20 Questions: Celebrity Edition (part 1)

As you might have guessed from the very premise of this blog, being an egghead and aggressively reloading the “Life & Style” tab of the Huffington Post are not incompatible states of existence. In this post, I address–but by no means answer–a series of celebrity-related concerns that have been bothering me for absolutely no defensible reason.

1. NeNe Leakes, how is it that you were so awesome on GLEE when you are so middling in your real life? Did you participate in scripting the best, funniest version of your own self? Also, don’t you know we would still love you with your real nose and your real teeth?

2. Brad, don’t you realize Angelina is a scary demon succubus? >>TEAM JEN<<

3. When Kim and Kanye start dating, will it be possible for them to be supervised by Patti Stanger, the Millionaire Matchmaker, so that they don’t screw it up with sex before monogamy? Because their happy everlasting union is, like, extreeeemely important to me.

4. Was Kanye really on peyote during that whole twitterbang about DONDA? Also, can I get a job? Also, is this real?

5. Also, Kanye and everyone else, is Scorcese’s Hugo really that good? Like, better than The Artist? Which my friend in London calls L’Artist?

6. Why is America so goddang New World provincial?

7. Regarding Michelle Obama’s appearance on iCarly, is it reasonable for me to believe that the young brainwashed Disney channel watchers of the red states know that their parents’ vitriol against the First Lady is unfounded and that actually, yeah, they wish they were outside playing instead of watching iCarly?Also, can I get a hug and a funny happy face, too?

8. Katy and Russel! Noooooo! You were the sexy “sober together” couple we all aspired towards!

9. Heidi and Seal! Nooooooo! You were the sexy “patchwork family” we all aspired towards!

10. Seriously, Heidi, who is this cardboard cutout you got to host Project Runway Allstars? Literally anyone would be better than her. Is Miss Piggy available?

royal wedding, USA-style

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LOOK AROUND YOU: Toward a New (Exegetic) Hiphop Pedagogy

The BBC Comedy series Look Around You, initially aired in Britain in 2002, begins with a 20-minute pilot episode about Calcium. In the show, which is designed to mock earlier generations of British educational videos, “the white element,”  Calcium–which here in its powdered form highly suggests cocaine–is subjected to a series of inane experiments. The viewer is instructed to write results down “in your copybook.”

The second episode of the series, “Maths,” opens with a shot of a young black teenage boy looking anxiously around a streetcorner. Soon we see that he is serving as lookout for a white friend, spraypainting a wall. “Look around you,” narrator Nigel Lambert instructs. “Look around you. Look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for?” Lambert instructs, over a shot of the white teen spraying a white wall with a red C. “Correct,” he concludes. The boys flee, leaving behind a wall covered in a large, difficult equation involving infinity, square roots, and pi. “The answer is: Maths.” After announcing that the largest number is forty-five billion–“although mathmeticians suspect there may be even larger numbers”–the narrator then proceeds to explain that MATHS stands for “Mathmatic Anti Telharsic Harfatum Septomin.”

While I am no expert in British humor, I cannot help read this show as the white establishment’s confession (at least via Britain, the motherland) that its educational practices are stupid, arbitrary, and meant to leave you nothing but confused. (In one experiment on cocaine–I mean calcium–Lambert instructs the viewer to stir a solution with a glass stirring rod–or a pencil. I am reminded of the stringent lab conditions in my own high school chemistry classes.) In the wake of Kanye West’s insipid #FuckMath tweets and the riots in London being blamed on the rioters’ “perverted social ethos,” I cannot help but see deeper meaning in a show that satirizes education and begins an early episode–the first after the pilot –with a shot of a black teen looking anxiously for the police while his white friend writes graffiti, ironically, about math(s).

And if you don’t believe a single shot of a black man can give meaning to a whole film, you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead.

When I teach the concept of Signifyin(g) to my freshman writing students, I use an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey which resonates easily with the experiences of my class. Gates writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66).

