NCTE Statement Affirming #BlackLivesMatter

Capturing The Crisis

I’m very proud to share this statement coming out in support of #BlackLivesMatter — just released by my disciplinary community: National Council of Teachers of English / Conference on College Composition and Communication (NCTE/CCCC). Kudos to the NCTE/CCCC Black Caucus for following up this statement with pertinent lesson plans and K-post curriculum ideas. (See links under “Additional Readings & Resources” at bottom of page). 

At this pivotal moment, between a space of hopeful resistance and fragile defiance, the dilemmas of race and racism in the United States have become so copious that to ignore them would be to render NCTE voiceless and bequeath it to those great chasms of silence through which racial injustices endure. The recent incidents of racial injustice in our country — from Charleston to Cincinnati to a tiny jail cell in Texas — require that we speak up. Each moment of despair, of another mother’s or father’s eyes swollen from carrying the…

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September 21, 2015. technology. Leave a comment.

Black/White & in Technicolor: Thinking & Looking Deeply at Race

Capturing The Crisis

So far this semester, we’ve been reading about how national and local television news and print media covered the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and helped shape the African American quest for equal rights. We’ve also been watching Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 on Netflix. Additionally, we’re reading about MLK’s Birmingham Campaign and how the CRM was covered differently in various news markets, such as Mississippi and Virginia

QUESTION: How does a theory of “image event” apply to what’s currently happening in #BlackLivesMatter today?

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September 21, 2015. technology. Leave a comment.

Off to the Races: Grand Old (New Media) Party Over Here!

Local art house cinema links social media for live screening of Republican Party primary debate.

Local art house cinema links social media for live screening of Republican Party primary debate.

Watching presidential election horse races has been a favorite pastime for me. Hooked since I was 8 years old, I count it among my character flaws. Whether it’s an “old school” television debate or a slick infographic with click-through sideshow, the POTUS 2016 election cycle will be more sensational and brutal than the Olympics and Super Bowl combined. My innermost desire for blood sports is appeased every quadrennial through this zero-sum theatre for the ages. Seeing men (for the most part) wearing makeup and trying to outperform each other reveals in me a moral paradox that I’m strangely proud to take part in, yet equally loathe to admit. Although this season’s spectacular assortment of media personalities/politicians promises to delight and entertain, it is us — the 99% — who actually run the rat race, to devastating consequences.

Pollice Verso, 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)

Pollice Verso, 1872 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum)

Pollice verso rules — thumbs up/thumbs down — elect career politicians to our highest, most exclusive national office. Overrunning any meaningful politics, high-stakes gladiator games find neoliberal interests at their peak. We incur whatever gains and losses that ensue. The real, which is life and death, will definitely be televised…  and infinitely remediated. Some will win; most will lose. Choices are becoming fewer as greater numbers, meanwhile, get cut from the process.

So, what this all boils down to is, “yup!” — I’ll definitely be munching fistfuls of popcorn as I watch tonight’s GOP debate. I hope you do too, even (and especially) if you couldn’t imagine voting for either party in a thousand years. And plus, The Donald never fails to please.

August 6, 2015. elections, electoral politics, film, GOP, media, party politics, political campaign, rhetorics, social media, technology, TV, voting. Leave a comment.

Halfbreed: Yellow Black Girl Purple Drink

It happened around 1988, not long after Harvey Gantt became America’s first New South “post-race” mayor. My mother, resolving to escape the ramp-up to the impending crack wars, moved us away from the borough of Queens, New York and into the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when I overheard a white boy call me halfbreed in my twelfth grade Spanish class.

It was a boy that I’d never had problems with before and it caught me off guard. I overheard him talking to another of the good ol’ boys when he referred to me in third person as “that halfbreed gal.” Those were his words, to be exact. I was confused and next hurt. I excelled in languages and the social sciences even back then, which is why his old-fashioned verbiage sounded strange and hostile to me.

My ears perked. “Breed?” I thought, “that’s what they do to animals!”

The categorization implied by his drawl cut to the quick. His enunciation resonated in a place that I was unable to locate. Finally, I was outraged. In my adolescent mind it would have been better had he simply called me “nigger.”

His drawling pronunciation of girl struck me as peculiar and the words that formed a compound had really hit me hard. The one-two of his white maleness bespoke a harsh admonishment. Combined into a single swipe, he cut me down in the most personal terms by figuratively connecting the stuff between my legs to what happens between my ears.

