Celebrity and Shame: Harriet Tubman on a $20 Bill

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” ― Harriet Tubman
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
C.G. Jung

Today’s topic is shame. And there is much to talk about whether around twerking videos or the new face of the $20 bill. But first a bit about my new blog theme and title.

Most of your know I was trained as an ethnomusicologist and that I wrote a book about black girlhood from double-dutch to hip-hop. The arch of my 20 year career has been spent on the intersectional study of race, gender and sexuality in embodied musical games by girls and that will continue.

The old title “Broadcasting the Bottomlines” worked but the direction of the work I’ve been doing with my undergrads lately is more like the CSI of online black girls. As we qualitatively code and analyze 800 videos of adolescent black girls twerking on YouTube, we examine how their love of dance and expression is overshadowed by shame about their sexuality, shame that comes from the ways their images are exploited by males, by media companies and by mega artists, as well as how the persistence of race and their uploaded content as young girls may come back to haunt their employability in a nation that has no “right to be forgotten” laws about things you did as an adolescent.

You never get a second chance at a first impression.

This blog allows me to share my thoughts about YouTube and digital privacy, about my love of teaching and my interests in empowering online black girls (esp. those ages 13-16 and younger) with digital media literacies. It also allows me to respond to current affairs in social media that intersect with these interests.

So, today’s blog post topic is about a current topic circulating on the web: Raven-Symone’s response to putting the face of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill.

Celebrity and Shame

A video featuring soon-to-be-thirty-year-old gazillionaire Raven-Symoné has been circulating on Facebook and trending on Twitter since May14th. You, like me, may know her as the adorable child star from the final seasons of The Bill Cosby ShowThe version of the video I saw on FB timeline had over 1.3 million views. Appearing as a guest on ABC’s The View with Rosie Perez and others, Raven gives us her celebrity opinion encapsulated in a caption below the FB video, which read:

America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

20-dollar-bill-transfer-transferframe198

I doubt seriously that all of America wants Tubman on the bill. Confederate flag wavers are probably not in that line. I’d rather discuss the culture of shame that seems to lurk behind her comments that is reminiscent of many comments I hear from black youth, and non-black youth, who’d rather dismiss the “dark” past of slavery especially since  it draws us back to race which is also taboo. This cultural of shame was something I once resisted in my own youth as a black teenager. I want to discuss this without demonizing Raven-Symoné but I will use her comments to make my points.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals

A culture of shame lurks among black people, especially youth or those ignorant of the powerful lives of enslaved persons. Instead the try to brush of the memory that were are descended from “slaves”. We don’t even call them “African” slaves like we are talking about people and not property. I suspect that since Integration in the late 1960s through the 1980s (there was resistance to federal mandates), segregated, under-resourced and undervalued black youth who strive to be upwardly mobile (i.e. gain individual wealth) have rejected the “dark” past of being a former slave like Harriet Tubman. Generations of youth were taught to reject everything African including people and the traces of its culture and biology including our own skin color and hair. It did this as a child and still suffer its psychological wages. When I was a kid it was “You got African hair” said disparagingly to mean that kinky was not desired, was not good like hair that resembled long white blonde tresses. Only straight hair would satisfy that hegemonic norm. We rejected our own natural textures for straightening combs and perms that burn your scalp again and again. We carry shame in our very existence when it’s up against the backdrop of whiteness.

If Media is Entertainment, What is History?

The media taught us these things while our parents were slaving in menial and then lower management jobs to eek out a living in a racist society. The children like me of the lindy hopping teenagers who had access to handheld transistor radios and TV sets were taught to reject the old for the new while also rejecting the darker skinned entertainers for the light. The mediated screen of televisions helped us learn these visual and cognitive lessons. We rejected black and white silver screen movies for the technicolor of television and the soulful sounds of Motown and disc jockeys on the regional radio.

So when Raven says we need to “move a little bit more forward” by choosing Rosa Parks over Tubman, I interpret that to mean we need to get over that slavery thing, those “things” (treating people like objects) of past generations and strive for what inspires today’s youth. The battle in Ferguson rings of this same generational struggle. The past is the past is what Raven is arguing for. Leave that old darker black woman’s past behind for the lighter, more palatable and respectable likes of a Rosa Parks. No disrespect but 14 year old Claudette Colvin and other dark-skinned black girls who took a seat in the white section of the segregated bus were not deemed sufficient role models by the NAACP. So Rosa was not the first. She was the most acceptable. Respectability politics has roots in our struggle.