The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)

Until now, the term “hiphop pedagogy” has referred to a matrix of ideas about teaching that combine activism, critical pedagogy, using hiphop in classrooms (often to engage marginalized student populations) and an attention to the ways in which rappers already function as teachers and knowledge purveyors in their communities (e.g., Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of KRS-ONE, 2009).

While using hiphop in the classroom is critical–indeed, I am doing it myself–we need to be paying attention to what rappers themselves have been saying in their art about why school failed them. This is what I mean by an exegetical approach–we need to look to the texts for the answers, which are already out there. Why did the best lyricists of our generation hate school? Why did the college graduates in Public Enemy find violence to be their most potent metaphor (Chang)? KRS-ONE explained of his own self-education, “I was held back twice in the 8th grade due to truancy…I dropped out of the ninth grade and psent the next two years studying in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza…I leave home in pursuit of philosophy and emceeing. [By] 16 I had exhausted the library” (Parmar 58).

Though I teach extremely successful students, the questions Kanye West asks in his 2003 debut The College Dropout still resonate with them: Why am I in school? Why should I stay here when my teacher says I’m a “retard” (“We Don’t Care”)? Why do I need to go to college to get a job when people just hire their nieces and nephews? Why is the valedictorian of my high school working at the Cheescake Factory?

It took me a little while to build up to this place, but I hope that exploring rap music for insights, criticisms and suggestions on school, schooling, teaching, teachas and learning in rap will become a central pursuit of this blog–and I hope to hear from other folks who are out there lookin…(g).

HAIR

I remember the first time I went to school with my hair curly instead of blowdried. I was a freshman in high school. One of my classmates, a Chinese-American, asked me enviously if I had gotten a perm over the weekend. I remember thinking, “Are you crazy?! If my hair was really straight I woulda never messed with it.” But I guess the grass is always greener on the other scalp.

my hair circa 2011

As I’ve read more into Black letters and watched more films it’s been interesting to notice how prominent this question of hair–texture, color, cut–is, especially to African-American women, how much philosophical and political weight hair holds. Heck, Spike Lee’s 1988  film School Daze, about political divisions  at a fictional HBCU, features a six minute musical number called “Good and Bad Hair” in which Afro’d and nearly-blonde coeds dance-fight the conflict while flinging racial epithets at one another that reach far back into Black American history.

While my curly hair doesn’t carry the same connotations as natural hair does in Spike Lee’s treatment, above, I do think that the emphasis on straightening hair in my Jewish family and community is similarly related to assimilation and the performance of whiteness. My beautiful grandmother tells the story of going on a date when she was a teenager with a young man who asked her ever so innocently about the ridge in the back of her hair. Apparently her efforts at straightening had missed a spot. Mortified, she never saw him again. My mom, whose hair naturally dries in beautiful ringlets, as a teenager in the ’60s used to wrap her long locks around Campbell’s soup cans to pull out the curls. When my sister and I still lived at home, our house was full of blowdriers, straightening irons, and various potions, gels and creams meant to work out what Grandma called a “kink” and my mom affectionately refers to as “dentitis.” These days, now that I always wear my hair curly, my Grandmother likes to remark that it looks like someone took an eggbeater to my head.

my grandmother Evelyn at her prom in the late 1930s

In Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair, the politically traditional comedian sets out to understand why his young daughter asked him, “Daddy, how come I don’t have good hair?” (Watch a trailer here.) Aside from sharing information on the transnational hair trade and a slew of great interviews with celebs and regular folk, the film also points out that the chemicals in many hair straightening products, like formaldehyde and sodium hydroxide, are extremely dangerous carcinogens. But, as Malcom X (and Alex Haley) wrote of that stinging sensation in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “The longer you can stand it, the straighter the hair.”

