Developing Grit in Our Students

I have been thinking more about what will help students succeed in education and life. I often get introspective around finals time when students come to me desperate for grades, or, rather, desperate for an A. Inevitably around this time as well, students start hustling trying to do any and everything to improve grades if they are failing. I always think that if they showed half of this initiative earlier on then they would not feel as if they have to come and hustle on the back end.

The problem, as I see it, is that these” hustling” students haven’t developed “grit”: the ability to persevere for a long term goal. As much as I am invested and am passionate about the digital humanities, this crisis of instant gratification caused by our rapid technology hasn’t helped these students become better students. I think in many ways it is up to us as educators to develop character first before other sorts of pedagogy. We need to help students know what to do in times of adversity. I have realized for young black men that the best thing that they can do in college is to develop a yoga practice. Yoga, as quiet as it’s kept, is hard. Men often underestimate its challenge and are always surprised when they start shaking in a pose. However, sticking in a pose will help them know that even when they are taken by surprise by a challenge, they can overcome it. I always feel mean when I tell college kids that life is hard. But it is hard. They only need to understand that just because something is hard it doesn’t mean that it is not worth doing. Moreover, it is only by doing what is hard that people will have any sense of accomplishment.

So, for all of my students wondering what to do if their semester didn’t end the way that they wanted it to, remember to keep on pushing and stay strong in the pose.

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What I learned From White Girls: Black Women on the “Bougie”/”Ratchet” Continuum

In the video I posted about a year ago and in the blog post http://verysmartbrothas.com/shit-bougie-black-girls-say/ this idea that middle class black women feel the need to distinguish themselves from other black women who are ghetto or “ratchet” is made plain. The very smart brothers joke that the way you know that someone is definitely not “ratchet” is that they insist that they are “ratchet.” This suggests that anytime someone knows that a performance is occurring around race, it automatically renders that representation suspect. Issa Rae in her Awkward Black Girl and her Ratchetpiece Theatre explores the notion of black performance of gendered and raced stereotypes comedically. Rae suggests in her collapse of high and low art that perhaps the line between”bougieness” and “ratchetness” is so thin as to not exist. It is easy in this way to challenge what makes some black women “ghetto” or “ratchet” and what makes others “bougie” or firmly placed in the middle class. However, the idea that there is such a polarity, any sort of binary, is a fiction. In fact, more telling is why we consider “bougieness” an insult in the first place.

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More Poems for Michael Brown: June Jordan’s “Poem About Police Violence”

The world needs our poets. I think of what Jordan, Cortez, and Maya Angelou would be saying if they were alive. However in looking at “Poem About About Police Violence” written by Jordan in 1974, perhaps they already said it all.

Poem about Police Violence

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

. . . I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rapid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle
(don’t you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue
and scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
(Again)

People been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
blots it out/the bestial but
not too often

tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently

– June Jordan –

Jayne Cortez and the Response to Violence

There It Is

And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

-Jayne Cortez, from Firespitters


With apologies to the great poet Jayne Cortez (who died late last year). I edited her poem “Give me the Red on the Black of the Bullet” with the name of Trayvon Martin (and details of his case) in the place of Claude Reece Jr. Cortez’ poem, written in the 1970s, was dedicated to Reece Jr., a 14 year-old victim of police violence. Had Cortez lived, being the political fire spitter that she was, I am sure that she would have written a poem honoring Trayvon.


GIVE ME THE RED ON THE BLACK OF THE BULLET

(For Trayvon Martin)


Bring back the life 

Of Trayvon Martin


I want the bullet from his chest

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone


I want the 17 years of Trayvon Martin

Shot on the 26th day of February

Shot in his chest

Shot by a “wanna be” police officer

Shot for being black


Give me the black on the red of the bullet

I want to make a tornado

To make an earthquake

To make a fleet of stilts

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called dangerous weapon

Called resisting arrest

Called nigger threat


I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make hooks and studs

For warrior masks


Give me the bullet with the odor

And the smoke and the skin and

The hair of Trayvon Martin

I want to make power

To make power

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called pent-up frustration

Called unidentified negro

Called nigger revolutionary


I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone

I want the bullet to bring back the blood

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice


I want to make justice for

The blackness of Trayvon Martin

Bring back the bullet with the blood of the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice

I want to make justice for the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin.


Why I Write

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

–Joan Didion, “Why I Write”

Are We Still Creating Kings?: Morehouse College and the Challenge of Educating Black Males

In his 2013 Commencement Address at Morehouse College, President Barack Obama called on the graduates to remember what the legendary educator, Benjamin E. Mays, who had been president of Morehouse from 1940 to 1967, said was the role of every graduate who wanted to call themselves a man. Mays said:

It will not be sufficient for Morehouse College, for any college, for that matter, to produce clever graduates — but rather honest men, men who can be trusted in public and private life — men who are sensitive to the wrongs, the sufferings, and the injustices of society and who are willing to accept responsibility for correcting (those) ills.

