Well, first of all, this Chicago Public School teacher was suspended for 5 days for saying the word “nigger” in class in what seems like a responsible teaching-moment style way….aka, why I am sure this blog will get me fired, good intentions notwithstanding:
Second, I just found out about the incredible First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin. Right now they are sponsoring a lecture series for their students called Getting Real II: Hip Hop Pedagogy, Performance and Culture in the Classroom and Beyond. It’s featuring A-listers like Mark Anthony Neal, Marc Lamont Hill, Davy D, and I am so jealous. If you are in Madison, get to there quick.
Finally, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz is using rap lyrics to teach business management via his blog. This one is especially interesting to me in its exegetic aspect–while hiphop educators tend to use hiphop lyrics to teach what I see as tangential lessons like close reading skills, rhyme or metaphor, etc., Horowitz is actually looking at the management pedagogy that is embedded in the rap text. “The hard part is how you feel,” Horowitz says in today’s NYTimes profile. “Rap helps me connect emotionally.”
“Why, when what we did worked so well for two hundred years, is everything breaking down?”
— a 70- or 80-year old Hmong man displaced to California, quoted in Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
A year ago, I had never heard of the Hmong people, a nomadic Asian hill tribe continually settled and displaced across China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand until, after the Vietnam War ravaged their homelands, many came to settle in the United States.
I first encountered the Hmong in Jason Aaron’s SCALPED, a deliciously violent and seamy comic book series about the overlapping criminal and political exploits of the Lakota people on the fictional Nebraska Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. In SCALPED the Hmong are antagonists, a group of tattooed gangsters from Minneapolis who finance Chief Red Crow’s casino and then demand accountability for their investment.
The next time the Hmong crossed my pop-culture consumption screen was a few months ago when my boyfriend and I finally got around to watching the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino. Aside from the Hmong lead’s lovely explanation to Clint that it’s pronounced “Mong,” not “H-mong,” and the prominent characteristics of family and gift-giving versus criminality and gang-inclinations we see in the extemporaneous Hmong characters, the film was a more accurate showcase of Western cultural values, since to be the hero of the movie Clint has to (SPOILER ALERT!!) sacrifice himself (see Jesus, Harry Potter). In this case, the povertorific Hmong are living in scary urban Detroit where we see a lot of cars, underemployed teenagers, and threateningly sexual black people.
Or, as Bill Hader put it last Saturday, “Get a Chrysler. And get off my damn lawn.”
After those two unseemly representations it was a blessing I finally found my way to The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman’s wonderful exploration of the cultural impasse between an epileptic Hmong child’s family and her doctors in Merced, California. People, this book is SO GOOD. It is empathetic, historically aware, culturally and linguistically sensitive, expertly told, beautifully written, mythological. Fadiman treats the Hmongs’ history as though it is as nuanced and important as our own, and Western medicine as based on the assumptions, mythologies and legends that all worldviews are. She writes in her Preface:
After I heard about the Lees’ daughter Lia, whose case had occasioned some of the worst strife the Merced hospital had ever seen, and after I got to know her family and her doctors, and after I realized how much I liked both sides and how hard it was to lay the blame at anyone’s door (though God knows I tried), I stopped parsing the situation in such linear terms, which mean that without intending to, I had started to think a little less like an American and a little more like a Hmong. (x)
What a sentence! Interestingly, my only criticism in reading this book came in right after my epigraph, above. In the same paragraph in which Fadiman quotes this gentleman wondering how, after hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years of civil disobedience, migration and survival in Southeast Asia, so many Hmong have become impoverished and dependent Americans, Fadiman’s irascible optimism finally distressed me. “Much has broken down , but not everything,” she writes. “I can think of no other group of immigrants whose culture, in its most essential aspects, has been so little eroded by assimilation” (207-208).
What a deflection–and in the face of this book’s most powerful incrimination of the American war empire, which enlisted Lao Hmong to fights its superfluous war in Vietnam, then granted Hmong asylum into an American community that knew nothing of their contributions abroad and instead often associated them with the enemy. The old man’s question “Why…is everything breaking down?” teased at the fault lines of our notion of a free society. By Fadiman’s account, the Hmong people she interviewed didn’t want welfare payments but arable land to replace the 10-gallon tubs-cum-planters full of herbs in the parking lots behind their homes.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has raised similar questions. Protesters’ efforts to flood streets and camp in parks en masse have drawn attention to the loss of genuine public space in our polity. The great irony of Zuccotti Park was that in this newly monitored era, only a private park like Zuccotti wouldn’t close to the public overnight.
