Semester Begins to End…

Ida B. Wells "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Ida B. Wells
“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Tired, Tired, Tired…It’s the end of the semester and I am just wiped out.  The tank was inching towards empty a long time ago but now, it’s just fumes.  Part of my fatigue, I believe, comes from the amount of work and time it took to try and make my rhetoric class a richer multimedia experience.  I was doing that at the same time that I was reading an extensive amount of my students’ writing.  I assign writing for each reading, which means I assign writing for every class.  I don’t give quizzes and exams because I am collecting the equivalent of 4-5 pages, at minimum, a week per student (a combination of blogs, vlogs, and print).  I do not grade these weekly writings as finished, polished essays; it’s just for ideas and articulation (there are final writing projects where I do that more traditional thing).  In weekly writing, I am not looking at format, organization, coherence, or even logic… just ideas.  With 30 students, that’s at least 150 pages of student writing per week for one class.  And, yes, I still read and comment to each page, and not with that bland, white liberalist discourse that constitutes most of what gets called response theory in the still-white-dominant composition studies.

Rosa Parks "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

Rosa Parks
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

I don’t believe students will actually do the writing unless I comment to it and I don’t think peer critique is enough.  Peer dialogue is a vital part of my class but for the most part, the content here is all new for students so the person who DESIGNED that content has to be present in a student’s progression of ideas and feelings (I can always rest assured that students have not learned much about or read much of anything by black women at my college).  If you don’t have time to read what your students write, I say stop assigning so much of it or, in the least, we have to stop being disappointed when students don’t give us what we are looking for because we haven’t built in enough of a feedback system to articulate our curriculum.  I get that students need to write a lot and do it on their own, but, really, that jus ain’t gonna happen.  I had graduate teachers who followed this liberalist philosophy and assigned us writing that they didn’t collect. Guess how much of that writing I did?  NONE OF IT.  Had NO time for that.  That kind of thing only works for avid journalers; I am not one of them.  The only substantive writing that I do now (I am not talking about texting, etc… I said SUBSTANTIVE) is for public: this blog or print publications.

Judith Jamison "Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity.  There's a light inside of you."

Judith Jamison
“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you.”

For those students who are like me when it comes to journaling, I KNOW that if I don’t collect their writing, they will not do it; and if I don’t respond to their writing, they will not do it earnestly and they certainly will not fully learn the content.  Most importantly, it is really in the responding to students’ individual writing that an individual and consistent relationship with each of my students forms.  Those kinds of individual relationships don’t happen deep enough in class lectures and office hours alone.  This is all pretty simple.  After all, I’m a compositionist and writing teacher and this is how most of us teach;  however, even those that write and present about pedagogy seem clueless—most folk in the field who I see and hear are some of the worst and most boring teachers around.

Assata Shakur "Freedom in the right to grow, it's the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself."

Assata Shakur
“Freedom in the right to grow, it’s the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself.”

Here’s the caveat with all this responding to student writing: by the time the semester ends, you will be wiiiiiiped out.  This particular rhetoric class that I have right now really just OD’ed on this writing stuff.  In the last reflective assignment, what I called Neo-Soul Ruminations, I asked students to stop and pause and piece together the second half of the semester’s learning.  Knowing THESE students, I gave them a five page MAXIMUM!  Yes, no more than five pages!  I just can’t read more than that right now.  But don’t you know some of them hustled that?  Figured, well, she didn’t say double-spaced or size 12 font so they went and gave me tiny-print, single-spaced writing that, yes, met the five page maximum.  Again, that’s one day of class.  Imagine that for 30 students, for one class.  They killllllllin me!  K.I.L.L.I.N. me! Sometimes I wonder about these college teachers who say things like: my students will just agree with what I say or say what they think I want to hear; my students won’t write much or won’t veer from traditional formats, 5-paragraph essays, or standardized Englishes.  Could somebody send some of them squares my way, please?  Cuz I don’t see nuthin like that in front of me this semester and I could really use a break!

