R.I.P., Dr. John Rodriguez

305774_10150360853483929_2085174749_nMy close friend and colleague, Dr. John Rodriguez, died this week.  He will be so dearly missed. R.I.P., JRez!

I met John, who I more affectionately called JRez, in my first year of teaching college composition in the Boogie Down Bronx, New York where John was born and raised, the birthplace he never betrayed.  In those years, he was an undergraduate student who worked as my Teaching Assistant.  When he wasn’t doing that, he was fulfilling the requirements of his English major, going back and forth to the homeless shelter where he lived, hanging out with his daughter, writing and performing poetry, and teaching poetry classes at a local community center where I often visited with him.  After he graduated, I got the chance to serve on his dissertation committee, a study looking at the literacies of Bronx Puerto Rican teens in the context of community institutions and teen poetry.  The young people were right there at the defense too where, and as John and I would laugh for years… it was the day that THAT university saw the most Puerto Ricans ever in its hallways!

It is difficult to imagine teaching in New York City knowing John is no longer here.  Such a devastating loss!

Every fall, John wrote a poem about beginning the fall school year.  Here is the last one he sent me called AT MY BEST.  I will treasure it and all of the poems he wrote and the difference he made in this world:

At My Best

August is the cruelest month: never enough daylight, too much

heat, no holidays and nothing matters except September’s

dawning responsibilities, but the August of 1994 I was Holden

Caulfield, summer camp senior counselor for the junior trail

blazers, black and brown children two weeks shy of first, second,

and third grade. Nothing is as positive, as motivating a force within

one’s life as a schoolbus full of kids singing along to the local

radio station blazing hip hop and R&B. (Imagine this cherubic

chorus riding upstate to Ini Kamoze’s “Here Comes the Hotstepper”

[“Muuur-derah!”]) My workday is filled with hazards like chocolate

melted sticky swimtrunk pockets, insistent sunburn, and the assorted

rah rah of parental unsupervision, but those bus rides back from

upstate water parks and pools were my favorite times working.

Have you ever ridden in a cheesebus with ashy children asleep

against you, staring at sudden trees–more numerous than project

windows–blurring along the highways like confusion giving way

to doubt, the heady smell of dried chlorine and musty towels

lulling you into the soft timbre of a Midwest falsetto? Tell me

what it is to fall in love with a lightskin girl covering the Isley

Brothers. I was not two weeks into 21 years old, I had yet

to wear a box cutter in my fifth pocket, or see a semiautomatic

aimed at my center mass, to feel its dumbness against my spine.

My life was uncertain, save for its unlikely length under my control,

like the pilot who falls short of what he says, what he says

he’s all about, all about. All my homeboys were still alive, just

like Aaliyah Dana Haughton, not yet an angel of the cruelest August,

begging a boy who may not be in the mood to learn what he thinks

he knows, to look beyond his world and try to find a place for her.

Thank You to Vaughn!

When it comes to classrooms, it feels like I have seen it all in these past 20 years.  I did student teaching in a third grade classroom in South Central Los Angeles, moved to a junior high school in the Bronx, then high school, then college teaching.  I have been to more funerals than I care to count, prayed with and for ex-convicts to find a way out, watched over small children while single mothers took care of business, worked with public safety to protect female students from physically abusive male partners (who have been known to come to campus to look for their ex-girlfriends/wives), helped students fight racist teachers, helped gay students fight homophobic campuses, helped parolees check(-in with) parole officers, fed/transported students who had no way there.  You name it, I have seen it.  It’s the nature of what it means to commit to working class/working poor communities in one of the central racist institutions that holds them hostage: SCHOOL.  The college classrooms that I have taught in are not that much different than that first junior high school where I taught in the poorest congressional school district in the country.

