The Trending Infection: An Open Letter to Mark Oppenheimer

Today’s guest blogger is author and editor Rae Bryant

On May 29, 2014, The New Republic ran an essay by Mark Oppenheimer titled, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The essay goes on to pose questions about honorary degrees and entitlements. It just so happened that minutes previous to reading this essay by Oppenheimer, I had finished watching, for the third time, the recently released HBO film The Normal Heart, a fine adaptation of Larry Kramer’s original play. The parallels between prejudice in education and prejudice in sexuality struck so clearly for me, I was stunned not only that Oppenheimer had written the essay but also that The New Republic had published it.

I was nine-years-old in 1981 when HIV/AIDS—then termed “Gay Cancer” by straight media—forever changed social, medical and sexual landscapes in local and global communities. The combined infectious spread and mortality rates would be unprecedented in the United States. This is how I came to age, in many ways a product of the Generation X AIDS misunderstandings, prejudices and fears. My core developmental years, both physically and sexually, formed by this disease. Prejudice had come out of its closet as a much larger paradigm, the majority controlling the minority in everything from gender to ethnicity, sexual identity to educational canon and elitism. All of these prejudices led to an avoidance of public health and social equality many times throughout history, and here it was again, with the gay population. It would be years later before the facts about AIDS began circulating publically through media, communities and schools, and even then, the facts suffered such distortion by media, politicians, educators and the moral majority, public understanding of the disease was more often myth than reality. What made the disease so frightening to the public? We didn’t understand the realities of the disease. We were afraid an infected man jumping into a community swimming pool could infect an entire population of swimmers. What made the disease so frightening to the CDC? The disease presented as opportunistic. It depleted the immune system, the least understood in the body, and left its host open to infection by viruses and bacteria a healthy infant’s immune system could fight without issue. As fearsome as this disease was and is, it is not, and has never been, as disastrous and contagious as the prejudice that surrounded and perpetuated its infection. The disease was allowed to replicate and spread due to this prejudice and to the in-fighting between political and medical professionals who might have otherwise sought quicker funding, research and treatment. In the end, it wasn’t the disease that killed so many people. It was the prejudice.

Women and minorities have been fighting prejudice in higher education since the dawn of thought. Prejudice is as contagious and detrimental to our socio-political and physical health as AIDS would be to our immune systems. In his essay, Oppenheimer exemplifies this prejudice with his question, only days after Angelou’s death, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” The short answer: Maya Angelou was awarded several honorary doctorates from various post-secondary institutions due to her extensive artistic and professional successes, including a Pulitzer. The doctorates were awarded to her with an eye toward transcendence of voice over majority biases and prejudices in her lifetime, biases and prejudices that made it difficult for some and impossible for others to attain such degrees, leadership and academic equality. To be more pointed, Mr. Oppenheimer, “People” call Ms. Maya Angelou Dr. Maya Angelou because she more than earned the title in her craft and activism as a doctoral degree holder, a craft and activism doctoral candidates hope to one day attain as degree holders. Maya Angelou, before and after her doctorates, took this calling. She was at the top of her class. Not only was she your senior, Mr. Oppenheimer, in every way, she did not require the degree to further her art and social activism. Her art social activism furthered her degree. The honorary doctorate, if one is to employ reason, masters the “earned” doctorate in this case and many more.

Though some writers neglect their doctoral responsibilities, such as Oppenheimer confesses he does, Maya Angelou did not. She engaged in her medium as a forerunner before and after her awards—i.e. the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage and anti-apartheid activism in Ghana to name two. She battled prejudice and misinformation, as damaging and infectious to thought as communicable diseases are to the body. She did this not only for herself but also for generations of readers now and ongoing. She helped to change cultural understanding and socio-political practices.

Writers are well aware of the power a single work of fiction can hold. Well-crafted fiction does not force change or seek to indoctrinate its readers. It invites readers to form critical thought and change for themselves. A well-formed book of fiction can be an antiviral to prejudice, oppression, misogyny and fear.

As Oppenheimer suggests, scholarly doctorates need not be waved about at cocktail parties for any reason other than to bolster one’s ego and hierarchal positioning. Agreed. However, when the degree earned or awarded belongs to an individual whom the white, male majority would not regularly recognize as part of its hierarchy, the cultural responsibility of the honoree is great. For the minority to tuck her degree away would be to minimize the positive social and cultural impact of her degree. The giving of Angelou’s degrees, as honorary, are in part to inform and model opportunities for women and just as importantly minority men. Higher education, in no uncertain terms, is a pathway toward defeating oppressive paradigms both externally and internally. A woman brought up within this oppressive culture knows why the caged bird does not sing. She also knows the importance of the beacon in encouraging her to one day “sing.” More leadership diversity in gender and ethnicity perpetuates a more diverse culture and understanding of culture. An honorary beacon, such as Angelou, must be heralded and seen.