His offending blow reached beyond his Whiteness to strike at the deepest core of my Blackness. It was the cavalier, offhandedness. Not only was he white, but he was male; not only was I black, but also a girl.

After dismissal from Spanish, I found myself trailing behind him to his next class period, loudly demanding he explain himself. I was determined not to be ignored and, once outside, in utter frustration and within full view of teachers and everybody in third period lunch, I got his attention. Hurling an empty can of Welch’s grape soda, I yelled, with the utmost attitude,

“Excuse you, but I’m black on both sides!”

Aluminum pinging off his head forced him to acknowledge me.

He laughed nervously.

Realizing he was at the center of an ugly scene, he took back his words and apologized before scurrying off to class with his buddies. He decided, wiselythat a public altercation with the weird black girl from New York, wouldn’t be earning him any cool points, plus he probably thought I was about to whup his ass.

Icy purple beverage in tall glass with lemon wedge, foamy purple beverage with yellow st

Meme generated with help of iOS Pictophile iTunes App. Image from cocktail recipe page on http://www.seriouseats.com

I don’t quite remember what else I said that day. I’m sure it was a lot.  Whatever I said must’ve been articulated well enough to escape suspension and avoid my mom getting called into the principal’s office over my foolishness on a workday. That would’ve be a definite no-go! Thankfully, I checked my behavior in the immediate aftermath and quickly remindes myself to keep my hands—and projectile objects—to myself.

I made peace. A year later, in fact, the same boy who made the offending remark was assigned as my lab partner in Biology class. We managed to get along okay and were even somewhat friendly, but I never forgot what he said. Apparently, neither did he. My reaction made a memorable enough impression to have taught him to behave himself in my presence from then on… at least not if I was in earshot.

Looking back, I can guess this young man was probably a bit jealous of me. My academic abilities earned high marks with comparatively little effort. I must have seemed annoyingly anomalous according to his more familiar context. Perhaps it was his only way to express the disjunction he perceived about my book smarts. As a working-class white having only attended North Carolina public schools his whole life, how could he have known any better? How else was he to interpret the obvious cultural advantage I leveraged? As a Southerner and a white male, he’d more than likely internalized a belief in prevailing assumptions about racist presuppositions alleging the inferiority of black intelligence.

I was lucky. Northern school bussing afforded me the opportunity to enjoy certain regional advantages relative to my native Southern classmates, both black and white. The edge created by New York City politics enabled my mother to enroll my twin sister and me in a couple of Little Neck-Douglaston’s best elementary and junior high schools. As a top district for education, the schools I attended were well renowned for producing the highest scores in the city on state regents exams. The good fortune of our social circumstances allowed me to squeeze my way into excellent schools and make the most out of an unfair situation. My primary and early secondary schooling was flanked by the best teachers, many of whom were first, second, and third-generation Jewish residents of adjacent Long Island communities in Nassau County. No doubt due in part to their own experiences with the Holocaust, many of my teachers nurtured a strong commitment to liberal principles by enacting critical democracy in public education on every level. It was a mission they took seriously.

Our classroom lessons were enhanced by weekly outings to the world’s finest cultural institutions. Visits to the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Stock Exchange, and the like were par for the course. Additionally, my teachers had the flexibility to let us have 30 to 40-minute stretches of free time. They understood the soothing effect it had on their more rambunctious students. A break from the rigmarole of everyday class work allowed us to daydream by the window or bookcase and afforded me the freedom to slowly leaf through encyclopedias and unabridged dictionaries at leisure. For kids like me, it created just enough space to calm down before the stress of a 2-hour commute back home to my Southside neighborhood and granted teachers the luxury to focus proper attention on the creation and design of lesson plans so students might receive real practice in the art of learning.

I was often perplexed upon thinking back to how I reacted that day almost 30 years ago. I mean, really? I don’t even like “purple drink” for cryin out loud! For the life of me, I couldn’t fully grasp exactly why his words stung to elicit such rage. In addition to the discomfort of having some boy talkin’ up under my clothes like that, I can now understand my response better. The enormity of my outrage had as much to do with the personal and institutional attitudes that conspired to expose and set loose my innermost insecurities. Acceptance from my black peer group was something I desperately sought and it was exactly this kind of event that highlighted the problem. Not only was I afraid the black kids would think I was “acting white” because of my grades, I was equally uncomfortable with being viewed as what I was: the green-eyed, light-skinned chick with a funny-sounding accent.

