Week 2.2: Decent and Street Norms in Anderson’s Code of the Street

Hi friends – today’s lesson plan is pretty focused on Elijah Anderson’s ethnography Code of the Street, so take out your copy if you’re following along. Also I just illustrated proper use of your/you’re. Also I should mention these lesson plans are for 80-minute sessions, though today’s was a little short.

LESSON PLAN

1. Logistics- reminder of participation paper deadlines, come in to office hours

2. Ch. 1 “Decent and Street Families”: “Decent” and “Street” – what are these two categories? where are these terms from? understanding “norms”/”normative” (32, 45) and “oppositional culture” (32)

3. Diane’s story (pp. 43-45)- evidence and claims. What work does Diane’s narrative do for Anderson’s argument (i.e., what claims of his does she provide evidence for?) – How does Anderson analyze her words? (What conclusions does he draw?) Does his framing of Diane have any holes? (Any blind spots, points he didn’t make but could have, biases we see?)

4. Answer the above questions re: Yvette’s story (53-65) in small groups of 3; then recap as a class

5. In-class writing: write a mini-workshop letter to Elijah Anderson about chapter 1. 3 components: what is his argument? 1-2 things he did well; 1-2 questions, concerns, suggestions. Use quotes!

NOTES

2. As always, with lesson planning on reading-focused days it’s a balance between covering concepts and comprehension on the one hand, and making sure we’re drawing lessons for our own writing from the text we’re studying. So in today’s lesson I wanted to make sure the students recognize “decent” and “street” as normative categories “that the residents themselves use” (35), and understand that these two categories of people live mixed together, that they all follow the “code of the street” but while decent folks follow it to be safe, street folks believe it to be normative. In past semesters we’ve done writing exercises where I ask students to reflect on what the norms were regarding education in their homes or communities growing up. However, today we focused more on critical thinking skills and building the confidence it takes for a college writer to actually feel comfortable “criticizing”–that is, examining critically–a published writer.

3. To that end we looked at how Anderson includes long tracts of first-person narratives from his interview subjects and scrutinized them as evidence. This approach also has the added boon of keeping students focused on the content of Anderson’s arguments instead of their reactions to them, which have a tendency to spiral off into tangents about how these parents differed or didn’t from their own parents. Instead, I waited until the end of class to ask students how they reacted to, for example, the extremely strict parenting styles we see in this chapter.

4. Small group work always just forces more students into the conversation. Many aren’t comfortable with the whole class setting or only speak when there’s pressure for them to do so, which definitely increases in a group of 3. I try to do some small group work every day–this is a tip I got back in college when I taught ESL for a summer. They say language learners should speak 70% of class time, and small group work is a way to get a high percentage of the class speaking at once, where only 1 person can really talk at a time when the class is together.

5. This last activity had the joint function of introducing workshop letters (more on that next time) and also reinforcing the point I made throughout class that we’re working towards beginning to think critically about the published texts we’re studying. So actually writing down at least one question or concern about this chapter forces students to concede that even this great book is subject to our scrutiny as college writers.

And now I’m gonna go home and eat some dinner. Peace and happy new year to the fellow tribesmen out there. -T

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Beyond the “Ghetto University”: Visions of an Organic Black Pedagogy in Kanye West’s “The College Dropout”

She need her daddy, baby please–

Can’t let her grow up in that ghetto university.

– Kanye West, “All of the Lights” (2010)

Educated fools, from uneducated schools.

-Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”

On the surface, Kanye West’s 2004 debut album The College Dropout presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college atmosphere West chronicles rejecting throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to dropĀ  my ass up outta college” (West, “Get Em High”). The second is the education gained on the streets, what West in a later album names the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Trey’s scholarship” (West, “We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education seems to correspond to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In his work, attitudes toward education are a central axis on which a person’s value orientation of decent or street can be plotted: decent folk value education, while street folk eschew it.

However, I want to suggest that in his debut album, Kanye West advocates for a third way that rejects the conformity and assimilation of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to leave college for his own version of success. In “Get Em High,” quoted above, he continues on: “My teacher said I’m a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a fuck if you fail me, I’m gonna follow/my heart…to the plaques or the stacks.” And in “School Spirit,” a similar sentiment: “Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business./They say ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished./ Chasin’ y’all dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.” But it’s in West’s music, not his lyrics, that the content of his real education is exposed.

In her Black Nose: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose argues that hiphop’s practice of sampling is a digital manifestation of longstanding Black cultural practices that privilege the curation and remix of available sounds into a new creation that is continuous with the old. She writes, “Rap production resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction” (75). Positioning the birth of hiphop as an artistic recovery in the face of the social and political traumas of the 1970s and ’80s, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd on 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. To Rose, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Sampling “is about paying homage…It is also a means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archaeology” (79). Recycling older musics in contemporary contexts “affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present'” (89). In Rose’s attention to literacy, research and history we see the basis for a pedagogy based on learning Black culture through sampling.

Rose quotes Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy who “offer[s his] lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of [his] approach” (81). Shocklee says, “In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music.” But “we have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do” (qtd in Rose 81-82). But Rose rejects Shocklee’s claims of his own ignorance. Instead, she argues, Shocklee

…is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm…Shocklee’s innocence is his lack of Western formal training….He, too, employs “knowledge” and musical strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned…(82)

If we extend Rose’s assessment of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we might see in Kanye West’s The College Dropout a similar false ignorance. By narrating his experience as a “college dropout” over a remixed soundtrack of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross, Kanye articulates a new cultural canon in the place of the White canon he abandoned when he left school.

Take, for example, “Jesus Walks,” a nearly perfect amalgamation of two seemingly dissimilar tracks–a gospel song and a soul ballad–against whose juxtaposition West triangulates an experience that refuses to settle into neatly religious or secular categories. The basis of “Jesus Walks'” beat is a looped sample of Arc Choir singing “Walk With Me”; the choir provides “Jesus Walks” with its familiar theology: “Jesus walk with me, with me, with me.” But West’s influences do not end there. With a very short vocal sample of the word “Nigga,” West directs us in his music–and, if we are reading closely, his album credits*–to Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Since the vocal sample here is so small, Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.'” With a single word from Curtis, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor.

Aretha Franklin, “Spirit in the Dark”

But the real portrait of a pedagogy rooted in what Rose calls “black cultural practice” is on West’s track “School Spirit.” The recycled chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” I hear his triumphalism as a revised, “Look Mom, I got an A!” In Franklin’s original, she sings of “getting the spirit in the dark.” She asks, “Tell me sister, how do you feel? …Do you feel like dancin’? Then get up and let’s start dancin’.” The song encourages its listeners to move to the Spirit within them, to pay no heed to what outsiders think. She instructs us to “Rise, Sally rise, put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”

While Franklin sings of eschewing conformity and “gettin’ the spirit in the dark,” West paints a portrait of college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” n a move reminiscent of Rose’s vision of rupture and continuity, West doctors Franklin’s vocals so that she sings under him of “People moving…in the dark.” It’s clear that for West, the “dark” was college. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine. West manages to parody on her original even as he honors it; “School Spirit” concludes with mock Black Fraternity rituals: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” In his sample of Aretha Franklin–and his triumphal repurposing of her “spirit” with a potent blend of homage and parody–West projects a new model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.

*And we know now, after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that West hopes we are reading his credits. For this (currently) penultimate album, credits and guest artists are printed on the inside of a fold-out poster in gold. Straight A’s.