Thus Was It Written: Student Writing That’s Illmatic or [sic]…

Too often in teacher discussions about student writing we complain, paying too much attention to student writers’ spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and faulty reasoning. We derisively speak in terms of what’s supposedly broken or ill-informed about their writing and pathologize their triple exclamation points and wild use of emoticons as something in need of fixing or treating. Teachers behave more like doctors, dentists, and nurses when we approach the writing of our students as if it’s diseased, regarding the battery of “diagnostic exams” and “essay clinics” prescribed and administered as a cure for perceived language impairments and seek to eradicate the contagion of slang usage in drill-and-kill writing labs.

Of course what I’m saying is not so different than what’s been said by many, many other composition scholars for over four decades now, which is why I’m so discouraged by the perennial nature of the pedagogical myth that two semesters of English Composition can—or should—completely erase the graphic representation of what a person thinks, feels, and believes. Despite all empirical evidence to the contrary and all the reams and reams of quantitative and qualitative data that’s been researched and published on every variety of longitudinal analysis, large sample experiment, and ethnographic case study, it’s common that composition and rhetoric professors must still endure ideas reflected in videos like this:

Yeah, right… Whatev!  ¯\_()_/¯

This problem is taken a step further by the insertion of the word “sic” after examples of student writing to indicate everything that’s wrong with the supposedly unwashed, uneducated masses—and not in a way that merely implies the specificity of the words belonging to them. Originally meant to designate the “thus” in sic erat scriptum of the Latin phrase “thus was it written,” the insertion of “[sic]” is meant to indicate a verbatim transcription of a person’s wording, but is also used as a means of ridicule, designed to call attention to other people’s errors in writing and derisively draw a distinction between “us” and “them”—in reference to the class of college professors as opposed to the classrooms of students with whom we’re charged with sharing our love of learning. To my mind, the only real writing and composition classroom mistakes that occur have to do with the presumption of teacher superiority and the notions that scholarly betterment is a one-way street, and the knowledgeable transfer of becoming well-versed in the arts of rhetoric and poetic language moves in a single direction.

Nasty Nas said it best 20 years ago; it ain’t hard to tell. Young folks can and do know how to tell their own stories. They prove it every day, in fact, on their devices and with their thumbs. And they’re thinking too. Faculty ought to be meeting students where they are in order to help get where they need to go. It’s the professor’s job to go there with our students and let them show us how they’re writing—more vibrantly and colorfully than ever before.

An iPhone snapshot I first posted on Instagram, taken March 2014, outside the Charles W. Chesnutt Library on the campus of Fayetteville State University.  Fayetteville, NC.

iPhone Instagram taken outside the Charles W. Chesnutt Library on the campus of Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC – March 2014)

One of my goals is to see more regional and public HBCU’s like Fayetteville State University, develop greater openness to the possibility that the teaching of writing, at the very least, is the work of all faculty members, regardless of discipline and across every department. Moreover, I’d like to spread the word that the flourishing of rhetorical agency for students is a dialogical process where professors must listen as much as they lecture. As more people begin realizing that African American English (AAE) is a legitimate language, they can better understand that writing with AAE in mind is a particular form of communication that deserves expression and not suppression. Fayetteville State is fortunate to have fluid and unabashed speakers of the African American rhetorical tradition through leaders like our current chancellor. It’s affirming for students to see that they too can make it—and without feeling as though they have to play their Blackness to the left. I’d like to see larger segments of the professoriate from outside the gates of HBCU campuses, beyond the field of composition and rhetoric to rethink the conversation about what’s supposedly so [sic] about Black students’ home discourses being applied as an authentic expression of themselves.

After all, wasn’t Charles Chesnutt among the first to articulate a scholarly theory about vernacular forms of AAE’s literary value and cultural rigor, even as he served as a member of the teaching faculty and head of the university during his tenure at Fayetteville State?

