You sound as ignorant as Trump.
You sound as ignorant as Trump.
The following talk was delivered at the third annual Symposium on Teaching Writing at HBCUs, held at Morehouse College, September 27.
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The most memorable lecture I have ever attended was delivered by Nikki Giovanni almost 20 years ago. Giovanni was in her late 50s then and had recently tattooed “thug life” on her forearm as homage to the slain Tu Pac Shakur; she was delivering her talk to a predominantly white audience at Florida State University. Giovanni, who I had then known as only a poet, began her speech discussing the “alien nature” of Black people who remained humane under the inhumane conditions of the Middle Passage and slavery. I didn’t know it then, but her talk was pieced from her poem, “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).” Riddled with profane language, Black vernacular, and a griot’s loquacity, Giovanni’s delivery maintained my attention, and like the little girl in Giovanni’s poem, “A Poem for Flora,” who heard about Sheba and wanted to be like her, I heard Nikki Giovanni speak and wanted to be like her.
Alas, as a rhetoric and composition scholar and first year composition teacher trained in traditionally white male spaces, I have created a composition classroom that mirrors a patriarchy void of womanist orators (as well as one that has failed to consider the delivered poem as speech). Instead—and as an attempt to decenter the white man—I introduce my first-year writing students to the art of rhetoric by way of Black canonical works by King, Malcolm X, and most recently, after realizing the absolute way to decenter the white man is by way of the Black woman, Sojourner Truth. However, after attending the Furious Flower’s 2019 Living Legacy Seminar with Nikki Giovanni, which re-minded me of Giovanni’s oratorical genius, I have re-imagined Nikki Giovanni’s works for my composition classrooms.
My presentation, tentatively titled “‘Black Talk’: Exploring Nikki Giovanni’s Speeches for the Undergraduate Writing Classroom,” aims to invite composition teachers to consider integrating Giovanni’s speeches into their undergraduate composition classrooms, particularly within lessons regarding rhetoric. Although Giovanni’s poetry, like “Nikki-Rosa,” garners much attention in English classrooms—for it is often anthologized—her speeches (like most by Black women poets, novelists, and essayists) are often neglected. However, as evident in Giovanni’s 2007 “We Are Virginia Tech” speech—which, according to americanrhetoric.com, is one of the 21st century’s top 100 speeches and, argues Robin Bernstein in “Utopian Movements: Nikki Giovanni and the Convocation Following the Virginia Tech Massacre,” “united the Virginia Tech campus in its moment of crisis” (341)—Giovanni’s speeches are just as rhetorically rich and culturally relevant as King’s “I Have a Dream.” Unfortunately, however, Nikki Giovanni’s speeches aren’t as accessible as King’s. And while many factors may contribute to such inaccessibility, one thing I know for sure, Nikki Giovanni isn’t acknowledged as an orator or philosopher.
As a matter of fact, according to Virginia Fowler, Giovanni’s biographer, academicians don’t love Nikki Giovanni. Although she’s revered as one of the greatest African American poets, particularly as it relates to the Black Arts Movement in which she has almost been pigeonholed, there is very little traditional critical scholarship on Giovanni’s work, which spans across 50 years and just as many collected poems, children’s books, essays, edited anthologies, and transcribed conversations—with Baldwin and Margaret Walker, I must note, whose credibility amongst the Black Literati may eventually write Giovanni into scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, I think Brittney Cooper in her Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women sums this neglect best:
Though we know the names of women like Mary Church Terrell and Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray and Toni Cade Bambara, we still know far too little about the actual content of their thinking. Many Black women thinkers labor under the exigencies of historical triage. Their names exist almost like family photos relegated to a wall we rarely touch. We know they are important. We memorialized them with honored places on the wall of our offices and libraries and in the histories we write. We celebrate their voluminous firsts as founders of organizations, published writers, recipients of advanced degrees, and more. But then we shelve them, as though preservation is the most apt way to show respect for their critical intellectual labor. Such acts are rooted in notions of both care and carelessness. We care enough not to let these women be thrown away, but in many respects, the dearth of critical engagements with most of [these] women . . . suggests a lack of critical care in handling their intellectual contributions. (1-2)
The same Black Literati who has fallen short, if you will, of including Giovanni amongst the Black canon not only to be read—cause we do read her “Ego Trippin,” “Nikki-Rosa,” and “The Great Pax Whitie”—but critically analyzed for its attention to black feminist/womanist theory, civil rights rhetoric, and Africana spirituality, are the same elitist, traditionalist Black scholars who maintain the marginalization of rhetoric and composition in their English Departments and National Conferences. On top of all that, with PWIs also marginalizing (if including at all) Black voices in their esteemed Rhetoric & Composition Graduate programs, integrating Nikki Giovanni’s speeches into traditional first year writing classrooms where students receive basic rhetoric and composition training—in Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals, in composing a literacy narrative and argumentative essay, and in writing about composition studies—is not even a figment of one’s imagination, and at one time, not even my own. Until the Furious Flower.
