On Ethos (or, White Woman Writing Kanye West)

I recently published an essay in The American Reader, “Yeezy Rising,” which related mainstream media’s persistent mockery of Kanye West to historical discourses around lynching, a public media spectacle which celebrated the dehumanization and murder of outspoken, upwardly mobile black men. The piece was generally well-received, especially, I noticed, by other white academics. Despite my promotion of the piece and my social media connections with scholars of color, however, I also noted that writers and thinkers of color generally didn’t seem interested in my article. I found myself wondering if I had mishandled my subject or if it was somehow offensive or distasteful to a more sensitive and discerning crowd.
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One comment at the end of the piece offered some insight. Continue reading
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The Word You’re Looking for is “Excoriated”…Or, In Which I Win at Bad Ally Bingo

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via @NanticokeNDN

Yesterday I got schooled by two feminists of color on twitter, @NanticokeNDN and @thetrudz. It was kind of like being workshopped at life. You get a ton of criticism really fast, and it stings going down, and some of it’s useful and some of it’s not. Thinking through that critique, and implementing it, is helpful and important. Continue reading

“That’s Retarded, Sir” : Miley Cyrus v. Rachel Jeantel

via popdirt.com

via popdirt.com

Jezebel had a nice piece on Miley’s twerking and cultural appropriation: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the idea is that Cyrus’s new video and general new ‘tude are a disrespectful appropriation of black southern culture, a move rooted in Cyrus’s privilege to “accessorise” with minority accoutrements but still move in privileged spaces with money and clout. Continue reading

Review of a Review: An Opportunistic, Back-Door Entrance to a Subject I’ve Been Avoiding (That Is, Black-Jewish Relations)

freedom seder

via emory.edu

Cord Jefferson begins his Bookforum review of Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin Jr.’s new book on the Black Panthers, Black Against Empire, with a seemingly off-topic invocation of American Jewry. “For years it’s been said in circles both polite and impolite,” Jefferson begins the piece, “and in ways both delicate and indelicate, that America’s blacks should learn to live more like America’s Jews.” Three paragraphs later, this observation’s relation to the Black Panthers, and to Bloom and Martin’s new book, finally becomes clear. “The book reminds us of how close we came to a world in which America’s blacks were, in fact, acting like the Jews. In the 1960s and ’70s, the Black Panthers tried very hard to build a nation in which black people were sectarian, autonomous, and prosperous in much the same way Jewish communities throughout the United States had been for decades. And for their efforts, the Panthers were sabotaged, prosecuted, and murdered.”

Now, I just sat down to eat a bagel and read my new Bookforum, and then I read this piece, and then I ran up here to write to you. For some time now I’ve been avoiding opening this very door, this door onto the world of comparative history and literature and cultural studies between Black and Jewish culture. I went to see Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary on the drug war, The House I Live In, and was surprised and excited to see it begin with Jarecki’s personal reflection’s on his family’s escape from the Holocaust. But then the movie was disappointing, so I didn’t write about it, and I didn’t do then what I’m going to do now, which is slide my own self into the frame and explain that my identity as a Jewish woman has so much to do with what I’m doing here, in this world of African-American Studies.

And then last week I bought Emily Raboteau’s book Searching for Zion, which I believe compares the African and Jewish diaspora experiences, through travels to Israel, Africa, the Carribbean, the Deep South. But I’m not sure, because I haven’t read it yet, though I wondered if, when I read it, I would feel compelled to tell you some true things about my identity.

You see, approaching this subject is hard for me because I’m in it. On this blog I have been honest and transparent insofar as I am a woman or a rap fan or a teacher or a writer but I have never really come out as a Jew. If you know me you already know, and if you don’t it hasn’t mattered. I could write with some privacy about Cornel West and James Baldwin and Philip Roth and Exodus and slavery and diaspora and freedom and stay as impartial as a squirrel in a distant tree but I’m not, I’m right here, and I’m Jewish.

