Friday, July 1, 2022

Louis Armstrong, Myths, and the Rescue Narrative

There’s an article making the rounds on social media and carried by some news outlets that tells a story of how a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, adopted a young Louis Armstrong and started him on the path toward becoming the world-famous musician he later became.  Different versions of the story have the family housing young Louis in their home where the mother sang him to sleep with Jewish lullabies.  Other versions have them purchasing his first instrument for him because they saw his potential.  Yet others discuss how he was affectionately given a Yiddish nickname.  It all sounds very Disneyesque as the young child is helped by a struggling immigrant family who brings him into their home and treats him like an adopted child.  It’s a poignant story for the times (early 1900s) when both Jewish and Black people were so mistreated – especially in New Orleans where Mr. Armstrong spent his childhood.  The story has some truth, but it’s not true.  And it’s an example of why those touching stories your friends pass along may not be the best sources to cite.  It’s an even more significant example of how a false narrative that feeds misinformation can contribute to harmful generalities.


First some details about why it’s not a true story.  Louis Armstrong was a documentarian.  He kept extensive handwritten notes about his life.  The notes are in the rough language of someone with limited formal education, and they reflect his times.  But they are extensive and allow us to see, in his own words and from his perspective, what his life was like.  His handwritten notes are available at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY.  And there are transcribed versions of some of that material at the University of Chicago online archives.  He wrote an extensive comment about his experiences with the Karnofsky family.  You can read an excerpt at:


It’s tough to read some of what’s there because of the times it reflects.  His attitudes toward race, though common in his generation, sound strikingly painful today.  But the account is worth reading because it provides a more honest telling than the stories circulating online.  The relationship he describes with the Karnofskys is one of employee and employer.  He worked for them beginning at the age of seven (yes, seven – not uncommon in that era) working alongside the adults or older Karnofsky children.  Mrs. Karnofsky would provide him with a meal at the end of the day, after he’d been working from sunup; but then he went home to his mother and sister.  The Karnofskys treated him benevolently, and he learned the importance of working hard from them.  But when he decided to purchase a used, blackened cornet he saw in a store, they didn’t purchase it for him.  Mr. Karnofsky advanced him two dollars of the five he needed to purchase the horn.  It was a loan against his salary.  He paid back the loan and paid the other three dollars from money he had saved from his salary.  He admired the Karnofskys’ ability to work as a family and to work toward common goals – traits that he believed were lacking in the people in his own community.  But, no, he didn’t become an adopted member of the family.  They were his kindly employers, and no more than that.  They didn’t nickname him with a Yiddish moniker of “Satchmo” (a name he got later from a fellow musician who shortened it from “satchel mouth” – because he talked so much).  The Karnofskys were models to seven-year-old Louis Armstrong that he didn’t see anywhere else in the world he experienced to that point.  As a result, he had a fondness for them that he later extended to all Jewish people.  This is all documented in his own handwriting. 


So why do we so readily want to believe the story of a family rescuing young Louis Armstrong, and why does it continue to make the rounds, even after Snopes and other sources have debunked it?  We like stories where there is, at the heart of troubles, a happy twist of rescue.  The lost puppy finds home, the abandoned child finds a family, Little Orphan Annie finds a Daddy Warbucks benefactor.  Those stories make us feel okay about a world that can often seem otherwise cruel.  But there’s more to a story that involves a seven-year-old Black child who goes to work to help his family survive, especially if that child becomes wealthy and famous as an adult.  That real story is contrary to the more common myths about Black people.  After all, the common story society tells of Black children has been one of generational poverty in generational dysfunction.  Mr. Armstrong himself falls into that trap in his telling of the Black experience in his writing.  It’s painful to read his views of Black families in the link noted above. 


The dominant societal narrative is one of failure and distress for Black children.  And that narrative isn’t dependent on political perspectives.  Liberals believe it as strongly as conservatives do.  It is rooted in the perception that Black children grow up in poverty and they later live, as adults, in deprivation.  That was such a dominant theme that it drove much of social service policy and social science research from the Moynihan Report of the mid-1960s to the current day.  It stems from the belief that Black families and their children are flawed and deficient.  For them to do better, as the myth emphasizes, someone must rescue them.


