Impact of U.N.I.T.Y.: “You Gotta Let Em Know”

U.N.I.T.Y. Another one of them songs so many young black college students today still seem to know, even though it was released in 1994.  There is more going on here than a mainstream success story about a rap song.

This week, we looked at femcees, bgirls, and female DJs as rhetors in my class which invariably means folk start talking about Queen Latifah’s UNITY (again, this is not from my explicit directions since students were given over 50 artists/videos to choose ONE from this week).  This year I just went ahead and added the cut to a very long playlist. Of course, this year, like all years, UNITY was a point of chosen focus and all hell broke loose in class.  Maybe that’s an overstatement. I’ll just be more bourgeois and say the class grew contentious. Yup.  Over Latifah’s UNITY.  This has happened every time for more than a few years now.

Here’s how it goes down.  Some student, typically white (a white student or a non-black student who culturally identifies as white), who is not a Hip Hopper, proceeds to tell the black women in the class that this song is neither positive nor socially valuable.  Queen Latifah is routinely condemned for HER language and for her aggressive content, lyrical style, voice, and body postures.  Yes, this condemnation happens every single time and always around the word, “bitch.”  Because of the song’s message, radio stations didn’t bleep Queen Latifah when she said “bitch,” “hoe”, or those infamous, opening lines “Who you callin a bitch?” These words are left in tact no matter where it gets played and are not marked as “other” with labels of parental advisory suggestions.

You know what else happens every single time Queen Latifah and this song get condemned in my class?  The sistas just ain’t havin’ it.  Not a single one of them.

lupe-fiasco-bad-bitchThough I always loved that young people were influenced so positively by the song, the song seemed rather trite and, to me, stopped short on analysis (I had been a die-hard Latifah fan on the first two albums, not really this third one).  If a man calls me a bitch or hoe, Ima check him and get at him.  That just seems like a rather casual fact-of-life to me.  I was actually teaching high school at the time when the record dropped and even witnessed a young black woman beat the hell out of a boy who wouldn’t stop calling all girls in the school bitches; they ironically became good friends after that and, not ironically, he stopped using the B-word.  So this argument and request that black men stop calling black women bitches and hoe sounded like a simple-enough position to me.  Queen Latifah (as femcee, that is) is hardly the most “aggressive” or in-yo-face personality my students meet in the course of a semester.  In fact, I would argue that Shirley Chisholm gave the folk the business even tougher this semester.  But yet, these women of the past are not perceived as a threat to white students who authorize themselves to publicly devalue black women, even in a college classroom that is 95% filled with educated black women whose academic records and abilities far exceed theirs (I am a writing teacher and grade the papers, so you can trust me on THAT one).  This is why I need the classroom to remind me just how thick this ish can get.  Apparently, what I see as a pretty simple and straight-forward request on Latifah’s part ain’t easy to digest at all, not even 19 years later from the song’s release date.  Black men targeting black women (or some of them, as the apologists, from Tupac on down, like to say about not saying all women are bitches and hoes, as if that’s different) is VIOLENCE, plain and simple, and it is very regularized and normal.  When I forget that, all I have to do is listen when someone references U.N.I.T.Y. and watch white students, both male and female, do their best to deny Queen Latifah’s right to name and define herself outside of bitch and hoe!

I had a long conversation with one of my students, Vaughn, about this song.  Vaughn pointed out what he sees as the real threat that Latifah poses: it’s her deliberate and clear call for black solidarity.  Misogyny and sexism are called out for the sake of black unity, not for the sake of shaming black men, and Queen Latifah does this successfully.  Of course, theorists and scholars are often quick to remind me that it is naive and romantic to think that one song or one artist can counter and reverse patriarchy and deeply embedded systems of social injustice.  But, if Vaughn is right, and I think he is, then the disruption that THIS song wreaks each time it plays or gets discussed in my classes has more power than what we like to admit. When I say I learn from my classrooms just as much from the scholarship I read, it is these kinds of lessons I have in mind.  Maybe Queen Latifah hasn’t converted the misogyny of black men with this song, but, as far as I can see in my classrooms, she certainly intimidates and threatens white power… let em know, Queen!