Oppenheimer would have us believe that a doctorate is easy to attain, because it was easy for him: “Graduate school is not even that hard. I am a good cocktail-party bullshit artist, but I was that before grad school, and some of the best BS’ers I know have only a B.A.” He would also have us believe that a doctorate should be an elite benchmark: “We use titles…to denote a credential, awarded by ratifying experts, to one who has attained a certain level of expertise.” He also insists that titles should not matter: “I believe the academy, in particular, is a place that works best when it’s collaborative, not hierarchical. Respect does not come from titles.” Finally, he insists that those who have not “earned” the easy degree through coursework and dissertation, should not be allowed to claim the degree as he does in his essays and on his website. The resulting impression of the essay suggests that this elite benchmark is easy for Oppenheimer to attain and therefore should be easy for everyone to attain, and though he attained a doctorate and writes essays highlighting the doctorate as well as mentions his doctorate on his website, no one should pay attention to the doctorate. In Oppenheimer’s perceived world, sure. Outside Oppenheimer’s perceived world, not so much. Even if Oppenheimer subscribed to the naiveté of a current ‘prejudice free educational culture,’ he surely couldn’t subscribe to a prejudice free educational history, a history Maya Angelou suffered, surmounted and then became an integral presence in its ongoing change. If one is to believe Oppenheimer is both adequately intelligent and cerebral—he does have a doctorate, after all, he reminds us of repeatedly through the essay—one would believe Oppenheimer could understand Angelou’s position within the very real gender and minority educational prejudice. Based upon this premise, one would believe Oppenheimer, as a writer, understands the power of words and how titles do make an impression within the traditional biases of canon culture. If one accepts these premises as axiom, one would have to question the intention of Oppenheimer’s essay, and here is where the contagion presents.

Writers of the doctoral elite and writers not of this elite are at risk of the industry-driven and opportunistic infection known as Trending. Trending is as infectious to the mind for the writer as HIV/AIDS and any number of communicable diseases are to the body. A topic pops up on The New York Times, Washington Post, Facebook, Twitter and so on, and writers begin drafting words with the frenzy of a retrovirus attacking reason. It is not enough to replicate an already trending topic in an already trending frame. The infected writer must seek a new way to frame the trend so to give his story its own trend about the already trending topic. What’s worse is that new media has built itself on this very infectious principle. Newspapers and journals have willingly succumbed to this Trending infection as a way to stay current in the ever-evolving market. Historically, male writers have found female writers easy targets—i.e. early industry male reactions to Ms. Magazine’s launch. For Trending-infected writers, celebrated and recently deceased writers are headline savvy marks. Obituaries are already running in the major newspapers and social networks. Punching out a quick and somewhat controversial essay is one of the more lucrative options for the Trending-infected writer. The disease and those infected perpetuate the practice top down.

We mustn’t blame Oppenheimer or The New Republic. They are victims, too. They have lost the ability to fight off opportunistic infections—snarking, elitism, prejudice… Trending has taken over reason. No one can really know the extent of the infection, right now, and readers can only hope the infected will not get into bed with more partners and instead will seek treatment for the infection. Sooner rather than later. Myself included. In hopes of caring for and curing infected family, friends and lovers, I and other writers will offer criticisms and counter-criticisms, which in many ways adds to the infection. It is a cyclical and ongoing problem, but this is what we do. We write about Trending topics then we write criticisms to the writing about Trending topics and so on. Perhaps the most important question to ask one’s self is, What is the intention behind writing this piece? My answer: To critically support Maya Angelou’s academic position as a woman and minority in a male biased academic and media market. I am curious as to what Mr. Oppenheimer’s intention was in writing his essay. He asks, “Why Do People Call Ms. Maya Angelou ‘Dr. Maya Angelou’?” Here is, perhaps, an answer he will understand: Why not?

Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals (Patasola Press, 2011). Her stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. She is the founding editor of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Follow her on Twitter at @raebryant

An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Board


Today’s blog post is by author Rae Bryant

Snowden. NSA leaker, traitor and patron saint of American privacy. Snowden’s stolen national security documents, what Obama to Feinstein and other government officials have referred to more than once as an act of treason, present a sexy irony. Snowden’s choices certainly fall within the national standards of treason, and yet, Snowden’s actions also make him a stalwart son of liberty and all that we hold dear, or think we hold dear, as American citizens. His leaks have forced us to question standards of individualization and governmental entitlements.

