From Andrew Jackson to Mary Jackson!

Hi Joel,

Andrew to Mary? Yes, yes, yes! That was the response from stakeholders in the Salt Lake City school district this week when they were asked if they supported changing the name of the city’s oldest elementary school.

Andrew Jackson Elementary is named after one of America’s most racist presidents. That the man who brought us the Trail of Tears was the namesake of a school with a student population of that is more than 80% students of color was finally too much.

Image result for mary jackson nasa

Above, Mary Jackson at work. 

The school will be renamed Mary Jackson Elementary, after the African American engineer whose work made the moon landing possible. You probably know her story from the book and film Hidden Figures.

But before she was an engineer, she was a math teacher in Baltimore. As a black woman, she had to receive special permission to attend physics and math graduate classes in Virginia, a segregated state.

And now she’s breaking barriers again. Thirteen years after her death, she is the first woman to have a school in Utah names after her. That is a fact to be angry about, but, for now, to celebrate!


BHM: The Snowy Day Stamps

Hi Joel,

I went to mail a package the other day (to Peace Mennonite Church, in fact) and decided to buy some stamps. The postal worker didn’t need to sell me on set of images from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, the 1962 story of a little African American child who ventures out into the snow in his red snowsuit.

Like the best children’s books, The Snowy Day captures the small moments of wonder of snow–making footprints, thwapping the snow from branches with a stick, filling your pocket with the stuff–from a child’s perspective. The beautiful book won the Caldecott Award and represented black children in ways that weren’t racist caricatures. The book wasn’t radical at all–but it did something radical for African American children. As one teacher whose students read the book wrote to Keats:

‘The kids in my class, for the first time, are using brown crayons to draw themselves.’ ” Pope says. “These are African-American children. Before this, they drew themselves with pink crayons. But now, they can see themselves.”

I’d already purchased several sets of the stamps and used them in mailing most of our family’s Christmas cards and was familiar with both the story and the story of the story, but the postal worker told it to me anyway–which was a delight. In fact, he’s told it to me three times now, each time I’ve bought the stamps. That makes me really happy because it means he’s telling everyone who will listen. And now I am too, because it’s such a sweet story.

It’s also a reminder that the parents and grandparents of my own students grew up without reading books about children of color. Today, only about 10% of children’s book feature a main character of color, and we need more authors and illustrators of color in our libraries and classrooms and on our bookshelves. So we still have work to do, obviously. But it’s good to celebrate the work that has been done.

Image result for the snowy day stamp

Above, young Peter steps out into the world on a snowy day. A new set of stamps honors The Snowy Day, which was published 55 years ago. 


PS. The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation maintains a playlist of readings and interpretations of The Snowy Day. You can see an animated version, a Claymation version, a marionette version, and more.  A perfect way to spend your inside time on a snowy day!


Books: “Kindred” by Octavia Butler

51-NvfFuJsLDear Rebecca:

Three thoughts about Octavia Butler’s “Kindred“….

• This novel reminds me very much of Colson Whitehead’s recent “The Underground Railroad” — both find rawness in the experience of America’s enslavement and exploitation of black people through side doors: In Colson’s case, the conceit of a literal underground railroad lets him explore an alternate history with characteristics of our own world; Butler, however, chooses to have her narrator be a slave to time itself – whipped back and forth between the 19th and 20th centuries, the only way to fully control her destiny through self-harm. The result of these sci fi and fantasy tricks, though, is to draw us in in a way that, perhaps, simple history and biography don’t always do.

• That said, “Kindred” is a plainly told tale. I think this is on purpose. The artistry of novel-writing can be a wonderful thing, but it can also shield you from the emotional reality of a topic if you’re taking pleasure in an author’s word-smithery. “Kindred” is barely more artistic than a police report — but this, of course, is the key artistic choice: By giving us a straightforward account, the cruelty of racism comes much closer to our brains. We smell the sweat and blood, hear the screams, and witness the beatings. There’s no competing or compensatory pleasures here: This plainly told tale does nothing to hide you from the truth.

• None of us are untainted by the forces of history. Even the best of us end up complicit, by virtue of choices — even well-intentioned choices — that reduce the lives of others.

I recommend it!
— Joel

The immorality of Trumpist immigration enforcement comes home to Lawrence, Kan.: The arrest of Sayed Jamal


Dear Rebecca:

The federal government is about to destroy a family in my town over what, as best I can tell, was a paperwork mixup.

