Hell You Talmbout?: Back-to-School in 2015

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.32.40 PMOn August 15, 2015, Janelle Monae and her Wondaland labelmates gave a free concert in Washington D.C. that was only advertised on social media. Before the show, Monae and the Wondaland crew led a rally through the streets of D.C. that included a stop at the Capital. The rallying song/chant represented her new song, “Hell You Talmbout,” dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement, freely available to anyone on Soundcloud.  On her instagram page, Monae explained the message of the song: she channels and records the pain of her people, her own political convictions, and a challenge to those who remain indifferent.  I’ve decided to use this song as the soundtrack of the homepage of my fall 2015 English 101 course to capture how we will approach writing.

New Logo for 2015 English101 Courses & Website

New Logo for 2015 English101 Courses & Website

Curriculum is always more than an overt, scripted content; it is also deeply embodied. So even when I am not being explicit, the specificity of this #BlackLivesMatter moment is implicit.  “Hell You Talmbout” gives me an anchor, what Rakim called “a dope beat to step to.”  The students who I met in last year’s ¡Adelante! program gave me a new sense of charge in ways that my more privileged students could never approximate so the design of this new English101 course/website really speaks to such students as audience.

In the same week of “Hell You Talmbout’s” release, Monae had performed for the Today Show in New York which cut off her speech about Black Lives Matter.  This was not a surprise given the ways that mainstream media has continually promoted stereotypes (whether it be immigrants as all illegal/dirty, poor people as savage, women as oversexualized objects who can sell things, etc), but mainstream media simply does not have a final say or sole impact in the 21st century. Monae’s instagram account and song/anthem available on soundcloud reaches as many people— and more diverse people— than a one-time performance on mainstream television.  While social media is hardly immune from harmful racial, sexual, gendered stereotypes, to dismiss digital spaces (as many teachers at my college do) based on some myth that people are more distracted and disconnected today than in previous centuries is irresponsible.  One might wonder how “connected” and “attentive” all those privileged folk were to the Black folk who were enslaved, strung up during Jim Crow lynchings, pushed into segregated schools, hospitals, etc.  Why exactly are we supposed to believe disconnection is a new phenomenon?

The fact is this: marginalized groups can count on digital spaces to represent their views, beauty, and aspirations MORE than mainstream outlets.  To be literate in the 21st century means understanding this fact ALONGSIDE being digitally literate yourself.  I hope this moment can push students to think more deeply about their digital footprints and about the ways they use writing and design to canvas their own humanity.

drums of defianceI think the question hell you talmbout?  should drive all digital/writing curriculum in the 21st century. What do you have to say?  What impact can you make?  I love the way that Monae is drawing from Black Vernacular Culture when she says “Hell You Talmbout” too.  It is an expression that she would have heard from her grandmothers and greatgrandmothers and on and on.  My students will undoubtedly have been taught that this is slang or a colloquialism and that teaching would be WRONG: slang refers to short-term temporary sayings and colloquialisms refer to small regionalisms.  Hell You Talmbout is neither short-term or local in the context of Black Language. The expression challenges the truth of what you have to say AND expects you to have something of weight and importance to say back.  Despite what school will tell my students, they need to use all of the languages, dialects, and vernaculars at their disposal if they want to attract and move multiple audiences.  While many teachers may tell them that only one kind of English is appropriate, effective language use is never that simple.  It is not an accident that Monae and her ancestors said: Hell You Talmbout— it simply does not mean the same thing as asking someone what they are saying.  The very language matches our history: the music, lyrics, and call-and-response style match how Civil Rights activists used song; the drumming and chanting sound identical to 1920s Black college student protesters who used the lyrics of slave spirituals for their chants; the beat and time could be a New Orleans band marching in the street, the infamous drumline at your favorite HBCU, or an African drumming/galvanizing session before a maroon rebellion. The language that we use to represent the histories we are referencing must be DELIBERATE and should not (always) match what Jim Crow schooling has anointed as the one, right way and set of rules.

I will also open the homepage to the new website with a slideshow of previous students’ projects— the projects that have yielded the most visits: webpages on #BlackLivesMatter; an ePortfolio dedicated to unraveling life as a Mexican New Yorker; an ePortfolio challenging mainstream beauty standards that cause people to say such foolishness as “Pretty for a Black Girl”; webpages that chronicle the artivism of artists like Las Cafeteras.  I am hoping this year’s students will follow in the footsteps of these peers, take inspiration from Janelle Monae, making sure that when they write and design, that they are really saying sumthin and know what the hell they talmbout! 

