Black Mirror: Black Actors without Blackness

Imagine if Black Mirror, instead of allowing its futuro-tech scenarios to unfold in a world with randomly casted actors of color but never any poverty or systemic racism, depicted a world actually like our own, where emergent and highly volatile technologies of murder, justice, and surveillance resonated (as emergent technologies always do) with racist, structurally reproduced legacies of colonialism, slavery, segregation, and the prison-industrial complex?

Now that would be scary.

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A still from Black Mirror’s S3 episode “Nosedive,” in which social media likes and relationships translate to real-world access to credit and loans. Image via The Verge

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TV, Politics, Race: What I’ve Been Reading, and Planning to Write

As usual, I’ve had the same 15 tabs open for 3 weeks, waiting…for what? For this blog post. I have trouble closing the links I’ve already read that seem so important I want to share them. Of course, you all have plenty to read already, so I think I’m just a digital hoarder.

I also have a nice long list on my phone of all the blog posts I want to write. I want to write about Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat and how amazing it is to see TV shows featuring immigrant families who don’t speak monolingually in their homes or on the shows: both shows feature multilingual families from Venezuela and Taiwan, respectively, where a grandmother always speaks in the home country’s language (Spanish and Mandarin) while their children and grandchildren respond in English, and everyone can understand each other. On Fresh Off the Boat, the middle generation–children of grandma and parents of grandkids–also switch into Mandarin when they don’t want people around them to understand. (For my rhet/compers out there, Cue: Canagarajah.) Large swaths of the hiphop musical melodrama Empire is also written in AAVE; I would love to see one of their scripts. How are they formatting and editing their dialogue?

Meanwhile, Fresh Off the Boat and Broad City are also showcasing the appropriation of black language by Asian-American kids and white women, respectively; recent episodes of both featured leads in t-shirts of rappers. Acutally, FOTB has its lead, Eddie, wearing a t-shirt with a rapper’s face almost constantly. There is so much richness on television for language scholars to talk about right now. And FOTB is explicitly decentering whiteness in a way I’ve never seen before – usually the white characters on the show sound like delusional crazy people – and Jane the Virgin treated migrants’ undocumented status in a way that was humane and a part of a storyline just like it’s a part of people’s lives.

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I also wanted to write a post about how I wish Spotify would stop spending all its engineers’ energy trying to predict what music I like, and instead do a 1000% better job saving, categorizing, and making accessible to me all the music I’ve already been listening to, so I can find my favorite albums and artist as easily as if this was my music library.

I have also been thinking about how much time I spend as a teacher in the classroom doing managerial work vs. actual teaching –things like giving and reviewing assignments, talking about how things will be graded, coordinating who is giving a presentation on what day, giving students instructions for in-class activities, and so forth. This question was spurned by my reading of Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, which had me thinking, how much of the managerialism of the contemporary writing program seeps into the classroom? How much of teaching is actually managing?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading…

Jeff Chang’s “From Basquiat to Jay-Z: How the Art World Came to Fully Embrace Hip-Hop,” in The Guardian

francine j. harris’s “Civilly Unseen” in the Blue Shift Journal

Julianne Hing’s “Fresh Off the Boat’s Rocky Relationship with Hip-Hop” on Colorlines

Michael S. Schmidt’s “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” in the New York Times

Isabel Shepherd’s “Examining the Lasting Effects of Wilmington’s 1898 Coup D’etat” on HQR News

“Security Researcher Christopher Soghoian on How to Use a Cellphone Without Being Spied On” on Democracy Now!

Kirby Wilson’s “Lack of Diversity Leads to Burden on Professors of Color” in The Chronicle

Richard Florida’s “A Painstaking New Study Reveals the Persistence of U.S. Racial Segregation” on The Atlantic’s Citylab

Ben Sisario’s “Industry Issues Intrude in ‘Blurred Lines’ Case” in the New York Times

Alicia Florrick Tho

still from season 6, "The Good Wife"

still from season 6, “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife is a show about a woman learning to wield her white privilege for her own ends. It is about her—this woman, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles), the “good wife” of a disgraced Chicago (of course) Attorney General (Chris Noth) learning what powers are available to her as a white upper-middle class woman, if she can accept the limits and insults that come with the role. In its interrogation of white female privilege, identity, and limitations the show is aptly named, because even as Florrick is the title character that moniker is itself defined by its relationship to a man, and by its value judgment around how well the woman, Florrick, plays the role she was cast in. The Good Wife.

Now we have watched Alisha for six seasons, from her start as a mild-mannered suburban housewife-turned-returnee to the workforce, through her years as an increasingly powerful lawyer at Lockhart Garndern, in her role as first lady when her disgraced husband pulled off a return to the governor’s mansion of Illinois (another great spot for a corrupt politician), to her new role in the current season, as a candidate for Attorney General of Chicago, to succeed her husband’s smug successor.

I started watching The Good Wife because my mom, my sister, and Emily Nussbaum told me to. My mom and my sister recommended The Good Wife even more highly than Scandal—in a television lull, I’d asked them which show to start—but it was the New Yorker’s Nussbaum whose glowing column sent me clicking to Amazon Prime. But what Nussbaum or her colleauge Josh Rothman never key into—and what may have tipped the scales for my mom and sister, though they never said so explicitly—was the way that The Good Wife interrogates the role of the white woman in professional-class society—a role the women in my family have tried to master—just as Olivia Pope toys with the limitations of being a black woman with power and prestige. I love watching Kerry Washington tease out the socio-cultural possibilities of Olivia Pope, but I don’t identify with them in the same way I do with Alicia Florrick, whose Bobbi Brown makeup pallette (amirite??) and deep brown hair stain are surely the same as my mother’s, a woman also married to a Chicago lawyer with enough friends and cousins in Highland Park to fill a big country club bat mitzvah.

shady people of color scheming on "The Good Wife" - still from season 6

shady people of color scheming on “The Good Wife” – still from season 6

In their sixth-season coverage for the New Yorker of The Good Wife, both Nussbaum and Rothman attend to Florrick’s increasing comfort with and facility in using her power, but neither see the way that it is specifically gendered and raced: Florrick’s power, I contend, is specifically the power (in our society, at least) of white women. It is the power of being a white lady. Let’s take a closer look at their two reviews. Rothman writes:

The longest plot arc in “The Good Wife” shows Alicia becoming more like Peter—that is, becoming more comfortable with the exercise of power, more elegantly invulnerable when she is being magnanimous. Part of that transformation entails coming to terms with her own privilege. Alicia starts out the show as an underdog, but, at the end of the first season, she draws on one of her husband’s connections to win a coveted position at work. When, a few years after he’s released from jail, Peter becomes the governor of Illinois, Alicia leverages that connection to secure clients.

She’s also privileged in subtler ways that she is less willing to admit. From her husband’s sex scandal, Alicia retains an air of innocence and vulnerability; women root for her, and men are attracted to her. For much of the show, she drifts in and out of a romantic relationship with Will Gardner, one of the partners at her law firm. When, as the governor-elect’s wife, Alicia starts her own firm, taking some of Will’s most valuable clients with her, he calls her out on her own mythos of innocence and victimhood: “You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are,” he says. Everyone, including Alicia, thinks that she’s a victim—but, in fact, she’s a predator, all the more dangerous for being stealthy.

In this accounting of Alicia’s coming to power, Rothman figures Alicia’s “stealth” as an aberration to her use of power, a quirk in comparison with her husband’s brash use of the throne. But I contend that her stealth is gendered—her “stealthy” danger, that wolf in sheep’s clothing, is her feminine use of power, power through flirting, through favors, through being nice. This is power in a “ban bossy” universe, where bossy women are bitches so Alicia has to be the bossy by flirting and cajoling to get her way, not demanding it.