“So Hot It Hurts”

IMG154After more than his fair share of, shall we say, “resistance” (there are better words for it but I’ll leave it there since I am feelin celebratory today… expect more on that later), Dr. Todd Craig, one of my advisees, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation yesterday!

IMG159This dissertation is an examination of Hip Hop DJ Rhetoric based on Craig’s own life-story alongside more than 9o interviews with foundational Hip Hop deejays whose literacies, rhetorics, and ideologies are, often for the first time, magnificently centered.  To open his dissertation defense, Dr. Craig, of course, spun a set that merged the music, quotations, and samples from all of his first chapter so that we could hear, in yet another fantastic way, what that first dissertation chapter was dropping.

IMG156These deejays— more aptly described by Dr. Craig as “mixologists and turntable technicians, beat-blending specialists, scratch scientists and musical grandmasters”— are theorized as the “21st century new media reader, writer, and literary critic.”  It is the Hip Hop deejay whose tastes decide what gets poppin in the streets as well as how turntables, headphones, mixers, and computer software are now engineered and re-invented.  Yes, yes, yall… and that’s just the first paragraph of the literature review.  That’s all I will reveal for now but when this dissertation drops as a book, let’s just say, I tole you so!  Despite all the naysayers, haters, lynch-mobbers, and supremacists, this thing is real and can’t be stopped!  To quote Dr. Craig, when he quotes Havoc of Mobb Deep: “this is all the way live/and the way that I survive.”

As if fate had finally kissed me on the forehead, one of my undergraduate mentees, Valerie, came back to the university (she already graduated) to tell me, just minutes before this dissertation defense, that she was accepted at all nine medical schools to which she applied… and this, despite, being told by a wanna-be-prominent white male administrator that medical schools no longer accept “unqualified” “black girls” like her.  I’m looking forward to the health research and advocacy that she will do on black people’s behalf and the way she already knows how to keep those fighting embers and inner shine glowing.

There have been few days in my academic career so far that I can chalk up with some positivity.  But, to quote Cube from way back when, I got to say it was a good day.

Towards a 21st Century Multimedia Curriculum…

copyThe first college class that I taught was in 1998.  It seems so far, far away.  I had just left teaching middle school and high school for 5-6 years.  These days I keep remembering the ordeals—both in time and money— that I had to endure to show video or images in my classes, which I did quite often.  If I had some images I wanted to show, I would make color-copies and do them in multiples to pass around the room. Thank goodness for Kinkos, open 24 hours, where you could often find me at 4am in the morning copying in a last-minute pinch if I came up with some new lesson plan during the weekday rather than on the weekend.  My paychecks seemed to just evaporate buying books and rendering those color copies.  I always used full-color photographs and artwork because I was intent on making sure that my black and Latin@ students saw images of themselves that could sustain who they were and were meant to be.  If the classroom didn’t provide that, then we would be at the mercy of Hollywood and cable television, not the kind of fate I had in mind.

tvcartShowing documentaries and films was another ordeal and yet another place where my money evaporated. I had to be rather creative to get Blockbuster (do they even still exist?) to order what I wanted and then copy stuff at home for my own personal library.  I had a set of friends who would send me videos too, it was like a private youtube network.  On campus, I would have to reserve a VCR/TV at least a week in advance which came on a huge rolling cart with the television and VCR padlocked with the kind of thick, metal chains you use to lock down a motorcycle (in New York City, that is).   On more than a few occasions, I would have to wheel that thing across campus.  The wheels were never great and the sidewalks were never smoothly paved so you could be sure that I  was rolling that thing all up on the grass and in the flowerbeds. Then I would have to wait on an empty elevator upwards of 15 minutes to get to my classroom.  If you didn’t arrive at least one hour before classes, you were in BIG trouble because you had some serious work to do to get your class prepped (and I learned the hard way to CHECK the equipment to make sure it actually works before you leave the equipment room or you would have an even BIGGER mess and even more dead flowers on your hands).  If you had multiple classes back-to-back in different buildings, you would need to stagger the classroom viewing because you had to request the chained-TV/VCR-wagon in each different location. Time between classes didn’t permit you to drop off one wagon and pick up another wagon. If it rained or snowed, it was a WRAP!  Just be prepared to start the process all over again because no TV/VCR wagons could be taken outside then. It was, to put it mildly, an EXTRA HOT MESS!  You can see that with this kind of preparation and extra work, it was really difficult to become or nurture a teaching force who would fully incorporate multimedia work in their classrooms and teaching.  The only thing that was worthwhile were the jokes the guys in “tech” would make when they saw what happened to the grass and flowerbeds when I was done for the day!  Like I said, a hot mess!