White Americans Don’t Believe in Death (a collection of testaments for Dr. King, belatedly)

Last semester, after my students were done working on a small-group activity involving theologian James Cone’s book The Spirituals and the Blues, one of my students announced that Cone was guilty of reverse racism. From the section on “The Blues and Sex,” here was the passage which offended him:

People who have not been oppressed physically cannot know the power inherent in bodily expressions of love. That is why white Western culture makes a sharp distinction between the spirit and the body, the divine and the human, the sacred and the secular. White oppressors do not know how to come to terms with the essential spiritual function of the human body. But for black people the body is sacred, and they know how to use it in the expression of love.

Now, this book is and will continue to be a hard book to treat in an introductory class, not least because of Cone’s fondness for the steadfast binary (here, at least) between “white oppressors” and “black people.” But that body/spirit split so central to Western Christian thinking is worth meditating on.

I first came upon it in feminist criticisms of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which criticized this binary as not only an underappreciation of the fullness of the human condition, but–in the way that the spirit was continually valorized over the body–a construction that led to an overemphasis on sins and salvations of the spirit. Judith Plaskow wrote in her Sex, Sin and Salvation:

First of all, Niebuhr’s concern with the negative side of creatureliness may be part of what leads him to underestimate the sin of sensuality. The fact that Niebuhr ignores the positive features of human naturalness may prevent him from fully apprehending sensuality’s temptations. Not seeing human beings as continually, positively involved in the world’s vitalities, he is less likely to view loss of self in some aspect of these vitalities as a clear and ever present danger. (1980, 69)

How great of a word is creatureliness???

But this distance from the realities of the human body have repercussions outside the realm of the theologians, in spaces spiritual and political. In his book The Fire Next Time (1962), James Baldwin explained the conundrum simply and powerfully (as he explains all things in that little book).

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro: reality–the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life….But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so–and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. (Cone’s emphases)

Mexican poet Octavio Paz makes related comments in his essay “Dia de los Muertos,” from his 1961 collection Laberinto de la Soledad, in which he contextualizes death’s disappearance as a paradox of modernity.

Modern death (Paz writes) does not have any significance that transcends it or that refers to other values. It is rarely anything more than the inevitable conclusion of a natural process. In a world of facts, death is merely one more fact. But since it is such a disagreeable fact, contrary to all our concepts and to the very meaning of our lives, the philosophy of progress (“Progress toward what, and from what?” Scheler asked) pretends to make it disappear, like a magician palming a coin. Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exist. Nobody takes it into account, it is suppressed everywhere: in political pronouncements, commercial advertising, public morality and popular customs; in the promise of cut-rate heath and happiness offered to all of us by hospitals, drugstores and playing fields. But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. The century of health, hygiene and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story.

In his recent article for the Washington Post, “Why do we ignore civilians killed in American wars?” John Tierman detailed the many ways that official tallies undercount the damage done by the Iraq War–but his argument is more about the attitudes that underlie such a callous inattention. Suggesting that America’s wars of the last 50 years have produced around six million casualties (no Holo), he refers to a theory called the “just world” theory, “which argues that humans naturally assume that the world should be orderly and rational” and explains that the “The public dismissed the civilians [of Vietnam, Korea and Iraq] because their high mortality rates, displacement and demolished cities were discordant with our understandings of the missions and the U.S. role in the world”  (Tierman).

Sounds to me like Mr. Tiernan found–but didn’t name– another reason Americans ignore death: chauvinism.

The Empire Strikes Civilians

What if the true meaning of Rome is not justice but injustice, not civilization but institutionalized barbarism? What if, when you look back as Freud did at the Eternal City–a sobriquet that Rome had already earned two thousand years ago–you find at the bottom of all its archaeological strata not a forum or a palace but a corpse? (Adam Kirsch, “The Empire Strikes Back,” The New Yorker, 9 January 2012.)