Even the most glowing feedback written by students about English department professors in course climate evaluations are scrutinized more harshly for grammar and spelling (unlike, say for instance, those written about professors in Economics, Chemistry, History, Computer Science, Psychology departments). This despite the fact that students appropriately perceive the rhetorical situation that is the “course eval” as a largely informal, perfectly casual, necessarily ungraded personal expression of their class interactions as a learning experience—and not as an examination. At an HBCU and a century after Charles Chesnutt sought to make similar arguments in his own writings, it is the height of irony that so few HBCU’s recognize the origins and legitimacy of Black English varieties as African Diasporic language expansion, especially since this idea has been embraced by research-based and writing-intensive programs at predominantly white institutions, dating back to the 1970s (at least in theory, if not always in practice).

This is not to say that all students, regardless of race or color, should not also be required to become more proficient writers and speakers of the Language of Wider Communication (LWC), as well as develop some conversational proficiency and literacy in a foreign language. It’s vital that creative professionals be fluent in all conventions and practices of both “standard” and “nonstandard” forms of at least 2 languages. Linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated without one or the other being placed at the bottom of some false pecking order, ranked according to outmoded 19th century taxonomies. If students are frequently encouraged to think and speak and write in their home dialects as an avenue towards LWC mastery, in all classes, across every major, throughout their matriculation, well into their careers, they’d develop more confidence to cultivate their professional voices and become the types of lifelong learners we endeavor to promote. This will help our students seek out audiences of their peers who are meaningfully engaged with the communicative conventions, which they can help shape within their chosen communities. But this can only happen if more HBCU teachers are willing to see misspellings, not always in terms of orthographical errors, but pedagogical opportunities to explore questions of rhetorical agency. Such morphological leaps are meaningful and teachers themselves miss out on the chance to become more savvy interlocutors because of their own dialectal limitations.

The alter/native rhetoricity of AAE is of material significance. The historical and cultural experiences of Black writing matters and it deserves to be understood and valued, not denigrated and eradicated. To slightly paraphrase and contextually reframe John Edgar Wideman’s appraisals of Chesnutt’s considerable cultural contributions, when professors are insensitive to the materials they assess, they misinterpret student writings on the basis of superficial detail and consistently fail to respond to its deeper meanings.  We—the teachers of HBCU students— end up failing Black students and institutions in a great many more ways than we realize.

"WTF are all these red marks on my paper supposed to mean???"
Student: “WTF are all these red marks on my paper supposed to mean???”

The “happy accidents,”  which we too often seek to obliterate through the obsessive correction of errors, only manage to inhibit students’ explorations into phenomenological abstraction. Over-correction places unnecessary prohibitions on students’ abilities to ask new questions and academically traverse uncharted, bleeding-edge territory and begin assuming agency over their written language to produce papers that aren’t [sic], but illmatic.

Alas, I suspect, it’s much easier (and less time-consuming) to grade ever-growing stacks of student essays and research reports with fat, red circles, and line-item edits for every other sentence through the insertion of archaic editor’s proofing marks; thus subsuming the writer’s ideas and Black student identity with a cultural eradicationist’s pen, pointed toward displacing unfamiliar viewpoints with concepts and structures that seem less strange to our traditional print literacy standards—at least to our scholarly eyes, lest they be considered in transgression of “proper English” or deemed in violation of the most egregious of all academic writing sins and get marked… awkward.

We miss so much when we refuse student rhetorical agency or try to fix and fit their thoughts into our boring little Blackboard boxes. I believe many fear what ensues when seemingly disparate things are literally con/fused to ignite tiny rhetorical explosions that give rise to linguistic innovation. These are the sparks of intention that bring forth invention. Expression that is both eloquent and meaningful demands the element of amusement and play. Without them writing is petrified, stagnant, and dies (not unlike the Latin we so enjoy inserting into our own, more scholarly publications and used by us more erudite, professors-types ;-) This is why the rhetoricians and compositionists I respect and pattern myself after teach and embrace diversity in written and spoken language.