Further, while SCALPED is written by a White American, its attitude of subversive resistance to America’s public transcript–regarding Indians, criminality and the FBI–finds linguistic potency in its frequent use of the words “n***er” and “n***a” toward and between Native Americans. I am coming to suspect that understanding these words, their meanings, usages and differences, is fundamental to apprehending the contours of hiphop.
In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R. A. T. Judy attempts an ontological question: what does it mean to be n***a authentically? Judy’s essay attempts to upend the easy genealogy posited by others between the contemporary hardcore rapper, the gangster, that n***a, with the antebellum “bad nigger” and the postbellum badman by suggesting that the hardcore rapper is not an extension of these characters’ oppositional relationship to authority and paradoxically self-policing role within the community. Judy sees the question of n***a authenticity as an ontological question, not a moral-political one.
Defining “nigger” (in nearly Beloved-esque prose), Judy writes: “The value of the nigger is not in the physical body itself but in the energy, the potential force, that the body contains…That force is the thing that the planter owns. It is the property of the planter that is the nigger. The nigger is that thing” (109).
On the relationship of the a/moral badman to the police: “…for Spencer…the heroic badman is a figure of legitimate moral resistance to white oppression. ….As W.E.B. Du Bois remarked…the systematic use of the law by white authorities to disenfranchise blacks after the resumption of home rule in the South caused blacks to make avoidance of the law a virtue…In this understanding, the black community becomes the police in order to not give the police any reason or cause to violate it. ….In other words, the function of the police, as officers of the courts, is to turn the negro back into a nigger” (107-110).
Occupy All Streets?
On n***a authenticity: “This is the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodification, and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect….The nigga is constituted in the exchange of experience for affect….[T]he hard-core gangster rapper traffics in affect and not values. In this sense, hard-core rap is the residual of the nonproductive work of translating experience into affect….[N]igga defines authenticity as adaptation to the force of commodification” (111-112).
That is (and it took me many reads to figure this one out), according to Judy, the nigga is not the reincarnation of the badman or the bad nigger but of the “simple nigger” (his term) who, like his antebellum ancestor enmeshed in the struggle between thingness and humanness, has recast himself for the modern terms of the debate as the site of the conflict between commodity and humanness. According to Judy, “Nigga is a commodity affect”–that is, n***a is the feeling of being a commodity, n***a is the feeling of being an interchangeable, saleable good, a feeling that is made to be exported, precisely in that it is the feeling of commodification. It is intrinsically exportable. Though I wish Judy would go further to account for the apparent reclaiming of this term by commodified peoples.
In the context of Judy’s argument, what does the n***er/n***a dichotomy mean from and for nonblack peoples of color? In SCALPED, “n***er” is used by white characters to describe Indians and “n***a” is used by people of color to describe themselves. Judy writes, “Black folk, who have always been defined in relation to work, went the way of work” (104). In the context of the cooping up of the real Hmong-American people in Fadiman’s study, perhaps nonblacks’ appropriation of n***a hints at the ontological dilemma faced by all people of color (whose bodies in America have also always been associated with work) in a contemporary post-work America, in the same way that whites’ creative employment of “n***er” to describe a whole host of ethnic people confirms America’s presumed equivalence between non-white bodies and labor commodity.
Sometimes I worry that my course reinscribes racism. My students come in with frequently racist assumptions about how closely the content of rap songs mirror the totality of Black life in America, which come out in our class discussions, and then, these Stereotypes, Misconceptions and Caricatures, just hang there, floating around. Somewhere between Elijah Anderson’s ethnography of North Philly in Code of the Street and James Cone’s exploration of slave theology in The Spirituals and the Blues, the notion that violence is part of the African-American cultural inheritance entered some of my students’ minds.
“Don’t be racist, guys.”
I never say that. Usually the only indication I’ll give if I think a student is wrong is that I’ll ask if anyone else has another opinion on the subject. Ask for additional thoughts enough times and a more subtle, complex notion will emerge from the swirling misconception that constitutes the early moments of many in-class conversations.
Why the patience, TB? How can there be an excuse for letting such comments go unchecked? As I mentioned to my students yesterday (on an unrelated note), there is a method to my madness.
1. The funny thing is, my students LOVE Kanye West. More than one of them has called him “in my opinion, the best rapper and definitely producer of all time.” This is funny because they have never heard Illmatic, Ready to Die, or Paid In Full. They are not joking when they refer to Kanye as gangster or street or to his hard-core urban upbringing. They were toddlers in the ’90s. Meaning, we have a lot of work to do, context-wise.
2. I am anti-censorship. I believe there is value in all of us airing our opinions in the interest of a civil discourse that actually gets us somewhere, moves forward, instead of conversation crippled by political correctness. My presence in the classroom is like the market: guiding discussion forward with the invisible hand of my (not-so) innocent inquisitiveness.
