“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.

Value of Self-Reflection/Self-Honesty: No Greyhounds Here!

It’s been a rough few weeks moving to a different job, meeting new people, learning a new cultural system (otherwise called a college or university), figuring out where things are, setting my codes for the phone, printer, scanner/copy machine.  My new colleague, Sara, has been wonderful—we started this year together and we have pretty much vowed that this will be a place we really like because we are just too damn old to be doing all this re-locating and starting all over again.  Despite the fatigue, I am quite happy, value my new colleagues, and just love the students who I get to teach.

fyw course

Please look for this image in the right-hand column for a link to the website.

The very first assignment for the semester was pretty low-key: write me a letter with comments about the website, syllabus, and general feelings.  For my 101 class, I asked students to do a “Mic Check”, an assignment inspired by Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out”. For my 201 students, I asked students to connect their work in the previous semester of 101 to the new course in 201, an assignment inspired by Erykah Badu’s “& On.”  These assignments were created as eTexts on the course website with the music playing in the background.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how self-reflective and brutally honest my students were.  They were critical of the things they believe they do well in their writing and writing processes AND what they need to work on.  It was a wonderful reminder just how much of a vital skill this is, one that not many folk have.  It was an important reminder to me to fuse this kind of thing into the semester all along because, like I just said, it is a skill not many possess.

italian-greyhound-pairMaybe this is an academic/professor thing but I am often perplexed by self-aggrandizing and conceited college faculty.  I remember when I first started on the tenure track and was surrounded by folk who thought their scholarship was the most impressive and deepest thing ever.  It was perplexing because these folk weren’t the least bit interesting to me, much less offering some kind of new Kuhnian shift to the world.  It was like these folk had no sense of themselves, what they did well and what they didn’t do well.  It became very dangerous because you could end up working on a project/committee with someone who claimed an expertise on the subject at hand, only to find out they didn’t know/do jack! The folk who I actually thought were brilliant scholars and teachers NEVER spoke of themselves, name-dropped their famous advisors, patted themselves on the back for the comp exams they took 10+ years ago, quoted from their unpublished/old dissertations, or sent emails/tweets announcing the brilliance of their newest publications/talks!  They were somewhere writing, organizing, working with students, and actually BEING brilliant, not talkin about themselves.  The lack of self-awareness could even extend beyond scholarship. I remember once talking with a colleague who had spent hours shopping, picking an outfit, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for a campus event because she needed/wanted to aesthetically compete with one of the women in the program.  Here’s the thing: the woman who was the mark is a former model with a wardrobe/collection of labels rivaling Michelle Obama’s… and also one of the nicest people around (I knew her outside of the campus from common friends).  She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen and yet she doesn’t think of herself this way nor is she the type to compete with women for men’s attention.  Now here’s the real twisted part.  The woman who saw HERSELF in competition is a dead-ringer for an Italian Greyhound dog.  Yes, I know I am being triflin’ and mean, but I just gotta call it like I see it.  DEAAAAAD-RINGER!  ItalianGreyhoundI realize that people love greyhound dogs and I mean them no offense; greyhounds do seem quite unique but you gotta admit they are some scraggly, weird-looking things. The point remains: if you look like a greyhound dog on your best day, what makes you think you are a shining star next to one of the most beautiful women in the world?  Really, how does someone anoint themselves as Miss Universe when in actuality they could be racing around a dog-track chasing a fake rabbit?  Maybe these folk just need some black friends because ain’t no way I could even walk out the door so falsely convinced of my superflyness without my peoples setting me straight real fast (my family talks about you BAD to your face for much LESS than the examples I have offered). Just this summer, I tried to purchase some $8.99 finger nail polish and the 19-year-old black male sales clerk assured me  that it made no sense to spend THAT much money for a color that had NO chance of looking good on my toes. I put it back and saved myself that 10 dollars.  When black folk offer constructive feedback, they really CONSTRUCT!  My toes can’t even make it out the stores in my neighborhood without some real honesty.  Academics don’t choose their profession because of their good looks so this kind of vanity is a REAL strange and misplaced thing anyway. If you think this greyhound-dog-woman had an inaccurate sense of something as irrelevant and materialistic as physical beauty, well, honeychile, you need only imagine how delusional and impressed she was with something serious like her scholarship.  If women get away with these levels of fantasy, conceit, and delusion, imagine what men in such patriarchal structures do.  In fact, at every “third-tier” university where I worked/interviewed, male administrators stayed proclaiming the university’s similarity to the University of Illinois.  I have been to UI campuses: there are NO similarities. The last time I saw such grand delusions of grandeur was when I lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a summer in my 20s.  This is why self-reflection is important: if you are convinced you are the BOMB, then you don’t ever look deeply at yourself, at what you are doing, at who you are, and why you are making the decisions you are making.  You just walk around proclaiming to be one thing when you are another altogether and stay STUCK on stupid forever.

