Juneteenth: First-Hand Literacy and Freedom

 “…i wanted to be a new person and my rebirth was stifled not by the master but the slave.” – Nikki Giovanni.

fsa

 

Celebrating Juneteenth – and a letter from my great great grandfather

The United States freed its last slaves on this day June 18, 1865, 149 years ago. Officially commemorated as Juneteenth, this holiday goes unmarked and unnoticed by the majority Americans, including many African-Americans. Which begs the question: why? When TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt received a copy of a letter from her great great grandfather, a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, his handwritten words opened her eyes to how limited, fragmented and ephemeral narratives of slavery still are. A shorter version of this story appears on the ideas page of TED.com.

NOTE: I hope readers will consider that online literacy leads to emancipation for black girls and others, too.

In March 2014, I was struck with tears after opening an email from my mother that began: “Read this history about your great, great, great grandfather. Wow, what a rich heritage!”

Attached was a copy of a letter, titled “LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.” I was a letter my great, great, great grandfather had written in 1855, 159 years ago on February 15th. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. I was reading the words of one of my kin — in his own hand.

The letter had been sent to my family by a reporter from Portsmouth, who explained that Ford had written this letter to a friend once he’d reached Philadelphia, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail at the time. They would be left behind; a causality of emancipation. The letter had been published in 1872, in a book by William Still — a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Here is the text in full: 

LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.

BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

 MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.

SHERIDAN W. FORD.

 

The Debt of Forced Migration: Local Memory

I was overcome with heavy tears at what this letter meant to me. His writing spoke of options I never knew or realized slaves had even as a professor. He was literate and well versed in writing by 1855, and he clearly articulates the value his freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino could ever aptly capture. This was not mediated by images but across generations of forgotten memories of my kin.

Here was a letter written phonetically in respectably lucid language, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from the Compromise of 1850 – which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class ranking Jim Crow laws. My great great grandfather could have been snatched back to the South if ever found in the North by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally, and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence, a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned in a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, his humanity and the justice in being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone who I am related to, who I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery.

Why? White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history.

 

 1863: 5 Million Freed, 1 Million Lost

According to the 2013 US Census, there are 41 million people who identify as African-American and I could lay money on that fewer than 1% will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — when it rolls around next year, even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called united states.

On that day in 1865, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America. They were not slaves, they were Africans. General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston: 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [originally signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

African Americans don’t have many stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape.

When I grew up no one talked about slaves inside black family life. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner and the talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved Africans). We were property – not our humanity or ethnicity. And we had our nationality stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip.

Most people today know they set “us” free in 1863. But no one ever knew told me that Lincoln freed 5 million enslaved African people and that 1 million of the newly liberated women, men and children died within the first year. With Emancipation came starvation and other effects of being freed among Southerners who still wished to chase former slaves with bloodhounds in the name of their own right to life, liberty and property.

Kunte Kinte

The birth of Kunte Kinte in the ABC Miniseries Roots by Alex Haley, 1977. Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson appear with infant. The book was released in 1976 during the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the USA.

African American remembering is more lore than lived memory. Most often we cherry-pick popular slave narratives or mediated memories like those in Alex Haley’s ABC mini-series Roots: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” Comedy is sadly much more common. Our memories are like second-hand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all of the broken backs who once carried them. Mostly, we nurse broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s story of a mother’s love expressed in the salvation of killing her children rather than allowing them live as chattel slaves. But mother’s love is supposed to deny such a thing as infanticide. 

Most African-Americans will never even have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I haven’t, though I have quoted a part about singing. I didn’t even know it was from his tongue. I own a recording of his words loudly declaimed by esteemed actor Ossie Davis on a set of recordings about African American music:

Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked.

And thus, we continue our silence in a post-racial America.

 

Today, many African Americans do not know Douglass’s literate freedom nor Harriet Jacobs. We remain in the bondage of our own lack of curiosity surrounded by institutional miseducation about who we were and who we can be. So reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather first-hand — it changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and we must be re-membered to more of these kinds of memories. The inscribed evidence: “i love my freedom.” An ownership of not just one’s liberty but of one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendance from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction. No more silence, writing next time.

Find William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, in which Sheridan Ford’s letter was originally published, on Gutenberg.org.

Courage as Home: Maya’s Call to Rise & Represent Self Well!

Your destiny is to develop the courage to flesh out the great dreams, to dare to love, to dare to care, to dare to want to be significant and to admit it, not by the things you own or the positions you hold, but by the lives you live.

Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

Screenshot 2014-06-07 12.40.25

 

What if courage was a place called home?

What if courage was a place we called home? What if the rising Maya Angelou spoke into existence from “Still I Rise” was a returning to one’s self, one’s spirit, what one was put her on the planet to do fuller than you, your ego, will allow you to see in the storm?  This is the gift of the life of Dr. Maya Angelou. I call her doctor cuz she’s been our shaman of humanity, from its dark recesses with its darts and its dawns of soft slow rising or blazing revelations. I bless her today as her homegoing service just concluded at 12:30 today livestreamed online by Wake Forest University, her academic home.

De-segregation of spirit: Be ready!

We black girls and women have a special place in our hearts for what Maya Angelou provided before we even read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. She sang my song for me before I knew it had a tune. She recalled my mother’s and my mother’s mother’s journeys before Segregation. She stood as a testament to we are not our past and we are always creating our future and that everything we do in life we define. The creative act of rising to each bitter and sweet occasion whether lied about or to, whether talked about or called out of our names as bitches, hos, mammys, negras, or even when we aren’t even aware of our own self-destruction, we still have the opportunity in this life to rise.

So all  there is is to be ready!! Be willing. You and I are always able!!

Rest in power, in our love, and in our future endeavors to rise to all you left for us to create from Dr. Maya!!

“somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.”

― Ntozake Shangefor colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

Kyraocity Speaks!

What if courage was a place called home for black girls, for black women, for all women, for all of humanity to sing from? What if we brought this to our notions of our online reputation and how we present our self in the media? Black girls pay attention!! It matters more than most for you to represent without falling into somebody’s respectability politics but to consider your own future identity which only you can build but hundreds online will encourage you to damage. Be ready!! 

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International Children’s Day! Do Your Thang…and Switch!!

Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.

– Margaret Mead

This is the fate of colored girls globally right now: the denial of their girlhood, the denial of their childhood, and the constant state of risk and danger they are living in.”

                                                      ― bell hooks

quote-being-considerate-of-others-will-take-your-children-further-in-life-than-any-college-degree-marian-wright-edelman-55752

I spent the day writing and grading and thinking about my long term plans for publishing articles and for empowering black female YouTube content creators via my collaborations with my students. It was a powerful weekend where feelings of play were present but not feelings of being a child, with no control, over how life goes. It was an energetic, focused, and peaceful day at home. Last weekend I went to see the Kara Walker installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Going again soon. You must not miss this!! Check our the inspiration for the installation from Kara’s sketches here.

Lush Tongue Restoration

Yesterday, I had a rehearsal and vibes sessions with members of Lush Tongue, a feminist vocal acappella group led by Onome Om that I recently joined. We have our first performance June 7th at LAVA in Brooklyn. To get acquainted we shared the moment(s) we decided music was our lives.

