Black Language Matters: Our Word is STILL Bond

With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:

  • if and what you can eat and drink in the room
  • when and if you can go out and pee during class
  • when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
  • how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
  • how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
  • what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
  • who to call for this and that and when to call them
  • who to email for this and that and when to email them
  • numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
  • the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
  • the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
  • the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.

This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder:  who would actually want to read this mess?  And what are students even learning?  And you know what is significantly short?  A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!  In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements.  When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it.  In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.

My way around all of this is to open my syllabi with narrative, complete with images and graphic design all over the place.  In other words, I am talkin to ya!  What is this class?  How do I connect to it as teacher?  How do I want students to connect to what we will do together? And WHYYYY do I expect the things from them that I am asking? I do have all of the required policy mess in there because these syllabi must be filed with departments’ bureaucratic structures… but it comes at the very end… in real small print cuz it really ain’t worth the ink and extra paper.

Fall 2016 went down a little different: I mixed policy with narrative.  Of all things, I opened talking about plagiarism, a topic I seldom agree with colleagues about.  If your writing assignments are REALLY creative, then students can’t be liftin words from the internet, for instance.  If they do, then yo teaching stuff ain’t original…discussion closed.  Despite these personal politics, I opened my fall 2016 syllabus with an egregious case of plagiarism, of somebody jackin someone else’s words without any kind of attribution. In this case, I mean none other than Melania Trump.  Written in italics below is the opening of that syllabus and the website (www.funkdafied.org) that went with it... with an accompanying soundtrack that honors the black underground traditions for how we would study that semester.

FROM THE SYLLABUS:

Do you remember when Lauryn Hill dropped “Black Rage” in 2012 and then re-mixed it as a new song-sketch in 2014… from her living room in dedication to the uprising in Ferguson?  Do you remember where you were and what you were doing in August 2014 when J. Cole released “Be Free”…  dedicated on soundcloud “to every young black man murdered in America”? Did you check in when Killer Mike uploaded his essay about Ferguson to his instagram account? (And peeped his Graffitis SWAG Barbershop style)?  Or did you watch and listen as he urged countless black citizens to move all of their savings and checking accounts to black-owned banks in summer of 2016, to the astonishment of every major news outlet when black communities did just that!? Were you moved by the content, the style, the moments, the language?  Do you want to know more? If so, this course is for you!  Welcome to: Word is Bond: African American Language and Performance.

Who would have ever predicted that the very title of this class, WORD IS BOND, a title that was created in April of 2016, would have gained such national attention by July, just three months later?  Perhaps, you missed it and don’t know or remember the infamous incident.  

Here is how it went down.  In 2008, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of her husband’s bid for the presidential nomination.  Here is what she had to say: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values, that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do . . . And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  Now fast-forward to 2016, eight years later, when we heard those words again, except this time in the message of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, at the Republican National Convention in support of her husband’s bid as the 2016 Republican candidate for president.  Here is what Melania Trump said: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise . . . That you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily life. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  Strangely enough, Melania Trump’s words are almost identical to Michelle Obama’s.  Could this just be coincidence?  The answer is emphatically no. 

In colleges today, we call this plagiarism and if you make that kind of “coincidental mistake,” there is a whole administrative procedure that WILL BE waged against you including the possibilities of: failing the assignment, failing/repeating the class, facing disciplinary action from the college’s review board, or meeting with top-level administrators at your college to confess and redress your cardinal sins.  Plagiarism is serious business at any college today given the easy accessibility that everyone has to previously published and/or public information; every college in the U.S.A. has a lengthy policy that you are expected to know and understand.  So regardless of whether or not you agreed with, felt sorry for, or dismissed the seriousness of the allegation of plagiarism against Melania Trump, you can be sure you will NEVER be automatically forgiven or even gently cajoled if you do something like this in your work for any college class. 

