29
Feb 16

Anchoring into Richardon’s African American Literacies

Kai Davis says it, as per always, so much better than I ever could.

Kai Davis, here again taking three minutes and one second to drop word bombs that pack just about the same punch to white supremacy as all those pages of academic theory on navigating Blackness in classrooms that most white professors swear doesn’t exist (Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, for one, talks and testifies against that for sure [yep, a pun to honor Geneva Smitherman, because it’s necessary]).

Kai Davis, without my words to mince hers, because she doesn’t need an introduction from some white girl professor (and yet I guess I just wrote one. *sigh*).

That says it all. I am almost tempted to write nothing more. It was all just said.

“Yo: why these books never be about my peoples?”

Jamila Lyiscott says it all, too (thank you, Carmen, for the gift of linking this video on our class blog!).

And yet I’ll write anyway, because today Carmen wants us to find an anchor in Elaine Richardson’s brilliant African American Literacies; an anchor to “ground [our] thinking, reading, and research”; to haul the thick piece of iron in our pockets with us, bring it to class so we can process how to use it not as an add in, not as a tack on (at the end of term, “if there’s time”), but rather, to use an anchor from Dr. E’s work to fundamentally reshape our own pedagogies so that we, too, can make sure we’re centering Black literacies instead of shredding them with red pens and white books.

“Any approach that does not seek to facilitate liberatory literacy is detrimental as it is subtractive,” Dr. E tells us.

Among the most radically important one-liners in this entire text, Dr. E here answers writing instructors who understand Black literacies as “extra”, as something they “don’t have time or space to add into” the curriculum. Flipping the script completely — as Heather A. Williams did in Self-Taught, discussed here last week — Dr. E suggests instead that liberatory literacy engagement should in fact be the very fabric of all writing courses, rather than “add-ons” or extra. It’s not extra — I mean this colloquially as well — quite the opposite. Any course that does not engage literacy in these ways is actively harmful to students. This reframing of the norm as destructive rather than simply a “netural” engagement with what students “need to know” is extremely powerful, especially in the face of the abundance of white (women) teachers of college composition (and K-12 ), who all too often object,

“But I don’t know how to do this,” and “there’s just no room in my curriculum.”

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says,

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says, “Do or not there, there is no try.” Gif from http://www.sharegif.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/7-star-wars-quotes.gif

Dr. E reframes this refusal to centralize minoritized discourses and literacies as actively harming students (which, of course, it is). It is this reframing that needs to be taught in every intro to the English PhD class and every teaching practicum.

To address the “but how?”, Dr. E espouses learning, learning, and learning. She writes,

“To make literacy education relevant to the lives of Black students, an effort must be made to confront unethical educational practices, such as cutting Black students off from investigation and appreciation of their classical culture.  When we cannot facilitate students’ participation in investigating and exploring their literacy traditions, we’re actually teaching them that the world cannot be changed and rhetoric ain’t nuthin’ but rhetoric.”

So we must learn how to facilitate such participation, which — for white teachers like me, whose bodies and classroom presence inherently represent an active threat to the mental health and learning goals of students of color because my body and classroom presence inherently represents white supremacy — involves the surrender of expertise, the surrender of positioning ourselves as knowing more, knowing better, than our students.

Because, of course, we don’t.

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out,

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out, “That is brand new information!” Gif from https://s3.amazonaws.com/fanning-cloud-front/brandnewinfo.gif

So I suppose that sums up my proverbial anchor from this text: as a white teacher of college writing, I already make it my goal to weave my students’ various identities and forms of knowledges into the fabric of the course, rather than simply tacking some “supplemental” or “extra” readings here and there into a mostly white syllabus.

However, I have found myself stuck on how to move forward not only with affirming, but with developing the various modes of knowledges and literacy practices of my students of color (I’m not only thinking of my Black students, here). Dr. E lays out excellent practices and model works in African American Literacies, and I guess the takeaway from my anchor is the same thing we tell our students when they are stuck in a writing clusterf*ck:

Read more.

Learn more.

Practice more.

Because Black literacies are only some of the literacies in my classroom: my students represent and embody a plethora of literacies (worldviews, worldviews, as Dr. E reminds us) from all across Asia, from all across South America, from all across… everywhere. It’s Queen College, man.

Recognition and affirmation of these literacies is something I already try to give: that’s alright, but it’s not enough. I need to learn more (of everything) so I can be of even better service to my students in supporting them as they hone their own literacy practices.