Audre Lorde "It is not our difference that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."

Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The other issue that I am reluctantly admitting is that I live in a severely delusional state by nature of spending so much of my time around 18-22 years old.  It makes me forget that I am old and can’t do the things they do.  All that staying up late at night to write and read and work on problem sets?  Puhlease!  Ain’t no way I can do that anymore. The other week I was in our main student building where my classroom is housed and at 9am, I saw two, little, itty-bitty skinny ol’ things, all of 19 years old, eating an extra-large pizza all to themselves with supersized Mountain Dews, talkin about schoolwork.  At 9am!  I didn’t even know you could buy pizza at 9am in the morning.  By the time I passed them on my way after class, that whole box of pizza was gone and they were talking about potato chips, M&Ms, and French Fries.  I think I gained five pounds, increased my blood pressure, and raised my bad cholesterol levels just listening to their conversation.  You can easily get caught up in a delusional reality in these settings because this is just NOT what you can do when you are my age.  Just because your 20 year old students have energy at the end of a semester, do NOT assume you can hang with that!  Last night I was part of a panel for the sociology honor society.  The students were of course, amazing, and I suddenly realized I was the “deadbeat” that I had always called my aunts, uncles, and parents.  Here we’d be at the family reunion dining hall (it’s a large family so we need a hall when we come together) and all they ever did was sit around and talk, just sittin there, and talkin.  That’s it.  Buncha deadbeats.  Well, last night, after the event, the students were running around, cleaning up, making plans.  Nope, not me. By the time 8:30pm came around (my commute to work starts at 8am), guess what I was doin?  Sittin… and talkin… and THAT’S IT.  Now it’s official: I am a deadbeat.

Eunique Jones All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at:

Eunique Jones
All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at:

On a more serious note, no one cares about my fatigue, nothing in my life is about to slow down, none of this stuff ever really lets up— not the bills, not the work that still has to be done, and not the dealings with the “unsafe”/self-proclaimed-radical white racists at the job.  The best thing about being a teacher though is the energy of undergraduate students.  On Wednesday, Christina sent me the link to Eunique Jones’s photography project that E.M. Monroe introduced to me during Black History Month. Christina’s email to me featured a collage of these children’s photos who represented all of the women we have talked about in my course (the photos on this post are some of the photos in the email Christina sent me).  Christina’s email gave me a new realization about Eunique Jones’s project: only a black woman could capture the beauty and deep aesthetic diversity of black children, guide black children in positioning themselves—both literally (i.e., the photo shoot) and figuratively (i.e. the racial memory)— as inheritors/heir of black traditions, and give that back to black people with texts that reach the masses. Yup, I said it: ONLY A BLACK WOMAN.  Now essentialize THAT! The next morning, Christina brought a spoken word poet, Parlay, to class who attends a neighboring university to introduce the day.  Afterwards, by the time the late afternoon rolled around, Karina came to my office with the best damn, homemade empanadas I have ever had.  To riff off of Eunique Johnson’s campaign: because of my students, I can… tired and all… with an avalanche of students’ writing to respond to.

Anti-Princess Campaign Continued

In January, I started thinking/blogging about what I then called my anti-princess campaign for young black women.  I did indeed use children’s books this semester in my class for one lesson, books that specifically and deliberately rewrite the oppressive roles of women, race, blackness, and the lives of black girls in fairy tales.  I thought for sure that my students would think me insane, but they caught on and ran with the importance of these gender/race critiques throughout the semester.  Unlike some popular young white youtube feminists, they did not easily dismiss Disney’s psychoses of light-as-right and dark-as-bad or treat these color issues as neutral, a privilege that only white women and near-white women still seem to enjoy.  I will continue these lessons/discussions in my classes in the future.  Strangely enough, the sitcom/corporate conglomeration of Bravo’s “Real Housewives” prompts my newest sense of urgency against princess indoctrination for young black women.