The Furious Flower, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, founded in 1994 by Joanne Gabbin, distinguished scholar and professor at James Madison University, where the center is housed, “is committed to ensuring the visibility, inclusion and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters, as well as in the whole range of educational curricula” (www.jmu.edu). Its name is taken from a line in Pulitzer Prize winning poet’s Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1968 “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” in which she writes: The time / cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face / all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace. Gwendolyn Brooks was the center’s 1994 honoree; Nikki Giovanni was its 2019’s, of which I was a participant.
When completing the application to participate in The Furious Flower’s 2019 The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni week-long seminar for K-12 teachers and professors, I was asked (and asked again on the first day of participants’ roundtable discussion) particularly what about Nikki Giovanni’s poetry interests me so much that I wanted to study her works—in the midst of her physical company and instruction. And I, unabashedly admitted, I am not so enthralled with Giovanni’s poetry as I am with her delivered speech—and like her written word, she has delivered 50 x 50 x 50 x 50 speeches, and I want to read and study them—along with her essays, which carries the rhythm of her oratory. A few days later, I caught Nikki Giovanni (who insisted I call her Nikki) and Virginia eating their lunch, and I swooped in and privately shared my interest with them, about which they both agreed collecting Giovanni’s speeches for study and critical analysis a great idea. “But, there’s one problem,” Nikki said. “My archives are closed to the public until I die.” “Got damn it,” I said (and I’m pretty sure I said “got damn it” cause, well, I was talking w/Nikki, and she curses).
(Continue reading here.)
Last Fall semester, my writing students, all English majors, & I were discussing Barbara Jordan’s 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address. In classical rhetorical fashion, Jordan begins her speech w/an ethical appeal that explains to & convinces her audience that her presence as keynote speaker signals a radical shift in not only the ideals that the Democratic Party holds, but in the notion that every American citizen has a right to The American Dream. Responding to Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” Jordan says, “[H]ere I am. And I feel — I feel that notwithstanding the past that my presence here is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred.” My students dug it; they appreciated Jordan’s whole speech: her articulate voice, her unwavering confidence, & her intellectual content. And according to them, her introduction truly “hooks” the reader & convinces her/him that Jordan is both a credible speaker & human being–a Black woman not to be messed with, for, as she in third person proclaims, “I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.”
In this current #metoo, #blackgirlsrock, #blackgirlmagic era we are currently in, my predominantly female classroom seemed to witness in the audacious Barbara Jordan the ancestral spirit that inspires Tarana Burke, Maxine Waters, Michelle Obama, &, if they let her in, will inspirit each of them as well. And so, as one student attempted to express Jordan’s rhetorical genius, she kinda went “goo goo gah gah.” And I get it, cause not only was Barbara Jordan an eloquent orator, but she was the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first Southern African-American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives, & the first African American as well as the first woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. However, what I didn’t get was why my student, while reaching for words to explain Jordan’s genius, exasperatingly said, “I mean, Dr. Bryant, she got that BDE.”
Me: She got that what?
Student: that BDE
Me: What the hell is BDE?
Entire Class: (giggles) Dr. Bryant, you don’t know what BDE is? (giggles)
Me: (Str8 faced) Um. Nope. What is it?
Entire Class: (giggles some more and pans the classroom looking for one brave spokesperson) Dr. Bryant, for real. You don’t know what BDE is?
Me: (exhales, rolls eyes, shifts position, lays papers down, and places hands on hips–arms akimbo) Will somebody just tell me what BDE is already?