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that “We’re proud of our multicultural students here at P.S. 118.” Image from https://media3.giphy.com/media/uQ07tr7x6vaGA/200_s.gif

This intimately involves a reframing of how we discuss “multicultural” classrooms. Dedefining “multicultural” so it doesn’t mean a commitment to tokenizing people of color in, for example, college brochures, Dr. E’s work resituates multiculturalism as a radical, rather than white liberal, means of doing curricular and activist work: in her hands, multicultural classrooms become classrooms which prioritize “instituting Black, Latino/a, Native American, and Asian peoples, studies, and pedagogies into the center of the educational curriculum and traditional institutions, in a way that expands upon and critiques received knowledge.”

As she points out, the need to reshape the classroom spaces we make for our students is quite literally an issue of life or death.

Final thoughts? Steven Willis should really take this one home (or, as he says, dismiss class).


19
Feb 16

Self-Taught to Challenge Exceptionalist Narratives

I started reading Heather Williams’s Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom on day two of my bronchitis-ridden body’s stubborn attempt to trudge out into the snow and do things, after resting (eg not going to the gym) for a highly irritating four whole days. Day two witnessed the same thing as day one of trying to emerge from sickville too soon: intense dizziness, fits of violent coughing, and the urgent, urgent need to crawl back under the covers after begrudgingly admitting to my concerned girlfriend that she’d been right in the first place: I’m still too sick to be out and about.

So, naturally, I decided to get ahead in course readings. Which brings me to Williams’s Self-Taught. After getting through a page or so — quickly excited by her presentation of a methodology that necessarily runs a blade through the mandate of periodization — I realized something else with glee: I was reading through this text without a problem. My dragging eyes and utterly exhausted mind were having no problem processing Williams’s introduction. Which is when it hit me how beautifully this book is written, and how it performs the kind of access that the history that infuses its pages emphasizes.

In her own introduction of this book to us (by way of the syllabus), Carmen reminds us not to “try to sound like Grad-Student-Turned-Derrida-Extraordinaire” (which I appreciate more than I can possibly describe. No syllabus has ever made me snort with laughter before. Life seems… complete now.). This reminder is particularly apt for this text, because — while it is supremely researched and is by leaps and bounds the most powerful monograph contribution to U.S. educational history that I can think of — the text itself defies expectations of what scholars are “supposed” to write like. It does not make itself incomprehensible in the name of “sounding academic.” Instead, its poetics are of a different kind: its incisiveness is made all the more powerful by the crystal clarity and accessibility of its language.

Perhaps as important as the history it provides is the rhetoric with which Self-Taught provides it. Williams brilliantly rewrites the typical codes with which dominant historical narratives refer to freed people and enslaved people: almost always identified alongside the note that x person was a slave, freed person, or former slave, dominant histories (like the rest of society) rhetorically establish whiteness as the identity that need not be spoken. Williams, however, only ever identifies white historical actors as such, making Blackness the default identity, decentering default whiteness from her history.

With each new personal literacy journey that she portrays, Williams rhetorically forces her readers to assume the Blackness of that the historical figures she discusses (who most often go nameless in white accountings). This centralization of Blackness in her narrative style reflects the centralization of Blackness in the history she tells, which powerfully situates Black Americans as the force behind the creation of a public education system in this country.

This issue of centralization comes up for me all the time while I’m teaching. With each syllabus I design, lesson plan I write, and lesson plan I change on the balls of my feet, I am constantly considering the immense impact of my white privilege in a CUNY freshmen writing classroom. We are taught — through everything we are exposed to — that teaching generally, and teaching writing specifically, is for white people (because everything is for white people). We are taught it so deeply that I hear colleagues say too proudly, too often, that they teach Octavia Butler’s work… amidst an otherwise overly bleached literary backdrop. Always the exception, like Frederick Douglass, for example, is always figured as the exception in narratives of Black literacy history. (Except, of course, in Williams’s telling.)

So, in the interest of refusing to only tack “other” things onto whiteness — in the interest, rather, of completely decentering whiteness, as much as my white body permits in the classroom — the question I ask myself during the design of my courses is always “what will this do for my students of color?” How can I centralize the various narratives of my students of color in my courses, such that I am not teaching an imaginary white classroom? (This imaginary white classroom is what white liberals inadvertently picture when they go simply for ‘awareness of oppression’ and tokenizing teaching agendas whose backbone is in fact, always, the re-centralization of whiteness.)

Williams’s Self-Taught is an excellent enactment of narrative construction that refuses to put whiteness at the center, recreating Blackness as the default. It is therefore, now, an aspirational text for me, both in terms of sharing the history it provides with my students, but also in learning from its models of accessibility, refusal, and reclaiming.


03
Feb 16

A Web Spot for Reflection

Throughout my period of Orals exam incubation, I will be immersed in composition/rhetoric scholarship, dis/ability studies, and children’s/YA literature. To help keep my thoughts (somewhat) organized, I will use this Annotated Bibliography mini-blog to post my responses to texts that I find particularly generative for my thinking.


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