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

Now here’s Nussbaum:

Alicia didn’t get the job [at Lockhart Gardner] because she was exceptional: an old law-school friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), promoted her over stronger candidates after she strategically flirted with him—a shady origin story that emerged slowly, over years. On “The Good Wife,” there is no success without corruption. The higher Alicia climbs—winning the second-year slot, making partner, leaving to start a new firm—the more compromised she becomes, and the more at ease with compromise. This applies to her marriage, also: it’s too valuable an asset for either spouse to abandon, even when they separate, when he is elected governor, and when she has an affair with Will. “You’re a brand! You’re St. Alicia,” Eli Gold, her husband’s chief of staff, tells her, begging her to run for office. Yet, despite everything, Alicia clings to her self-image as a heroine, a moral person in a godless universe. (Alicia Florrick is one of the rare explicitly atheist heroines on TV.)

Here again we see how the specifically feminine way Alicia starts her law career is folded into a larger narrative about corruption, collapsing Alicia’s crucial wielding of feminine power into a larger story about power. Similarly, the compromises Alicia has to make to retain that St. Alicia brand—namely, to stay in a sham marriage with a compulsive cheater—is the same compromise women have been making for millenia, just without the rewards.

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By the sixth season, in fact, Alicia Florrick has given up the delusion of her earlier years that she can or cares to help anyone—the delusion of white women living in the suburbs, which she doesn’t anymore. Instead, when asked point blank by her new campaign manager (who I am still waiting for her to sleep with) why she wants to run, she answers, “Because I can win.” The only trick to winning is to keep pretending she doesn’t care to. After an interview, Alicia comments to her new foil and “body woman,” Eli Gold’s brash Jewish daughter Marissa, “I don’t like being someone I”m not when I’m being interviewed.”

“Really?” Marissa says. “You’re good at it.”

Good at it in a way that a brash Jewish girl could never be, because to own white femininity is to be invisible, to make one’s power and pain invisible, to win just to win without anyone thinking you want anything at all.

People commend this show for its deft handling of race themes, because a series of minor issues which characters of color adds up to a discrimination lawsuit for Peter Florrick. What no critic seems to have noticed is how Florrick’s continued demotion of lawyers of color equals the show’s continued demotion of actors of color. There’s no neat way to handle that. The discrimination line is like saying “no offense.” Sorry, but it’s still offensive. But very deftly handled.

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[all the stills in this post are from season 6 episode 6, “Old Spice,” the most awesome and most feminist episode of the season, which features the show’s female stars almost exclusively. Alicia Florrick tho, but also Diane Lockhardt tho, Elsbeth Tasscione tho, and Kalinda Sharma tho. Fuck yah lady lawyers.]

iDialogues: on racism, the Clippers, and what to do now

[like you, I’ve been obsessively following this story for the last two days. what follows is a text message conversation I just had with a friend and major sports fan, supplemented with some of the texts we reference. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. -TB]

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via @BuzzFeedNews: “Clippers Turn Warmups Inside Out Before Playoff Game After Owner’s Racism Controversy”

https://twitter.com/tessalaprofessa/status/460492328541511680 https://twitter.com/tessalaprofessa/status/460492482136924162 photo1

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“We are pleased because we are pleasing”: Black Panties and The Body’s Grace

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via Pitchfork.com

Last weekend, in the car with two besties from Chicago, I asked a really buzzkill question when one of them started talking about R. Kelly’s new musical proposal, “Marry the Pussy.” Echoing the kind of infamous celebration of the new album that appeared in feminist publication Jezebel a few weeks ago, my friend insisted that “Marry the Pussy” was a celebration, what Jezebel writer Isha Aran called “a magnificent ode to pussy.”

“But,” I asked, the mood dying around me already, “…does the pussy have any agency?” Continue reading

Oh, Kanye, You Always Know Just What to Say

Kanye West wants to be heard.

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago's Millennium Park

Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park

He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around,  re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.

And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:

And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.

As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),

Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.

Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.

And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).

Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”

MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.

Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.

At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.

And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.

What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.

Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.

I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.

What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.

On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”

On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”

And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.

Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.

Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.”  Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”

I know that we the new slaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves

I see the blood on the leaves…

Get your piece today.

And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too  high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”

Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:

Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things”  as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.

Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.

As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice.  “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?

[Movie Review] Django Unremarkable

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Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, begins “somewhere in Texas, 1858.” A quirky German dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) stops a traveling band of slave traders to buy Django (Jamie Foxx). Turns out Schultz is a bounty hunter, and Django can identify a troupe of three brothers with bounties on their heads. After Django turns out to be a natural at shooting people, Schultz offers him a bargain: work with him through the winter for a third of their return, and at the end Schultz will go with Django to Mississippi to help find his wife, Broomhilda, who’s been sold to a notorious plantation there.

To recount the film’s underdeveloped themes would be an exercise in extension, not exegesis. The obvious themes of racism and revenge, culled from a vague sense of American history, are more relied on than created by the writing. The innovation of bringing a German into the foray–who can profess surprise at America’s “peculiar institution” while still profiting from it, by refusing to release Django immediately–was flimsy, and seemed some kind of subconscious apologia for the depiction of Germans in Inglorious Basterds. While nineteenth century Germany had colonialist and racist baggage of its own, Dr. Schultz anachronistically marvels at American racism even as he profits from it.

Indeed, much has already been made of the film’s trafficking in unsurprising racial stereotypes. Django’s limited dialogue for the bulk of the movie seems based on the notion that a slave only begins acquiring knowledge the moment he is released from bondage. Early exchanges between Django and Schultz are like a tired interrogation. “Could you recognize them?” “Yes.” “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?” “No.”

My problem with this kind of exchange is creative first, and only political second. By denying Django knowledge and agency, Tarantino denies his film a dynamic character. And by having Schultz constantly (and correctly) assume Django is dumb, the dialogue gets djumbed down not just for the freedman Django but for this tired audience member as well–I came prepared for rapid-fire dialogue about politics and culture and violence and loyalty, not a dozen tired lines wasted on “Do you know what a bounty hunter is?”

As the thematically underdeveloped dialogue washed over the theater, I tried to remember what I usually love about Tarantino’s movies, what about them makes me laugh, squirm, and gasp (in awe and in disgust) all at once.  Here’s what I came up with (and I’m interested to hear if you have other reasons for QT fan-dom):

1. Witty, culturally suprising dialogue between multiple clashing characters with opposing views and divergent ways of speaking and being (i.e., the opening scenes of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, in which groups of gangsters talk animatedly about Madonna and Big Macs, respectively);

2) The alternating normalization through dialogue and fetishization through violence of counter- or sub-cultural members of society (i.e., how that opening scene casual banter in Pulp Fiction is followed by another scene where the same characters perform highly stylized violence in a drab apartment populated by low level frat-boy drug dealers);

3) The potentially explosive agency of multiple armed and verbose characters at cross-purposes–I’m thinking here of climaxes in other films: Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo finally reckoning with her ex-husband Bill at the end of Kill Bill 2, when she’s spent two films trying to kill him, or the awesome scene near the end of Pulp Fiction when Samuel Jackson’s Jules has to talk down a couple of armed lovers trying to rob a diner during breakfast.

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4) The above all contribute to Tarantino’s trademark, the surprising timing and juxtaposition of violence, comedy, and drama–I will never forget laughing out loud when Jules and Vincent Vega accidentally shoot a hostage in the back of their car–“You shot Marvin!”–and then wondering how a murder could possibly have made me laugh.

5) Finally, there’s the visual spectacle of ninja-like warriors displaced into foreign cultural milieu: Vincent Vega dancing at a L.A. 50’s themed bar, Uma Thurman in a yellow track suit with a samurai sword in the snow, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) in the film projection room with designs to kill Hitler.

Always outlaws, Tarantino’s characters maintain the samurai’s code of violence and honor within the modern underworlds in which they operate. As such, the decision to make a Western about bounty hunters in the antebellum south is ambitious, but fitting for Tarantino’s sensibilities. Many Westerns begin, as Django Unchained does, “somewhere in Texas” before the start of the Civil War. While the traditional Western stays there, pushing the frontier, the law, and notions of morality and whiteness Westward, Tarantino’s main cultural innovation in his new film is to turn his protagonists back east. As they ride (incredibly quickly) from Texas to Tennessee, dragging the slave Django back into a land of laws which enslave black bodies like his, Tarantino reminds us that the old Westerns promote a nostalgia for the racist laws the frontier pushed west.