The five women present from the 6 member ensemble shared all the typical ways patriarchy in musical settings can shut you down, steal your voice. They also shared of family and father figures who helped give their musical expression voice. And I shared about how my developing vocal memoir seems to be all about men in and around my life.

So what does all this have to do with International Children’s Day you might ask?

Anybody Sing Me a Black Girls’ Song

I don’t know. But I do think that WHO we all have become as women started at a very young age and shaped our mindset about being female, about the context of life where men and boys seem to rule, and how to bargain for more power and more voice even at a young age. Girls’ agency matters. And I think we owe subsequent generations of children and especially girls — present and in the future to come — an opportunity to know childhood as a space of wholeness, and holiness, for their personhood and their particular ethnic culture.

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.

This applies to black girls twerking off- and online, black girls rapping off- and online, black girls beatboxing and breakin’ off- and online, and just being themselves – quirky, funny, nerdy, sexy, creative, curious, patient, entrepreneurial and smart on- and offline. All of our lives, and especially children’s lives and even moreso the lives of girls of color here in the US and girls living in poverty abroad, are changing in ways we cannot always see, witness (despite the publicness of everything via online video today), or understand fully, online.

Your online reputation today may make or break you tomorrow. So watch out!

For some fun, here are some short YouTube videos of girls’ from around the world playing the kind of games I wrote about in my first book. These are black girls’ games off-line.

Happy International Children’s Day!!
(yesterday now that I am posting past midnight)

IN THE GAMBIA, THEY THROW BODY NOT SHADE!

 

IN LIBERIA, THEY BE CLAPPIN’ IT OUT WITH GAMES THAT ARE FUNK-AY!

 

HEY GIRL, BACK IN THE U.S.!! DO YOUR THANG..AND SWITCH!!

Kyraocity Werks!!

Til next time.

Juicy J’s $50K: Managing Self, Managing Privacy on YouTube

Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant lest his forces be marshaled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements. – Mary McLeod Bethune, Last Will & Testament

In my previous post Class is (Not) in Session, I mentioned that one of the best submissions to the Juicy J contest was made private when the winner of the contest was announced. Since then YouTuber Miss Kimari has made the complex submission public once again and I hope you’ll not only take a look but you’ll take multiple looks at what a complicated representation of self is in an age where context collapse (having the context of who you are, where you came from, what you really mean to portray from your POV) denies viewers a complex understanding of black girlhood and black female agency and consciousness.

I want to thank  Dr. Treva B Lindsey, a professor at Ohio State University, who introduced me and the participants  at the December 2013 Gender, Sexuality and Hip-hop conference sponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Project at Tulane backed by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry.

I have begun interviewing Miss Kimari about a week ago and I’d like to share one thing she shared with me.  I asked her several questions that are helping me ethnographically understand what is happening inside being a practitioner of twerking. Kimari is an undergraduate student at a major university in the so-called Dirty South where twerking is common body language. She has had an online identity since about 2005 on MySpace as a ninth grader and has “shut down” a couple of her YouTube accounts to manage her public persona, which was something I was not expected to hear from her. My preconceptions of the women who might twerk for the contest was stereotypical until I started studying the phenomenon and remembering the dances I did at her age and beyond as part of the black expressive vernacular communities of music and dance.

She said one thing that struck me. I wasn’t surprised as much as I was struck by my own past identity as a college student, as a black female student, who had never learned that black people even went to college before Civil Rights until I went to a school, the University of Michigan, that had a significant black presence on faculty and among the graduate students. What she shared reminded me of both the empowerment that comes with learning about being black in America and the disempowerment that comes from learning more about patriarchy and sex oppression.  I am paraphrasing from my notes because I haven’t yet transcribed the recording.

Miss Kimari (paraphrasing): Last semester I was learning about black women’s struggles in the transnational state in all of my Africana classes and what I learned was who I am is a problem and that’s what I’ve seen my whole life. The way we talk about stereotypes. the way we reproduce them…it kills people living this reality.

In the video, Miss Kimari lets us see her black feminist textbooks and her twerking. She has video, the context of which gets collapsed, from when she danced professionally in a former iteration of her life, and video of her teaching classes at college. She consciously presents views of race, gender and sexuality which the generalized other on YouTube and other social media channels might consider challenging to their moral or societal values about young women and their freedom of expression in this day and age. But she has agency. She is exploring and quite consciously and, as her withdrawal of her video from YouTube suggests, she knows she is not completely in control of it all.

We live in a world of radical openness and we often, I can attest, learn our mistakes in highly public ways that can be emotionally traumatizing before we realize that we left the doors to our safety unlocked. While we think we see what we are doing when we create a video of twerking or even a personal vlog, we are totally unawares of the infinite ways that chunk of media could have not only now but in the infinite nows that will live as a result of our transmission.

It’s hard our here for a black girl. But this is the new context of our self-construction and it’s not just a adolescent age thing. Anyone on YouTube or social media is slowly learning the very old lessons once taught by Reconstruction era grandparents. This is why when I was a girl we had oratory lessons in our privatized spaces. Practicing how you present yourself to a general audience mattered and it still does. But YouTube is a mixed space where things that were once private and local and highly publicized, persistent (you may never get rid of it online) and no longer personal.

Would love your thoughts about how you manage your online identity but also invite you to consider HOW you online interactions are reshaping the construction of your SELF. Once online, always online. Be careful out there!

Be Curious and Question!
Kyra

“Democracy, Imagination & Peeps of Color”

 

 

After spending all of my adult life on what I will generously call the Left, I have become suspicious and uninterested in any Art tied to an ism. I agree with Adrienne Rich’s call for an art that “goes to the edge of meaning” as well as Art that discovers new resonance in the familiar. But, if ever we need an avant- garde (for lack of a better term), it is now. 

From THINKING OUT LOUDDEMOCRACY, IMAGINATION AND PEEPS OF COLOR

http://www.augustwilsoncenter.org/aacc_pdfs/DiversityRevisited.pDf

This essay/talk was given by poet by Sekou Sundiata. Must read. This doc was discussed and dissected at HarlemStage Friday night. It challenges people of color and “people of whiteness” to rethink not diversity but our democracy and this State. A poet, Sekou speaks also to the power of words, imagination and art to facilitate the 51st state of our union.

My work has always existed at the intersection of art and democracy with girls, learning and ethnography at the center of it. Socialization of self, group and how we represent ourselves in seemingly sovereign ways to others and how we seek to maintain our cultural values and ways in this democracy.

Invite you to read and share.

No Apologies Necessary! Rethinking Rick Ross on Mother’s Day

‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’

 

While everybody’s buying flowers for dey mamas, everything ain’t coming up roses for girls and women in the American landscape of hip-hop. Since I’ve been using rants in my political sociology class to inspire social participation in the public sphere among my students, it’s high time for my own civic engagement rant.

Last week an open letter to Michelle Obama composed by UK-mom Rakhi Kumar dating back to April 20th found it’s way to me through social media. When I read it I thought this is a sign It’s my turn! Time to return to my blog (cuz’ it’s been a minute).

When I read Kumar’s letter asking FLOTUS to distance herself from Beyoncé rather than promoting her as a role model for girls, I was like YES!! It resonated with my current project on the seduction of young girls and hip-hop social media.  [Read a teen’s response to Kumar on the benefits of the Beyoncé generation.]

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all the recent apologies by rap artists Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne and Tyler the Creator that showed up in my social media feed on Twitter and Facebook around the same time. All things have their season.  But their “apologies” brought Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem to mind. Those of you who know it, know what I’m talking about.

