bell hooks, Living to Transgress

bell hooks is a feminist author and activist from the United States. Her name by birth is Gloria Jean Watkins, but she took the name bell hooks in honor of her maternal great-grandmother. hooks was born, one of seven children, to Veodis Watkins, a custodian, and Rosa Bell Watkins, a homemaker. She was raised in Hopkinsville, a segregated town in rural Kentucky, where she experienced firsthand both the hardships of segregated schools and, later, the process of integration.

Upon graduating high school, hooks attended Stanford University graduating with a BA in English in 1973 then continued on University of Madison, receiving her MA in English in 1976. Afterward, she split her focus between teaching Ethnic Studies at the University of South California and writing—publishing her first work, “And There We Wept,” a chapbook of poetry in 1978 and Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism in 1981—while, also, working towards a doctorate in literature at the University of California, which she achieved in 1983[1].

250792.gif

hooks spent her academic career as a scholar of African-American literature, writing her PhD dissertation on Toni Morrison, but her influences include a wide array thinkers including, amongst others: playwright Lorraine Hansberry, pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire, theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, historian Walter Rodney as well as peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn and civil rights leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.[2].

As such, hooks quickly became one of the foremost theorists of intersectionality, a framework which has recently gained great popularity in the analysis of systems of power within society and has combined her analysis of power relations with her academic career, writing texts dedicated to the topic of pedagogy. In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks advocates for “a way of teaching in which anyone can learn.” One in which educators help students “transgress” boundaries of race, class, and sexuality to achieve intellectual and, so too, personal, social, and cultural freedom[3].

hooks 2.tif

Implementing her own theories into practice, hooks, as a professor teaching at a variety of institutions from University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State, to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and Oberlin College in Ohio, often found herself referencing pop culture in efforts to help students connect to theories of intersectionality. In doing so, she found herself grappling with new material in an entirely different field, media studies that would become the basis for her 1994 book Outlaw Culture.

In bell hooks’ own words: “Whether we’re talking about race or gender or class, popular culture is where the pedagogy is, it’s where the learning is. So I think that partially people like me who started off doing feminist theory or more traditional literary criticism or what have you begin to write about popular culture, largely because of the impact it was having as the primary pedagogical medium for masses of people globally who want to, in some way, understand the politics of difference. I mean it’s been really exciting for someone like me, both in terms of the personal desires I have to remain bonded with the working-class culture and experience that I came from as well as the sort of southern black aspect of that and at the same time to be a part of a diasporic world culture of ideas and to see how there can be a kind of interplay between all of those different forces. Popular culture is one of the sites where there can be an interplay[4].”

Cecily McMillan

Works Cited

[1] Notable Biographies – bell hooks

[2] Notes on IAPL 2001 Keynote Speaker, bell hooks

[3] Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom by bell hooks

[4] bell hooks – cultural criticism and transformation

Walter Dean Myers: Giving Voice to the Voiceless

 

Picture from Myers’ obituary

Walter Dean Myers is the preeminent author of African American teenage fiction and nonfiction of the 1990’s. Using perspectives that many teens had not read before, Myers’ prose humanizes and refines black characters that are often vilified in literature, film, and television.  Myers’ works such as Monster, Slam, and countless biographies of African American visionaries gave access to life stories that many teens had not experienced or did not know existed. Myers was a champion for underrepresented, and it is apparent when reading his books that he wrote for those who did not have a voice. In turn, he inspired a generation of children by telling their stories.

Myers was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia on August 12, 1937. He lived ten miles from the plantation on which his relatives had been enslaved for generations.[1] Myers moved to Harlem four years later, and this is where the majority of his works take place. Myers spoke fondly of his New York upbringing and questioned why some authors did not return to their roots, asking, “What happened to the idea of celebrating a neighborhood and the ordinary people in it? Nobody gives them a voice, but I do.”[2] Myers made it a point to celebrate the ordinary in the inner-city and beyond. His works are not confined to Harlem—his most acclaimed and controversial book is Fallen Angels (1988). Taking place during the Vietnam War, its visceral depictions of the war and raw language got it banned from countless school districts. Building upon that book’s fame, Myers entered the 1990’s as one of the most talked about and controversial teen fiction authors in America.

The 90’s marked a plethora of literary awards for Myers. Most notably, he was the runner-up for the Newbery Medal in 1993, runner-up for the National Book Award for Teen Fiction, and was awarded both an American Library Award and a Coretta Scott King Award in 1994.[3] Myers’ most notable work of the 90’s is Monster: A Novel (1999). Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old African American from Harlem accused of felony murder. I particularly remember seeing the cover of this book in my Catholic elementary school library. The mugshot of a very dark African American teenager juxtaposed next to the National Book Award sticker makes for a striking cover. The intimidating black felon on the cover is quickly revealed to be a sensitive, shy teenager with a speech impediment, tragically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Myers explores black identity throughout the book, with the protagonist writing in his journal after meeting with his lawyer, “I wanted to open my shirt and tell her to look into my heart to see who I really was.”[4] The protagonist tries to reflect goodness and worth in a trying situation. He fears condemnation from other people particularly from his father and white female attorney.[5] Other themes of black identity are prevalent throughout Myers’ other works, namely roots in slavery, uncertainty, and praise of Harlem, America’s “black capital.”[6]

Book cover for Monster: A Novel (1999)

