The Myth of Street Smarts versus Book Smarts

Delivered June 13, 2014, at Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago annual Convocation.

I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

–Ezekiel 2:9-3:3

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

–Matthew 13:44-46



They say we lose our greats in threes, and that has certainly been true this month: we have lost Vincent Harding, heroic leader of the civil rights movement; we have lost the great poet Maya Angelou and we have lost Yuri Kochiyama, Asian American activist, Black Power leader and survivor of the American concentration camps.

Yuri Kochiyama, as a Japanese American, understood something of the double consciousness WEB DuBois wrote about in the early 1900s, when he described it as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

I suspect that Yuri Kochiyama understood this double consciousness as a child who strove to be so American that people would forget she was Japanese, and then during World War II discovering that no amount of Americanness would stop her from being sent to an internment camp in Arkansas. In some ways, DuBois and Kochiyama lived with the reality of code switching. That’s a term that has caught on a great deal of late, but it’s a concept that has existed for a very long time. My mother remembers the slang that you used on the streets of Glasgow so people knew you were one of them, and she remembers that if a child used that slang in the classroom, he was roundly mocked by the rest of the class. The friends I work with at POOR Magazine in Oakland talk about the culture and history of poor people, and that in shifting to the language and values of the middle class, there are benefits like knowing where your next meal is coming from and huge costs like losing your connection to your own people.

When I was getting ready to go to seminary, I had the privilege of interviewing Jonathan Kozol, a brilliant sociologist and writer of books like “Savage Inequalities,” which talks about the apartheid system of American public education today. I had an incredibly supportive boyfriend at the time who was cheering me on to go into the ministry, but when I said I wanted to go into urban ministry, he said, “you’re a mixed race Asian girl from the suburbs; what would you have to offer people in the ‘hood?”

I raised this question with Jonathan Kozol, who told me the story of his early days in the civil rights movement, advocating for busing in the city of Boston. He had gone to Harvard, but when he went to community meetings led by less educated community leaders, he tried to hide his education, use the right slang, use smaller words, not bring attention to the fact that he had more education. One day, one of the leaders said to him, “Johnny, you went to HARVARD. We need that clout and we need your education. Stop pretending you’re us. We need you to be you, for our sake.”

I find myself thinking of that story and thinking of the myth of people being either street smart or book smart, with no mixing of the two. A friend of mine went to Princeton seminary with Shane Claiborne, who is something of a darling of the evangelical left right now. He lives in poverty in intentional community in Philadelphia and advocates for economic justice. A year into his seminary education, he proclaimed, “There are people DYING! I can’t waste time with all these books and all this theology!” and he left to start his movement in Philadelphia. Shane believed there were book smarts and street smarts, and he did not want to lose his street smarts because he got consumed with book smarts.

On the flip side of that, I remember a colleague of mine here at the Divinity School, a PhD student in Ethics who once said to me, “Sandhya, you’re going to make yourself crazy, because any time we talk about Christian ethics, you want to know how it works in lived people’s experience. You know what my slogan is for Christian Ethics? ‘That’s great in practice, but how does it work in theory?’” My colleague believed there were street smarts and book smarts, and he did not want street smarts contaminating his book smarts.

There are limits, though, to keeping this a dichotomy, of only having one and never a balance of both. I work with homeless people in Oakland, and conventional wisdom these days is that when someone has been homeless for six months, they generally enter the ranks of chronic homelessness; it is incredibly hard to get them into housing they will be able to hold onto. The skills they learn to survive on the streets are incompatible with the skills they need to survive in a housed environment.

If you’ll forgive me for being flippant, the inverse of this problem was really well illustrated in the recent “Black Jeopardy” sketch on Saturday Night Live. Louis CK played a professor of African American History from Brigham Young University, but no matter how broad his book learning was, he lost the game because he didn’t know the meaning of the expression “It’s been a minute.”

That’s why I was so compelled by the graduating students’ selection of the scripture from Ezekiel. Ezekiel was both priest and prophet: two distinct and not usually overlapping ways of mediating between God and humanity—one grounded in much study and knowledge about day-to-day practices and rituals of worship and purification, the other mediating a direct message from God in a particular situation and time. These were rarely ministries both borne by the same person, but in Ezekiel they were.