Claudette ColvinIn my lessons as a student, a teacher and scholar (and I remain a life-long student), I’ve noticed the shame as a mechanism of control around race and slavery. It’s also part of pop entertainment on-stage and off. A Wikipedia entry on the “shame society” reads that shame is

the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

Our relationship to history around entertainment as popular culture has been as a vehicle for a lot shame of artists we no longer wish to see or hear anymore.

In my informed analysis as a scholar, I remember how black folk rejected jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters who could sing circles around Lena Horne. Horne was favored because she was lighter and “prettier” though Waters was, for a significant moment in the 1930s into the 40s, much more powerful and prestigious in the entertainment world. Waters, who came from abject poverty in Chester, PA, was the first black entertainer with her own show on television (not Nat King Cole). She integrated Broadway and produced her own shows there. She became the wealthiest woman in Hollywood and on Broadway (notice I did not say “black” woman). Maybe Raven-Symoné would prefer Ethel Waters as the new face of the $20 bill but I wonder if she even knows of her legacy. Because Waters played maids at the end of her career in the advent of television, she was remembered by youth like me not as a legend in entertainment but as a stereotypical role. Whites get stereotyped in a profession of acting. Blacks are stereotyped in all of life. Like black girls twerking on YouTube, they are robbed of their full humanity off-screen.

For Symoné, Rosa Parks is probably a more palatable choice than Harriet Tubman, although Raven and her sympathizers might be convinced if they had had Tubman as a Barbie Doll figure during her youth. Imagine a Nickolodean commercial for Black Moses Barbie (“freedom oars” sold separately). Click the previous link for some humor and critique!

Ethel Waters in fur

Power: Wealth Alone Won’t Do

Raven take note: History of the past is not self-perpetuating but the cultural biases of human interactions sure seem to be. The meme of racial and sexual bias continues unabated as does naïveté. Ethel Waters was the wealthiest woman in Hollywood (not unlike Raven herself might be today) but was eventually rejected because of her age, race and sex despite her social prestige and her wealth. Back then Waters was arguably one of the 1%. The shame comes in when you realize that Ethel Waters was rejected from black cultural memory because of the roles she had to play to survive in the industry at the end of her career. This same pattern is why we don’t really know Paul Robeson.

In the 1954 Edward Murrow interview, Waters recites lines from the play Mamba’s Daughters, based on a novel of the same name written by DuBose Heyward (watch the interview here on YouTube). Waters used her economic capital to produce and star in the play on Broadway circa 1939. I can’t think of a dramatic Broadway play produced by a black woman since then. (H/T to Sara Jones who might fit this category but I don’t know that arena well. If you know, do tell!)  Waters recites these lines in the interview and likens their message to her own life as an entertainer:

Listen, Lissa. We black folks have one thing over white folks …  and that is…there ain’t no problem so big we can’t sing ’bout ’em. Best thing for trouble, honey, is singin’ … and werkin’. And when your werk is singin’, then you is holdin’ a charm against trouble.

The cultural shame about which I write here comes from not knowing these rich details of the lives of black people as people not as characters or roles from our past. Harriet Tubman is a stereotypical slave to someone who has not had much education in how the people we call slaves, or actors (pardon the analogy), really are.

The advent of television meant that skin color privilege would be valued and celebrated in celebrities not the community’s cultural narratives of ethnic power and change. I heard Dhoruba bin Wahad of the former Black Panther Party say that Huey Newton said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired fashion.” Of course, in our capitalist economy, money empowers such an ability.

Within black cultural memory over time we have rejected actors for acting, musicians for musicking their inherited traditions and ghettoes (and its people), the products of environmental racism, as personalized problems enacted against us. There will be shame. The young and naïve often collapse the characters celebrities portray on screen with who they might actually be in real life off screen (from buffoons and maids to, for your consideration, Sasha Fierce aka Mrs. Carter). This kind of context collapse disallows the complexities of black lives and their multiple selves.

The Chains of Bondage Remain

Here is a more chilling example.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985) was a comedian who became the first black actor to become a millionaire of film, but he is stereotypically remembered as a buffoon over early television known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit.