Yesterday I read this piece on Tablet about the inscription on Ed Koch’s gravestone of slain journalist Daniel Pearl’s last words: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” A perfectly fine declaration of Jewish identity which I also could make. And then Koch’s headstone attributes these words thus: “(Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)”

How disgusting.

For all those concerned with the whitewashing of Ed Koch’s obituaries regarding his soiled reputations on AIDS and race relations in New York, don’t worry: of his own volition he has immortalized his intolerance on his own tombstone. “Muslim terrorist.” As though one thing had anything to do with another. As though Judaism is still defined by its existential threat, by the history of axes hanging over our scrawny, pious necks. As though being a Jew is permission to do that thing which has been done to us for millenia, that thing which had the Roman geto created for us, that is: to profile.

time blacks v jews

1969 cover via Time.com

Unlike the late Mr. Koch, I prefer to define my culture in positive terms, as a collection of books, stories, people, places, beautiful objects, historical documents, songs, melodies, language. I am not afraid to quarrel with another Jew’s picture of Judaism because argument and interpretation are part and parcel of my proud tradition. You see, I am one of those Jews: the social-justice oriented, ecumenical, liberal, egalitarian, concerned with the human rights of Palestinians and the freedom and dignity of all Americans of all colors and creeds, the progressive, the pro-birth control and anti-war, the pro-honest criticism of Israel, the anti-AIPAC, the anti-checkpoints, the anti-hate Jews. There is too much irony to cover. There is Lupe Fiasco and Jesse Jackson and Coleman Silk. There’s Israel’s Black Panther Party and the schisming of Black-Jewish solidarity and stories of slavery and freedom and community and song. To do so I will need to be present and honest and proud.

Cord Jefferson writes about the Black Panthers by pointing out to us that they tried to act like Jews. They tried to keep the money in the tribe. They started charities and schools and institutions dedicated to uplifting the members of their community.  The problem was, the Black Panthers didn’t look like Jews, because Jews look like white people. Despite  not celebrating Christmas or believing in Jesus or having any heritage from Germany or England or Sweden or France, despite my connection to a broad diaspora of Jews who speak all the world’s languages and are themselves the world’s colors and shapes, despite feeling in my heart that I am not white the way white people are white, when I walk out of my house in America every morning, I am white. (Maybe not fifty or a hundred years ago, but today, yes.) And so the J. Edgar Hoovers of the world do not see me as a threat.

There is so much to say. I won’t rush. Think of this as me opening a door, to let the breeze in. Passover is coming next month, the most important holiday for a social-justice Judaism, the holiday in which we tell the story of our exodus from Egypt, that story which is not ours alone. In the ritual of the Seder, the Passover meal, we build Jewish theology and practice out of a simple fact: we were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us. Is that cause to rest on our laurels or extend the same hand to others?

I won’t answer. I’ll just make my new category and post this thing. Thanks for listening – and don’t worry, my next post is on Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar. -T

“She is Obi wan Kenobi teaching Luke the force” – my student’s awesome rap about our class

It only took one semester for my students to point out you oughtn’t teach a writing class on rap without at least some time teaching the writing of raps! So, near the end of every semester, we crank a beat, brainstorm rhyming words, and see if we can fill our 16 bars. And then perform! One of my freshman students dropped such hot and complimentary fire that I couldn’t resist reproducing it here…

photo

Oh when I fall, I all fall down

It’s usually because I tripped on my frown

Don’t clown around with Tessa Brown

She knows the difference between nouns and pronouns

She can teach you how to cite a source

She can teach you how to write a course

She is Obi won Kenobi teaching Luke the force

Actually fuck Star Wars, we want Style Wars!

Kanye, I’mma let you finish but let me say

That Matt M. is one of the best of today

Prospective PhD Seeks English Dept with Strong Focus in African-American Literature, Writing & Composition

I also enjoy long walks on the beach, travel, and Oxford commas. But who doesn’t?