At the suggestion of a student, I recently watched Sheree Whitfield on the “Iyanla Fix My Life” show on OWN.  Despite the people who swoon under the influence of the Entertainment Industrial Complex (and so didn’t find Sheree tantalizing enough on the show) or the non-reflective folk who thought Iyanla went too far, I felt like I got to see some social issues worth discussing for once.  Though I have certainly appreciated Iyanla Vanzant’s no-nonsense relationship counsel in her books, I have always been disappointed that she doesn’t make her analyses of black women’s lives more politically/historically based.  That coupled with the fact that I think her spending/money /celebrity status and habits actually match the kind of consumerism represented by something like Bravo, I am always a bit distrustful of swapping out self-help/self-indulgence for social and political analyses.  Nonetheless, I thought Iyanla was provocative in some of her interviewing and nudging.

I am fascinated by the first half of this segment when Sheree  tells Iyanla that she got married because she was looking for a man to love her, a deep admission if you ask me and a seemingly honest one. When Iyanla asks Sheree what it looks like for a man to love her, Sheree answers that it is the same fairy tale that all girls have.  Iyanla asks for more of what Sheree means.  I am fascinated here that Sheree never really answers Iyanla.  We don’t even get complete sentences from Sheree, something about THE man, THE life, some pickets and some fences.  There is nothing substantive here, no real image of two people trying to come together in sustaining ways; there are only materialistic images that  COMPLETELY lack coherence or logic.  Sheree doesn’t actually become coherent for me and able to form sentences until she begins to describe how painful it was for her to have to pretend that she was living this LIFE, to pretend that she was being loved, to pretend that a loving partnership was ever there or forthcoming, and to always pretend that she was happy and had it together.  Iyanla asks her “to go there and really look at that” and take on some very real pain.  I think Iyanla can be brilliant at getting women to look at their individual lives and pain this way, to really see when, where, and how we are pretending to be happy and/or are willing to put up with too much for fleeting moments of happiness.  But I also think that really going there requires that we look at how these are socially conditioned experiences, wanna-be fairy tales that never come true, so empty that they could never have real substance, a kind of nothingness that occupies such a consuming part of our emotional and mental being.  Have I pretended to be happy to keep the peace with my family, with a partner, or with a lie I have wanted to maintain that existed nowhere in reality?  Sure, I have.  Why are so many pretending we don’t know what Sheree is talking about but acting like, instead, the foolishness on RHOA is relatable?  The kind of pretending that many of us do/have done is part of our own individual baggage, yes, but it’s also part of some serious social programming related to consumerism, sexuality, and genders and women need to examine all that politically, not merely individually.

Iyanla manages to humanize Sheree’s ex-husband in ways that we were obviously unable to see in the various seasons of the Real Housewives sitcom, but I was deeply disturbed by the depiction of Sheree as the sole reason her ex-husband was stereotyped the way that he was.  A corporate machine like Bravo exists to profit off of black people’s pain, not help them overcome it.  Surely, Sheree is not innocent but it’s too convenient to simply blame a black woman for the negative depictions of a black man who chooses NOT to pay child support and be part of his children’s lives.  I am not suggesting that Sheree is a victim since she obviously chose all on her own to be part of something as ridiculous as RHOA (and all of the crazy blogs that promote its gossip); but I also will NOT feel sorry for the man either— if you are that embarrassed about your personal business (broadcast on cable television), then you do not choose a woman who would go that route because you would know to make sure that what you actually value in your life/woman matches your own values.  Iyanla does confront Sheree’s ex-husband something beautiful by making him admit that he hurt this woman to her core by pretending to offer a love he never had, a love that Sheree needed. We also get to hear the ex-husband’s dream of what an ideal fatherhood would look like and he certainly convinces you that he can and will be exactly that kind of father to his children.