There’s more to the story here than the Trump’s mere bypassing of the redress expectations after plagiarism that everyone else is susceptible to.  This is also a story about black cultural appropriation and undergirds how and why Michelle Obama’s self proclaimed legacy of her word as her bond is one that only she could make given her own black sociocultural background.  “Word is Bond” has a rich epistemology in African American history.  It might best be characterized as the urban shortcode for the concept of NOMMO, an important concept for you to understand from the very onset of this class.  Nommo is an African word derived from the Bantu language that denotes the magical power of words to cause change.  The concept of Nommo means that the very acts of naming, speaking, and using language are sacred acts.  It is NOT coincidence that an African-centered cultural understanding gets articulated by people of African descent across the African Diaspora today. You hear the re-mix all the time in expressions like: “word up” or when people just say “WORD!/ WORD?” (which can be an exclamation or a question, depending on intonation, and as such dictates the response). It is this concept of Nommo that animates this class.  The histories of race and the cultural experiences of black people in the western world have specific meanings for the ways language gets used. There are never any mistakes and there are never any coincidences. 

________________

So that was the syllabus prose last fall– a style that permeates most of my syllabi now. I mostly decided on this kind of alternative language/visual style for college syllabi as a way to work against the dominant white rhetorical trends of college teaching today.  But it’s time that I take that all further here.

I realize now that my alternative language/visual style is deeply rooted in black language politics.  If OUR WORD IS STILL BOND, then there is just no way in hell that we can allow our language, our aesthetics, or epistemological rootings in alternative notions of critical education to be squashed. Even the neoliberalist dictates of how our colleges expect us to sound and write course syllabi can be altered! WORD!

 

Black Language Matters: 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.

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Hayi Basile: (Re)Making Justice All the Time

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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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Congratulations, Andrene!

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Click here for Andrene’s ePortfolio, PRETTY FOR A BLACK GIRL (created in her first-semester “Freshman English” course)!

Thank you also to the Africana Studies Department’s willingness to embrace what Abdul Alkalimat, in his definition of eBlack Studies, has called “a new conception of mapping our existence in cyberspace.”  We are proud of you, Andrene!

Same Rats, New Holes: A Story of the New Digital Divide

There are some things that you just never forget.  Your first day as a teacher is one of them.  My first day was in a junior high school in the South Bronx which was then (and now) the poorest congressional district in the country.  I taught in what was considered the “worst district” in the Bronx in the “worst” middle school.  It was the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, or so they said.

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That First Day

hole 3My first day was staff development day.  I had to attend various sessions like everyone else but, as the new teacher that year, I also had to pick up my keys and set up my classroom.  As soon as I opened the classroom door, a rat the size of a terrier dog ran across the room and behind the coat closet. I was horrified (I don’t do rodents, insects, OR snakes!) but for some reason, I didn’t flinch.  I moved the coat closet and saw a hole the size of a dinner platter in the wall.  I went outside to the public pay phone, called my father to ask him the easiest way to plug up a hole in the wall (without needing sheetrock), went to the local hardware store, and bought steel wool, chicken wire, and plaster (I also bought roach spray since I have always seen roaches and rats travel in pairs).  The local hardware store owner did not recognize me and so I introduced myself and my dilemma.  He gave me a 50% discount on the materials and so I went back to my classroom and plugged holes.  I had seen enough at my interview and the “teacher development” sessions to know that no one there would help or care.hole 1

After fixing holes in the walls, I started arranging students’ desks. My classroom was huge which I always like— it gives you more room to decorate: a science wall, a graf writing wall, a memoir wall, a history corner, a library with bean bags.  There was room for ALL of that!  I was ecstatic.  There was a problem though.  My roster of sixth graders who I would first see indicated 36 students.  I only had 29 desks/chairs.  I was, however, assured by the administration: “these students don’t come to school, you won’t need more chairs.”  Sensing that the parents in the district didn’t trust us, I did what I saw and heard white suburban teachers do before school started.  I called every home and introduced myself to whatever adult was taking care of the child on my roster.  I told another teacher of my feat and she told me that I was crazy.  I never made the mistake of telling her or her crew anything again.

