November 19, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 Rules of Writing

I was listening to All Things Considered  on NPR last week.  Mark Vonnegut, son of Kurt Vonnegut, was the guest.  He gave
an intimate glimpse of what it was like to grow up with a used car salesman turned iconic author. [He also gave] his account of coping with mental illness and finding his calling as a pediatrician.
At the end of the interview, the host, Robert Siegel, read Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules of Writing - first published in Vonnegut's Bamboo Snuff:  Uncollected Short Fiction (1999).  I thought I would share them here because I think Vonnegut was brilliant.  Sometimes we writers lose sight of this simplicity.
  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Thank you Mr. Vonnegut.

October 13, 2010

Who is Minding the Store?

I recently had the pleasure of watching the Academy Award nominated documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in America," which chronicles much of Daniel Ellsberg's life culminating with his decision to leak the famous "Pentagon Papers" in 1971.  In short, the 7,000 page-long study of US involvement in Vietnam exposed over 20 years of lies propogated by four American presidents as a means to construct a rationale for the war in Vietnam as well as reconstruct a justification to remain at war indefinitely.  In other words, there was no "spreading of democracy", no "aiding of allies", no "helping to stabilize an unstable region." According to the Pentagon Papers:
1) every president since and including Harry Truman in the late 1940s had been advised by some that the war was unwinnable; 2) each of four presidents, Truman through Johnson, escalated the war mainly to save face, so as not to become known as the president who had lost Vietnam to the Communists; and 3) each president lied to the American people about both his escalation plans and the prospects for military success.  
Sadly, when we expose provocative information like this today, the most we can evoke from American citizens is a shoulder shrug.  In fact, in 1971 when the New York Times started running excerpts from the Pentagon Papers on its front page, President Nixon was also a part of the deception.  He responded in his typical Nixon demagoguery with a massive, covert (and illegal) operation to discredit Ellsberg.  More appalling than Nixon's demagoguery was the American people's response to the Pentagon Papers. Right in the middle of the Pentagon Papers' scandal, the people reelected Nixon for a second term, even though he was implicated in the Pentagon Papers as the fifth president to perpetuate the lie.

And of course, Nixon's infamous operation to discredit Ellsberg and anyone else privy to the leak became known as "Watergate." And as history goes, Watergate led to Nixon's ultimate impeachment for "obstruction of justice", "abuse of power", and "contempt of congress."  Fortunately for all of us, he resigned in 1974, and the court declared a mistrial in the case against Daniel Ellsberg and his colleagues.

Since I watched the documentary and revisited all of the intrigue of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, I came to the realization that immediately after the Pentagon scandal, trial of Ellsberg, and impeachment of Nixon, Congress and the American people simply returned to "business as usual." 

And now, some 38 years later, who is minding the store?

Once Daniel Ellsberg became radicalized, his philosophies and ideologies kept evolving, and today he is a vocal anti-war activist.  He has written several books and dozens of articles protesting war.  In fact, he is a rather outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.  He asserts his position in a particularly illuminating article, "Where Are Iraq's Pentagon Papers?".  In the article, Ellsberg draws striking similarities to the war in Vietnam, the Iraq war, and the Pentagon's role in both.  Finally, and most poignantly, he challenges those with access to the Pentagon Papers on Iraq saying,

Some of those officials, I hope, will choose to accept the personal risks of revealing the truth — earlier than I did — before more lives are lost or a new war is launched.

I cannot stop thinking about our current lack of bravery.  We are always looking for heroes in the wrong places.  Have we become a "nation of cowards," or have we sunk into an apathetic mire of self-indulgence, narcissim, and greed.  The average citizen does not have access to these life altering truths.  We can only sit at our keyboards and speculate.  But there are extraordinary ones among us who "know" yet are afraid to risk.

September 16, 2010

Permission Slips to Watch the President?

I wanted to share something that has been happening in my children's school system (Gwinnett County Schools, GA) since the 2008 election of President Obama.  Below is the email that I sent to the principal of my son's middle school.  

Mr. Pugh,
I am the parent of one of your honor roll, eighth grade students. I have two children who have attended Gwinnett County Schools all of their lives (for the past 16 years). During those 16 years, we have been through four presidential administrations - two administrations with Bill Clinton and two administrations with George W. Bush. And in all of those 16 years, I have never been asked to sign a Parent Permission form to allow my children to hear and watch a Presidential Address to the nation and to the nation's children. Children in Japan watch President Obama's addresses without parental permission. In fact, his speeches are a part of the curriculum there. However, the parents of American children at Bay Creek Middle School must be "warned" or "alerted" and "consent" to have their children "subjected" to President Obama's addresses.

When I received the first permission slip last fall, I was patient yet incensed. This time, I decided to do some reasoning of my own. I first thought that maybe the controversy over Healthcare Reform was the motivation for trepidation on the part of the school system. Then, I remembered all of the controversy during the second Clinton Administration over the Lewinsky scandal, yet no permission slips. Next, I thought of all of the bipartisan hostility coupled with the fact that we live in a very "conservative" state. However, Bill Clinton was a Democrat, and at times a liberal Democrat, not well liked by the Republican party - and still no permission slips. And, of course, during both Bush Administrations, there were no permission slips to allow children to hear his Addresses.

Now, I cannot help but conclude that these permission slips are predicated on the very precarious subject of race in America. There is no other difference between President Obama and any other president of the United States except that he is the first Black man to hold the office.
Mr. Pugh, please give me another explanation for these spurious and conspicuous permission slips. I do not want to believe that Bay Creek Middle is providing parent permission slips to students in order to appease those parents who loathe Mr. Obama because they have accused him of being a socialist, a Muslim, and everything short of the anti-Christ. But more importantly, I do not want to believe that Bay Creek Middle is providing parent permission slips to students in order to assuage their parents' loathing of the first African American president simply because he is a Black man.
I hope to hear from you soon.
The next day, Mr. Pugh called me.  He expressed to me that he had the very same questions about the parental antipathy for President Obama.  He was very vague, however, about what percentage of the parent population had outwardly expressed opposition to airing President Obama's address to the students.  He would only say that there was such an outcry in the fall of 2009 of angry parents threatening to keep their children home that Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks decided that Gwinnett Schools would send out permission slips.  Therefore, Mr. Pugh claimed that he was acting under the directive of the superintendent.  He asked me how I suggested they handle this "debacle" (my quotes not his) in the future.