This week I read two recent articles whose titles were identical or nearly so to that of the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. The first read was the article above, from The New Yorker, in which Kirsch united book reviews of a number of new takes on the Roman Empire to suggest that our lasting impression of Roman peace, honor and glory means that the Romans were successful in determining how future generations would (mis)remember their legacy of genocide, inequality and bloody conquest.

The other article, published in yesterday’s New York Times, was entitled “The Empires Strike Back” (Soner Cagaptay, 14 January 2012), and characterized the current power struggle between France and Turkey over the Mediterranean and Arab worlds as an ongoing conflict that has existed at least since Napoleon picked up the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s flak, first by invading Egypt in 1878. As Cagaptay writes, “France’s rise as a Mediterranean power has been an inverse function of Turkish decline around the same sea.”

The irony of both Star Wars references (or, perhaps more bluntly, their error) is that, as noted by Huey Freeman of “The Boondocks,” “Star Wars is the story of a revolution” against the evil Galactic Empire, not the story of the glorious exploits of empire. The piece in the Times in particular ignores the meaning of the referent by using this title to suggest the French and Turkish empires striking back at one another. The title is more subtle in The New Yorker, where it speaks to the article’s theme of Rome as an omnipresent palimpsest where past and present coincide–the Empire, it seems, striking back at the present from the past.

In the fall of 2010 when Jay-Z released his (and dream hampton’s) book Decoded, there was a wonderful event at the New York Public Library where, led by an annoying moderator, Jay-Z and Cornel West spoke together about Jay-Z’s career as well as wider issues in the rap world. (This was actually during my first semester teaching and we had a great time engaging social media when I offered my students extra credit if they would live Tweet this event–with our own tag, #hiphopocracy.) At the very end of the event (1:48 on the video, above) the moderator cued “Empire State of Mind” and all three of them–the moderator, Jay-Z, and Cornel West–started nodding their heads in tandem. When it was finished, Dr. West couldn’t help but comment:

Empire state of mind, empire state of mind! I’m tellin you. I’m always–you know, as an anti-imperialist I’ve always been suspicious of this “Empire State” talk…you know what I mean? But at the same time–[well,] I’m in deep solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters whose land they actually subjugated.

But, just on the musical tip…[pause, then a laugh from the audience] that’s a beautiful song, man. (Adapted from Creative Meditations.)

But as Dr. West concluded, “We’re all in process.” And further, I don’t think Jay is unaware of the hypocrisies –hiphopocrisies?–of his participation in an imperialist culture. In “What More Can I Say” off The Black Album (2003), Jay-Z samples Gladiator‘s eponymous gladiator (Russel Crowe’s character Maximus) screaming to the Roman spectators after the emperor’s armored fighters failed to slay him. “Are you not entertained?” Crowe cries. “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

After spending “What More Can I Say” pointing to his own raps as proof that he’s the best rapper around, Jay-Z offers a smidge of contrition: “God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me.” In an apology undercut by its aggressive, impressive, deft mosaic rhyme, Jay-Z suggests the rapper’s surprising relationship to American imperialist capitalism: like your slave Maximus, Jay seems to suggest, you brought me here to exploit me and watch me struggle, then die – but I have beaten your system and upended it, a feat all  the more incredible for the great injustices you have stacked against me.

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, I’m not a racist.

It only took a few weeks after a student coined the word “hiphopocracy” for me to realize that I wanted to write a book of essays collected under this name. This one word evoked connotations of community, democracy, and hypocrisy that all seemed so central to the way I was beginning to read and teach hiphop texts and culture. It took a tip from a tech-savvy friend to re-envision this project as a blog, and then I had to find my sea legs – that is, my voice.