Realistic depictions of injustice, discrimination, transcendence, and hope are Myers’ forte. In fact, Myers wrote over 100 books on a wide array of subjects, from the Iraq War to an African princess.[7] While the majority of his works take place in contemporary times in New York, Myers started writing biographies and historical fiction in the 1990’s. The Glory Field (1994) takes place in 1763 and describes the shackling and transportation of Muhammad Bilal from Sierra Leone to an American plantation; the subsequent story traces the family lineage from his kidnapping to the mid-20th century.[8] The Great Migration: An American Story (1993) “pictures the centrality of scripture-based faith and memories of family members buried in the agrarian South as wanderers make a new life in the urban industrialized North.”[9] Myers even won awards for picture books. Among his most lauded works is Brown Angels: An Album of Picture and Verse (1993). “Brown Angels” reclaims black children from media stereotyping by showing them in child fashions long out of style, reminding the reader “the child in each of us is our most precious part.”[10] Myers’ diverse range of subject matter and genre allowed for a wider audience to consume his books. This expansion of style began in the 1990’s and was one of Myers’ most creative and awarded periods of writing during his career.

A contemporary of Myers, noted children’s author Avi, said “Besides his books, his legacy is a compassionate identity with these young people.”[11]Myers certainly gave a voice to disenfranchised black children and teenagers, writing honestly and compassionately about them. The compassion and honesty he used to describe their experiences made his works appealing to all demographics. Myers’ love and compassion of children from his neighborhood allowed him to transcend target audiences. Myers’ audience is truly anyone willing to take the time and read his books. Three National Book Award nominations in the 90’s cements that legacy, and he will truly be remembered as a positive and influential voice for children and teenagers.—Jeff Brown

[1] Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers: A Literary Companion (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006) 5.

[2] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 65.

[3] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 27.

[4] Walter Dean Myers, Monster: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) 92.

[5] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[6] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[7] Felicia R. Lee, “Walter Dean Myers Dies at 76; Wrote of Black Youth for the Young,” The New York Times, July 3, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/arts/walter-dean-myers-childrens-author-dies-at-76.html.

[8] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[9] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 65.

[10] Snodgrass, Walter Dean Myers, 66.

[11] Lee, “Myers.”

The Black Atlantic and Its Impact: Bringing Hybridity to Black Studies

Image source: Goodreads

 

I want to develop the suggestion that cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective – Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (1993)

 

Since publication, The Black Atlantic has left a major impression on scholars of African American Studies, cultural studies, southern studies, and countless transnational academic disciplines.

Especially in academic circles, it can be argued that the book has accomplished more than it set out to achieve in regards to inspiring cultural historians to take “the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis,” as it has set people on the path to “use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective.” (15) In fact, many scholars and activists have cited The Black Atlantic in their explicit undertaking of transnational projects and intercultural perspectives that Gilroy outlines in the book. According to Google Scholar’s database, the book was cited over 1,200 times between 1993 and 2000. In the intervening years it has been cited over 13,700 times, at least at time of writing in April 2018.

 

Source: Google Scholar entry for Gilroy’s 1993 book with number of citations highlighted in red

 

Needless to say, it’s had (and continues to have) an impact on the academic community

But the question remains: what impact has the book that defined a region, a methodology, and a generation of scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s, had on interests around the world? 

I offer a two-part answer here, but my conclusion is essentially that The Black Atlantic put the concept of hybridity on the map for Black Studies in a big way, which, despite being situated as a re-iteration of W.E.B Du Bois’s “double consciousness” within the older frame of “modernity,” advanced a new framework for black multi-consciousness or hybridity.

The Black Atlantic has definitely helped move scholarly interest from the national frame to the transnational frame.

Data source: Google Trends

While the line graph above shows that search interest (as measured by Google queries) in the term “transnationalism” and the topic “The Black Atlantic” have declined slightly since 2004—considering the current administration at time of writing, this is not surprising—it also shows that there is a relationship between the terms. As search interest has declined in “transnationalism,” so has search interest declined in “The Black Atlantic.”

This suggests that interest in Gilroy’s book, The Black Atlantic, is linked to interest in transnationalism, which should come as no surprise to those who’ve read The Black Atlantic. Its mission is intimately tied to the postcolonial theories and missions of  scholars such as Homi K. Bhabha, who were living and writing what would eventually become the transnational turn in cultural studies of the 1990s.

Indeed, early in The Black Atlantic, we see Gilroy explaining and taking this turn away from a traditionally Anglophonic focus on national literatures:

 

Any satisfaction to be experienced from the recent spectacular growth of cultural studies as an academic project should not obscure its conspicuous problems with ethnocentrism and nationalism […] The question of whose cultures are being studied is therefore an important one, as is the issue of where the instruments which will make that study possible are going to come from. In these circumstances it is hard not to wonder how much of the recent international enthusiasm for cultural studies is generated by its profound associations with England and Englishness (5).

 

This quote is situated in a section that appears directly after Gilroy outlines the scope, problem, focus, subject, concepts, methods, intervention(s), and organization of The Black Atlantic (2-4). In discussing his organization at the end of this rundown, he writes “The final section [of the book] explores the specific counterculture to modernity produced by black intellectuals…It initiates a polemic which runs through the rest of the book against the ethnic absolutism that currently dominates black political culture” (5) This positions the book as a public address against (and undressing of) ethnic nationalism (among many, many other things).

Not long after the publication of The Black Atlantic, Gilroy brought this polemic to a mainstream audience when he went public on British television’s Channel 4 network and introduced D.W. Griffiths The Birth of a Nation (1915) as “a film which supports and affirms white supremacy” as well as “initiates a kind of taboo around intimacy between black and whites, which is still a living and central part of the Hollywood myth.”