I told him that it was a great American tragedy that such a situation existed in the first place, and since a Civil War and the last 50 or more years of Civil Rights advocacy has not changed the hearts of many Americans, America's educational system, at least, had an obligation to use this particular moment as a teaching opportunity.  The current policy of sending home permission slips was reinforcing the hate mongering and perpetuating the underlying racism rather than discouraging it - rather than confronting students and their parents and forcing them to examine the origin of their deep hatred for the 44th president of the United States of America.  Instead of sounding a huge bell via a permission slip that says, this president isn't like the other 43, the school should allow dissenting parents to send their own letter on an individual basis which prohibits their students from watching any presidential address for the duration of the Obama administration.  Those parents who consent need not be disturbed by the bright yellow permission slip. 

Mr. Pugh took my suggestion under advisement.  And of course, I am not sure what that means.  I am, however, not satisfied with this encounter.  I am writing a letter to Superintendent Wilbanks and the Georgia State Superintendent of Schools this week.

I just thought other citizens should know that this is the general tone regarding President Obama in Georgia schools.  If they are not ashamed.  I am ashamed for them.

August 24, 2010

The Hyphenated Woman

Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
A married woman's decision to hyphenate or not to hyphenate is not really a "new" idea.  However, I have found that the hyphen is still met with unbridled hostility. 

When my husband and I were engaged to be married, I had a brief conversation with him about the decision to hyphenate my name.  By that time, he knew me well enough to know what my decision would be, and he knew that the decision would ultimately be mine to make.  However, everyone was not as progressive and supportive as he. 

There were many extra steps at the county marriage license office, lots of paper work at the Social Security Administration, the DMV, and the bank.  But the most disarming of all were the very personal expressions of disdain that I received and still receive from strangers.  When I am introduced to people, I get obvious outward responses that signify their disapproval of my two last names.  When I am conducting business and people must look up my information in alphabetical order by last name, they almost always look up one part of my name and not the other.  I have encountered IT personnel who decide to shorten my last name in email systems without my consent.  I have even received resistance from family members and students who defiantly decide to dispense with one name or the other altogether. 

I believe that much of this hostility is predicated on a subconscious or conscious resentment of married women who have the audacity to believe that their identities are just as significant as their husbands'.  After all, the convention of women replacing their maiden names with their husband's surnames represents the last vestiges of Victorian era patrilinealism and symbolizes the commodification of women as male property.  The exchange of her maiden name for her husband's surname represents the transfer of property from one owner to the next - from father to husband.  At least the dowry system disappeared from American culture long ago.  I know my husband would never consider me his property and neither would my father.  However, I just could not imply as much by completely "deleting" my name, my identity, my self.

When my husband and I met, I was a smart, vibrant, thoughtful, and productive person.  I was no less smart, vibrant, thoughtful, and productive after we married.  If I had made my name disappear, I believed and still believe that somehow "I" would disappear too.  Thankfully, my Kevin has never asked me to decrease so that he could increase, or be seen and not heard, or diminish so that he could shine.

Many conservatives associate the hyphenated woman (as I have come to be called) and their disapproval of her with Feminism.  As conservatives are wont to do, they have reconstructed Feminism as a radical monster that threatens to unhinge all that is righteous and true.  As a result, approximately 70% of married women drop their maiden names.  Some claim that this overwhelming percentage proves that most women disagree with the notions that I present here.  However, I suggest that the majority of women drop their maiden names in exchange for their husbands' surnames because of the insurmountable pressure to do so.  Most women, feminist or not, do not want to endure the passive agressive hostility that I have described here.  For them, the hyphenated name is noble, even courageous, in theory.  But they are not willing to undergo the public scrutiny that comes along with it.

However, as the button above proclaims, feminism is nothing more than "the radical notion that women are people."  As such, hyphenating my name should not be an affront to patriarchy or nationalism or christianity or anything.  Thankfully, I live in a country that still (the last time I checked) allows me to do what I want with my own name.

August 14, 2010

Is Ignorance Really Bliss?

One of my students asked, which invariably happens each semester, why they had to write about such serious topics in Composition and Rhetoric.  Topics like "Gay Marriage," "Racial Profiling," "Women in Combat," and "Sex Education in Public Schools."  This particular student wanted to know why they couldn't just write argumentative papers about "sports or something."  So I told him what I have told countless others before, so many times, in fact, that I have memorized the whole monologue.

I said, "The reason why we discuss, argue about, and write about subjects that might upset you is because these topics are alive in society and upsetting us all whether we like it or not.  The purpose of this course, like countless others in higher education, is not to make you comfortable.  In fact, the purpose of higher education as a whole is not to simply reify and reaffirm everything you have been taught until this point.  The purpose of the academy is not to prolong the cocoon-like state you have been subjected to for the first 18-21 years of your life.  Indeed, the purpose of higher education is to disrupt, deconstruct, and decenter the very core of who you think you are.  The academy exists to force students to call into question everything they ever "thought" they knew.  The purpose of higher education is to create living, breathing, thinking humans who are actors and doers rather than passive receptacles who are acted upon." At this point, there is always dead silence.  And for particular dramatic effect, I usually time this monologue so that it falls at the end of the hour, and I can dismiss the class afterwards.

