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Small Towns

I used to teach at a high school in a small, isolated rural town in Georgia. I arrived there already in my forties and already formed as an adult, not really subject to the formative process that I would have undergone if I’d been a new young teacher.

People who visited there said it was like going through a time warp. The school was racially integrated and black students excelled as much as white students. Extra-curricular activities included white and black students, but there was no inter-racial dating, and there were no mixed marriages. In school, among faculty, and in the town, black and white citizens were friendly toward each other, but the churches were distinctly segregated, as well as the neighborhoods. Wealth was pretty much evenly distributed. Well-dressed black and white students attended school together, participated in activities together, but there it ended. Everyone seemed content with this arrangement.

Even with that peculiarity, it seemed an idyllic place to live. I decided not to live there, however. For one thing, I’m a Catholic, and while there were many Baptist, Pentecostal, and even a Methodist church or two, there was no Catholic church. I decided to live in a small city about 45 miles distant, where there is a Catholic church, and make the commute to work every day.

There was another reason, however, one less obvious, or less easily explained. The people of this town had lived there for generations. Everyone was identified, defined, placed, by their relations. “Joe Thompson’s boy,” or “Mary Alice’s brother,” or “one of the Conners.” This was particularly true of women: To live there, a woman had to be someone’s daughter, wife, sister, or mother. If none of these identities applied, she was no one—and she was also expendable, disposable, a useful target in feuds, someone who had no relations to hide behind–or hide within. An unrelated person is defenseless; they can safely be scapegoated with no fear of backlash or set up as a despised figure around whom others can unite. (I hadn’t yet read Rene Girard.) In any case, I sensed a profound danger almost from the day I arrived.

So I commuted. I knew they thought I believed I was “better” than they were. I didn’t, of course, but I had no choice but to let that belief stand. And over the years I taught there, my instinct for the danger I had sensed was proven accurate many times. I saw my students graduate and get trapped there. Too often they went away to college only to return after one semester, saying they were homesick. But it wasn’t their families they missed—they missed themselves. Hundreds of miles away from the relations which had given them their identity, they didn’t know who they were. One or two told me on returning that they were frightened, even terrified. Coming back home, they felt “safe” again. One of my brighter students gained a full scholarship to Yale, only to return in less than three months, weeping, and saying that she “missed home.” It wasn’t home she missed, but herself. She didn’t know who she was up there.

This, I think, is what “tribalism” really means, very much like the social structure of animals who live in packs. Every child is given a place, a slot, in the overall tribe. This place belongs to him or her. But more importantly, the child belongs to it, so that the child and the place become one thing and can’t be separated. It isn’t a matter of class or race; it’s a matter of belonging. That is why the races lived so peacefully side-by-side there and also why racial integration remained superficial. It wasn’t a “white” thing or a “black” thing.  Everyone knows who they are, and where they belong. One man came from the North with his family, intending to live this seemingly idyllic life. He attended a black church and was asked by the pastor, in rather strong terms, to leave.

I taught there for eight years but never stayed after school for any kind of social function or any school-related activity that did not require my attendance. The commute was very difficult sometimes, but, although I was fond of my students and had a great deal of respect for many of my colleagues, I didn’t live there. There were times when sentiment or complacency caught me, and I’d have to do something to extricate myself—take a day off and stay home, or even say or do something to garner disapproval and initiate exclusion. If I’d chosen to live there, I would have given up my faith, I would have had to marry in order to build a social defense wall to protect myself, I would have had to allow the town to define me by assigning me a place and an identity.

That was many years ago, but I still reflect on what I learned about social cohesion and its cost. 

Standard English is White Supremacist?

 A recent issue of The College Fix reported an article from the Conference of College Composition and Communication in which five professors called for “black linguistic justice” and an end to the “white supremacy of standard English.” The article reported was titled: “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” The writers wanted to “decolonize students’ minds” to have them “unlearn white supremacy.”