Yes, what is missing from this film isthe sense of  surprise that characterizes all of my list items above. Django ain’t surprising. The film’s main refrain–echoed by Jamie Foxx in promotional press–is how fun it is for a slave to kill white people. Oh, bore me some more. Revenge fantasies are fine–Tarantino’s made his name on them–but at least dress it up with some creativity.  The new film’s mild racism and its poor writing are related: think of Inglorious Basterds,  where the titular Basterds are a troupe of Jewish-American soldiers (including one called the Bear Jew) who hunt Nazis for scalps and carve swastikas on survivors’ foreheads. That’s an explicitly anti-racist take on WWII where Jews are recast from sniveling paupers to strong warriors, and where violence is vindictive but also creative and funny by drawing on counter-racist tropes of Jews as gold-wearing guidos and baseball successes. If I make one political speculation here it’s this: in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino and his producers show far more concern for celebrating Jewish strength and independence–and explicitly avoiding the depiction of their pain–than they do for African-Americans in Django Unchained. In this new film, black bodies are routinely brutalized on screen and there are only two black characters with real lines, both men, and only one a hero. No troupe of revisionist black heroes here: most of the slaves in the film are silent: literally dumb. It’s as though faced with the enormous thematic universe of American slavery and plantations and bodies-for-cash, Tarantino thought he didn’t have to do any interpretive work himself. The white people are either evil and racist, or conflicted and complacent; the slaves are stupid, angry, or race traitors.

The Western turned eastward is the film’s only surprise, Leonardo Dicaprio’s Monsieur Candie its only outstanding performer– and it’s a testament to DiCaprio’s skill that he could fashion such an outstanding villain out of the tired trappings of slaveholder’s apologia. Confusing structure, underdeveloped themes, reliance on assumption. Some laughs, interesting visuals. Grade: Blech.

“If This Is Your First Time Hearing This”: Listening in on The College Dropout in the (Privileged) College Classroom

[Note:  This is the 20-page writing sample I submitted with my PhD application this fall. On that document, I invited readers to view it here, in its native online format, so I can fill it with the hyperlinks and video clips it deserves.  Feel free to leave comments below – I hope to expand it in the future, and I’ll be glad to hear what you think. -TB]

            1. Intro: Writing #HipHop

Hiphop is practice and forms. It’s those fine arts: graffiti, breakdance, DJing, rap, dropping science—that is, philosophy. Hiphop is also community style: swagger, dress, language, belief.

American rap music is four-beat poetry composed in vernacular English and delivered over looped and remixed jazz, funk, and soul. These layered fruits of the DJ and the emcee constitute a music, a literature, and a discourse.

#HIPHOP is a hashtag. Like so much in hiphop, #hiphop is a creative deployment of a (Twitter) technology not designed for but coopted by youth voices of color. #Hiphop is an orthographic unity movement, a search function that describes a community. #Hiphop is new media organizing, because it organizes information. #HIPHOP is why I spell it hiphop.

Hiphop is a teacher. Hiphop songs and style unfurl alternative lessons for inquisitive eyes and ears, articulating counter-hegemonic norms and ways of being. Hiphop’s pedagogies are sung, spoken, remixed, reused, danced, acted, and scribbled on walls; its lessons are interdisciplinary, practical, organic, grassroots. Hiphop drops science, but also history, statistics, emotional skills. The cipher is a classroom: participatory, demonstrative, collaborative. The cipher thrives on argument, persuasion, and style.

Hiphop is created, extended, and disseminated—that is, written—across American media every day. As the subject for a college writing course, hiphop exploits students’ extracurricular interests by tapping into their pop culture universe. But relevance is just the hook. Writing hiphop demands close reading, listening, and watching; management of multiple registers; and mastery of form, style, and proof. Hiphop pedagogy is a teaching practice that uses hiphop texts to engage and educate, but hiphop has its own lessons to share. Hiphop’s pedagogies are critical, democratic, and liberatory for all people: dropouts and valedictorians, students and teachers. On his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye West remixes education to articulate critical lessons with relevance for all students.

 

            2. Something So Cold

Yes, I teach a Kanye class. At the University of Michigan I teach a freshman writing course called “College Writing on The College Dropout,” which uses West’s 2004 debut album and an interdisciplinary set of thematically related texts as the basis for college-level writing and inquiry. On the second day of class, names shared and practiced, we review the rhetorical triangle. Then we listen to the album’s first song, entitled “We Don’t Care.”

            In our discussion, the rhetorical triangle quickly proves prescient. West speaks of “we” and “you,” “us” and “they.” He begins, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold.” If we don’t know the stories he tells, he wants us to listen—and bring a coat. “The second verse is for my dogs working nine to five who still hustle.” But if we already know the story Kanye tells, well, this track’s for us, too. Weeks later, some students will question this track’s rhetorical stance in their first paper, a close reading. They’ll discover that West has two audiences: “us,” lower income African-Americans adopting a variety of extra-legal measures to “get by,” and “you,” the folks in charge of the failing schools and the overcrowded buses. My students find that West uses the first-person plural to express solidarity with his urban community of hustlers, and the first person possessive—“my dawgs,” “my niggas,” “my

people”—to express affection for them, just as he uses “you” to address a nebulous oppressor.

Later in the semester, my students read the first chapter of Tricia Rose’s seminal rap study Black Noise. Many of them white and Asian-American, students notice Rose’s treatment of white listeners; she insists rap is a fundamentally “black idiom that prioritizes black culture” (4). Yet Rose acknowledges that “black culture in the United States has always had elements that have been at least bifocal—speaking to both a black audience and a larger predominantly white context. Rap music shares this history of interaction” (5). In this moment, Rose lays ground on which to examine rap as speaking not only to the African-American community but to other Americans as well. She recognizes rap’s attention as bifurcated between “a black audience and a…white context.” This dual focus could be used to explain West’s explicit concern both for sympathetic black listeners as well as uninformed suburbanites, out of touch with the inner city yet somehow still here, now, listening.

Once this duality is introduced, however, Rose moves quickly to dismiss white participation in hiphop. She writes:

Like generations of white teenagers before them, white teenage rap fans are listening in on black culture, fascinated by its differences, drawn in by mainstream socia constructions of black culture as a forbidden narrative, as a symbol of rebellion…. 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)

Rose makes clear she doesn’t believe rap is for “white teenage rap fans.” She describes them as “listening in,” “fascinated” by the “forbidden,” eavesdropping on a conversation that is not theirs. Lost is the notion from only a paragraph before that a “bifocal” rapper could take advantage of a diverse audience, codeswitching between adressing a peer group and a body of outsiders whose directly addressed “you” is more than a rhetorical straw man. Instead, Rose appeals to “cultural difference” to undercut the possibility of “young white listeners’ genuine pleasure and commitment.” Citing “some rappers,” Rose invokes white “dilution and theft” without taking responsibility for this accusation, only mentioning that it contains “a grain of truth.” Despite her fleeting awareness that rap also speaks to those white folks just “listening in,” Rose’s priority in her introduction is to celebrate and augment rap’s blackness at the expense of hiphop culture’s openness to diversity.

In their efforts to understand themselves as rap fans, my students find an unlikely ally in black liberation theologian James Cone. Many of my students are alienated at first by Cone’s pro-black rhetoric and his assault on the logic of white supremacy. In his The Spirituals and the Blues: A Theological Interpretation, Cone writes that “black music must be lived before it can be understood” (3). At first this stress on experience seems alienating, as though Cone means to suggest that only African-Americans can appreciate black music. Cone writes that “an authentic interpretation of black music [demands] having shared and participated in the experience that created it” (3). He calls for our emotions and sympathies, and even or our participation, if we are to interpret his community’s music. To understand the power of the slave spirituals, Cone writes, “‘academic tools are not enough”:

The interpreter must feel the Spirit; that is, one must feel one’s way into the power of black music, responding both to its rhythm and to the faith in experience it affirms. This song invites the believer to move close to the very sources of black existence, and to experience the black community’s power and the will to survive. (4)

For Cone, good analysis is affective, and  true understanding depends not on “academic[s]” but on empathy. He considers the spiritual refrain, “Every time I feel the spirit/ Moving in my heart I will pray” (4). For Cone, there is no understanding of those lines for the interepreter who cannot “feel the spirit moving” for herself.