I think that the current generation of students, kids born in the 1990s (especially in the southern United States), have been cultivated in communities that seek to reinforce the status quo.  These students have been bred by an educational system whose primary goal is to instill certain essentials (reading, writing, math, history, and science), and build a patriotic "good" citizenry.  By design, these educational systems have kept students anesthetized by the trappings of pop culture, which have left their brains impoverished and their palates satiated.

There is an analogy for this phenomenon to which I often refer.  It's really not an analogy but rather the re-imagining of Jean Baudrillard's philosophies through film.  The first Matrix film posits the notion that humanity is trapped in a facade, a simulated reality, asleep, and kept ignorant to the "real."  Of course this anesthetized state is quite literal in the film, as Neo and Morpheus engage the mind/body question via the blue pill-red pill.  If Neo, the representation of the seeker of knowledge and truth (the student) chooses the red pill, his mind will awaken, and his body will be born into the real world for the first time.  If he chooses the blue pill, his mind will remain asleep, and therefore, his body will remain asleep, cocooned from the "truth" forever.  Of course, we know how it ends.  Neo, "the One," the good student, chooses wisely, saving humanity irrevocably.

More and more of my students want to remain in "the matrix", asleep, anesthetized, and cocooned from knowledge and truth.  But, is ignorance really bliss?  Are they happy or just asleep.  Nevertheless, as their professor, I am responsible for "educating" them.  As such, I cannot sit idly by and pacify my students with the same benign and banal thinking they have been immersed in all of their lives.  I would be remiss if I did not at least offer them the damn red pill.

May 18, 2010

Fear of a Brown Planet

I am deeply wounded by the recent "outlawing" of the teaching of Ethnic Studies in Arizona high schools.  I have spent the better part of my life looking for myself in the literature that I have loved so much.  As a girl, I reveled in American classics like Little Women.  However, I quickly became hungry for narratives whose protagonists looked like me.  It wasn't until high school when my English teacher (my white English teacher) included in our list of readings Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Maya Angelou's  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that my hunger was satiated.  But of course, literary people's hunger for literature is never satiated.  Hence, my current Ph.D. pursuit, my M.A. in African American Literature, and my B.A. in English.

Is it slippery slope thinking to believe that this law is just the beginning of academic censoring, or does this law set the precedent for what is to come nationwide in high schools and soon in universities?  And, will little black and brown girls all over America retreat into apathy and cynicism because they don't see themselves, their life experiences, and their voices reflected in the curriculum they study at the behest of a school system who believes that those experiences are irrelevant?

Ethnic Studies includes the cultural study of anyone in America who needs to "hyphenate" (Latin-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American, Asian-American, African-American, etc.)  Furthermore, these groups need to hyphenate because, like Toni Morrison says, "American means white, and everyone else has to hyphenate."  If American history, literature, and art included the works of all of its "hyphenated" citizens, there would not be a need for Ethnic Studies, Chicano Studies, African-American Studies, Asian Studies, etc.  Unless, of course, society holds that those voices should be silenced in the first place, or that those people should just blend and assimilate.  We Hispanic, African, Native and Asian Americans are over 100 million strong.  We are here, we have been here, this is our country too, and we are not going anywhere.

Consequently, the national push for multiculturalism in education began in the early 1990s.  The multicultural education movement has attempted to decenter whiteness and white hegemony, offering cultural relativity in order to engage marginalized and alienated students of color, as well as provide white students with cultural relativity and a new perspective.  Isn't it about time that whiteness is removed from the center?  Are not the founding American ideals based on cultural heterogeneity?  Whites are not the only important citizens in America.  Students of color as well as white students need to know that people of color were more than just the conquered and the colonized.  

The proponents of the bill to criminalize Ethnic Studies contend that the teaching of Ethnic Studies promotes "cultural chauvinism" and incites sedition.  If this is true, what kind of cultural chauvinism have we promoted over the past century by teaching American history, literature, or art that either completely neglects literature and art of people of color or marginalizes that art and trivializes those histories?  Is it not cultural chauvinism to reify the notion that anyone who ever did, wrote, or discovered anything extraordinary had a white face?  In essence, supporters of this bill are saying, "Assimilate, shut up, or disappear."   

As for "sedition" -- since when has sedition been an unspeakable thing in the United States of America, the quintessential democratic republic.  The OED defines sedition as speech or conduct which incites people to challenge the authority of a nation or monarch.  This is just the kind of critical thinking and activism that has sustained our country for over 200 years.  The British accused the American colonists of sedition when they rebelled against their "taxation without representation".  Later, the abolitionist movement was considered seditious because it challenged American slavery.  American civil rights workers were also accused of sedition when they incited students to challenge Jim Crow laws and conduct sit-ins in "whites only" business establishments.  I am sure I could go on, but I believe I have made my point.  Positive change always comes out of some grassroots challenge to the status quo.

May 08, 2010

On Motherhood

This Mother's Day, perhaps more than any other Mother's Day up until now, I feel so fortunate to have my own mother, healthy, happy, and whole.  As I ponder our relationship and how close we are, I ponder too the gift of motherhood.

Women find a more profound appreciation for their mothers and motherhood in general when they become mothers themselves.  Of course, there are always debates about this (and I won't debate the issue here), but only women who have chosen motherhood know the real answer.

As I watch my sons grow into fine young men and my baby son grow into a precocious toddler, I sit in awe of how miraculous they all are, and that the miracle began right inside my own body.  I vividly remember all three pregnancies, and I am incredulous when I hear mothers say, "Oh, you don't remember the pain of labor and deliver."  Yet, I do remember all three, death defying labor and deliveries.  But, I guess too, the pain has made me cherish the lives it yielded that much more.

