On this Juneteenth: Black Cultural Literacy in Times of Racial Warfare

At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students.  Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped.  During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book.  However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned.  Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.

I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression.  Yes, I have.  All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back.  What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere.  They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.

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Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

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Black Language Matters: “I Ain’t Got No Time For That,” Sweet Brown, & Other Black Rhetorics

There are times when talking to my poet-friends is just so difficult.  You’ll say something and it will remind them of a memory or a line they had in their heads, so they will just interrupt the conversation and start writing.  You can be in the middle of dinner, talkin about sumthin real intense too, and then, all of a sudden, BAM, they stop cold-turkey and write in their notebooks.  I suppose I annoy people too, because I am always delighted by and stop dead in my tracks for African American language patterns. I  can get as enthralled by the content as the language and start crackin up at the ways my friends say things, not because it’s funny, per se, but because of their cleverness and verbal dexterity. I can’t help but trace the deep, sociological specificity of how, when, why, and where a term or expression is used.  “I ain’t got time fa dat”/“I ain’t got NO time fa dat” is one of my favorite expressions, interchangeable with: “aint nobody got time fa dat” or “aint nobody got time fa you” (a few expletives might also come.)  This expression is certainly not new since I have heard elders use it for as long as I can remember, so I suspect that my age and current circumstances correspond to its new frequency in my discursive toolkit.

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

For many non-Black folk, the first time they noticed this expression was from the now infamous, internet-sensation Sweet Brown in early 2012.  When Sweet Brown escaped an apartment fire in Oklahoma City, she told the local news that she left, without shoes or clothes, and ran for her life.  After then explaining that she has bronchitis and the smoke was getting to her, she proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”  From that point on, the memes and remixes ridiculed her, circulating her last words seemingly endlessly, with of course, an incessant focus on her headscarf.  Ironically, with all that arrogance and surety that she was saying something simple, none of these folk were smart enough to actually know what Sweet Brown was articulating: about the apartment building, about her life, about her health, and about her social circumstances as a black woman.  The time spent on caricaturing her voice and look was appalling, though she SAID she ran out the house unable to even put on shoes. And, true to white appropriation, not a single meme used the expression correctly.  Most of these folk even thought Sweet Brown INVENTED the expression.  Unfortunately, not enough black folk saw the light either.

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

The use of “that” in “I ain’t got time fa dat” is never solely about a specific event you simply cannot attend or that causes an inconvenience for you. “That” means pure foolishness, the kind of mess you should not have to waste your time, essence, energy, and spirit on.  If someone asks me if I am going to a certain event and I say, “naw I ain’t got time fa dat,”  I am making a criticism of the event, the people involved, the ideas being promulgated, and the social world being maintained.  I am NOT talking about a conflict with my schedule, calendar, or date book!  On top of that, I am proclaiming the worth of my energy and attention in relation to the sponsoring person, event, or issue.  It is a public declaration aimed at re-assessing the worth of the speaker and the listeners who she is trying to define the world for and with. I see black folk everywhere publicly proclaiming who and what they don’t respect with this obvious phrase and yet so many miss the meaning.  I mean, really: you can tell folk to their faces that you ain’t feelin em too tough and they will think you are talking about your dayplanner!  In the words of James Baldwin: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is!”

Of course, it goes deeper.  It also depends on HOW you say it.  We can gender the term too.  If you are a love interest (with the interest coming more from your end than mine), and I say “ain’t nobody got time for you” in an annoyed way, look you up and down, and roll my eyes, I am telling you that: a) I am not ever going to be interested in you; b) you are stupid, AND; c) your momma dresses you funny.  Yes, all that from 6 words.  If I say this about my boss, colleague, or some fool with a title or “authority,” I am calling them stupid and useless to my life, other than as another source of oppression, which I hardly need more of (which was EXACTLY what Sweet Brown was actually saying).  Yup, all that from 6 words.  This is precisely why translation exercises from Ebonics-to-Standard-English or simplistic contrastive analysis don’t work: the context of Black Language always suffers and loses depth of meaning, hardly a coincide since we live in a world where its speakers are not considered people who produce deep sweet brown meanings either.

It goes deeper still.  Since the expression always uses the word time along with any variety of emphatic double negatives, we have to notice how time is configured completely outside of a western norm.  The use of time in  “I ain’t got time fa dat” does not reference the here-and-now alone.  This means we need to turn to all that AfroCentric stuff that white academics and their bourgeois allies of color think is so, so far beneath their high-brow western theories of their western selves.  This expression is based on an Africanized notion of time! Time here counters the run-til-you-are-ragged hustle under hyper-consumption and neoliberalism.  And yet, the expression also makes time cyclical, non-linear, and, therefore, more of the spirit than of the temporal body (maybe even something like habitual be).  Given its Africanized originary impulse, its place as a marker of oppression, and its circulation in the context of white institutions, it is a markedly black expression, not simply because black people have produced it but because THEIR EXPERIENCE has produced it.

It didn’t surprise me that folk couldn’t see depth into what Sweet Brown was saying and opted for black-face performances instead.  Academics/scholars who imagine themselves to study language or rhetoric don’t do much better either.  They too, and proudly so, take a white framework and simply apply that to black lives and act as if they have created anything other than the same kind of blackface caricature of the likes of those offensive memes about Sweet Brown.  I am not suggesting that black scholars not use white theorists, since that would be stupid.  But I have also never forgotten Professor Sylvia Wynter’s warning either: that when you borrow and inform yourself, you must ALWAYS notice when race as an overarching sociogenic code of our present episteme is untheorizable/unseeable in a scholar’s work.  I like to use Black Rhetoric to understand those kinds of academic slippages and the slippin’ and slidin’ that academics do in the context of whiteness: I ain’t got no time for that.