Assata Shakur

 

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, my mama took me to see the Broadway show For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf by Ntozake Shange. It was a group trip. She and I and a bunch of other real and fictive “sisters” and their daughters took a 4 hour bus-ride from Maryland to New York City, where I now reside. I searched for my own copy of the book which I probably bought in grad school or maybe I took my mother’s copy like I took many of her albums when I headed off to grad school.

For Colored Girls was pivotal in reorienting certain ways of thinking about my self as a woman of color. If I ever raise my own kids, it will be a must read. It helped me align my experiences with other non-white bodies–which I think is a New York thing but wasn’t a DC area thing back then in my adolescent thinking. My thinking was limited by a distorted mental image of myself shaped and conditioned by 60 second Cover Girl TV ads, weekly fashion magazine covers viewed from the A&P  supermarket aisle, and school bullying by white boys since 4th grade teasing me about the size of my butt. One of them I still remember by name. He’s probabaly long forgotten me.  James’ 4th grade aspersion was “buttweefer”  (translates: you got a bigger butt than my sisters) and I was convinced by some social force or being outside myself to believe it was because he liked me.  I was thin then. Normal sized for my age. But I couldn’t see my own beauty back then. The media left me with little vision.

 

There was time and space for reflection during my doctoral studies around the age of 30. Time and space to develop my own view of Self. I became socially conscious, aware of the sociological imagination that produced the structural  burdens of my internalized racism and sexism. Finally, it wasn’t just me. Being black and female in a patriarchal society was fostered as being outside the norm by a corporate culture that sold “the majority” as an ideal to its minorities for profit.

The antidote to the internalization was poetry. My own and Shange’s. Only poetry could rewire the internalized racism and sexism. It is primarily through language that change begins. We are linguistic social beings. Poetry demands a linguistic reorientation of the brain, of one’s self towards loving one’s own voice, towards the power of the erotic, as Audre Lorde said, rather the pornographic.

From my poems came my dissertation. In the dissertation there were  social stories about music and gender in hip-hop. Narratives that area  feature of my book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-hop. I am proud it won the most outstanding book award in my field. Check out the Kindle version.  Perhaps a new poem is emerging out of my most recent project.

 

On March 8th, I am searching for new words to say when I inadvertently get hooked into watching the release of the “Freaks” video by French Montana f/ Nicky Minaj on YouTube. It was released on March 7th. I was doing some YouTube research on women emcees in hip-hop. I think I was watching a Missy Elliot video in a VEVO frame. VEVO advertises other videos in a frame within a frame.  Talk about distraction factor.  Curious, I took a look since I was studying female emcees. The promotion showed Nicky Minaj who is now recognized as the largest-selling female rapper to date, like it or not, and young girls’ attraction to her as an icon would become clear.  I watched it more times than I anticipated.  What I saw stunned me.

At 1:30 seconds in, Minaj makes her “bad bitch” entrance bouncing her booty “on a throne.” As she turns and faces the YouTube audience–an audience that had swarmed to over 900,000 within 24 hours of its YouTube release–she displays her full luscious breasts in fashionable jacket, the gold, flesh-toned pasties applied to hide her nipples don’t really count as a method of covering up her nudity.

The comments section revealed an expected reaction from the male viewers. One read: “I want to stalk her!” This was only a week after the media spectacles surrounding the Steubenville trial and reporting. I was stunned that this wasn’t viewed as contributing to rape culture or that no one had reported it to the FCC.

What made it most alarming was the statistics. Females 13-17 years old were and continue to be the top audience demographic viewing the “Freaks” video which in just over two weeks amassed over 9 million “hits” and after a month over 11 million.  The other top demographics were males 18-24  and females 18-24.  Not sure how much I can say from these statistics but it is noticeable that boys 13-17 were not among the top demographics. The comments of the males 18-24 clearly indicated that their relationship to the video was not about respect.

 

I tried to file a complaint with the FCC. Had this grand idea from Elizabeth Mendez Berry that I’d file a complaint a week and then write a piece about it. I got a rude awakening when I learned that filing with the FCC is not accessible to the average public. It’s expensive. You actually need to hire a lawyer to engage with the FCC and worse yet, the FCC monitors TV and radio but not telecommunications like YouTube. YouTube has a set of community standards for obscenity, profanity and indecency. What you do is flag a video for review. I flagged the video on April 6th and have yet to receive any response. Not even a sorry.

Apologies came from three of raps industry heavyweights–Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, and Tyler, the Creator–over the past weeks. Dan Charnas explained  in Billboard last week:

…in 2013 the people pursuing Ross, Wayne and Tyler are in many cases older fans of hip-hop (and, by extension, fans of older hip-hop), most often people of color, motivated by progressive politics and empowered by social media…. [That pressure led to the loss of] lucrative endorsement deals –“ending Ross’ with Reebok and Wayne’s with Mountain Dew, and inducing Mountain Dew to remove a Tyler-helmed ad deemed offensive from the company’s site and his YouTube channel.

Once again men prove that in reality when it comes to misogyny its the bottom line that counts–assets always trump objectifying asses. When the profit gets moved from the background to front and center, then and only then will apologies be in order.

In the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair, once wrote:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Understanding is the booby prize.

 

So this is my open letter.  An open letter to all the “better-late-than-never” apologies for extra-linguistic acts from the faux papas of club rap and the music industrial complex. Faux papas who exploit and subject girls–and boys–to a kind of emotional verbal abuse, an unacknowledged environmental injustice issue of our times. Social media now peddles their sorries via hand-held devices that produce profit for themselves and corporate entities in the name of moving the crowd.

But as Shange inspired me to say, “one thing I dont need” is an apology from a grown ass security guard turned rapper, from Wayne (who they say was a straight A student in school before all this) or Tyler (the creator of whose reality and on whose dollar?). Just so y’all know, I didn’t accept Chris Brown’s late apology to Rihanna either. But in that case I guess it doesn’t matter cuz’ she did.

Since keepin’ it real will not necessarily elicit more than your illicit cooperation to promote more bad bitches and hoes in videos, I must share dis poem,  and my own poems, and dat poem, this choreopoem which my mother planted in my soul in New York City. There was no social revolution called YouTube. My revolution at 15 could not be televised and sometimes I still think it isn’t. But my mama made sure it was live back in ’75. How do we get more choreopoems to outdo the Freaks video on YouTube?

 

I don’t know. But I know one thing. “i dont need” another reason to write another choreopoem like For Colored Girls. Plus we keep writing ‘em and y’all don’t seem to listen. People been saying the more things change, the more things stay the same.  So I’ll bring Shange back again. Know this: That the power of words are not equal and they are not free. Even on mother’s day!

one thing i dont need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i dont know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& im not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
next time
you should admit
youre mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time

enjoy bein yrself

Blessings to the Creator Mother and all mothers on this fine Mother’s Day!

No apologies necessary.

OSCAR UNCHAINED: Django is More Nuanced than a B Movie, Kareem!

The blogosphere of Facebook, Twitter and sites like HuffPo have been amplifying an unsuspecting yet powerful  voice of reason, irony, and insight–the former championship basketball player from the Bucks and the Lakers, one of my favs, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as writer.

Captain Hook - the sky hook.

Captain Hook – the sky hook.

