Cultural Assets, Language, and New Inspiration

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

billie holiday's strange fruitPLACE OF RACE language means I want nothing to do with you and I make sure I keep a FAR distance.  I had never told these students who I didn’t like at the school and who I thought was racist but they listed them off like a readymade grocery list based on their own interactions and my strategy of public address.  I assured them that they were right and that I thought these folk had some strange fruit hanging from their family trees… the students knew EXACTLY what I meant with that sentence. We all had a good laugh because these were exactly the folk who constantly corrected students’ language, telling them to switch like me… never guessing that the switch they got from me was solely to mark them as white supremacists (this includes sell-out folk of color).

ebonicsMy next English was something my students loosely called SISTA-GURL.  I’m not sure if we said sista-gurl back then, but SISTA was in their phrasing.  This is a cross-cultural communication style with a sista-vibe.  It’s basically an equal-opportunity version of Ebonics that I use with people who I like. It cuts across race, gender, culture, sexuality, class.  I assume my interlocutor understands my language and I talk freely with them, even if that person is not an Ebonics speaker.  This means here that I assume this person has the ability to hear black people as intelligent and worthy and so I talk as a black person, not as a clone of a local/worlds news anchorman.

My next English was called G.W.A and that I remember distinctly: GRANDDAUGHTER WITH ATTITUDE. My students knew that my paternal grandmother and family were from Alabama so they told me that a southern accent (perhaps, Midwest/UpSouth/Kuntry might be more apt) sometimes shows itself in my speech.  This was especially true for them when they heard me talk to older black women.  They thought that I talked to them in the same way that I might talk to my grandmother. To them, the sounds of my words even changed. I am still raunchy, but I show deference at the same time.   This was true if the older black woman was a woman working in the cafeteria, in the main office, or was a teacher in the classroom. The G.W.A. part, a riff off of N.W.A., might make more sense when you hear about my last English (I also did my undergraduate degree at Stanford so any California joke/reference that students could throw up in the mix always came with FULL FORCE).

My final English was what they called STR8-UP GANGSTA.  I had no idea what that meant.  Apparently, this is what I use when I talk to my closest, closest friends, all of whom, at the time, were deeply enmeshed with Hip Hop.  I wave my arms, I bop my head to the side, and I cuss up a storm, dropping the F-bomb as much as I possibly can, even sprinkled with a lot of: “I wish a muthafucka would.” I gasped when the students told me this because this is all actually quite true.  I do all that…with some folk.  What made me gasp was my shock that my students heard me cuss.  I do not curse in my classroom but outside, well, now that’s a whole different story.  On many occasions, my friends would visit my classrooms or go on field trips with us.  Here’s how it went down: my students read my lips and watched me on the opposite subway platform when we would depart from one another.  SCAN-DA-LOUS (or rather skan’less if you want to spell it phonologically)!  I was stunned that they were watching so closely but then I remember something: on more than one occasion, some teacher or administrator warned students that Hip Hop would hold them back; and in those cases, all they ever had to do was point to one of my “Hip Hop friends” and their potpourri of degrees from the “top” colleges in the country.  Of course, they were paying attention!

TTI_LOGOI remembered all of this as I was reading Chike Akua’s message on his email listserv from The Teacher Transformation Institute today.  In that email, Mr. Akua shares “7 Cultural Assets of Urban Students” from his book Education for Transformation: The Keys to Releasing the Genius of African American Students. He reminds us to see the cultural assets of urban students.  Yes, I said, cultural assets!  One of these cultural assets that especially impacted me today involves urban students’ intuition: “urban students can tell whether you want to be there teaching them, whether you like them, and whether you think they can excel and achieve.  They are very intuitive.  The attitude, spirit and energy that the teacher walks in is critical.”  All of the 7 Cultural Assets that Mr. Akua explains resonated deeply with me. Naming one of these assets as INTUITION is brilliant. Just think about the intuition (and knowledge of language use) that my high school students had in order to clarify, for me, what my language is and does based on the safety and humanity of my context.

