“First fight. Then fiddle.”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

–from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “kitchenette building” in “A Street in Bronzeville.”

This May Day, I read Selected Poems of Gwendolyn Brooks over my oatmeal, before travelling around the city–midtown, Cooper Union, Bowling Greene, Union Square, then a march down Broadway. These lines, and a sonnet from “The Womanhood” that begins:

“First fight. Then fiddle.”

and continues, later:

[…] having first to civilize a space/ Wherein to play your violin with grace.”

stuck with me as I thought about the possibilities of education, and the other worlds that are possible.

To speak of dreams seems so baldly utopian it makes me briefly embarrassed. I suppose I’m afraid it’s unrigorous, or naive. Or maybe what I feel is misidentified giddiness. But to speak of education as a place of dreams–rather than as a place of rent payments, tuition payments, marriage, and manhood–seems an utterly necessary, giddy-making, and serious intervention. Perhaps dreaming is not as strong as the imperative to career (and careen?), professionalize, and pay bills (especially student loan payments) that currently mark the discourse of education reform and the lives of students. But why can’t our learning goals be dreams, joyful sounds, and resistance?

Such a change would obviously require much more than a revision of a lesson plan or the first page of a syllabus. The space for dreaming is not easily won. Brooks’s “First fight. Then fiddle” and the need for first “a space/ Wherein to play your violin with grace” begins to suggest the where and how of the conditions for free education. We must work to establish a space for play, dreams, beauty. But the directive to “first fight” doesn’t give us specific parameters for that struggle. Can it happen in an institutional classroom? How do we reclaim the running of public education? Can these changes happen within existing institutions or must those institutions be abandoned?

Fiona’s post yesterday pointed me to Ruth Gilmore’s “Public Enemies and Private Intellectuals: Apartheid USA” (1993). Gilmore’s article describes what happens when we fiddle first, instead. Academics, even if engaged in “oppositional studies programs,” have insular conversations that don’t challenge the institutions in which they participate. They remain “private intellectuals.” Gilmore’s questions begin to steer some of my preliminary ones:

The issue is not whether the master uses, or endorses the use of, some tool or another. Rather, who controls the conditions and the ends to which any tools are wielded’?


The need for oppositional work is unquestioned. But what is oppositional work?

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