 

 

Indeed, in this introduction to both film’s content as white supremacist propaganda, its form as a technolgical cinematic accomplishment, and its continuing legacy today, Gilroy recommends that cognitive dissonance is necessary in order to fully comprehend the film’s impact on the history of the United States and cinema. That is to say, the skepticism that Gilroy imparts to his televisual audience enacts The Black Atlantic‘s polemic against ethnic absolutism.

In a way this cognitive dissonance—or the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time—also enacts the concept of double consciousness that Gilroy uses to help frame The Black Atlantic, a concept which the book inevitably transcends with its discussion of black diaspora and the hybridity it introduced to black identity.

This brings us to The Black Atlantic‘s other main contribution.

The Black Atlantic helped redefine and resituate black identity as a hybrid identity that should be centered rather than an exclusively American, African, or African American identity formation that is marginalized.

 

Data Source: Google Ngrams

 

The word frequency graph above shows us that the words “The Black Atlantic,” “double consciousness” and “cultural hybridity” show a correlation in their appearance in books between the years of 1990 and 2008. Just looking at Gilroy’s title, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, most people would not be surprised to see the relationship between word frequencies of “double consciousness” and “The Black Atlantic.” Unless they’re specialists, however, they might not expect to see that the words “cultural hybridity” appear on the proverbial map with around the same word frequency (and emerge at about the same time) as the words “The Black Atlantic.”

What this suggests is that while The Black Atlantic makes use of W.E.B Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” it’s true contribution to conversations revolving around Du Bois’s concept—the one for which it is most closely associate per Google Ngrams and in much of the scholarship that uses it—was advancing a new framework for “cultural hybridity,” or something more akin to black multi-consciousness (rather than double consciousness).

We can start to see why Gilroy advocates for a more culturally hybrid model of black identity for The Black Atlantic when he advocates for moving and  re-centering the historical compass of modernity not in Western Europe, but in the Black Atlantic and its plantation slave economy. And this is arguably the largest crux of his book:

 

Plantation slavery was more than just a system of labor and a distinct mode of racial domination. Whether it encapsulates the inner essence of capitalism or was a vestigial, essentially precapitalist element in a dependent relationship to capitalism proper, it provided the foundations for a distinctive network of economic, social and political relations. Above all…it has retained a central place in the historical memories of the black Atlantic (55).

 

Here, we’re reminded of how Gilroy characterizes plantation slavery in Chapter 1:  “capitalism with its clothes off” (15). This quote builds on that sentiment, but more importantly, it centers plantation slavery as the defining topos and locus of history and memory in the Black Atlantic world. Gilroy uses this argument to build a case for centering plantation slavery as the organizing principle that defined not only the the modern political and socioeconomic world, but the entire cultural framework upon which the concept of modernity was founded.

Staking this claim for the importance of a multiplicity of black perspectives, which emanate and spread from modernity’s cultural center rather than margin, Gilroy concludes, “The time has come for the primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ points of view” (55).

In all of these ways, and many more, The Black Atlantic brought hybridity to Black Studies and shaped the direction that the discipline would take towards a more enriched perspective on blackness that would be able to discuss multiplicities of black identity rather than simply doubleness.

Thinking to the Future

As the bar graph below illustrates, however, much work may remain to be done to bring The Black Atlantic‘s discussion of black hybridity to more global locations than Western Europe.

Data Source: Google Trends

 

It is interesting that most of the nations where Google search interest is highest in The Black Atlantic are former colonist nations, whose populations are predominantly white. Should we be thinking about bringing Black Atlantic to more global audiences, such as Africa, in ways that don’t replicate colonial intellectual thought patterns? How might we do that?

— Joshua Ryan Jackson

Work Cited

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Harvard UP, 1993.

Sister, Sister: Sisterhood & Womanism in the 90s

Womanism: “Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”[1]

Alice Walker     

A close friend told me being a Black woman is like being in a secret club of magic, sisterhood and friendship. Reflecting on Black women’s friendship and sisterhood on television and movies in the 90s, I, similarly see a consistent theme of support, unconditional love and acceptance.  These themes can be aligned to how Alice Walker describes a Black feminist in her definition of Womanism. Walker describes Womanism as young girl as “girlish” or  “womanish” or a black feminist or feminist of color. I find her description of Womanism as a means to provide a specific exploration into the lives of Black womanhood.

 I look specifically to Walker’s second definition because it captures the essence of the 90s Black woman who aims to take on the responsibility to be in charge of herself and to question the world around her. I reference how this can be explored in the hit show Living Single and the hit movie and book Waiting to Exhale. I utilize Walker’s second definition to explore how these women embody the spirit of being a womanist through the ways their characters interact with each other and how they stand alone as independent Black women loving and living in the 90s.

Looking at the lives of Khadijah James, Synclaire James, Regina Hunter and Maxine Shaw, Living Single explores the lives of four independent Black women in New York City. This show captures the “everydayness” of single Black women in New York who validated each other, dealt with love and relationships and enjoying each other’s company.

With each woman having their own characteristics and identities, each woman on the show had an important role in each other’s lives. Khadijah and Regina were childhood friends who supported each other when things got tough. This support and commitment were also fluid in Khadijah and Synclaire’s relationship as cousins who she employed at her own Hip-Hop magazine called “Flava”.

Maxie and Khadijah were college friends from Howard University and Maxie seemed to always be the advocate for strong independent Black women amongst her friends. Their friendship supports Walker’s definition because of the characters emotional flexibility, their commitment to women’s empowerment and their tough bond as friends that were seamlessly interconnected, through the best and worst of times.

