Black Language Matters: How High School Students Taught Me about My Black Language Use

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to those who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

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Thank You to YouthBuild Newark!

Thank you to the young people of YouthBuild Newark who welcomed me into their minds and thoughts yesterday in our discussion of black student protest in the United States.

To Shontae, Ciara, Anthony, Cherise, Kalima, Shahid, Tiara, Hakim, Hanid, Corey, Ahmad, Joshua, Zaahirah, Oshane, Joseph, Frantz, Takiyah,and  Hadiyyah… much love to you all.   I apologize for the misspellings here (and there are probably many, EVEN after Takiyah and Hadiyyah pulled me aside and gave me the necessary tutorial!)  I especially appreciated the discussions we had about the role of materialism in preventing black communities from realizing and pursuing the political protest history that is our tradition.

Nela Navaro

Nela Navaro

And, of course, thank you to my dear friend and sista, Nela Navarro, for inviting me to meet with these young people and for the wonderful work you do with the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights at Rutgers University on the Newark and New Brunswick campuses.  I am grateful for your vision and passion in naming and doing that work as an educational praxis!

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.

Impact of Aja Monet: “Is That All You Got”

Last week in class, we finished unit six.  In that unit, I asked students to hear, see, and draw a line of connection between black women in 1970s Black Power Struggles, Black Arts Movement, and contemporary spoken word artists.  I received an email one night from one of my beloved students, Karina, who asked that I include what she saw as one of Aja Monet’s most impactful poem, “Is That All You Got?,” in the list of Monet poems that I offered.  Here is that poem:

I was actually introduced to Aja Monet, the youngest national poetry slam winner, through my students, not through New York City’s poetry events.  I can honestly say that I have never had a class of young people where someone did not know Monet’s work and this spans quite a few years of my teaching now.  I am only now realizing that Aja Monet ‘s words and visions visit my classroom in each semester that I teach undergraduates.  It speaks to me about what Monet is speaking to these young black men and women.  In fact, Karina’s one request as a high school graduation gift was Monet’s book of poetry, a book I have now added to my own shelves. There are certainly a set of go-to essays and other texts that re-circulate back into my classroom and I know now to add Monet’s poetry to this set.

I have listened to this poem over and over this weekend, hoping to hear my students better.  Mainly what I hear now is that they have been through some things, are looking back on it, and are seeing just how and why they are going to make it through because as Monet puts it: “Is that all you got? What the f**k is you broken for?” It’s a reminder that I am also thankful for.