Monthly Archives: October 2015

Madea Comes to FAMU

Recently, I sat on a discussion panel in Florida A&M University’s Writing Resource Center where three other colleagues of mine & I were invited to discuss our literary contributions to the English department’s required Freshman Communicative Skills II reader, Writing from the Hill. The custom text, which includes an anthology of poems, short stories, creative non-fiction, visuals, & a play, reflects a literary genius that the department expects will foster the creative genius in our predominantly Black learners. The reader also includes one sample text of each genre (sans the play) from faculty members so that students can relate to their teachers as writers, too. Contributing teacher-writers include: short story writer, Melanie A. Rawls; poet, Kristine Snodgrass; creative non-fiction writer, Rick Campbell; & I, visual artist, Kendra N. Bryant.

During our discussion on Melanie A. Rawls’ excerpt of her short story, “Who You Love . . .,” one of my students claimed that Rawls’ main character, Cherokee, reminds him of Tyler Perry. More specifically, Cherokee–who protects herself from rape by holding her aggressor at gunpoint (a shot gun, actually) & then keeping him tied to a chair until her husband & sons come home, at which point, they all have dinner together–mirrors Tyler Perry’s Madea. My student didn’t think of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or his own grandmother; but he thought of Madea–our 21st century minstrel in drag.

Now, I totally understand that Tyler Perry serves as a point of departure for many students’ experiences with film & popular culture. I also understand that Madea is seemingly emblematic of an aggressively strong, gun carrying Black woman who goes to all lengths to protect herself & her loved ones. & I understand that despite her hyperbolic, vindictive nature, apparently, many of her fans view Madea as a more satirical character than the clown I think she is. I totally get it: Madea has become Black folk’s cultural heroin–oops. I mean, “heroine.”

Although I was surprised that my student compared Cherokee to Madea, I understood his comparison. I would even support his decision to write a thorough essay titled, “The Madea in Cherokee.” Yet, despite the clear relationship between Cherokee & Madea, Madea’s invitation into our panel discussion still bothers me. Let me explain.

Although I am a classroom teacher who believes that I should meet my students where they are, that class assignments should reflect their experiences, that I should communicate instruction in a language they understand, & that I should provide lessons that help them make meaning of their own lives, I am a bit overwhelmed–even drained–by my teacherly responsibilities, which seems to grow larger & wider as a result of popular culture’s irresponsible behaviors.

While I often bring popular culture into classroom discussion in order to assist with student comprehension, I am saddened that so many of my University students seemingly don’t have (or care to mention) any other references outside of the ones reflected via popular culture. If popular culture–particularly ideas that are not critically analyzed–is my students’ only point of reference, then the 21st century White patriarchy is just as successful at brainwashing Blacks as the mythical Willie Lynch.

In other words, popular culture (mainstream TV, radio, film) is predominantly controlled by Whites–& when it’s not (like Oprah’s OWN), it definitely is White-influenced. (Note: Some folks believe Bill Cosby was publicly lynched because he was promising to purchase NBC. Ijs. Read CNN’s article here.) Anyway, although most of us choose what information we allow to penetrate our minds & hearts, media control is out of our control, unless we opt for a monastic or Amish lifestyle. Undoubtedly, Tyler Perry, whose birth name is Emmitt, by the way, is a great example of this penetrating–of the media’s control over our thinking.

Tyler Perry’s Madea has starred in nine plays, eight Box Office films, & an animated film; has made guest appearances in two television series (Love Thy Neighbor & House of Payne), while mentioned in Meet the Browns; and has “authored” a book, Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings, 2006. Her Wikipedia page is just as long as Harriet Tubman’s, Sojourner Truth’s, & Rosa Park’s, & she’s been parodied in both South Park & Saturday Night Live. Wait. Madea has a Wikipedia page? Not even fictional characters like Morrison’s Sula, Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown, nor Alice Walker’s Sophia–from whom Madea borrows the line, “All my life I had to fight”–has her own Wikipedia page. Argh! Nevertheless, because Tyler Perry’s Madea character dominates popular culture, the dominion minimizes (damn near erases) other literary, historical, & even familial references that are just as significant to Black culture–if not more than–Perry’s Madea.

Now, to be fair, a day after the panel discussion, I did ask other students how they felt about their classmate’s Madea comparison. While they claim they were indifferent, after some probing, one student did say he saw Walker’s Sophia in Cherokee; another said she thought of Harriet Tubman, & another expressed remembering her own grandmother as shared thru her mother’s story-telling. Of course, none of these students mentioned any of those comparisons during the panel discussion. As a result, their silence more or less invited Madea to further penetrate & govern another predominantly Black space. Why are we giving Tyler Perry & Madea so much of our energy? Ugh! I’ll stop my own energizing now.

*      *     *

Neither one person nor one system is to blame for students’ limited knowledge re: self, history, religion, law, literature & the like. & I am specifically referring to the African American Millennial student & the basic knowledge bank that (I think) s/he should carry with her/him into a University. While I am not much of a conspiracy theorist, I am under the impression that superstructures (as Karl Marx defines them) are used to maintain White power & privilege, & therefore, Tyler Perry & Madea are mere pawns in a bigger scheme to keep Black folk on a short leash.