I’ve been sending a lot of e-mails lately with the words “prospective PhD student” in the subject line. Yes, friends, it’s true: it’s time for me to go back to school (again) and properly claim the unearned suffix in @tessalaprofessa. Luckily I’ve had a year + in the classroom to test my interests on crops of unsuspecting students and get inspired by their ideas. It turns out that trying to clarify my thoughts for PhD applications is also helping me tighten how I hope to teach this fall.

So what do I hope to study? Well, hiphop, obviously. But having never been a literature major, I also want to ground my knowledge of hiphop in a study of African-American literature and letters. Poetics, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, a solid hold on modernism–rife with buzzwords I bandy around but am overdue to master. And I want to study writing pedagogy. That’s where finding programs I like has proved hard. But the thing I’ve learned the most about hiphop music over the last two years is that these songs constitute writing–and every time I’ve wanted to push the contours of how we conceive of writing in my class, hiphop has been long ahead, waiting for me to catch up.

When I originally chose to teach freshman comp about hiphop, it was because I was a graduate student looking to do something fun. My own required freshman writing class had been deadly boring and I figured if eighteen students were going to have to write four papers each and (more importantly) I would have to read all seventy two, they’d better be about something fun. It was only after the class began I realized what a teaching boon it was to ask students to engage with their own contemporary media landscape. A year later, when the department began rolling out its reflective writing program, I realized that rap is often reflective. And when I began teaching Argumentative Writing, it dawned on me that rap makes sophisticated and well-supported arguments. You know, like I ask my students to do. Heck, Kanye often uses a three-part verse structure. Bet you never thought of him as an Aristotelian thinker!

Yesterday I signed on to Facebook to see this definition of privilege from Duke scholar Mark Anthony Neal making the rounds:

The very essence of “privilege” is when you enter into a space and are fundamentally unaware that not only have you changed the conversation, but have made the conversation about you.

“Uh oh,” I thought. Extra yikes-points since I recently changed the subheading of this blog from “journal” to “diary,” to better account for its personal subject matter. But then I wondered how crucial that “unaware” part is to the deployment (and the destructiveness) of privilege. Ever since I’ve entered hiphop’s discursive space, I’ve been aware that my status as a white woman somehow changes the terms of the conversation. And despite my parents’ fears that my desired area of expertise is unmarketable, I remain convinced that it would be easier for me to exploit the position of a white hiphop scholar than to be ignored because of it.

Michelle Pfeiffer…and a bunch of kids in the background

When I started writing this blog I was explicitly interested in how I fit into the hiphop narrative–why a white girl would be interested in these topics to begin with. And there are still questions there worth investigating–the effects of an urban public education on my goals and attitudes, for example, or how hiphop makes anger, bravado, and political radicalism sexy in ways that don’t seem available to white women.

But as my hiphop interests shift more firmly toward teaching, learning, and argument, I must say I’m relieved.  The first time I ever had my own classroom was on a summer ESL teaching gig in China. I remember laying in bed at night, stressing out over the next day’s lessons, when I realized how rare it was that I worried about anything except myself. Indeed, my natural inclinations are privileged. When I was a graduate student, teaching interrupted a lifestyle centered around a big writing table in a nice apartment that cost most of my monthly stipend (read: free money). But each day I teach demands that I get off my ass, break the bubble of my solitude, and actually give of myself.

Of course, teaching hiphop in a classroom full of mostly white students invokes other questions of privilege. I’ve had multiple classrooms with not a single African-American student, and not seeing often means forgetting. But when I do have students of color, it’s not their job to draw attention to the demographics of our classroom: its mine. I try to create a classroom space that recognizes privilege, absence, and irony–and also humor, compassion and inspiration. Both are challenges. But you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and I’ve learned you catch more prejudicial assumptions with encouragement than beration. Anyway, as Kanye would say, #ITSAPROCESS. Peace out, friends.