Kanye West’s debut album opens with an invitation to empathy that resonates closely with the problems posed by Cone. West raps, “If this is your first time hearing this, you are about to experience something so cold” (“We Don’t Care”).  In West’s estimation, powerful storytelling can close the gap between ignorance and understanding. The affect, like the rhyme, is imperfect, but it’ll do: “hearing this” constitutes “experience,” and West’s story is “so cold,” he expects the audience to shiver. Kanye’s opening track paints a portrait of economic blight and institutional racism, and, like Cone’s spiritual, invites outsiders “close to the very sources of [contemporary] black existence, and to experience the black community’s…will to survive.” That is why Kanye has children sing of “drug dealing just to get by” (“We Don’t Care”). He invites us to experience the irony and absurdity of these children’s daily choices. Reading Cone together and listening to Kanye’s tracks in class, my students and I are able to use the vividness of West’s stories as affective entry points. If we can empathize, we may begin to understand.

           

            3. Interlude: Whitey on the Web    

Last January, I sat down at my computer one morning to discover that writer dream hampton had begun tweeting about Zora Neale Hurston and all of Black Twitter was abuzz. Around 11:45, hampton tweeted a string of three comments that compared Hurston’s “radical…privileging of ‘black talk’” [this tweet now deleted] to the increasing canonization of hiphop texts in writing.

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 + (hampton)

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 (hampton)

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

I responded to these organic, intellectual tweets with fear and exhilaration. Exhilaration to watch organic scholarship and discourse be created in real time in a digital medium—but fear, too, at my own position as a white scholar instructing largely nonblack student populations to write and read hiphop. Writing about hampton’s tweets on my blog, Hiphopocracy (from which this article is adapted), I expressed anxiety that I was one of Rose’s purveyors of “dilution and theft”:

…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? (Brown)

Whining aside, hampton’s and my anxieties are valid—mine that I am an interloper, and hers that hiphop’s living arts are not just being “canonized” but entombed. I don’t share hampton’s fear that “books abt it” will or could ever “be more important [than] rap itself,” but she is right that Jay-Z’s self-exegesis Decoded (which hampton co-wrote) makes space for distant writers like me to reply here, on the page, in writing. So too with Hurston’s language. While Hurston “privileged [African-American] oral traditions,” she also wrote them down. In the context of hampton’s tweets, Hurston’s acts of transcription acquire a Pyrrhic quality: by translating oral speech for the page, Hurston’s talent propelled her black female voice into the American canon, even as this affirmed the western valuation of writing over speech.

My white students arrive for class the first day expecting a teacher of color who can authenticate their love for rap, only to find a white woman balancing on the same rickety racial pontoon as they. I have legitimacy only affirm my students’ “genuine pleasure and commitment.” Hiphop spits America’s open secrets, and dialoguing with rap in the classroom gives students of all races an opportunity and a language in which to discribe the racialized universe that all of our America. I hope that by closing the cognitive gap between the hiphop music we listen to and the voices and experiences that created it, we learn to practice empathy.

 

                        4. Hiphop’s (Critical) Pedagogies    

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, educator Paolo Freire writes of abandoning a “banking system” of education, where the teacher deposits her knowledge into her students, in favor of a decolonized classroom where students learn to ask questions of their own. Writing from 1960s Brazil, Freire’s suggestions are designed to awaken dehumanized peasants in the context of a deeply unequal society, a process he promises will open the minds of the powerful as well. As Freire writes, “oppression is domesticating” (51). If such a power divide exists in contemporary America, my classroom falls on the powerful side. Of course, this awareness begs for diversity and for community service. But it also raises the immediate question of who in our classroom will question our privilege. While my students populations are often diverse across ethnic, religious, and class lines, I would suggest that no student who makes it to the University of Michigan is truly marginal or abides by strongly counterhegemonic norms. Though one could be marginalized at the university, the elite university is itself at the center of power. Rose argues that “rap music… prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America” (2), and so one way for us to welcome marginalized voices into our classroom is to do that very thing Rose bemoans and “[listen] in” on rap. My students bring a lot of cultural baggage into the classroom. But by patiently listening to thoughtful rap songs (a subset, that is, of all rap songs), close reading them on their own terms and allowing our presuppositions to be challenged, we “become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (Freire 80).

Freire prescribes teaching with “themes” culled from students’ own lives (96). And despite my students’ successes, the critical questions asked of American educational norms on The College Dropout resonate deeply. Questions like: Why am I in college? Is education as important as networking? Why can’t I just pursue my passion? To engage students critically, my classroom uses “hiphop pedagogy”—that is, the utilization of hiphop culture in the classroom, often toward activist, critical, or motivational ends.  But rap isn’t just an empty chair to dialogue with—its music and lyrics speak back. A study of West’s album The College Dropout reveals a critical pedagogy of its own. As the album’s producer and chief lyricist, Kanye West moves past cricicism into creation. He uses the Afrodiasporic cultural practices of sampling, repetition, and remix to propose an organic black education based in the study and privileging of African-American cultural texts.

On the surface, West’s album presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college setting West rejects throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to drop  my ass up outta college” (“Get Em High”). The second is the education in the streets, what West in a later album terms the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Tre’s scholarship” (“We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education largely corresponds to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In Anderson’s 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 reject it. In my course, we use Anderson’s study to contextualize many of the practices and norms West describes. On an album titled The College Dropout, West’s central thematic concern is to negotiate these opposing attitudes about school.

West resolves the constricting school-vs-street dyad by creatively advocating for a third way, one which rejects both the conformity of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to abandon 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.” Volleying an alliterative line of F (you)’s toward his teacher, West suggests that rejecting the authority of the school is only the first in a series of aggressive moves toward self-realization. Like many rappers, West reserves the second person for enemies and haters. On other tracks “you” is an unnamed white oppressor class, and above we see it leveraged against his teaacher. But in “School Spirit,” West expands his attack to all those who uncritically accept hegemonic norms. “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.” Here West reveals that the oppressor is not a people but an ideal: the homogenizing forces of “y’all dreams and what you got planned.” He fights back with his fiery lyrics, but the site of his ultimate education is not articulated in language. It’s West’s music which details his education and in turn educates us.

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 social and political traumas on the 1970s and ’80s urban landscape, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. Black culture’s continuity, adaptibility, and polyvocal capabilities, along with a new generation’s awareness of and sensitivity to social rupture, are “inscribed in hiphop style” (21). Hiphop aesthetics are an artistic response to social devastation. But hiphop also affirms the continuity of Black cultural life. 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 teaching and 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” (qtd in Rose 81-82). And yet, Shocklee suggests, black producers “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). Refusing to take the producer at his word, Rose rejects Shocklee’s appeals to his own ignorance. Instead, Rose 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 recategorization of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we discover a similar false ignorance in the music of The College Dropout. 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 western canon he abandoned when he left school.

On “School Spirit,” Kanye’s lyrics criticize mainstream education even as his music curates a new canon. The opening chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” over the sped-up sample. I hear West’s triumphalism as delight at the success of his signifying, brazen as it is played against the work of a revered master like Aretha. 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 may think. Franklin instructs us to “put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”

While Franklin preaches personal freedom, West’s lyrics portray college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” In a move that calls on Rose’s frameworks 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” is college and these blind, grasping figures are college students. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine, and West manages to parody her original even as he honors it. Ending “School Spirit” with mock Black Fraternity rituals, West parodies Franklin’s composition: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” West’s version relocates Franklin’s religious frenzy into a fraternity setting, revealing the “spirit” in “school spirit” to be misplaced and absurd. By juxtaposing his own criticism against Franklin’s religiosity, West’s music expresses the complex revelation that spirit is personal, not institutional.