Motherhood has also been the most difficult, low-paying, incredibly rewarding, 24/7 job I have ever had or will ever have.  Mothers are driven by an impulse greater than themselves to protect, nurture, and guide their children against all odds.  I am struck by the power of motherhood as well.  Mothers are in the business of nation building.  They shape society one child at a time, one household at a time.  Mothers teach their children how to do all of the minutia that people take for granted everyday - things like eating with a spoon, brushing one's teeth, putting on one's own clothes, "pee peeing in the potty," reading, writing, telling time, adding, subtracting, doing long division (ugh!), and the list is endless.  Of course fathers do lots of teaching and so do teachers.  However, mothers can forever recall the day their child learned to tie his shoes and the moment their child learned to drink from a cup.  Perhaps most importantly though, mothers inculcate values - mothers perpetuate ideology.

So, this year, I will hug my mother tighter and tell her how very much I love and appreciate her, because I know that there are daughters who can't or wont' be able to do so this year.  My mother was my first teacher.  She has taught me who and how to be, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Happy Mother's Day

April 15, 2010

Demystifying Locked Hair

I don't often blog about myself, but then again, the phenomenon of locked hair (or the pop culture reference - "dreadlocked" hair) is not about me.  Indeed, the phenomenon started long before me and is really not about hair at all.  The locking of one's hair amounts to identity.

Even if those who identify locks with the hip hop culture decide to lock their hair in order to represent hip hop culture, locking, in that sense, represents a group affiliation to hip hop.

Here, however, I wish to discuss a different kind of identity politics.  And for me, this type of signifying tends to carry a more radical, counter culture frame of reference.

I decided to blog about this because students ask me weekly, if not daily, why I decided to lock my hair.
I never give them the long version of the story, the version I am going to provide here.  In fact, I decided to lock my hair at least 10 years before I actually began the process.  I remember reading an excerpt from a lecture Alice Walker gave at Spelman College in 1987 called "Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain".  I had experienced exactly what she referenced in her lecture.  And from 1999 (the year I cut and shaved off my chemically relaxed hair) to 2000 (the year I started locking my hair), I rediscovered myself and my hair exactly as Walker had.

For me, like Walker and countless other Black women, the decision to lock my hair was the final journey to spiritual liberation and self realization.  I say "women" because Black men experience a different identity politics when confronting the hair locking issue. Those of us whose descendants were enslaved Africans know very intimately the sting and the trauma of oppression, racism, and spiritual and physical enslavement.  Therefore, as a scholar and student of literary history and American culture, quite frankly, I felt like a fraud reading bell hooks and Angela Davis and chanting "Power to the People" all while donning chemically straightened hair.  It was not simply that I chose to straighten my hair.  It was not a "style" that I could put on in the morning and take off in the evening.  No -- I was a prisoner to the "creme relaxer" (ironically named).  My hair was oppressed because a huge part of my psyche was oppressed.  I knew I was lying to myself if I said otherwise.

I was a slave to a process that could cost $100 or more each visit whether I had the money or not.  I was enslaved to a process that required my obedience every 6-8 weeks without fail, a process that required me to sit in a hair salon for at least four hours only to have my scalp burned and my hair severely damaged.  I was trapped in a vicious cycle, and every time I endured this self-inflicted torture, I felt tremendous guilt and inadequacy because I knew the reasons why I endured it.  I straightened my hair because I was afraid of what was underneath.  I was horrified of my own nappy, curly, kinky hair.

I chemically straightened my hair because I was hiding behind the status quo.  I felt pressured, if not coerced, to conform to the dominant culture's ideas of female beauty and acceptance.  Straight her did not and does not grow out of my head.  As one can conclude from the process I described above, straightening my hair took an inordinate amount of time, money, and pain.  So I reasoned with myself that there had to have been a more profound and binding reason to undergo this transformation religiously for the better part of my adolescence and twenties.  My conclusion -- society affirmed in magazines, music videos, commercials, and films that nappy hair was undesirable, deeply flawed, and ugly.  And if my hair was undesirable, deeply flawed, and ugly, then so was I.

I decided I was not ugly, but if I was going to be beautiful, I was going to do so on my own merit.  So, I remember the day of reckoning.  As I lathered and washed my hair, years of self-doubt, oppression, and insecurities trickled down the drain with the shampoo.  As Walker explains in her lecture, I marveled at myself in the mirror.  My thick black kinks and curls were huge and soft and divine.  I stood there that spring day and cried and laughed and cried and laughed again.  "This is me," I thought, "No additives and no preservatives."  So when I decided to lock my hair the following year, I had already fallen in love with me - the me I had been hiding under the oppressed hair far too long.

April 07, 2010

What Next? Will Students Just Watch Podcasts of Computer Animated Instructors?

In a New York Times Article this week, a professor at the University of Houston explains that she has been outsourcing the grading of student papers to a company who employs graders in India, Singapore,and Malaysia!

Yes, all writing teachers and academics dread the arduous and, at times, oppressive task of grading twenty or more freshman comp. papers every week.  We joke about it daily.  As I type this, thousands of academics on college campuses around the nation sit, slumped over, head in hand, tethered with "ball and chain"to the sea of composition papers they never seem to finish grading.  However, we persevere and grade those papers because we agree upon certain truths about writing and teaching writing.
All teachers of writing know that a person's writing is like a person's fingerprint.  Narrative voice and style are idiosyncratic to each writer.  Many beginning writers are just beginning to develop a narrative style when they enter college.  Some are continuing to fine-tune their style, and others already have a distinctive style.  "Style" refers to the way a writer constructs sentences and pieces them together.  For example, a writer might begin many of her sentences with prepositional phrases or conjunctive adverbs.  Some writers may write in compound/complex sentences sprinkled with the occasional semicolon.  Other writers may write is simple sentences with generous use of first and second person pronouns.  Still other writers may use, or overuse, the same word or phrase throughout an essay.  The point I am attempting to make with all of these examples is that writing is distinctive.  Although much college writing may seem formulaic, style disrupts the formulas, and reveals the signature of each student.  