Walker does a great job discussing the emotional and spiritual effort that goes into being a Womanist. Walker explains how Womanist appreciates women’s culture, loves women sexually and non-sexually and values a woman’s strength and weaknesses[2]. This is where the women in Terry McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale fit this definition. Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes and Gloria Matthews experienced tough trials of love, life and men. Through their experiences, the women supported each other through it all. There were words of affirmation and emotional support that showed people like Bernadine who was going through a terrible divorce that her friends were by her side.

I see Walker’s womanism as describing the social interactions, spiritual activism and critical thought that Black women do to uplift all people regardless of sexuality or gender. I understand this definition as a way to look at Black women’s liberation and healing of the self. Specifically, acting “womanish” seems to be a central theme in Waiting to Exhale. The four women were searching for answers to love, family and womanhood which is where I found the connection with Walker’s definition. This can be seen in Robin’s way of how she seemed to date the wrong men, but tried to see the best in them because she had love to give. Walker added the importance that a Womanist was not a separatist, but only in the occasion that Black woman in the 90s needs to repair her health. Gloria symbolizes the friend who represented self-care as a hairstylist and made sure her friends were always taking care of themselves, even if she didn’t want to do the big chop on Bernadine.

Furthermore, the importance of Walker’s definition and the analysis of  Black woman’s thoughts and feelings will better aid to the mental and emotional health and well-being where the Black woman can adequately take care of others and themselves in shows like Living Single and Waiting to Exhale. The womanist identity and the importance of Black women’s “everydayness” in the 90s was significant, interesting and relevant to highlighting the ugly and the beautiful of what it means to be a Black woman. These women work on coming into their own and being Black adult women who may not have it all figured out. But with the power of resilience, self-love and love for each other, the magnitude and power of their friendship kept them moving forward. — Adeerya J.

Citations

[1]Walker, A. (2006). Womanist. In L. Phillips, The Womanist Reader (p. 19). New York: Routledge.

[2]ibid.

 

The 90s Kente Aesthetic

Image from http://www.projectbly.com/destinations/kumasi/meet

The type of cloth we know as “Kente” originated in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Kente was/is mainly created by the Asante and the Ewe peoples, descending from the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai from before the 15th century. These empires were located in the general area from the West African coast to as far north as Mali, and as far west as Chad. According to historian Herbert M. Cole, author of Icons: Ideals and Power in African Art (Smithsonian Institution publication), the term Kente may be a corruption of the Fanti word for “basket” – alluding to the hand-weaving process. Cole goes on to explain that only males create the long strips, on an intricate loom. Each design has a distinct name, with proverbs associated with particular patterns – wearing particular colors and shapes sends specific messages you want viewers to understand. Among the Asante and Ewe, kente was often associated with and reserved for chieftains and royal figures – fabric trades with Europeans provided materials for locals to rework into traditional designs. Unlike the 1980s and 90s, kente wasn’t originally sewn into garments for everyday wear (Cole 1990). This historical perspective gives greater context to the recent boom in kente cloth wear, and the newer ideas associated with these designs.

I can’t think of the 1990s without thinking of Kente. I remember being 6-7 years old and going to an independent school called Lotus Academy in Philadelphia. In our yearly closing graduation, students would wear kente sashes, kufis, bow ties and skirts for girls. We would march in the auditorium to Freedom Songs, chants of encouragements originally sung during the Civil Rights Movement. For us, and our parents, the colorful print cloth represented our link to the Motherland, to Africa: ideas of glory, achievement, kings and queens, and societal stability before enslavement/colonization. Wearing kente symbolized that we were continuations of these ideas, the charge that we could reinvent and achieve greatness as our ancestors did. This expression really took hold in popular culture, particularly with the continued rise of several elements:

…hip hop, with recording artists like Queen Latifah, Heavy D & The Boyz, Salt n Pepa (those kente hats!), other artists and fans who sported Cross Colours garb…

…the highlighting and celebration of black college campus culture, with kente prints as iconic motifs for newly-launched Black Studies program materials, “Class of 199_” sashes for African American Studies majors, and the like. With this imagery in academia, Black students tied this tradition to the charge to represent one’s family, community and ancestry – to learn about their past to create new solutions for the modern era.

…African motifs in television and mass media: Michael Jackson dons kente and stands with chiefs in Cote D’Ivoire in 1992. In 1998, President Bill and Hillary Clinton display their kente print during their Ghana visit. Black sitcoms, performances and Kwanzaa specials frequently featured characters who were up on the latest trends, wearing dashikis, kufis, lappas (waistwraps) and headwraps.

…Craft activity books for Black children: With Black history at the fore of many grassroots published workbooks, handouts, coloring books and illustrated stories for children, Kente symbolizes variety and diversity within the Black family and community. This larger theme is evident in a recent Ladybug magazine entry: an arts and crafts project of picture frame decoration. Colors and shapes in Kente are used to prompt young readers to think about the unity in difference amongst their own family members (Kapp 2007). Kente Colors, written by Debbi Chocolate and illustrated by John Ward, introduces small children to their basic colors – matched with poetry and elaborate illustrations of West African life scenes and kente-weaving (Chocolate 1997).