He’s been offering his critiques on popular media from the HBO series “Girls” to his most recent POV on the Best Picture nomination of director Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012).

In the early days of Abdul-Jabbar’s professional sports career, he like many other African-American athletes faced racism. In a recent interview that appeared in the Harvard Business Review (biz types love to explore links in unusual places these days), the former champion formerly known as Lew Alcindor was asked:

In the NCAA and the NBA you occasionally faced racism. How did you play through those distractions?

[Abdul-Jabbar]: If you let it distract you, you’re playing into their hands. Their whole purpose is to distract you and prevent you from succeeding. And for me, success was the goal. My success and the success of other black Americans was exactly what would silence people who indulged in racism. So it was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That was one of the messages of the civil rights movement, and I tried to do it.

Since retirement, Adbul-Jabbar has shared is other loves with his followers including his love of the writing of Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), who actually identified himself as a mulatto, of African descent, in French society. Abdul-Jabbar offers on his official website:

Once when someone insulted [Dumas] about his racial background, he said, “It is true. My father was a mulatto, my grandmother was a negress, and my great-grandparents were monkeys. In short, sir, my pedigree begins where yours ends.”

I think Kareem identifies with someone like Dumas at this latter stage in life because he can find his successes off the court speaking to issues of race that matter to him whereever that may be. TV and film is a great place to find your voice as a critic of American culture. What’s noticeable about Kareem is that he loves irony not unlike the comment by Dumas. So why wouldn’t he love Tarantino’s film. What’s not to love!?!

His take on Django Unchained gives us an unexpected skyhook to the right that shows his love of things far beyond just basketball. I’ve enjoy reading his thoughts on popular culture while also observing how  readers respond since most times our society’s expectation of sports figures, especially black men, does not include listening to them think.

kareem-django-unchainedKareem’s review of Django appeared this week in Esquire magazine, distinguished as an early publisher of “New Journalism” and awarded often for its provocative pieces targeting men.  In the Esquire review Kareem wrote,

Basically, Django Unchained is a B movie. A damn fine B movie, but still a B movie. That’s not an insult. I’ve been in B movies, many of my favorite films are B movies, and B movies tend to make a lot more money than A movies.

Despite its slavery setting, Django Unchained isn’t an exploration of the subject. It offers no critical insights into the circumstances, no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does). In the end, slavery is a prop to excite audience emotion and motivate the action. With the exception of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and Stephen, the characters are fairly stereotypical. Pro-slavery characters are grotesque cartoons and those against (mostly the slaves themselves) are admirable and inspiring. And that makes Django melodrama, not literature. It offers no insights, only the most familiar observations.


MY SKYHOOK (ON THE OPPOSITE END OF THE COURT)

Abdul-Jabbar is getting a few minutes “court-time” in the media for his take on Django, which I too loved at first glance. An appearance following the piece on Conan O’Brian’s show is making the rounds via a viral video but since I don’t have cable or watch late night shows online, I first learned of the piece on the Colorlines site under “Now in Racial Justice” section via Facebook.

While Kareem’s critique is likeable and definitely worth the read, I beg to differ with his comment Django offering “no critical insights into the circumstances [of slavery], no nuances exploring the political realities (as Lincoln does).”

A noted scholar, Dr. Jim Downs (Sick from Freedom: African American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction), mentioned at an Emancipation 150 event hosted by WNYC-FM at the Greene Space in January, that Django depicted the experience and terror of being a slave much more so than Spielberg’s Lincoln did at any level.

Downs said that of the 5 million slaves freed by Lincoln on January 1, 1863, 1 million died in the first year. A quarter of the population starved, froze to death, couldn’t subsistence farm or other. Whole families died in their newfound freedom.  In Django Unchained, one need only recall the scene using the dog to attack the runaway slave nearer to the end of the film (having taken us many places to get there emotionally). But there was also the scene soon thereafter of the lock box in the heat of the midday sun that Kerry Washington’s character “Broomhilda von Schaft” is removed from when Django (Jamie Foxx) arrives to save her. In that moment, we witness Django’s lack of freedom to scream her suffocation while we must suffer with him waiting for their moment of escape. We are slaves watching these scenes.

Just one glimpse of either scene (and there are others) that are far from the workings of what one might call a B movie. This film had the power to emotionally wrench me from this present moment back into the realities of slavery I have never witnessed being born just before the Civil Rights Act was even introduced.


EMANCIPATION: DJANGO vs. LINCOLN

There is no amount of “nuance” that could explore that reality effectively and neither Spielberg nor Daniel Day Lewis took me there in Lincoln. The genre of film, much more sophisticated than a B movie, that consummate filmmaker Tarantino is divining in, allows us to peer into a reality that historical writing or memory cannot capture at the level of social phenomenon today. Film is pivotal in this way and lest those of us how know better forget, too often our “top” filmmakers will not allow such depiction when it comes to African American subjects or subjects that not only put our eyes on the prize of freedom but call our minds to the injustices and exploitation of people of color or women and women of color. These films are still not made for public reception.

So I’ll take Django Unchained any day over Lincoln (which I enjoyed though a slow film for me). Yet I think it’s wrong to compare the two films. Just because they occupy the same historical reference point does not mean they are comparable films, films one should compare. They are not the same genre, the same space or the same race of film. Correlation in this case would be wrong in my view. They context of the 150th anniversary is really the only connection as far as films go.

And I want to remind myself and others that Django Unchained as a Oscar nominated film for Best Picture is not simply Tarantino’s film to claim. This film would not be what it has become without the cooperation of its black actors as well as its nonblack actors, all of whom contribute to its brilliant representation. One sorely needed, whose time finally came, among African Americans of all classes but, more so, among nonblacks of all classes–perhaps a more likely candidate of a post-racial Obama era than any.

This film belongs to its co-producers including Reggie Hudlin and even more so it belongs to us–the people. It’s the closest thing to a people’s history of slavery re-presented in a modern skin. It’s all about how we the people read Django Unchained as-text and the fact that so many people have been moved into public discourse around the film, into a discourse about slavery, film-making, genre, acting, irony, history and injustice, and more. All of that makes it an Oscar worthy contender.

I doubt it will win Best Picture. Why? Because of the subject matter, its treatment and the reaction of its black audience members who loved it too much for some fellow theatergoers. That kind of behavior “insubordination” during the Obama era can’t be allowed…at least that’s what people say.

I’m willing to be wrong.  Django did something no other film has done for me. It allowed me to have a fantasy of revenge IN PUBLIC, in mixed company. It freed my laughter that hides pain, my sorrow that hides decades of struggle to be free, it unchained people’s disbelief and made possible riding off into the sunset for once. All that made me feel free in a way that I never thought possible in public, in mixed company. It was liberating and OK.

The film also provided a kind of vindication for white guilt with which anyone whose taught racism courses or courses involved black culture must constantly contend. This was a depiction of a white man, the hero, who let his compassion lead him to sacrifice himself for those considered less human than other white men. Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of Dr. King Schultz does that for us, but let us not forget it was the writing and the film direction that allowed him to freely act that part, portray that possible reality.

So my vote Sunday night is for Django Unchained for Best Picture 2012 and much more. If it doesn’t win, I’ll be ok. The film will remain to save the day.


3 THINGS I NEVER KNEW ABOUT DJANGO

I hope you find this trivia as interesting as I did.