Confessions of a White Girl Neither Stopped nor Frisked

I’ll make this brief, because the point is brief and I’m nervous putting this out there. This morning I read this NYTimes blog post “In Subway, Activist Records Stop-and-Frisk He Says Proves Its Dark Side” which refers to the video, above (which you should watch). Stop-and-Frisk has come into broad national attention lately, with the wonderful opposition march in New York on Father’s Day. Who knows why now is the time. Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death–and Geraldo Rivera’s response?–reignited our attention to how black bodies in hoodies are stamped with a criminal suspicion the moment they leave the house.

I don’t have that body. Police don’t stop me on the street to harass me. A few times, walking home at night in my parents’ bar-heavy neighborhood in Chicago, police have stopped to make sure I’m okay.

But more importantly, police have stopped me smoking marijuana in public in Chicago, and I was not frisked, not harassed, and never, ever arrested. The Chicago Reader reports that “marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago” (Dumke and Joravsky, “How Chicago Said Yes to Pot”). I tell you my side of the story because white kids who get away with possessing pot are the invisible flip side of the injustice of criminalized marijuana. Put in other words–and in the light of the Reader’s statistics–young people of all races are getting high, but nearly only African-Americans–78% of arrests! 92% jail time!–are effectively criminalized by this criminal activity.

Marching on Fathers’ Day to end Stop-And-Frisk, NYC, 2012

I remember smoking a joint in a park in what must have been the summer of 2005, when the police approached my friend and I. Caught red-handed. We put it out but the two cops saw the dead roach on the ground and picked it up. “Do you have any more?” one of them asked. “Don’t lie.”

“No,” I said.

“Let me search your bag,” he told me. I handed him my purse and, lo and behold, I’d been lying. He dumped what was left of my pathetic stash on the ground and crushed it under his shoe. “I told you not to lie,” he said. “Now I have to give you a ticket.” And he wrote me a $35 ticket for being in a city park after closing time.

If we had been black males, I have no doubt my friend and I would have been taken to jail that night. Lots of white kids smoke pot, and lots of their criminalized behavior gets noticed by the police. The difference is, we don’t get arrested for it, we don’t get put in jail, it never goes on our records. And, because Stop-and-Frisk is a racialized agenda, white kids carrying drugs (but smart enough to keep them behind closed doors) never get randomly policed and caught for possession–only people of color do.

The Reader reports that Chicago’s new marijuana law allows ticketing but doesn’t prohibit arrests.

[Roosevelt professor Kane-Willis] says she thinks the fines are too high for the poor young men most likely to be ticketed, and she worries that police won’t have any reason to stop making arrests. “My concern is that there’s no incentive to ticket,” she says. “The worst case, we end up with the tickets and the arrests. Best case: we end up moving to tickets and do something about the racial gap.”

One convoluted silver lining I see in this? Maybe, faced with budget crises, the police will take the opportunity to really ticket everyone who gets caught riding high in the Chi. And who knows what political forces will be awakened when white teens come home with $250 tickets for smoking doobies in the city’s public parks?

Sorry For Partying: A Serial Novel

Hey guys, remember back in England when Charles Dickens used to publish his novels chapter-by-chapter in a London newspaper? Well, he got paid for it, so that obviously isn’t happening.

But I am taking a page from the history of books and trying this serial novel thing for myself, online. Yes, that’s right–I’m publishing a new novel a page at a time here on WordPress. It’s called Sorry For Partying, and you can read it right here. It’s a novel I worked on all year. I finally completed a draft in April, and now I’m re-writing it, posting my progress online–so don’t worry, I’m not asking you to read a first draft. Anyway, I hope you’ll check it out, enjoy, and let me know what you think.

– Tessa

If I’m Not a Hustler, What You Call That?