On this Juneteenth: Black Cultural Literacy in Times of Racial Warfare

At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students.  Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped.  During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book.  However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned.  Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.

I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression.  Yes, I have.  All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back.  What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere.  They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.

mckinneyIn contrast, the anecdote that the teacher shared is a specific kind of violence not available to oppressed groups, that particular brand of nice-nice, bourgeois, two-facedness that has promoted horrific racist acts. It is the kind of ideology that allows you to have a “nice” family gathering while you SIMULTANEOUSLY take short breaks outside to go burn a “Kaffir” in your backyard, a hallmark of white violence under South African Apartheid.  It is the kind of terrorism that packs a picnic basket for a lynching (which did not halt white folk from thinking this was a time of improved race relations since, after all, slavery was “over”) and makes postcards of the occasion, years later to be displayed in Jim Crow-on-display museums as merely a regrettable by-gone history.  It is the kind of violence that allows you to go on a local syndicate television station (which will go viral via youtube hours later) as a white woman and tell the world that a 14 year-old, Black girl in McKinney, Texas who was pinned down to the ground, in her bikini, by a white policeman three times her body mass for simply walking past DESERVED it; all while, of course, you insist that your face and name not be shown on camera.  It is the kind of historical, automatic brutality that allows you, with conviction and self-righteousness, to warn the media to leave your property or you will call the police; because… despite the fact that your white son has just massacred nine Black people who were praying at Mother Emanuel with the gun you gave him the money to buy as a birthday present, you have the utmost faith that law enforcement will still protect you and yours, though all the Black parents around you across the country fear for their innocent children’s lives at the hands of said police.  And we still live in the savagery of a white colonial system that told Spanish-speaking people of African descent that they were Spaniard, white, and therefore better than their neighboring French-speaking, Black people of African descent, their genetic clones, the warrior-descendants of Toussaint L’Ouverture who gave Europe a run for its money as the first Black Nation.   Academic/post-modernist pundits will tell you that such race relations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Jim Crow era, contemporary anti-Black-girlisms, current police/state-sanctioned violence, and South African Apartheid are different… and they will also tell you that those high-scoring SAT students who call rape victims “dumb whores” while they are rewarded for public exclamations of progressivism are the top, best students in the country, our “brightest minds” at our “best colleges.”  Racism and violence against Black bodies have always been niced-up for the benefit of our perpetrators’ public performances of goodness.  We will be told that all matter of non-humanity is an improvement from the decades before… and that the most ugliest of people are the smartest because they do well at the schools designed for and by them.charleston_church_shooting

At times like these, I seem to always relate everything back to schooling, classrooms, and education.  I think it’s because I am an educator and see schooling as the most vile of institutions.  I would say that I am also a Woodsonian (as in Carter G. Woodson), by way of Sylvia Wynter, who taught me that lynching always starts in the classroom; you can only lynch and massacre people inside of an educational system that taught you to devalue them alongside a myriad other institutions that structure inequalities.

It makes sense, sociologically speaking, that an oppressed group needs to know who and what to trust QUICK AND IN A HURRY, but there is also a kind of Black cultural literacy operating here.  Two-facedness, just generally, is simply not a cultural attribute that is widely tolerated.  I KNEW to steer clear of white male students, for instance, in college who commented aloud about women’s equality in Arts&Sciences classrooms and then laughed about rape in the hallways… or in their frat houses.  As a further case in point, I have only experienced two-facedness from hyper-privileged students like the student who complained about me and my curriculum every chance he got to his enabling adult audience but used every single moment of my personal time to endlessly solicit my help for his avalanche of personal problems and pathologies.  To this date, I have never had a Black or Latin@ student act this way and have never seen one whose bad behavior was so flippantly dismissed because they had personal problems.  They wouldn’t be able to get away with that but they ain’t that two-faced to begin with.