Meanwhile, educational tracking policies were finding new adherents among its constituency of frustrated white parents. While the buildings on school campuses were integrated, the college preparatory courses I took were invariably segregated. A noticeable absence of color, save one or two others, was the order of the day. I was proud to be considered “smart,” but I resented the wedge it created between me and my darker-skinned cohorts. Although I was on the debate team, belonged to Future Business Leaders of America, participated in the History & Political Science club, and received a scholarship to take part in a weeklong program sponsored by the Close-Up Foundation in Washington, DC to study the inner workings of the federal government, I was only tangentially aware of the NAACP’s efforts to stop the Supreme Court’s eventual decision to overturn school bussing by way of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education only a few years later. Few of us could know at that time about theories concerning a “racial bell curve” suggesting the inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks. Charles Murray and his ilk were only beginning to wreak their trajectory of havoc as white supremacist notions of education were making a comeback and once again enjoying political currency across the country. Fortunately for me too, my violent reply to the sexually charged slur occurred a decade preceding the current spate of racially discriminatory “zero tolerance” policies in American public schools.

The implicit assertion of his racial remark was about how I potentially look in the eyes of many whites. Embedded in his put-down was innuendo about my humanity and the social value placed on me due to my skin, based largely on the unconscious view that if not for some strain of European heritage I too would be deemed uneducable—as though being bright is naturally derived from being light. White perceptions about the visuality and intelligence of race wield tremendous damage on countless lives. More painful, is the way words such as “halfbreed” speak to another sad truth: the inescapable fact that I’ve been at times the unwitting beneficiary of this destructive form of racial bias. Crystallized in that moment is the agonizing reality I’m forced to accept. I am the recipient of unwanted light-skinned privilege at least so far as the white masculinist gaze is concerned. I work to balance the scales without appearing to overcompensate. I’d like to think I’m over it, but I know I’m not. I still feel some kind of way about the racial logic that posits Blackness and intelligence as mutually exclusive. The impact of events like these on my personal and professional journey over the decades cannot be underestimated, nor should they be.

Our histrionics are our history. The fallout surrounding colorism, racial discrimination, and Whiteness has become the prevailing subject of my life’s work. They inspire within me the need to heal myself and others from the wounds of racism and help frame smarter, more constructive conversations. Rhetorical race studies chose my body as a discourse, and not the other way around. It’s an all too necessary vocation. I wish this was not the case, but so it is.

June 28, 2015. African Americans, Blackness, children, education, literacy, race, racism, rhetorics, school, teaching, technology, White Studies. 4 comments.

Cute Coping: Invention & Writers’ Lifehacks

My “transoffice” is what I call all the little tricks I’ve adopted to keep my mobile devices on the ready for whatever. Whether biking downtown to the coffee shop or heading to the beach with the kids, the proliferation of proprietary cords and adapters for my laptop, smartphone, and tablet are mainstays of my workplace habitus — for good or bad. This work/play approach seems unavoidable and developing lifehacks designed to keep gadgets safe and organized is indispensable.

It’s hard out here for a yuccie trying to keep up with these never ending workloads. The idea of “presence bleed” is no joke in this information economy.

Yet another iteration of cuteness, creative professionals find themselves in constant pursuit of cute objects they can deploy to this end. The cute aesthetic works as a strategy for managing this contemporary moment of economic and social instability. It’s a shared reality that we cannot seem to avoid. And so I cope… by not only writing about it but also performing it on a daily basis, either consciously or unconsciously (even now — at this very moment while tapping out this post on my shiny new iPhone Plus :~)

At any rate, I thought I’d share this minor invention I came up with in the hopes that it might help some of you organize your hectic lives while trying to keep it cute.

DIY SafeMag cord protector

DIY SafeMag cord protector

Snip small holes into the bottom of an ordinary cancozy... these

Snip small holes into the bottom of an ordinary can cozy… these things are always laying around my house!

See? It's super easy!

See? It’s super easy!

IMPORTANT: Avoid overheating power adapter and always remove before plugging in!

IMPORTANT: Avoid overheating power adapter and always remove protector before plugging in!

June 16, 2015. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , . computers, cuteness, Invention. Leave a comment.

Bob Marley House in Kingston (& Other Tourists Traps)

I toured the Bob Marley House on Kingston’s Hope Road. Interesting. And in ways I didn’t expect or necessarily want. Not all museums and galleries have the same goals in mind, but it was the way they wanted us to move through the Hope Road house that seemed to contrive the entire idea of Marley’s life’s work and social philosophy. The presentation of Marley’s impact on the cultural politics and social history of Jamaica was canned and commercialized. Less like Biltmore Estate in which certain critical questioning and commentary is encouraged by curators, it reminded me more of the Texas Alamo — evacuated of cultural essence yet filled with petrified, staged relics.