Female Student: Okay. Okay. BDE means ‘big dick energy.’
Me: What tha? Are y’all serious right now?
And then the conversation ensued.
I asked my students–18 of them in total, including only two males–why in this 21st century world would they put a dick on Barbara Jordan. She is a woman, a BLACK WOMAN, I exclaimed. (And if flipping the student desk in front of me wouldn’t’ve appeared violently crazed, I would have.) Nonetheless, in a poorly constructed argument, or whatever, my students collectively claimed to masculinize Jordan because she was strong & assertive; she was powerful, they said, like, she had big balls. (Whispers in my head: “Yuck! They’ve given her testicles too.”) Yes, I said to them, out loud.
Barbara Jordan was strong & assertive & powerful, like a black woman. Expressing my own exasperation, I asked them–in our shared language & all–“How y’all gone minimize, erase, this black woman’s genius, her divine femininity, by givin her a dick? She got a clitoris!” And again, in a poorly constructed argument, my students tried to contend the rhythm of the phrase, “big dick energy,” after which I hyperbolically responded: “Clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick, clit, dick. So, why can’t she have “big clit energy,” I asked? Both are four letter, one syllable, rhyming words. Aaaaaaaand, Barbara Jordan IS A WOMAN!”
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Yo! The control & brainwashing of the white patriarchy is trill. Despite attending America’s largest HBCU during a time of the first African American First Lady, whose black woman magic (read: divinity) frightens many media personalities, of hashtag movements that make men more accountable for rape & molestation, while empowering women, & of the Women’s March, where women wore pink pussy hats, my North Carolina A&T undergraduate students, most of whom are majoring in English Education, had not been #woke to the white male supremacy evident in language (altho when I think of big dicks, I can see only black men–who white men castrated. Shoulder shrug. Yet, says bell hooks when discussing black feminism, our castrated black men (subconsciously) push the white male agenda, so in the black man’s move toward racial freedom & empowerment, he participates in maintaining white male patriarchy; the beat goes on, don’t it?)
But it doesn’t have to.
I teach because I aim to remind students of their humanity–cause I want to reacquaint them to their divine selves. The classroom, altho institutionalized, is still a ripe space for cultivating a revolution. And so, that Fall day in 2018, I challenged my writing students to think about how they use language & how language uses them. Altho my teaching
position requires me to enhance student reading & writing skills–usually by reinforcing a standard that marginalizes their native tongues, at the very least, I can invite my students into a liberatory literacy practice that incites them to interrogate language & to awaken themselves to the conditioning that prohibits them from exercising a critical consciousness that frees their mind. Barbara Jordan & I did just that; we invited our students into a deprogramming. And I can only hope that my students will pass on that big clit energy I carried into our class discussion to their friends & into their communities, thus keeping the movement moving.
I wrote the following post October 12, 2010, while I was a doctoral student teaching Professional Writing at University of South Florida, Tampa.
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I remember working at FAMU’S Writing Center, when one of my most stern, yet caring, English professors shared with me her frustration regarding a student’s desire to argue with her about a grade he DESERVED in her class. As she was reflecting on this event, her demeanor was one of defeat, exasperation, disbelief, and hurt. The idea that a student would quarrel with her about a grade was perhaps more baffling than the quarrel itself. I believe my professor was surprised that this student would have the gall (as well as the lack of compassion and truth) to approach her in a tone that suggested she was an inadequate and unfair teacher. He–-if I can make up this word–-deteacherized her. And she was in such a daze after this student’s assault, that my professor gave him whatever grade he wanted.
I experienced that daze this morning as a student “fought” me for a grade she believed she deserved. This student called me unfair and inconsiderate. She questioned my teaching method, my homework assignment, and my authority. And she told me that I don’t listen.
I am thankful for Parker Palmer, Alice Walker and bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dali Lama, and don Miguel Ruiz–-philosophers and master teachers who have been instructing me on the compassionate classroom. For the ten or so years that I have been teaching students, I have tried my best to be honest and fair; to be compassionate and understanding; to be mindful and patient. But this morning, as I sat through that student’s rant, endured her belligerence, and received her lambasting, I questioned my being:
Why am I a teacher in a system that has encouraged students to compete and fight for grades? Why am I working on a dissertation encouraging contemplative writing practices where students prefer my voice and thought over their own? Why am I trying to create a community in a classroom of individuals who do not feel their responsibility to one another? Why do I build classroom relationships with students who do not acknowledge me on campus? Why am I called “professor” if my professions are going to criticized in a tone that is meant to dehumanize?