When I think back on the event that I attended at that high school, I have that much more respect and allied affinity for the very small minority of students and teachers in that building who are desperately trying to do something else, be part of different conversations, build a different world.  Why spend so much time trying to change the minds and hearts of two-faced perpetrators of violence?  As for denouncing and de-throning their power?  Well, yes, I am down with that.  But anything else, count me out.  I will always look forward to those classrooms peopled by allies and the people who look like me who need a world where they are at center and not marginalized according to two-faced cultural codes that have never had real freedom and democracy at heart.

R.I.P. for the Nine Massacred at Mother Emanuel

church“It is a great honor. The Church has a very proud history and has really stood for the spirit of African Americans and I would even say the spirit of America in Charleston since 1818, a spirit of defiance and standing up for what is right and what is true… Mother Emanuel, since 1818, has stood for freedom and worship for African Americans in South Carolina. And so it is a humbling privilege that I have to serve as the pastor.”

~ Words from the Late Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney from  the forthcoming documentary, The AME Movement: African Methodism in South Carolina

“You Were Meant to Be”: Rethinking Metacognitive Writing, Part 1 of 2

What we sometimes call “reflective writing” is still a mainstay in many college writing classrooms.  The idea is that students think critically about the choices and strategies that they deploy in their writing.  Because “writing skills” are hardly transferable from one place to another, many have come to realize that it is awareness of what you do, how, and why that transfers; that we write and learn in communities of practice, not vacuums and dummy assignments of things that might happen later; that static skills mean nothing outside of their context, actual use, and rhetorical purpose.  I believe in these ideas wholeheartedly but struggle to get my first-year college students to write about such awareness in interesting and critical ways.  This is, most wholly, my own fault.  I wait until the end of the semester rather than filter these kinds of conversations about writing throughout the semester. I do not model critical reflection enough.  My prompts are often stale.  Most importantly, I still have not hit the right chord of wanting students to critically reflect on their writing processes at the same time that they politically deconstruct schooling’s white codes of conduct and (re)claim and (re)situate their own cultural self-actualizations.  Yes, writing happens in the context of communities of practice but what gets left out of these conversations in writing/literacies studies is that those communities most often practice racism, oppression, and all of the attending hegemonic norms. That is the kind of awareness I am interested in for my students.

This semester, I decided that I would be more deliberate and conscious about reflective writing in my classes, a requirement in my program. I focused on three things: 1) filtering stop-and-reflect moments at key points in the semester, not just at the end; 2) asking students to situate their strategies, content, and decisions in the context of the sociopolitical moment in which they were living which at the time included the uprisings in Baltimore, and; 3) opening up students’ entire first year of college writing to scrutiny rather than just my class’s assignments.  Students’ responses to the final writing prompt of the semester was most interesting (I will write about that in an upcoming Part II of this post).

SankofaI kept the final writing prompt wide open… and I did this purposefully.  Students had done enough of this kind of writing/thinking all semester so I didn’t need to guide much.  I brought back the concept of Sankofa as the way to understand why and how we have been reflecting all semester, this time using Brooklyn’s Calvin Ray’s re-mix of Ledisi as the framework for asking students to remember that they are defining the professional, intellectual, and social identities that will sustain their time in college and beyond: “you gotta know who you are, you were meant to be”! (press play on soundtrack player above).  There were three questions to answer and students could answer in any way they wanted (video, letter to a younger self, poem, image gallery, etc):

  • Think back on all of the writing that you have done this year.  What was your best and why?  What did you learn about the issue?  About yourself?
  • Now that you look back on your first year of college in general, what can you say are your greatest achievements?  What, if anything, will you do differently and why? What’s next for you?
  • Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on all of the digital projects that you have done this year.  Why did you make these decisions and digitally participate in the ways that you have? What is the digital-justice-footprint you are leaving behind?  Why that?  What’s next for you and why?

Though these questions are rather basic, they took me a while to construct.  It took some time before I was confident that the prompts and the open-ended genre task matched what I claim to be my philosophies of critical metacognition in the context of digital rhetorics.  Ledisi’s song really shaped how I finally came to terms with what a social justice perspective of metacognition for racially marginalized groups might mean in a writing classroom: know who you are… you were meant to be!  Strategies for fulfilling college and/or work’s literacie’s requirements ALONE could never animate an important enough intervention in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.

¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling is…

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.27.07 PMI began experimenting with digital storytelling (DS) in my classrooms last spring and continued with it this spring.  For my purposes in my own classrooms, DS is a short video (4-6 minutes) that showcases a powerful story in your life (I used Cynthia Davidson’s assignment as my initial model). I am not as interested in students’ final products as I am in their processes though.  They upload their final videos to their ePortfolios but they have many webpages along with the video (about the music, the story, their images, their process, etc).   Here are some of the questions that I also ask my students to reflect on:

  1. When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors?  For digital rhetorics?  
  2. What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
  3. Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century (bookended by the kidnapping/murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico to mass uprisings in Baltimore).  Local media— largely through social media/digital outlets— insist that national news coverage got it all wrong and inserted its own voice.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on this digital project.  Does it too make an intervention?  How and why (or why not)?

For my ¡Adelante! students (a Leadership program for Latino students who I follow for two semesters in my first year writing courses), however, I asked an additional question… a rather simple one, but one that I thought most critical:

What is ¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling (ADS)?

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The Savagery of U.S. Monolingualism, Part 2 of 3

nypd-stop-and-frisk-2011-infographicIn my first semester at my college, before we had even reached the midterm, one student talked openly about what it meant for him to be an Asian American male in the context of Stop-and-Frisk policies in New York City. He is a HipHoppa whose friends are mostly Latino and Black. While he identifies with and as them, as a man of color, he is not targeted for Stop and Frisk. What does this mean? was the question he asked frequently. This is a rather typical exchange in my classrooms. What was not typical, however, about this particular incident was that I decided to talk to colleagues about what I was witnessing, something I rarely do.   When I told my colleagues about the kind of reading/writing/thinking that was happening in this class, the only response I ever heard was: but is his prose correct? How’s his grammar? And that’s it. All of these things that students are politicizing and all these fools can talk about is grammar.  Even more problematically, the Asian man is a second-generation Chinese-American, but my colleagues assumed he was FOB—fresh off the boat. Based on European/Ellis Island histories of American assimilation and upward mobility, it has not occurred to them that second-generation immigrants are not living the same high life, have a critique of race, and are highly literate in American codes.

2012_Stops_by_RaceI stopped talking to my colleagues about my students and my pedagogy on that day. When I think through what I am seeing in my classrooms, I take my thoughts, excitements, and ponderings elsewhere… and I plan to keep it that way.  I have talked to my colleagues across the country about this young man and unlike my local colleagues, they have been fascinated that a first-year freshman took on the research task that he did.  The student decided to do a qualitative study to better understand multiracial, New York college students’ experiences of and perspectives on police profiling.  He specifically interviewed (using a semi-structured protocol) white, Asian, Latin@, and Black students, a decision motivated by his quest to see and hear what it means to be allied as an Asian man not targeted for profiling. How could he understand this and more, importantly, how might he ensure that his relative privilege not block his own criticality?  Like with all qualitative studies, you just don’t know what might happen when you get out there in the down and dirty…

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(Re-Blogged) Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

mothers-day-poetry-2015After my mother lost her job in the recession crunch a few years ago, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out. And the older I am and the more older sistahs I know (who remind you to count the blessing of your mother’s time with you), I realize that every moment counts since having lotsa time with your Mama is no longer something we can take as much for granted.

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?”   I was never babysat, I was always KEPT.

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Hayi Basile: (Re)Making Justice All the Time


My 2014-2015 schoolyear was bookended on the one end, by the murder of Michael Brown, uprisings in Ferguson, protests in NYC over the strangulation of Eric Garner, the brutal kidnapping of the 43 college students in Liguala, AND on the other end, the uprisings in Baltimore. Though I haven’t written about it yet, I began teaching first year writing this year in collaboration with a Latin@ Leadership program called ¡Adelante! at my college.  I try my best NOT to write about the classes and students who I am currently teaching (mostly because them younguns are on here readin).   I will forsake that personal rule this time though.

ferguson-marchI really can’t imagine what this schoolyear would have been like had I not had the ¡Adelante! students in my life.  I have been absolutely exhausted and depleted watching yet another and another and another public execution of a black person.  The violence against we brown and black bystanders puts us at risk of all kinds of mental, emotional, and psychological harm too. It has become crystal clear to me that I do not have the patience or inclination to sit in a classroom with young people, especially if they are majority-white, who do not see that the annihilation of black and brown bodies, their language values, and their epistemological systems is REAL and that the wherewithal to fight it, by and with any means necessary, is the most radical intellectual work you can undertake.

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