The statistics tell us that 1 in every 4 or 5 female students in college  (depending on which stats you look at) have been raped.  I don’t need them stats though: I can attest to that number via the conversations I have had with female students in every college classroom I have taught in.  The only thing that really connects all of these experiences and classrooms is the TOTAL incongruence between who these students are and how they get depicted— whether that be so-called “educational research” or scholarship or media depictions.  In media, they are savages who cannot control themselves.  In scholarship, they are hopeless remedial readers and writers in need of a paternalistic white savior (or, the distant cousin— the pied-piper of color) who has studied all of the right strategies (we might want to START wondering how any graduate program/college can prepare you to teach the communities that they are NOT enrolling or really employing as faculty).  For those who are privileged, these students are just authorized to be self-hating, anti-Ebonics, and anti-black since those things get anointed as post-racial or non-essentialist.  In everyday parlance, we imagine these students to be so hopelessly bamboozled by mass culture (often called “popular culture” by post-modernists) that they do  not know they are being robbed of time, money, spirit, and sanity.

The one thing I can count on is that I can’t count on media or academia to speak to, for, or about the people who I have had the opportunity to call my students.  It’s an important reminder that can shake me loose when my mind gets stuck on stupid.  Thank you to Vaughn Ephraim who shook me loose in this moment. Vaughn sent me the following video, “NA-TU-RAL” by  Qu’ality that he thought I might enjoy.

Qu'ality

Qu’ality

He was right.  Vaughn’s message when he sent me the video was equally deep for me.  Here is part of that message about why he knows, values, and listens to Qu’ality:

The song is called “Na-tu-ral” and it features shots of young ladies with all different kinds of natural hair styles. It is put together very well and I think it’s important to acknowledge black men who promote and acknowledge and love the beauty in black women. He is in within my age group, which is another important factor as it shows our generation is not fully tainted or corrupted with the vile and chauvinistic conditioning of white male western dominance which is simply below sub-par.

I agree with Vaughn.  Vaughn’s sentiments as well as what we see and hear in Qu’ality’s video are not what we often see and hear about young black men and women today.  Thank you, Vaughn!  Keep on pushin!  I am learning from you.

Happy Juneteenth! We Own This Day!

JUNETEENTH_feature2-300x259We all know about the barbecues, parades, and festivities that commemorate Juneteenth.  But Juneteenth was more than just that. Juneteenth was and is also a day of political recharge and intellectual commitment to black life, learning, and dialogue.

African Americans even created what we now call the Juneteenth Queen to reclaim and rechristen the “Goddess of Liberty” that crowns American political structures as a BLACK WOMAN. Today and in the coming days (Juneteenth was known to spread across more than one day), I am curious to see how we sustain knowledge of this history and move its legacy forward, on and offline.  Happy Juneteenth to all!

Happy Father’s Day to the Fathers Who Defy Patriarchy

Happy_Fathers_Day_1I once thought that I was just a weird little girl.  I have never fantasized, for instance, as a young girl or now, about the design of my wedding dress, the colors of my bridal party ensemble, the look of my imaginary husband, or location/church/flowers of my wedding (in junior high school, I decided me and Prince could be a good couple but his cross-over after Purple Rain turned me off and so I have moved on).  I do believe in celebrations but not those defined by European histories of female domesticity. I never wanted to play with a Barbie Dream House as a girl though I did have Barbies: I simply re-designed their outfits.  Poverty certainly discouraged materialism in my childhood; in contrast, creativity was inserted.  Instead of the Barbie Dream House, which we could never afford, my mother gave me cardboard and my father gave me scraps of carpet and wallpaper.  It ends up that I was, in fact, quite domestic… I made my own damn house.  Sometimes I would do a house for kids, or one for basketball players, or one for grandmothers; there was never a nuclear arrangement.   Today I realize that my girlhood was filled with alternative expectations and opportunities.