I enjoyed walking the grounds before beginning the official tour.

Quite interestingly, there were some tourists taking the tour with us and posing as Rastafarians. One was a blonde white woman in cornrows, accompanied by two tall, thin black men—each with medium length, rather well-groomed dreads. Their main purpose, it appeared, was to encourage orderly, clockwise movement from one découpaged room of Kingston Gleaner newspaper clippings to the next, while prompting foreign tourists to exclaim their/our excitement over such gorgeously enshrined wonder in line with the requisite number of “oohs!” and “ahhs!”

The most significant duty of the fake tourists seemed only to help move us Yankees efficiently toward the fake gift shop. The docent allowed us a brief peep into Bob Marley’s bedroom when I commented that room’s location and layout looked like the brain center in an artists’ colony, That’s when I was corrected by the blonde woman in cornrows who told me that I was actually viewing the “lion’s den.”

Q_Q

Next, the docent clumsily herded us into the adjacent room and prompted all her “rasta” visitors to pretend-purchase CD copies of the Legend album—smack in the middle of the house on the second floor, no less! I found this absolutely hilarious since, as everyone knows, the gift shop is always located at the exit.

I was over the fakeness of the tour by then and all but completely tuned out, crawling around the perimeter of the rooms, trying to decipher the newspaper stories they apparently didn’t want us to read… since select controversial clippings had been pasted below the chair board. Sadly, the headline stories at eye-level were NOT about Marley’s cultural dissidence and political activism; those were all wallpapered at ankle height. Certain words and phrases were conveniently scratched out to obscure, if not outright change, the facts surrounding Peter Tosh’s assassination.

About a half hour into being upstairs on the second floor, I quietly asked the tour guide if I might briefly excuse myself from the group in order to climb the Marley House staircase three at a time, which according to her narrative, was exactly how Bob Marley himself used the steps. She pensively answered yes after some consideration. I bolted up and down the stairs twice before they asked me to stop. She did say that’s how Marley took the steps, didn’t she?

Two black women wearing braids taking a selfie in front of a Bob Marley mural

I met this nice young woman from London who goes by the name of ViviVaroom. We made a genuine connection as she agreed to help me try out my new selfie stick (… the most shameless of tourists’ trappings).

We decided it was time to leave once inside the sanitized “shotgun” room, which once again was wallpapered with posters, newspaper clippings, and overblown handbills. That’s when it occurred to me, and to anyone who might discerningly observe, the rastas on tour were not there just to provide the illusion of a thriving tourism landmark.

The Marley House is definitely a tourist trap, but more like something of the Lonely Planet cliché variety. I can only imagine (though not confirm) the rasta tourists had likely been planted by the museum to procure other kinds of plants for naïve tourists at exorbitant prices. I say this only because of how the buttoned-up docent so gleefully engaged the rastas’ thinly veiled innuendos about the famous herb that Marley popularized during his superstardom. I may have been a tourist with a selfie stick, paying $20 a pop for some cock’n bull tour, but NEVER will I get caught out in the world like a typical American party animal on the hunt for some foolishness. Not the kid… no, never that!

The best part was when I got to climb Marley’s staircase three at a time. It was—quite literally—a fun exercise in spatial recovery that also constituted a most useful ethnography on the practice of memorial decorum. (Well, you knew I had to get all “jargony-rhetorician” on you eventually, didn’t ya? :~)

UPDATE: The Marley House gift shop is indeed conveniently located near the entrance/exit. It’s a restaurant where they sell spicy beef patties, fresh coconut water, plantains, curry goat and other Jamaican fare for a not so fair price. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bottled water is their best selling item. I’m sure they nearly sell ’em slam out on the daily because they definitely ain’ tryna run the A/C during museum hours, ensuring their customers appreciate a thirst-quencher on the way out. 

May 23, 2015. Tags: , , . museums, rhetorics, spatial rhetorics, tourism. Leave a comment.

Cuteness & Blackness: Video Podcast

Earlier this month, Fayetteville State University’s internet radio station, Bronco iRadio, asked me to come in and talk about cuteness and blackness to help kick off Black History Month. Needless to say, this is my favorite subject and I had plenty to say (even during commercial breaks).

