The Week in Afro-Pedagogy: Handel, Hickman, and Mama Cass

I hadn’t really thought about how it would feel to share these songs with my students.  I’m enjoying myself, and I’m sensing a settling in feeling from the class as a whole.  But it’s also a bit strange to share something as personal as music with people I really don’t know. Thus far, I’m only choosing songs from my own library, so they all resonate with me in a personal way.  I can’t listen to “Ev’ry Valley” from Handel’s Messiah (paired with Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” because the runs in Handel are actually sublime) without thinking of my father.  I didn’t tell my students this, but the first gift I remember choosing and buying for my him was the score to Messiah.

We were living in Biloxi, Mississippi at the time, and my mom and I were at the mall.  I wandered into a music store. I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade*, and I don’t think I’d ever seen a music store before.   I don’t remember much about the store except seeing a wall of musical scores and honing in on the score to an oratorio I practically knew by heart.  It never occurred to me that one could buy such a thing.  But I knew immediately that my dad would love it.  I don’t remember how much I had to pay for it, but I do remember saving up and going to the store a few times. And if the older white man who ran the place thought it was weird that a black kid in Biloxi was into Handel he never let on.   My dad loved it and still has it (don’t be impressed: he also still has the same bathrobe from about the same era).

Whether my students like the selections or not (I don’t ask), songs I’ve listened to for decades are new again when I hear them in the classroom.

In my Novel to 1900 class we spent the last week of our Moll Flanders discussion thinking about femininity and criminality.  We used “Criminal Ms-Representation: Moll Flanders and Female Criminal Biography” by John Rietz for the discussion.  He argues:

Female criminals, then, are figured as being outside the social order, and their behavior is figured as somehow incompatible with their sexuality, crime being either a perversion of or a substitute for it.  These two factors complicate the representation of characters like Moll Flanders.  How does a writer effectively portray a character with the incompatible traits of femininity and criminality?–John Rietz

To kick that discussion off we listened to Sara Hickman’s “Take it Like A Man.”  I’ve been listening to Hickman almost non-stop since my college days, and this anthem is still pretty terrific.  I try not to stare at anyone during those first few minutes, but out of the corner of my eye I saw students nodding and smiling.  We ended the week wondering whether or not Moll repented or simply reinvented herself and rocked out (that’s the only word for it, sorry) to “Wild Women” by the great Mama Cass (she goes great with Sara Hickman!)

A writing drill centered around from John Richetti’s essay “Freedom and Necessity, Improvisation and Fate in Moll Flanders” followed.

And speaking of writing.  My Art of Poetry class on Thursday listened to “Avalon” by Harry Connick Jr.—the song I usually listen to at the start of my writing sessions.  I’ve been adapting my own writing strategies to help my students (undergraduate and graduate) get a handle on their writing struggles.  We have different motivations and different goals, of course, but the trials of writing only change in intensity.  The challenges remain the same.

Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold” was probably too melancholy for Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” but we were moving from prose to poetry and we started the week with “Mont Blanc” and, well, there you have it.

This week we’re on to Evelina and Wordsworth and Thomas Gray, and I’m thinking that later in the semester Willoughby’s “I had always been expensive” might call for Natalie Cole’s cover of “Cry Me A River” (his theme song this term might just be Nina Simone’s “Buck” but I’m not sure he deserves Simone or that much genuine passion).  I’m chatting with everyone about my experiment.  Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to uses music in the classroom at some point in the term.  This doesn’t surprise me, of course, but I don’t know how much we think about what it means for critical analysis and writing.

Perhaps we should.

*And speaking of hair, mine was pressed at the time…in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This was before Jheri Curl’s set us all free (yes, I had one…don’t judge me; my head was not my own).

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