Q&A Who is the master at the crossroads of race?

Musing by poet Bro. Yao whose work has been published in Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, African American Review, Tidal Basin, and elsewhere. He also hosts the Free Black Space Blog.

At the crossroads of race, logic can either support or work against racism. There logic is not the master, but the servant. Then who is master?

The metaphor is the master.

For metaphor allows the connotations of the word and its uses to connect with the perception employed by the users of the word. Metaphor is logic linked to human experience/perceptions; or, to state another way, feeling and logic combined. If we are mind, emotion, and spirit, metaphor manages to mix mind with emotion and ultimately spirit. The power of negative connotations being attached to “black” is not simply the logical flaws, but the ways in which the flaws attach themselves to human behavior and decisions.

The common trend of standing against hate speech represents the country’s attempts to regulate the promotion of this language in the larger society to better protect its citizens. These efforts are to be commended; however, too often they pass over the more serious concern of the connotation’s influence on behavior. This is the public justification for the actions; but the analysis is only skin-deep. We attack the hate speech as though it exists outside the fundamental metaphorical construction of the country as if it was virus. It is not virus. It is symptom. It is flowering. Racist and hate speech exist with the empire of language as pre constructed pathways that aid the empire in the work it does.

For beneath the hate speech is the idea of complete metaphorical separation from our enemies or those positioned on the opposite side of our binary. The actions taken against those who use such speech are public defamations that suggest as punishment for their stances against haints and other enemies that they be converted to haints and enemies themselves. This idea needs to be thoroughly thought through.


Tactic #20: Metaphor as Precision: Cliches as Gutting the Ship

Metaphors are extremely precise when applied properly. To liken the storage of data within a computer network outside of your home to the “cloud” is precise in ways that bring the power and clarity of the imagination in sync with reality. For the clouds are above us, present, and real though most of us have never truly been in the clouds.   The idea is perfectly succinct with the idea of data we have access too, which is not stored on our hard drive but still being readily accessible in a remote location.

Unfortunately, the sense of a well functioning metaphor is often underestimated by observers.   Cliché is the root cause of such problems. For cliché is simply metaphor that is so common the cognitive elements existing between the elements are no longer wedded to its use in the language. Imagine an old abandoned ship, you know is a ship, sitting in the harbor and used as museum, storage unit, or a place for gatherings.   Though the ship has always had space and could be used to store things, it truly is a ship whose ultimate purpose lies in its ability to travel across waterways. Though everyone recognizes it as a ship, it is possible to visit the museum and make use of the space without understanding the role of the ship on the waterways.   In this regard, the ship regulated to another role will not need its engines, propellers, crew, and other features which enable it to do its original work.

The above explanation can be applied to the metaphor that has become cliché. Like the ship is still capable of getting work done, in spite of the loss of its cognitive engines which brought the concept into the rivers and waterways of language.   While we use the cliché to get work done, the cognitive elements have been gutted from the machine.

Tactic #19: Metaphor as Map for Precision (for teachers)

Metaphor is a tool whose power should not be underestimated. When the Tao Teh Ching suggests the best of humans is like water, it doesn’t simply link the concepts of character and actions with water as similar and dissimilar elements, the metaphor also becomes a guide for investigation of the relationship between the two principles over an extended period of time. One of the connotations of both man and water is their mysterious and seemingly ever present nature within the realm of our activities on earth. In this way they are both mysterious in the sense that our understanding of the concepts and principles evolves with our own consciousness. The capacity demonstrated here can be called metaphor as map.

The easiest way to comprehend this function of metaphor is by imaging metaphor as a plane as compared to car.   While both vehicles are capable of traveling, one is obviously superior to the other in its capacity to transverse seas and travel at a higher rate of speed. Though the comparison is not completely in sync, one must imagine the extended capacity of one invention in regards to the capacity for travel.

Metaphor as map should be a mainstay for those involved in education.   Our metaphors and clichés of climbing a mountain, crossing the sea, going over rough terrain, and making our way back home are examples of metaphor used in this way to articulate a trial or accomplishment in relationship to a long arduous journey. However, metaphor as map can be used in much more specific ways in relationship to specific learning environments.

Below is an example:

Metaphor as Map example: Thesis is the Seed of the Paper


  • Introduce Metaphor in beginning of the class as you discuss the work you will do on thesis statements. Spend some time discussing the metaphor bringing the obvious nature of the comparison into the classroom. It is ideal to use pictures of a seed and tree to ground students to the physical process to be used as map.
  • Reiterate: As you begin more specific exercises on thesis statements reiterate the thesis is the seed of the paper concept to students. Here you need not explain again. Your goal is to establish the concept as a grounding idea for the relationship the students have with the ideas. As you venture towards the practical expression of critical thinking, vocabulary, grammar, relationship of main idea to topic and research, it is simply important that you include the concept introduced at the beginning.
  • Corrections: The goal of the method is to use the metaphor as a map for the exercise of constructing thesis statements. Writing a paper is an extensive process full of nuanced details. It is possible, especially with students who are particularly deficient in some areas, to lose ones grounding in the larger process as one struggles with details.   When correcting thesis statements use the notion of the thesis as seed and the paper as tree to provide students with corrections. For instance—Can this paper grow out of this seed? Does this seed give rise to this paper? If this is your verb and this is your subject in the thesis statement how will this feed your paper/tree?