This story I tell might sound like one of those Hollywood movies that pathologizes students of color in the hood and enshrines whiteness, but those stories get nothing right.  I witnessed the violence inflicted on those students not as a white and/or privileged teacher driving in from her “safe” neighborhood with no real connections to or life experiences in communities of color; I experienced that violence alongside those kids, right on that first day of school, all because I needed 7 more seats in my classroom.

The Number 7

There was still time before school started, so I worked on my classroom each and every moment that the school building was open before the kids officially began. No one thought I needed more desks and chairs but since I insisted on making this request, I was told to go down to the second floor (classrooms were on floors 3-5) where there were extra desks and chairs lined up along the walls. I could get some exercise or put in a work-order that would take 1-2 weeks to fulfill, despite the fact that students were starting in less than 72 hours!

On one of my trips to this second floor, a white female administrator of some sort appeared.  I no longer remember her title, just her face.  She was yelling obscenities, but I really didn’t pay her any attention because I had stuff to do: I was carrying 7 chairs and 7 desks up and down a flight of stairs to my third floor classroom.  As I was surveying the desk in front of me (did it wobble, could it be cleaned, etc), I realized she was yelling at me, screaming that I had better be gone by the time she reached me and the desks. I stepped away from the desks, asked her who the F–K she thought she was talkin to, promising her that I would stand right there and wait for her.  She walked towards me very menacingly and I was ready for her, just like I was ready for that rat that I holed up.  The newly appointed dean happened to see what was going down and raced over to us, yelling at this white woman: “she’s the new teacher, she’s the new teacher, leave her alone.”  She looked confused and then just started laughing: “I thought you were one of the students.  You don’t look a day past 16.”  I wasn’t laughing though.  Why on earth would any 16 year-old child in the South Bronx break into a school building (all doors were locked and only teachers were buzzed in) and steal them raggedy desks and busted chairs?  And, more importantly, what on earth gave her the right to think she should and could talk to any child in this school or any part of the neighborhood this way?  I said as much to her, insisting she had hit a lucky strike with the dean saving her from what she had coming.  I was simply regarded as too sensitive and offensive— a kind of over-reactionary, Black Nationalist-styled militant.  My credentials, abilities, skills never mattered there… I looked like the people in the neighborhood, I AM the people in that neighborhood, and was criminalized alongside them.  Sensitive and offensive?  So those were the new words for us, huh?

Same Rats, New Holes

7 is a number I will always remember, not simply because of the desk situation, but because all 36 of my students showed up.

All I ever heard in that building was what the students could not or should not do.  If it wasn’t one thing, it was another: their k-5 schools had been so horrible that they needed drills and drills ONLY; these kids didn’t value books so you should use textbooks/basals, not novels; these kids weren’t ready for project-based learning because they needed the basics; writing process theory and every other progressive educational theory (no one could actually articulate any of that though) was for suburban kids, because these kids only needed grammar worksheets; these kids couldn’t go on field trips because parents wouldn’t chaperone and/or they wouldn’t behave; these kids couldn’t learn about activist movements, social justice, or cultures/histories/languages of communities of color because they needed to see the “classics,” not themselves and the people in their neighborhoods.

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I stayed most close to the Black and Puerto Rican teachers who were doing transformative stuff in their teaching and made sure not to let the main folk in that building know too much about me, what I do, or how I do it.  I knew how all that white paternalism and racist pathology targeted my students and me and I wanted no proximity to it.  My students did ALL of the things that they were not supposed to do. When the school year started, my 6th graders had tested as the bottom class; when it ended, they were the top… without a worksheet or drill in sight.  My only regret is that I can’t go back in time: I would do even MORE of the things we weren’t supposed to do.

holes 4Now some 21 years later, I wish I could say that things look different in my life as a college teacher, but they don’t.  Not at all. The only thing that is new is the way that our newest technologies figure into just another one of them things that racially subordinated, working class/working poor students supposedly should not and cannot do.  Same rats, new holes.