So a mythical narrative gets created to explain Louis Armstrong.  It suggests that a generous immigrant family helped and nurtured him.  They taught him love and lullabies, and that gave him the start he needed to succeed.  Except that never happened.  While he talks about learning the importance of work and focus from the Karnofsky family, and while he admired them, it wasn’t their love that he took from his encounter.  At a very young age, he watched, learned, and adapted.  As he later played in a band with his idol, the bandleader King Oliver, or as he fronted his own bands, he understood what it meant to hone his skills through work and determination.  He learned how to work from the Karnofsky family, and he took that lesson with him for the rest of his life.  While he was clearly an originator on the trumpet whom players still imitate today, and while he was exceptionally talented, it was his work ethic that propelled him beyond being just a brilliant trumpet player.  His words tell us that was the value of his experiences with the Karnofskys.  His success didn’t come from some mythical nurturing and rescue.


Why is that an important distinction to make?  It’s important because seeing the truth of it leads you to a different understanding of the Black experience.  Louis Armstrong wasn’t rescued.  He found a model and then he adapted the model to his own needs.  He used the lessons he learned while working for the Karnofsky family to rise from the reform school where he was later sent to playing for queens and presidents as an adult.  That’s pretty amazing for a child who grew in the poverty that Mr. Armstrong describes in his writing.  And maybe that’s the story we should be passing around on social media.  It’s certainly more accurate.


And while we’re at it, maybe we should look at others who succeeded and see what really propelled them to success.  I think about this because of my great-grandfather who migrated to Texas after the Civil War.  By 1871, when he was 72, he owned his own ranch.  By the early 1900s, his sons owned extensive ranch and farm lands in two counties and had amassed significant wealth.  When my grandfather visited Galveston in the early 1900s, his arrival was often noted in the Black newspaper.  One article in Galveston’s The City Times (February 20, 1915, page 1) noted that he was the brother of another wealthy stockman while saying of him, “His wealth, it is thought, will reach the $100,000 mark” (just under $3 million today).  That was a remarkable change of fortunes for a family that a generation before would have been considered as property in many states.  Although that fortune was systematically stolen by the time the next generation arrived, their success, and that of many other Black families during that era and beyond, rarely gets told.  Those stories are not unique to my family.  There were many Black families who have a similar story in that era and all the way to today. 

It’s time to look at those stories and stop passing along myths that affirm a rescue narrative that isn’t truthful.  We’ve started to be aware of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” because of recent reporting; however, even that’s told as an anomaly.  It’s not.  When I’ve examined the many stories of Black success, whether then or now, I can see a pattern of striving toward achievement that is often thwarted by more powerful forces.  Rather than seeing familial dysfunction, I see attainment that fights against the odds because I know these other stories.  That’s why I’m always suspicious of narratives that promote the rescue storyline.  The truth, whether it’s about Mr. Armstrong, my family, or Black Wall Street, is much more powerful. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

An Observational Exegesis of Popular American Epistemology and an Explication of Expertise

(Go ahead and read this despite the title!  I’m using it to make a point.)   


If I can use language like in the title above, it’s clear that I can throw around big words.  I generally don’t talk like that, but it seemed that the topic of this essay needed some words that I know from my professional life to help make a point (more on that later).  To translate, what’s written here are my observations about how we Americans relate to knowledge, truth, and expertise – a relationship that is currently strained and teetering toward a break up.  I hope folks don’t read the title and decide to click past because it all sounds foreign and not something worth taking the time to read.  I hope you read the first sentence of this paragraph and decided that maybe the rest of the paragraph is worth reading.  If the first paragraph is worth reading, then maybe the second one is, too.  And maybe you’ll make it all the way to the bottom and see the whole point.  Anyway, I promise that there isn’t any more specialized language like the title. 


To get to my point: 


I recently read a news account about a religious leader in my community who refuses to get vaccinated.  This isn’t a rabid fundamentalist like I’ve written about elsewhere.  This leader claims a connection to one of the oldest strains of Christianity.  And he believes that the COVID-19 vaccine is a step toward the “mark of the beast” that the biblical book of Revelations suggests will be the antichrist’s brand on his followers.  The priest also further suggested that the government is exaggerating the COVID-19 death toll to create more profits for the medical profession, and CDC statistics are not to be believed.  This leader cites, as his source, an unnamed scientist friend who claims that other scientists are afraid to speak out against the vaccine.  The religious leader making the claims in the news account offered no data, primary research, or credible sources – just a reported friend with whispers of a deep conspiracy that involves the entire medical profession and the entire government.  Because I’m someone who has expertise in an area (though not medicine), these sorts of ambiguous proclamations trouble me because as I understand expertise in any area, it’s never so vague and hidden. 


