Black Language Matters: Mean Well, But Do So Poorly

european-colonialism-in-the-middle-eastI was sitting in my office one evening, getting some work done before I left for the day.  A student happened to pass by my door and stopped to talk about my office artwork and decoration.  I had never met or seen this student before.  He rightly assumed that I did work related to African American and African Diasporan cultures.  I was curious about his interests and became even more curious when I heard he wanted to teach English overseas, especially in the Middle East.

I began to tell this young man about a friend of mine, a rather radical Black studies scholar, who is currently teaching in the Middle East.  The young man grew excited by this example and began to talk excitedly about his dreams of teaching The Great Gatsby to people in Palestine.  It was difficult for me to listen to much of what he had to say after that, all about his civilizing mission, all about how he could get Palestinians to understand themselves better with his hit list of white male authors.   Continue reading

“Publicly Speak the Truth:” DeShaun’s Literacies

writing-notesTonight we will look at a student essay, using the models of African American literacies and rhetoric that Elaine Richardson provided for us last week, alongside the critique of schooled-literacy-as-white-property in Rebecca Powell’s introduction. We will ask ourselves how DeShaun defines himself as a writer and how/if he subverts the requirements of white-schooled-literacy in his essay.  We will use a worksheet that I designed for freshmen classes in 2005 alongside a copy of DeShaun’s essay (this essay actually took up 3 blue books, unfortunately not reproduced here, masking all of his arrows, erasings, cross-outs, etc): Worksheet w DeShaun’s Essay

Let me introduce DeShaun’s essay.  DeShaun was a freshman in one of my first year writing classes many years ago, on the eve of our entry into our war on Iraq.  In that teaching context, students were required to take a departmental midterm where they were given two essays to read two weeks in advance. At the exam, they were given an exam question that they had to answer in two hours.  For this particular exam, students were assigned: 1) George Orwell’s canonical essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” where he launches the polemic that the colonizer is also dehumanized given what he represents/does to the colonized, and; 2) an essay by Amitav Ghosh where Ghosh connects the impossibility of imposing our will on Iraq to Britain’s failed attempts to do so in colonizing India.   Here are the exam questions (students must choose one)… please read them VERY carefully:

In his essay, George Orwell states that at the time of the events he describes, he “could get nothing into perspective”. Summarize how the experience of shooting the elephant changes the narrator’s perspective about imperial power. Apply this understanding to Amitav Ghosh’s discussion of current events. Be sure to summarize enough of Ghosh’s essay to give the necessary context for your discussion. Drawing on your own knowledge or experience, evaluate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the authors’ views of imperial power.                                                      OR….
 Summarize Amitav Ghosh’s argument about the “new American empire”. Make a connection between Ghosh’s ideas about the current situation and the view of empire presented in Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant”. Be sure to summarize enough of Orwell’s essay to give the necessary context for your discussion. Draw on your knowledge of these and other readings and your views of imperialism to make an argument about the American presence in Iraq and its potential effects on Iraqis and Americans alike.

DeShaun failed the exam with the lowest score in the class but with, ironically, the longest and most developed essay.  The full story and DeShaun’s essay are here along with the results of what happened with him (in an essay called “Writing While Black”); an example of a (5-paragraph) essay that was scored highest is also included.

The most important point here is to imagine a strategy for dealing with this situation.  This ain’t a practice exercise.  It ain’t hypothetical.  It ain’t theoretical. It is all the way liiive.  Everyone in this graduate class is tutoring in some capacity, working in K-12 schools or with youth, or teaching college reading and writing classes.    So here is where all that talk we talk counts.  What’s your response to this situation (as in what will you DO)?

