Monday, July 13, 2020

I Don't Believe You When You Say "Blank Lives Matter"

A primer for the anti-racist teaching unit Ironically, All Lives Matter

Asynchronous Pre-work -Video to Frame Lesson (15 min.):
Lil Baby, The Bigger Picture” (4:16) 

Link -

Lyrics -


Chorus: “It’s bigger than Black and white/there’s a problem with the whole way of life/ It can’t change overnight/ but we gotta start somewhere…”


·      Share the chorus lyrics as a teaser. 

·      Have students watch the above video and read the lyrics on their own prior to the synchronous session. 

·      Advise that there is strong language and that they should listen using headphones if possible. 

·      Tell students that after watching the video, they should find the following comment by “JT” posted on 7/9/20 

·      Have students read the comment and read through the replies (37 at last count on 7/12/20) – Here is a portion of JT’s comment:  “For everyone saying or trying to correct and saying “all lives matter” you are not explicitly racist...You’re just ignorant. BLM is not intended to say that black lives matter more than all others. It’s implying that there is an imbalance and once that is corrected then all lives will show to matter….”


Contemporary Connection (synchronous):  

Read and discuss the following framing essay (30-45 minutes)


I don’t believe you when you say ‘______ Lives Matter’

By Michael Otieno Molina, teacher and author of Jim Huckleberry


Irony abounds in contemporary conflicts around race. Take the Black lives matter – alllives matter debate. “Black lives matter” is a clear and direct assertion that Black lives should matter as much as any life. That some attempt to contradict “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter” is AP English textbook irony. “All lives matter” cannot be a true statement unless “Black lives matter” is a true statement. So why would people say “all lives matter” to undermine the fact that all lives matter? Ironic, don’t you think?


·     Check for Understanding:  How do people use the word “ironic” in everyday conversation? Think of an example of people using the word “ironic” in colloquial speech and then Google Race[1]to find a good definition of how “verbal irony” is used in literature. Distinguish between the two. (5 min.)

o  Here is a relatively clear definition of irony – when the intended meaning of words contradict the surface meaning expressed by those words. Think sarcasm.

o  Here is a description of how verbal irony is used in literature from Encyclopedia Brittanica, “Irony has often been used to emphasize the multilayered contradictory nature of modern experience. For instance, in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula (1973), the [Black] community lives in a neighbourhood called the Bottom, located in the hills above a largely white town.” 


Using “All Lives Matter” as an attempt to contradict the statement “Black Lives Matter” is an ironic block to common understanding. Rather than get into the head-heavy black hole of rhetoric to try to prove that people aren’t saying what they mean when they say “all lives matter” or “Black lives matter” for that matter, we should start at the heart of it all. That’s where the deeper challenge lies, where emotional triggers stifle mutual understanding and the progress that could come from it. 


·      Anti-Racism Pro-tip:  Make room for the heart-space in order to allow for awareness of emotional responses. Be open to subjective experience. Be generous when people use imprecise language. Be quiet. Listen. Breathe. Listen more, and ask clarifying questions. 


Here’s a completely subjective opinion:  As a Black man, I don’t believe that people who say “All Lives Matter” mean it. I feel that people say “All Lives Matter” just to shut down discussion of whether Black people’s lives matter as much as other people’s lives in America. Some part of me doesn’t believe people who say “Black Lives Matter” either. If Black lives matter, how can we be okay with so many Black people in poverty or economic anxiety, in perpetual health danger, imprisoned, or academically under-resourced at such disproportionate rates? The supposed conflict between these two statements ultimately feels like a distraction and a deliberate attempt to undermine common understanding and collective action.


·      Mindful Think Time:  What are you feeling or thinking in response to this perspective? Do you agree, disagree, “agree to disagree”? What might be a contrasting perspective? How might you make space for my perspective and a contrasting perspective? (3 min.)


Mark Twain fans will not be surprised that his particular brand of anti-racism can help us out of the funk of this contemporary conflict around race. Twain critics will not be surprised that his racist characterization of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finnreaffirmed the dehumanization of Black life during post-reconstruction America, a historical period when America may have needed Twain at his most directly anti-racist. As a Twain fan and critic, I’ve learned that reading Huck Finnfor anti-racism, analyzing Huck Finnfor anti-racism, and responding to Huck Finnwith anti-racist creative expression can build a bridge—a base, a rise, and a landing—between people who say “Black Lives Matter” and those who say “All Lives Matter”. The hope for this unit is that this bridge might lead to action to make both statements true.


Thought Questions – Take some time to consider (5 min.):

·      What circumstances do you think people are responding to when they use the slogans “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter”?

·      What do you think people mean when they make these statements? 

·      What unspoken assumptions might help us understand what people mean when they make these statements? 

·      How might both of these statements be examples of verbal irony?


Learning about verbal irony helps us understand how to apply literature study in daily life. If we ever hope to decode the Rubik’s Cube of race relations, understanding verbal irony is a good start. Mark Twain can be helpful here. Verbal irony was Twain’s most potent tool in critiquing aspects of American society that still need critique today. 


In the three lesson anti-racist unit Ironically, All Lives Matter, we engage an excerpt from Huck Finnand one from Jim Huckleberry, a new work of American fiction that contrasts and connects with Twain’s most famous work. Verbal irony is at the core of Twain’s work. For generations, we have taught Twain and, likely, missed some of the point. For at least one generation, hip English teachershave either challenged the following song for its frustrating misuse of the notion of irony or praised it for exhibiting irony to perfection. Take a listen and judge for yourself if it’s ironic or not, and to get ready for the complex and contradictory world of Twain.


Closing Connection:Isn’t it Ironic, by Alanis Morrisette

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[1]I challenge students to use Google to find a good source of helpful information for answering a question as quickly as possible.  The first student with a good source “wins”. You can create a currency for wins, but the point is to ensure a good source for helpful information. Give the parameters for a good source before the race starts.