A Black Education Congress (ABEC)

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

I originally intended to stop/ write/ reflect for each of my past three days at the Black Education Congress.  Yes, that was certainly the intention.  But this language and this written form of the Word just got in the way.  There were so many moments that touched me.  I wouldn’t be able to define and chronicle those moments linearly even if I wanted to.  This morning, I am left with one resonance that I am carrying with me.  I expect new resonances to fill me in coming days and weeks so I will keep that discussion going here.

I realize today the weight of an experience that I seldom receive, an experience that maybe I have never had… being in a room filled with concentric circles, nested cyphers, filled with people of Afrikan descent who have the education and well-being of Black children first and foremost in their heart, mind, spirit.  Just imagine it!  It might sound simple, but how many times have you actually experienced THAT? I needed to stop today and realize that I am never in such a space and to also realize what that space-powerfulness has given me.  I don’t mean the folk who are trying to usher black children into a middle class pseudo-bourgeoisie (I say pseudo because middle-classness means something completely different in this time, even though most folk don’t realize that.)  I don’t mean THEM folk.  These days I feel lucky if I can find a set of black colleagues, scattered across the country, who have a dynamic, critical vision for Black Education.  And I am lucky if have a sista across campus who I can meet after our classes are over and just talk.  Like I said… L-U-C-K-Y!  I had them sistas-in-the-wings at Rutgers-Newark, for instance (given the history and spirit of Newark), but you had to sustain a whole lotta foolishness in your department first. And while I attend professional conferences and panels where I do meet such soul-sustaining folk, more often than not, most black folk are busy trying to be famous and/or network so that they can become famous.  That’s the culture in which black youth must survive a hostile education and it is the culture in which we most often must fight to help them not merely survive but thrive.

I am thinking back to the opening night with the procession of elders punctuated by the opening words of Dr. Adelaide Sanford.  This is what I mean by these words not allowing the weight and fullness of a Black Experience.  Here is a video of the Queen Mother from a July 2013 talk in Philly:

As powerful as this video is, it does not begin to capture what it was like to be in that room that night at a circle with other black teachers and high school students (who were ENRAPTURED, by the way, of course!)  And as powerful as this video is, it does not capture what it is like to be in Dr. Adelaide Sanford’s presence with black educators at your side. It is THAT feeling that I am carrying with me today and that I now take with me as I educate young people of color.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963

I was so struck by the language that I heard black parents using to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal to their children this summer.  It’s not like these were new explanations for the parents of black children, surely.  Nonetheless, it was the sheer poetry, metaphorical wizardry, and rhetorical intensity that just made me stop dead in my listening tracks.  It’s the same kind of language that just sings off the page when many black authors write YAL (young adult literature) and children’s literature for and about young people of African descent.  That’s why I read African American YAL and children’s literature so voraciously, especially when those texts are trying to creatively offer explanatory models for the past and present of racial violence and an alternative image of humanity that can sustain you.

zora-and-me-208x300There’s just something about the language.  My colleague, Victoria Bond, and her co-author, T.R. Simon, is a case example. I don’t want to spoil their wonderful book, Zora and Me, so I’ll just say that the story revolves around a set of friends who learn about the saga of a woman who is passing as white.  The woman’s husband and lifestyle unleash a level of disrespect and violence onto black communities that is unforgivable.  What Bond and Simon do so beautifully is unpack that violence from the perspective and discourse of young adults who are learning to do better by their people (with one of these friends being the young Zora Neale Hurston).  While this book is, of course, a story that sociologically interrogates the politics of passing, it is also just brilliant in showing how violent this decision is for black communities… and all in a way that is understandable for 12 year olds.  Like I said, the language is just wonderful.

watsonsThat language is also the reason why I have cherished The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis since it came out in 1995.  He shows you the love, dignity, and warmth of a black family while also showing how a young boy deals with and understands the bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  There is no happy ending to the book, just an ending that lets you know that black love will sustain this family and community.  When you value the language and experience of these kinds of tellings, then you just can’t help but feel real slighted when you see a Hollywood adaptation.  I finally watched the movie version of The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963 on the Hallmark channel this weekend.  Mostly, I was just curious to see if the film achieves the brilliance that I think Curtis’s book achieves.  I suspected it wouldn’t and I was right.