It’s interesting to me how central the question of my own whiteness is to this blog. Back when I imagined this as a book of long-form essays, I’d envisioned the emphasis as being on a critical reading of rap texts coupled with reflections on education and the possibilities for a hiphop pedagogy. But transitions in conceptualizing my own work have parallels in how I’ve learned to understand my role as a teacher. When I first designed College Writing on The College Dropout, I imagined that this rap-centric course material would fill my classroom with students of color. In fact, out of more than 100 students so far, I’ve had two African American students, both women, a significant minority of Asian and Asian-American students (both East and South Asian), and a huge majority of White students, mostly from Michigan. With this demographic makeup I’ve come to reenvision my teaching from an earlier (more self-aggrandizing) model that saw me appealing to African-American students “on their own terms” (whatever that means) to a more realistic vision that has me modeling to White and Asian-American students how to talk about race, gender, popular culture and urban space in a way that is intellectually critical and, most importantly, respectful.

As you might imagine, one book that was really instrumental to my self-concept as a teacher was Mark Naison’s memoir White Boy, which I discovered in David Leonard”s reflection on the subject on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, Left of Black. In his memoir, Naison, a white professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, charts his journey  from a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn through his time as a history student at Columbia and his activism in Harlem to his present position at Fordham. Naison writes like an historian, focused on events rather than ideas, and so as I read I felt myself wishing he would say more about the content of his academic work and how he felt it related to the spaces in which he was teaching and learning it. Instead, much of the value of this book for me was reading the history, via Naison’s life, of radical leftist movements through the sixties and seventies and the way racial politics shifted during that period.

This term, for the first time I am also teaching a different class, an Advanced Argumentation course structured around Dr. Neal and Murray Foreman’s reader That’s the Joint! To keep us rooted in the primary sources, we spend Friday’s class each week listening to and close reading a rap song. To get us started off right, we began this schedule last Friday with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” As I set up the speakers, one of my (white) students asked, “Do you usually listen to this song?”

“Sure,” I answered. “Don’t you?”

I think one of my most important roles in the classroom is to show my students that rap can be enjoyed as more than a minstrel show. This is directly related to my recent critique of Cecil Brown and Tricia Rose’s views of white listeners, casual disbelief of valid motives that is not uncommon to these two thinkers. Because I have to ask: how are white listeners supposed to take hiphop seriously if they can’t take themselves seriously as fans, true fans? Teaching hiphop has taught me to take myself more seriously as a fan because I have to model respect and appreciation to my students.

Chapelle’s Show: “I Know Black People” w/ Dr. Mark Naison

In White Boy, Dr. Naison talks a lot about his relationship with a Black woman and how that experience both personally and socially connected him with Black people and heightened his awareness of race’s role in American society. My own formative experience with the Black community was in my high school choir in Chicago. I’d often enter the choir room to see students grouped around the piano, singing gospel songs they all knew and I didn’t. Like Naison on the basketball court, choir was the place where I was the racial outsider, where my academic success meant nothing and I had to bust my butt to keep up. It was the space where I learned to sing “Precious Lord” and “Elijah Rock” and where I came to understand that in other parts of the city, my Black classmates participated in a rich community life that it would have been just as easy for me not to see.

In a recent guest post on Left of Black, Mark Naison writes about the role of love in good teaching. Next week in my Argumentation class, we’re talking about a chapter called “No Time for Fake Niggas: Hip Hop Culture and the Authenticity Debates,” which probably means it’s time for the class talk on whether we can use the word “nigger” and, if we’re lucky, larger questions about authenticity in hiphop scholarship.  Naison writes, “It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. ” Responding to my occasional discipline issues, my mom recently suggested I pull back from my class, separate myself from them. “I can’t,” I said. “Community and relationships are so important to what I’m trying to do.” When it comes to questions of authenticity and good intention, we need not only to trust and love our students, but also ourselves.