…African inspirations in high fashion and streetwear magazines – where it was often called “ethnic print” or “mustard” cloth. Adidas came out with a brand of kente cloth sneakers – to match the widespread popularity of “conscious” Black History t-shirts and sweaters. For high fashion tastes, prints were incorporated into elaborate dress patterns, tuxedoes, blazers and hats. In a 1990 edition of Black Collegian, Julia Wilson presents a spread featuring hot, new gear on the market. In her section “ Looking Good: Back-To-School with Ethnic Pride”, she notes the following:

“Historians have documented African culture in fashion from the Ashanti to the Zulu peoples. This gives all of us descendants a renewed sense of self in historical terms and inspirational knowledge of where creation began in the first place. From the mustard colored kente cloth being copied today by leading designers to braided and dreadlocked hairstyles, African people have – since the beginning of time – been at the center and forefront of fashion styles – passing along their zest for life through their creations.” (Wilson 1990)

Building on this quote, further interesting positions on this topic are presented by Cole, who posits that:

“..African Americans are now designing cloths, creating outfits, and marketing fashions that owe much to Africa, yet are not, in fact, African. The sensibilities in the Kente adaptations are modern and American-African-American. Surely it is appropriate for Americans whose ancestors lived in Africa, some in Ghana and Togo, to modify and celebrate a powerful African artistic tradition.” (Cole 1990)

Reflections on the popularity of kente raise a need for further analysis. A few questions surface with regards to this phenomenon in the 1990s. What can we learn about instances of cultural and symbolic appropriation with regards to African Americans adoption and revitalization of kente’s use? Is appropriation a valid term to even apply, given a broader question of identity – what is African culture? Who can access it? Can there even be a sole authentic African culture, or correct, authentic cultural elements? I couldn’t possibly answer these questions with this entry. However, I hope this discussion continues with folks to add their insight from both history and personal experience. Kweku Vassall

 

Works Cited

Chocolate, D. (1996). Kente Colors. New York, NY: Walker and Company.

Cole, Herbert. M. (1990). Kente: A Meaningful Tradition in Cloth. American Visions, 5(5).

Kapp, Jody. (2007). Kente Cloth Frame. Ladybug (Magazine), 17(7), 37.

Wilson, Julia. A. (1990). Looking Good: Back-To-School With Ethnic Pride. Black Collegian, 21(1), 24.

Culture Wars

In education, conflict over prioritized subject matter taught in schools illuminated larger societal issues of race, legitimacy of cultural expressions and forms of knowledge in America. With the close of the 20th century, several questions continued to emerge: What constituted being an “American”? What does a true American look like, act like, talk like? How does history, and one’s ethnic/cultural background inform one’s place in American society? These questions were (and are) ultimately decided in the schools our children attend – spaces which may operate to reinforce societal norms, options and access to resources.

In the 1990s, an interesting series of debates occurred on this subject which were dubbed the “Culture Wars.” These “battles” took place in educational arenas: from classrooms, parent-teacher conferences and staff meetings to school board assemblies, and standardized testing planning sessions. With recognition and attempted incorporation of “minorities,” these debates centered on the question of how school systems educate in ways that relate to students of different cultural backgrounds. One could argue that these conversations were abruptly introduced, ignored and revisited continuously since the legal integration of American public schools in the closing years of the Civil Rights Movement. News articles, academic journal publications, books and even popular TV specials highlighted this phenomenon – in an attempt to answer the aforementioned questions.

This idea of “Culture Wars” is often followed up by the question, “who’s winning?” In a democracy, we all should. Yet these Culture Wars embrace less equality and inclusiveness with more combative and superiority complexes. With Culture Wars at the foundation of our children’s scholarship, this shows just how divided how nation truly is.

Eric Bain-Selbo asserts that these “Culture Wars” originally stemmed from the crucial question: How do we educate our children and young adults? (Bain-Selbo, 2003) The “we” alludes to the entirety of American society, which often is documented to operate under the assumption that citizens of the United States constitute and contribute to one uniform and united culture. This particular culture is cited to stem from America’s inception, and the popular ideals of its founders: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, going from rags to riches, equal opportunity, etc.

Henry Louis Gates addresses this assumption by highlighting what is known as the “Great Western Tradition.” This tradition includes patriotic standards, understandings and cultural guidelines in alignment with both the political and socio-economic agendas of the ruling classes in this country (Gates, 1993). This tradition reifies ideas of rationalized manifest destiny, free market capitalism and moral purity of property owners (mainly including White, often Protestant males) – in a prioritized historical narrative deemed heroic and necessary to teach in state public and private schools. From this narrative, all subjects taught are meant to prepare students in their attempts to realize the American Dream. This Dream consists of ultimate access to resources, and the power to make decisions (legislation, voting) that affect everyone moving forward.

In reality, this American Dream did not apply to the majority of peoples of color in this nation. Various ethnic groups, historically and strategically classified as races, struggled to survive and thrive in a society which placed them at odds with those of the wealthiest classes – and each other. These cultural experiences have influenced what could be considered “American” practices and expressions – holding equal weight and importance in contributions to economics, sciences, historical developments, achievements, literature, the arts, etc.

To put it simply, conservatives argued for school curricula to stay as it was, for “Great Western Traditions” to remain the standard. Students from all groups were charged to conform to this ideology, expressed in class lectures, assignments, reading materials and overall subject matter. Gates notes that these conservative public and academic figures considered multiculturalism to be “ethnic chauvinism” (Gates, pg. 174, 1993) These figures clearly contradicted themselves in accusing representatives of other ethnicities of “over-promoting” false histories, to make themselves feel “great” or “worthy of recognition:” especially since presentations of American history often completely omitted the contributions and stories of non-White males.

Those considered to “the right” countered with the multiculturalist argument: the implementation of culturally-relevant pedagogical practices. For educators and researchers of this position, it was important to create learning environments where all children saw themselves reflected in what they were being taught: their families, neighborhoods, histories, languages and forms of knowledge. From this understanding, students could be empowered to draw from these strengths to navigate American society, being productive and able to thrive in all spaces.