In the book of Deuteronomy, the prophet was usually referred to with the grandiose term “person of God.” Ezekiel was referred to almost incessantly as “child of humans.” This act of intentional humility is something Ezekiel and Yuri Kochiyama had in common, and it is what opened doors to them in both book and street smarts, and it is what allowed them to break down the dichotomy between book smarts and street smarts. That humility is what led to Yuri Kochiyama being the woman who cradled Malcolm X in her arms as he died in the ballroom in Harlem. She had studied at the feet of Malcolm X and gone to Freedom School, and she also described living in Harlem as the best university she ever attended.

I believe we need to break down that dichotomy: the scroll is crammed, there is not an inch of space on it, and not everyone can read it or digest it. And it is full of lamentation and mourning and woe. Ezekiel had the skill to read the scroll, and he had the skill to verbalize it to a community that needed badly to hear the words the scroll held.

That scroll is equally crammed today, full of lamentation and mourning and woe: on Saturday night, 15-year-old Samantha Alvarado was shot and killed in East Oakland, joining 40 other homicide victims this year in Oakland, population 400,000. They join the 108 homicide victims in Chicago since New Year. Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent said, “Our murder rate is down about 15 percent; our non-fatal shooting rate is down about a third. But it doesn’t do any good if you are in the wrong two thirds.”

There is lamentation and mourning and woe, and all of the graduates today and every one of us in this room has the obligation to take the truths on the page and translate them and motivate people to take action.

But sweet? Ezekiel said the scroll tastes as sweet as honey in his mouth. How can a scroll of such magnitude and such sorrow taste sweet?

In my first year of seminary, the professor in our Public Church course assigned us to prepare a Christian ethics lesson based on a popular movie of our choice and to teach it to the rest of the class as if it were an adult Sunday School class. “Remember that you’re teaching it as if to a class at a church and not to a room of graduate students,” he said. I responded, “So avoid big, confusing words and keep the concepts pretty simple?”

He looked at me with something bordering on contempt and said, “They. Are. Not. Stupid.”

I remembered that moment vividly when I read a couple of lines ahead in the Ezekiel passage to chapter 3 verse 5: “You are not being sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language but to the House of Israel.”

A couple of years into my pastorate at First Christian Church of Oakland, one of my favorite congregants came up to me after church and said, “When you preach, I feel like I should have a thesaurus in my lap,” and I said back, “And the thing is, I know you’re smart enough to follow everything I’m saying.” During my pastorate, and today as I do advocacy and grassroots organizing work, I work with people who are told over and over in lots of subtle ways that they are stupid. But they’re not stupid. And our wisdom interplaying with others’, our bringing together of prophet and priest, the mingling of book smarts and streets smarts within us but also between us—I believe that is where the sweetness lies. We have received great and powerful wisdom, and when we translate that wisdom from people who could not read the scrolls we can read, and when we likewise open ourselves to the wisdom they hold, that is where we taste something as sweet as honey, something the poet Gloria Andalzua refers to as “potent meshings.”

Many of you know the prophetic arc that Walter Brueggeman describes as showing up in every prophetic book in the Hebrew bible and in the prophetic messages of Jesus: (1) You are going down a bad road and horrible things are about to happen because you are not aligned with the will of God. (2) Here is the alternate thing God wants you to do instead. (3) Here is the great and glorious thing that will unfold for you through God when you get in line with God’s will.

I think that great and glorious thing is “Beloved Community,” and I see glimpses of it every day: In the gay pride march in Uganda, where people are publicly claiming their identity in solidarity with each other even though they live in a country where being gay can get you executed by the government; in my friends at POOR Magazine taking over abandoned homes in east Oakland and creating a movement of “homefulness” in a city that does not do enough for homeless people while criminalizing poverty; in the ministry students here spending time with people locked up at Cook County Jail, hearing their stories, and beginning to engage in conversation about our broken criminal justice system and what an alternative of true justice could look like. These are powerful movements, and they need you—and you need them. Movements need wisdom, and wisdom is dead without action.

All of us here today have received the pearl of great price—without having to give up all we had to purchase it. The question to the graduates today and to all of us is, how will you use it?

In your response lies the potential of bringing together of book smarts and street smarts, the merging of prophet and priest, and the building up together of Beloved Community. Amen.

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