Venn Diagram that Shiznit: Hiphop Studies + Disability Studies

In the third verse of “We Don’t Care,” the first track from his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West raps,

You know the kids gon’ act a fool
When you stop the programs for after school
And they DCFS them some of them dyslexic
They favorite 50 Cent song 12 Questions
We scream, rock, blows, weed park
See now we smart
We ain’t retards the way teachers thought
Hold up hold fast we make mo cash
Now tell my momma I belong in the slow class
It’s bad enough we on welfare
You trying to put me on the school bus with the space for the wheelchair
I’m trying to get the car with the chromy wheels here
You tryin to cut our lights like we don’t live here
Look at what’s handed us, fathers abandon us
When we get them hammers gwanan’ call the ambulance
Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us
But we don’t care what people say
My niggas

Last Friday was the third semester in which I’ve treated this song to a close reading with my sections of freshmen writers, and I learn more about it each time. In six sections total, we’ve discovered that this verse treats the politics of abandonment in its critique of civic institutions that have failed Kanye’s “we”–young, inner city African-Americans. There’s a lot going on in this song as a whole–the first verse looks at models of masculinity in the hood while the second details versions of hope and hustle–but what interests me here is how Kanye’s comments dovetail with another interdisciplinary field of critical inquiry: disability studies. Can you say intersectionality?

First there was feminism, then there was postcolonial studies, then there was critical race theory, then there was queer theory, and now there’s disability studies (in no particular order, so what?)–theoretical frameworks that use the socially out-standing experience of a given group of people to poke holes in what mainstream society considers normal, not to mention the obsession with said normalcy in the first place. Cue: disability studies, which I never would have heard of if I hadn’t graded for a disability cultures class as a grad student here at Michigan. This course was about the cultural products in which artists with disabilities explored their lives–quadripilegic dancers, stand-up comedians with cerebal palsy, Deaf actors, that sort of thing. The course was about using these artists’ own words, movements, and efforts to describe themselves to break through our medical or charity-focused lenses, our obsessions with fixing or curing or even just helping the disabled, toward the realization that these folks can think for themselves, can speak for themselves, and–with a few adjustments on our part–can act for themselves.

It was only in passing that our instructor Petra Kuppers mentioned that another aspect of disability studies is bringing attention to the institutional violences that create disability like war and poverty. Which brings us back to Kanye’s “We Don’t Care.” In the third verse, above, Kanye articulates a portrait of disability in the inner city that suggests students with learning disabilities, dismissed by teachers, seek alternative successes as stick-up kids; that welfare and crappy schoolbuses are depressing for a kid taught to measure successes in “chromy wheels”; and that the ambulance only comes around when folks get too drunk. (As a student finally explained last term, hammers = handles. Of liquor.) West restates arguments so many liberals are familiar with: “You know the kid gon’ act a fool/ when you stop the programs for after school”–but he broadens the picture, when he connects dots between foster care, domestic abuse and social services (“DCFS”), learning disabilities (“some of them dyslexic”), glitzy gangsta rap models of success (“50 Cent”), drug dealing (“we scream rock, blow, weed park”), pride (“see now we smart”), motivation, teacher favoritism and the insult of tracking programs (“we ain’t retards the way teacher thought”), stick-up kids (“hold up”), hope and resilience (“hold fast”), materialism (“we make mo’ cash”), and fear of failure (“now tell my momma I belong in the slow class”).

“You white bitches,” cont’d.

Yesterday I was surprised and excited to wake up, stumble to my computer with a fresh cup of coffee, and discover that dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz with personal-intellectual musings about the author, her wisdom and her work.

In under an hour, hampton was in conversation with Black intellectuals across the country like Mark Anthony Neal, Toure, and Imani Perry, not to mention the dozens or maybe hundreds of regular Black readers “testifying in my mentions right now,” as hampton put it, about Hurston’s life and work–sending facts, quotations, pictures and articles, many of which hampton dutifully retweeted, even as she headed to her grandmother’s funeral. Around noon Imani Perry tweeted, “Reading #ZoraNealeHurston tweets reminding why it is important to be here on twitter, for the creative potential of digital communication.”