Expertise?  Me?  As the language in the title of this piece might suggest, I have a college education.  But those years of learning aren’t why people who know me will be able to see something I’ve said as having value.  My education, especially my advanced education, prepared me to begin developing knowledge and expertise in certain areas.  The work I’ve done since I completed those degrees gave me additional knowledge and expertise.  I don’t know much about quarks or cellular biology because that’s not what I studied.  But in my field of knowledge, I do know something.  When I talk or write about those topics, it’s because I’ve developed expertise to do so.  I like to say that “I know stuff.”  Like other experts I know, I openly share my expertise, and I don’t pass it along in whispers only to a few people I know.


I appreciate and value all levels of knowledge, but let’s acknowledge that there are levels of knowledge.  The meteorology course that I completed as an undergraduate helps me understand what downslope winds are and how thunderstorms develop.  But taking a course or reading a book doesn’t make me a meteorologist who can predict the next hailstorm.  In my area of expertise, I know stuff because of what makes me an expert.  Specifically, I’ve:

  • Conducted my own studies and explored the ideas by looking critically at the ideas of others who also study my areas of knowledge;
  • Developed systems and processes that put my ideas into practice;
  • Tested those ideas and have information that tells me whether those ideas worked or didn’t;
  • Regularly exchanged ideas with others who do similar work;
  • Remained in current conversations that challenge my ideas and force them to evolve. 

So my expertise isn’t a fixed body of information; it’s a living experience that I expand all the time.  I am continually learning about my field of knowledge and continually finding new ideas to explore in that field.  That’s what an expert does.  You can’t claim my level of knowledge or expertise without having similarly undertaken steps.  Maybe not exactly the same steps I’ve taken as an academic researcher, but certainly you would need to go through the same level of rigor that I’ve followed by following those bullet points above.  I know expert playwrights who do that by learning to write plays through struggle and focus and time and effort; I know expert beauticians who’ve stood over the heads of thousands of people and gained expert skills; I know truck drivers who’ve spent so much time in the cab of a semi that it feels more at home than their house does. Expertise comes in multiple ways, but it does come, and every expert I know experiences those bulleted points.  As a result, there are people who are experts. You would miss taking advantage of that expertise by dismissing what I or other experts say in our areas of expertise because you disagree with it.  I’m not an expert in everything, and sometimes my opinion is just that:  my ideas that are the same as anyone else’s.  But in my field of knowledge, I’m worth hearing before you reject my ideas.  That’s not boasting or expecting that others should see me as special.  It’s a factual a statement that defines part of who I am.  In my area, I know stuff. 


Why should anyone care whether I am or anyone else is an expert?  Unfortunately, with the proliferation of talk shows, social media, and “influencers,” Americans seem to have lost the idea that there are experts who know more than the typical person.  And no matter how overwhelming the expert testimony, if some of us hear just one contrary voice declaring knowledge on a matter, we can sometimes ignore the overwhelming expertise and follow the idea that agrees with our opinions.  In the pre-COVID-19, anti-vaccine world that meant some people continued to follow discredited Andrew Wakefield who falsified his research to falsely claim a connection between autism and vaccines – and, as a result, lost his medical license.  In the current pandemic, there are people who would follow leaders who call on their followers to follow medical quackery over the advice of infectious disease experts who tell them to wear a face mask, keep distant from others, and get vaccinated.  Or there are others who look askance at the massive amount of data and reports on climate change.  The list of topics goes on.  Some have stopped listening to expertise and decided that any idea merits belief if it agrees with what they want to believe.


I’m not suggesting a blind following of experts.  That would be as wrong as ignoring them.  In case you haven’t guessed this (or known it already because you know me), my area of expertise is around people’s engagement with new ideas.  I “know stuff” about how people learn and how people teach.  I live into the bulleted points above in my professional life.  And something my expertise has taught me is that people often follow the path of least resistance to access knowledge, especially if that knowledge challenges what they already know.  Blindly following a belief is often the easiest path when the better (and harder) approach is to seek out many sources of information, to weigh those sources of information, and decide which source is most accurate.  For example, if 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real, then, at the least, you need to question whether you should be following the advice of the other 3%.  The responsibility is to weigh experts’ ideas and determine which ideas are worth following.  And that’s become especially important when we have so many sources of information. 