Pedagogical theorist, educator and author Gloria-Ladson Billings introduced the 90s to The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. She tackles this idea of reversion, and the possibility of African American students needed separate spaces for education, noting that public schools are seemingly already segregated; Non-inclusiveness curriculum vs. African American children.

Furthermore, educators and its administration need to come to a point where they they can stop denying absence of color. “I don’t see race,” is no longer acceptable. You have to see race and culture in order to understand what it is that individual students need. To acknowledge race is a simple means of acknowledging the social, racial, and political hurdles to which one is subjected, and should be only regarded as such, never to use against one. To tackle these Culture Wars, we need cultural acceptance and cultural literacy. Independent of religion or spirituality, (as they are intensely controversial) the simple inclusion of African American history, life, and expression would be a great start in ending the culture wars we witness in education. The public school system needs to create as less dissonance as possible for its minority and unassimilated students.

Ultimately, these “wars” are still waged and fought today. Observations in public school (and even higher academic) environments still reveal the need for greater cultural resources that reflect students’ various experiences. Many educators are still forced to strictly “teach from The Curriculum:” the items mandated by both state and educational officials, preoccupied with standardized testing results. At the same time, a greater number of educators (including many who started these debates in the late 80s/early 90s) have provided solutions. These solutions have manifested in program development strategies, new textbooks, grassroots organizational efforts, and teachers simply “sneaking cultural knowledge in” for their students.

My initial investigations about this make me want to read further on this topic, and draw potential connections to educational practices today.

Kweku Vassall & Revisited by Tysheira Scribner 

Works Cited

Bain-Selbo, Eric. (2003). Mediating the Culture Wars. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Binder, A. J. (2000). Why Do Some Curricular Challenges Work While Others Do Not? The Case of Three Afrocentric Challenges. Sociology of Education, 73(2), 69-91.
(PDF for viewing in our OMEKA entry for this article – very informative)

Gates, Henry Louis. (1993). Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Graff, Gerald. (1992). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1994). The dreamkeepers : successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco :Jossey-Bass Publishers,

Oprah’s Book Club & The Oprah Effect

As of 2015, Oprah Winfrey is the sole black American female present on Forbes’ list of billionaires.1 From meager beginnings in rural Mississippi, and a childhood entrenched with bouncing between family households, facing discrimination as a black girl in the south, and experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of both friends and family members, Oprah would become the biggest name in television talk show history. She is by all accounts the definition of a self-made success.

In 1996, ten years after the start of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey introduced Oprah’s Book Club which selected a feature text to be discussed by both audience members and the author during a new show segment. Winfrey presented the idea for a national reading club to a studio audience stating, “I want to get the whole country reading again. Those of you who haven’t been reading, I think books are important.” As the first text, Oprah selected The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a first time author. Judging by USA Today’s Bestseller’s Lists, it was clear that Winfrey’s influence was indeed leading Americans to read. Choosing 48 books between 1996 and 2002 when the show ended, “Each book joined the top 150 best-selling titles in America for at least a few months… Of the 45 adult books, only five were on the top 150 list the week before being featured by Oprah…Just eleven of the 45 books had been part of the top 150 at some time before Oprah featured them on her show. Furthermore, the highest ranking any book had achieved before its book club introduction was just 25.”2 In research extending to 2011, Fordham University found that, “Of the 70 books she singled out, 59 made it to the USA Today bestseller list.”3 Statistically speaking, it is likely that many of the selected authors would not have achieved the levels of success they reached without Winfrey’s endorsement.

Quoting David Kipen, former director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, USA Today writes that, “At the club’s peak, ‘Oprah gave America an excuse to talk about books every couple of months…She served a useful purpose in the same way that the myth of summer reading does: reminding the forgetful that reading exists, which greatly expands the number of people us bookish types can talk to.’”4 Winfrey’s ability to influence the masses while simultaneously bringing them together is the same strength that allowed her book club to flourish. Whether they were avid readers beforehand, or they simply chose to read books as Oprah supporters, Americans were reading.

The impact of The Oprah Winfrey Show is unquestionable and is evinced by her 25 year run as a daytime talk show host—the most successful of the 90s. In 1996, the same year she founded her book club, Oprah received both the Peabody Award and the Daytime Emmy for both Outstanding Talk Show Host, and Outstanding Talk Show. As another display of her dominance over the 1990s talk show world, Winfrey received both of the aforementioned Daytime Emmy’s six times in the decade. What makes Oprah’s prominence most fascinating is her station as a black woman with a television program that was viewed by a predominantly white, female, middle-aged audience.5 Of all people, a woman who emerged from a poor, rural upbringing in highly racialized Mississippi was able to connect with and influence an antithetical viewership despite not being the typically idealized version of womanhood. She was unabashedly single, without children, outspoken, and adept at navigating interview topics ranging from the delicate to the entertaining. This influence reached far beyond the small screen as Oprah used the talk show platform as a catalyst political change. After publicly sharing her personal story of abuse, Winfrey advocated at a Senate hearing for the National Child Protection Act. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed into law what would be known as the “Oprah Bill.”6

In ranking Oprah’s ten most memorable moments, NBC’s Today contributor Randee Dawn opens the article stating, “Oprah Winfrey is a kind of teacher. Since 1986, via her classroom called ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show,’ she’s taught us it’s OK to cry, OK to share our problems, OK to give away cars to an entire audience and OK to love books. In return, she has earned the uniquely American honor of being known by her first name only.”7 Most fascinating about Dawn’s comment is the notion of the talk show host being known by only her first name. There simply is no other Oprah, but first names are intimate; they signify a closeness to an individual, a familiarity with that person. Oprah managed to create a personal relationship with television viewers in the comfort of their own homes. Whatever drew and continues to draw us to her, Winfrey’s impact on American entertainment is incontestable and likely here to stay. —Mara Johnson