In “Jesus Walks,” Kanye again draws on church and secular influences to triangulate an an inner-city theodicy. The basis of  the“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,” and grants the track its pleading, earnest tone. The song’s other lyrical sample is a very short vocal clip of Curtis Mayfield crying out, “Niggas!” With one word, West directs us in his music—and, if we are reading closely, his album credits—to Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go, ” from which the single shouted slur is lifted. Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.’” West is relocating Mayfield’s “niggas” to present day Chicago, “the valley of the Chi where death is” (“Jesus Walks”). “Niggas” is like a hyperlink that guides us back to Mayfield’s song, where we discover that “Jesus Walks” contains broad thematic parallels to “(Don’t Worry).” While Mayfield also bemoans urban violence and ignorance, he is less optimistic than West regarding the possibility of salvation. By using sampling to point listeners to Mayfield and to gospel music, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor and the faith of a religious community.

By remixing Black cultural sounds, icons, and tropes, West situates himself within the canon of his community and his choice. In his sampling, West proves himself a master signifier, highlighting irony and absurdity with single words while repackaging his musical heroes for a new generation of listeners. By creating content he moves from a student of black culture to a teacher. West schools us via an alternative model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.

 

                        6. The N-Word               

                  

The comedian Louis C.K., in his relentless interrogation of white privilege, does a bit on language that offends him.

The thing that offends me the most is every time I hear the n-word. Not “nigger,” by the way, I mean [he makes broad air quotes] “the n-word.” Literally. Whenever a white lady on CNN with nice hair says “the n-word.” That’s just white people getting away with saying “nigger.” That’s all that is….When you say “the n-word,” you put the word “nigger” in the listener’s head. That’s what saying a word is….You’re making me say it, in my head! Why don’t you fucking say it, and take responsibility for the shitty words you want to say. (C.K.)

In C.K.’s estimation, “n-word” is an irresponsible euphemism, a transparent stand-in that falsely absolves the speaker of dealing with grave and explosive language. His reference to an imaginary anchor on cable news network CNN highlights not just the ubiquity of this euphemism but also the prominence, in outline, of the slur which has been visibly removed from our view.

The answer to C.K.’s rhetorical question, “why don’t you fucking say it?” is important, because the refusal to pronounce nigger aloud has become a cultural phenomenon of its own, most notably after 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was discovered to have owned a hunting lodge called “Niggerhead.” Media reports, featuring seasoned news anchors in panic as they discussed Perry’s racist ranch, “N-word-head” (e.g., see Stewart), seemed like comedy sketches C.K. wrote to make his point. “The n-word” is a three-syllable, two-word hyphenate that stands in for one word with two syllables whose power is affirmed when it is ignored. Like “f-word,” “n-word” is juvenile and betrays its sayer’s fear of transgression. “N-word” marks a site where white anxiety over one’s own racism manifests as self-censorship.

Writing in GRANTLAND, Alex Pappademas describes pop singer Katy Perry covering the Kanye West and Jay-Z collaboration track “Niggas in Paris” by dubbing the title phrase “Ninjas in Paris.” Describing Perry’s “tee-hee transgression,” Pappademas is inclined to applaud

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; [Perry] 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… (Pappademas)

Watching the video proves Pappademas right: despite Perry’s Yankees cap and the deep lunges from which she belts Jay and Ye’s lines, Perry’s usual charisma and stage presence are absent. Her shout-out to her ninjas belies a larger unwillingness to take the song seriously, to rap it with her head up, to allow the transgressiveness of her own act fill up her chest and shoulders so that instead of suggesting (as Pappademas thinks her cover does) that her failed celebrity marriage “was as bad as being married to the legacy of centuries of racism,” Perry’s cover would have embraced genuine empathy for what it means to be noveau-riche and still discriminated against in the cultural capitol of the western world.

On the same tip, Rembert Browne describes a Jay-Z concert in Austin.

And then it happened. [Jay-Z began his song] “Jigga My N—-.” … I did a quick scan of the room…Good lord, there were a lot of white people in here.… Once the chorus kicked in, this crowd had about six seconds to decide which direction they were going with the lyrics:

Crowd: Jigga

Jay: What’s my motherfuckin name?

Crowd: Jigga

Jay: And who I’m rolling with, huh?

It is at this point that Jay-Z almost complicates the situation by gesturing to the crowd that he wants to hear us say “it.” As a former sociology major, what happens in that room when the next lyric is “my n—-” is what I dream about… Some would never say it because they were raised not to and wouldn’t dream of changing simply because it’s a lyric, some will go from screaming the previous lyrics to mumbling “n—-” really softly, others will substitute it for another word like “jigga” or “friend” or “associate,” and others will scream it at the top of their lungs because, quite frankly, it’s a free country. (Browne)

First off, let’s note the orthographic confusion that remains after “n-word” has been abandoned. Browne (or his editor) chooses hyphens to partially obscure the offending word, “n—–,” though “motherfuckin” is spelled in full. Elsewhere in the same publication, Pappademas writes of Katy Perry’s encounters with a heavily-asterisked “N**** in Paris.” On the album materials for Watch the Throne, the song title appears as “Ni**s in Paris.” The g’s are not silent—there are no g’s at all (too gangsta?); instead, asterisks are pronounced as g’s, in which case “Niggas in Paris” may actually be a misspelling of the correct song title.

This confusion in spelling is sonically paralleled by the Jay-Z fans in Austin: asterisks or dashes, “jigga” or “friend”? Or just silence? While my students are not welcome to casually swear or slur in class, our classroom is a censoring-free space. Like the rap fans Browne describes,  my students develop a variety of strategies for coping with this newfound freedom. When they want to quote an obscenity-laced line aloud, some students will side-step or make a little beep noise or substitute “guys” or “mmhmm” or “F.” In his You Know My Steez, sociolinguist H. Samy Alim examines hiphop language usage in high school students. He notices with alarm the “ways in which educators attempt to silence BL [Black Language] in White public space by inculcating speakers of heterogeneous language varieties into…White ways of speaking” (xxiii). In small ways, respecting rap as literature in the classroom asks a “white public space” to respect otherized ways of speaking, and (more importantly) to reckon seriously with what those others have to say. Drawing again on Rose, we could read Jay-Z’s procative placements of “nigga” as bifocal: a single word doubling as a shout-out to African Americans (or whomever else is down) and also a pointed challenge to outsiders. American media’s wilful silence, powerful men and women almost literally putting  their fingers in their ears to chant “n-n-n-n-n-n-n-word,” is an evasion that sends confusing mixed messages to young people who want to talk about race in a relevant way. I’ll never force a student to swear. But I hope that confronting sharp language instead of ignoring it at least invites students to consider what a centuries-old racial slur is doing at the center of an ongoing national linguistic debate.

Facing Kanye’s real language in class is preparation for writing about it at home; “nigga” is sometimes central to the meaning of a song. One early writing assignment asks students to compare two versions of Kanye’s track “All Falls Down.” Students always do a remarkable job cataloguing miniscule differences between the two versions, and the themes of “materialism and  insecurity” appear frequently, but it’s the deeper message of the song which proves elusive: that after centuries of white supremacy, black consumerism is a failed attempt at self-recovery.

It seems we livin’ the American dream,

But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem

The prettiest people do the ugliest things

For the road to riches and diamond rings.

We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us–

We tryna buy back our forty acres–

And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop:

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga, in a [coupe/coop]. (West “All Falls Down”)

My shrewd student readers notice this excerpt’s painful final pun, as West suggests that not even a Mercedes can rescue his fellow African-American men from an echoing history of judgment and containment. But the closest readers begin to notice that the pun on “coop/coupe” actually creates a pun on “nigga.” The Mercedes-Benz “coupe” implies the slur’s contemporary intra-black usage, that is, what black men like West can call one another: “my nigga.” But the “nigga in a coop” harkens to the originary usage of this word, that word which absurdly denoted property and was even more absurdly reappropriated by those possessions who were not.