About a year ago, my son came home from school. He was in eighth grade at the time, and he told me about a friend who had been abused that day in gym class. We’ll call this friend, John. My son described John, who is black, as being tied up and, with jumping ropes, whipped “playfully” by “friends” and fellow football players. The boys used the N word. John, one of my son’s best friends, has suffered under this sort of obvious and more subtle forms of prejudice for years at the hands of, really, one particular boy from one particular family—we’ll call this boy, Whitey. This sort of prejudice has been around in this town since my husband and I were in grade school here. It is one main reason we moved away. We came back, family being family, hoping for better and seeing some progress but, obviously, not nearly enough.

When John, John’s mother, my son and I went to the guidance department and the office and explained our concerns, Whitey was called in for questioning. He and the other boy who participated were disciplined. We did see a change in diversity and leadership at the school, which was a great step forward for this school and town, an important moment for my son. He saw necessity and effectiveness of stepping up. Standing. We all came out of this encouraged. He wants to join the Navy now and become a leader. As terrifying as it is to think of him in violence and service, I am encouraged by a simple truth: our country needs young men and women willing to step up and push the hard questions.

My son and I and our family suffered a bit of social blaming and ousting that year by Whitey, Whitey’s family and Whitey’s family’s friends, but this was all expected. It didn’t change our actions, our expectations or our resolve. In our town, the overall accepted concept of right and wrong is not always what another town might view as true, loyal or patriotic. And so it wasn’t the sense of town loyalty or patriotism that guided our actions. It was a commitment to personal, individual truth. A commitment to pushing the question. Something Jack Thornell’s 1967 photograph of the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi by a roadside rifleman encouraged an entire country to see and consider and question. There were many American citizens, in 1967, some in high-ranking leadership, who did not seek or welcome this question. They would not have gone to the guidance department, talked to the principle, demanded conversation about an eighth grade boy being tied up with ropes by his peers in gym class.

Jack Thornell’s 1967 photograph of the shooting of James Meredith

What I find interesting aren’t the multiple discussions of Snowden as treasonous or Snowden as sexy rebel, but rather, how the issue of presenting the actions and supporting evidence of the leaks can be anything less than journalistic and essential and so very Pulitzer. The Snowden leak is by many standards the biggest story of the year, perhaps of the decade. No one is arguing the national security issues of publicizing Big Brother; however, it’s a journalists’ job to poke and ask the hard questions. Checks and balances. The same checks and balances that have brought years of social injustices to light, both illegal and government-sanctioned. Both “patriotic” and “unpatriotic.”

Pulitzers are not given to the righteous and the safe. They are given to the writers and the artists and the photographers who dig into the underbelly and force us to continue questioning what righteous and safe and patriotic mean, which is an essential reason to mourn any year we lose an award for a board’s refusal to give the award. I’ll just put this out into the ether now. To withhold the award, again, on such a year would be, again, disappointing. A coward’s way.

Reforming and questioning our social narratives is essential to the progress of our social narratives, how we view our humanity and the humanity we wish to instill in our young. Jack Thornell’s 1967 photograph of the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi by a roadside rifleman. Eddie Adams’ photograph of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém in 1968. Anthony Roberts capturing a woman being beaten in an LA parking lot in 1973 then moments later capturing her assailant’s parking lot execution as the assailant straddles her. The Pulitzer awards are not the culmination of what we see in proper and polite and unquestionable society. Pulitzers award the defining moments that make us question. Or they should. It is what we have come to expect and why we have been disappointed. (Nudge. Fiction. 2012. 1977. 1974. And so on.)

Politico asks “does [the Pulitzer] honor reporting by The Washington Post and The Guardian… Or, does it pass over what is widely viewed as the single most significant story of the year — if not the decade — for the sake of playing it safe?” We should all be asking this question. Does it sit well, this idea of Pulitzer safety? Does it sit well that we must even consider whether the Pulitzer would pull back under this idea of safety? Is this what we want from our most distinguished American prize in the arts and letters?

I hope not. For my son’s and my daughter’s sakes, I hope not. I would like to hope that the social discomforts my children suffer, in the interest of what is just and right, isn’t on their shoulders alone and on the shoulders of so many who would stand. Sometimes it is the faith and the goodness of our innocents and our idealists that should guide us most. Our cynicisms and practicalities must share space with our ideals if we are to create fuller conversations. And it is in the moments when we question what is right and just and safe that we should stand. Even if Big Brother stands taller and looming.

Rae Bryant is the author of the story collection The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. She is editor-in-chief of the literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Visit her online at