The brilliance that Curtis crafted with Kenny’s sorrow and mourning after the church bombing was simply lost.  The plot was there but not the significance, meaning, and historical impact.  What has astonished me is that so many reviews excuse the film’s domestication of Civil Rights protests in Birmingham because the movie is for children.  But the movie is based on a BOOK… a book that did NOT domesticate racist violence in order to hurry up and celebrate the triumph of the North American family (nor did the book ever offer the North as a Promised Land in relation to the Evil South like the movie does).  These tropes are so tired and played out that I sympathized with the wonderful actors in the movie who had to re-play these tropes. I found myself wondering who these domesticated images were for.  Surely, not for those parents who had to explain Trayvon Martin’s murder to their children this summer…or for the children who look like Trayvon!

Freedman_Bureau_Richmond_VAI knew I was traveling down a slippery slope when I first turned on the movie because Hallmark didn’t air the movie on the actual anniversary.  Maybe it’s because I don’t watch too much television but I also found it quite difficult to view this movie when every single commercial was white.  I have never seen so many middle class white women shopping at Walmart as I did in the commercial breaks.  No single commercial with a black family?  A black mother?  A black woman? They did, however, play the infamous Cheerios commercial where the little biracial girl pours cereal over her father’s heart many, many times. Now don’t get me wrong.  I was outraged at the racism this commercial unleashed against that adorable little girl.  But I was equally outraged when those same folk who were posting their comments and links to this commercial on youtube, facebook, twitter, or google+ have not been similarly enraged at the events with Tiana Parker or Quvenzhane Wallis.   It was as if the network just couldn’t let America see too much of two black parents raising black children.  When only biracial children are your source of attention, the hierarchy of value is clear.  I can’t help but be reminded of the white teachers who went to the south to teach black children after emancipation in the late 1800s and wrote long, tearful laments when they saw so many almost-white, mulatto children forced to share in the same racial misery as all those dark Negroes (they saw it as shameful to leave children with so much white in them with black people).  The movie may not have been historically accurate but Hallmark’s messages during the commercial breaks surely were.

As for me, I’m going to stick with African American YAL and children’s literature.  That language!  Those messages!  That’s what the U.S. still needs aired.

For Tiana & Black Children: AfroVisual/AfroDigital Love

8C8880633-tdy-130906-TianaParker2-tease.blocks_desktop_teaseLike most black women who I know, I was really upset this weekend when I saw the news coverage of beautiful, 7-year old Tiana Parker, a straight A student, as she shed tears when her school officials castigated her hair/locs!!  If you ever thought black hair could be politically neutral in our social world, then you may never truly understand these kinds of tears. After being continually harassed, Tiana’s father was forced to enroll her in a new school because her charter school banned all dreadlocks as inappropriate, calling Tiana’s locs a distraction from learning/thinking.

I talk/write/think a lot about the white violence and terror that black girls face in school and this example rocks me to my core.  I find myself remembering what E.M. Monroe wrote about her son’s (Miles) first day of kindergarten this fall in the post, “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort.”  In the post, Monroe talks about the humanity of Ms. Malcolm, a teacher who can see Miles’s humanity:

I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.

Monroe captures brilliantly the kind of teacher and school that I think black children like Tiana so rarely experience.  It is clear to me that the adults at Tiana’s school belong to a kind of violent trajectory that Monroe discusses in this post that she relates to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Make no mistake about it: this demonization of Tiana’s hair— a part of black bodies— belongs to the same ideology that demonized Trayvon Martin’s black body.