  1. Although the film is technically a part of the western genre, Quentin Tarantino preferred to refer to the film as a “southern” due to the films setting in America’s deep south.
  2. Leonardo DiCaprio, who portrays villain Calvin Candie in this film, was originally the first actor choice for the role of antagonist Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino‘s previous film Inglourious Basterds. However, Tarantino decided that a fluent German-speaking actor should portray the character, and the part went to Christoph Waltz, who portrays Dr. King Schultz in this film, marking Waltz’s second film collaboration with Tarantino. DiCaprio can however speak some German.
  3. Director Quentin Tarantino revealed at Comic-Con that Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington‘s characters are meant to be the great great great grandparents of the character John Shaft from the Shaft movies. An overt reference to this connection can be found in Kerry Washington’s character’s full name: Broomhilda Von Shaft.  (all from IMDb.com)

12 Lessons in Micro-Aggressions (for Black History + Women’s History Months). #31DBBBDay2

Calvin Candie: [to Django and Schultz] Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.

Coleandjohnson

J Rosamund Johnson (standing) with Bob Cole. Johnson composed Lift Every Voice and Sing set to the poetry of his brother James Weldon Johnson who among other things was a diplomat, politician and anthropologist.

Lift Every Voice Pictorial

 

 

 

 

 

See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.

I am doing the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog challenge and Day 2 asks that we write a list post. My post title is reminiscent of the narrative titles from the earliest printed books in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a time, I must remark, when enslaved Africans were not allowed to read and write or play drums for fear of the power to communicate.  Now that we’s free, we black folk got lots to say and too many don’t care to hear.

We professors often learn to trade and mediate between worlds which can be a blessing and curse.  But as I see it, communication and writing–having a voice–is essential no matter who you are. Blogging is a mechanism I downplay too often to get my thoughts across even though I have had 3,000, 6,000 and even 12,000 reads on something I’ve written before. I still resist owning my own voice. In 2013, I am putting more of my words out in the blogosphere.

Books tell stories as can list posts. I realized my list could tell my story of microaggressions.  You may ask, what is a micro-aggression?

Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”[2]  These can be both racist and sexist.

My list of 12 Microaggressions adds a bit of irony, not unlike my descriptive narrative subtitle recalling the descriptive titles in the 18th and 19th centuries

12 Lessons in Micro-aggressions: A Guide to the Memories of a Learned Black Womanist Professor Upon Writing A List Post for Black History & Women’s History Months Which Can’t Begin to Scratch the Surface of the Deeper Politics of Racism and Sexism Women and People of Color Encounter Still Today.

12 DON’TS THAT DO MICROAGGRESSIONS

  1. Don’t ever read June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence” in a racism course with any white male student who once loved you. His version will be: What if every time  you follow suit, I threaten to file a lawsuit? You think the litigation rate for reverse racism would drop subsequently?
  2. Don’t play a female rapper first in a hip-hop course. Queen Latifah might have said “Ladies first” but women in hip-hop are supposed to only be one of the boys or a bitch at best.
  3. Don’t be surprised when in 1997 you get hate mail addressed “Dear Ms. Afro” after your first semester teaching at the University of Virginia. And there won’t be a check in the mail across the Mason Dixon line.
  4. Don’t sing the Negro National Anthem after the Star Spangled Banner at a joint concert of the choirs from the University of Virginia and Hampton University.  One of your conservative white women students who is majoring in music will complain and even if you can convince her to study the history in her final paper where she learns and even teaches you that James Rosamund Johnson and his brother wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” BEFORE the Francis Scott Key anthem, she will not let her white privilege be shaken. No older anthems, she will conclude, should be allowed.
  5. Don’t dance in your white colleague’s African Drum and Dance ensemble unless you are ready to deal with the tensions that will rise between you of always being considered the teacher and her resenting that you’ve never been to Africa. Skin color privilege and mental slavery still trumps travel.
  6. Don’t defend your group’s ability to name itself when even a white Jewish colleague with a Ph.D. in public administration lapses in judgment when she asks why you call yourself “African” American. You’ll be asked by other acquaintances on the Air Train. Be prepared. Her rationale will be that her friends from Senegal are Senegalese American?
  7. Don’t hesitate when your music department chair,  a composer of Western art music, asks how much time are you actually teaching music as an ethnomusicologist. Don’t forget to simply answer 100% to battle potential rage or cry in her office later telling her you won’t stay if her lack of support continues.
  8. Don’t dream it won’t happen again that while supporting the 100-member gospel choir from U.Va. as they sing at the predominately white episcopal church across the street from campus that a white church member, seated just in front of you, turns, sees you, and then shares how much she loved your singing. They call us the “frozen chosen” she adds to soften the blow.
  9. Don’t hate when your white date whom you thought might be a real boyfriend asks you to teach him how to dance right after spending the whole afternoon with a dozen of his white friends on Memorial day. Their earlier episide of trauma sharing after the BBQ, going round the table one-by-one to share how burnt they got while tanning that summer while they wait silently for you to go will be penance enough. Just join in the color blind fest and teach him tonight.
  10. Don’t expect to get the $700 for writing a test item for the ACT about Bessie Coleman or the Negro National Anthem coming before the Star Spangled Banner. They will reject your question informing you that any questions that would disturb [white] testers are not allowed.
  11. Don’t get riled up and lose your mentor cool when a liberal white student asks you rather than his black peers why black students don’t apply to live on the Lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s University with no running water, no toilet, and an “outhouse” in the back that comes with your own rocking chair and fireplace too. Roughing it on T.J’s former plantation should be an esteemed part of a public education in our century.
  12. And finally, don’t go Django on ‘em (meaning “off the chain”) when you learn that you can’t visit the ruined slave quarters at Monticello in the winter time. The docent will remind you that the regular patrons would find it uncomfortable cuz’ it’s all about the main house.

AFTER THOUGHTS

Each of these incidents actually happened in my 15 years as a professor or in my personal life experiences during that period. Some happened at Baruch College-CUNY, most are from University of Virginia which was rich and contradictory space in which I taught both black music studies and hip-hop culture with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as a backdrop.

But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.–Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately[Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.

The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 28

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s28.html

The University of Chicago Press

One of the hardest moments of recent years came after a white male student at CUNY threatened to sue me. I had been his advisor and he had deeply admired me before taking a course titled “The Evolution and Expressions of Racism” where I read a poem on police violence by Brooklyn poet June Jordan. I realized I coddled him too much as his advisor — wanting to be liked in a department that tried to sack me after the first semester.

In a ten-page single-spaced paper (that’s term paper length and he was eager to share it with others), he accused me of saying all white people and all white cops should be killed. (June Jordan’s poem never distinguishes between white and black cops on the NYPD.) He went to both my department chairs. I was jointly appointed. He went to the Dean and the president of the college. (Not the first time a student went that high in a complaint about my teaching.) After 6 weeks of it unrequited complaints, we had a mediation. I was mentally shaken afterwards but I pretended to be strong as I ran to catch a taxi to Soho from Midtown and was refused by several empty yellow cabs.

I recall commiserating with a friend about the incident (or complex of incidents) at a conference for global transformation who was also a black woman professor. She shared that my experience was not uncommon in hers — that of having a white male student wheel about and turnabout and jump Jim Crow once racism as an education became part of the picture.

I want to read, play, be surprised and sing; I want to dance, defend, hesitate and dream; I want the freedom to hate, expect, get riled up, and go to those places where conventional black history months don’t go.

Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March should be more of a space for all kinds of dialogue not just some predictable presentation of firsts or facts about women and African Americans.

Fear of Change

It’s sad to me that black cultural confrontations of structural racism often require humor or irony to be digested but I also realize this is true of all taboos of cultural norms. Status quo discourses often seek to replicate themselves through our fear of change. We might be sittin’ in garbage but it’s familiar garbage all the same. And we often cannot see what change might be needed. Something simple, easy to master would do but it feels so monstrous when we encounter problems of race and racism, sexual power and sexism.

Darren Rowse, the author of 31DBBB, created a list of 21 ways to write posts that are guaranteed to grow your blog. It it included:

  1. Write something useful
  2. Write something unique
  3. Write something newsworthy
  4. Write something first
  5. Write something that makes those who read it smarter
  6. Write something controversial
  7. Write something insightful
  8. Write something that taps into a fear people have

I hope my list taps into a few of these ways. Every professor hopes we she/he does makes you a little smarter.  You be the judge and don’t hesitate to let me know whatever your reaction.

 2013: THRIVING AGAIN

I mentioned in a previous post how academia had beat my love of reading out of me and yet late last year I started learning to love reading and writing again. Maybe some of these microaggressions have had me more than I imagined. I am thankful that my desire for both reading and writing has begun to thrive again.

Presently, I am reading Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness–which is a brilliant remix of literature, thought and music. In it Young writes:

“[T]he lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes everyday. The book that memory, time, accident and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read. […] As African Americans, we have gone over the past century and a half from Reconstruction, to resistance, to recovery–and today, to a real need for reclamation. Forget reparations–we need to rescue aspects of black culture abandoned even by black folks, whether it is the blues or home cookin’ or broader forms of not just survival but triumph” (Kindle Loc 199 ff.).

POSTSCRIPT FEB 8th:My Facebook friend Suzanne Broughel recommended the great Tumblr blog on microaggressions where you can post your own.

See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.

What If Higher Learning Was All About Remix? (On Foucault)

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

For about 4 years now, I’ve been experimenting with an assignment of remix in writing and other practices in my classroom where students emulate and replicate being consumers of their own productivity inside a given text or framework. I was in a course exploring how one can be empowered by ANY communication, verbal or non-verbal. It was not an academic training, thankfully, but it was a 10 month course with a weekend long training in Los Angeles once every two months and meetups with local participants here in NYC every week for, yes, 10 months. The meetups were practice sessions for completing homework between the five weekends. The course was called Partnership Explorations.

If anyone knows me personally, they know that for years I’ve said that academia beat my love of reading out of me. Perhaps it started earlier when being book smart and “talking like white people” made me assign a separation from my people to reading. I loved Shakespeare as a teen and wanted to read Freud by my mother thought it was taboo for some reason she never really explained back when I was 14.

By the time I reached the Partnership Explorations course in 2004, I was eight (8) years into being a tenure-track professor. I taught at NYU then and I hated reading books and never read anything outside of work needs. I loved the Internet and probably read as much online as some do from hardback novels. But I resisted reading. Always fell asleep. LOL. I read from cover to cover one book in maybe 10 years, a confession no self-respecting professor should probably make, but it’s true. [The book was The Funeral Planner by Lynn Isenberg, a womanist entreprenurial comedy based around my alma mater, University of Michigan. It was mature, sophisticated Chic Lit.]

So when the course instructor of Partnership Explorations said there were 5 recommended books I confronted my bias. I loved the course but reading books… Each of the weekends involved sharing individually to a group of 300 participants about what you were learning about yourself and your conversations with 20 people we were expected to track in our lives.

I read one book completely. Dire Mastery: Discipleship from Freud to Lacan and I read the first 50 pages of The Order of Things: The Archeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault. Not unlike in the halls of academia, everyone in the course found the book confounding and many hated it. Though I had exposure to Foucault’s work on sexuality and liked it in grad school, this was different. I LOVED it. But still didn’t finish it. My habits were then not servicing any interest in reading more. But the preface of that book wOw-ed me.

Thus began an experiment with slow learning for me. Teaching students to replicate the preface of the book (found here: The Order of Things, 1970) in my African American music courses, my jazz course and my hip-hop courses. I have them do it early, the first weeks of class, to throw them into the world of their own thinking and sorting – reordering the mental maps of the subject they are about to encounter newly and in new ways hopefully.

In all the years since 2005 when I began assigning it, I have never written my own version but I have meticulously edited over 200 versions, I’d say. Often rewriting it for them to see other ways of thought,  to instigate and agitate their thinking (vs. thoughting). Yesterday I wrote my first draft. Today my second.

From my non-academic training,  I often challenge myself to do the work that I assign in my classes. It should be a requirement, I have learned from this practice.  It was my students’ experimenting this winter intercession that inspired me to share my own version. I’ve learned so much from my students in this and other assignments about the “sociology” of people’s experiences with black women in hip-hop. It’s like taking a sociological sampling of culture.  I wrote them earlier today: “It’s your mind each of your need to consider learning more about and intervening in the social constructs you simply inherited that were begun by people long dead and gone but that we transmit and carry on unthinkingly about race, gender and music-making. This is your opportunity to shine! Here is mine…”

Prof. G’s Foucault Remix (2nd draft):

This began as a riff off a intellectual rhymebook not well known, nor understood, inside the ivory towers of its social commons where even PhD students front in abstractions, wastin their breathe on what they “took away” from some book as if they were jookin on a basketball court (not!). It began out of a non-academic course I took on discourses and the partnership of language to uncover what’s unsaid and unknown. It arose out of the pain that shattered, as I read my participation in academia, all the familiar landmarks of my former thought — black and female thought, the thought that brands the video vixen of our hip-hop age and our corporate geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which I as a black woman, a performer, and a scholar had become accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing racist and sexist things students carried with them, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse their age-old distinction between desire and ambition.

This riff quotes a ‘certain true mathematics encyclopedia’ contributed to by the fellowship of Bernice Johnson Reagon (If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me), Audre Lorde (The Uses of the Erotic read here in her own words), Tricia Rose (Black Noise and Hip-Hop Wars), Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of a Hiphop Generation), Joe Schloss (Making Beats and Foundation), and many other oracle mathemeticians, an encyclopedia in which it is written that ‘humanity in hip-hop is divided into: (a) true to Rha Goddess not Gangsta, (b) masculine masoleum, (c) domesticated pornography sold to the white masses selling black behinds, (d) Sucka MCs, (e) a Blige(d) or Beyonce(d) , (f) Fiiiiiine!! (with an extreme nasal sound to intensify meaning and syncopation), (g) rhyme retreatists, (h) not included in the present classification = invisibilified, (i) dope fiends diggin in the crates, (j) bounce, bass, snap, house, (k) Is that your real hair cuz I can’t get a comb through it?, (l) whatevah, (m) just breaks on the Billboard charts that won’t last long if they hear its a female, (n) that from a long way off look like I got fries to go with dat shake and imma reach out and take that junk in the trunk public violence.

In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing black women, women and girls everywhere as well as conscious fathers, apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of a rhyme and a video screen, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of patriciarchal and post-colonial system of hegemonic thought, is the limitation of our my own thinking, the stark impossibility of ever being without that.