When I was in high school, I took the SAT, did well–and my mom made me get a private tutor to raise my score a few hundred points. Not only did I not want to go–because my time was precious, because the desired score was only incrementally higher than the one I’d already received–but also because my burgeoning social consciousness told me (and told Mom) that This Is Not Fair. That is, using my family’s economic standing to artificially raise my SAT score was unjust viz. all the people who did not have the social and economic resources to do so. Her response?

“Tessa, it’s a game. Play the game.”

Yep, that’s my Machiavellian Mama.

But it turns out, hustlin’ is a generational skill. Sure, Nielson has decided we 18-to-34-year-olds are Generation C (that is, Generation Connected), but it’s been clear to me for a while now that we’re the HipHop Generation. We share hiphop’s values: connectivity, yes, but also community, intertextuality, multiculturalism, diversity, revolution, empathy, storytelling, political engagement, art, self-expression, global awareness and local impact.

In his book Decoded (2011), Jay-Z (and dream hampton) declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18). To Jay-Z, “the story of the hustler” is rap’s central tale, the hustler its archetypal hero (10). But when my students and I discussed an excerpt from the beginning of Decoded, I realized how central the hustle is to our generational experience writ large. We hustle to get into a good college, to get good grades, to get into that organization we have our eyes on, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance, please our parents, make something of ourselves. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10).

Two recent articles in GOOD bring a similar message home. Mychal Denzel Smith writes about “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” This article is too specific for my taste, not least because I’m excluded from its demographics. Smith argues that Jay-Z has become the wise uncle figure for “millenial black males,” articulating a radical new politics where “wealth is revolutionary.” Jay-Z is “representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat by standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes.” I’d argue that the revolutionary power of wealth here isn’t limited to young black men, but to all millenials out there hustling. This is a world where autonomy is dependent on self-sufficiency.

More compelling, though, is Smith’s “What Generation Overshare Can Learn from Biggie.” In this piece, Smith takes Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” seriously, zoning in on the first two which both tout the value of silence. Though this article’s central drive is about the strategy of not sharing–not “livetweeting the interview process,” for example–Smith makes claims about “Generation Overshare” in the process of developing his argument.

I’m part of that generation known as Millennials, and even if we don’t know whether social security will be around when we retire, or if we’ll be able to retire, or if we’ll even have jobs to consider retiring, we know this: We are hustlers. We’re gangsta. We pimp. We grind.

Most of us don’t do any of these things in the literal sense, but my generation has come of age listening to the sounds of hip hop, and we’ve borrowed the language of illegal hustlers to describe our legal hustles. It feels only natural we should also adopt aspects of their code of conduct and apply them to our quest for survival and world domination.

Back to Biggie and the “Ten Crack Commandments”: It’s no accident that the first two commandments have to do with learning to keep quiet. “Rule nombre uno, never let no one know, how much dough you hold” and “Number two: never let ‘em know your next move, don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence and violence.” Any hustler worth his weight knows that he should draw as little attention to himself as possible….

And imagine negotiating a deal that would expand your territory or triple your income, bragging about it to everyone you know before it goes through, and finding yourself filing fingerprints and a mugshot because word got around and reached the wrong snitch. Silence is a valuable asset. (Smith, “What Generation Overshare Can Learn From Biggie”)

I like this article because it takes the implications of Jay-Z’s metaphor seriously: if we’re all hustlers, we can learn from the hustlers, like Biggie, who have gone before. And sure, this is another answer to the perennial question of why White kids love hiphop: ’cause if I’m not a hustler, what you call that?

Putting my rhymes where my teach is

At the end of last semester, some of my students expressed chagrin that a writing class about rap never asked or taught them to write raps. So at the beginning of this semester I slotted a day for “Writing Raps?”–question mark and all, because that ish makes me nervous–and today I finally had to face the music. Literally.