Lincoln Perry

In my youngest years I never learned about Perry’s wealth–a wealth that surely came with no power in the film business of 1940s and 50s, I was simply embarrassed by his portrayals on the television screen. His public identity on screen trumped any knowledge of his humanity as a millionaire or his family life as a father. The logic of shame found in the filters of cognition was borne out to me in a conversation with a colleague at the University of Virginia in my first years of teaching. Prof. Angela Davis, not the black power activist and prison abolitionist we all know, but a former HBCU student who attended college with Perry’s son, told me that Donald Perry made headlines when he killed three people and then committed suicide on the NJ/PA Turnpike. She said he left a note saying he was embarrassed by his father’s image as Stepin Fetchit. We collapse what’s on stage with what’s off and those collisions have repercussions well into the future. That was 1969, decades before his father’s own death.

“Chains and Things” (by BB King, 1970, No. 6 on Billboard R&B)

This week, we lost BB King at the age 89. Shame was registered in a NYTimes article announcing his death. When the blues went out of fashion with young black audiences in the early 1960s, he was booed at the Royal Theater in Baltimore by teenagers who cheered the sweeter sounds of Sam Cooke. As reported in the NYTimes, “They didn’t know about the blues,” he said 40 years after the fact. “They had been taught that the blues was the bottom of the totem pole, done by slaves, and they didn’t want to think along those lines.” (see NYT link above for more).

cartoon3 on abolition and mother

Getting back to Raven and her comments on the $20 Bill and the shame of being descended from the old black Joe news attached to the chains of blackness, what strikes me as an educator is how 29 year-old Symoné (with a cosmopolitan “e” added for stylish flair) uses the characteristic adverbial phrases of twenty-somethings who like to say “super organized” or “super lazy” or when they are not so sure “a little bit more forward.” This kind of discourse among my students tends hide in plain sight their insecurity about their opinion or their desire to find others among them who might back them up–cuz we all know the adolescent or naïve thinker loves to prop up the “underdog” in the fight. This is a common and individualistic approach to personal views in arguments that rarely reflect being informed or demonstrate critical thinking.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers a rich definition of critical thinking, which I intend to use more often from now on. It’s super good! Thanks Google! It reads: “Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest.” It goes on to add: “everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought,” and let me add, celebrities as well as scholars are prone to these episodes.

While I’d bet money on the latter, scholars are rarely invited guests on The View. We are the wrong age demographic in the wrong cultural climate; news as entertainment is not our bag; sound bytes on talk shows, not our fortés. So today, they offer us Raven-Symoné as commentator on the feminist politics of treasury bills, civil rights agendas and slavery.

shame children cognition

The networks that permit such remarks knowing it’s entertainment news for Twitter water-cooler sessions and social media banter.  But what are we learning culturally, asks the anthropologist in me, about thinking and cognition as a result? What lessons are we being taught? Increasingly, it seems as if celebrities have the answers that circulate, but they never have any questions about their own thinking. We all need this modelled more than ever in a noisy social media landscape of mostly entertainment news. And we all need to practice examining our own logic and our own uninformed thinking…from celebrities to scholars but particularly youth in the fast-pace of social media and globalization online.

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

 

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as “the overconfidence effect“. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

On Cognition and Thinking

I often tell my students there is a difference between thinking and thoughting. The former takes more glucose or energy and tired and lazy intellectual practice resorts to thoughting or opinions, fallacies, faulty logic, and over erroneous common knowledge.

Thinking (vs. thoughting — using knowledge you already knew but not incorporating the new things you are not so skilled at using yet in a course) requires more glucose. Without the real thinking, we often resort to stereotypical, short-hand thoughts. The brain does this to preserve glucose, to save you energy. It’s just biologically efficient and your brain knows this. You don’t! The more arrogant or naïve you are, the more likely you are to not realize this and the bigger tendency for you to speak your private universe of opinions to the world. Those thoughts can be costly to you and to others, esp. when you have a microphone that broadcasts to the world called “celebrity”. And you may never know it. This is bigger than you having your own opinion. Everyone does have that right.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Harlan Ellison

I can only imagine why the cosmopolitan and individual Raven-Simoné (and her accent) prefers Rosa Parks and not… Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Anna Julia Cooper or a Mary McLeod Bethune much less someone like Harriet Tubman who is so directly linked to slavery. It also directly links our of black people (not black skin) to the effects of capitalism on our labor and humanity. I think young people feel feel chained to the past and cannot quite understand esp. given all the state violence we have been witnessing in social media (that black folks have known all our lives), videos that remind us of an era of lynchings and centuries of subjugation by overseers in sharecropping, on plantations and on slave ships.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School
Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School