Syed Jamal, who has lived here more than 30 years, who has three American-born children — he applied for an open spot on the school board last year — but has no criminal record, was arrested by ICE this week and seems likely to be deported to his native Bangladesh.

The Lawrence Journal-World notes: “America is the only country Jamal’s three children have ever known. But, having overstayed his visa and having failed to leave the country voluntarily, the Bangladeshi-born Lawrence father is now jailed and facing deportation.”

Given what we know now, it seems that Jamal is being deported because his visa lapsed. And I imagine some of my conservative friends will say: “He shouldn’t have let his visa lapse, then.”

I say: Let the punishment fit the crime, then. Let he who never paid a late fee on his cable bill cast the first stone.

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I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: A key feature of any crime worthy of the name, it seems to me, is that the act of committing it is clearly and negatively disruptive, either to an individual life — a person may be injured, killed, deprived of property or merely their sense of well-being — or to the community at large.

ICE’s arrest of Sayed Jamal does more to disrupt my community than his presence here does. What’s happening here is wrong.

What to do?

Those interested can sign the petition at (Search for “Help to stop the deportation of Syed Jamal.”) Community members are also encouraged to address letters of support to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Mailing and email addresses can be found at Letter writers are asked to include Jamal’s case number — 095209456 — in their letters.

Community members are also encouraged to write letters and sign the petition during two events Saturday. The first, from 2 to 3 p.m., will be at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St. The Islamic Center of Lawrence, 1917 Naismith Dr., will host a second session from 4 to 5 p.m.

I’m not sure a public display will help Mr. Jamal. But it cannot hurt.

— Joel

Black History Month: What the Kiddos are Reading

Hi Joel,

It’s Black History Month! I LOVE LOVE LOVE Black History Month. It’s a good opportunity to engage with people and place and ideas that are still too often marginalized in our educations. I personally need the yearly check-in to make sure that I’m learning about and teaching about black history. So you’ll be hearing from me about BHM all month long.

To start with: Children’s books.


I did a semi-round-up of books featuring black characters that we already have on our family bookshelf. It’s a semi-round-up because soon after I took the picture, I realized that we were missing half a dozen books (The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey, Little Rock Nine by Marshall Poe and Ellen Linden, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop by Margaree King Mitchell and James E. Ransome, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and others), which sometimes happens when your kids read all over the house, on the porch, on the bus, etc.  

I was startled to realize how relatively few books featuring black children appear on our shelf. We have, like, a linear mile of books, so I expected more than this meager two dozen or so. (I’ve taken steps to rectify this, so look for an update when our Scholastic Book Club order arrives in two weeks.)

Above, some of the picture books we’re reading this month. In most cases, if you click on the link below, you will be taken to a video of someone reading the book. Preview them online, then support your local bookstore or Scholastic Book Club by purchasing them. The Voice that Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights by Russell Freedman, Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña (You will love Nana’s “deep laugh”), Yo! Yes? by Chris Raschka (wonderful for very early readers as it contains just a few words but lots of exclamation points, so it’s fun for practicing inflection), Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (a Cinderella-like story by John Steptoe, who won 2 Caldecotts in his too-short career), Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport with illustrations by Bryan Collier, The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and illustrated by George Ford, Beatrice’s Goat by Page McGrier and Lori Lohstoeter (a true story of Beatrice Biira of Uganda and her Heifer International goat, so consider owning it or giving away copies a Mennonite duty), Together by George Ella Lyon and illustrated by Vera Rosenberry, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, Ben’s Trumpet by Rachel Isadore, Rosa Parks: Freedom Rider by Keith Brandt and illustrated by Gershom Griffiths, aand Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story by Ruby Bridges, (Ruby Bridges and Linda Brown are favorite real-life people we love to read about.) 

The chapter books are some that I loved as a child (plus title by Rita Williams-Garcia, a favorite of my fifth-grader), but I’m wondering if they hold up. Feedback and warnings on these choices are welcome–as are suggestions for other titles! And the picture books are among our very favorites!

Above, chapter books for older readers: M.C. Higgins the Great; Amos Fortune, Free Man; One Crazy Summer; Yolanda’s Genius; Philip Hall Likes Me, I Reckon Maybe.; Sounder; Gone Crazy in Alabama. 

Readers–please share what your own children are reading now and what mine ought to be! Also, check out this list of bookstores owned by African Americans. (And here’s a list that includes comic stores!) Even if there isn’t one near you, if you’re the kind of person who likes to visit bookstores in other cities, remember it for when you travel.