Therefore, as a writing teacher, the time I spend with student writing is invaluable.  Throughout a semester, I become intimately acquainted with my students' writing.  I actually learn their names based on their writing.  So then, when I look into their faces in the classroom, I say to myself, "Oh yes, Valerie,  Comma-Splice-Valerie," or "James, Mister-second-person-pronoun-using-James," or "Ah, yes.  It's Run-on-sentence-Melissa," and finally, "Ahmed, the best writer of the bunch.  Ahmed, who's going to have my job one day."

Therefore, a "grading mill" or outsourcing, or whatever we're calling it this week, couldn't possibly serve students or teachers well.  Although the professor in the article is a Business professor, she confirms what all writing teachers know all too well:  grading student essays is endless and grueling.  Yet, every writing teacher can attest to the value of reading, grading, and spending time with each essay personally.  Otherwise, we're just lecturing out of context.  We never truly know our students as writers and as people.

I don't want to sound like some relic from a bygone era, but honestly, this is ridiculous.  Next, society will just dispense with teachers altogether, and students will just download podcasts of computer animated instructors.  Is this what education has been reduced to?  Is this going to make the next generation smarter?

March 18, 2010

Anna Julia Cooper, the Mother of Black Intellectualism

Besides having been the 4th African American woman to receive her Ph.D. in 1925 from the University of Paris Sorbonne, one could also consider Anna Julia Cooper the "ghost" writer and thinker for W.E.B. Dubois.

In honor of Women's History Month, I wanted to illuminate Anna Julia Cooper, a seldom discussed and seldom lauded scholar, intellectual, and feminist.  Most are unaware of the friendship between Cooper and the famous intellectual W.E.B. DuBois.  As many may know, the turn of the twentieth century signified a rise in Black thought, culture, and community.  Black intellectuals sought to disrupt the prevailing white supremacist notions of race and challenge intellectual spaces not meant for blacks.

As a result of this deconstruction, the inevitable gender battle erupted within the Black community.  Cooper argued that black men had selfishly excluded black women from higher education and intellectual progress.

Heretofore, the black woman had been purely ornamental, servicing the needs of the black man, and her greatest desire was to make herself marriageable.  The presumption was that higher education would simply spoil her femininity.  These sentiments echo conflicts that Cooper had experienced first hand.  

Many have said that W.E.B DuBois had read Cooper’s essays prior to writing The Souls of Black Folks, and his writings were heavily inspired by Cooper’s ideas.  Although DuBois includes Cooper’s quote in Souls, “only the black woman can say ‘when and where I enter’”, he fails to credit Cooper by name as the original author of the idea.  Instead, he attributes it to “one of our women”.  In fact, after Dubois establishes The Crisis, Cooper writes to him several times, admonishing him to publish some of her work.  He ignores  her and never publishes the work.  Furthermore, it was Cooper who urged Dubois to respond, with his text Black Reconstruction, to Claude Bower’s Tragic Era, which used racist rhetoric to indict the Reconstruction era.  Of course, this text becomes one of Dubois’s noteworthy works.

I recommend reading Cooper's book A Voice from the South.  In it,  Cooper argues for intellectual egalitarianism between the black woman and the black man, rather than the prevailing position of the black woman in the shadow of the black man, walking behind him, invisible, and lacking any true relevance within the black community.

I think it has taken the better part of a century to change this perception of the black woman.  Nevertheless, society continues to view black women in binaries.  As such, there is still much work to be done.

March 03, 2010

Words Are Our Friends....(Really)

Each year that I teach Freshman English, I notice that my students have fewer and fewer words in their vocabulary stockpile.  Not only are they acquainted with fewer words, but they are indifferent to, and intimidated by the use of multi-syllable, "big words."

It's not that they had not been exposed to age appropriate vocabulary as they approached the end of their high school careers.  They were simply not encouraged to use that vocabulary as tools with which to communicate and evolve.  Many of my students have fallen victim to rote memorization of the old "spelling list".  Then, five minutes after the Friday spelling test, the words fell from their memories like so many items on a grocery list.  If high school teachers are encouraging students to use advanced vocabulary in their written and spoken discourse, the students never take them seriously.  Instead, they recede back into the 6th grade vocabulary of their texting and Facebook world.

When they become college freshman, their writing suffers because of their inability to use complex words to express their complex ideas.  Their ideas have outgrown their language.  As a result, students struggle, needlessly, to meet the expectations of college Humanities courses that require thoughtful, cogent prose.

Most of the lamenting, hysteria, and gnashing of teeth (as it were) that goes on in college Writing Labs and Writing Studios is a result of a discomfort with and a lack of words.  Writing professors and writing tutors spend a great deal of time remediating and attempting to unscramble, interpret, and clarify student writing because the students lack the words to do this work for themselves.

After all, we already have the "ideas", the "things", the meaning, the signified.  Then, we create the words that express the ideas, the signifiers.  Therefore, the words give us a language, a discourse.  For many of us, language sets us free, gives us a song, illuminates our perspectives (of course, Lacanians would take issue with this over the course of several hundred pages).  Nevertheless, freshman writers are struggling to find their voices, but they are intimidated by the academic discourse in which they suddenly find themselves immersed.

I remember once, one of my students sat with folded arms and frowned face complaining that the author we had just read in class didn't need to use all of those "big words" to get her point across.  The student accused the writer of purposely trying to "write above" the reader.  Although there are some writers throughout history who infamously wrote to obscure (uh...hem...t. s. eliot), most writers strove for clarity.  I told her that the purpose of multi-syllable, so-called "big words" was to express in one word what it might otherwise take five words to say.  To this, she shrugged her shoulders.  But by the end of the semester, she too strove for clarity using multi-syllable words.

February 21, 2010

These "Soldiers", They Force us to Rape Them

At its core, a culture that breeds hatred against women, not only believes that every rape victim “had it coming,” but it indoctrinates its citizens, and socializes them to accept that sexual violence against women is somehow a “necessary evil.”  

