I read a book a few weeks ago that reminded me of you. It’s called Negroland by Margo Jefferson and details the writer’s upbringing in the netherworld of the Black elite, where many of its inhabitants consider themselves better than most Blacks and long for white privilege. Their world is complicated in that it often maroons them on a no man’s land where a virulent psychosis ravages the community and inspires self-slaughter.
The author is of your generation, and when she described her admiration of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt, I remembered watching HBO’s biopic of Dandridge with you. I remembered the racism that she faced and the longing for white suitors and the despair visited upon her when her dreams were thwarted. I remembered not understanding all of the cultural references, but I mostly remembered the gleam of your focus. I remembered your exuberance. You delighted in her story.
I miss your train of thought in this state, when the passion thick in your voice would envelop me. You would have loved the book, I’m sure, and I would have loved to hear your thoughts about it. I would have loved to ask you why you sent your son away to a boarding school far from home, where the ultra-white sheen of his teachers and classmates must have been blinding. Were you seeking his entry into the white populace, hoping to secure his footing among the Black elite? (more…)
Click here to listen to my interview with Dr. Vibe in which I discuss my essay “The Education of Hip Hop”
Hip hop has always been in my classroom as have other forms of figurative expression. Its most recent appearance was unplanned and surfaced last Wednesday during a discussion of “A More Perfect Union,” a speech delivered in 2008 by Barack Obama wherein he sought to define and defend his character during his initial campaign. This semester I’m teaching speech as a spoken art form in conjunction with poetry to examine, among other aims, how allusion, imagery, and narrative persona interact.
Hip hop found its way into the discussion as my class and I explored Obama’s reflections of America’s racist character when a student—I’ll call him Kwame, a black musician in his late 20s—alluded to the SAE fraternity video as an example of modern racism. Kwame wondered if the students were really racist or if they were simply aping the language of America’s long tradition. Racism was a learned disease and not the sole determinant of a person’s character, Obama seemed to say as he described his love and acceptance of his white grandmother despite her racist tendencies. “The students were probably unaware of what they really were saying and just silly,” Kwame concluded. “None of them would dare say those things to a black kid on the football team.”
Almost every hand shot up at this suggestion. What then ensued was one of those fascinating, honest conversations students have with each other during class, when your job as a teacher is to get out of their way and police, where necessary, a respectful dialogue. Because it will aid my illustration, I should share that my class at Queensborough Community College is comprised of students from all walks of life, ranging in age and culture without a clear, dominant ethnicity represented. (more…)