Category Archives: Classroom Musings: The Courage to Teach

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.”


who decides this shit?: a classroom discussion re: profane language

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.”)


Random Thought: “Breakfast will be served.”

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? 

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.)


rEVOLution Haikus: A Class Assignment

If I could, I would teach a poetry class.  Although I have a certificate in creative writing, I cannot teach poetry because academy culture prefers I teach within my discipline: rhetoric & composition.  It’s like checking a box named “African American” when you are also Native American & Hispanic.  I’m light-weight trapped.  Anyway, if I could, I would teach a poetry class.  & today, I did.

While grading resumes for my Improving Writing students, I discovered a poet in the midst.  A particular student currently has poems published in various spaces, & I wanted to share her with the rest of her classmates.  So, I did.  I required her to write a haiku to share w/her classmates.  Reluctantly, she did.  & after her brief presentation (for the haiku is a brief three-lined poem with 17 syllables), I required each student to write a haiku on the topic REVOLUTION.

Why REVOLUTION?

Well, at FAMU, students are engaged in SGA elections (& my FAMU alumn know how theatrical & fantastical this occasion is.) Anyway, two of my male students (who are/were members of the FAMU Court) were dressed in black suits w/a REVOLUTION campaign shirt.  The campaign is light-weight amazing, specifically because students are standing on the genius of civil rights activists.  Their entire campaign is the epitome of throwback.  I dig it–so much so that REVOLUTION became the topic of our haiku writing exercise.

Below, find the two haikus–well, I actually wrote one & provided two different last lines–that I wrote w/my students.  Each of their haikus should be available in my comments below.

rEVOLution

Can you see the love

hidden in revolution

like abstract notions?

*     *     *

Can you see the love

hidden in revolution

like it hides in us?


Beyond an Abecedarian Knowledge of Martin Luther King (w/regards to dp)

No one could have prepared me for the lackluster attitude regarding Civil Rights and Black History that I have faced amongst students attending an HBCU.  Some (& way too many) of my students believe King is an overrated, trite icon whose non-violent philosophy created a stagnant Movement.  Students have claimed (loudly & proudly) that they have neither read nor heard the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, that they did not know that King won the Nobel Peace Prize, helped to secure the Voting Rights Act, and led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Oh, but they did know, Dr. Bryant, that King led the Million Man March (or was it Malcolm X?).

I hated them for their ignorance, but I hated them more for not wanting to know.  “I’m so tired of hearing about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.  How do they relate to me?” one of my students asked.  Another one, while giving a presentation on the images regarding the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, and African Apartheid (which one student admitted he thought meant “apartment”), said–at the start of her presentation to the entire class–“I’m so tired of talking about civil rights.”  & then another “student,” who wanted to talk to me about Martin Luther King for an argumentative essay she was writing, claimed Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” approach to civil rights were more realistic than King’s non-violent approach.  But she hadn’t read anything about King or any of King’s work.  So, I gave her a book.  & most recently, I required each of my four writing classes to attend Ava Duvernay’s #SELMA movie–& without fail, in each class, at least 2-3 students moaned & groaned about it.  Even one student asked for an alternative assignment.

Why don’t Black students (& yes, I am overgeneralizing) want to know Martin Luther King? & why am I so adamant that they do?

But first, some background:

While I was teaching high school in 2004, I came across that one high school student who claimed to have never heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. before.  I was absolutely flabbergasted.  I felt embarrassed for this student, sad, & disappointed in the public school system, in mass media, and in her.  In that moment, while listening to her classmates laugh and poke fun at her, I knew I needed to do more with King in my English classrooms.  After all, most of those jokers who teased her didn’t know King beyond the King Holiday.  & so, for the 13 years that I’ve been teaching English, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been part of my curriculum.  He is as mandatory as Shakespeare & as necessary as the eight parts of speech.

Therefore, in between FCAT drills, I drilled students on King’s contributions to America.  Required bell ringers included journal entries on various King quotes.  & practice AP writing tasks required students to compare the rhetorical devices in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with Aaron McGruder’s “Return of the King Speech.”  While George Bush was concerned with leaving no child behind via uniformed assessments, I was concerned with ensuring that no student left my high school English class without having a tighter grip on King than they had before.  That was my small contribution to social activism, if you will–my nod to American patriotism and Black genius.

However, when I left the high school classroom and began a teaching career in post secondary education, I learned–surprisingly–that many of my university students didn’t give a shit about social activism, didn’t believe that Black people were genius, and didn’t view Martin Luther King an American patriot.  Some of my white university students appreciated insights I offered them on King, while others viewed me a Black nationalist and an ethnocentric teacher. I hadn’t realized that requiring my White students to analyze the rhetorical language in King’s “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” would make me a “racist” teacher.