Young people in the black community (and any community) have the most limited vision of our culture, history, memory and ontology–the science of knowing. That is no fault of their own or anyone else’s. It;s how youth works. But they also can be some of the most impulsive and self-centered beings without critical thinking as they attempt to assert their self identity in a larger public. Wisdom soon tells us that we must also learn to defer and collaborate so we all thrive intergenerationally. Specialized understandings of this take time.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.  ― Harriet Tubman
America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

Forward past slavery, in my opinion, would mean confronting the biggest wealth inequality gap in the history of our nation that also must be read against the reality of black women’s economic lives today in America.

Small changes like putting the face of Harriet Tubman, a black woman, on a $20 bill is seemingly small but a powerful gesture. The circulation of images in many ways can be a primary tool for instituting ideology and may instigate change over time. Think of all the images that have affected us from billboards to bedroom posters, from TV and  personalized mobile webcams and photography.

Net Worth vs. Negative Worth

Yet, and still, the substantive changes that give rise to access to those very dollars in an age of the most extreme wealth inequalities is a matter not so easily transacted and gained. Women and children, esp. black women and their children, are among the lowest paid, lowest valued and have the lowest examples of net worth — zero net-worth often called “negative net worth” — as demographic groups. From the ages 18 to 64, black women have less than $150 in savings after deducting their debt.
 
Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 12.29.28 PM

It is possible that women and children seeing Tubman’s face on the $20 bill might “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” more, not something I’d bank on as a solution, but the bigger challenge is not individual net-worth. Leverage comes from systemic change — how black girls and women, as well as women in general, are valued in a patriarchal society. That fact will not change by putting a historic black woman’s face on our currency. It’s more like entertainment than news in that light.
Harriet Tubman took slaves by gunpoint at times to force them out of their mental slavery. The UGGR, an acronym used by enslaved and formerly enslaved people like my great, great grandfather in his emancipation letter of 1855, stands for the Underground Railroad. No one else as Bob Marley sang can free you from those chains and from the chains of shame. The same ends as the colonized mind learns the reality of our lives with full humanity. I never learned that slaves actually had the skills to read and write to a larger degree than I could ever imagine. These 19th centuries media literacies surely contributed the end of the institution of chattel slavery.  Perhaps a similar read/write/create revolution is needed in the 21st century such that once emancipated from our lack of access to digital media literacies (read write create curate develop), would make it hard to maintain control over people with agency. Digital tools can help us organize their lives and adapt to our new online and offline environments and identities. In biology, the process of adaptation to an environment is known as “ecological fitness“. This is what I am after for myself and for online black girls and women.
And all this writing from watching a video of Raven-Symoné.  Thanks Raven!!
 
I’m supposed to be at a friend’sbarbeque right now. Please excuse my typos or any jumbled sentences. Drop me a note if something is illegible.  And if you made it this far and like something you read, THANK YOU!! Why not leave a comment??!!PLEASE comment!
Tell me what you’d like me to write about next or what you like about my blog or this post. Suggestions are welcome!

The Gap: What Media Teaches 7 Year Olds About Being Female

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: “It’s a girl.”
Shirley Chisholm

http://www.slideshare.net/anastasiyasmotrikova/negative-images-of-women-in-popular-culture-33002780
http://www.slideshare.net/anastasiyasmotrikova/negative-images-of-women-in-popular-culture-33002780

 

My intro anthro courses will be conducting video content analysis on the 1000 videos of black girls (13-17 and younger) twerking in my dataset. We will analyze the intersectionality of race, gender and age on YouTube.

They will work in pairs to analyze 15 videos each based on scholarly research on video coding and content analysis. I am working out the intersectional categories they will focus on together. With many teams we can analyze subcultural features at the same time. Each team will choose a code or two to analyze in their subset of videos. It might be focusing on sexualization of adolescent girls, YouTube personal vlogging, rap music videos and video vixens, or new media ecology, etc. They will find three scholarly articles to help them think like a social scientist about video content analysis and/or YouTube content creation.

