What I Would Write My Final Paper on if I Were a Student in my English 225 class

…but instead am just presenting to them today as a set of texts, below.

 

1. We Wear the Mask, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

 

2. Fugees’ “The Mask”

 

3. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart 

 

 

3. Kanye v. Kanye

4. Lauryn Hill, “Mystery of Iniquity”

 

 

 

5. Minstrel Man, Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know 

I die? 

 

6. Lauryn Hill, “Do Wop (That Thing)”

 

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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.

“You white bitches,” cont’d.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When It All Falls Down: Hiphop’s Postcolonial Echo

In his 2005 tome Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang traces the roots of hip hop to the fires of the Bronx and Jamaica. And when the boroughs burned, he suggested, “the third world was only a subway ride away” (x). Near the end of the semester in my freshman writing course, we read Chinua Achebe’s wonderful essay, “The African Writer and the English Language” (1968). He writes,

Let us give the devil his due: colonialism in Africa disrupted many things, but it did create big political units where there were small, scattered ones before….[Colonialism] did bring together many peoples that had hith­erto gone their several ways. And it gave them 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. There are not many countries in Africa today where you could abolish the language of the erstwhile colonial powers and still retain the facility for mutual communication. Therefore those African writers who have chosen to write in English or French are not unpatriotic smart alecks with an eye on the main chance—outside their own countries. They are by-products of the same process that made the new nation-states of Africa.

…. Those of us who have inherited the English language may not be in a position to appreciate the value of the inheritance. Or we may go on resenting it because it came as part of a package deal which included many other items of doubtful value and the pos­itive atrocity of racial arrogance and prejudice, which may yet set the world on fire. But let us not in rejecting the evil throw out the good with it.

Like me, many of my students read Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart in high school. And like me, they remembered vaguely and distastefully the story of a sexist African tribal chief who loses everything. This novel is dragged into our literature curriculum to bring a voice from the margins to the center–but without sensitive treatment, it ends up reifying our notions of non-Western literature as less. Better to remind students explicitly that the rupture of colonialism happened, and is still happening. At the end of his speech, Achebe quotes James Baldwin, who (from our vantage point) brings the conversation home 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.

What does it mean, I ask my students, for a writer to ask English to “bear the burden of my experience”? I think hiphop holds one answer.

In her live performance of “The Mysteries of Iniquity,” Lauryn Hill sings,

Oh when it all, it all falls down

I’m telling you all, it all falls down. (MTV Unplugged, 2002)

Two years later, an interpolation of the same chorus appeared in Kanye West’s “All Falls Down,” featuring Syleena Johnson belting a gilded warning.

(The studio version video with Stacey Dash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kyWDhB_QeI&ob=av3e )

Every year, the first assignment I ask my freshmen students to complete is a comparison of two versions of Kanye’s song–the studio version with Syleena, and a live version with John Legend on piano and chorus vocals–with an eye towards the meaning of these songs.

(John Legend takes the torch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=Y1Z9r4KHgxY )

My students always do a remarkable job cataloguing the most miniscule differences between these two versions, from Kanye’s ad-libs to Legend’s minstrely piano playing. Instead, it’s the elusive meaning of this track that often passes students by, the notion that after centuries of white supremacy, black materialism 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.

My favorite part about Kanye’s self-implicating treatise on insecurity is that in the liner notes to The College Dropout, he spells out his puns: “She so precious, with the peer pressure/Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus/a Lexus.” Precious, indeed.