Remembering Nelson Mandela and Racial Realism

Mandela-edit1-620x447I was in a workshop with teachers when I found out Nelson Mandela died.  Someone got a phone alert, of course, the best use of a handheld device that I have experienced all semester.  The tributes online and on radio have been simply touching.  On the radio stations that I frequent, it seems deejays everywhere are interrupting themselves to honor and remember Mandela with a relevant song or memory.  It seems fitting— Nelson Mandela interrupted the trek of white supremacy.  Interrupting our lives— from the regular sounds that surround us or our everyday discourses— seems like the most honorable tribute we could make.

I am annoyed, however, with the many spaces that attempt to remind us that inequality still exists in South Africa.  It is such a white paradigm (and this includes some of Democracy Now’s videos).  Black folk need the reminder that they are not equal?  Did slaves assume equality after the Emancipation Proclamation?  Did Black South Africans think the streets would be paved in gold for them after Apartheid was “officially” ended? Did Black folk all over the world think racism would be forever terminated when Obama was elected…two times? I don’t think so.  I am reminded of Derrick Bell’s emphatic plea that we be racial realists, yet another visionary whose loss I feel daily.

Racial realism, for Bell, was the most realistic vision and hope we could have. Racism mutates and shifts; it is not ended, not within what Sylvia Wynter calls this episteme of homoeconomicus. Racial progress often seems to move one step forward …and then two steps back.  Bell emphasized that the hope, triumph, and joy came not with an end result, but with the process of struggle… a process that never ends.

One of my favorite stories Bell tells is of an elderly Mississippian woman named Mrs. MacDonald. He asks her why she keeps fighting if she knows things don’t get much better, especially given the horrific results inflicted on her and her son.  She answers quite defiantly that she does not fight for the outcome, but intends to keep harassing white folks.  Here is how Bell tells it:

The year was 1964. It was a quiet, heat-hushed evening in Harmony, a small, black community near the Mississippi Delta. Some Harmony residents, in the face of increasing white hostility, were organizing to ensure implementation of a court order mandating desegregation of their schools the next September. Walking with Mrs. Biona MacDonald, one of the organizers, up a dusty, unpaved road toward her modest home, I asked where she found the courage to continue working for civil rights in the face of intimidation that included her son losing his job in town, the local bank trying to foreclose on her mortgage, and shots fired through her living room window. “Derrick,” she said slowly, seriously, “I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”

 

Mrs. MacDonald did not say she risked everything because she hoped or expected to win out over the whites who, as she well knew, held all the economic and political power, and the guns as well. Rather, she recognized that-powerless as she was-she had and intended to use courage and determination as weapons “to harass white folks.” Her fight, in itself, gave her strength and empowerment in a society that relentlessly attempted to wear her down. Mrs. MacDonald did not even hint that her harassment would topple whites’ well-entrenched power. Rather, her goal was defiance and its harassing effect was more potent precisely because she placed herself in confrontation with her oppressors with full knowledge of their power and willingness to use it.

 

Mrs. MacDonald avoided discouragement and defeat because at the point that she determined to resist her oppression, she was triumphant. Nothing the all-powerful whites could do to her would diminish her triumph. Mrs. MacDonald understood twenty-five years ago the theory that I am espousing in the 1990s for black leaders and civil rights lawyers to adopt. If you remember her story, you will understand my message.

 

I think we are right to remember and honor Mandela alongside the deep levels of inequality that still exist.  But we need to do this remembering by keeping the vision of someone like Mrs. MacDonald’s in sight.  It’s about ongoing defiance and interruption, not the end result.

N.H.I., Part III: Starting with the Classroom

“The price one pays for entering a profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” ~James Baldwin (quoted in Tananarive Due’s African Immortals Series)

I like what this quote from James Baldwin leans towards.  The questions remain: what do you do with this intimate knowledge?  And what kind of world does that ugly side create?

Prof-Sylvia

Sylvia Wynter, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Spanish and Portuguese

Following through on Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter To My Colleagues” means taking very seriously her claim that our very disciplines need to be interrogated for the ways that these fields discursively ignore, legitimate and, therefore, create/sustain the kinds of social hierarchies that inevitably mean racial violence.  Though her letter was written in 1992, her claims seem all the more relevant and all the more difficult today.  With academics and their work being more and commercialized and commodified (some folk like to call this being a “public/mass intellectual”) where you can become as instant of a celebrity as on cable television/youtube, the kind of deep critique of the academy that Wynter asks for seems all the more elusive.  Her frequent quote from Carter G. Woodson seems approprate here: “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”

I’ll quote Wynter extensively here based on my favorite subsection in her “Open Letter” essay called: “The New Question, From Woodson to Wiesel to Orr: What is Wrong with Our Education?”

Which is of course, where we come in, and the new form of the question- what is wrong with our education?  Environmental educator, David Orr, pointed out in a 1990 commencement address, that the blame for the environmental destruction of a planet on which we are losing ‘116 square miles of rain forest or an acre a second,’ and on which at the same time we send up ‘2700 tons of chlorofluorocarbon into the atmosphere’ as well as other behaviours destructive of our ecosystemic life support system, should be placed where it belongs.  All of these effects, he argues, are the results of decisions taken not by ignorant and unlearned people.  Rather, they were and are decisions taken by the ‘best and brightest’ products of our present system of education; of its highest levels of learning, of universities like ours here at Stanford.  Orr then cited in this context a point made by Elie Wiesel to a Global Forum held in Moscow in the Winter of 1989: ‘The designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust,’ Wiesel pointed out, ‘were the heirs of Kant and Goethe.’ Although, ‘in most respects, the Germans were the best educated people on earth, their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity.  What was wrong with their education?’

Click Here for Sylvia Wynter’s FULL ESSAY as published in Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century.