Today I got this email from one of my 90 students. She is a non-black, twenty-something year old, undergrad. She wrote:

Hello professor,
I had an interesting experience today that I wanted to tell you about.

Today, I was babysitting a young girl, 7yo, and we were creating things out of clay. We decided to make a couple and she asked me to help her making the girl. She told me that the girl has to be tall and has to have a GAP BETWEEN HER TIGHTS! I asked her why and she said that that is how pretty and skinny girls look like. I told her that I don’t have gap between my tights and asked her if she things I am fat or ugly (believe me we have very honest and good relationship-we tell each other things). And she just froze and said no. And I could see how honestly she meant that and how she started thinking how come I am not ugly or fat when I don’t have gap between my tights. ( I messed up her mental map [of reality–a concept from our anthro textbook] I guess- can that be the case?)

And that make me think about twerking. If we communicate to a girl at tender age of seven this twisted image of how beautiful girl/woman looks like, couldn’t one of the reasons for black girls to twerk [sic] be that this is what cool/desirable/…. girls(women) do?

I am not sure if that has any value for our research, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you.”

I wrote her back with glee “YES!!!” This is one of those turning points in the learning process. It makes teaching and learning around vulnerable topics all the more worthwhile.

Our textbook introduced the concept of “zeros”

Zeros

Elements of a story or a picture that are not told or seen and yet offer key insights into issues that might be too sensitive to discuss or display publicly.

Most students would not think like me that mentioning a “thigh gap” likely tells me that the little girl is not black. Perhaps it’s biology–I rarely see black women with thigh gaps. Perhaps it’s because we tend to be thick versus thin in our hips. Surely there are black girls with and who desire a thigh gap. I did when Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince aired on commercial TV from 1975 to 1979. That was a year before Roots aired on ABC.

I was a true adolescent when I was watching actress Linda Carter twirl into her supernatural power. She was sexy and it was all about her body. Her thigh gap was real but I knew her powers were not. This was TV! After watching, I looked at my body in the mirror and thought…and this sounds crazy in hindsight only…but I thought “I don’t have a gap so how will I be able to have sex? There’s no room down there.” In other words, who will find me attractive? I didn’t see it in myself.  All I noticed was that I was missing that gap and from my adolescent point of view it signified what it meant to be a wonder, to be alluring, to be a woman.  That way of seeing still has me decades later.

That thought plagued my adolescent brain as my looking-glass self kept reminding me how I needed/wanted to be viewed by others. To be liked. I wanted to conform or contort my body to fit some hegemonic view imposed from merely watching television. No one told me you need a gap. My mother had no thigh gap. No boy said “Oh, I wish you had a gap!” I recall talking with other girls about it once. But none of my friends had thigh gaps. Well, Bernadette did! She was a neighborhood girl who tortured me later in high school. She was light-skinned-ed, skinny and tall compared to the rest of the girls in 8th grade. I was a loner. And I didn’t share my thoughts with other girls. I rarely do now. This is why voice is so important to the work I am doing. Finding your voice is key to empowering girls in my view to combat how prevalent the body is around the socialization of the female body in social and televised media.

Vids of Very Young Girls

My students, 90 in all in Spring 2015 semester, are just starting to learn how to conduct fieldwork and ethnography from Chapter 3 in the textbook titled Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age by my department colleague Ken Guest.

Since this is a new textbook I am using this term, I took a suggestion from a senior sociology colleague and friend at the CUNY Grad Center. He suggested I have my students participate in a research project around my data instead of having them write papers as I ordinarily do.

So far, I have only introduced my students this term to one twerking video. Two week ago I blogged about it.I recently changed the title to: “Privacy? (No!) Adversity? (You Bet!): Black Girls’ Bedroom Twerking”. It features an 8 year old twerking on YouTube. I’ve flagged this video on March 6th for child abuse because the girl is below the YouTube age minimum and the comments are “grooming” her to make another video in her “panties”.  In the past, flagging videos has not worked but it’s something I am hoping to publicize to protect very young girls from such harm.

The Vulnerable Classroom

Teaching around this ethnographic fieldwork is really, really complicated as danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated points to. It involves virtual impressions and moving images that are misread, misinterpreted and often stigmatized. It features underage girls whom far too many of us do not assign agency. We perceive their lack of agency as being complicit in some symbolic action of soliciting sexual attention and they they are giving consent to male viewers to slut-shame them.