The title of this post is quite literally based on a 2006 article in the Journal of South African Studies.  This article exposed post-apartheid sexual assault against women in South Africa.  I thought of it when I was listening to my favorite morning radio show The Takeaway.  One of this week’s “takeaways” was the prevalence and persistence of sexual assault against women in the military.  As I was listening, the old, yet familiar tropes of patriarchy kept playing again and again. 

Representative Loretta Sanchez, the highest ranking woman in the House Armed Services Committee, provided information about the testimonies brought forth to congress this week.  I was awestruck by the following:

Not only are they commanded [to go to the bathroom with a buddy at night], the commanders know. They know that these women are being raped. And by the way, once you’re identified as someone [that has] been raped, word gets around and then you’re raped more often…We need to prosecute these people and put them behind bars.  

Apparently, 30% of women serving in the military have “reported” sexual assault.  However, added to that percentage is the failure to report rate, as it has become an a priori fact that the crime of rape is the most under-reported crime in America.  And the military is simply a microcosm of American society.  Therefore, sexual assault in the military, and the military's ambivalence to it, shouldn't surprise me or any other American citizen, since a woman is raped every six minutes in the U.S., and a woman is battered every fifteen seconds.  Just as female soldiers are required to travel in pairs to go to the bathroom, so are civilian women in America encouraged to travel in pairs or groups at night for fear of dangerous “predators”; those predators are always male, and the implication is that they are sexual predators.  There is an acceptance in our society that men are sexually violent and are bound to rape women.  As such, it is the responsibility of women to protect themselves against the inevitable.  Consequently, if a woman is raped, she was careless and failed to protect herself.  

Furthermore, patriarchal societies condone, and at times, encourage violence against women as a means of controlling and subordinating them.  I argue that men are of the opinion that the presence of women in combat is a violation of a patriarchal boundary.  Rape and other forms of sexual assault are a means of socially controlling and disciplining women who have transgressed that boundary.  

Sadly, whenever human rights organizations confront the military with these harsh realities, military officials divert attention away from the sexual assault itself and focus on the overall question of whether or not women should serve in combat at all.  By doing so, aren't they really affirming that men are using sexual violence against women as a means of social control?  And doesn't American culture reinforce or even engender such attitudes?  


February 14, 2010

What is Love?

On this day that we set aside to celebrate love, I wonder if we really think about love and what it means, or do we all get caught up in gifting and the politics therein...

We feel, see, and show love in so many ways, yet the one day we set aside to celebrate this omnipresent, universal concept, we transform it into a kind of homage to diamonds, roses, and chocolate.  Although we all appreciate those things, and they are beautiful signifiers of romantic love, is romantic love the truest and ultimate expression of love? The love between lovers is powerful and breathtaking, yet it is only Act One of a Five-Act play.  Unfortunately, many of us never stick around for the rest of the show.  If not ephemeral in the first place, the burn of romance endures.  What drives the burn is something which surpasses a lover's kiss.

Love is that aching, beautiful, extraordinary effusiveness that God/Allah/Jehovah/Yahweh (and the other hundred names we have) has given to us all.  Although I'm not a huge fan of C.S. Lewis, I found a morsel of truth in his work Four Loves.  He defined love in four categories:  Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.  Many writers and philosophers have theorized similarly for centuries.  However, we tend to celebrate only one category on Valentine's Day.  Yet, most of humanity experiences charity and friendship all the time.  We experience it when we weep for those who have endured great sorrow, those who have felt the wrath of oppression, and the depths of despair.  We experience love when we hold a newborn child in our arms or hold the hand of a friend in need.  I think we are all capable of showing higher orders of love, but of course, we don't always do so.  We all fall victim to cynicism and downright meanness.  The more we allow the meanness to reign, the more it will consume us.  In these terrible times, we need to find reasons to laugh more and find the flowers among the weeds.

In the immortal words of Lenny Kravitz, we need to "Let Love Rule," because love is God and God is love.

February 08, 2010

Do We Still Need Black History Month?

Unfortunately, we do still need Black History Month.  I say "unfortunately" because many African Americans find it unfortunate that an entire corpus of literary excellence and a long history of scientific contributions, dating back to the turn of the late nineteenth century, have been reduced to a 28-day public service announcement.

I say "still" because the intent of the original "Black History Week" was to generate discourse about and compensate for the larger society's neglect of African American contributions.  Since American History and Social Studies texts had omitted African American stories from school curricula, "Black History Week" would pay tribute to those neglected Americans.  That was 1926.  Now, 84 years later, aside from a sprinkling of color, relegated to the margins of texts, African American history is "still" largely trivialized and marginalized.  Just as the Civil Rights movement has been reduced to The March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, African American history has been reduced to a sort of "who's who" in black popular culture.

The problem here is that we still see African American history as somehow separate from American History.  We still need the qualifier - "African."  If there is doubt, one need only open any public school Literature or Social Studies text.  Undoubtedly, there will be a chapter (probably near the back), entitled, "Harlem Renaissance", in which all Black writers, regardless of whether or not they really were Harlem Renaissance writers, will be included.  In the Social Studies texts, African Americans are mentioned a bit more generously, but only to the extent that they reify their white counterparts.  History texts fail to depict African Americans in a subjective inclusive way.

As reductive as Black History month may be, what would happen if we scrapped it altogether?  African American stories would never get told. Africans in America would just become invisible.  The racial purging that slavery, jim crowism, and crack cocaine could not do would be accomplished by simply writing the African out of American history.  Africans in America would become the ahistorical people that many have claimed them to be for centuries.  Therefore, if we disapprove of the mockery that Black History month has become, we should transform it.  Better yet, we should challenge the American system of education to tell all of the histories, not simply the version of history that serves white hegemony.