The source of my remix/sample is the “Preface” from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1970).

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”
― Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader

“Musical Blackness and the Sociological Imagination” ©2013

“What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Toni Morrison 1997, 5)

Flickr/CitizenKids:Cotonou,Bénin--Two girls sitting on a bed playing a handclapping game. The mosquito netting overhead is to protect sleepers from malaria-carrying mosquitoes

Flickr/CitizenKids: Cotonou,Bénin–Two girls sitting on a bed playing a handclapping game. The mosquito netting overhead is to protect sleepers from malaria-carrying mosquitoes

I am considering writing a book about my pedagogical philosophy of teaching and learning about the soul of black folks through micro-sociologies of a gendered “musical blackness.” After delving into teaching surveys of ethnomusicology, anthropology and lately sociology, I am realizing that my strength as a professor lies in teaching at the micro level of culture and music. To understand what I mean let me define both microsociology and musical blackness. First, let me share the view of sociology I am coming from.

C. Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959): “The first fruit of this imagination—and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it–is the idea that the individual can understand her own experience and gauge her own fate only by locating herself within her period, that she can know her own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in her circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one” (quoted in Dalton Conley 2011, 5).

And in the interest of time, let me quote from a useful definition of micro-sociology found on a credible and authored website WiseGeek.com:

Micro-sociology is a subspecialty of sociology, primarily dealing with how individuals initiate and respond to various societal environments, conditions, and interactions. Sociology, as an area of study, involves analysis of the social interactions and processes of an entire society, as well as those of each individual member of that society. Macro-sociology is the term used to describe the social processes of an entire society, as a whole. Alternatively, micro-sociology is the term used to describe social processes as they relate to the individual community member. Contextual use of the term micro-sociology may dictate a slightly different or more targeted definition.

In short, micro-sociology is the small-scale study of human behavior and the reasons behind certain behavioral choices. How various biological and psychological factors affect the interactions of the individual are the primary focus of this subspecialty. Experts who study micro-sociology and micro-sociological theories attempt to predict or provide an explanation of certain behaviors, based on interpretative analysis. Unlike macro-sociology, which bases theories on statistical data about an entire society, micro-sociology is based on how the individual makes sense of his or her world.

Pasted from <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-micro-sociology.htm>  Written by Sandi Johnson. Edited by John Allen. Last Modified Date: 01 October 2012. Copyright Protected: 2003-2013 Conjecture Corporation.

The ethnomusicological and historical study of the music of African Americans has been dominantly shaped by a form of musical colonialism where to justify its existence we look for great role models of music making. We want to know the Mozarts and Beethovens of bebop or hip-hop. The fugues and symphonies of the William Grant Stills and Mary Lou Williamses. The waltzes of black social or concert dances, the hoofing of early jazz and the line dances of contemporary black popular music. We codify the bests and the most popular from Duke Ellington to Jay-Z but we rarely seek to understand the sociological imagination that produced it all and in the storytelling in textbooks we musical scholars have tended to downplay “how individuals” shaped by social norms and forces initiate and respond to the societies we are from psychologically, emotionally, kinetically and even biologically, which may seem taboo, but where else does the spiritual elements of desires for getting down and making it funky come from but some biological realms that include our nervous system, brain and body — note here the latest research in biosociology and its relationships to sociology:

“Biosociology” (not to be confused with sociobiology) is to understand how the interaction of biological factors and other types of factors produces behavior.

Our biology has been socialized though the social structures sustained by institutions and constructs that once imagined and practiced become “real” and shape our physical and acoustic ecologies which in turn sustains our invented linguistic narratives. Biology, not in the way we once imagined, actually shapes an ethic of transactions between ourselves and others (more on that in due time).

CONTRIBUTING TO BLACK FEMINIST MUSICAL THOUGHT

This brings me to my unique linguistic contribution as a scholar–to musical blackness. In my prize-winning book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop, I wrote to counter the general view that black people are born musical, born to dance, it’s in the blood. As a social scientist and ethnomusicologist, I used the musical games black girls play to uncover a new narrative of our musical ways as African Americans. One that factored in the history and experience of both dominant genders — females and males, and one that factored in the learned ways we think, feel, believe and behave, in other words, culture.

Because of the stereotypes and social discrimination found throughout our systems of learning in the U.S., I needed to let readers in on how we learned to be and become musically black.  I didn’t and do not write to tell “the truth” but rather I see my role as a scholar and as a native ethnographer as one where we allow new ways of thinking that are as evolved and adaptable to our environments and ecologies are a seed is adaptable to different environments. And thus it is imperative to notice that some seeds cannot or no longer thrive in certain ecologies or that dysfunction stems from the ecology not the seed.  How we view or perceive our environment is shaped by the cultural lens you were born into and as adults can refocus and change. So play is an essential part of a rigorous intellectual capacity to grow and develop as a critical thinker and we are much more interested in learning answers and stagnating our mental capacities to learn difference constantly. This is what I am out to accomplish as a scholar-teacher. Keep all this in mind as you explore my definition of musical blackness.

Musical blackness is an imagined “home,” constructed to represent a place of return, a place of social and political comfort. It is a learned place of inhabitance; an embodied dwelling that might be viewed as a protection from real and imagined threats. This kind of musical homework is not simply about a return to contemporary Nigeria or ancient Yorubaland imagined or constituted by the descendents of African slaves living in the United States. African Americans are embodying “home,” performig their affiliations and identification with the collective  experience (and inherited socio-musical and cultural discourses) of blackness, as a result of perpetually confronting a kind of “homelessness” in this so-called New World dominated by descendants of Europeans, who themselves embody an imagined “home” in America  at the expense of native Americans, who experience homelessness in a land that was [once] their own. “What seems to lie about in discourses of race concerns legitimacy, authenticity, community, belonging. In no small way, these discourses are about home” (Morrison 1997, 5; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49)

Further elaboration is necessary to connect all this to the sound, setting and social significance of the music and soundscapes associated with African American musical discourse.  Essential to the sociology (linking the personal to larger social histories), the  epistemology (ways of knowing), and the ontology (ways of being) of a musical blackness is understanding the definition and uses of a “social construct.” We often banty about the notion that “race” is socially constructed, that is, that it is a social construct and too many hear that and jump to a conclusion that race is “not real.” It is imagined and therefore saying it is not real makes it disappear as a social force that is imbued in every social institution affected by colonialism and empire from “pajamas” (an Indian word appropriated into British and American languages while we never say a mumbling word about domination or exploitation of whites over people of color in a country that will now soon reach 1 billion in population and are still recovering in their post-colonial transactions) to the structural inequalities found in access to wealth, power and prestige globally relative to the performance, production, dissemination and consumption of music and music-making.
THE PLAY OF RACE AND GENDER

In The Games Black Girls Play (2006), I state further:

We must realize that the practices and ideologies that socialize African American children or acculturate adults (of any ethnicity) into “black” ways of being musical are never mechanical reproductions of a distinct and unitary black musical identity. “Black” ways of approaching singing and chanting, moving and dancing, talking about and composing musical ideas (from lyrics to melodic and rhythmic improvisation) are a contemporary project. This project is always and already shaped by multiple, arbitrary, and shifting experiences–past and present–that are narrated as if sprung from one root, one point in time, one parent culture. Since the phenomenological experience of being musically black continues to register for African Americans [and others], scholars cannot, and should not, seek to erase its presence, because anti-essentialist rhetoric [or its latest manifestation as “post-racial”] wants to throw the baby (African American cultural identifications) out with the politically incorrect bath water (racial essentialism).