Not only is Obama calling on Mays significant here because of what Mays meant to higher education for blacks in general, but, more specifically, because of what Mays meant to the life and work of Morehouse’s most famous graduate, Martin Luther King Jr. As Lawrence E. Carter notes in his Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., there was no one who in terms of his philosophy and practice, who had a greater impact on King than Benjamin E. Mays. It is Mays, who King called” his spiritual and intellectual father,” who would deliver the eulogy at King’s funeral. Further Obama, in his commencement address, would recall that King, who enrolled at Morehouse when he was 15 under a program that Mays instituted in order to get the students young before the could be drafted into the war, wasn’t born as the revolutionary he became. In effect, King became the person that he was because of his contact with Morehouse College. Obama states:

Dr. King was just 15 years old when he enrolled here at Morehouse. He was an unknown, undersized, unassuming young freshman who lived at home with his parents. And I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the coolest kid on campus — for the suits he wore, his classmates called him “Tweed.” But his education at Morehouse helped to forge the intellect, the discipline, the compassion, the soul force that would transform America. It was here that he was introduced to the writings of Gandhi and Thoreau, and the theory of civil disobedience. It was here that professors encouraged him to look past the world as it was and fight for the world as it should be. And it was here, at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, where “I realized that nobody — was afraid.”

Thinking about the role that Morehouse College and its educators like Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and Lucius Tobin played in constructing Martin Luther King and in Obama’s ideal of a Morehouse Man, the question for us becomes: are we doing the job that Mays called on us to do and of which King becomes the emblem? Are we teaching these black male students to be unafraid, to be intellectually rigorous, and to make a difference in their communities? Are we, in effect, creating Kings?

It seems that with the challenges that face us as professors, the answer will be not always. In fact, we are regularly plagued with academic dishonesty, apathy, and, what we call in the students, the tendency to rely on “the academic hustle”– the belief that students can get over on their professors by skirting work all semester only to come at the end and negotiate grades. Indeed, it seems that sometimes, teaching character and responsibility, in addition to the rigors of your discipline is more than any one person can handle. However, what Clayborne Carson and archival research will tell you is that King, while at Morehouse, was not a model student. He was an average student who excelled at oratory– or in the use of words, but he rarely made getting the best grades his focus. But there was something that was sparked in him by Mays, who was Morehouse’s first president with a doctorate, to go on to seminary and later get a Ph.D. with an A average. There was something in King’s education at Morehouse that made him willing to fight and die for the rights of others. That something, that is not quantifiable by grades, is what we realized at Morehouse that we need to focus on in order to produce well educated citizens and good human beings. Moreover, studying the words of Martin Luther King, and through him Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman, allows students to gain an understanding of how their own educative process is important.

Therefore, through this research, which I intend to undertake with Yohance Murray in Psychology and Andrea McEachron in Reading and Critical Thinking, I will produce scholarship exploring the pedagogical strategies that I employ using Martin Luther King’s works in order to make sure that our students are not only good writers and critical thinkers but also willing, despite GPA, to think about the impact that they will make on the world around them.

Relevant Sources

Banks, Adam J. “Martin, Malcolm and a Black Digital Ethos.” Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Carson, Clayborne. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Crozer Seminary Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.16 (Summer, 1997), pp. 123-128.

—————–. “Martin Luther King Jr.: The Morehouse Years.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 15 (Spring, 1997), pp. 121-125.

Carter, Lawrence Edward, ed. Walking in Integrity: Benjamin Elijah Mays, Mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1998.

Jelks, Randal Maurice. Benjamin Elijah Mays: Schoolmaster of the Movement. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 2012.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. New York: Fortress Press, 2010. Print.

——————. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991. Print.

Mays, Benjamin E. Born to Rebel. Athens, U of Georgia P, 2003. Print.

Obama, Barack. “2013 Morehouse College Commencement Address.” Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. 19 May 2013.

Thurman, Howard. The Luminous Darkness. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. Print.

Books About Gullah Culture

I think that the more I delve into researching black culture in the South and the ways that what we do today are linked with our past, the more clear that it becomes that there must be more scholarship on Gullah Culture. Goodwine’s The Legacy of Ibo Landing: The Gullah Roots of African American Culture is a great start in looking at these issues, but there should be updated scholarship.

I hate that I am missing the High Heritage Days at The Penn Center but I am hopeful that they will begin recording some of their programs. The possibility of digital scholarship is endless.

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Image by Dawolu Jabari Anderson. Part of his “Gullah Sci-Fi Mystery Series” from his Exhibit Tales Of New Dimension In Time And Black Space.