While I was aware that more often than not, White students will define their Black teacher racist should she teach anything from her Black perspective, I had not considered my teaching King a threat to anyone’s identity.  I didn’t realize that I was challenging my White students’ preconceived knowledge about King.  They understood him to be the Negro preacher who marched for human rights, particularly those of Black people.  Yet, here I was, barely 30 years old, situating King in an academic space that required students to acknowledge his intellectual capacity–to understand his writing prowess and know him as a genius.  Shoulder shrug.  Nevertheless, despite student discomfort and occasional complaints to my supervisor, I continued to teach King, & the more I taught him, the more personal I began to feel about students’ ignorance and resistance to my King curriculum.  But the resistance from my White students didn’t bother me as much as the push back I receive from the Black students I currently teach.

Every time I show King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in class, I well up with tears.  When I play Nina Simone’s “Why? The King of Love Is Dead,” a knot enters my throat.  & when I explicate King’s “The Power of Nonviolence,” “An Experiment in Love,” and “Where Do We Go from Here?”–speeches that define King’s agape love concept and non-violent approach–I feel, as I imagine the preacher does when he explicates the “Sermon on the Mount,” the Holy Ghost rising in me.  So, one can imagine how angry I am when a Black student sleeps through the “Dream,” is texting through Simone’s queries, & has failed to read any of the assigned speeches.  Why don’t Black students, especially these ones who are currently taking classes at a historically Black college & university, witnessing Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, & Eric Garner cases, & participating in #blacklivesmatter, #Icantbreathe, #dontshoot campaigns resisting academic discussions and tasks regarding Martin Luther King, & why do I care?  & I mean, I be bout to lose my mind care.

This morning, my mentor friend freed my mind.  She helped me to understand what I knew but had not known.

For about 13 years I thought I was frustrated with students’ lack of abecedarian knowledge regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.  With all of this free access to information via the Internet, how in the world can any (Black) student not be familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr.–at least with his “Dream” speech?  How does anyone in this 21st century America whose citizens actively engage in racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and the like, not be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement?  I thought that that negligent behavior annoyed me.  However, my mentor friend explained to me that those tidbits of information are all abecedarian; it’s a rudimentary understanding of things, which really, are not that important.

What is most important about King are not the marches, the speeches, and the awards, but it’s the spirit–the creative genius–that moved through him that you want your students to know so that they, too, can carry the King inside of them, she said.  & she is absolutely right.  My teaching King is primarily an effort at reminding students of their humanity & of their responsibility to ensuring peace & love.  She is right.  Many people will not know King, or Gandhi, or Leo Tolstoy, but if we each can be acquainted with their spirits, the Movement will keep moving; for, Spirit never dies.

& so, I will continue to use King as a primary source for instruction regarding rhetoric & composition practice, ’cause I believe King is a rhetorical genius.  However, I am okay with my students–Black or White–not being able to recall any of his contributions to America and the Civil Rights Movement.  No, King didn’t lead the Million Man March, but the spirit with which the Million Man March was organized is definitely a reflection of Martin Luther King.

 

 

 


FAMU’s DowJones High School Summer Camp 2014

This summer I worked again with Florida A&M University’s DowJones Summer Camp for high school students.  This grant-funded initiative aims to encourage 11th and 12th graders to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism/communications.  The grant requires students to use multimedia to deliver the news.  Therefore, in addition to teaching students the fundamentals of news writing and reporting, students learn how to use social media to deliver the news.  DowJones requires students to display their journalism skills–which they developed in an intense week-long workshop–via an online newspaper.  It can be viewed at the link below:

FAMU’s DowJones High School Summer Camp Online Newspaper

 


Remembering Amiri Baraka: Teaching “Somebody Blew Up America”

I was talking to @drrema when—in the middle of our conversation—she reported Amiri Baraka’s death.  My heart catapulted to my stomach floor.  Real story.  My heart catapulted to my stomach floor, & my mind immediately traveled back to about 2005 when I saw Amiri Baraka (for the second time—the first time I was a graduate student at Florida A&M University (FAMU), & our neighboring school, Florida State, invited him to lecture) at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Florida.  Baraka claimed to remember me.  & maybe he did reMe & Amiri Barakamember me, for the audience in FSU’s auditorium barely filled the room.  As a matter of fact, the audience was so small, that after his reading, Baraka stood at the stage’s edge & sold stapled copies of Somebody Blew Up America for under $5.  He signed each poem that he sold—right there, leaning over the stage’s edge.

I was so taken aback by the audacity of Baraka’s piece, as well as his apparent humility, that as the editor for the University of South Florida’s First Year Composition handbook (2010), I expressed my gratitude for his being by including “Somebody Blew Up America” in its anthology section.  I (& my co-editor JMcKee) felt not including Amiri Baraka & his courageous work in our anthology would be remiss.  I wanted the world to know Baraka, just as I had come to know him.

& I don’t know when or how I became acquainted with Amiri Baraka.  Perhaps another poet (of mine) mentioned him in their works.  Nikki Giovanni? Maya Angelou? Sonia Sanchez? Maybe I read him in some out-side-of-school anthology.  Or maybe I saw his name mentioned in some Black Nationalist literature I use to read while a high school student.  (Cause back in those days, I wanted to be that meaningful revolutionary that my daddy said I was not.  & though changing my name to something that sounded more African—like altering “Kendra” to “Kenya”—never appealed to my revolutionary desires, I wasn’t at all opposed to wearing my hair braided, borrowing my mother’s beaded necklaces, & pen-paling an imprisoned Black Panther.  & I sho nuff kept some Black author’s book clutched under my arms.)