Like what Ms. Malcolm offered Miles, Dr. Yaba Blay offered Tiana and black women a similar kind of witnessing.  Dr. Blay’s response has been the most brilliant with her focus on Tiana’s spirit.   She created what she calls A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.” The result is simply stunning (followed by a new facebook community).  Click on the digital booklet below that Dr. Blay left open for embedding and sharing across multiple platforms:

It’s an important reminder about the political power of healing and loving black children and the role of always offering them visual images for staking out who we are.  This digital care package also offers black communities a way to inhabit digital spaces outside of the white norms of collecting images and videos to showcase family consumption and bourgeois achievements— after all, that is the same kind of whiteness that left Tiana in tears.  E.M. Monroe and Dr. Blay offer us real images and processes of what it looks like to show and love black children in a digital age.  These are the only kinds of AfroVisual/AfroDigital spaces that can recognize our humanity.

My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.

AfroDigital-Sensitized: Black Sensibility Online

440x296_2200-white-people-dancingGranted, I probably take the public nature of a digital universe too seriously.  I will concede that.  When I see “professionals” in my field uploading videos of themselves where they are dancing to one beat, their small child dancing to another beat, and a black artist’s song playing in the background with an entirely different beat altogether, I think: oh hayell TO THE naw.  If that weren’t bad enough, these folk got the nerve to be singing along, karaoke machine in full display, to the tune of yet another beat, wearing the paraphernalia of their college alma mater.  If I were the president of that college, I would have to pull these folk aside and talk to them.  It’s like an audition for American Idol that has gone very wrong: someone has got to step up and just say naw, baby, this right here ain’t for you; focus on another goal.  Call me an essentialist then… I think this might just be a black thang.  The black folk who I know and who raised me simply would not be out here uploading videos of pre-rehearsed performances (copied from TV) to broadcast for the world where they and their CHILDREN are singing and dancing with NO KINDA RHYTHM, RHYME, or TIME.  You have to be the Jackson Five for that kind of thing!  In what I define as black culture, when you publicly display yourself, you better be ready for sharp critique: think Showtime at the Apollo here— the youtube before youtube.  It ain’t nuthin nice when you need to be told to exit that public stage. Even with those youtube videos that bougsie black folk like to critique forever and a day of black mothers twerking (with their kids mimicking in the background), you have to concede one thing: them. folk. CAN. dance.  I’m not saying all the black folk that I know can sing and dance, just that when they can’t, they KNOW it and so don’t arrogantly display it for the world.  At the end of the day, even in the worst kind of minstrel show, black folk just don’t get the option of public display without an iota of talent or rhythm.  And though we are never credited as such, the black folk who I know and those who raised me have some high standards by which you come to understand yourself.

It ain’t like I don’t have a sense of humor.  I laughed all day long when I saw Jimmy Fallon, Robin Thicke, and the Roots do a rendition of “Blurred Lines” with children’s musical instruments.  Thicke never sounded better and this version of the song is so much better than the already played-out radio version.  The brotha playing the banana might be the new love of my life.  And, interestingly, this New-Skoolhouse rendition makes the song more than a wanna-be Marvin Gaye clone and the new rhyme rewrites some of the song’s problematic gender politics.  You see, even for the sake of humor, black folk don’t give up the seriousness of real rhythm and creativity… and knowing what the hell you are doing and who you are.

When it comes to online spaces, I use a black sensibility to tell me what is wrong and what is right.  I might offend folk with what I am saying but the structural racism that I discuss is not something I haven’t examined/read closely.    But that too is a black sensibility: say what you gotta say and whoever feels a certain way about it, let them go on and feel it.  That ain’t my problem or cross to bear. Mostly, it’s my standard of performance, skill, and appropriateness that I see as AfroDigital-Sensitized.  In just a few weeks, I will be teaching three sections of first year writing (FYW) where students and myself will interrogate digital literacies and digital empire more closely than I ever have before in FYW.  The modules are finally coming together and I am quite clear that I am using an Afro-Digital-Sensibility to craft the units of study, the framing of the course, and the polemics of digital spaces.  This is about more than what African Americans do or consume online; it’s about an ideological framework inside of yet another system we have not designed.  Like I seem to be saying over and over again here, I haven’t ever needed to look further than the wisdom of my people to know how to navigate the world, digital or otherwise.