It involves dance moves that are racialized and sexualized by generalized others. These moves in visual motion can awaken sensual reactions that are usually reserved for private encounters and are perceived and sensed differently by women and men, girls and boys, in ways that are blurred by the broadcast nature of the medium.  And watching twerking videos mirrors a reality, no more accurately, it mirrors a mental map of reality that for many role-takers (parents, teachers, older folk, strangers, moral high grounders, etc.) in public are highly agitated by. It’s particularly agitating when it comes to any association with stigmas about black girls or  sexual adolescent girls. Another thing, it’s all about the female realm in a domestic sphere — bedroom culture — which given the emphasis on race and gender, on black femaleness, it’s complicated by issues of culture, power, hegemony, and stratification. Topics most undergrads are not facile with understanding yet. Oh!! And if that isn’t complicated enough,  my students and I occasionally watch these videos in a disembodied academic setting, a college classroom at a public university known for its wide range of ethnicity diversity as well as religions. THIS. IS. COMPLICATED ETHNOGRAPHIC WORK AND PEDAGOGY.

This is vulnerable ethnography as well as vulnerable and critical teaching and learning in mixed company. I have to help these diverse emerging adults accept that there are risks affecting the youngest, darkest, and socially most vulnerable YouTube participants and convince them that this is academic work. I have to help them not get lost in the fascination with what’s viral–YouTube viral videos–and learn to critically analyze a rich and extremely educative site of study–digital media and new media ecologies. I, too, am constantly challenging my own mental maps of reality as a result.

More soon.

Separate But Equal. Debt Slaves.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” – Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.

Integrated School of Girls

May 16, 2013 by

On May 17, 1954 [59 years ago today], the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unConstitutional. The case was brought on behalf of Linda Brown, a black girl from Topeka, Kansas, who had been denied admission to her local elementary school on the basis of her skin color.

At the time, public facilities were segregated based on the justification that a 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. But in Brown’s case, the all-white school she wanted to attend was closer to her home and was far superior to the all-black school that other children of her skin color and from her neighborhood were required to attend. For more read here.

Today, students of color and poor whites in industrialized countries like the UK or the US still struggle for access to the right to an education but it’s not skin color that limits most anymore. The film DEBT SLAVES gives us a view into the problems college students are facing today. I wish I could an embed it here but trust me — you want to what this short but engaging film by young film-maker Makeda Mantock in association with the Guardian and the National Union of Students

In the US it is said that there remains a 60% drop out rate for high school and 40% drop-out for college. Students today, who are emerging adults, have “money on our mind” and cope with being “burdens on parents and the state.” There’s little time to focus on a higher education that could solve the needs of society and dreams of our societies — the next generation.  Who would have thought Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign would include college students?

Wonder if there will ever be a National Union of Students here in the “Untied” States of America (where separate but equal remains in higher ed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)?

Please watch the short film DEBT SLAVES from the Intergenerational Foundation Young Film-makers’ short film competition.

marshall-quote-1What I love about this short film is its use of a personal poem (written and co-directed and co-produced by Havana Wellings-Longmore, performed excellently by several actors). It’s got a hip-hop and spoken word feel though in reality it’s scripted and performed with veracity. The flow and the passion is palpable and speaks to issues college and university students around the world are struggling for. #powertothepeople #educationforall

We just ended our spring semester at Baruch College-CUNY on Wednesday. After engaging and empowering 33 diverse emerging adults in my political sociology course to “go public” — to plan and launch public speech acts around issues they cared about for at least 20 people —  I noticed we never once considered working together as one group, as a collective on one collaborative act. That would have been social power in a social setting. In any event, the class tracked over 400 courageous acts throughout the semester. Many if not all now feel empowered to express their freedoms and practice their civil rights like never before.

Unionizing efforts may seem long gone in higher ed but I just bet eventually these emerging adults are gonna surprise us all. I’ll be waiting!

No More Debt Slaves! 31525_20121106_204725_bored_quotes_03

Up with the Learning Revolution!!!

The Power of a Counter-Offer in Life

Over a year ago, I decided to “defect” from academia and various twists and turns in life have led me back to the classroom for a little while longer. This summer I am teaching two cultural anthropology courses at Baruch College-CUNY. Each class has 19 students.

Every semester and every class I teach always has a unique ecology based around some theme that often relates to empowering emerging adults to own their own greatness.

