Afro-Pedagogy: The Poetry of Race and Privilege

You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.

In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.

But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.

The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.

My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:

Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”

My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:

The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)

Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time

Big Freedia The Queen Diva

We did not watch them in class.

We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.

I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.

The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.

Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:

1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.

2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.

3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.

4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.

5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)

6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women

And then finally:

7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?

We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.

I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.

We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.

In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:

Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.

I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.

Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.

It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.

And, for now, I call that success.


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).

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.)

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.