen” (Kelley, p. 187). Resistance to oppression is something that marginalized (and enslaved) communities have lived for centuries, and therefore their imaginations, their wisdom, their lived experiences told through works of art allow us to imagine actions that will open “new possibilities in unlikely places” (Kelley, p. 189). This way forward has a long rich history of resistance rooted in the imagination and in love—two things indispensable to our movement. Kelley writes, “(R) enegade black intellectuals/activists/artists challenged and reshaped communism, surrealism, and radical feminism, and in doing so produced brilliant theoretical insights” … which can and must push our movement in new directions.

Through the critical imagination, we can find the language for systemic freedom and equitable alternatives. “Surrealists have consistently opposed capitalism and white supremacy” (Kelley, p. 192). While the resistance to privatization  has been framed as a “white middle class thing” (a paradoxical statement both sort of true…and largely manufactured), we can concede that to some extent we have been using middle class tactics and grounding our message in “indignation” (such as, “How dare you treat my kid this way!”), which is a White person’s version of experiencing injustice. Honestly, it amazes me that more parents of color, who have lived centuries of damage done to their children at the hands of the racist system, don’t look at us, roll their eyes and yell, “Well, duh!” … because they have lived it globally and systemically in ways that parents of White and middle class privilege are only recently beginning to get a glimpse. Garon (quoted in Kelley) says, “Human freedom depends not only on the destruction and restructuring of the economic system, but on the restructuring of the mind” (p. 192).

While racial and class privilege enables some of us to work more easily within the existing system of power, the radical imagination shows us how to shatter that system and imagine a new one. Kelley says: “Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” And he adds, when we talk about structural change, we’re not tweaking a system, but completely destroying it and replacing it with something new.” (see Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.)

If we find the power to imagine new schools that represent us: schools of anti-racism, equity, democracy, and love (where there is no space for billionaire control), we might get bold and imagine new societies in that same image (and where there is no space for billionaire control).

Our solidarity must come from the guidance of the radical black and brown artists who knew that imagination was the core of revolutionary action. “The idea of revolution of the mind has always been central to surrealism as well as to black conceptions of liberation” (Kelley, p. 191). When we, all of us, embrace radical black voices of imagination as the guiding principles for the opt out movement and create real solidarity, it will be “game, set, match, OVER” for the corporate elites. And they know it! To water down – or de-fang – the this revolution  mirrors the historical recasting of the Middle Passage as the Triangular Trade Agreement or Rosa Parks as little more than a sweet middle aged lady who was “just tired.”

What does the education revolution using radical imagination as its center look like? It could be surrealistic “Revolutionary graffiti painted in bold strokes across the great tests of Western civilization” (or Pearson tests) … “it is a hand grenade tossed with deadly accuracy, clearing the field” of the neo-liberal takeover of public education … “so we might write a new history with what’s left standing” (p. 181). This effort must be nothing short of this. And, if it is, then it needs to re-route to the right direction. Our resistance and transformation  (RBI style), “is the exhalation of freedom, revolt, imagination and love …. (I)t is above all a revolutionary movement ….Beginning with the abolition of slavery, it advances to the creation of a free society in which everyone will be a poet—a society in which everyone will be able to develop his or her potentiality fully and freely” (Chicago Surrealist Group, 1976). And isn’t this what we WANT for ALL children?

“Surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships” (Kelley, p. 193). True solidarity in this movement as an effort of social justice will be evidenced not when white middle class moms go to jail to protect their own children, but when they (we) go to jail to protect other people’s children too.

  • Jon

    A very clear and tragic example of failure to grasp the necessity of not tweaking but demolishing the imperial order was on 9/11 1973 when the fascists staged their deadly coup against Chile’s Allende. He had tried to appease the right. Wrong!

  • DHFabian

    One perspective: Look at the broader picture. The US shut down/shipped out a huge chunk of our jobs since the 1980s, ended actual welfare aid in the 1990s. This created an abundant surplus of job-ready people who are desperate for any job at any wage, grateful for the chance to replace you for less than you are paid. There’s nothing to fall back on. US corporations are now international entities, no longer dependent on US workers or consumers. From the start, then, the goal has been that of turning the US itself into just another third world labor state.