  1. Nsehe, Mfonobong. “The Black Billionaires 2015.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.
  2. Butler, Richard J., Benjamin W. Cowan, and Sebastian Nilsson. “From Obscurity to Bestseller: Examining the Impact of Oprah’s Book Club Selections.” Publishing Research Quarterly 20.4 (2005): 23-34. Communication & Mass Media Complete. PDF File.
  3. Jacobson, Murrey. “The Oprah Effect, by the Numbers.” PBS. PBS, 25 May 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
  4. Minzesheimer, Bob. “How the ‘Oprah Effect’ changed publishing.” USA Today. USA Today, 22 May. 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
  5. Anburajan, Aswini. “Breaking Down Oprah’s Numbers.” NBC News. NBC News, 7 Dec. 2007. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
  6. Fetini, Alyssa. “Top 10 Oprah Moments.” Time. Time, 25 May 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.
  7. Dawn, Randee. “Oprah’s 10 Most Memorable Moments.” Today. NBC News, (2011). Web. 21 Nov. 2015.

 

Whatchu Talkin’ ‘Bout?: The Ebonics Debate

In 1996, the Oakland, California School Board decided that it wanted to treat African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a separate language and teach standard English to inner-city youth as a sort of English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. The response was swift, harsh, and largely misdirected. Critics of the measure said that such a practice would prove divisive and make those labeled as speaking Ebonics feel inferior to those who were lauded for speaking Standard English. There was also a sect of misunderstood ire from people who actually thought that Ebonics would be taught in the Oakland School District alongside standard English in what could be termed as a translation program, in which the AAVE would be translated to standard English. The arguments for and against the classification of Ebonics rested on the tenets of whether or not AAVE was an actual dialect of English, or instead a distinct language akin to a completely foreign language. Most linguists would agree that AAVE is a dialect of Standard English in a way that French Creole is a dialect of French—in that there are many commonalities between the two languages, so communication between speakers of AAVE and speakers of Standard English can easily communicate. It is just the minor nuances of the language that may require explanation. After facing the initial backlash, the Oakland School Board reassessed and recalibrated their approach to the whole issue. The school board reassured the public that their aim was not to teach Ebonics, but to rather educate teachers about the language differences and dialects with which the students entered the classroom and then teaching students to translate those differences into Standard English. Most opponents said that they simply wanted the equality of access that would presumably come along with the learning and usage of Standard English. However, it is important to note that the counterclaims argued that discrimination would still be present even if Standard English was adopted by those in question.

Do You Speak American? The Ebonics Debate

Octavia Butler: Redefining and Rebuilding Black Identity

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler created new realities. Some of Butler’s realities are populated with aliens, such as the short story “Bloodchild” and the Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). In other cases, there are telepaths, immortals, and a variety characters some may expect to see in science fiction. However, what is most important is that her visions and examinations of the future (and past) portray realities with African-American men and women at the center. She offers nihilistic realities where black people are redefining and rebuilding humanity.

Octavia Butler

Butler published work from 1977 to shortly before her sudden death in 2006. However, she had several major milestones during the 1990s; she published the award-winning Parable Series–Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—and the story and essay collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. In 1995, she was also awarded a $295,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”; Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive this prestigious fellowship.

Parable Series

The Parable series follows young black female Lauren Olamina. She is 15 at the beginning of the first novel, which follows her journey during the years 2024 through 2027; the sequel takes place in the time period 2032 to 2090. Extreme poverty, violence, and (especially in the sequel) tolerated persecution of many non-Christians is often seen and too often encouraged. Lauren creates a new religion Earthseed, but she repeatedly faces sacrifice, violence, and loss on a long and difficult rode to her faith finding a following. Olamina is a complex character who arguably sacrifices her family and personal happiness (as well as the happiness of her child) led by a greater sense of duty to help build a social, spiritual, physically decaying version of the United States. Olamina is not perfect, she provides black people with a readable complex character making difficult decisions and in a dark and scary society; she is an actor and not acted upon. A young black woman is an agent of power and change.

In an interview following the main text in Parable of the Talents (Grand Central Publishing edition), Butler offers insight into her choice for the title of the novel. She explains, “the parable of talents is one of the harsher parables of the Bible, but then life can be harsh…We will use our talents or we will lose them. We will use our talents to save ourselves or we’ll do what other animal species do sooner or later.”[i] Many of Butler’s realties are dark, violent, and just plain scary; they are warnings of Western society’s and general human failings. She forces the reader to consider and examine different possibilities for saving humanity and (even more deeply) the individual soul. Butler does not ignore or minimize the complexity of the future. She offers a reality that puts black people in the center of negotiating it. —Ebony Gibson

[i] Butler, page 409.

The Black Imagination and Possibility: Afrofuturist Aesthetics in the 90s and Beyond

What better cultural and theoretical aesthetic to interrogate the interplay of black cultural life in the 90s, the present, and beyond than Afrofuturism? The term refers to a broad aesthetic form that employs technology and various artistic forms (it combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, history, magical realism, and Afrocentrism) to link a historical African past with an imagined black diasporic future.