This morning I am questioning my being an instructor. I am reflecting on my methods, my intentions, my desires. I am reflecting on my theories–-on my way of moving and BEing in the world. There is obviously a lesson the Universe is trying to teach me here. And I am listening.
Unlike my FAMU professor, however, I will not throw in my towel (at least not today). I will neither give up nor give into that student’s “desires” nor her characterizations of me. Instead, I will stand still and strong on my integrity. And with my integrity, I will continue to serve her and her classmates, truthfully. One day she will understand. It won’t be today, and maybe not tomorrow, but one day, she will get all that I have been trying to profess. After all says Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”
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; & me, 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.
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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.
I am a cursing teacher. Hell, I’m a cursing colleague, friend, and sister, too. I curse, often. Not because my vocabulary is weak, or I am angry and/or sad. I curse because profane words are linguistic expressions that make up my human language. It’s as simple as that.
Words are neither bad nor good–unless you are a Christian who believes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then, the Word is good, right? ‘Cause God is good all the time? If that is true, then curse words are bad, ’cause, historically, cursing was disrespectful to God and all things holy. I can respect that idea, but the question–which one of my students raised during our discussion on perception–still remains. Who decides what words are profane?
With that question in mind–which I cannot answer except for crediting the overzealous (White, male) Christian–I charged my students with creating a list of words that they believe were just as profane and vulgar as traditional curse words. What words, I asked, made them wince and cringe when they heard it? What words do they, themselves, refuse to utter?
Their submissions are below:
thot; dookie, doo doo, (which seems to be a popular “curse” word amongst Black people, despite the 2 Live Crew’s 1992, “Doo Doo Brown”); puke, vomit; luv; mucus; ca ca, turd, poopie; cunt; douchebag; kill; blood; war; dummy; bastard; jackass; pee pee; toot; crap, suck; jack-off; cum; moist; faggot; loser; blumpkin; blue waffle; guzzler; maggots; pus; ooze; yeast; and pussycat.
(I must admit, I am surprised that in this class of predominantly Black students, not one submitted the term “nigger.”)
Why do workshop coordinators, particularly Black ones, think a variety of pastries is a sufficient breakfast for folks 35 years old & older?
I am attending an academic training/workshop today that began at 8:30am; it is scheduled to last until 3:30pm. According to the invitation, “Breakfast will be served.” But I knew better: “Breakfast” included pastries.
Why are you (workshop coordinator) serving only pastries for breakfast when lunch will not be served until 12:15pm? Four hours would have passed by the time we (workshop participants) are fed again. & unless we brought our own snacks, we are tempted to eat more pastries to curtail our hunger.
Why are you serving only breakfast pastries to a population of Black folk who suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, & obesity? Wouldn’t offering nutritious choices be more health conscious, & therefore, thoughtful?
Why isn’t fruit, boiled eggs, lean meats, & whole wheat breads not also served?
Why not simply note, “Pastries will be served,” if pastries are the only food being offered for breakfast? That way, we–& I did–will eat before we get to a required all-day workshop, & then we can enjoy a pastry with the coffee you serve.
I’m not trippin tho. I’m just sayin. Food rhetoric is real. The food that is served to an audience is just as persuasive & critical to the workshop’s content. Breakfast is the introduction, & audience members–or maybe just I–analyze a workshop’s breakfast as carefully as a Prezi, a handout, or a lecture is analyzed.
The pastry-only breakfast has got to stop. Sadly, today’s workshop is not the first pastry-only breakfast I’ve been invited to. I’ve been to a White House event that began at 7am, & only Dunkin Donuts was served for breakfast–sans its breakfast sandwiches. What? & once, during a required training that included folks over 60 years old, the representative brought us pizza for lunch. No plates. No napkins. No drinks. No salad. Just pizza–Dominoes pizza. What?
As a 35-year-old professor who often is required to attend all day workshops, I’d appreciate a hot, protein-filled, well-balanced breakfast (& lunch), since you’re offering one. (I’d appreciate flavored creamer for my coffee, too.)