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…

Continue reading

“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.

Runnin with the Rabbits but Huntin with the Dogs

bill-withers-grandmas-hands-1973I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.”  He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there.  I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them.  She gives me an explanatory model for things.  I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.

As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about.  Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact.  Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally.  I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in.  That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power.  For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it).  That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color.  You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence.  That’s just patriarchy working there.  And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice.  These examples are things I have just come to expect.

I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom.  Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms.  He doesn’t mean any of that.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E.  Is this critical theory in action?  Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators?   Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right.  Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.

Princess-Ariel-disney-princess-7095223-841-1014Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different.  I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester.  I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist).  Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website.  I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos.  In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink.  That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets.  All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display).  If only Marx could see them now!!  If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.

My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though.  When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism?  You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top.  As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you.  It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be.  The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*

2-dogs-hunting-rabbitThese have all been hard lessons for me to learn.  As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn.  My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains.  Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Know who you are and what you are really about.  The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field.  From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL.  My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.

 

*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that.  She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.

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.