I have begun to think of ecologies more and more in this context because I am interested in the sustainability of ambitious thinking and adulthood.  Social ecology “is defined as the science of the relationships between human populations and communities and their environments.” The relationships between students/teachers in a classroom, the communities in which  an institution is based and the communities students and the teacher represent as well as the urban environment of Baruch College in NYC are but one example of a complex ecology. The classroom alone is one, too.  

College students today, no matter what level–first years or seniors–do not view themselves inside a context of greatness. They are rarely related to, each and every one of them, as great citizens or great human beings and for the most part, as a few of my students confirmed this last week of the summer session, they await permission from their professor to assert any identification with that greatness. It simply never occurs to the members of that ecology to express themselves, transact from one instance to another, as student-as-adult.

Faculty committees from CUNY to Cali universities can alter their curriculum all they want, but if there isn’t a significant shift in student-as-adult, rather this or that student functioning and interacting as an adult, there can never be a revolution in learning in higher education. Not to mention that the cultural or institutional environment itself cannot be altered by a few curricular changes in a course in this or that major or liberal arts requirement.

Without a sea change in the entire ecology, what I sometimes call “a sustainable classroom model” where the true resources are not the books but are the people and their social openness, transparency, connectedness and empowerment, there cannot be any real change or transformation of learning and thinking.

So I constantly engage my students individually and collectively in a conversation for greatness and one mechanism I use is implemented primarily at the end of the semester. It’s introduced during the first days of the course but it’s true power comes at the end of the course.

Based on the premise that there is always 100% of the course left, I require students to do complete work to pass the course. They must complete 100% of the homework no matter what by the end of the class. AND they have an option on all assignments to “counter-offer.”

A counter-offer requires a student to assess:

  1. what would be of value in completing what’s expected of them for a specific assignment and
  2. what would not undercut what I , as the professor, am expecting of them in a way that would not be belittling of their greatness as a student, adult, citizen and human being.

This requires engaging them in a conversation for what it means to be “adult” in their relationship with themselves, the professor and their work. It is not an easy conversation.

An ebook I wrote with a former cultural anthropology course in the Spring of 2010 asked students to write a short essay about “what mattered to you” and it took those 28 students 3-4 weeks to write a 300-600 word essay because no one ever asks them what they thought … about themselves and their lives. This in my mind confirms a hidden and unspoken phenomena in most college classrooms. We are perpetuating a reality of “academic” thought, rather than “real thinking” (yes,  I need to add scare quotes here because it has become an abstractions in most classrooms.

We ended up naming the ebook SPEAK!: The MisEducation of College Students but I remember during the production process, a student asked me what writing about what mattered to them had to do with Baruch College. A good Socratic method of teaching requires that we explore the questions, not find quick answers. I responded, “I don’t  know. What do you think?” Another student piped up, “We’re Baruch College!!” And so the process had truly begun. That ebook has been read by over 7000 times since May of 2010.  In the past is was customary for a student’s final work to be read by one person–the professor–and that it had no reach whatsoever including that feedback from their work was rarely returned to the student before they received their final grade. So in essence any feedback didn’t matter.

These students continue to impact people beyond their classroom and what mattered to them continues to inspire students and readers elsewhere long after they’ve left my classroom.


GETTING THE POINT

So here’s what the counter-offer provides students. A chance to negotiate their work inside a commitment they have witnessed me negotiating with them all semester. It asks them to step into my role while creating their own accountability and responsibility.  It asks them to think rather than simply having thoughts.  There is a great talk by former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz for a lecture at West Point that speaks to this:

I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire and declare the job done and move on to the next thing. (Solitude and Leadership)

If you can create a context, a listening for that you may tailor the lessons to your own needs in consultation with the professor, what you find is at first students do not believe it. They rarely remember this is an option. Then as the semester progresses and the gain confidence in relationship to my style and performance as a professor, they have an inkling that it might be possible.

In the last weeks of class, I remind them that they must do complete work with integrity (wholeness not rightness) and complete 100% of their homework AND that there is 100% of the game left. This kicks them into overdrive mode and into the need for requesting a counter-offer.

And that is when student-as-adult begins to show up for themselves. They have to see it as a real need and possibility and then things start popping.

I’ll let you know how it goes this week but I am already seeing them start to thrive from their own need and drive rather than trying to simply meet my expectations.