DURHAM, N.C. — Dr. Yaba Blay, renowned activist, cultural critic, and producer, launches Professional Black Girl, an original video series created to celebrate everyday Black womanhood, and to smash racist and “respectable” expectations of how they should “behave.”
Seventeen Black women and girls ranging in age from 2- to 52-years-old were interviewed for the series. Each episode features a candid discussion with personalities such as Grammy Award-winning recording artist, Rapsody; Joan Morgan, author of the Hip-Hop feminist classic When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost; and 13-year-old world traveler Nahimana Machen, sharing what it means to be a “Professional Black Girl.”
“‘Professional Black Girl’ looks like Taraji P. Henson at the 2015 Emmys jumping up to hug Viola Davis. It looks like Mary J. Blige and Taraji and Kerry Washington in that Apple commercial. It looks like me rolling up to a room full of people in Berlin to speak with my bamboo earrings on,” explains Tarana Burke, a non-profit consultant and fashion blogger featured in the series.
Limited edition Professional Black Girl merchandise, created in partnership with Philadelphia Printworks, is available now onphiladelphiaprintworks.com. The first full episode, featuring Dr. Blay, will air September 9, 2016, with an episode airing each Friday onYouTube and yabablay.com until December 23, 2016.
“The terminology that is often used to describe and define Black girls—such as bad, grown, fast, ghetto, and ratchet—are non-affirming and are words that are intended to kill the joy and magic within all Black girls,” says Dr. Blay. “We are professional code-switchers, hair-flippers, hip-shakers, and go-getters. We hold Ph.Ds and listen to trap music; we twerk and we work. We hold it down while lifting each other up, and we don’t have to justify or explain our reason for being. This is us.”
Follow #ProfessionalBlackGirl across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to celebrate and affirm the everyday excellence of Black women and girls.
For more information, or to interview Dr. Yaba Blay, please contact Shakirah Gittens at 718-687-6231 or by email at info@DynamicNLyfe.com.
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! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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.
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 theteaching faculty and head of the university during his tenure at Fayetteville State?
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.
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.
The FSU Office of Faculty Development (OFD) provides professional development opportunities to enhance educational endeavors at FSU and promote innovative pedagogical and technological practices that meet the needs of the student body. OFD’s vision is to provide an environment for collaboration and interaction among faculty members that lead to improved student learning… and they decided to feature me in a cute little video they made
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.
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.
I made this video-audio mash-up during my dissertation defense back in March 2012 to serve as an example of Obama’s “cute” rhetoric in his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Press Correspondents Dinner.
This video of Obama’s roast with the overlay of his bin Laden announcement demonstrates his uncanny sense of aptum. Obama’s expert use of zingers appropriately encompasses the ridiculousness of Trump’s demands that he produce a long-form birth certificate to prove the merit of a Black presidency. Because of Obama’s easy command of popular slang, central features of his communicative style, Obama’s political success is well documented. Yet his virtuosity with African American speech performances proves not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems but paradoxically provides Obama with all the right moves of sounding as though he’s speaking candidly to Black folk, while in actuality communicating a whole lot of nothin’ to the political mainstream about the mainstream problem of white supremacy that results in anti-Black discrimination. Beyond Obama’s AAE as LWC fluency, the double move of using hip-hop to conservative ends is made possible by what Alim and Smitherman refer to as “white audiences’ ineptitude” at registering the nuances of AAE . This is especially true when AAE rhetorical tactics of circumlocution are deployed to disarm white and, at times hostile, listeners. I take issue with unequivocal compliments for Barack Obama’s political savvy and excuses made for his tendency to give “a little to both sides” when discussing racially sensitive issues (Alim 129). Admiration for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should be held back when questionably applied as in certain cases.
