Thinking about Harriet Tubman and How Black People Have to Be Serious and Funny at the Same Time

“While I Breathe, I Hope”

Dum Spiro Spero is the motto of South Carolina. It is something that I have thought about a lot growing up there. I thought about what breath and hope mean and how it is possible to stand an eternity being ever watchful for something better over the horizon. I have had hope for a long time that my state, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, would be better– more equal, more racially aware, more financially prosperous, more like it looks on the outside. I love my home but it often seemed antagonistic towards me–it abused me. Even walking the streets of beautiful Charleston, I could not help but remember that most of the slaves who entered the U.S. came through this place. I understand what would have made Denmark Vesey want to kill and burn Charleston down to the ground. For many, it is a small thing–removing the confederate flag from the state house grounds, but for me it has reignited hope–hope that we will finally be free and feel that this land is ours. Nikky Finney, also a native daughter, captures my feelings aptly in her poem “A New Day Dawns”:

 It is the pearl blue peep of day. All night the Palmetto sky was seized with the aurora and alchemy of the remarkable. A blazing canopy of newly minted light fluttered in while we slept. We are not free to go on as if nothing happened yesterday, not free to cheer as if all our prayers have finally been answered today. We are free, only, to search the yonder of each other’s faces, as we pass by, tip our hat, hold a door ajar, asking silently who are we now? Blood spilled in battle is two-headed: horror and sweet revelation. Let us put the cannons of our eyes away forever. Our one and only Civil War is done. Let us tilt, rotate, strut on. If we, the living, do not give our future the same honor as the sacred dead – of then and now – we lose everything. The gardenia air feels lighter on this new day, guided now by iridescent fireflies, those atom-like creatures of our hot summer nights, now begging us to team up and search with them for that which brightens every darkness. It will be just us again, alone, beneath the swirling indigo sky of South Carolina, working on the answer to our great day’s question: Who are we now? What new human cosmos can be made of this tempest of tears, this upland of inconsolable jubilation? In all our lifetimes, finally, this towering undulating moment is here.

Nikky Finney

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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A Call to Action (Written with Jamila Lyn)

Reading Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power makes it clear that the least of what domestic violence is is a domestic issue. In fact what happens in our homes, in our dorm rooms, and in other personal—sometimes hidden— spaces has implications for everyone as human beings. Domestic violence is a global issue. As Carter’s book maintains, “the world’s discrimination against women and girls is the most serious pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.”

Carter begins his analysis of this global human rights issue by talking about what he learned growing up in the racist, and, paradoxically very religious, South. It was here that he saw that racism was created out of a certain “culture of violence,” a culture that was dogmatic, patriarchal, insular, and exploitative. Moreover, this “culture of violence” doesn’t only operate around race but also around gender. On our college campus, this “culture of violence” can be seen in the language, in the music, in the sports, and in the movies and television shows that people love to talk about in personal and class room conversations The question for our students and even for faculty and staff on campus is how can we intervene in the problems of sexual harassment including street harassment or catcalling, date rape, sexual intimidation, and physical abuse when it is a global problem that may be bigger than us?

In our English 102 Class: Re-imagining Black Masculinity: Ending Sexual Violence our goal is to make an actual difference in the larger struggle by engaging service learning. What we have discovered is there is no way to pick up Carter’s call to action without first changing the way that we speak and write about women, even if it is only here on the local level. Producing students who are global leaders begins with helping them understand how they access language and culture in their daily lives. We want the students to be better writers certainly, but our hope is that they also become better human beings. So it is a success in that class for us if students can look at the culture that surrounds them critically. It is a success if they think twice about calling a woman anything other than her name. It is a success if they don’t assume that they have a right to someone’s time and attention and can catalog her body parts (Zora Neale Hurston calls this “talking up under someone’s clothes”) if she happens to be walking down the street. And, of course, it is a success if not one person hits or punches or rapes someone to assert what they mistakingly think of as manhood. Finally, we hope to instill in our students that they have a personal responsibility to fight for the human rights of “everyone” despite ways that the culture tells them differently.

Our role as a college in this fight for human rights must be a very personal one. Domestic violence doesn’t just hurt domestically, it hurts us globally. Our president, John Wilson, was very clear in September when he said that Morehouse Men do not engage in violence against women and children and that they need to model this behavior to others in the outside world. The real impact of this work will come when men from all parts of the world understand the importance of protecting and standing up for all women.

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Why All African Americans Should Celebrate Native American Heritage This Month

Africans in this country have had a very complicated relationship to Native Americans. Historically allies and kindred spirits who fought against the same system of European Colonization, African Americans have at times also been as guilty of being agents of that same colonization and oppression. A little known historical fact is that Hampton University set out to also educate both Native Americans and African Americans during Reconstruction–by educate, I mean that they primarily sought to assimilate African and Native Americans into White America.

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African Americans have also sought to damage First Nation People in other ways by misusing their representations. Witness Pharrell Williams recently donning a Native headdress on a cover of Elle UK.