But Amiri Baraka was undoubtedly a revolutionary.  A revolutionary with a BIG cause, & his enormity—his valiance—is why Mos Def, Kanye West, & The Roots do what they do.  He’s why we know & remember Huey P. Newton & ‘em, Martin Luther King & ‘em, & them who suffered through the Civil Rights Movement & South African Apartheid &.  He’s why Richard Blanco performed at Barack Obama’s Inauguration & why Barack Obama is president of the United States of America.  So, I couldn’t let Amiri Baraka pass on without passing him on to the students I currently teach at FAMU. & so, I introduced my students to Amiri Baraka by way of “Somebody Blew Up America.”

As I assumed, with the exception of the one and two students who had heard of Amiri Baraka only through the influx of Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter updates of his passing, NONE of my students were familiar with Amiri Baraka.  As a matter of fact, when I asked students if they know who Amiri Baraka is, one student guessed that he is our newly elected University President.  (Yikes! FAMU’s new President is a woman named Elvira Mangum.  Sigh.  I think it’s ok to tell students that an “I-don’t-know” response— a Buddha response—is often much more attractive than guessing, even in the learning environment.)  Anyway, my students were not aware of Baraka, so forfeiting a day of grammar lessons was well worth the time we would spend with him.  It was a necessary endeavor—passing Baraka on with hopes that my students would pass him on & their friends would pass him on, so that his passing would give him more life than his living did.  You know?

My students & I followed along with Amiri Baraka as he read “Somebody Blew Up America” via youtube (see below).  In one of my classes, a student snapped at every other line Baraka read, it seemed.  Other students laughed at lines like, “Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza.”  & I’m not sure if my students were laughing at the word “skeeza” or if they were snapping at lines because the juxtapositions were clever, for when I walked around the room eavesdropping on their group discussions, very few students seemed to know much about the historical references Amiri Baraka made in his piece.

Nevertheless, I asked my students three questions that they were required to contemplate in their group sessions: “Is the repetitive questioning ‘who . . .’ rhetorical, & if so, then who does Amiri Baraka suggest blew up America?” “What is the significance of the Owl whose (w)hoot  is used as onomatopoeia?”  & “What line, word, or phrase resonated with you?”  Most of the students consented that the White patriarchy blew up America, although one of my classes acted almost afraid to utter their conclusion out loud.  Their hesitancy was reminiscent of the experiences I have had with White students who were afraid to read the word “Nigger” in a piece of literature.  My students’ hesitancy, along with their not knowing why particular lines pulsated within them—we didn’t dig into the Owl metaphor because of time restrains and mixed reviews—disappointed me.  I light-weight wanted my students to shake their Black fists in the air.

Instead, the energy in a couple of my classrooms felt careless.  It reminded me of the same energy that surrounded me in a first year writing class some semesters ago when students complained about my teaching them the art of rhetoric & composition by way of Martin Luther King.  “Yea, yea, yea.  We already know enuf about Martin Luther King,” said one student. “I know he led the Million Man March.”  Sigh & sad face.  Anyway, despite their energy, I urged my current students to pass on Amiri Baraka.  But I wonder if they will.  I wonder if they believe he is worth passing on.

Since I’ve been teaching at Florida A&M, I have encountered a dis-identification with Blackness amongst my Black students for which I wasn’t prepared.  Their disengagement with their Blackness makes me rethink my purpose in the classroom, particularly in the historically Black classroom.  While their knowing how to compose resumes & cover letters, memos & proposals are important to their careers, and while writing responses to literature, composing grammatically sound sentences, & complying with MLA style & documentation is vital to their scholarship, how significant is any of that to their personhood?  To their humanity?  To their creative genius?

In Home: Social Essays (1961), Amiri Baraka says, “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”  I don’t know most of what my students think about, but I can bet—with the exception of the art & humanities students (which I do not teach)—that the majority of my students don’t contemplate their thoughts, & they surely don’t give much thought at all about art—about poetry or even the music that blazes from the headphones that distract them from everything present around them. & so, I wonder “who”se fault is that?  Who distracts Black students from knowing & understanding & loving their Black selves?

I try to keep Black in the center of my writing classrooms, while being careful to not promote ethnocentricity.  I think if students are given the space to think about themselves in relationship to other beings, human & non-human, then they may grow to appreciate & understand the magnitude of Amiri Baraka & others whose poems, essays, short stories, paintings, & lyrics revolutionize, archive, & humanize.  Cause I want my students to have that “Like an Owl exploding In your life in your brain in your self / Like an Owl who know the devil All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl Exploding / in fire” experience.  I want my students to awaken to a revelatory consciousness that transcends all understanding.  I want them to know themselves as they are known by Amiri Baraka & all of the ancestors who existed so that they may live.

 


On Advising FAMU’s English Literary Guild

This semester at Florida A&M University, I have been charged with advising the English Literary Guild.  Of course, I am geeked about it.  Check out the The Famuan’s coverage on my endeavors here.