Like Things Fall Apart, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was another book I dismissed in high school, then read again in graduate school only to be stunned by and disappointed in my younger self.  Despite being a writer now,  I was a dense reader in high school. I tended to get wrapped up in plots and only looked for the deeper stuff with some academic prodding. My unfair impulse is to blame my teachers for not telling me why these books were significant– “Hey, this book is about colonialism, pay attention”; “Hey, look, African American spoken vernaculars, look what dialogue can do, pay attention”–but some combination of my teachers’ politically correct unwillingness to explain why a particular book was important and my own bad attitude conspired to keep me in the dark.

I try to explain my intellectual position (to myself as well as curious others) as that I am a student of Black culture. As I readily confess to my own students, I’m no expert in hiphop, Black letters, or Afrodiasporic literature. But I’m reading as much as I can. Teaching and blogging are helping me do that; so is my Twitter feed, which (with its spread of rappers, Black intellectuals and African American news sources like the Root and the Griot) is as misleading a marker of my racial identity as my course information or my name.

Around 11:45 yesterday, hampton tweeted (after a comment [now missing from her timeline] on Zora’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk'”)

One of my conflicts with writing Decoded was contributing to this growing idea that hip hop can be canonized in books, that books abt it +

may come to be more important that [sic] rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral

Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers [sic] of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.

I’ll say it bluntly, and as neurotically and confessionally as I feel it: When I tell my students that we’re braving new intellectual territory together, when I invite them on a journey in the production of knowledge, when I write in my teaching philosophy that one of the reasons I love teaching hiphop studies is that students can create genuinely new, original scholarship when they apply published texts to a just-dropped single–am I just making excuses for a white academic’s co-opt of hiphop? Am I just forging space for whiteys like me to be able to participate via writing in a discourse which on a purely oral level is mostly closed to me? And what does it mean for us linguistic outsiders that Zora Neale Hurston wrote black dialect in the first place? Isn’t her foray into the written an invitation for us other writers to write back? Or isn’t it?

I don’t teach an explicitly anti-racist agenda in my classroom. I never bring up #OWS despite the e-mails urging me to stage a teach-in, and I don’t talk about my love and admiration for President Barack Obama even when I show Byron Hurt’s “Barack and Curtis” in class. But I have found, in teaching hiphop studies to largely white Michiganders, that dwelling with this material in an academic setting forces them to challenge sloppy language and generalizations, like calling people or places “ghetto” or conflating the words “poor,” “black,” or “inner-city”; and allows them language to talk about, for example, the poor, black inner-city that they roll their windows up when they drive through, or the policies of racial profiling from their policemen they see when those black neighbors drive through their white towns. And I hope that they are learning that these neighbors are not voiceless or devoid of culture–far to the contrary, they (with a diverse cohort of coconspirators) have created this movement we espouse called hiphop culture which draws on a rich tradition of African-American musical forms and has brought us DJing, graffiti, the emcee, and Kanye’s shutter glasses–which a student confessed she was dismayed to see her 10-year old sister coveting in a suburban Michigan mall.

“Malcolm, Malcolm. You white bitches done killed Malcolm.”*

When I was a sophomore in college, I applied for and received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, which consisted of a sizable cash stipend and summer research funding aimed to help me pursue my expressed goal of becoming a professor. Being an MMUF fellow at Princeton also involved monthly meetings with other undergraduate and graduate fellows, casual talks with professors of color, and a fancy annual banquet in which some professor or other reiterated every year how miserable the PhD process is, and enjoined upon us to keep on keepin’ on.

The goals of MMUF are as follows; it was my job as an aspiring sophomore to convince my school’s committee that I met them:

The fundamental objectives of MMUF are to reduce, over time, the serious underrepresentation on faculties of individuals from minority groups, as well as to address the consequences of these racial disparities for the educational system itself and for the larger society that it serves.  These goals can be achieved both by increasing the number of students from underrepresented minority groups who pursue PhDs and by supporting the pursuit of PhDs by students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to the goals of MMUF. (mmuf.org)

That’s me, at the end: “students who may not come from underrepresented minority groups but have demonstrated a commitment to” these goals. The irony of it all was that MMUF, which had previously been a fellowship for minority students, was forced by anti-affirmative action legislation (I believe under the Bush II administration) to broaden its selection criteria from racial to ideological.