radio_raheem-radioOn a reg’lar ole day, I just looked like Radio Raheem.  Playing music and incorporating lyrics was just so much easier; that is, if you had your own boom box.  Otherwise, you would be stuck requesting some too-heavy CD/tape player one week in advance with no kinda sound or bass at all (which, to me, was as much of a hot mess as rollin all up in the flowerbeds). So yeah, I just carried a boom box to class with me all of the time.  I got all manner of jokes from students (nicknamed “the professor with the radio” or, just, “Professor Raheem”) but it seemed to make them register for my classes all the more so I took it all in stride.

I am as committed to multimedia curriculum today as I was back then.  There’s not that much of a change in my disposition though many educators like to imagine that we are somehow more multimedia now than ever before.  It’s a really anti-historical argument, digital empire in full effect in its privilege/domination to imagine itself as brand-spanking-new. Am I more visual now than Lois Mailou Jones in the Harlem Renaissance?  Or black female quilt makers?  A stupid suggestion, if you ask me.

Yes, there are certainly differences. When I usedta put images on my  typical 15-to-20-page syllabi, I had to cut and paste in the scissor-and-glue style.  Glue sticks vs. them bottles of Elmer’s messy glue (or rubber cement) were the greatest technology to me when I was teaching back then.  Boy did them glue sticks save time, even if the glue did dry up too fast!  Granted, I am being somewhat facetious here in calling glue sticks new technology, but in my everyday life as a teacher, that’s exactly how them glue sticks were experienced.  As for now, where I once used blackboard to house the online hyperlinks and materials of a semester, I now use a website.  My students who have been dropped from the class can still tap in even when their university IDs do not work, my former students can tap in, and I can embed videos and music in new ways to create different kinds of visual and auditory texts for curricular content. It’s as convenient, fast, and streamlined as them glue sticks and makes my curricular goals easier.  No more equipment requests a week in advance and now, each day, a student directs a multimedia rhetorical analysis, something I simply could not have planned given the scarcity of equipment (there is a screen and PC in each classroom and all students receive a laptop).

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Like before, I get to maneuver around all kinds of interesting quirks and new plannings. I don’t have page limits or the designs of the page to limit the content and presentation of the curriculum anymore.  I don’t have annoying digital pages on my university system as an appendix to the course with all of those annoying university logos and brandings.  Everything is all in one place now and I have more control over design (albeit, not full control).  I can link out and include photos of the authors who we are reading in the hopes that students feel more connected to them; the authors become metaphoric members of the writing community (the authors who we read sometimes contact me/us so the community is real).  It became important to me this semester, for instance, that students SEE Jacqueline Jones Royster and Shirley Wilson Logan as they are reading their work; these are not scholars from up on high but unilateral black female meaning-makers in their lives.

Shirley Wilson Logan

Shirley Wilson Logan

I haven’t included more audiovisual segments into the course (that has been there from previous semesters), but I have included more visuals and hyperlinks.  I suspect that I will learn a lot more about this curriculum and about teaching now that I have moved to a different platform.  I won’t lie here: I don’t miss what I had to do in them days of old though, sadly, I am no longer called Professor Raheem (many of my students don’t even know who Radio Raheem was and/or what he symbolizes).  Yet and still, my students do have new nicknames for me based on their newest cultural apparatus. I will confess that there are days when I wouldn’t mind running over the campus fauna a little bit.  I may still get my chance.