Maybe it’s because they are students and they are getting a grade.  Maybe it’s the concrete goal of getting an A in the class and making a life for one self via a college degree. Or maybe it’s because they are working class people trying to survive in a place like New York City at a public university and so are not cocooned in the kind of privilege, elitism, and stupidity that defines mediocrity and sub-mediocrity as the hallmark of greatness.  I don’t know.  I just know that my students get it.  There are no greyhounds here.

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.

Memory, Black Culture & College Classrooms

kynard bannerIn the past few posts, I have been reflecting on the artists, issues, and themes that represent recurring patterns in discussions, presentations, and writings amongst students of Afrikan descent in the college classrooms where I have taught.  I have called these recurring patterns an intellectual-political canon and plan to continue this line of thinking until my semester ends.  The seriousness of what I mean by that is heavier than what I can probably articulate.  Obviously, I am not tracing all of these issues and themes here in this space, nor am I assuming I ever could.  However, I am intentionally moving away from discussions about “popular culture” and its influence on young people today. For the most part, I find these discussions gimmicky and anti-theoretical based, in part, on the post-modernist/post-structuralist/wanna-be-antiessentialist hustle that will not call “popular culture” what it is: BLACK CULTURE.   Unsurprisingly, you can go much further if you reduce everything to the “popular” in commercial academic marketing (the wanna-be-theoretical-chic and their use of “hybridity” works here too). As I continue this stream of posts, I have two things in mind: 1) to locate the political apparatus in black communities, especially amongst black women, that shape these recursive memories; 2) to push myself to think more deeply about how my teaching needs to respond more critically.

I am not as fully conscious always, for instance, of how and why Erykah Badu/Amerykah has so significantly been a lens for students of Afrikan descent to talk about black women, aesthetics, and identity.  Obviously, I can do more historical linking with students.  Even when my students talk about Nicki Minaj’s dynamic stage performances (most of my black female students especially do not care for her, so let’s not overstate her influence), I tend to agree with them, but I just don’t see how Minaj could be regarded as particularly new or unique within black culture’s over-the-top stage dramatics.  You could only think such a thing if you have forgotten about or don’t know Parliament, Earth Wind and Fire, Cameo, and any other host of black artists (I didn’t even go that far back for those examples).  Nicki Minaj aint inventing nuthin new within black culture here and that’s the thing about black culture: you don’t need to invent that kind of thing… you just sustain it.  Point is: I need to do a better job of following through on my students’ conversation aesthetically, historically, and politically.

It’s pretty common to speak of “Western culture” and the “classics” as having a canon or set of texts and histories that students need to know in order to fully understand what they are in now.  Although it might be a surprise to many, there is a black canon of aesthetic and historical experiences that students need to fully grasp to enter their current worlds also.  Tropes, strategies, and lesson plans related to “popular culture” just ain’t cuttin it.  I have known how and why to stay away from all that foolishness in how, what, and why I teach, but I haven’t been as thorough in articulating the obvious alternative.