Excerpt of My Latest “Work”

I have so many writing projects going at once that at times it is difficult to feel productive. Since this is a summer that I am devoting to writing, and not just writing but finishing projects, I decided to publish some essays in journals and publish my creative writing in other places. These are things that I think that I need to release into the universe in order to feel like I can work on a book of essays entitled What I Learned From White Girls that I got a grant for nearly 4 years ago to complete. (Hello, can you say that I am not good at deadlines?) The following is an excerpt of a novella entitled Work that I plan to publish as an ebook on iTunes and Amazon by the end of the year.

Work is about the modern black woman’s dilemma of how to be yourself and still exist in the white corporate world. More than that, it is about the broken promise that the North offered many blacks coming out of the rural South at the turn of the Century. It sounds heavy, but I hope it is funny. Here is piece from the first chapter:

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Brooklyn, The Planet Earth, The Year of Our Lord, 2006

I was fired. Me. Fired. I don’t know how it happened. Well that is not really true. I knew how it happened, but I didn’t really see it coming. I hated my job, but I loved the life that it afforded me. I loved living in Brooklyn. I loved that so many of the friends that I had met in college seemed to have gravitated to the Big Apple and reconstituted themselves into an exclusive clique of black urban professionals. I loved shopping in Manhattan. I lived for the parties and relished the feeling of having “made it” that New York gives you.

It seems that my life was determined by the objects and fringe benefits that I was able to acquire because of my job—the expense account, the book parties, the fashion shows—but not by the job itself. The activity that consumed most of my waking hours was purely incidental. The exhilaration I felt every morning after the train ride into the city and first tasting my daily café mocha faded as soon as I stepped into the lobby of Laura Rubenstein Advertising and Public Relations. As soon as I hit the revolving glass door and spied the elevator that would whisk me up to the 15th floor (I used to pray for an elevator malfunction, anything to avoid work) and my cramped and disorganized desk, I felt a cloud of despair descend all around me.

I looked good. This again is one of the nice things about living in New York, access to some of the world’s best spas and ample opportunity to indulge my addiction to French cosmetics and skin care products. Usually I couldn’t be happy about how good I looked in whatever black ensemble that I happened to have on, because I knew that no one who really mattered would see me. Unless I was meeting one of my girlfriends for lunch—then I would take special care with my appearance—the way I looked was only for my benefit. What made my days bearable was the fact that I often arranged to lunch with my friends. Everyday, if duties didn’t demand otherwise. I was the only black woman, black person that is, at my firm. I needed to see my girlfriends during the day to keep me grounded, to keep me sane. Being the only is enough to drive you crazy. I don’t know how Jackie Robinson did it. Maybe he met his homeboys after his baseball games and chuckled with them about “the ways of white folk.”

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What We Know About Slavery

On a recent trip to Charleston, we had a chance to visit The Old Slave Mart Museum. This was a treat in itself, because Charleston, whose fortunes were built on slavery, seems to rarely deal with what slavery has meant to the culture and the day to day life of the city. What I realized by going to the museum is that we really do not know that much about slavery (when I say we, I mean the generally educated populace). What I found out in this really small museum is that slaves had a history of rebelling and of running away in much greater numbers than ever thought. For example, there were more than 250 slave rebellions in the 1700s alone. Before the Civil War upwards of 50,000 slaves each year ran away– each year! There were also systems of classifying slaves that determined how much they sold for. One classification in particular, ‘the second rate or ordinary girls,” stood out to me. What did it mean for you if you were sold as a second rate slave?

I am not sure what all this means, but I feel like it is something that I should write about. I guess you will have to stay tuned for this. Please check out the New York Times article in the link above and make sure to visit some of those places if you are ever in Charleston. Also do yourself a favor and take Alphonso Brown’s Gullah Tour. You won’t be sorry.

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Writing in a Digital Age

How many of us use the speech to text function on the iPad or our computers? I am really amazed at the fact that this is a wonderful technology that it seems that I rarely use. I decided to write this post today on my iPad using my voice. I think one of the problems is that as writers we think that we should only write using our hands or by typing on the keyboard. But we are in the digital age and, as we continue to think of what it means to do the digital humanities, we need to think about other means of composing.

As someone who has given a lot of talks and speeches, I know that a lot of what I talk about isn’t written down beforehand. I know the work and creativity that go in to making those speeches and presentations. Speech is a different kind of writing and with all of these new technologies it’s something we need to consider. How are we going to integrate voice into our writing lives? Try today to leave your self voice notes, if you have an apple or android phone. Explore programs like Dragon Dictation for your PC. Also, I think that speech recognition has gotten amazingly good and you can also use these technologies to have the iPad, for example, read aloud to us.

Here are some keys to using voice on Apple devices (because these are the devices I am most familiar with):

1. Speak your punctuation. Read your sentence and then add,.;!, etc. This way you don’t have to worry about actually putting in the punctuation.

2. Use the microphone button anytime you have the keyboard present. Use Siri to ask your questions in a Google search, for example. For things like the WordPress app, when the keyboard comes up simply only use the microphone function. Speak your tweets.

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3. Turn on voice that will allow the iPad or computer to read any text back to you.
See this article

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