If My Syllabus Had a Soundtrack…

segment-of-urban-graffiti-wall-showing-letter-sOne of my fondest memories of junior high school was passing notes in the hallways at the change of classes.  We signed our notes with one big letter “S” instead of our government names. The “S” reflected the following label we gave to ourselves: Super… Sweet… Soul… Sonic… Sister.  And we knew who the other was by the design of the “S.”  Now, of course, we jacked some of that language from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, a force which we fully claimed as our own. I laugh when I think back on that and how we tried to get some kind of sound into those letters we wrote, usually by including, at least, some lyrics.  Though no one would have thought so, those notes that we wrote to one another were more sophisticated and interesting in their centering of multimedia work than most of what I see in classrooms today.  The idea that classroom spaces could and should include both visual and aural artifacts still escapes most of us.

Fall 2012 was the first time I decided to really situate my teaching in a digital ecology, hence this website.  I have never considered a university’s corporate technology-package a digital ecology of anything except capitalism so I wanted to think about what an alternative might be.  I taught a graduate class so there was still a good deal of print texts but we mixed in multimedia texts into the weekly seminars.  This semester, however, I am teaching a class called African American Women’s Rhetoric and I plan to fully explode what is available on the internet because the texts of this course are very multimodal.  What this means is that I am right back where I started in  fall semester 2012 with these same, central questions:

I feel more confident that I can create a visually-rich learning space for students.  Most of what I have in my head visually, I do not have the skills to get onto the page here though— so “confidence” here is really an overstatement. Yet and still, at least I do have something in my head.  I do not have the confidence of creating an aurally rich site though. It is simply not my strength in the sense that I am not a musician, music theorist, or sound technician.  Of course, I play music, in every class, in every semester that I have taught, but that is too basic for what I mean here.

FrontWhen I asked this question about aural learning and attempted to have this as a public discussion at my university last fall, I distinctly remember a few of the white faculty laughing (and later making jokes for what kind of song I could use on my website, as if they might ever know enough about black music to even step into my office with a suggestion).   Clearly, I do not consider myself, my scholarship, or my questions about digital spaces for youth of color an issue of humor or comedy.  These faculty members seemed to think it was a funny thing to interrogate the meanings of sound in digital spaces as irrelevant or esoteric to the concerns of teaching, technology at our university, and to a multimedia age (yes, this is an absurd response to sound, as in… M.E.D.I.A…. A.G.E… the irony has not been lost on me).  I highlight the fact that these faculty were white, most of whom are compositionists, because I hold their sentiment in stark contrast to what I see as a clear-cut fact: every BLACK revolution, rebellion, resistance movement has been sounded. I mean, after all, Afrika Bambaataa chose to create a soul sonic force.  So what might it mean, look like, sound like to teach a class about African American women’s rhetoric and include the music and the sound of black women’s voices in song, music, or speech in deeply contextual ways?  What might it mean to teach a class, with the large numbers of black female students I always have, who probably have never HEARD black women in a college curriculum because white faculty think that’s a funny idea, even in the multimedia age?  I am clear what side of the revolution these white folk are on and I am clear that I need to get me and my students on the other side.

This clarity that I have here, however, does not mean that I know how to do what I have in mind or how to even think things through differently.  So I am reflecting today about what we were doing as Super, Sweet, Soul, Sonic Sisters. We didn’t just play songs for each other— we took the music and the concept to craft an identity.  That’s what I am thinking about now.  How can this class create an identity with sound— a soul sonic identity?  How can this class embody its own sonic rhetoric as a way to investigate the sonic rhetoric of black women? Students have often told me that they create a playlist with the music from this class so how can I be more deliberate about my syllabus having its own soundtrack?  Needless to say, I have some work to do… and no part of it will be a laughing matter.