January 30, 2010

He Forgot the President was Black

President Obama's State of the Union Address on Wednesday, January 27th was nothing short of rhetorical genius.  When President Obama speaks, he has the ear of the entire global community.

Chris Matthews of NBC News shared his thoughts with the world via live commentary immediately following the Address.  What he said has sparked a bit of controversy:
"I was trying to think about who he was tonight. It's interesting: he is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and passed so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it's something we don't even think about. I was watching, I said, wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people. And here he is president of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight — completely forgotten it. I think it was in the scope of his discussion. It was so broad-ranging, so in tune with so many problems, of aspects, and aspects of American life that you don't think in terms of the old tribalism, the old ethnicity. It was astounding in that regard. A very subtle fact. It's so hard to talk about. Maybe I shouldn't talk about it, but I am. I thought it was profound that way."

I'm certain any reasonably intelligent person, Black or white, knows what Matthews was trying to say.  He believes that the election of President Obama and the content and quality of the man, Barack Obama, has transcended race, has catapulted the U.S. into a "post-racial" era.  I do not take issue with Matthews' sentiments.  I watched the video feed of his commentary, and he appeared genuinely proud of President Obama and genuinely proud of American society for choosing such a man as its Chief Executive.  However, I argue that the election of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States is not a transcendence of race, but rather a transgression of race.  I further assert that the 2008 Presidential election has not nor could not undo 250 years of white racism.

Many Academics fervently differentiate the notion of "transcending" race and the notion of "transgressing" race.  To transcend a thing is to go beyond its range or "limits".  To "transgress" a thing is to go beyond its "boundaries".  It may be a matter of semantics, but we "literary" types take semantics quite seriously.  When Chris Matthews said that Mr. Obama is "post-racial by all appearances", and that he "forgot that he was black," he conflated Obama's blackness with the notion of race itself, implying that blackness is something one needs to transcend and make invisible.  It is not blackness that limits, rather the notion of race that limits.  Blackness, or Africanness, predates the socially constructed concept of race.  In other words, black people who love being black don't want others to "forget that they are black."  They do not want whites to "see past" their blackness as if it were some great albatross or a gigantic scarlet letter on their chests.  They do not want to be invisible, rather they want their blackness to be a part of the reason they are loved.  After all, black people aren't expected to "forget that white people are white," nor given accolades for doing so.  Therefore, Barack Obama has not transcended race.  He has transgressed race, for he has gone beyond its boundaries.  Furthermore, as long as President Obama continues to receive unprecedented numbers of racialized death threats, and has the most Secret Service protection of any President in history, we cannot yet stake any claim to a post-racial America.

January 20, 2010

Letter to Obama, My President

President Obama took the inaugural oath one year ago today.  Those who supported him worldwide felt so much awe, triumph, and hope one year ago, yet today many are disillusioned, worried, and impatient. If the 10% national unemployment rate isn't disheartening enough, the latest million dollar bonuses in the banking industry, the stalled health care bill, and the election of a Republican to fill the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat are enough to dash the last vestiges of hope any of us may have had for real change.

Here I sit, melancholy and subdued.   If I could write a letter to my president, Barack Obama, it would go something like this:

Mr President:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings---nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And---which is more---you'll be a Man, my son! 

-Rudyard Kipling

Yes, if I could, I would forward Kipling's perennial words to President Obama with a note in my own prose saying, "We are counting on you not to fail.  We need you to change the course of history in an irrevocable extraordinary way.  You must not falter.  You are the hope and the dream of the slave."

January 16, 2010

Yèle Haiti

As we are all well aware by now, Tuesday evening, January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti, leaving the country in ruins with an unquantifiable death toll of possibly more than 50,000.

My heart is so full... I weep for Haiti almost daily....

When I awoke to the horrific news on Wednesday morning, I immediately thought of my Haitian friend and colleague, Brenda.  I picked up the phone to call her, but as I was listening to the reports on public radio, I began to weep again.  The journalists were trying to reconnect an aid worker in Haiti and his girlfriend here in the U.S.  Apparently the two lost communication during the quake.  Through her relief to find her boyfriend alive, the young woman discovered that her youngest relative, a 15-month old niece, had been killed in the disaster.  At this moment, I crumbled into sobs, unable to finish my phone call...  I pictured my 15-month old, chubby baby terrified and dying in my arms.  I sobbed uncontrollably all the way to work.

When I finally saw Brenda later that day, her eyes were red from a night of misery.  She told me that her parents were in Haiti on vacation, and that, aside from two siblings who lived here in the states, her entire family still lived in Haiti.  With that, we embraced, each fearing the worst.

Finally, after two long and miserable days, unable to reach the American Embassy and no word from anyone, Brenda received a phone call from her stepfather on Friday morning.  Everyone was alive.  Everyone was homeless, but everyone was alive!  They had somehow made it to the Dominican Republic.

Although Brenda's long nightmare had ended, so many hundreds of thousands would not experience this  relief, this peace, this blessing.

Thousands will not be afforded a proper burial either because those who would bury them are also in need of burying or because the dead bodies are now unidentifiable.  Thousands of Haitians living in the West will search for their families for desperately long periods of time before pronouncing them dead. Thousands of Haitians will join a new diaspora and become refugees yet again. Thousands of children have become orphans overnight.  And a country of almost 10 million living below the poverty line have become even more destitute and marginalized than before the Earthquake of 2010.

I can only weep, pray, and donate.  Please join me.

January 09, 2010

Anti-Socially Social

We have traded land lines for cell phones.  We would rather send text messages on those phones than talk on them. We can't remember how to address an envelope or how much a stamp costs because we send email every 1.5 seconds (I don't know - I made that up).  We send e-cards and evites for everything except weddings.  This short list of the technological advances negates physical or audible contact with another warm-blooded human.  Is the cost of our technological age so high that we have been left socially bankrupt?