It’s been difficult in these past few weeks to re-charge and get back to things that mean the most to me, to bypass an incessant institutional discourse about how “our” students cannot write (i.e., don’t have language), to ignore the lament of yesteryears when “we” had those good immigrants of Western European descent as students, to sidestep the insistence that negative student evaluations or policing of rampant plagiarism means that one has “high standards,” to move past the beliefs that those students at that “good school” over there can do those things but not these students right here.  These institutional discourses do not match the CULTURAL ASSETS Mr. Akua reminds us about and that hardly seems a coincidence. Mr. Akua’s inspiration came at exactly the right time for me today.  Recognizing my students’ intuition (and my OWN) as a cultural asset is a strength I intend to never forget, overlook, or underestimate.

Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

Here’s the song in case, unlike this young woman, you are not familiar with it.

By the time she hit the chorus, the whole class was singing.  Now let me just say this again: they were singing… in complex harmonies. This young lead singer clearly knew this young man had not prepared for his presentation, as was often the case, so while that young man was stumbling through his presentation, the young woman just sang more. And what you have gots to understand here is that THIS YOUNG WOMAN COULD SANG! Ya heard?!  Not sing, but SANG!  Meanwhile… over in my corner… I fell out.  Literally. I had tears coming out of my eyes, because I was laughing so hard.  I was hunched over in them little high school seats with the armrest because my sides were hurting me.  My man at the podium, however, was not phased at all.  He kept right on talking, not a single word about the Civil Rights Movement.  Unlike me, no student in that class laughed and Maya didn’t think anything of the singing.  Her response was simply that this is the way the class processes things and lets you know when you are not doing your work.

albumI was also taken aback at the young woman who knew all of F.C. Barnes’s lyrics.  “Rough Side of the Mountain” came out in 1982 so I really don’t associate teenagers in the 21st century with this music.  The phrase, “Rough Side of the Mountain,” was common in the 1980s given the Gospel compilation of the same title (click here for the commercial). Yet this woman knew ALL of the lyrics, not just the phrase, even though her home church features one of the youngest ministers in the area and one of the most contemporary-R&B-influenced gospel choirs.   The class, from Maya’s recollection, had never sang the song before but they know the form and know when and how to repeat/answer a lead singer’s call. The mental rolodex that students can span from their full immersion in black cultural arts means that any one student can pull out a song like “Rough Side of the Mountain” right on time.

Maya, however, had a difficult time in the education program when it came to student teaching.  While I was  in awe that students could organize the chorus and lyrics of a song that is decades old at the drop of a dime, other faculty would visit a lesson just as this one and hear only chaos. They thought Maya did not have good classroom management.  Black students singing out of turn? Not just talking, but singing?  Black cultural arts in history? What is happening here?  After hearing so much negativity from the college supervisors visiting her class, Maya followed my advice: ask the program supervisors to do a demo lesson in  the class so that we can see the control techniques that they think work so well with black students.  Yeah, that ended THAT.  Not a single one of them fools stepped up to the plate to teach Maya’s classes, but they retaliated in other ways against her.  Much like her students, Maya processed her world through song.  When she was told to keep a teaching journal, she asked if she could write in poetic and musical form.   Because the answer was yes, it was not uncommon for Maya to process a lesson she taught by writing lyrics with musical notes written on the page.  She was told this was inappropriate for the academy… um, yes, for a teaching journal.  I guess when she asked if she could write in lyrical form, they had not fully imagined that she would do just that.  Maya was one of the last black students who I saw make it through that program and I truly hope no other black student ever enrolls.

rough_side_of_the_mountainI think about Maya and those young people a lot and this seems especially true on Sundays.  I spend many of my Sunday mornings listening to various radio deejays who play Black Gospel musicians with my mother (I do not own a radio but my mother does).  I even know the names of the deejays that I like: they are the ones who know how to play contemporary Gospel along with Sam Cooke, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Rosetta Tharpe, Dorothy Love Coates, etc in seamless ways.  There’s a story that’s being told with the music these deejays play; there’s a place that they are taking you to.  Sometimes, especially on the college radio stations, the playlist is so hyper-constructed that you just know this person learned about Black Spiritual Music from a book in a college class, not from ever living in it.  I imagine that for these deejays, the kind of black cultural expressions and values like spontaneity, improvisation, signifyin, and testifyin are just, well, too chaotic.  Just not tidy-whitey enough.  When I think of that, I like those students in that class even more.  And on Sundays like this, I value a culture even more that names the very nuanced violences of anti-blackness by reminding us that some of us are coming up on the rough side of the mountain… but we will sho nuff make it in.

Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading

What Will We Do When School Starts?

Ferguson 2A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students.  A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors.  As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building.  He was, simply put, quite genius.  The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates.  I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college.  In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me.  He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction.  Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.

i am a manAs I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry.   The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered.  While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.”  I didn’t catch it right away. Continue reading

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

MultilingualismI often encounter African American college students (and to a lesser extent, AfroCaribbean students, at least those who genuflect to what they call “British culture”) who speak with great pride about only speaking/writing what they call “Proper English,” never speaking a word of Ebonics which is often erroneously interchangeable with “street slang.” These students often cite this ability as the reason for their stellar, academic performance in school.  Despite the fact that we are not at a national, competitive university, these students often think they are at Hahvahd, all because their teachers have emboldened and praised them for their acquisition of a standardized English (if you saw their writing’s content and style, even this, however, is questionable).  Besides the anti-black nature of this sentiment (if black people speak it, it must be wrong) and the utter inability of any of these students to offer any accurate definition of what Ebonics is, the ideology of American empire is fiercely evident.  Only in the United States can you be considered educated or intelligent because you only speak/read/write one, standardized, school variety of a language.   Continue reading

The Flies & Barnyards of the Rich & Shameless: Gentrification in BK

gentrifyGentrification takes on new meanings when you live in Brooklyn/New York. The all-encompassing, rapid, commercial take-over is astounding. I moved into my Brooklyn home in 1998 after living in an apartment for five years. I was a public high school teacher with a savings account from the Municipal Bank, got a home loan through FHA, and moved into what we called back then, an “FHA neighborhood.” My down payment on my house cost less than the broker’s fee+lease agreement for most Brooklyn apartments back then. “FHA” meant that I got a fixer-upper in a neighborhood where I was once robbed by a crackhead— or rather, accosted, since the crackhead didn’t get anything off of me (as quiet as it’s kept in this world that treats crackheads like scary monsters, they are actually physically weak so, in other words, it doesn’t take too much to whup one’s ass which is exactly what I did). The crackheads that weren’t jacking wallets and purses were hookin on the street corner. Those days are long, long gone now though. A new 14-story high-rise dots every five blocks on the avenues.  A typical 2-bedroom apartment (maybe 800 square feet) will run you $3500.00 right now.  Needless to say, ain’t no crackheads in these parts today!

There are many places that give wonderful social, economic analyses of the calculated displacement of brown and black peoples in 21st century Brooklyn/New York (older, white residents still desperately try to hold on to rent-controlled apartments and get treated so much more sympathetically by NY media venues). That’s not what I want to talk about though. I want to talk about the thing that no one mentions in terms of gentrification in Brooklyn and all of these so-called improvements: the everyday aesthetic demise. Continue reading

The Price(s) We Have Paid: Happy Juneteenth!

tpMy father and his closest friend, a man I call an uncle, discovered an easy way to save money: always wet your toilet paper and paper towels.  Apparently, once these rolls dry after you have wet them, they no longer roll as easily because ripples have been created.  This will slow down your roll, LITERALLY, if you take too much toilet paper when you are on the throne, for instance.  People use less paper products, the fewer paper products you need to buy, the more money you save: it’s all a vicious cycle.  I hover back and forth between two adjectives for this practice… CHEAP…and… RIDICULOUS.  It does, however, offer me endless opportunities for shit-talking with my father.  I could tell any array of such stories to convey how frugal my father is, but I hope this lumpy toilet paper saga will suffice.

Unlike some of my peers, I was never the type of child to be embarrassed by my father’s frugality, not even them $2 grocery store sneakers.  I think a lot of people could use the character building that comes from building a real sense of worth rather than buying labels as the sole sign of worth. Given the high price African Americans have had to pay for every advancement we have achieved (think back on the parents who sent their children into the terrordome of Central High School in 1957 Little Rock, Arkansas as just one example), paying yet another high price for something as insignificant as a clothing label seems, at best, redundant for us. Continue reading