By the end of the episode, the world which has scripted these lives still goes unquestioned though.  Sheree won’t confront why she wants to still build and live in a mansion (that has been under construction for years now), a mansion that eerily looks like a princess castle or the Barbie Dream House.  It also seems eerily appropriate that the mansion just sits there, unoccupied, in unfinished ruins.  Iyanla certainly lets the ex-husband know that his choices are his own, not the fault of Sheree.  Nonetheless, there is no real questioning as to how and why a man can avoid his child because the child’s mother isn’t nice to him.  There’s no real beef with what BlogMother at describes as a form of “Black Unity” that means we have “uniformly accepted the fact that Black fathers are ‘optional’ – like  AppleCare, or cruise control, or marble counter tops.” It seems socially acceptable for men to blame their decisions to be absent in their children’s lives solely on women’s behavior though those women’s behaviors were not scrutinized when men’s sexual appetites were being fulfilled during unprotected intercourse.  It’s all pretty much a blueprint for my basic definition of misogyny— an entrenched hatred of women where a woman receives more attention for her looks, sexual appeal, sexual favors vs. who she really is; an entrenched hatred of women where women are expected to be controlled/led by men (in the home and in the state) who are not to be questioned or challenged; an entrenched hatred of women where women’s bodies are constantly for sale (i.e., used to sell everything) and racially/ethnically ranked and valued according to a near-to-whiteness scale.

Quvenzhane Wallis at the 18th Annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards in January 2013.

Quvenzhane Wallis at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards in January 2013.

If this all seems too harsh, I want to just remind people that we are not talking about 16, 18, or even 25 year olds here who got caught up in their first serious encounter with erotic passion, got pregnant when too-young-to-parent, were still too innocent to know that love is never a singular/one-time experience. Nope.  These are grownass folk doin grownass things who then want to go and act like children when they reproduce children.  It is simply unfathomable to me that black folk would rationalize, in high-falutin vocabulary, on television, their refusal to play deep, present, sustaining roles in black children’s lives.  Here’s a recent reminder that we should all remember: since the 2013 Oscar nominations, Quvenzhane Wallis was constantly ridiculed, her talent was questioned, and when that wasn’t enough, she was called IN A PUBLIC forum a CUNT in tweets representing a well-read blog/newspaper.  She was NINE. YEARS. OLD. How are we running around here, for even a minute, ignoring black children when this is the routine treatment for a little nine-year old black girl?  Kristen Savali laid it out for us and Tressie McMillan beautifully followed through: not even white feminists rallying against misogyny gave a damn about these violent acts against a little black girl. How could any black man use Sheree or any woman to justify not being present in his black daughter’s life when THIS is what that little girl is facing?  Women like Sheree are the problem?  This is how we talk about black women? This is who we think endanger black children when we have white newsreporters publicly calling little black girls cunts?  At the risk of stating the obvious here: no mansion or Chateau-Sheree (which Quvenzhane could buy for HERSELF at just 9 years old) protected Quvenzhane from racial assault.  Only a community can protect her from that, one that is NOT distracted, hypnotized, and miseducated  by the material accumulation of capitalism/hyper-consumerism or the sexual gratification under misogyny or the reverence of/infatuation with whiteness via white supremacy.  If I sound disgusted, good, because I certainly am.  Black folk got no time for these kinds of conversations about black children. No time whatsoever.

I think this OWN episode is just an exaggerated version of the kind of misogyny and hyper-consumerism that is shaping many black people’s relationships with one another (Sheree is not the only one dreaming/building Ice Castles in the sand) and impeding any kind of real response to or even noticing of white supremacy.  Like I said when I first started  my anti-princess campaign, these are political conversations that we must have, the kind of political conversations that must replace white-washed fairy tales and the emptiness and pain such social fantasies inevitably create for black women. Fairy tale lies can never be the surrogate for sustaining black love, children, and communities. We need liberated relationships to sustain ourselves in a violent world.

Impact of U.N.I.T.Y.: “You Gotta Let Em Know”

U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994.  There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.