Six years later, I’m an MFA holder teaching hiphop studies to college freshmen (but still a white woman with an ambiguously ethnic name).  Last semester, after one of my sections was in a classroom after a white man teaching a course on jazz and before another white man teaching a course on African cities, I turned my attention to novelist Cecil Brown’s Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department? The Disappeareance of Black Americans from Our Universities (2007).  The book opens to the author wandering across the greens of his alma mater, UC Berkeley, and wondering, like “one of the characters in the film Dude, Where’s My Car?” (ix), Dude, where are all the black students?

I was interested in this book not only because of my own experience as a white woman teaching Black subject matter to largely white and Asian students, but (more importantly) because Mr. Brown taught a course at Stanford called “From Homer to Hiphop,” and a peruse of this book’s Table of Contents online revealed that the author professed to have rediscovered Black Studies in the streets, among the hiphop heads. I was keen to read his arguments about the rifts between written and oral cultures of information.

I empathized with Mr. Brown’s statistics on the erosion of affirmative action policies in the last few decades–my courses are as much a commitment to diversity as an expression of my own interests. And many of his arguments were provocative, like his suggestion that while “special programs are established to help [Asian and Asian-American students] with their writing and speaking skills” (94),the same effort is not made to bring other students of color up to speed.

But what ultimately disappointed me about this book was Mr. Brown’s blanket dismissal of genuine white interest in hiphop music, an exasperation I see again and again in black writers’ work on hiphop. Brown suggests “rap music helps white youth deal with their fear of girls” (99), and that “White attraction to Black pimps are…symptoms of an unconscious desire to escape the structured life of the mechanical world” (102). But he’s never open to the possibility that white listeners empathize with rap’s critique of a racist and hypocritical society. I was reminded of Tricia Rose’s seminal Black Noise, where the author sneakily suggests her bias:

Jazz, rock’n’roll, soul, and R&B each have large devoted white audience members, many of whom share traits with Norman Mailer’s “white negroes,” young white listeners trying to perfect a model of correct white hipness, coolness, and style by adopting the latest black style and image. Young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment to black music are necessarily affected by dominant racial discourses regarding African Americans, the politics of racial segregation, and cultural difference in the United States. Given the racially discriminatory context within which cultural syncretism takes place, some rappers have equated white participation with a process of dilution and subsequent theft of black culture. Although the terms dilution and theft do not capture the complexity of cultural incorporation and syncretism, this interpretation has more than a grain of truth in it. (5)

Look how Ms. Rose deftly undercuts the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment” and then invokes the terms “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for them.

Some of the only welcoming language I’ve seen is in the introduction to (Asian-American) Jeff Chang’s wonderful Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, where he declares of the hiphop generation: “Whom does it include? Anyone who is down” (2). Even the provocateur Nas, after calling out to all his “kike niggers, spic niggers, Guinea niggers, chink niggers,” reminds his posturing audience, “They like to strangle niggers, blaming niggers, shooting niggers, hanging niggers, still you wanna be a nigger too?” (“Be A Nigger Too,” Untitled).

In Cecil Brown’s 1969 novel, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, the titular protagonist sits with the only Black woman he’s found in Copenhagen and lays his hand to her pregnant form:

He felt the small lump running smoothly under his fingers as she brought his hand smoothly over her brown hot belly.

“That’s a baby,” she said.

“Really,” he said. He was scared stiff.

“A white baby, ” she said.

“Really?”

“Does it make you feel a little bit disgusted?”

“Yeah, I think so.” (124)

* from Cecil Brown, The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger, 105.