We don’t need another set of stories to usurp race as the myth producing African American alliances–following the argument by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah–but we do need more intersecting narratives that overlap with the ones that privilege the most expressive and problematic, the most emergent, and the historical experiences of musical blackness as predominately male and masculine. While group solidarity is an important force with real political benefits, “it doesn’t work without its attendant mystifications….You cannot build alliances without mystifications and mythologies” (Appiah 1995, 106; quoted from Gaunt 2006, 49-50).

While black group solidarity through music has been a real and powerful agent in forging alliances–for example, to combat racism–it has rarely forged to combat sexism against African American women within black communities, popular culture, and the larger society. Subjugation of women’s gender politics stands in contradistinction to the fact that specific approaches to embodying rhythm or soul are primarily allied around the embodied public discourse of black musical bodies of men and women. But mythologies concerning male gender dominance in everyday life, as well as musical performance, tend to eclipse female participation and denigrate the feminine, so that even girls and women tend to overlook their own contributions and participation in sustaining the social practices that constitute black musical identity (writ large).  Women and girls are not included among the master drummers or griots or, for instance, the corn shuckers to whom Roger Abrahams devotes an entire book, In his Singing the Master (1992), he attempts to trace the origins of African American national or cultural identity through musical practices associated with male slave labor. Often the exclusion of women and girls is not so overt.

My concern for the ways gender and the experience of girls and women intersect with masculinist readings of history and culture came about from my first teaching assignment in women’s studies. …Aversions to dealing with issues of women, gender and race disturbed me when I began teaching African American music, primarily because of my own gendered musical experiences as an African American women fascinated with studying hip-hop culture–perceived to be a predominately male and masculinist culture. From various “nonmusical” experiences in the classroom, I became convinced of a need to uncover the ways in which black musical identity as “black” or “male” is not a pure or finished product.

[Paul] Gilroy states that gender and sexuality have played a significant role in reducing the “untidy patterns of differentiation to black masculinity as the primary, if not sole, signifier of race in mass popular culture.

Sexuality and gender identity are the other privileged media that express the evasive but highly prized quality of racial authenticity. Their growing power in configuring contemporary notions of blackness raises once again the critical issue of how the complex dynamics of race and gender come together. In a situation where racial identity appears suddenly impossible to know reliably or maintain with ease, the naturalness of gender can supply the modality in which race is lived and symbolized….The popularity of [Jamaican] slackness and the more misogynist forms of hip-hop can be used to support this diagnosis. The chief effect of this unhappy situation is that today’s crisis of black social life is routinely represented as a crisis of masculinity alone. The integrity of the race is defined primarily as the integrity of its menfolk. (1993 a, 7; quoted in Gaunt 2006, 51).

Thus, we tend to remember the authenticity of the blues through Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, but rarely through blues women, possibly because their association with the mass mediation of “race” records would be read today as “selling out” to the commercial side of music. But remembering blues women would require us to think of critiquing race as well as gender in our analysis of music and the recording industry.

The masculinist focus of dominant jazz, swing, and hip-hop histories may, in fact, stem from a long-standing white fascination with perceptions of black masculinity. If the appeal of mainstream music histories is their ability to dispense models of black masculinity to white consumers through information and anecdotes [i.e., Robert Johnson is a core one] about black men who play jazz and white men who successfully play black music, then it is no wonder that all-women bands, both black and white, find themselves the subjects of separate histories with limited readerships (Gaunt 2006, 51-52).

A PRAXIS: PLAYING THE CHANGES OF SOCIAL NORMS

I am finding that I need more sociological theories in my musicological and ethnomusicological interpretations of musical blackness as a sociological phenomenon such as Robert Merton’s theories of social roles, role strain theory, social deviance including the five types or modes of individual adaptation to constructed social norms and culture including  conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism, and rebellion.

The constructed histories of African Americans and their music, whether from the perspective of intellectuals or academics or from everyday philosophers and ordinary folk generally have tended to loosely and rather erroneously trade in Robert Merton’s theories of adaptation and social roles. Merton is the father of the term “role model” and during the 80s and 90s there were vigorous debate in all quarters about role models in the black community and in many ways, the deviant population must always have role models to rise up from the devalued position that the socio-political economy created for them as “slaves,” as “the proletariat” or working-class, from a Marxist perspective as emasculated men (i.e., “women”) estranged from their labour. The privatization of property separated men (women and children for that matter) from their land, the technology for tending to those lands and thereby the means of producing food and other stuffs for their own survival.

We have proceeded from the premises of political economy. We have accepted its language and its laws. We presupposed private property, the separation of labor, capital and land, and of wages, profit of capital and rent of land – likewise division of labor, competition, the concept of exchange value, etc. On the basis of political economy itself, in its own words, we have shown that the worker sinks to the level of a commodity and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities; that the wretchedness of the worker is in inverse proportion to the power and magnitude of his production; that the necessary result of competition is the accumulation of capital in a few hands, and thus the restoration of monopoly in a more terrible form; and that finally the distinction between capitalist and land rentier, like that between the tiller of the soil and the factory worker, disappears and that the whole of society must fall apart into the two classes – property owners and propertyless workers.

Pasted from <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm> “Estranged Labour” from Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx


CONCLUSION

Music for music’s sake, music as entertainment, the commercial production, distribution and consumption of mediated words, sounds, and images (even Facebook and other social media which appears to be of the people is owned by the property owning classes’ white sons) and thus music, music-making and musically constructed meanings are extracted from local workers, from their local meanings and relationships, to continue the estrangement of listeners, fans, readers and viewers, singers, instrumentalists and dancers from owning their own greatness, their own creations, their own culture.

All this came to mind as most of my ideas do. Just before I wake or as I am waking up. It’s my most creative time. From about 5:30 – 7am. If I don’t get up and write these days, it disappears into the current robbing of time found in a usual day.

It also came as I prepare for both a job interview and the delivery of a new course called “Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-hop”. It’s a short winter intercession course at Baruch College-CUNY. There is less than a month to deliver and contribute to a problem in the fields of black feminist thought and black music studies while applying both anthro and sociological methods.

It occurred to me as I was asked to prepare a lecture for a course titled The Roots of Jazz that in this 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation I must link the social conceptions and uses of “roots” to a deeper understanding of what musical blackness means in the context of jazz. And I want to do my thang at the interview. Demonstrate my liberty and freedom as both a scholar and as a descendant of people once enslaved in this nation, whose labor was not compensated, whose songs were free, to tell a different story not often found in articles and textbooks that dominate jazz classrooms.  Classrooms that people of African descent are and have always been a minority. But spaces in which musical blackness can be privileged.

That’s my intention and my wish. 2013 is about truly converting wishbones to backbones. Reminds me of a popular girls’ game-song:

Little Sally Walker
Sittin in a saucer
Rise, Sally, Rise
Wipe your weapin’ eyes
Put your hand on your hips
And let your backbone slip!

I’ve been telling myself for too long that I have everything I need to succeed. But what I learned in 2012 is that requires peace of mind, wellness and space to think (rather than thought) on what I have. I need to re-read my own book, mine the diamonds. In my own work, I’ve archived many jewels. Time to reveal them.

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