"A Father's Love" by Elliot Miller

“A Father’s Love” by Elliot Miller

My parents were divorced when I was very young so I was raised by a single mother.  Because my mother’s family disowned her after she gave birth to me, I was raised with and around my father’s very large family, a gift that I attribute to him. I have grown closer to him in my older years and, now as an adult, one of the things I realize and cherish most is that he never imposed patriarchal roles on me even though he was certainly raised in a patriarchal culture.  Today, I will set the dining room table, buy all of his dishes and glasses, recover/re-paint/re-stain/re-place his chairs and table, and I have mostly decided the furniture layout at his house. But I have never been expected to cook or wash dishes or do anything considered “woman’s work.”  My father is quite the cook so I never even equated cooking with women’s work.  Though I really like stainless steel gas ranges and have a nice one, that’s about as domestic as I get in the kitchen.   This fact leads to GREAT laughter from my father: he insists that I don’t need a fancy stove given how little cooking I do.  According to him, the only thing on my stove is dust.  He is right that my range is still newish, but there is NO dust in my house.  The way that my father delights in telling this story convinces me that he likes that I define femininity differently (i.e., buying my own home, remodeling my kitchen as my own GC, installing and deciding upon my own appliances).  In his own home, my father made a cut-out on the living room wall, like a picture frame/ plant ledge, that looks into his kitchen.  As a child, I would stand on the sofa on one side of the cut-out, peek through and talk to him as he cooked on the other side of the cut-out.  This is something that I still do now, kneeling where I once stood, always also emboldened to similarly tear down and rebuild walls in my house too.  In the summers, while he was cooking, I was outside playing softball and kickball with my childhood friend, Damon. Whenever my father did buy me things, he bought me dirtbikes, big wheels and race cars and was one of the few people who would oblige me in adorning everything in my favorite color as a child: BLUE (pink sent me into hysteria).  It didn’t occur to me until now that while he couldn’t overturn the expectations of patriarchy in his own life, he did for me.  When my female colleagues suggest that I don’t have a man because I don’t like to cook, I laugh, wonder why they have never witnessed a man cook and why their fathers let them center men in their lives.  Then my stomach starts churning when I think of who they are married to.   If I had to cook for THAT and be married to it too, wellllll, Houston, we have a problem. I’m not suggesting that cooking makes a woman domesticated, oppressed, or that it only consigns us to patriarchy; nothing is that simple.  But I am talking about imposed expectations and having a father who chose something else for his daughter.  So, on this father’s day, I am speaking as a working class black daughter: the greatest gift a father can give, the one that I received, is the rupture of patriarchal expectations.

I want the story of my father to defy a dominant cultural script. I am reminded of Denene Milner’s blog where she describes having ice cream at the mall every Friday with her father, a black man who adopted her when her biological mother left her on a doorstop; she connects that to her own husband reading The Snowy Day over and over again to his daughter at bedtime, as many times as the little girl requests.  spelhouseLove describes playing monopoly with her father, having her father always cheer for her at her track meets, and commemorating her childhood by creating an album for her that captured photos of her along with the verbal exessions she made at the time. Eric Payne at MakesMeWannaHoller.com talks about his realization that the smiles from his father have been his greatest treasures, a gift he strives to always give his own daughter.  I highlight these blogs because they might be the only media spaces where we see black men acting as fathers who know how to deeply love children and families in a world that suggests they cannot.  This seems to explain why sites like BlackAndMarriedWithKids have been so popular amongst black families since positive images and STORIES are so difficult to find.  I stress STORY here because I truly believe that you can deny a group’s humanity with the kinds of stories you tell about them.  What is told ABOUT us does not need to be what we tell ourselves though.  I am grateful for the kinds of story that I know and can tell about my father.

Thank You to YouthBuild Newark!

Thank you to the young people of YouthBuild Newark who welcomed me into their minds and thoughts yesterday in our discussion of black student protest in the United States.

To Shontae, Ciara, Anthony, Cherise, Kalima, Shahid, Tiara, Hakim, Hanid, Corey, Ahmad, Joshua, Zaahirah, Oshane, Joseph, Frantz, Takiyah,and  Hadiyyah… much love to you all.   I apologize for the misspellings here (and there are probably many, EVEN after Takiyah and Hadiyyah pulled me aside and gave me the necessary tutorial!)  I especially appreciated the discussions we had about the role of materialism in preventing black communities from realizing and pursuing the political protest history that is our tradition.

Nela Navaro

Nela Navaro

And, of course, thank you to my dear friend and sista, Nela Navarro, for inviting me to meet with these young people and for the wonderful work you do with the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University on the Newark and New Brunswick campuses.  I am grateful for your vision and passion in naming and doing that work as an educational praxis!