While students have more access to information than any other generation before them, they still know (or remember or are interested in) very little beyond the popular culture that pervades their daily lives. For instance, to date, as a post secondary English teacher at a historically Black university, I’ve had a student tell me that Martin Luther King led the 1995 Million Man March & another define “apartheid” as “apartment.” Other students have mindlessly claimed racism & segregation occurred “back in the day,” while a few complained that the Civil Rights Movement is boring. I’ve had one student insist that Beyoncé is life, while another argued that Lil Wayne shouldn’t have been criticized for his derogatory reference to Emmett Till because it educated listeners on the 15-year-old Chicagoan who was brutally murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a White woman. & this semester, aside from Madea entering a literary discussion, many of my students confessed that they never realized the negative connotations associated with the word “black.”

From the looks of it, popular culture is, indeed, Willie Lynching our 21st century students. Alas, until more of our main stream entertainers insist on releasing works that do more than depict Black folks as shuckers & jivers, as superficial reality stars, as gang banging thugs, & as violently profane World Stars Hip Hoppers, the job of the classroom teacher to enlighten & restore her students’ humanity will continue to be an uphill battle.

#eachoneteachone.

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A Tweet A Day Keeps The Brain Cells Away

Source: A Tweet A Day Keeps The Brain Cells Away


Teens Carry Smartphones, But Are They Getting Smarter? A Response to My Fresh(wo)man Student

My fresh(wo)man composition students were charged with blogging reader responses to their chapter readings in Robert Atwan’s America Now text re: social media. In his first chapter, “Social Media: What Do We Gain? What Do We Lose?” authors Andrew Santella (“This Is Not About You,” 2013); Yzzy Gonzalez (“Technology Taking Over?” 2013); and Clive Thompson (“The Parent Trap: How Teens Lost the Ability to Socialize,” 2014) offer readers personal narratives and explications regarding social media’s influence/effect on its users, particularly its teenage and young adult users. Andrew Santella says social media encourages narcissistic behavior, while student writer Gonzalez illustrates her dependency to communication technologies–a dependency, says Thompson, for which parents are solely to blame. As I read through all of my student blog responses, one student (click here to read her blog, “Teens, Technology and Social Media”) posed two questions that I thought deserved an immediate response: “Are young adults the only ones active on social media?” she asked. “Why are we the only ones scrutinized when older adults have their smartphones in their hands just as much as us?” 

Well, Ms. Johnson, as a teacher who’s been in the classroom for 15 years, as an auntie who’s assisted in rearing two nieces (one who is nearing 17 years old), and as a sentient 36 year old being who longs and depends on human connection, I often scrutinize everyone’s attachment to and distraction with their communication technologies (smartphones and tablets) and social media networks (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). I scrutinize myself. However, as is often the case when one generation gazes at another, “killin yo vibe” is easier to do because as a member of a generation who glimpsed at social media networks via Doogie Howser and Zapp & Roger, I have experienced the world without technologies that tend to distract, disengage, and dehumanize their users. In other words, you Millennial students feel just as alien to me as I probably felt to my grandmother–and I’m light weight stretching that notion because only TV and landline telephones could possibly distance me from my grandmother (although we watched “Golden Girls” and “Star Search” together, and I didn’t call my friends while I was at Grandma’s house. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall talking to anyone on Grandmother’s phone who wasn’t a family member.)

Nevertheless, I realize how student focus, creativity, and commitment to academia has dramatically shifted as communication technologies advance. While students are reading more via tweets, updates, and posts, neither they’re reading skills nor their interests have increased. Albeit, students write more with social media; however, issues in clarity, mechanics, organization and development, as well as spelling and word choices also continue to increase. Additionally, many students are challenged to focus their attention long enough to sit through a 50-minute class or read a two page essay. Nicholas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” believes that folks aren’t as focused anymore because their brains are becoming like the communication technologies they use. As a matter of fact–and I was so exited about it–my student Brandon wrote about this very phenomenon in his blog response. (Click here to read his blog, “A Tweet A Day Keeps the Brain Cells Away.”)

Moreover, I’ve watched my 17 year old niece become the narcissist that Santella describes. With over 3000 Instagram friends, my niece finds it absolutely necessary to take a photo shoot of herself every single day. Her front yard serves as her backdrop, her mother the photographer, and her smartphone her camera. That child moves her body into at least ten poses including a fake laugh pose, the traditional peace sign pose, and what my sister has coined, “the Precious Moments” pose. I’m pretty sure if my niece received no likes on her daily postings, she would feel inferior, lonely, and unattractive. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in Program or Be Programmed, people’s connections to social media actually disconnect them from their authentic selves as well as the ability to form meaningful relationships with actual human beings. These feelings of disconnection actually encourage people to post more, tweet more, and Facebook more, because they are hungry for a sense of belonging. Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Cause when you (followers) like my posts, it secures my sense of self. yiKes!