Those sources are sometimes difficult to understand because any area of expertise has its own language that helps experts discuss ideas in their field – like the title of this essay.  It’s important that people in an area of expertise have a language that they can use among each other so they can talk in the shorthand of that language.  I used to teach my graduate students to use the language like the title of this essay so we could have a common language to discuss the nature of knowledge.  It’s the language that they encountered while reading other experts in my area.  However, while some experts are writing in a language meant for each other, it is critical to find those experts who also share their ideas for those of us outside their world.  There are folks in every area of expertise who’ve worked hard at translating their work to an audience beyond their narrow group of fellow experts.  I don’t mean the charlatan quacks who have their own talk shows or YouTube channel and offer opinions on everything.  You know, the ones who insist on being called “Doctor [Insert First Name Here]” and build a marketing brand around that name.  In contrast are others who reach a wide audience and really do develop expertise through careful inquiry and the kind of first-hand exploration that provides them with the mantle of expert (remember the bulleted list I included above). 


Think Michael Eric Dyson, Shirley Ann Jackson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Nell Irvin Painter.  These and many more have learned to be translators of their big ideas to make those ideas accessible to an audience beyond their own profession.  These aren’t folks who’ve pandered to a wider audience while losing their drive to gain new knowledge.  These public intellectuals have continued to contribute to their field while learning to communicate their ideas.  While there could be more of that expertise and knowledge made publicly accessible, it is available; and we all need to go looking for it.  If you’ve been on Facebook or Substack lately, you’ve most likely encountered the daily posts from historian Heather Cox Richardson.  She’s the perfect example of what this looks like when done well.  In addition to writing highly respected books in her field of knowledge, she writes a daily summary of current events that places the day into historical perspective.  Her daily comments are free of jargon, and they’re also written in the conversational tone that a letter is written.  As a result, her posts are daily must reading for thousands of readers.  It’s experts like her who are worth finding.


So how can we be better at consuming information and looking for experts we can trust? 


That was easier 30 years ago when there were fewer sources available.  Today, the answer to that question isn’t easy, but it’s necessary if we’re going to be able to navigate the complex world in which we live.  Like I wrote above, my expertise is in my field of study, so I have to do this, too, with other topics all the time.  We all need to have the skills to evaluate the expertise and information that come to us.  The place to start is by questioning the qualifications of the people offering the information.  My favorite example of misplaced expertise was when Nobel Laureate and chemist Linus Pauling declared almost-magical powers of Vitamin C, to the consternation of medical researchers who understood its limitations.  Pauling’s pronouncements had people taking massive doses of Vitamin C that medical researchers agreed had little curative purposes. 


Look, also, to see what viewpoints that the expert uses, so that you can understand the biases that the expert brings.  Take some time to see if there are other experts who agree or disagree with the expert.  In both social sciences and the natural sciences, experts always seek to have our work examined by other experts.  The idea of “peer review” means that other experts in our field have looked closely at our work and have determined it meets the standards of our profession.  That process has limitations, but it does offer some protections.  I mentioned Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccination, falsified research above.  His study was originally peer reviewed and published by The Lancet, a major British medical journal.  Over time, though, other medical researchers weren’t able to reproduce his results, and that led to his work being examined more closely.  While his falsified data originally passed initial review, it was through further peer review that The Lancet discovered his fabrication and eventually published a retraction of their original publication of his work.  


Whenever I hear someone complain that “experts never agree, so I’m not listening to any of them” on a topic, I realize that I’m hearing someone who believes that maybe having expert knowledge isn’t possible.  That’s not true.  In the rapidly evolving information world that surrounds us, we have to sift through that knowledge and educate ourselves how to know which of that knowledge makes the most sense.  The challenges in determining the worth of expert advice, however, doesn’t mean that we should give up on assessing it – or that we should accept all ideas as equal.  It means that it’s going to be harder to make the judgments.  There’s a balance between cynicism and blind acceptance, and we all need to strive toward that balance.  I think of it as informed skepticism.  You don’t have to be an expert in order to assess the value of expertise or of someone who’s sharing their expertise.  After all, you just got to the bottom of this essay that had a title that you may not have fully understood because of the specialized vocabulary I used in the title.  If I’ve done my job, I’ve conveyed the complexity of my ideas without relying on that vocabulary – so you didn’t have to become an expert to understand my thoughts.  You can look at other sources to see if I really do have the expertise I claim, and you can read other materials that’ll tell you about my perspectives and biases. 