As for my own part, I’ll do what I can to keep English Composition alive and ill.

December 3, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, Colors, composition, computers, conventions, design, digital literacy, education, fragrance, higher education, hip-hop, history, literature, media, rhetorics, social media, teaching, technology, visual literacy, writing, YouTube. 7 comments.

#Ferguson: What’s White and Wrong with Obama’s AmeriKKKa

As heartbreaking and unjust as it is, the #FergusonDecision provides an opportune time for us to remind our respective families and communities during this Thanksgiving that the struggle for liberation among Africans in America hasn’t been so much about the giving as it’s been about the taking. This give/take has been the fuel in the engine behind US social strivings toward becoming a better, more robust democracy.

Black man, head thrown back and wailing in grief as family and loved ones try to console a father's grief.

Grieving father of slain black teen, Michael Brown.

This constant push/pull have been stirring and shifting in every direction with, for, against, and all around us for some time. We would do well to remind those around us that the supposedly discrete bookend events we attribute to 1954-1968 (or the time representing the push for Black Liberation commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) was but one well publicized episode within an ongoing continuum of struggle. African descended peoples have had to fight for their lives since the founding of this country up until the present day to demand the acknowledgment of our collective humanity and respect for our basic right to exist freely, despite the centuries-long refusal by the dominant centers of white power and privilege to recognize as much because the push for civil rights has been far worse than the pulling of teeth.

And truth be told, that recognition has never ever occurred because the majority of white people woke up all of a sudden one day and decided to hand over a giant silver platter with Freedom sprinkled all over it. Though to learn the history of civil rights as told through the lens of our failed education system, you would think all of White America suddenly realized, “Here ya go black, brown, yellow, and red folk… Why don’t you take a little of this extra freedom. We ain’t using it right now and thought you might like to have some…” 

The facts clearly demonstrate something far more complicated because freedom was never given freely. It had to be actively seized upon—taken, as it were—through struggle, in spite of the imminent threat of death, certain violence, and utter destruction of everything about how the entire American system had been set up.

It’s important we make clear the understanding that the modern Civil Rights Movement as we have come to think of it was much more so about US national security than it was the modest capitulation of rightness over whiteness, let alone a sincere desire for white churchgoers and clergy to answer MLK’s immanent critique of Southern America’s version of Christlike behavior. (After all, “Christian identity” has long been a cornerstone of white supremacy while Sundays have and will likely always remain the most segregated day of the week.)

Workers for civil rights and freedom understood that if the US federal government really wanted the political economy of a capitalist system to prevail over the Cold War, the social apparatus would have to concede to the idea that money and the allocation of public resources and accommodations should have to carry the same value across the entire citizenry, regardless of color. Otherwise, global capitalism would be a hard sell as the vast majority of people of color around the world watched white cops sick German Shepherds on little girls wearing bobby socks and beating up on fully grown men who dared to do nothing more than be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All that being said, American style racism made Stalinist Russia look almost kind in comparison for the world of Asians, Africans, and Latin@s observing our political system from elsewhere.

Let’s take that in for a moment to be clear. What is at stake here is the threat to the survival and existence of people for one reason and for one reason only: Human beings were getting killed every day because they were deemed to be the wrong color. #Ferguson today. That it’s still a point of contention that Black lives actually matter in Obama’s America, is the most damning evidence to date that the push for civil rights is not nearly over and does not belong in a museum, to be placed on a shelf and held up as an artifact from a previous era for us to nostalgically recall as if we’ve all arrived.

And for all Obama’s eloquence and virtuosity with African American speech performances, the president’s consistent refrain pertaining to “the rule of law” and “zero tolerance for property damage” proves that having an African American president is not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems, but proves that having a black Commander-in-chief is a solid win for those in favor of the status quo regarding the problems of racial profiling and other forms of institutional discrimination based on color.

This is why I take such strong issue with those who excuse Obama’s tendency to “give a little to both sides” when discussing race. In my mind, criticism for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should not be held back when it’s questionably applied to matters related to existential threats to black survival.

