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!

 

A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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Black Language Matters: Beginning with “Ebonics 101”

grammarlyAt the risk of situating #BlackLivesMatter as merely a trope when it is so much more and cannot be de-neutralized with endless spin-offs, I want to talk out loud/digitally about BLACK LANGUAGE MATTERS.  I like MATTERS here as both a noun and a verb: 1) all of the attenuating political circumstances, past and present, around issues of language, meaning, and multiple Englishes; 2) all of the processes where Black Language carries the depth and resistance of Black suffering and resilience.

I start these conversations in my classrooms with a specific definition now— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and one of the classes I teach, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, my students and I worked to really define and anchor ourselves in race, culture, resistance, and African American languaging systems. It wasn’t easy.

For me, Steven Willis’s “Ebonic 101” gives me (in)sights and images to always keep in mind.  Black Language is:

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Black Language Matters: “If You Gon Sing It, Then Bring It”

At a recent meeting I attended, a participant talked very disparagingly about scholars who do work in digital rhetorics and digital humanities.  Now, it ain’t like I ain’t got my own questions about the aforementioned, mostly along the lines of why is this scholarship so damn white, but that was not the participant’s beef.  His beef was that scholars in digital rhetorics and digital humanities only offer meta-analyses of digital culture and not actual digital products and projects.  That’s not true, though I can see where the impatience is coming from: a dull, visually stale website that you paid someone else to create and an active twitter account ain’t exactly sophisticated digital production.  I said, for the most part, that these impressions were false and then really left it alone.

Because you see, I was operating from a black cultural/language frame.  And that means something very simple: if you dissin what somebody else ain’t doin, then it must be because YOU DOIN IT!

african_american_expressionsIn my childhood, we would simply say it like this: if you gon sing it, then bring it.  This expression could be applied to someone who was poppin off at the mouth about you behind your back but not bold enough to bring it to your face; OR if an athletic team, especially, talked a lot of junk about their impending win: this was a reminder to watch your mouth unless you were really bringing your A+ game.  What does this mean in the context of the situation I described in the first paragraph?  Well, as soon as I got home from the meeting, I google-stalked this participant like it was no tomorrow. And what did I find?  Not much of nuthin.

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Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

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The Savagery of U.S. Monolingualism, Part 1 of 3

MultilingualismI often encounter African American college students (and to a lesser extent, AfroCaribbean students, at least those who genuflect to what they call “British culture”) who speak with great pride about only speaking/writing what they call “Proper English,” never speaking a word of Ebonics which is often erroneously interchangeable with “street slang.” These students often cite this ability as the reason for their stellar, academic performance in school.  Despite the fact that we are not at a national, competitive university, these students often think they are at Hahvahd, all because their teachers have emboldened and praised them for their acquisition of a standardized English (if you saw their writing’s content and style, even this, however, is questionable).  Besides the anti-black nature of this sentiment (if black people speak it, it must be wrong) and the utter inability of any of these students to offer any accurate definition of what Ebonics is, the ideology of American empire is fiercely evident.  Only in the United States can you be considered educated or intelligent because you only speak/read/write one, standardized, school variety of a language.   Continue reading