The week in Afro-Pedagogy: Nat King Cole, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Gaynor and Cake

I’ve been trying not to overthink my choices for those first few minutes of class because, if I overthink them, I’ll worry too much about whether or not students are “getting” it when I really just want them to have a transitional moment. Worse, rather than simply listening with, perhaps, some moment of insight, they’ll feel as if they have to perform.

Vibe is everything.

For the final Frankenstein discussion I kept thinking about Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive” and how Cake’s cover of the song gives it a different hue, especially with the guitar riffs and the male vocalist.  One assignment for the class asks students to either recite a poem of their choosing or adapt the structure of one of the poems to their own topic.  I hoped the Gaynor-Cake versions of the song might inspire them.  The only problem is that Gaynor’s disco tune is really only good for two things—dancing around in one’s apartment (usually while singing at the top of one’s lungs)  or dancing in a club (preferably with a group of friendly gay men).  If the point is to settle in, Gaynor’s not going to do it. But in order to get to Cake, I had to go through Gaynor.  We ended up listening to just the first few minutes of Gaynor (and it was a bit jarring), but the Cake cover seemed to pull most of the students into the work for the day. Of course, Frankenstein’s creature promises to do the exact opposite of survive (a funeral pyre seems to be in his immediate future), but I’m not necessarily going for a specific correlation with these moments.

It’s not so easy to experiment with music in the classroom, and I have to remind myself not to seek a specific reaction from anyone. It was affirming to see students tapping their fingers and feet to Cake, but music is such a personal medium (so often we listen to it in private spaces) that it’s difficult to share in the clinical space of a classroom.

I don’t particularly have the, the vocabulary to discuss music.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as it reminds me, again, how much of critical writing is knowing what language to use to describe what a reader feels about a text.  For all that I keep a list of terms that my students need in order to discuss literature, I sometimes forget just how much of that vocabulary is new to many of them. At this point, it’s not even second nature to me. It’s just how I talk, but that wasn’t always the case. This uneasiness with musical vocabulary keeps me mindful.

It’s difficult to decide how much needs to be done by way of introduction or discussion afterwards.  In my “Art of Poetry” class last week we read canonical Donne, “The Flea” and “A Valediction: Forbidding Morning.”  The second poem had me thinking of Wynton Marsalis playing Hayden and Mozart with the National Philharmonic.  Symphonic music with Donne felt like a cliché, but for the second class, when we discussed “The Flea,” Nat King’s Cole “If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes…” felt more in keeping with the spirit of whatever Afro-pedagogy might be.  But the song needed a bit of glossing.  I wanted students to note the line “squeeze me a squoze” and felt I needed to explain what “men are scarce as nylons” alluded to.  And that brings me back to my main concern.  How much do students really need to know about these songs?  I run the risk of overthinking, of being that nerd who ruins the moment with overbearing explanations.  Students don’t need to “get” everything anyway.

And really how is life not better for spending three minutes with Nat?  I mean really…

NB: As I was jotting down a few notes, I realized that the other, perhaps more present, inspiration for this experiment comes from my favorite blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and his occasional Morning Coffee posts.

(Thanks to my friend A.S. for putting Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive” on a birthday mixed CD.)

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