The Current Divide: Savage Inequalities Continued…

In the 1990s, we talked about the Digital Divide as barriers to computer and technology access.  Today, that talk has shifted to differences in kinds of access.  Latin@s, for instance, lead the US embrace of mobile devices and African Americans lead the US embrace of Twitter.  You’d be lying to yourself if you saw these groups on the fringe of new technologies and digital living.

I don’t mean to suggest that issues of access are not still prevalent. We know that fewer black and Latin@ students have broadband in their homes in comparison to white students, though the use of mobile phones begins to equalize this.  Talented and committed teachers, however, have been using Facebook and platforms like teachers.io (which helps you make a homework app for your classes) to communicate with their mobile-savvy students.  Principals in urban city-centers have teamed with companies to provide students with laptops.  By 2000, we already saw Apple partnering with elementary schools in impoverished neighborhoods to provide students with laptops.  Apple seems to eat this up since they can attract a new, young generation to Apple products.  I counted 4-5 students in each of my three writing classes this fall whose high schools had exactly such a program. I suspect that number will continue to grow with each entering college freshman class.

The Digital Divide, as I experience it, has to do with how teachers and institutions postpone or altogether reject complex and/or current digital work for racially/economically subordinated groups.  Once again, we have the thing that “these kids” can’t and shouldn’t do.  Since they don’t have the “basic skills,” we need to give them that first and, coincidentally, all the time spent on them basic skills means they will never get beyond such levels of minimal competency.  This is not simply my sense of things, but things said explicitly to me just this past school year.  Like I said: same rats, new holes.

If it THIS threatening when students of color do CULTURALLY RELEVANT and sophisticated digital work in their 21st century classrooms, then you know it’s the right thing to do!  If that means I am being sensitive and offensive all over again, then so be it.

When History Weighs In…

History gives us some important lessons here.  I take us back to public higher education in the South, an outcome of Reconstruction, with the Morrill Land Grants Act first initiated in 1862 that awarded each state land-grants for higher education (at this time in history, African Americans mostly lived in the south).  Black citizens formed part of the population base that was used to create the monetary formula for Morrill benefits. Each of the fourteen former slaveholding states established a black land grant college (the only colleges that Blacks were allowed to attend) that, in turn, made the state eligible for more grants.  By 1900, the expenditures to white colleges exceeded those for black ones by a ratio of 26:1. This calculated impoverishment of the colleges black students attended didn’t stop there though.  Black colleges weren’t allowed to use their funds to do liberal arts curricula; only white colleges could do that. Historical hindsight lets us see how wrong this was (well, it lets some of US see how wrong this was) but, at the time, the philosophers, theorists, scholars, and educators had a lofty discourse to justify these savage inequalities in access and opportunity: blacks needed basic skills to enter this unequal world; black students were too far behind in their educational access to catch up to white students’ college curriculum.

It should not take a huge leap to question this stated goal of offering blacks an equal education when procedures and curricular offerings deliberately prevented black college students from receiving the education that white students got.  If that is obvious to us, then it seems we would question any person or system that uses these same rhetorics to deny access to our era’s newest educational technologies.

Many have made the tragic mistake of assuming that what the white officials saw and recorded when they came to visit these black classrooms funded through Morrill was what happened everyday.The Black teachers who were interested in social transformation had sophisticated political understandings into the criminal underfunding of their land-grant colleges.  They critically understood that the ban on liberal arts curricula for black students was not for the purpose of learning but for the purpose of maintaining a racialized economic system under white supremacy.  Despite the dangers and threats cast against them, they DID SOCIALLY TRANSFORMATIVE CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION ANYWAY!

Digital technologies are/will be the new battle for a progressive, transformative education for students of color. Like those black teachers more than 100 years ago who defied the white power structures that sought to miseducate their communities, we can stand on the right side of history too!