Stay tuned for a letter I wrote to writing center tutors who stunningly failed to imagine DeShaun as their equal…

Tricking New Literacies

In class this week, we are discussing Toward a Literacy of a Promise: Joining the African American Struggle.  We’ll pause and (re)look at pages 6-10—  two subsections called: 1) “School Literacy and the Discourses of Power”; 2) “Schooled Literacy and Traditional Forms of Literacy Instruction.”  Powell has taken theories of New Literacies Studies (NLS) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and really made that her own, in her own words/frames of reference, and politics of location.  We need to do the same… here is my version…

In simplest terms, in CDA and NLS, we think of schools as expecting and maintaining certain styles of speaking, writing, and being and thereby recycling power.  There are “prescriptive norms and values” for how you must write, speak, respond, ask questions, look, sit, think, act, walk, feel, question— how loud you do it, when, where, and how.  (We call these norms and values Discourses— with a capital “D”!) What researchers related to NLS and CDA are suggesting is that Anglo, upper middle class students represent Discourses that schools match (see Shirley Brice Heath’s 1983 canonical Ways with Words for a linguistic ethnography of just how much school matched white kids’ homes and ran counter to the philosophies and goals of black homes).  What happens then is that the language and ways of being that have real currency, impact, and effect in the home communities of students of color have no visible value or place in school.  What is important about Powell’s work is that she is NOT suggesting that we teach whitened-school practices to non-white students more effectively or efficiently (which is essentially what most teaching models consciously or unconsciously do).  She is suggesting a rupture of those whitened school-practices that get communicated through textbooks, standardized tests, prepackaged learning objectives, curriculum kits, classroom techniques, etc.  Literacy gets packaged as a set of neutral, static objectives that can be measured and “scientifically” managed and then students must conform to the materials, an altogether different thing than becoming conscious or literate, so that they can be (using Gee’s words):  “apprenticed in the right place, at the right time, with the right people.”

Tricking-VideoLet me bring it home, quite literally.  In my first semester at my current college, I had a first-year writing course that I taught with the theme of NLS.  My idea was that young people of color themselves could chime in on these very conversations and (re)claim how they are literate in ways over and beyond “schooled literacy” in politically necessary ways.  I was not disappointed.  Before midterms even fell down on my first semester at my new campus, Jason taught me about a set of literate practices that I had never heard of before… tricking.  Jason was a trickster!  Now as an oldhead, this was new to me and so this is how I described it upon first seeing it: super-high energy, multiracial youth across the world blending acrobatics with martial arts and a dose of some kind of new crack cuz this stuff was just CRAZZZY!   So how was this NLS for Jason?  Well, to get to tricking, there was a lot of textual sharing that happened first (this was 2008— tricking is more prevalent and popular now.)  What I knew was that Jason spent hours of his time uploading his own videos of his tricking and looking at videos from other tricksters across the world who would comment back to one another with suggestions; when there was no common language, they would use their bodies for the form of their commentary.  In fact, Jason’s video collage and research project for the class examined how tricking embodied what Maisha Fisher calls a “participatory literacy community” where literacy is shaped solely through high levels of participation.

Since Jason’s lesson, I have been following Brandon McCuien (I am still not very knowledgeable about this world though), who I see young people on the internet calling a Black Superhero and/or the Real Neo.

Here is his short, gone-viral collage:

Here he is in public spaces:

Now I don’t mean to sensationalize here but this couldn’t capture more brilliantly something that seems so totally opposite in form, purpose, and dynamic from what school feels like and does:

  • a reinvention of gymnastics (and maybe martial arts too)
  • moving your learning directly into embodied action
  • maintaining connections with other youth across the globe
  • inventing global communication networks where the viewers/youth design a sophisticated “assessment” vocabulary for who’s good and who’s not
  • taking over public spaces— literally flipping them
  • and, if all that ain’t enough: deciding who the hell your own black hero is!

I can dig it.  The point of a theory and practice of African American Literacies, NLS, or CDA would be to see the energy, audience awareness, and skill that someone like McCuien so obviously has and see to it that schooling recognizes it also.  Now many might say: but yeah, they need to learn how to write essays.  I won’t argue for or against that but what I say is this: if we can’t engage all this brilliance with our essay-based teaching requirements, then it is not the students who are lacking, it is us.


Writing New Futures

Recently, Dr. Suzanne Carothers, my advisor for my doctoral dissertation, asked me some key questions to think and write about as I re-imagine and re-direct this phase of my life in academia.  I thought the questions were particularly poignant and critical and so I share them here.  I imagine myself often returning to these answers and re-addressing these same questions as I way to keep myself in check and move forward with what I say I want to be and do.  I thank Dr. Carothers, the most exquisite writing teacher I have ever had, for always prodding and always teaching me!

