March 19, 2015
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.
To further the conversation, I offered a then-new development in the controversy surrounding the video. Just a few hours before our class, the anchors from the Morning Joe television show facilitated a segment that implicated hip hop as culpable in the song’s use of inflammatory language, namely the use of the n-word. (Morning Joe has since issued a mea culpa to concede that the video included reprehensible language beyond this lightning rod.)
“It’s just a word,” one my of students said. “How could it be racist if you hear it all the time,” someone else offered. They eventually came to a nearly unanimous consensus: If black people want others to stop saying it, they should stop using it. The conversation ended abruptly when one of my Puerto Rican students said the video had no bearing on his reality. Kwame responded without a hint of condescension or injury. “That’s real. That’s the realest thing you’ve said all semester.”
What my class and I didn’t discuss, and what has been absent from the larger conversation, is what hip hop actually teaches; what power, latent or explicit, lies in its influence on racism? Black Twitter, an unofficial collective of black tweeters, responded almost immediately to Morning Joe’s faulty logic with irony in the form of the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery, which became an incredible catalog of actual album titles that riffed on the theme of slavery. Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” for instance, may have become “good slave, m.A.A.d cotton” or “good kunta, m.A.A.d whips.” These ingenious reconfigurations serve as excellent points of departure, but I want to delve further. To be clear, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive treatise on hip hop’s instructive properties. I merely mean to share how I’ve used it to teach, what it has taught me, and what it reveals about America’s racially charged times.
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