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… learning western technology must not be the end of our understanding of the particular discipline we’re involved in. Most of that west shaped information is like mud and sand when you’re panning for gold!

The actual beginnings of our expression are post Western (just as they certainly are pre-western). It is only necessary that we arm ourselves with complete self knowledge; the whole technology (which is after all just expression of who ever) will change to reflect the essence of a freed people…

See everything fresh and “without form”–then make forms that will express us truthfully and totally and by this certainly free us eventually…

~Amir Baraka, “Technology & Ethos”

Witness to the Archive

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From One Black Home…

Since my father (unlike many of my OTHER family members) does not read this blog or any blog and hates the internet, I can tell all his biz’ness here with impunity.  I will use him here to think about digital archiving and its implications for my classroom.

DuctWorkAs I seem to always stress, my father’s working class status and disposition have never meant intimidation or lack of confidence, as many seem to associate with working class folk of color.  As a heating and A/C specialist, he works in many homes/churches/companies to install heating ducts, central air, etc.  If it has a motor, engine, or some such, he can fix it …BUT if you start telling him what he should do when it is obvious that you have NO knowledge or scientific background with the task at hand, he will nod, tell you to do it yo-damn-self since you know so much, pack up his stuff, and walk right back out the door. If you can’t see that he has knowledge and a skillset that you NEED and do NOT have, he ain’t dealin with you.  Ever. If you don’t know how to talk or respect someone like him, well then he ain’t gon give you the time of day.  He will watch you freeze to death, quite literally, without a morsel of regret.  It should go without saying: I think this is one of my father’s greatest attributes. I aspire to be like him each and every day!

And this is where technology comes in.  Just so he won’t forget your dumb behind, my father will add you to his archive, a routinely UPDATED database (names and all possible phone numbers) of people who shouldn’t get any answer when they call. He prints these out and posts them by the phone and at other strategic locations. He has other uses for technology like keeping up with sports stats and staying in touch with his 14 brothers and sisters, but maintaining his database is a main priority. I love to dig through the database rather than just read the posted lists because it gives so much more detail.  I am wildly entertained by the new names and the things folk have pissed off my father about.  I even like to issue warnings: “watch out now— you bout to get on the list.”  Hours of entertainment right there!  I don’t have a database like my father’s, but these days, I am certainly considering it and have plenty names and attributes ready.

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…to Other Black Homes

aretha-franklin-ebony-2As a child, I often went on jobs with my father.  Yes, I enjoyed when he would get mad and leave because, then, I could do my special dance on the walk to car: a bop to match our walk, quick pause every now-and-then for an “in yo face” side-to-side head bap, and then bop to the car door some more.  On the occasions where we stayed, I loved that too. I got to sit down and read Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines and, since I was appreciative of the content, I was always given access to the stash of back issues that were always stored somewhere close by.  No one threw these out— they were archived as data of our lives.  And, yes, I consider these archives, NOT collections, ones that were freely accessible.  What was the point of collecting black wisdom if you weren’t going to share it?  I loved flipping through the well-worn pages and seeing which articles were the most read.  That’s where I would sink in.  Of course, those times do not match the politics of these magazines now, but they once offered dynamic polemics of and representations into black life.jet-1960-08-25

With every fix-it job that my father did, I was immersed in some kind of an archive.  It is a memory that I would like to carry with me as I imagine how to re-frame the annotated bibliography that is part of the freshman comp curriculum in my program.  While the digital component of my assignment was clear enough (students had to create e-pages for different kinds of websites, articles, videos, etc), I didn’t make the scope and purpose critical enough.  Archives help you live your daily life; they are not just the purview of privileged digital scholars who use the newest tools to (re)center the same white actors of history and aesthetics.  I needed to offer my students the opportunity to create their own archive of knowing and I needed to allow them more control of what that should look like and do.  Once again, it is a black framework that gives me this new approach and disposition.  I am never without a model in this newly technologically automated world, even for alternative archives.

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