Tell me three of your accomplishments that you are most proud of since finishing your dissertation. Given all you have done and do, why do these three stand out for you?

(1) I am proud that I have chosen to always be a critical educator, that I have not seen such work as simply the necessary evil of being a scholar, writer, researcher, and academic, though this has certainly been the message I have been given after graduate school.

(2) I have also never backed down from working at colleges where the students are predominantly working class and of-color.  I refuse to use the bodies of people of color as a marketing tool to promote diversity, the prevailing (and sometimes only) acknowledgement of people of color that I have seen at such institutions.  This means that I have never had (and, thus, am willing to forego) teaching assistants, research assistants, start-up research funds, significant financial rewards/promotion, publishing/professional opportunities, sabbaticals, time, updated technology (at those few places where I have had a current computer, it didn’t work for very long), and other resources that come from prestigious and/or well-endowed research universities.  It’s not that I think these material things compromise people’s work (nothing is ever that simple).  However, these are the privileged spaces that new faculty like me are supposed to mark as coveted where I can, for instance, write about working class black folk but never actually see them in any of my classes. That’s not the route I have chosen. I like this path and I am proud that being on path and being on purpose are how I have chosen to navigate my life thus far.

(3) I am most proud of finishing my book (what was once my dissertation). I don’t so much mean the final product. I am just proud of hanging in there, never backing down from or giving up on my ideas despite the disagreements I had to face.  It would have been quite easy to give up on the book and publishing altogether given the resistance that I face from many circles— especially this notion that things are so much better, a sentiment that I have heard from black scholars too, or that I must make myself more palatable (i.e., marketable and auction-block-able) to wider audiences.  I wonder who these fools are talking about— certainly not the black masses where every measure of structural racism tells us that we are living a Neo-Jim-Crow? I like that publishing means that I have more fully realized my ancestral legacy: the one where we know we have to always keep on pushin.


When you think about the teaching and learning environments you create, what makes them work?  What’s central to that dynamic for you? And, how do you know when you have achieved it?

I think classrooms are meant to bring the content of what students are learning and reading full circle.  I think here about the class I will teach in spring 2013: African American women’s rhetoric.  Here, for instance, we will read Ida B. Wells and ask ourselves how she affected the world for all of us by her ways with words.  As the teacher, I ask myself: what does it mean to bring Ida B. Wells alive in this classroom?  What would an Ida-B-Wells-pedagogy look like and do?  It would mean not just talking about her but talking with her!   I want students to fight, and fight hard, come hell or high water, for what is right, notice the racial subjugation of the people around them, and fight for those lives as if it were their own life they were fighting for.  This means I am looking for students to talk about more than just the content of Ida B. Wells’s life and work.  I look for students to engage their own intellectual and political purposes, in their own time and place.  Essentially, I hope they can achieve what Fanon suggested: “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”  I may not be able to ensure the fulfillment part but I can certainly move students in the direction of discovery, that’s what teaching Ida B. Wells would have to do.


Finish these thoughts:

Scholarship for me is  . . .   and 

My scholarship matters because  . . .

Scholarship for me is slipping through the cracks, digging deep down, and unearthing the voices and visions that can sustain us.

My scholarship matters because the world we live in requires a level of thinking and creativity that moves beyond what we are used to.  Scholarship can do that work if we treat it as something more than static words, bling, and status.


What is it you want to do in and beyond the academy?

Both in and out of the academy, if I could achieve my heart’s desire, I would want to be like Parliament and “make my funk the P-Funk… I want my funk uncut.” I like the way they named their collective and their music (Parliament Funk as P-Funk) but also that P-Funk meant that they were intentionally examining and exploring Funk at its highest levels of expression and possibility, as a thing/thought of its own kind and genius.  Though I may not have the right words to explain that here, that’s what I would want writing, teaching, and envisioning myself as a black woman to feel like.  They weren’t claiming to invent funk but they were claiming that they could insert their own version and vision and encourage the world to do the same.  I can’t imagine a better way of being one’s self in and beyond the academy.


What four adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

…principled, creative, unapologetically black-centric, and always evolving!