2a. When I’m quoting lyrics that use it, I say the word “nigger.” I hate, I really hate, that horrible hyphenate, “n-word.” Did anyone see Zooey Deschanel (in character) use the word “M-Word” on SNL last Saturday to describe the middle finger? That’s how “N-word” makes me feel: like I am participating in ridiculous censorship that is anti-antiracism in its preclusion of a productive conversation about racism. I mean, this is a college classroom. And while not all my students use this word–and I never make anyone, or chastize n-worders–I want my classroom to be a mature, safe enough space that we can quote the lines we’re analyzing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the white folks for whom this word makes them the MOST uncomfortable–all the censors out there who don’t listen to rap but jump down rappers’ throats, Al Sharpton included–are the ones who have this word inside of them, who might use it, maybe who have used it in private, and so they don’t want to hear “nigger” because it freaks them out–not for Black folks’ sake but their own.
2b. On a related note, on a concluding note: I think a teaching platform of anti-racism, anti-censorship and anti-secrets coincide in a classroom space where students feel safe to work out their cognitive kinks out loud. Race is so taboo in this country, for white kids especially, that many of my students seem to be fessing up their sense of America’s racial landscape for the first time. And whatever little closet those opinions and memories lived in before, if it doesn’t get aired out, that’s where racism grows. I’m convinced of it. We’re sweepin’ out the dust mites–and as all you housekeepers know, dusting can get dusty. But then, you know, it gets clean.
…or at least that’s what I tell myself.
POSTSCRIPT. When I was in college, the two standout cross-appointed professors between my home department, Religion, and the African American Studies Program were Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. (Not a bad lot.) I never studied with Professor West, but I took a seminar with Dr. Glaude my senior spring that laid the foundation of so much of my reading of African-American culture today and was a total inspiration viz. the possibilities of course planning. The course moved from Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism at the beginning to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at the end. But then, through the interim, Dr. Glaude deftly wove in texts about the African-American tradition of civil discourse, how it darted in and out of mainstream cultural mores, criticizing dominant trends with two eyes open. As African-Americans said of the so-called New Israel that was the USA, “Pharaoh’s on both sides of these blood-red waters.”
And so, tucked in the middle of the semester, between the poles-not-poles of Walzer and Said, was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Many times since then have I heard Glaude and West refer to that book and this author. And though upon first read I was too stricken with truth to think much else, I have been struck since then with the great love and strategy of Drs. Glaude and Wests’ appeals to this text from the halls of Princeton, that whitest of institutions, wherein I surely was not the only white student Glaude, West and Baldwin welcomed into his reconciliatory, honest arms. Baldwin writes of the end of his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad:
It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved….Elijah and I shook hands, and he asked me where I was going. Wherever it was, I would be driven there–“because, when we invite someone here,” he said, “we take the responsibility of protecting him from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he’s going.” I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town. I confess that for a fraction of a second I hesitated to give the address–the kind of address that in Chicago, as in all American cities, identified itself as a white address by virtue of its location. But I did give it, and Elijah and I walked out onto the steps, and one of the young men vanished to get the car. It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets….The car arrived–a gleaming, metallic, grossly American blue–and Elijah and I shook hands and said good night once more. He walked into his mansion and shut the door. (78-79)
I keep hearing about Susan Cain’s new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. For a while I thought this book was called “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” but that’s just the sexy underside of her argument and thus the title her New York Times editor chose for her conveniently timed op-ed from last month.
In an interview, Ms. “Descartes” Cain claims that “in order to know what you really think about something or someone, you need solitude to do it, almost by definition.” As you might have inferred from my hostile tone, I find this preposterous. As a writer, and therefore a person who spends a lot of time typing alone (like right now), I’m intrigued as to why I find Ms. Cain’s claims preposterous. While I definitely have not read and do not plan on reading her book, between the op-ed and some interviews I suspect that my issue is this: while I understand Ms. Cain’s enthusiasm for solitude–indeed, my fiction-writing zone demands total, solitudinous silence–I disagree with her takedown of collaboration as creatively and intellectually unproductive. And I think her invocation of Orwell’s 1984 is ridiculous. Also Eurocentric. But let’s explore.
In my courses we do a lot of small group work. This abundance is a hangover from a summer I spent teaching English in China during college, when the point of every lesson plan was to keep our students jabbering for as long as possible. I was told that a language learner needs to say a new vocabulary word 7 times before she internalizes it. While my current students speak fluent English, they are not fluent in their critical reading, thinking or speaking skills. Class is an opportunity to redirect them to the text, to ask them to use specific language instead of vague pronouns and generalizations, to encourage them to refer to a text’s author instead of claiming, “It says.”