We started off by talking about what Jay-Z describes in his book Decoded as the two kinds of beats in rap–the constant, foundational musical beat, and the variable meter of the rhymes–that is, a rapper’s flow. I explained that rap songs generally have four beats per line. Older raps usually have around 8 syllables per line, while newer lyrics have closer to 16–double time!

We talked about end rhyme, internal rhyme, and figurative language, then brainstormed some potential subject matter: why I’m great, why you suck, school, my hometown, money and material goods, fantasy, what I did today, random anecdotes, personal struggles.

Then we read the first verse of “We Don’t Care” aloud to, you know, get in the groove. We decided the beat we’d work on was the track from “All Falls Down.” The hook is on there, which is a nice thematic jumping-off point, too. And then–we were off. I suggested folks try to build units of 2, 4, or 8 lines, with the ultimate goal being (of course) 16 bars! To show solidarity, I promised I’d write and perform some verses with them, too.

At the end of class, about 6 people performed. So great! My favorite rhyme was from a girl spitting about her chemistry exam: she rhymed “Boyle’s theory” with “Can you hear me?” Ever the storyteller, I delivered 16 bars about my leaky travel mug.

note: not my actual mug.

Man I promise, I’m so damn tired

Woke up this morning ‘fraid I got fired!

Like my contract expired, air from my tires

Gone to the moon, asleep in my room.

Woke up, got up, make some coffee

It’s my new best friend, named Mr. Coffee

Not that hazelnut toffee, it’s the realest shit

Pour it in my travel mug and seal that bitch

Then I’m ready to go, till I see it drippin

Damn Mr. Coffee, I’m like, You been trippin?

Like my day been clipped, like my coffee mug is shit!

How’m I gonna drink this when the top don’t fit?

Right, that’s right, the top ain’t tight.

The seal’s too loose so the juice take flight.

Now I gotta go to class with these stains on my pants.

Should I go home and change them? I can’t take the chance.

And Now, Back to Navel-Gazing

(While the rest of the relevant Twittersphere writes about Trayvon Martin’s death, I am going to keep writing about white people saying the N-word. Not because I am not following Martin’s story, or because I’m not heartbroken by it, but because I have nothing to add to the coverage and momentum that are already changing the trajectory of this case.)

And now, back to navel-gazing.

This morning a friend sent me this article from Grantland about Katy Perry covering “Niggas in Paris.” Of course, unlike what I just did there, Alex Pappademas titled the song “N***** in Paris” and focused on Katy Perry’s “tee-hee trangression” of sing-rapping about “ninjas in Paris.” Clever! According to Pappademas, Perry’s cover constitutes

a girl refusing to let this song’s imaginary world of swinging-dick privilege be off-limits to her. But that’s all that’s happening here; she puts the word on like a piece of borrowed jewelry and parades in front of the mirror. Her flimsy white-girl voice doesn’t reveal anything about the song’s construction or its sentiments that Kanye and Jay’s voices were covering up…

Despite Perry’s Yankees cap, despite the deep knee lunges from which she belt-sings Jay and Ye’s lines, despite my congratulatory impulses, I have to agree with Pappademas here: Perry’s shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take this song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act to fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that “Being married to Russell Brand was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover could have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be a nigga in Paris.

But more important than Pappademas’s story is one he links to, “An Awkward Moment at That Jay-Z Concert,” in which author Rembert Browne reflects on the various audience  responses  when Jay-Z (accidentally?) invited his largely white SXSW crowd to sing along at a touchy moment. Mostly because I agree with him, I’ll quote Browne at length:

The more recent and obvious example of this is last year’s debatable song of the year, interestingly not titled “Ball So Hard,” but instead “N—– in Paris.” As soon as this Jay-Z/Kanye instant hit was released, the way the lyrics of this song were handled by the public could be documented in a very lengthy dissertation. From people referring to it as “Ninjas in Paris” to radio stations simply calling it “Paris” to the fact that the entire song is a buildup to the line “Got my N—– in Paris, and they going gorillas” makes this, again, another case where one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought-about words gives people a very interesting decision to make.