Given just hours prior to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, we can retrospectively realize Obama’s roasting was concurrently orchestrated at the time of bin Laden’s killing. At a time when his approval ratings were low, the drop in public opinion was incurred at least partially through the relentless allegations made by the distinctly reactionary “birther” contingent within the Tea Party activist wing of the Republican party. Regarding the integrity of the president’s citizenship, Obama’s signifying snaps were in response to the bombastic demands made by Donald Trump. Obama disses “The Don” because of his proximity to hip-hop and successfully lumps Trump with the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists, some of whom insist the government faked the moon landing and believe there’s a space alien cover-up in Roswell. To draw that link would have been funny enough, but the real punch-line is when Obama aligns Trump with conspiracists who believe iconic rappers, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls are still alive. Obama’s LWC dialect meshes with certain paralinguistic markers through non-speech signals associated with AAE, lip-biting and eye-cutting, even a little teeth-sucking (Rickford 170). These gestures, familiar to almost all African Americans, is an unknown communicative behavior for the predominantly white audience. In so doing, Obama paints the hotel proprietor as a buffoon still further w Obama feigns praise for Trump’s supposed magnanimity and leadership for sparing Atlanta-based hip-hopper, Lil John after the men’s team failed a celebrity cooking challenge by refusing to fire the rap music producer/hype-man during an episode of Celebrity Apprentice. Even though the president had madd jokes for Trump (At one point Obama mock confesses at one point how the gravity of possibly having to fire Lil John would reasonably cause sleep deprivation), all the while actually staying up all night sleep as he plotted bin Laden’s assassination. In this instance, Obama looks in Trump’s direction while biting his lower lip and diagonally sweeping his gaze away from Trump in mock admiration and wisecracks, “But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn’t blame Lil’ Jon or Meatloaf.” For good measure, with just the slightest hint of the suck-teeth Obama adds that Trump instead, “fired Gary Busey.”
Not more than 24 hours later after announcing bin Laden’s death, Obama delivers the news in a tone that is somber yet resolved. When viewed in conjunction, these two oratorical performances demonstrate unequivocally Obama’s ability to rhetorically balance pop-cultural frivolity with the ceremonial tones of a wartime speech, in which he must gauge his language when speaking to Americans about matters of urgent import or fleeting absurdity.
The linguistic assertions made by Obama reveal a two-pronged effect of his rhetoric that impact how he is received as a national leader insofar as he accepts the hegemony of white privilege and its resultant patterns of discrimination aimed at people of color. From this perspective, Obama’s AAE merely co-articulates white supremacist thinking, including post-racial conceits held by the “color-blind” constituency of white swing voters to create ambivalent ethical effects. Using the rhythms and commonplaces of AAE in response to highly racialized communication contexts has been Obama’s major strategy for handling voters. More specifically (and even more pointedly), Obama comforts white trepidations about his favoritism toward African Americans and other racial minorities through AAE.
When you google the search terms *african* *american* and *cute* (with no quotes, of course) the first hits you get are associated with hairstyles. After that there are some hits for baby names. This is a fascinating topic to me and I believe it begs a chapter in my dissertation. Among the biggest vlog topics on YouTube these days is that of one African American woman or another who has embarked on a “natural hair journey” or is otherwise describing some new miracle product that has finally knocked her kinky curls into place.
Hell, I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to picking up a few hair tips in my own quest for cuteness through watching YouTube.
Though I can’t help but notice that the YouTube natural hair community already has several of its own clichés like, “Hey Guys! It’s me and blah, blah, blah. My hair is blah, blah, blah. And it won’t ever blah, blah, blah no matter how much I try to blah, blah, blah. Bye Guys!” I even saw an upload titled “My 27 Piece Weave Journey”! (For those of you who are black girl hair challenged, a 27 piece is a short weave like the one NeNe from the Real Housewives of Atlanta wears.) For realers. Very comical.
For me, this issue makes me think of Terry Eagleton‘s book, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, especially in the section where he highlights the late 60s – early 70s Black Power slogan, “Black is Beautiful” and discusses how this term is immanently rhetorical because of the way it calls attention to the falsity of Western beauty standards. Therefore, this verifiably questionable discursive utterance is deployed for the purpose of diametrically opposing and dislodging the Kantian assumption about the exclusivity of whiteness as ideal beauty.
Of course the period immediately following the civil rights movement, also known as the Black Power era, was the heyday of the afro and, for me, relates very closely to Benjamin’s notion of the hazy, blurry fluffiness of aura as an halo effect. But then the afro and the (black) people who used to wear them have mostly gone out of style. Now we are told that “gay is the new black.” Or “green (politics) is the new black” and recently, I even saw a t-shirt that read “broke is the new black.” (Hasn’t it always been?)
Cute is governed by the canons of style (and delivery — as in the case of product packaging). So the racial rhetoric of cuteness is thus problematized, as it constantly moves African Americans in and out of style. As it stands, an entire category of humanity occasionally becomes vogue and then passé… and then vogue and then passé and vogue and passé and so on.
In Film Form: Essays in Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein blonde hair is implicated as the gold standard of photography and cinema culture, quite literally. The golden, yellow hair of the Hollywood starlet is a fundamental pathos of the halo lighting effect used to imply desirability and is employed in almost all Hollywood films. As far as film culture goes, what we have seen little of is afro as aura. Well at least not until this public plural space of YouTube where black women are illuminating their own identities in the digital sphere. Stay tuned.