Where can you start developing a process that’ll help you develop skills in informed skepticism?  Here are some guides to help:


These resources offer you the opportunity to develop your informed skepticism by developing your own processes that allow you to evaluate information.  Doing that is the only reasonable alternative to accepting information blindly or ignoring it without assessing its worth. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Thoughts on living in my 70th year

Scanning over the directory of names on my Facebook friends list, I see a few friends of friends; but for the most part, the names that I see form a road map of my life.  There are relatives from both my direct family and Mary’s.  There are people I’ve known for a lifetime or a few years.  A few know me from early childhood.  Many I’ve known professionally: they’ve been co-workers, bosses, professional colleagues.  There are some whom I’ve gotten to know through community engagements or consulting projects.  There are people from the communities I’ve been part of.  And then there are the students, a handful on the list who are part of the thousands I taught over the years:  people in their late-40s and 50s who are cemented in my memory as teens; and people whom I taught in community college or graduate school as adults and who now have a few more grey hairs than when I first met them.


Over my lifetime, I’ve had an odd memory.  I’m awful with names, but there’s something that keeps conversations in my mind.  I can recall discussions that I had in the 1970s almost verbatim.  For many years, I recalled every conversation with that detail; but now with time, age, and volume, my memories of discussions aren’t all as vivid or complete.  They’re still there, just in less clarity.  While I’ve always had challenges recalling a person’s name immediately, I can still remember enough of our discussion about a mother’s illness, a sister’s triumphs, someone’s struggles whether to attend graduate school, how much the person loved a particular breed of dog, or a hundred other minute details that seem glued to the neural pathways of my memory. 


Through these recollections of others, I see my own life.  I’ve actually learned how to live in the world through others.   Sociologists tell us that we become habituated to the norms around us by interacting in our worlds.  That’s true for my life.  People showed and told me how they survive tragedy, how they celebrate joy, how they cope with challenges and success.  And I learned how to follow the examples they set – not mirroring their experiences, but certainly by using them as templates for my own actions.  Sometimes those are difficult experiences as I learned who not to trust or who was only out for self-gain.  But, on balance, those were small moments where I learned much and moved ahead. 


I’ve often heard that life doesn’t come with an instruction manual.  In my case, it does.  It’s a manual that’s authored in chapters of others’ lives, expanded through each interaction with them.  I think that’s why I recall so many conversations.  Those memories of conversations aren’t just facts about others’ lives.  They’re a roadmap of the growth I’ve experienced.  It’s a wonderful symbiosis of connections where I’ve grown and evolved and become with each person I get to know.  That list of Facebook friends is more than a list of names since each name is the basis of a memory that has helped me to understand life further. 


In the auto-biographical chapter I wrote for African American Males in Higher Education Leadership, I noted that my life comes from a long historical lineage that informs and shapes it.  In that book chapter, I wrote how my life, like the great Nile as it fertilizes river valleys downstream, was shaped by what comes before until it’s eventually able to offer something to others.  Since I wrote that chapter, though, I’ve come to believe that I’m also shaped by more than what came before me.  My life gets enriched by each conversation and event that is suggested by the names on the Facebook list and well beyond it.  Life, for me, has been a fortunate exchange of ideas, habits, and values. 


At this stage, I’m fortunate that some folks call me “mentor.”  That’s something I’ve learned to be as I’ve known people who’ve shown me how to fill that role.  As I was maturing, I had people who checked in on me, helped me to develop the skills and knowledge I needed to have the impact I wanted to have, and let me gently know when I was heading off course.  Now, as I’ve become the mentor, I’ve learned that one aspect of that role is living to a standard.  The righteous fire to change the world of my youth has been tempered by time and experiences that sometimes give me thoughts about taking it all easy and not taking any difficult routes.  However, being engaged with younger folks reminds me to make choices that are often as challenging as the ones I fought through in prior decades.  I may not be on the same leading edge that I was 30 years ago, but my interactions with others remind me to keep pushing whatever edge that’s before me. 


It’s more than not wanting to let down others or appearing to look like I’ve given up.  It’s actually more about being forced to live by the same internal standards that have driven me throughout my life and not compromise because it’s easier, I’m older and more tired, or a hundred other excuses that I’d otherwise have.  To be other than whom I’ve been would negate how I lived the rest of my life.  It’s my connections to other, often now younger, people that keep me accountable to remain whom I’ve always wanted to be. 


So at the start of this new year of 2022, as I’m mid-way through my 70th cycle around the sun, thank you to all who’ve shared and continue to share your lives with me.  May we all continue to enrich each other in the year ahead.  Happy new year!