Since it was a live broadcast, a few folks (mostly family, friends, and students) asked if they could listen to the show on their own time, so I thought I’d do one better and post this video of our uncut, on-air conversation. Because we spent so much time discussing rhetoric and its connections to professional writing, we ran out of time before I could draw more connections to civil rights and anti-black racism. So I’ll be sure to post another video podcast dealing more directly with cuteness’ relationship to mass incarceration and racial profiling in the near future.

Leave your comments and share your thoughts.

February 25, 2015. Tags: , , , , , , , , . #BlackLivesMatter, age, Civil Rights Movement, communication, cute, design, digital literacy, politics, rhetorics, social media, visual literacy, writing. 2 comments.

Fox affiliate apologizes to editing protesters’ chants to say ‘Kill a cop’

The Fifth Column

Tawanda Jones | attribution: none specified

Daily Kos

A Baltimore Fox station had to apologize to Black Lives Matter protester, Tawanda Jones, after they were busted for deceptively editing a protest chant to say “Kill a cop.”

The chant went “we won’t stop, we can’t stop, ’til killer cops, are in cell blocks,” according to C-SPAN footage.But WBFF cut the audio short and told viewers that the words were in fact “we won’t stop, we can’t stop, so kill a cop.”

In typical Fox style, the apology came with an “our bad” statement. Honest mistake.

The Fox station apologized to the protesters and to Jones both on its Facebook page and in an interview with Jones.The Facebook post claimed that the station’s engineers misheard what the protesters were chanting and called it an “honest misunderstanding.”

Mrs. Jones is skeptical.

“The interesting part that really gets to me is, where you…

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December 29, 2014. rhetorics. 1 comment.

Teddy Bears in Bear Country: Tamir, Trayvon, Eric, Michael, Jonathan, Sam, Nate…

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

Tamir Rice memorial, playground at Cudell Rec Center, Cleveland

The “teddy bear effect” is something I’ve touched on before in this blog and is now, more than ever, the topic of exigency. The slayings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, among many others whose names are yet fully known bring to mind the work of one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners: Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Deathworthy” study about how the dark skin and African looking facial characteristics of black defendants are highly correlated to the likelihood of their being sentenced to the death penalty.

The spontaneous memorials, such as the one pictured above, have popped up at sites where police (or wannabe cops) have murdered unarmed, often adolescent black males all speak to teddy bears as a visual and spatial phenomenon of race. Alongside the realities uncovered in the Deathworthy study, is another study by Robert Livingston. Coined the “teddy bear effect,” researchers demonstrated how and why our society can enact the “postracial” iteration of Jim Crow in the form of mass incarceration and all these brutal police killings directly alongside the amazing success of the Barack Obama presidency.

It seems, according to the evidence, that successful African American leadership —beyond impressive credentials, competence, and diligence — is accompanied by certain “disarming mechanisms” such as physical and behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of black threat held by the dominant culture. It appears that some black men have developed an extraordinary psychological capacity to affect the feelings of comfort engendered by persceptions of cuteness in order to assuage white racial anxieties about black men’s purported criminality. Among these disarming mechanisms is that of “babyfaceness,” which some African American men physically possess (and may intentionally play up) because they realize how whites experience their “cuteness” as helpful in reducing the perception of black aggression. White experiences of fear or intimidation may actually be a cultural form of subconscious projection due to the realistic threat suffered by blacks because whites’ possess such inordinately higher levels of social power vis-à-vis their black counterparts in most cases.

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Teddy Bear Effect Benefits Black CEOs (2009 Livingston).

Deathworthiness versus babyfaceness serves as empirical evidence of the quantifiably predictable quality of “cuteness” as a racial construct that too often means life or death for our black brothers, partners, and sons. It’s interesting that both studies, particularly in the case of Livingston, make clever nods towards the heavily anthologized Brent Staples essay, Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space,” in which the essayist refers to his habit of coping with whites’ perception of black male threat as a “tension-reducing” tactic meant to assuage white fears and and offer a sense of racial comfort in the public sphere. The kicker comes when Staples admits how “warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country” and speaks most eloquently to the strange dilemma of masculine empowerment and racial entrapment experienced by black men when moving through public space.  

Teddy bears in bear country, sadly, is the perfect trope for the beastly outcomes derived from the unchecked racist policies and legal processes of white American culture and jurisprudence.   #BlackLivesMatter

December 19, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, age, art, babies, Babyfaceness, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, Civil Rights Movement, Colors, cute, dolls, family, masculinity, Obama, parenting, politics, psychology, racism, rhetorics, social media, space, space & spatiality, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. 5 comments.

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.

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