November 26, 2014. Tags: , , . #BlackLivesMatter, African Americans, Barack, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, economics, family, history, masculinity, media, Obama, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, social media. Leave a comment.

New Jimi Hendrix Postage Stamps

It looks like an album jacket.

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The back of the sheet is almost as good as the front.

IMG_2200.JPG

October 31, 2014. Tags: , , , , . African Americans, art, design, history, rhetorics, visual literacy. Leave a comment.

Middle Passenger Seating?

What does one do with this kind of ignorance? Sometimes all we have left is poetry.

Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

September 17, 2014. African Americans, cartoons, history, politics, race, slavery, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

#Grateful for the Life of Maya Angelou

Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.

Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.

It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.

The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.

Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.

picture of Mahogany greeting card with Maya Angelou quote: "Do not reject. Do not demand. You can have life in the palm of your hand."

Maya Angelou’s “Mahogany” line of Hallmark greeting cards.

Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”

As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described "shake dancer"

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described “shake dancer”

Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.

June 3, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, art, children, Civil Rights Movement, economics, feminism, gender, history, poetry, politics, race, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, style. Leave a comment.

Hold Paula Deen Accountable If You Care About Justice

Clarence "Sunshine" Thomas
Clarence “Long-Dong” Thomas

In my last post I made an appeal to forgive Paula Deenfor her use of the word “nigger” because I was feeling a sense of charity given that my general attitude toward her was already one of low expectations. I glossed over key points also due, in part, to generate a post with brevity and levity. The mild sense of sympathy I felt, however, was countered by a generalized snark and outright cynicism that comes from living as an African American woman living in the South and being a frequent observer (and occasional target) of some individuals behaving like rude, misanthropes all up, in, and through the public sphere. Granted, Southerners are generally very polite people — profusely so, in fact. Southern hospitality is an ethos that most strive to uphold. Though let us not forget, by its very definition, hospitality is a stance that is meant for dealing with strangers or outsiders. Southern hospitality is only an outward appearance; something I call, bless your heart and watch your back. Therefore, for the most part, feelings of snark overtook charity — Christian charity — Southern style.

At any rate, it’s the thing I’ve learned to cope with, dealing with all the craziness of living and working in the South. My first instinct to blow off the gravity of Deen’s actions is the result that comes from years of battle fatigue while trying to avoid bitterness, hypertension, and the gout. For years, I’ve been teaching, learning, working, and living with folk who are oblivious to the privileges and luxuries they derive from inadvertently creating the range of minor inconveniences and insurmountable disasters in the lives of the people of color surrounding them. It happens regularly, without thought, as a simple matter of routine habit. It’s something you simply become accustomed to when you’ve been living in the Carolinas for as long as I have. But of course, as we all know, feelings are emotions. And emotions have a tendency to distort clear thinking. So I write this post to say that my last post (June 25, 2013) is wrong… or at least not entirely correct. That’s right. McFarlane was wrong.

Forgiveness is a good thing, but redress is too. The reason my earlier post missed the mark is because I, like most others, was focused on the media hype. Whereas attention to the more sensational aspects of Paula Deen being politically incorrect and quite possibly rude is one thing, the fact of the matter still remains that Deen was engaging in flat out employment discrimination, which far exceeds the problem of poor interpersonal skills or bad manners. The deposition that brought Deen’s behavior to light involves sworn testimony about Deen using the power of her corporation to place white employees in the front of her business while keeping black employees in the back. In other words, Deen practiced racially discriminatory institutional policies as a matter of workplace procedure. What this means is that Paula Deen actively assigned people to differential labor categories on the basis of race — if not soley, at least partially. In so doing, Deen actively made the decision to foreclose on people’s lives, thereby limiting individual employees’ economic and social chances in life — both long and short term — including (and by no means limited to) their ability to secure reasonable housing, attain decent educational opportunities for themselves and their children, as well as achieve dignified retirements free from poverty. This is the significant issue at hand and flaws in Deen’s individual personality are only tip of the ice burg.