Attempts by black artists to explore diasporic identity, to reconcile the past with the present, and subsequently envision a future where black is situated as subject, are not new. However, this phenomenon was dubbed “Afrofuturism” in 1994 when Mark Dery, a cultural critic and early writer on techno culture, examined recurring features and themes in African American science fiction, music, and art. In his essay “Black to the Future,” as part of an anthology called Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Dery interviews writers, such as Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose, in an attempt to explore concerns raised by African Americans writers in the science fiction genre. In the essay, he writes:

Speculative fiction that treats African American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of the twentieth-century counterculture–and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future–might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afrofuturism.’

His coinage and definition of Afrofuturism directly relates to science fiction tropes. However, scholars, like Alondra Nelson, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (among many others), note that the term encompasses varied art forms and genres, as they relate to black culture and its African retentions.

Important to note is that Dery merely assigned a name to this aesthetic; the form itself has been practiced in black diasporic art for years. There is general sense that the features that comprise an Afrofuturist aesthetic are embedded in black cultural DNA; for they hark in every way to a diasporic identity. In an interview, Alondra Nelson, a social scientist who writes on intersectionality of science, technology, medicine, and inequality, says of the term that it “captured what we’d always known about black culture, but it gave us something to call it, to name it…It gives us a tradition and a legacy, where all the pieces sort of fit together.”

Meteor_Man

Dery’s article is comprised of commentary from Delany, Tate, and Rose, and these three construct the framework of what we know to be Afrofuturism today. Earlier than that, however, Mark Sinker and Greg Tate were generating conversations about black science fiction and its connection to techno culture and music, among others. In 1992, Sinker published an essay, “Loving the Alien” in The New Inquiry, in which he equates historical slavery with alien abduction as represented in literature. Tate wrote a review of David Toop’s Rap Attack called “Yo! Hermeneutics!”, which highlights a science fiction sensibility in black music. According to Nelson, Afrofuturist art, no matter the medium, is imbued with futuristic themes and capitalizes off technological innovation. In the fall of 1998, then a graduate student at NYU, Alondra Nelson and artist Paul D. Miller established an on-line Afrofuturism listserv, and launched Afrofuturism.net in 2000. Both sites were dedicated to science fictions and discussed how the genre addresses a “past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation” and inspires “technical and creative innovations.” Also, in September of 1999, Nelson organized an Afrofuturism forum at NYU, which dedicated conversation to the “future of black production.”

There is no singular definition of Afrofuturism; the aesthetic is as varied and fluid as the cultural identities it explores. To this day, the aesthetic comprises an array of media forms, including, but not limited to, textual, visual, and aural arts. However, at the heart of this aesthetic form lie some artistic and cultural product that 1. examines the past, 2. critiques the present, and 3. “imagines possible futures.” Many works by Afrofuturist artists, in some way, blend elements of the past with the future to assert opinions on sociopolitical and cultural issues concerning black people. With regards to literature, these opinions usually manifest in the dystopian genre. For example, Octavia Butler’s “The Parable Series” (1993-1998), interrogates notions of racial and gender identity in the 2020s. Her depiction of a futuristic society, depraved and plagued by an exacting, ever-widening gap between the rich and poor easily resembles a not-so-far-distant past, and perhaps even the present. Butler, among other black sci-fi writers, also often re articulated traditional African religion and customs in the futuristic contexts of her novels.

Undoubtedly, an Afrofuturistic aesthetic pervades black culture in the 90s. Primarily the music is informed by futuristic sensibilities. Scholars, like Tricia Rose, pointed out how this manifested in the form of technology and sound reproduction. In an interview with Mark Dery, she says, “Digital music technology—samplers, sequencers, drum machines— are themselves cultural objects, and as such the carry cultural ideas.” Musicians, while utilizing aural mechanisms to revamp sound, also incorporated Afrofuturist themes in a visual and lyrical context. Outkast, for example, definitely falls within this extensive lineage of Afrofuturist artists with the albums ATLiens (1996) and Aquemini (1998). Both albums pushed the bounds of production with extraterrestrial sounds and existential, imaginative lyrics.

Afrofuturism-BaduARCHANDROID_COVER

Afrofuturist elements can even be found in Erykah Badu’s video for “Didn’t Cha Know” as it alludes to a liminal space where the subject wanders, simultaneously reaching into the past (allusions to Africa, Kimetics, and Egyptology) and looking towards an uncertain, yet hopeful future. This musical lineage extends even further back, however, to artists, such as George Clinton and Sun Ra, and groups like PFunk, who melded their historically informed visions of the future with jazz and funk sounds. More discussion on the emergence of Afrofuturist aesthetics in science fiction and popular music pre-1990s and 21st-century can be found in John Akomfrah’s 1996 documentary “Last Angel of History.”

Undoubtedly, Afrofuturist themes pervade most areas of black culture today, perhaps more so than it ever has. Its prevalence is evident from the music of Janelle Monae and Flying Lotus, to the novels of Nnedi Okorafo and Tananarive Due, to the visual and performing arts of Adejoke Tugbiyele and OluShola A. Cole. That its popularity is growing makes sense, since we are still ironing out methods of reclaiming culture, reinventing tradition, and redefining notions of blackness. The questions posed and pondered, even before the advent of Afrofuturism as a theoretical perspective, still remain: How do black people imagine a better future for black people? What does that future look like? And, how do we get there? —Keith Freeman

_____________________________________________

Works Cited

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, And Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. 179-222. Print.

Nelson, Alondra. “Introduction: Future Texts.” Social Text. 20.2 (2002): 1-15. Web. 10 November 2015.

Soho Rep. “Afrofuturism.” Online video clip. YouTube. Youtube, 22 Apr. 2006. Web. 05 November 2015.