 Well, first, this isn’t new. There was this kind of talk way back when I first started teaching, which was about a decade after the Civil Rights Movement. Revolutionary fervor is addictive and very hard to give up, even long after the revolution is over. Self-righteousness is intoxicating, and there are those, perhaps genetically predisposed, who become hopelessly addicted. It was about this time we were forced to give up generic “man” and the abstract “he” for a revision to “humanity” and the abomination of he/she, but at least that was more accurate, logical, and distasteful as it was, we were able to swallow it.

 That accomplished, the addicts began to insist on the standardization of so-called “black English.” No. No, because the reason for such a sweeping change was not, and is not, accurate or logical. There are, if I remember correctly, 14 identified dialects in Georgia alone. There are hundreds of dialects in the U.S. An African-American from Waycross, Georgia, has as much difficulty understanding a New York African-American as a white person from Waycross experiences. “Black” English is as diffuse as “white” English—if there were such a thing, which there isn’t. There is, however, such a thing as standard English, which is the mother of all the dialects.

Europeans are bilingual; the second language of most is English, standard English, in fact. Any American can understand European English, but Europeans might not understand English-speakers from the deep South, or perhaps inner-city New Yorkers because these are dialects. I used to teach my students that, unlike Europeans, who have to go only a few miles to be in a foreign country, we have huge oceans on either side of the huge English-speaking country where we live. We don’t really have to be bilingual. However, because we have such an incredibly diverse population, we do have to be bi-dialectal (a term I coined for the occasion). We have to be fluent in our own dialect and in standard English. To add another dialect is not to deprive one of the dialect with which one is familiar any more than the addition of another language causes one to forget one’s native tongue. To learn a second is not a put-down of the first. My purpose was not to “correct” their English, but to teach another dialect—standard English.

 If fluency in a second language or dialect is seen as a condemnation of a first language or dialect, it is impossible to teach or learn. I believe the English learned that lesson from the Welsh. On the other hand, I doubt that one could find anyone in Wales who does not speak English, even if Welsh is used at home, in town, and elsewhere.

 What was interesting—and fun, for both my students and me—was an experiment in teaching standard English in ghetto. I couldn’t keep it up for more than five minutes at a time, but it was fun and effective in what I wanted them to learn: language is a huge part of our identity; learning another language is recognizing another’s identity. 

Saints, Sinners & Suffering

Saints, Sinners & Suffering 

The next issue of the St. Austin Review is at the printer. The theme of the September/October issue is Saints, Sinners & Suffering. Highlights include: 

Garner Richardson surveys “The Soul-Tree of St. Catherine of Siena”. 

Paul J. Voss muses on “Thomas More’s Confinement in the Tower of London”. 

Jackson T. Herne hearkens to “St. Bernadette’s Song for Our Time”. 

Sr. Carino Hodder takes us on “John Bradburne’s Journey”. 

John M. Grist reads “From Pontius Pilate’s Private Notes”. 

Gene Fendt distinguishes between “Growing Up Modern, and Growing Up”. 

Andrew Howley traces the sources of inspiration for his painting. 

Chad Chisholm goes to the movies and sees “The Paradox of Joker”. 

K. V. Turley finds “Ordet’s Holy Fool”. 

Kevin O’Brien tackles “Suffering and the Meaning of COVID-19”. 

Fr. Dwight Longenecker connects “Mel Gibson and the Problem of Pain”. 

Donald DeMarco contemplates “The Plague that is ever with Us”. 

Manuel Alfonseca considers “The Faith of Contemporary Atheist Scientists”. 

William Fahey asks “What do Monuments Teach?” 

Fr. Benedict Kiely is “Praying Constantly”. 

Bradley J. Birzer invites us to “A Dance Beyond Anger”. 

Kenneth Colston reviews A Time to Die: Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life by Nicolas Diat. 

Louis Markos reviews Symbol or Substance?: A Dialogue on the Eucharist with C. S. Lewis, Billy Graham and J. R. R. Tolkien by Peter Kreeft. 

Greg Peters reviews The Dark Angels by François Mauriac. 

Stephen Mirarchi reviews The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord by Anthony Esolen. 

Plus new poetry by Thomas Banks, Jeffrey Essmann, Fr. Gerard Garrigan, Philip C. Kolin and D. Q. McInerny. 

Isn’t it time you became a wise man by following the StAR? Subscribe today at staustinreview.org.