In his “On the Question of Nigga Authenticity,” critical theorist R.A.T. Judy links the linguistic shift from “nigger” to “nigga” with African-Americans’ shifting place within the American economy: from forced labor to forced unemployment. In Judy’s estimation, “nigger” was the potential for labor, bought and sold via the bodies of slaves:  “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” (Judy 109). Judy’s definition locates the nigger in the coop, as property held for its industrial force. But as the agrarian and then the industrial economy collapsed, so too did the value of the nigger; what replaced him was the nigga. Glossing rapper Ice-T, Judy situates the nigga in the present, in “the age of hypercommodification, in which experience has not become commodified, it is commodity”—these days, experience isn’t what you’re doing, but what you’re consuming—“and nigga designates the scene, par excellence, of commodification, where one is among commodities. Nigga is a commodity affect” (111).  Whereas nigger is a possession, “the thing that the planter owns,” nigga is the feeling of being for sale, of being “among commodities,” displayed among the other saleable goods. In the context of West’s “All Falls Down,” Judy locates the nigga in the Mercedez-Benze coupe. According to Judy, the authentic nigga is the nigga selling, not buying, nigga affect: the one who understands so well “the nature of experience in a global economy” that he can abstract his affect from his experience and sell it to other consumers. “That’s why I’m not bitter,” raps Ice-T: “cause everybody is a nigga to a nigga” (qtd in Judy 112).

Unlike Judy and Ice-T, however, West seems to believe in the communicability of affect through storytelling. In “All Falls Down,” he struggles against his own commodification:

Man I promise, I’m so self-conscious

That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.

Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy

I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that Versazy!

Then I spent fo’ hundred bucks on this

Just to be like, “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!”

And I can’t even go to the grocery store

Without some One’s that’s clean, and a shirt with a team

It seems we livin’ the American dream…. (West “All Falls Down”)

West’s music fights against the hiphop precendent set by gangsta rap. In Judy and Ice-T’s world, being “self-conscious” is valuable in that becoming concious of oneself allows one to package that self and sell it: “Nigga, you ain’t up on this!” But West’s lyrics push beyond simple affect into complex feeling: being a commodity “done drove me crazy” and is infringing upon his real life—he “can’t even go to the grocery store.” The nigga affect is not what West wants to sell. That package, with its watches and Nike Ones, proves illusory; it “all falls down.” And pursuing that image isn’t worth it, only “seems…the American dream”: “Even … in a Benz, you still a nigga.” Despite Judy’s qualified celebration of the nigga affect as a genius act of self-commodification, West rejects that project with a sharp, simple pun. West rejects inhabiting the image of the “nigga in the coupe” because of “nigg[er] in the coop” he conjures. The men in the coupe and the coop are both trapped by definitions they did not devise, chained to a centuries-old capitalist enterprise which constrains and commodifies young black men.

Judy’s study is limited to African-Americans, but it needn’t be. He writes, “A nigga is what emerges from the demise of human capital, what gets articulated when the field nigger loses value as labor” (Judy 104). While African laborers were forced to America, Chinese, Mexican, and southern and eastern European bodies were also only welcomed for their value as labor. In the wake of deindustrialization, Ice-T names the last option for workers: the killing fields. “The killing fields, then,” Judy writes, “are the place of non-work for complete consumption of needless workers” (104). We might expand Ice-T’s killing fields—the violent inner city, where young black men murder each other—to various modern killing factories: the prison system, the war machine, the obesity industry. Near the heart of her novel Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich writes of a Native American man who keeps escaping from prison: “Gerry’s problem, you see, was he believed in justice, not laws. He felt he had paid for his crime, which was done in a drunk heat and to settle the question with a cowboy of whether a Chippewa was also a nigger” (197). In Erdrich’s fictional study of indigenous Americans, “nigger” marks the site where justice and laws diverge and racism divides the powerful from the imprisoned. In Gerry’s case, that “he had paid for his crime” is irrelevant; his imprisonment proves the cowboy’s insult. A “Chippewa is a nigger” as long as the laws grant his body to the prison.

All killing fields create capital through the destruction of bodies and therefore depend on language to prep bodies of color through slur and dehumanization:  we should not be surprised at white Americans’ creative use of nigger to describe a spectrum of African, Asian, and Arab bodies when American industrial practices of war and prison enact that disdain on foreign and American nonwhite bodies every day. Nor should we be shocked at nonblacks’ reactive appropriation of nigga to describe themselves and one another. In fact, according Judy, nigga is a transcendant act: recognizing ourselves dehumanized but still human “liberates significance from experience” (105): we are more than the killing fields. In a post-work America, nigger and nigga are the linguistic indicators of a continued effort to normalize dehumanizing and destroying nonwhite bodies for capital gain. When West samples “Niggas” from Curtis Mayfield, (itseslf a relocation of a kind of pernicious slave word), West affirms that racism’s ability to commodify and constrain young black men has persisted from Mayfield’s time into our own.

          

            9. Outro: Generation Hustle            

In his essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” which my students and I read near the end of our semester, Chinua Achebe writes of the surprising linguistic gifts of colonialism in Africa. The colonization of Africa, he writes, gave Africans “a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing.” At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who brings the conversation to the U.S.A.

My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter another way…. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test. (Baldwin qtd in Achebe 102)

For many of my students, this is their first introduction to a postcolonial worldview, one in which English itself is to be questioned. And English has surely given hiphop what Achebe calls “a tongue for sighing”—and for swearing, spitting, and storytelling. In hiphop, English can “bear the burden” of the African-American experience with the support of sounds, rhythm, and community. And in challenging English, to use Baldwin’s words, hiphop has challenged not just American language but also culture aand consciousness to open itself up  to the experience of the post-industrial inner city. For the open-hearted, hearing can be believing.

In the first verse on The College Dropout, Kanye raps,

Sittin in the hood like community colleges

This dope money here is Lil’ Tre’s scholarship.

Cuz ain’t no tuition for having no ambition,

And ain’t no loans for sitting your ass at home. (“We Don’t Care”)

Our classroom jury is still out on Lil Tre’s designs: does he really need money for school, or is Kanye using the language of a financed education—scholarship, tuition, loans—for ironic effect, as Lil Tre tries to make something of himself in the hood? For my students, among whom loans are no metaphor, Kanye’s figurative equivalence between the drug hustle and the college hustle cuts both ways. By comparing college with the hood, Kanye highlights the ubiquity of financial struggle in any modern young person’s life. And by using Ivory Tower language to describe the block, West invites privileged listeners to empathize with another group of Americans striving, he insists, just as hard as y’all college kids.

In their book Decoded, Jay-Z and dream hampton declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles” (18). Hustling may be universal, but it feels especially relevant to my generation (Smith). We hustle to get into college, to get good grades, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10). If Jay-Z is right, the universality of the hustle may be a major entrance point for all contemporary young people into the empathetic universe of hiphop. “Seventy percent of… students at the University of Michigan receive some form of financial aid” (“Frequently Asked Questions”) and, as Kanye says, “ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home” (“We Don’t Care”). Absurdity, commodification, self-consiousness, the fear that “it all falls down”—these anxieties are permanent features of postmodern existence, available to every American with a credit card and TV. Privilege is relative, hustling is essential, and hiphop has heard it all before. And it has lessons to teach us, if we’ll listen.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “The African Writer and the English Language.” Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays. Anchor Press (1975): New York. Print.

Alim, H. Samy. You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. Ed. Ronald R. Butters. Annual Supplement to American Speech, no. 89. Duke University Press for the American Dialect Society (2004): United States.  Print.

Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. W. W. Norton & Company (2000): New York. Print.

Brown, Tessa. (8 January 2012). “You white bitches, cont’d.” Hiphopocracy. Blog Post. https://hiphopocracy.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/you-white-bitches-contd/

Browne, Rembert. (13 March 2012). “SXSW Recap: An Awkward Moment at that Jay-Z Concert.” Grantland. Web article. http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/45677/sxsw-monday-recap-an-awkward-moment-at-that-jay-z-concert

C.K., Louis, director. (2000). Chewed Up. United States: Image Entertainment. DVD.

Cone, James H. The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. Orbis Books (2009): Maryknoll, New York. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine. Harper Perennial (2009): New York. Print.