My personal beliefs on the matter are irrelevant, but if you insist, I guess I’ll say that the action by some of our more famous, influential black celebrities to aid in the okayification (or “deconstruction,” if you must) of the word by launching it to the forefront of the pop culture sphere is something I believe to be a good thing. What’s problematic, however, is the process of pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real. The decision to say it or not say it is very much up to the person, and I respect that, but it’s real and if you are one who has no issue with it being a part of your own vernacular from time to time, you really haven’t a right to censor anyone else.

That, there: that the word(s) nigga(er) are “one of our popular culture’s least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word.” Yes. Yes! This is the thought I kept thinking when the most recent iteration of racist gibberish against Obama made its rounds–that our refusal to say this word preserves its most enshrined space at the blotchy center of our national amnesia.  “Least-discussed yet most-uttered and thought about word”–you know, like white news anchors all across the television-scape faulting Rick Perry for his “N-word-head” ranch. Maybe my willingness to pronounce and inscribe the actual true syllables of nigger or nigga out loud and on the Internet with my identity attached is a willingness to take responsibility for the fact that what I’m doing here is controversial–unlike Katy Perry, who as Pappademus terms it is “somebody get a transgressive thrill out of (basically) saying a forbidden word in public without actually putting her adorkability on the line.” Thank you, Rembert Browne: “What’s problematic…is pretending like the word doesn’t exist. Trust me, it’s real.” I guess that’s what I’m hoping for when I allow this word into our classroom space: a reckoning with the persistence of racist language. How can we fight racism when we pretend it’s gone?

Then again, Katy Perry is a rock star and I’m just a self-involved adjunct lecturer blogging from Michigan.

I have this one student, a freshman, who keeps wanting to talk about what the hell white people are doing in hiphop–as fans, as rappers, as witnesses. Near the beginning of the semester he told me, “I just got into hiphop music last year, and I really like it, but I didn’t know what I was doing because I am just. so. white. Like a small town white guy from Michigan. But then I signed up for this class, thinking it would be kind of weird, but then YOU walked in” (paraphrase). That is, me, TB, white person. White girl, plagued by the same problem of authenticity that he is. So who’s gonna legitimize anyone in this room?

And this student keeps returning to that same question, which I originally answered by saying that the answers I’d heard and read were unsatisfactory, but which after multiple negative definitions still is in need of a positive. See, the question is, Why do white kids love hiphop? And, no disrespect to Bakari Kitwana, but this question has not been answered, it has only been mitigated. White fans and rappers have been derided as imitators, co-opters and thieves; our purchasing power has been termed a necessary evil, a sort of redistribution of wealth from our parents to rappers’ pockets; the statistics have been denounced as misrepresenting actual listens, since The Source is read thirteen times for every purchase, or whatever it is.


But my student asks me again: Why do white kids love hiphop?

And for once, as a white kid, it’s my experience that’s valuable here. Here is the question that I am actually entitled to answer, the instant when my participation in hiphop as a white kid is an experience of value. I love hiphop because the bass drum hits my chest as hard as it hits yours. I love hiphop because I love literature and rap is. I love hiphop because it rode the airwaves into my bedroom radio as a kid, because it featured prominently on the soundtrack to Chicago I grew up with. I love hiphop because I am also angry and proud and filled with curse words and swagger and bitterness and hope. I love hiphop because it’s funny. I love hiphop because it’s true. I love hiphop because it’s critical and because I am trying to be better at being critical every day. I love hiphop because I believe what it articulates about the government, the police, the new world order, the legacy of white supremacy, the persistence of misogyny, the ineffability of spirituality in a materialistic society, the end-all-be-all of a hometown, the importance of community, the subjectivity of the individual. The power of language and a beat.

So what?

Thou Shalt Back That Azz Up

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.

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.”

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.

“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.