People that were born before 1968 usually bring some perspective to our post-millennium dependence on technology and all of its devices.  During the holidays, my mother and my husband's grandmother were both rather appalled by their grandchildren's and great grandchildren's preoccupation with ipods, laptops, PSPs, Nintendo DSi, cell phones, etc., etc.  I, however, was born after 1968, and I have been a part of the rise of Microsoft and MacIntosh, as well as every other technological advancement since the personal computer.  As such, I raised an apathetic eyebrow to my mother's and grand mother's disapproval.  When they complained that my children's heads stayed so buried in "their gadgets" and "games" that they had become antisocial, dare I say, I defended my misanthropic children.  "This is what children their age do," I said.  Since my husband and I require that our children bury themselves in their studies during the school year, I felt defensive at my elders' disapprobation.  "These children work very hard," I thought.  "They made the honor roll two quarters in a row for crying out loud!  The least we can do is let them fry their brains on a game called 'Death Row' all winter break!"  And then I listened to what I was thinking...

Who was I kidding?  My children's behavior was antisocial (and I should probably rethink "Death Row").  But none of us-born-after-1968-people are innocent in all of this.  How many hours have I logged on Facebook this week?  I could get independently wealthy on the number of texts and emails I send in a day.  To add insult to injury, our 15 month old son watches "The Bee Movie" on his father's touch screen phone.  At the breakfast table, he watches Nick Jr. from my Macbook over his bowl of Cheerios.  He points the DVD remote at the DVD and actually presses "play".  Sad, I know.  It starts early.

Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and the like, were created under the guise of "social networking".  But how social are they really?  You have 551 Facebook friends, yet you go home to your cat to eat dinner alone in front of the latest episode of "Heroes".  You "tweet" about the ice cream sandwiches at Whole Foods that you just ate alone in your car on the way home.  
Haven't we all become Anti-Socially Social?

January 07, 2010

Black, African American, or Negro

The United States Census has always been mired in controversy, particularly with regard to race. We shouldn't, however, be surprised by this fact, as America's history is irrevocably bound to the legacy of slavery. Yes, I said it, SLAVERY. Since there is a "national amnesia", as Toni Morrison contends, about slavery, Americans are always shocked, disappointed, and or incredulous when issues of race, racism, white supremacy, or racial marginalization rears their ugly heads.

So here we are again. Question #9 of the 2010 Census asks the interviewee to select his/her race. The box allocated for persons of

African decent reads: "Black, African American, or Negro". As a caveat, there is a box at the end of the listed racial categories in which the interviewee can write in "Some other race". Hmmm....I'm going to offend my Black, African American, or Negro" brethren and sisteren (yes i know i just made that up), because I do not see this category as an affront to my blackness and/or Afrocentrism. Actually, I would feel obliged to write in "Colored" as well. After all, I was born in 1970 in Mobile, Alabama, and my birth certificate tells the world that I am "Colored". Yes, no lie. I ordered it just last year. However, as a scholar of African American literature and American culture, I see all of these racial signifiers that mark and label black bodies as cultural artifacts.

In my own writing, as the cynic and iconoclast that I am, often times, I use all of the signifiers strung together as a kind of contextualizing timeline. If we erase our history, we erase our present and our future. Dare I quote myself, a practice that I find a bit egoistic. Ok, what the heck. This excerpt appears in my Master's Thesis:

So, what are we to do with this legacy that we have inherited? We must have ample time to heal slavery’s wounds. In a roundtable discussion about this issue of transgenerational haunting, a black woman once asked me, “How do you propose we heal these long-standing, often times, unconscious wounds?” I answered saying, “We must first be allowed to speak the unspeakable.” For so long, the notion of slavery has been compartmentalized into a time period that many of us refer to as – “slavery times”. We speak of this “time” as if we can truly identify its beginning, its end, and as if our entire society is not haunted by its legacy. For black folks, there seems to be a kind of shame attached to owning slavery. For whites, there is the ever abiding denial and disavowal of the depth of its brutality and inhumanity. As Morrison charges, no one wants to remember, but we must remember. We must be forever cognizant of our embittered past. Other traumatized groups are encouraged to remember, encouraged to testify. The desire to bury the painful legacy of slavery is what keeps our society wounded and in a constant state of racial regression. African Americans must be proud, not only of our current successes and transgressions, but we must also be proud that we survived the unconscionable brutality of the middle passage, the 246 years of slavery, and the 143 years of Jim Crowism. All of this is our history. All of this is our present. As trauma studies teaches us, until the trauma is reconciled, traumatized groups will continue to repeat and relive traumas. Black women’s bodies continue to be a site of trauma. In order to heal those bodies, in order to love those bodies, we must understand and claim the legacy they carry.

Therefore, the 2010 Census question simply makes visible a legacy of struggle for Black, African American, and Negro identity that should be illuminated rather than hidden in shame. If we erase pejorative and sometimes painful terms like "Negro" and "Colored", then we erase all the history those terms carry: the Civil Rights Movement, anti-lynching legislation, Brown v. Board of Education, Plessy v. Ferguson, The Civil War, slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, we wish that these events had not forever changed the course of history, marginalizing black bodies for centuries; however, they remain a matter of record. All history must be told. All of the voices must be heard. If not, we simply have books of creative non-fiction.

January 03, 2010

New Year! New Decade!

Happy New Year all!

I finally decided to join the world of blogging. I suppose I took so long to join the ranks of the cyber writers, ranters, and confessionals because I didn't want to be in their ranks. I am determined to shape this blog so that it is less narcissistic, less diaryish and more about poesy and prose as its title claims. Although I don't really engage in the proverbial "New Year's resolution", I do vow each year to be better, live better, do more, learn more than I did the year before. So in that vain, I have decided to "be the change I wish to see" in all aspects of my world. Since I have included this blog in my world, it will be a source of enlightenment and inspiration to my students, friends, and family.

I look forward to a happy and prosperous New Year.