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. The Continuum International  Publishing Group Inc (2000): New York. Print.

hampton, dream (@dreamhampton). “may come to be more important that rap itself. It’s a continuing of privileging culture w/written texts over those whose impt texts are oral”. 7 January 2012, 8:21 AM. Tweet.

— “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 +”. 7 January 2012, 8:19 AM. Tweet.

— “Zora occupied language. She occupied the front porchers of storytellers. She was a listener. She privileged our oral traditions.” 7 January 2012, 8:22 AM. Tweet.

Jay-Z. Decoded. Spiegel & Grau (2010): New York. Print.

Mayfield, Curtis. “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Curtis [Original Recording Reissued, Original Recording Remastered]. Rhino, 2000. Audio CD.

Pappademas, Alex. (20 March 2012). “Ninja: A Short History of a Less Troublesome Word.” Grantland. Web article. http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/46020/ninja-a-short-history-of-a-less-troublesome-word

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press. Print.

Smith, Mychal Denzel. (25 September 2011). “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” Good. Web article. http://www.good.is/posts/how-jay-z-inspired-a-generation-of-hustlers/

Stewart, Jon. (3 October 2011). “The Amazing Racism.” The Daily Show. Web video clip. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-october-3-2011/the-amazing-racism .

“Frequently Asked Questions.” University of Michigan Office of Financial Aid. Retrieved 2 November 2012. http://www.finaid.umich.edu/TopNav/AboutUMFinancialAid/FrequentlyAskedQuestions.aspx)

Watch the Throne (Jay-Z and Kanye West). Audio CD Album Booklet. Watch the Throne. Def Jam, 2011. Print.

West, Kanye. “All Falls Down.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.

—“Get Em High.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.

—“Jesus Walks” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.

—“School Spirit.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.

—“We Don’t Care.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. Audio CD.

Rap is Bootstraps Music – with @OReillyFactor , @CeeLoGreen, @Spotify, @JayZ , @GovMikeHuckabee and other odd bedfellows

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s electoral loss to President Obama on Tuesday, conservative pundits, politicians and power players have been asking themselves and each other what went wrong. According to Dylan Byers’s recent feature on POLITICO, the right is playing a mega round of blame game, with a few possible scapegoats. Moderates put the far-right at fault for alienating voters with extreme rhetoric; the far right blame moderates and Romney himself for failing to persuasively represent conservative values.

Far-right conservatives like Bill O’Reilly suggest that conservatives don’t need to change their message but refine their voice in a way that awakens the electorate to its wrongheaded approach to government. On Tuesday, as Obama’s win became clear, O’Reilly presented this view on FOX news: “The voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff….You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” (qtd in Byers).

Efforts to characterize President Obama as the “food-stamp president” have been decried as an extension of the Southern Strategy, that is, a coded effort to stoke white racist fears about the black electorate by subtly demonizing black Americans as takers, not doers. However, O’Reilly’s comments on election night suggest that he’s fully internalized his party’s strategery: he believes that Latinos, African-Americans, and women are all takers: “they want stuff,” and President Obama is the candidate who “is going to give them things.”

If, like me, you are a person who listens to and thinks about rap music a lot, you may be able to anticipate the argument I want to make right now: that rap espouses a do-it-yourself, take nothing from no one, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude about work–that is, a conservative attitude about work–and in its discussions of hustling and getting by reveals that people of color keep ending up on the socioeconomic bottom not because they’re lazy but because of institutional and structural prejudices that keep them out of jobs, out of neighborhoods with better schools, in jail for longer for the same crime, and so on.

To be honest, I’m way too busy to write the post right now this argument deserves. But here are some texts I’m thinking about:

Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which says that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles : the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18).

“Get By” by Talib Kweli

“We Don’t Care” by Kanye West – “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ and ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home/So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job/ You gotta do somethin, man, yo ass is grown!”

“Git Up, Git Out, Git Something” by Outkast ft. Goodie Mob

Michal Denzal Smith’s How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers

Jeremiah Goulka’s “Confessions of a Former Republican”

So many rap songs belong in this argument–I started thinking about last week, after my advanced class listened to Outkast’s “Git Up,” which features four 24-line verses each by a different rapper and each with a very different picture of what it means to “git something.” As we worked through this song in class, it became clear that while the chorus embodies a distant voice (something like O’Reilly’s) telling these young black men to “git up, git out and git something/How will you make it if you never even try,” each verse is a defense from men trying to do just that, and the challenges and struggles they face. Cee-Lo argues at this voice trying to box him in: “I try to be the man I’m ‘posed to be/But negativity is all you seem to ever see.” In the universe Cee-Lo depicts, no options are open to him, yet he’s characterized as negative. He concisely depicts the lure of the drug trade in a universe with few options:

Cuz every job I get is cruel and demeanin’

Sick of takin’ trash out and toilet bowl cleanin’

But I’m also sick and tired of strugglin’

I never ever thought I’d have to resort to drug smugglin’ (Outkast)

For Cee-Lo, “drug smugglin'” is a resort; the first choice was a series of “cruel and demeanin'” menial jobs that still left him “strugglin. ”

It’s ironic that while thugged out rap images have allowed pundits to criminalize young men of color, the lyrics behind these pictures actually promote hard work that shifts into the underground economy when legal options become unavailable. In that same POLITICO piece, Mike Huckabee had this to say: “The real conservative policy is attractive to minorities. Our problem isn’t the product, it’s the box we put it in. Our message should not be ‘tailored’ to a specific demographic group, but presented to empower the individual American, whatever the color, gender or ethnicity.”  In fact, conservatives’ message of hard work still holds sway over most Americans–I know I believe in money paid for hard work put in. The problem is the right’s refusal to recognize that there are factors that actually prohibit their political norms from taking place: hard work isn’t paying off like your system says it’s supposed to. If this is interesting to you, (it might be if you’re still with me) definitely check out Goulka’s piece, above. He writes, “As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, ‘No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.’” But some folks still haven’t heard the message.

P.S. SPOTIFY POSTSCRIPT

started using spotify, like it a lot, have some things to say about it:

– how do I know what music I like if I don’t own any music? puts this new pressure on my brain to be aware of all the musics I might want to listen to, instead of knowing that I’m limited to (and pre-curated by) whatever I already own.

– am I ever going to buy an MP3 again? probably not. but i might buy more records.

– interesting how the ad experience is so clearly designed to irritate. Unlike tv and radio ads, which are like, “Hey! No interruption here! Just a short narrative to persuade you to buy something!” spotify ads are all “HEY DON’T I SUCK? DOESN’T THIS AD TOTALLY SUCK RIGHT NOW? YOU KNOW, IF YOU LAID DOWN SOME GODDAMNED DOLLARS YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ANNOYING SHIT RIGHT NOW, YOU PIRATING CHEAPSKATE! JUST SAYIN!” You know?

“One Deft Discursive Act”: Signifyin(g) on Police Brutality in Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer”

(Two of Esu’s physical characteristics are his extraordinarily dark color and his tiny size.)

Legba’s sexuality is a sign of liminality, but also of the penetration of thresholds, the exchange between discursive universes.

The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act….not engaged in the game of information-giving….dependent on the play of differences….turn[ing] upon the free play of language itself….Signifyin(g) epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular….[The Signifying Monkey] is the principle of self-consciousness in the black vernacular, the meta-figure itself.

-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (pp. 17; 27; 52-53)

My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition,
Because repetition is the father of learning.

– Lil Wayne, “Shoot Me Down”


When I started writing this blog I had an idea that to build up some content I would do a sort of “Power 20” of Tha Carter III and write a post every day for sixteen days about each of this album’s tracks. Talk about 16 bars! Even though I never got around to it, I still believe this album warrants that kind of attention. You might infer from my epigraphs above that I think Tha Carter III (2008) is a masterful and ebullient example of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “Signifyin(g)– that is, the rhetorical “play of differences” that characterizes so much of African American literary troping and ultimately discourse.

