Afro Pedagogy: An Introduction

Not really.

I mean I don’t even know what “Afro Pedagogy” would mean. I just know that I’ve been having a lot of fun with my new afro (my teeny weeny afro, to be exact), more fun than I thought was possible, and that fun has seeped into my teaching.

Here’s what happened.

In the middle of getting Written/Unwritten ready to run the publishing gauntlet, I decided that I couldn’t wait any longer to get rid of all the permed and/or weaved hair I’d been bored by for years. It was both the right and the wrong choice. Right because I promised myself to make the big chop this summer. Wrong because it distracted me from my work. The first day after I took my braids out I could barely concentrate as I could actually feel the coils of my hair unfurling. It felt like there was a party going on on top of my head while the brain inside my head was wrestling with trying to get the beast out the door. The combination of both events—-getting rid of the book (for now at least) and getting into my afro has me feeling playful…but in a serious way.

Because afros, when they are not being called things like teeny weeny, are also serious declarations, whether the wearer intends them to be or not. Women, especially older ones, have been coming up to me and talking about my liberation, my freedom, my declaration. No matter that I was bored and tired of shelling out all of the cash it takes to maintain processed hair. Apparently, I’ve been liberated. So I’m passing it on.

All of this is to say that I’ve been spending the first few minutes of each class easing my students into the day’s work by asking them to be playfully, or perhaps the better word is creatively, serious. The idea is one I got from a friend who has her students use meditation exercises to prepare them for class. I’m not really the meditating type, but I’ve noticed that there are certain songs that get my teaching brain started, and I wondered what would happen if I shared them with my students, if I gave them three or four minutes before class to focus on something that was interesting and important and that might connect them to their work but that required very little from them.

I started the first class on the first day by beginning my Art of Poetry class with Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime.”

It was interesting for me but not necessarily so for the students. We did some work with the lyrics, and I think it set the right tone, but I didn’t get the impression that students felt anything after listening to it.

My romanticism class started with Aretha Franklin singing “Skylark” (we’ll read Shelley’s poem by the same name later). It worked a bit better. The class is smaller (16 students instead of 33), some of the students already know me from other classes, and there’s something to be said for the fact that Franklin sets just the right tone:

For my final class of the day (Novel to 1900), I didn’t really have anything in mind for those first few minutes, so I started the class chatting with my students about what they’d read over the summer.  One brave student admitted to reading 50 Shades of Grey, and before I knew it she was reading a pithy, scathing review of it from Amazon’s website. By the time she got to

“The main male character is a billionaire (not a millionaire but a billionaire) who speaks fluent French, is basically a concert level pianist, is a fully trained pilot, is athletic, drop dead gorgeous, tall, built perfectly with an enormous penis, and the best lover on the planet. In addition, he’s not only self made but is using his money to combat world hunger. Oh yeah, and all of this at the ripe old age of 26!”

we were laughing too hard to let her finish.

I haven’t quite worked out what should happen after these moments, but I know what happens during them: Nothing. No roll taking, no passing out papers, no announcements. We all just sit and listen or read quietly.

Sometimes I make a direct link to the day’s work; sometimes I explain that what we are hearing or reading is loosely connected to some element and ask them why that might be. Last week, on both days, we started our work with Moll Flanders listening to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”, and a student said, “I’ve heard her voice before.” And maybe that’s all that really matters.

I don’t know that I’ll always choose popular Afro-American culture for these moments (we listened to Professor Snape read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets last week, and while he is certainly popular, there is nothing Afro about him), but the spirit behind it is somehow connected to what’s going on on top of as well as inside of my head.  And, in much the same way as my afro, I’d like those first few minutes to unfold as naturally, as organically as possible.

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One thought on “Afro Pedagogy: An Introduction”

  1. you are on to something! i think more of us would find teaching more pleasurable and rewarding and integrated with our daily lives and passions, if we dared to open-up things as you have done. i cannot think of a better way to think of what we do (or should do) in the classroom than as a sort of capacious, intentional and serious play. the ideas have a materiality and myriad consequences, and our great privilege and sacred charge is to look at them from a relatively “safe distance,” mixing and dissecting and looking inside alongside, and also more than occasionally looking away for a moment at something else, to help us to see and hear with fresh eyes– organically, naturally, and also cultivated and beautiful, like your afro.

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