To look at the case of the Paula Deen, here is racism and this is how it works. It works through the material benefits and tangible privileges received by one phenotypical group at the expense of another, wherein you work other folk to death and hurt their children and their children’s children into perpetuity . However, the claim of employment discrimination is seen as altogether different from proving it, says the U.S. Supreme Court. We can thank Clarence Thomas for this little nugget of injustice. Back before Thomas was on the Supreme Court, he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (through the auspices of a Ronald Reagan affirmative action appointment, no less) it became federal policy to disregard claims of racial discrimination based solely on outcome. Merely demonstrating (statistically, or otherwise) that all the employees who happen to be African American get assigned to the back kitchen is irrelevant. The burden of proof demands more than that. Recent politicization of the judicial branch has resulted in numerous close split decisions. This was the EEOC policy that was legitimized once Bush 40 appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court. From the SCOTUS bench, Thomas continues to rule with other conservatives. Thomas’ record of decisions for key racial discrimination cases tends to favor the accused/offending parties. Burden of proof  rest with victims. The plaintiff/victim must not only show damages or unfavorable outcomes, but must prove it’s being done on purpose. Paula Deen’s funny little nigger jokes show how she intentionally disqualified black employees from receiving fair labor compensation. The point is this: it does matter that Deen used the n-word, but not for the reasons the media would have us believe. The outcomes of personal and symbolic racism, such as the derogatory language used by Deen in the institutional context of a public, corporate establishment effectively translates into actual and real institutional racism and substantively proves intent to discriminate. In this particular context, Deen’s use of the word “nigger” equals the kind of racism that causes infant mortality and malnutrition, premature death from stress and overwork, destroys families, shatters dreams, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and social unrest, and fundamentally undermines what it means to live in a civil society based on democratic values. Therefore, if we really care about what we allege America to be, then we have no choice but to hold Paula Deen accountable for saying nigger— even if it was in the context of telling stupid jokes.

When all is said and done (and I think we can all agree at this point that a lot was said and even more was done), the bottom basic point is that Paula Deen ought not be allowed to use the power and wealth of corporate systems to institutionalize social caste groups—not if we are to live in an ethical, fair, and meritocratic society.

June 28, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , . African Americans, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, communication, communication, persuasion, politics, teaching, professional writing, discrimination, economics, ethos, history, information design, media, persuasion, politics, race, racism, religion, rhetorics, SCOTUS, Southeners, space, space & spatiality, spatial rhetorics, Uncategorized, White Studies. 1 comment.