Often during small group work there is a lull: one group after another stops talking, though of course there is always more to talk about. In these silent moments I do my best to stay totally disengaged from my students. I stare into space, or page through my book for key quotes to return to if conversation falters when we come back together as a class. Slowly but surely, someone in one of the groups thinks of something else to say. The students realize they have to keep thinking, that I am not about to interrupt them with my own take on the text. And so more of them pipe in. Soon everyone is talking again, exploring the content of a chapter or analyzing the lyrics of a song.
Against the overlapping sounds of groups ebbing in and out of conversation, I find myself thinking of priming, a psychological concept I learned about as a senior in high school. I remember priming as a cognitive effect by which hearing a certain word–before a memory exam, for example–will increase the likelihood that a subject remembers that particular word later. I also remember reading of an experiment wherein subjects, asked to define an ambiguous word like “Mercury,” tended to vary their answers according to whether they’d been primed with evocations of planets or thermometers.
In high school Psychology class I remember feeling that priming was a kind of cheating, a sort of hypnotic trick wherein subjects did not know they were learning the right answers in advance. But now as a teacher, when I watch conversations sweep through a silent classroom like a brushfire, and I hear similar concepts and page numbers flicker between groups like flames, I do not feel that my students are cheating. Instead, I feel glad that their proximity to one another allows as many of them as possible to experience the spark of recognition at pinpointing an important idea or a telling quote.
Today, the small group work in question was to close read the third chapter title in Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music.” As my students revisited this chapter, which they’d read in advance, words and phrases hung in the air: repetition, sampling, Western music, African diaspora, 808s. As conversation lulled, I scanned the chapter myself, looking for concepts my students might have missed. My eyes fell on a quote from Christopher Small describing repetition in African music (which Rose sees regenerated in hiphop):
A call-and-response sequence may go on for several hours, with apparently monotonous repetition of the same short phrase sung by a leader and answered by the chorus, but in fact subtle variations are going on all the time, not only in the melodic lines themselves but also in their relation to the complex cross-rhythms in the accompanying drumming or hand clapping…The repetitions of African music have a function in time which is the reverse of (Western classical) music–to dissolve the past and the future into one eternal present, in which the passing of time is no longer noticed. (qtd in Rose 66-67)
As I read, my students’ voices rose up again around me: first one, then two, until the whole class was talking–that is, dialoguing, arguing, learning, teaching, grappling with evidence. So I listened, glad to be the sole introvert among talkers.
And verily, when I was a freshman at Lincoln Park High School, there came a time when I could not turn a corner without hearing someone singing “Back that Azz Up.” Yeah, those were heady times, as I had just finished eighth grade at a private Jewish school where my classmates and I sang “Bling, Bling” without knowing what the helleth we were talking about. And oh, how I remember loving that voice at the end of “Back that Azz Up”: “After you back it up then stop, then drop, drop, drop drop it like it’s hot, drop drop it like it’s hot.” And yeah, I knew not that this was the tween Lil’ Wayne.
And so it was, when I went to my homecoming dance, that all of the young people were juking in a mass unlike any my innocent Jewish eyes had ever seen: to the windows, as well as to the wall. Also on the floor. And so it was that in the future, before dances, the student council president had to make an announcement during homeroom that “Wall juking, floor juking and aerial juking will be have you dismissed from the dance.” Yeah, seriously. But lo, the great class of ’04 was not stopped from naming Juvenile’s “Slow Motion” the unofficial song of our prom.
And lo, in the year 2012, a Canadian bar-mitzvah boy came to pass as a rapper, and his name was Drake. And when, with great hubris, he dared to cover Juvenile’s opus, he put a thick dime in his music video for “Practice,” and her name was Kyra Chaos.
And so it was, that in 2012 when yours truly became a media studies nut, she found herself going back to watch the Juvenile video from 1999, which she had not watched when she was fourteen. And she saw, despite the imperative tense of the title, that the video for “Back that Azz Up” showed a large concert, and joyous people of color, and the deep greens of the Bayou, and some girls from around the way. And in “Practice” she saw the prodigious behind of Kyra Chaos, and her cut off sweatshirt, and her homegirl hat, and thought, “In the universe of this video, this girl is making a movie for the guy she loves. Yeah, she has been practicing. And it’s cool he take her word that ‘those other guys were practice.'” And yeah, isn’t it interesting how between the nineties and the twenty-teens the portrait of intimacy has shifted from the huge public concert venue to the privacy of a digital video connection. But lo, that was dorky. And so it was that the wannabe media theorist was still just a white girl watching the others juke, talking to her friends to distract herself from how fun that all looked.