I’m just like my niece, however. Well, not just like. Since my smartphone purchase many years ago, I, too, carry my phone in hand and use it to check (at least 20 times a day) all of my social networks. Like Gonzalez writes in her essay, my phone is my alarm clock; it rests under my pillow. I take it with me into the bathroom where I enjoy my morning shit and check my work emails and Facebook messages, which I never have at 6 a.m. Then, I power up my tablet (I’m lying. It stays on.) and blast my gospel music playlist while I shower and get dressed. I don’t have time for a photo shoot in the morning, however. But occasionally, I’ll post a morning Facebook status while en route to work. Then throughout the day, when I am not teaching or conferencing with students, I, too, take hold of my smartphone and fish for likes re: my quotes, inquiries, and latest painting and/or outfit. I think I’m humorous, engaging, and creative, so the more likes I receive, of course my ego expands, and I feel like the Queen of Zemunda. Look at me! So yes, Ms. Johnson, I also engage in narcissistic behaviors. However, unlike my niece and the many young people her age (and even some of my own peers), I can live–happily and successfully–without social media networks and without a smartphone. And I believe THAT ability and experience conjure the scrutiny that young people receive re: their attachments to computer technologies and social media networks.

Of course, technology is AWEsome and beneficial to our lives. I can’t imagine having to have used a typewriter to type my 200 page dissertation, and I thank God I didn’t have to use quill pens and oil lamps. Shit, I can barely stand teaching in a classroom void of an overhead projector, document camera, and white board. So, I get it. Being born in an era where one has access to communication technologies that make life a virtual walk in the park is a privilege, seemingly a birth right. I get it. I’m completely at awe with myself for locating books via a library’s card catalogue, and for recording songs off radio stations and movies off HBO, and for retrieving lyrics from WordUp magazine–or by simply pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing, pausing and transcribing–by hand–lyrics from the mix tape I made. Yes, communications technologies are absolutely convenient. Long gone the days of retrieving the newspaper from the front yard in order to get the TV guide where I rummaged TV listings that are now made available through a simple guide button on my remote control. Goodbye clunky phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and thesauri. Farewell dusty chalkboard, germy payphone, and tattered address book. Smartphone applications are heaven sent. I feel like Jesus built a fence all around me when techies created apps like maps, flixster, shazam, webmd, turboscan, 1password, checkplease, aroundme, and wordbook. They have contributed to my increased proficiency in various areas, especially those grounded in mathematics. However, because my childhood and teenage experiences were void of such computer technologies, I have the know how to do what too many of my students claim they cannot or are not inspired to do.

I read books, for fun. I read seven novels this summer, and yes, doing so required me to put down my phone. (However, it didn’t stop me from tweeting and posting author quotes.) Nonetheless, I read, which meant, I spent a lot of time alone, in deep thought, inside a focused attention where I could explore myself and others. I also know how to research and find what I need without an app. I don’t need a machine to teach me how to think and problem solve. Before I ask Google (or even Siri) for a potato souffle recipe, or before I got to webmd for diabetic symptoms, I call my mother and retrieve her recipe, our family history. I also still write and mail letters versus solely sending emails and text messages. I shuffle through, purchase, and send greeting cards versus sifting through millions of giphs and memes. I give people my undivided attention when I’m in their company–during dinner, in school, while walking. In other words, I am present to real life situations that allow me to remain in touch with myself and other actual beings. So, does my concern for student awareness make me (or any of my peers, mothers and grandmothers born before the 1980s) a “scrutinizing” member of a seasoned generation who ridicules a current generation’s behaviors and innovations just because I think the ideas and behaviors to which I am accustomed are “right” or better? And really, if scrutinizing encourages self-reflection, is scrutiny insulting or debasing? (Shakes head.) Naw.

What I do believe, however, is that computer technologies and social media are just as distracting and disabling as they are connecting and inviting. Therefore, millennial students (or any person, really) who struggle with identity, who have not had to “troubleshoot” life, who don’t realize who they are, what they’re made of, or to whom they belong–these millennials, who don’t know what genius they carry–get carried away with computer technologies and social media networks. Alas, many of them don’t even realize their virtual walk in the park is actually costing them their true inheritance. And so, older folks like me, who have engaged in the aforementioned activities that my students claim happened “back in the day,” are in a better position to exercise patience, focus, compassion, understanding, problem solving, creativity, inclusion, and critical thinking–all of which help people to understand themselves in relationship to others.The ability and absolute beauty in knowing Self becomes a practice in spirituality that encourages human beings to live as authentically and unapologetically as possible. And for sure, I am constantly practicing.

So, Ms. Johnson, while older folks are carrying their smartphones just as much as you and your peers are, I think part of the “scrutiny” you and your peers receive are grounded in the disconnected, disabled, and dehumanized behaviors many of you showcase that just don’t seem to be about a generational gap, per se. Arguably, you all will continue to be scrutinized, especially if so many of you proceed to claim, “I can’t, I can’t , I can’t,” like, “I can’t live without my phone.”