Quvenzhané Wallis and the Sad Truth

If you’re like me, the way you watch tv has shifted and your consumption of movies and television is now heavily mediated through social networks like Twitter and Facebook. More and more of us are likely to be in the know about the latest infotainment buzz through trending tweets and the latest status feeds. In fact, since I haven’t been too gung-ho about pricey visits to movie theaters these days,  I hadn’t even heard of Quvenzhané Wallis until last week. I learned of the precocious child actor like most others when she became the youngest person ever to earn an Oscar nomination for her lead acting role in the critically acclaimed fantasy drama, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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In a ceremony on the night of November 14, 2012, Quvenzhané was acknowledged and honored with the key to her hometown, Houma in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Of course, though not too surprisingly, the media commentary that followed in regards to the young actor’s breakthrough film performance was heavily burdened by the usual laziness of poorly thought-out racist mainstream media tropes in the form of celebrity gossip, ignorance, and out-and-out refusal to pronounce Wallis’s first name correctly. No surprises there. This sort of thing happens like clockwork and is understood as par for the course among even the most casual African American media watchers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB8CGNbrI4c But I admit that I was taken aback and was quite unprepared for the social media firestorm that ensued on Oscar night when the satirical news organization, The Onion, issued a tweet referring to this little girl as a cu*t. Now let’s get this straight: that’s the “c” word that rhymes with “hunt” and not “hoot” and is definitely not the type of descriptive one would normally expect a decent human being to use in the labeling of a small child, not even in the most extreme circumstances. Likewise, the Onion tweet was not a hoot – wasn’t in the least bit funny. And as though on the hunt, the Onion’s slur of choice (along with the fake news organization’s snide and snarky follow up apology) was issued in the same mean spirit as the sexually predatory racial politics that black women in this country have faced for centuries. Though unlike the verbal attacks that many black women have come to expect and subsequently learn to live with, few of us were ready for this particular incident because… well… because Wallis is a child. And children, we thought (hoped?), are supposed to be off limits when it comes to show-business’ usual racism and misogynistic feeding frenzies. But then again, she is a girl…  and a black girl at that. Unfortunately, violence against women is normal in our culture and youth exploitation is ordinary. It continues to be the case that for most African Americans – whether child or adult – neither cuteness nor the genuine innocence of childhood will fully provide our folk refuge from the casual viciousness of racism. The basic ideas of merit and the routine presumption of innocence in the case of black folk hold little sway in the history of US politics and culture. Because the fact still remains, no matter how smart, how talented, or how earnest you are or strive to be, in the eyes of far too many white adults, if you are both female and black you can only ever be nothing but a c-word(even if you’re an adorable, Academy Award nominated prodigy). And that’s the sad truth.

April 3, 2013. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, children, cute, family, feminism, film, gender, history, parenting, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, toys, TV, YouTube. Leave a comment.

Galvanizing Cuteness

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Facebook MLK gun control meme

Much has been made about the president publicly shedding tears in response to the latest spate of horrific gun violence, especially since many of the victims were such small children. Because my scholarship deals with the centrality of cuteness in the shaping of public and institutional policies concerning race, I make a critique about visual culture operating at the very nexus of American public race policy. As a critical race theory, the rhetorics of cute have the power to galvanize the public. I believe the persuasive effects of cuteness are deployed for the political contexts of commerce and energize Derrick Bell’s notion of  “racial interest convergence.” Whether framing public debates about Civil Rights legislation through the outrage generated by the church bombing of four little girls, the heinous lynching of Emmett Till, and underlying the logos of Norman Rockwell’s portrayal of Ruby Bridges in “The Problem We All Live,”  cute shapes public policy.

Cute is a longstanding strategy for winning over the dominant interests in public debates and motivates white economic investments to push for substantive political changes. Interestingly enough, the decades-apart public anger precipitated by the killings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin was not necessarily amplified by the visuality of cuteness, but was more about the gestures of cuteness as a performative act reflecting childish (and legal) innocence. Till and Martin, after all, were both going about the normal business of adolescence and visiting the candy store. The sheer cuteness of behaving as any child is expected to, at least in the cases of Till and Martin, provides a posthumous racial pass of sorts. Dominant perceptions of African American masculinity in the white public sphere are not so readily second-guessed, especially by the ordinary television media.

 "The Problem We All Live With," Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for "Look," January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

“The Problem We All Live With,” Norman Rockwell, 1963. Oil on canvas, 36” x 58”. Illustration for “Look,” January 14, 1964. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©NRELC, Niles, IL.

Or consider the groundswell of public sentiment in support of stricter gun control laws (as in the case of the Trayvon Martin killing).  And, as alluded to at the beginning of this post, the heartbreak surrounding the tiny victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school is sobering. The media tributes honoring the mostly white classroom of innocent first-graders and educators in the small Connecticut town has been relentless. All this is to say, that I’m just as moved by this recent gun massacre as anyone else and wish that  color were not a part of this discussion. Though unfortunately, the rhetorical power wielded by the ongoing tributes to this group of slain youngsters does speak to dominant sentiments and racial perceptions regarding cuteness.