Tell me how you support children’s literature featuring African characters and characters of African descent, black illustrators and authors, black-owned presses, black-owned bookstores, better collections for public libraries, and literacy for children.


Oh, and while you’re online, follow a donation to Marley Diaz’s #1000BlackGirlBooks on Twitter. Better yet, support Marley’s project to get more books about black girls taught in schools and available in libraries with a financial donation. 



The Anabaptist Duty to Speak against Anti-African Bigotry

Hi Joel,

You’ve read the recent issue of Mennonite World Review?

In it, Dr. Pakisa K. Tshimika shares his disappointment in Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks about Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador. Dr. Tshimika recounts his family’s experience as Mennonite Brethren in the Congo, his journey to the US where he earned a PhD in public health, and his work with Mama Makeka House of Hope in the DRC today. He puts his own story in the context of US exploitation of the DRC, including the anti-Communist activities there that killed his brother, who was forced into military service by CIA-backed forces. He is the brother-in-law of Ellen Kroeker, who has shared her family’s experience as immigrants and refuges with us here.

Above, Congolese Mennonites from Kalonda Mennonite Church join in worship in this photo from Mennonite World Conference

His letter isn’t to Trump, though. It’s an open letter to all of us asking us to defend and protect the dignity of the people of Africa. It’s a needed reminder of the way that we are complicit when we don’t speak out against the president’s degradation of others.


Where did Republicans misplace their principles?

Hi Joel,

So, Republicans wanted to omit the Department of Labor’s internal analysis that showed that mandating that tipped employees turn their tips over to their bosses would result in more money to bosses and less to workers?

It’s always good to do your research, of course, but the internal analysis just affirms what we already know: people prefer to keep money rather than to give it to others. Especially people who have the most.

Republicans yell about poor people wanting something for nothing, but it’s rich people who get the most for the least effort. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but money seems to be addictive. The more you have, the more you want. Also, it rots your brain, your heart, and your morals. 

If Republicans believed that wealth should be the result of individual effort, meaningful contributions to the economy, and the value of the work one does (like they say they do), their economic policies would look radically different.  They’d support immigration (since immigrants, both documented and undocumented, provide significant profits to the national economy), punish wealth hoarders (or at least incentivize their release of funds into research and development), and bring off-shored money home. They’d admit that 401Ks are a danger to people who work hard and save and push for more stable pension options. They’d demand a minimum wage that honors the dignity of work, and they’d make sure that the people who make the most important contributions to our society–teachers, nurses, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, eldercare workers–earn incomes that reflect their value.

Image result for pinata

Have you ever seen a piñata give up its candy voluntarily?

No. You’ve gotta beat it into sharing. 

Instead, they’ve consistently pushed for policies that divorce hard work from financial security. Oh, and they do it at tremendous expense to the nation, despite their claim to be the financially responsible party.

So instead of looking at what Republicans say, let’s look at what their policies do. What do their policies tell us about their principles?

  1. Republicans do not understand or do not believe analyses, even ones that they themselves produce, that show that their policies hurt poor people in order to help wealthier people. (Oh, and to feed their racist base.)  They are not real-world problem solvers because they refuse to accept reality.
  2. Republicans believe in a utopia in which, out of the goodness of their hearts, wealthier people will give to poorer people. In other words, it’s not progressives who live in a delusion about the goodness of people. It’s Republicans–at least, when those people are rich people.
  3. Because Republicans believe that wealthier people are better, more moral peoplethey believe that individuals and companies will voluntarily redistribute money downward. And, conversely, they do not believe that poor people deserve this (which is what makes such charity a benevolent act). And they do not believe that poor people can make good decisions about money, which is why they cannot be entrusted to it in the first place. Better for them to get a gift from their betters than for them to get a just wage.
  4. They lie, but they don’t care. Their listeners want to believe that, if it weren’t for the people Republicans scapegoat (immigrants willing to work for low wages, women in the workforce, black people on welfare), they’d be rich. The poorest white Republicans like to imagine that, in a truly libertarian society, they’d be millionaires, and they vote out of anger about their lost millions, which is more racial resentment than economic anxiety. And as long as vote this way, Republicans will continue to lie about their economic policies–and to blow their racist foghorns.

You’re a patient person, but I’m not sure you have enough time to wait for Republicans to find their principles.