This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week).  This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class.  Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup.  Over Latifah’s UNITY.  This has happened every time for more than a few years now.

Here’s how it goes down.  Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable.  Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures.  Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.”  Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.

You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class?  The sistas just ain’t havin’ it.  Not a single one of them.

lupe-fiasco-bad-bitchThough I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one).  If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him.  That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me.  I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word.  So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me.  Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester.  In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester.  But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one).  This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get.  Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date.  Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal.  When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!

I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song.  Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity.  Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully.  Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice.  But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind.  Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!

Impact of Baduizm: “On & On/…& On”

baduPick yo afro, daddy, because it’s flat on one side

You need to pick yo afro, daddy, because it’s flat on one side

Well, If you don’t pick your afro, you gonna have one side hiiiiiiiigh…

That’s basically the trailer to Erykah Badu’s “On and On.”  When I hear those words, one image comes to mind: my undergraduate students.

Last spring, a student did a presentation on Badu using the video to this song.  The video is announced as a story that opens with the lines above. As soon as that third line hit, If you don’t pick yo afro daddy, you gon have one side hiiiiiiiigh, the class sang in unison.  And then everybody just started laughing.

Yes, I was cracking up too, but I was also surprised… now hold up, yall— yall was only 2 years old when this song came out.  What yall know about daddy’s afro being high?  They ignored me except, of course, Aysha, who came to my office (and still on many other occasions) to tell me I was EXTRA (I was always extra: extra with the homework, extra with the assignments, extra with the discussion topics, extra with the earrings…. just EXTRA… I have come to love this word!)  I get away with these kinds of comments as a college teacher, stuff I never got away with when I taught high school.  During lunch, I always turned on the old school at noon on HOT 97 (my hip hop station back then) so when students finished eating lunch, many would come to my classroom.  I should have known better but I was surprised when these students knew ALL of the lyrics to every and any Rakim or Sugar Hill or Roxanne or KRS-One song they heard, though many were not born at the time or, at least, they were still crawling in diapers.  When I expressed my surprise, they got all personal, snapped on me because I grew up in Ohio, and accused me of trying to learn to pop-lock when they just came out the womb knowing Hip Hop.  Yeah, they took it THERE.  I was not phased though and would describe, rather rudely (with reminders of what they just had for lunch), the kind of excrement they had in their diapers while I was grown, understanding what I was hearing, and able to wipe my own behind… in Ohio.    Not exactly one of my finer moments, I admit, but, hey, I wasn’t gon let them play me like that.  Sometime you gotta do what you gotta do.  Point is: there is a cultural apparatus and literate community here that recreates black experiences through music.

erykah-badu-feet-319487You don’t need to have been alive when Badu first came on the scene with that first album, Baduizm, (and every album thereafter) for it to make its impact on how you understand your life and the ways in which you understand being a black woman.   With Badu, I see my students placing themselves into new aesthetic expressions, whether it be through body adornment, sound collaborations, or the crafting of one’s singing voice.  Badu even designs new AfroDigital experiences to go along with her opening lament of a lost love or with her choral request that someone simply clap for her and have her back  (see Badu perform “Window Seat” at the 2010 Soul Train Awards below).  We seem to notice, maybe even over-notice, when young people of Afrikan descent gravitate to meaningless or, worst yet, offensive commercial musicians who often have very little to contribute in content or talent.  When students start singing a song that came out in 1997 as if they have lived that moment with Badu (they were only 2 and 4 years old at the time), then, clearly, it is not accurate to think they are only gravitating to commercially successful artists who trade in poppy gimmicks for style, choose corporate branding over aestheticism and music, and pursue money rather than soul. I love when my students let me feel the ways that they are feeling those differences.

When I have students who are so deeply invested in a genre or musician that is literally before their time, I stop to notice these explicit ways that black communities  sustain culture, memory, sound, and history.  In this particular case, there’s a word for it: Baduizm.