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It seems that black people are willing to commodify sacred symbols when it sells and are ok with calling people Redskins if we are fans (imagine if the teams was called the Washington Darkies!), but want to talk about the importance of maintaining our own culture and heritage.

Here is a video response from Native Americans about the use of the term Redskins.

You need to only do a little more research to realize that Native American Heritage Month is also a celebration of us. Quite literally this month celebrates the Seminole, Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek, and others who are literally comprised of African people, but it also celebrates the spirit of rebellion that speaks to what the experience has been in North America for non-Europeans. Also I cannot conceive of a world where it should be okay to deny and misunderstand any group of people. November is all of our month to say thank you to our foremothers and fathers who have shown us the way.

Thanks for all the information for this blog post from here,here, and here.

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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.


Expressions of Rage: Meditations on the Killing of Michael Brown

What do you do when you have rage? What do you do as an academic, who calls herself a cultural critic, but in some ways has so much emotion invested in what is happening around you that you do not know how to intellectualize a response?  I applaud poets like Claude Mckay who wrote his poem “If We Must Die” as a response to the race riots of 1919. He is angry and thoughtful at the same time:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

 

In fact Brittney Cooper in her stunning essay “In Defense of Black Rage” at Salon.com reminds us of Mckay’s words while also making an intellectual case for the emotion of rage.  A key takeaway from her essay is

But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls.

and, also 

Every week we are having what my friend Dr. Regina Bradley called #anotherhashtagmemorial. Every week. We are weak. We are tired. Of being punching bags and shooting targets for the police. We are tired of well-meaning white citizens and respectable black ones foreclosing all outlets for rage. We are tired of these people telling us what isn’t the answer.

 

The answer isn’t looting, no. The answer isn’t rioting, no. But the answer also isn’t preaching to black people about “black-on-black” crime without full acknowledgment that most crime is intraracial. The answer is not having a higher standard for the people than for the police. The answer is not demanding that black people get mad about and solve the problem of crime in Chicago before we get mad about the slaughter of a teen boy just outside St. Louis.

 

We can be, and have been, and are mad about both. Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic.

I am reminded of Elizabeth’s Alexander’s question, “Can you be Black and look at this?” that becomes the title of her essay in the collection Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.  This question, though she asks this of viewing the Rodney King videos, in particular, becomes the question we all must ask ourselves when confronted with any sort of racial violence. Not only can we be black and look at the killing of Michael Brown, but can we be black without in someways participating in the killing, without also becoming victims of sorts?  It seems that in this case we are both witness and participant. In the end we aren’t just looking.  

2014 UNCF Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute: Mapping the Future in Digital Humanities at HBCUs

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In 2010 when the current Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Morehouse College, Clarissa Myrick-Harris, was the Director of The UNCF Institute for Capacity Building Curriculum and Faculty Enhancement Programs, she created a one day symposium called “To Be Young, Digital, and Black,” which sought to begin a conversation about the way HBCUs were addressing our students who were “digital natives.” Indeed, this was the first of a series of public forums dedicated to “UNCF Digital Media and Learning in Multicultural Contexts.” In the intervening years, not only are we still grappling with the pedagogical questions of how to teach students in a digital age, but also how to fashion ourselves as scholars in a time where the academic disciplines, themselves, have changed fundamentally. For example, no longer is English simply the study of literature, but it is also textual studies where academics can reconstruct and examine lost texts and/or visualize texts through the use of technology. Moreover, with things like data mining and mapping, no longer are words one dimensional, but they are in 3-D and kinetic. Changing the scope of words has in effect changed the scope of academy. As many of our small private liberal arts colleges do not have access to digital scholars labs and other teaching and learning centers devoted to helping humanities faculty with technical aspects of digital scholarship, the question becomes exactly when and where do faculty at the small HBCUs enter into the larger national and international conversations about the digital humanities.

Moreover, the ostensible truth is that we should be center of these conversations because of the myriad opportunities for archiving, constructing, and engaging with material in African American religion, philosophy, literature, music, history and the visual arts that our schools provide. Indeed, many of our historically black colleges are rich repositories of history in African American life and culture. While the questions about digital scholarship and learning seem to always come back to resources, the focus at UNCF institutions should be on the way in which these colleges can start where they are to build community and pool information and best practices in order to allow our faculty and their work to emerge in this new academy. This UNCF/Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute: “Mapping a New Future by Mining the Past: HBCUS and the Digital Humanities” was a workshop where 16 faculty members from Paine, Claflin, Spelman, Clark, Morehouse, and Dillard convened on Morehouse’s campus and at The Robert W. Woodruff Library July 24-27, 2014 to look at the intersections of African American Studies and digital scholarship. Each invited scholar will brought an individual research or class project and constructed a strategy for completing that digital humanities project given the resources that they have on their campuses and an iPad mini, which was provided provided by the seminar. By offering faculty the space and time to engage with technology, this workshop sought to fulfill the mission set forth by UNCF in 2010, which was to “investigate current and future opportunities for research, careers and civic engagement that are informed by innovative uses of digital media.”

One of the excellent facilitators Howard Rambsy wrote more about the importance of this institute on his blog Cultural Front here

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