I’ve even heard some people personally criticize Obama for supposedly not demonstrating enough grief over the epidemic of gun violence prematurely snatching the lives of hundreds of Chicago’s mostly brown and black children. But how would we even know this to be true? It could be that Obama has publicly demonstrated pain over the deaths of this particular group of kids, but it simply eludes coverage. And what about in his private moments with Michelle and his daughters? From all accounts, the loved ones of many of these children were personally known to the first family. Some of the more extreme online memes claim that Obama actually delights in the drone attacks by  Afghan children have been killed as opposed to American kids tragically cut down by gunfire. This latter idea is utterly ridiculous as it commits the logical fallacy of moral equivalency in a most reprehensible fashion. On the other hand, the issue of Chicago gun violence is valid. Not because of Obama’s supposed lack of personal grief, but for how it calls attention to the lopsided racial narratives of commercial “news” coverage.

This racial rhetoric of cuteness continues to operate in surprising ways and draws focus to matters of racial discrimination and privilege. This is why I believe the materiality of cuteness is racially determinative of people’s life chances and helps us better understand the technological and ethical interplay of aesthetic judgements of human worth.

December 23, 2012. babies, Barack, Barack Obama, children, cute, family, gesture, history, media, Obama, parenting, photography, political campaign, politics, psychology, race, rhetorics, sentiment, visual literacy. Leave a comment.

Legacy: Alligator Bait, Civil Rights, and Art

For most African Americans – whether child or adult – not even the cuteness of a cherubic face and genuine innocence could provide refuge from the legal persecution or casual viciousness of white racism. The Florida Tourism Board’s practice of distributing these “alligator bait” postcards (well into the 20th century) speaks to this issue most profoundly. It is probably fair to argue that these images would have never been interrogated up until this point if it had not been for the intervention of African American visual rhetors who sought to reverse the inhumane effects of American US racism.

By the time the United States was founded, Africans enslaved in America were forced by physical and legal sanction to watch their every word and action for fear of punishment or death. This is important to contrast this with the fact that whites, on the other hand, had complete freedom – were actually encouraged – to reveal their vilest racial feelings. The need to express the slightest decorum for the expression of racist opinions was non-existent – least of all in the public square. During slavery and Jim Crow it was a commonplace assumption made by many whites that no black could be trusted – not even with the knowledge of the alphabet. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that anyone who was considered black, no matter what, was subject to being demonized and treated accordingly. As a matter of basic everyday existence, blacks were to be denied the fundamental virtue of innocence from the cradle to the grave. Any public injunction by American courts for the forthright expressions of racist behaviors and practices was not to occur for many decades. This issue continues to haunt black existence.

Fast forward to June 1964, when a group of black and white protesters sought to integrate a public recreational space by jumping into the swimming pool at the Monson Motel in St. Augustine, Florida. As difficult as it may be to imagine today, the owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool, endangering the lives of peacefully frolicking demonstrators. Luckily, a photograph of this heinous incident was captured and broadcasted around the world.This photo has since become among the most famous images from the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years ago Brian Owens, an Orlando based sculptor, was commissioned to commemorate the historic event and pay homage to the brave citizens who risked their lives for equality and a refreshing swim on a hot Florida day. Entitled, “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers,” here is a picture of the memorial sculpture, which rests today in the heart of the town square.

Carrying on a proud legacy is something Owens knows a lot about, as he is the son of the late African American graphic illustrator and portraitist, Carl Owens.  Here is a link to Brian Owens’s flicker stream showing the process behind his painstaking craft.

February 7, 2012. Tags: . African Americans, art, babies, Carl Owens, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, design, Disney, education, history, play, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sculpture, slavery, space, space & spatiality, temporality, time & temporality. 4 comments.

South Carolina Politics and Racial Decorum by Anastasia of Beverly Hills

GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!

Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.

In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.

When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).

Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) —  I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.

It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrowsuper PAC candidate, Herman Cain.

AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!

Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.

January 21, 2012. Tags: , , , , . African Americans, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, conventions, cute, design, dolls, fashion, gender, gesture, hair, history, political campaign, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, space & spatiality, style. 4 comments.

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