Lil Wayne’s 2008 album Signifies not just in its constant practice of “repetition and revision”; rather, its embrace of “the free play of language” positions Weezy as the master of a Signifyin(g) discourse in so many aspects. This album engages intertextuality, for example in the response to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” that Wayne offers on “Comfortable”; in Wayne’s explicit discussion of the craft of rapping on tracks like “Dr. Carter” and “Let the Beat Build”; and in Wayne’s coded (and often sexually explicit) ruminations on the nature of language, writing, and the universe, on tracks like “A Milly” and “Pussy Monster.”

But this post is about the masterful “Mrs. Officer,” which intertextually invokes and then queers the tradition of liberatory rap, grounding Weezy’s brand of punning and linguistic play to spectacular effect.  

 “Mrs. Officer”‘s beat is infectious–the song opens with a bouncing, bouyant bass drum and a popping snare; then the flirty instrumentals open with Bobby Valentino’s voice  calling the song along: “Woo oo oo, yeah yeah yeah…” The song’s upbeat tone makes it sound like just another poppy dance track for the club. Valentino sings on: “When I’m in that thang, gonna make that body sang: Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee” and Wayne pops in: “Like a cop car.”

With this first simile, comparing a woman’s coital moans (probably the eponymous Mrs. Officer’s) to the sound of a police siren, it’s clear this song is going to be insubordinate, disrespectful, and hilarious. What follows is a series of nested punch lines that build in their Signifyin(g) power, their invocation of rap’s politically resistant traditions, and in (to use Tricia Rose’s term) their “ideological insubordination” (101).

Wayne’s first lines, describing getting pulled over by the police, is immediately reminiscent of the great tradition of raps songs on racial profiling by traffic cops (songs like LL’s “Illegal Search,” Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigger,” and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”) But before the punning has even begun, Weezy is already playing on this narrative trope–we might even say queering it:

Doing a buck in the latest drop
I got stopped by a lady cop
She got me thinking I can date a cop
Cause her uniform pants are so tight
She read me my rights
She put me in the car, she cut off [her, all the] lights
She said I had the right to remain silent
Now I got her [hollerin, howlin], soundin like a siren
Talkin’ bout…
Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee….like a cop car.

Where LL Cool J, Mos Def, and Jay-Z’s songs all portray the same situation, where a police officer abuses his authority to detain the rapper, in Weezy’s scenario this abusive authority is performed by a sexy “lady cop.” Abusive police force is mocked and coopted in a few lines when embodied by Mrs. Officer: “She said I had the right to remain silent/Now I got her howlin, soundin like a siren.” The lyrical play here is dense: in Wayne’s queered fantasy space, Mrs. Officer does give him his Miranda rights, but “the right to remain silent” sounds here like an act of S&M. And given Weezy’s retained male privilege, he still has the power to get “her howlin, soundin like a siren” with his sexual prowess, even when he’s unable to speak. But this dangerous siren’s song, whose powers powers wooed Weezy out of his ride and into hers, sounds like, well, a siren: “Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee. Like a cop car.” While other rap tracks sample the sounds of police sirens, Wayne eschews the literal signifier of police surveillance and opts instead to Signify on it. Instead of a sample, Bobby Valentino croons the cries of a female police officer crying out, her moans loud and persistent as a police siren’s.

 In this queered space, the police officer’s power does not unequivocally trump the citizen’s; instead, Weezy’s masculine power mitigates the feminized power of the state. The fact that he laughs after almost every line is a pretty good signal that he is in on the joke. Wayne describes these revised power relations:

And I know she the law, and she know I’m the boss
And she know I’m high, a-bove the law
And she know I’m raw, she know I’m from the street
And all she want me to do is fuck the police

Oh, the punch line! She wants him to “fuck the police”! How far away we are, and still how close, to the terse days of  when Ice Cube yelled, “Fuck the police! …Young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown” (NWA, Fuck the Police). Weezy’s got it bad, all right, where in 1988 “Fuck tha Police” prompted outcry and even provoked an unprecedented denouncement from the then-head of the FBI, in 2008 Lil’ Wayne is “above the law” and being begged to “fuck the police.” Snap!

And after we got done
I said lady what’s ya number she said 911
Ha! Emergency only
Head Doctor perform surgery on me
Yeah… and now I’m healed
I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels
And I beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby yeah I beat it like a cop
Ha Haaa… beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby said beat it like a cop
But I ain’t tryna be violent
But I’ll do the time but her love is timeless
Mrs. Officer, I know you wish ya name was Mrs. Carter huh?

In subsequent lines, Wayne continues to riff on police brutality,broadening his indictment of those in power to include a whole range of emergency services.  In Wayne’s scenario, Mrs. Officer gives her phone number as 911, which is all right because she’s also the “head doctor.” Get it?  Of course, this plea for medical attention is a play on the real consequences of police brutality whose emblem Weezy hasn’t even yet named. In this fantasy, the handcuffs aren’t Weezy’s wrists but Mrs. Officer’s. Weezy is the one in power: “I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels. “

Lil Wayne, “Mrs. Officer” (2008)

It is at this moment, I believe, that this scenario is exposed for what it really is: a fantasy. With the traditional power structure over turned and Mrs. Officer in the cuffs, Wayne’s character “beat[s] it like a cop”–that is, masturbates. Yes, in this “one discursive act” — that is, “Beat it like a cop,” which wayne repeats four times–he functionally deconstructs his own song, repeating and revising this culminating pun. Is he saying “beat it like a cop” or “beat ‘er like a cop”? The difference in pronoun is crucial. If the latter, we can assume he is beating up Mrs. Officer–whether by literally attacking her, or enacting the kind of violent sex play that handcuffs might entail, or just roughly having sex with her. (The Ying Yang Twins come to mind.) However, Wayne says he “ain’t tryna be violent,” and I’ll take him at his word. In fact, I believe at this moment, the discursive, narrative and sexual climax of the song, Wayne’s repetition and revision functions to revise the meaning of the whole song and to explode/expose the scenario as what it is: a fantasy. Mrs. Officer may “wish [her] name was Mrs. Carter,” but in fact it’s Weezy here doing the wishing, imagining a scenario in which Rodney King–attacked by a small mob of policemen after they pulled him over, you recall, while driving home–gets not beat up but beat off. In its efforts at revision and critique, the invocation of Rodney King is the singular “deft discursive act” on which this song’s meaning hinges.

(My conclusions here are heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes’s guest lines on the later track “La, La,” which suggest to me that for really sophisticated lyricists, apparently misogynistic lyrics might actually be coded references to masturbation and fantasy:

They movin on a nigga as I walk through the valley, ready? (Ok!)
And zoom in with the cameras like I’m dickin’ down Halle Berry (uh-huh)
My money help me do things that you nigga’s can’t believe
Like purchase persons, places all them things that you can’t conceive (ah-huh)
Like interactin with women the caliber of Janet
I-I sit and master my vision and massacre the planet (Woah!)
I hope you nigga’s know just what it is
While I’m countin my paper nigga’s know I’m handlin my biz (OK!)

Sure, Busta claims he’s got women “the caliber of Janet.” But this whole verse is full of images of fantasy and mirage: “cameras,” “can’t believe,” “can’t conceive.” But it seems pretty clear to the other men on the track, responding to each of Busta’s coding lines what our speaker is doing when he “sit[s to] master my vision and massacre the planet.” His peers’ cries of “Woah!” indicate that they heard what he was alluding to with “master my vision” and “massacre the planet.” Just to make sure they got it, Busta asks them, then reiterates with, we might imagine, an obscene hand gesture. “I hope you niggas know what it is…I’m handlin’ my biz.” “Ok!” they yell. We get it! )

When It All Falls Down: Hmong Remix

“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 “nigger” and “nigga” 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 nigga authentically? Judy’s essay attempts to upend the easy genealogy posited by others between the contemporary hardcore rapper, the gangster, that nigga, 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 nigga 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 nigga 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, nigga is the feeling of being a commodity, nigga 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 nigger/nigga dichotomy mean from and for nonblack peoples of color? In SCALPED, “nigger” is used by white characters to describe Indians and “nigga” 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 nigga 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 “nigger” to describe a whole host of ethnic people confirms America’s presumed equivalence between non-white bodies and labor commodity.

Am I Making My Students More Racist?

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’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.