In this regard the metaphor serves as a map for the complex process of writing a paper.   Even students who have difficulty understanding the details can gain confidence from understanding the simplicity of the metaphor. Once this simple understanding is established, it is the goal of the teacher to provide the student with adjustments and corrections of particular applications through the light of the metaphorical map, as well as pronounce victories of the concepts in light of the metaphorical map. Good job-that thesis is the seed of the paper.   As a technique, metaphor as map grounds student’s understanding and application to something they know but are still destined to explore and perfect.

Q & A: What’s in a name?

Computer scientists seem to really appreciate a good metaphor. They’ve got us all dragging a mouse across desktops, storing pictures in the cloud, and telling everyone about everything on facebook. These metaphors have become so familiar that folks under the age of 25 don’t even realize that there ever was such a thing as a facebook, which didn’t involve clicking like. For those who are old enough to remember a facebook featuring pictures of classmates printed on pages that you could hold in your hands (because they were actually sewn into a book), the fact that this technological version of facebook is a metaphor may be obvious. The electronic Facebook where we connect with five hundred or so of our closest friends is kinda like the old school facebooks that shared fun facts among high school friends. It’s the similarity between two different things—the physical book and the technological innovation—that makes the metaphor work. As Paul Ricoeur writes in The Rule of Metaphor “Metaphor is the trope of resemblance par excellance.” Metaphors encourage us to ignore the many differences between a rodent and the device that we use to point and click, for instance, so that we can focus on the resemblances, the size and shape along with the cord that looks like a tail. The familiarity of a common mouse helps to remind us of the primary comparison to the physical similarity with the computer mouse. Nevertheless, the power of technology metaphors like mouse, desktop, cloud, and facebook is demonstrated by the fact that their metaphorical significance is rapidly retreating from view.   If the names of things continue to be used to identify other things, over time it is very likely that no one will know or care how the naming came to be.

In some ways, the naming seems to be insignificant when you think of technological advancements. Really, who cares what a thing is called so long as it has the capacity to upload data and store files in a way that allows us to retrieve them from any place where we can connect a device to the internet? What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet—right? I know Shakespeare. I have made a career of studying an ancient technology—books. I teach literature at a small, liberal arts college in northwestern Pennsylvania. And some may think that studying works of literature is pretty removed from the work done by computer scientists who design and build new technology. Heck, probably most people think that. But the fact is that innovation is powered by the conceptual mapping enabled by metaphorical thinking. And as such, technology would be well served if developers invited the most adept practitioners of metaphor to the table.

Metaphors reveal society’s capacity to sew concepts together

If metaphor is central to human cognition, how then does the study of metaphor via language affect ones cognition?  The exploration of this question is part of the vision of Metaphorically Thinking and extremely important to the debate over the humanities.  For metaphor in the realm of STEM fields is a widely accepted concept used to frame inventions, map language, and discuss relationships between concepts.

As a cognitive process we might imagine metaphor as belonging to the realm of scientists.  In essence it does; however, the realm of language is full of metaphorical ideas and concepts, which operate in conjunction with the cognitive maps and processes of the brain.  So it follows, masters of literature and those disciplined in the humanities often know metaphor without knowing metaphor.

In other words, it is the process that rests under the other skills assigned to the English discipline.  Take a great piece of literature, for instance, from another culture or another time. At its core lie the metaphors which reveal the comparative undergirding of the society.  If a weapon from that time reveals the capacity of the society to protect, harm, or kill, the metaphors reveal, to a certain degree, the capacity of the society to sew concepts and ideas together.

The beauty of the metaphors and the problem even with its relationship to the humanities is simplicity.  A great metaphor functions like a wheel on a car.  One drives the car across country and is almost always prone to take the invention for granted precisely because it works so well.

Aristotle’s suggestion that “Metaphor is genius that cannot be taught,” begins to indicate how difficult it is to create a car, metaphor, or any great invention from society; but if we were to describe a plane or car, the idea and genius would be judged just as fantastic.

At Metaphorical Thinking we have designed a series of workshops to help people identify and understand the power of metaphors operating within the realm of our speech, advertising, writing, and interactions with the world.  Check out some of the tactics on this blog.  Perhaps metaphor cannot be taught, but we can distill tactics.

Empty Vessel (in three pieces)


On the morning of my birthday I awoke with clear memories of my grandmother brightening my mind. She was bent inspecting the patch of garden my father planted behind the house. Wearing her green sweater and a pair of elastic-waist polyester pants, her white hair parted down the middle and braided in two cornrows. Her wide brimmed bifocals firmly on her face—characteristically quiet. Busy. Working as she did in solitude. So much of her day was spent that way, toiling quietly at some task.  read more