I am at the Furious Flower Legacy Seminar on Nikki Giovanni—featuring Professor Giovanni.
Today is my first full day. The structure of the event is like none other I have seen. It not only gathers scholars of her work and teachers looking for professional development—it also has as its guest of honor throughout the event the living legend herself: Nikki.
The Furious Flower Poetry Center has been in existence for over 25 years. There was a stunning video presented last night showcasing excerpts from the 1994 conference. Check it out here! Dr. Joanne Gabbin functioned as both historical scholar and emcee. She was acting as a living griot, storytelling and keeping the culture—while also keeping a house full of budding scholars to continue the work after her.
Upon registration, attendees received a packet of readings that were meant to be read in the off-hours and the down times. The readings included works by Rita Dove, a bibliography by her partner Virginia Fowler, an anthology list of Black Arts Era poets and, of course, work by the guest of honor: Professor Giovanni—who likes to go by just Nikki.
zWhile the text packet was definitely lit, what really left me breathless was the living text of bodies and consciousness flowing around the room. The women, and the smattering of men, were on fire. Some a quiet flame. Others more like conflagrations. Some others like torches. Others like matches, waiting for the right excerpt, tone, quotation to strike.
This was the moment for which I was looking, for the last couple of years since leaving Philly and subsequently Buffalo. I often cite Lyn Hejinian, who says that “poets work in the context of being numerous” (Hejinian, 2000). My writing was born in the community in which I grew up—Brooklyn Belizeans, Southern blacks up North, Latinos. I write communally.
I like Zadie Smith, who says that she often “writes against” and is understood as doing so. I need to write against and with what is happening. In communal dialogue, that is where I discover where the gaps are, where the dearth in study is, what are folks wanting—what the legacies are needing. That happens, for me, through showing up and being painfully honest.
We are scholars—and we bleed.
What we do is gruesome. To write is grueling work. We do it not in some sycophantic, self-flagellatory objective at self-gain. We do it as a project on love.
Talk about a project on love—during the presentation of one of the greatest labors of love I have yet to see was done, truly is was performed, by Dr. Rambsy II. In his BBoy-styled, intensely scholarly presentation, he provides each table an annotated copy of “Ego-Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni that included over 40+ footnotes! He went beyond the close read of line by line. He went phrase by phrase and sometimes word by word in his extrapolation on the layered meaning and allusions in the text
Right after, during the Q&A, Nikki suggested that it would be something to do a project on the beautiful rejects, on the rejected anthology submissions called “The Poems that Got Thrown Away.” Her role as the harbinger of black judgement is seen in her editorial consciousness—gently present yet fiercely piercing. Usually academe bemoans editorial proximity. However, only an astute editor—a poet—knows how to be a fly on the wall at their own ceremony—while also understanding the need to be at the ready with critique—to perform that happening for the next generation—like a lioness teaching her cubs to hunt.
The attention to work that is underrecognized is the work that we are all asked to do as scholars: Make anew what has been understudied or publicized. It was an utter shock for me that Nikki’s work has been so under-researched by scholars in literary studies. I, myself, am baffled at the missteps I have made in not including Nikki in my syllabi—although I read Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement in high school.
The last two days have, for me, been a call to resurface the work of our living scholars in Digital Humanities—since clearly no one knows what it means. We get to define what black scholarship looks like in the near future by making our primary resources available today via archiving works that are out of print or gathering black-authored texts that haven’t been appropriately categorized or adding more relevant metadata to institutional databases. This is the work scholars are doing at the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas (KU-HBW). The HBW there is working with the University of Chicago via a NEH grant to create a digital archive on black-authored text called the Black Book Initiative Project (BBIP). BBIP has over 50+ metadata categories, cultivated by scholars with a sensitivity to what future user communities and academicians may hope to find or research in such a collection. (Read more about the project here!)
In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Dr. Kathyrn Conrad, chair of the English department at KU, cites the piece “The Rise of the Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness” (Conrad 2014). It deals with the necessity for workers in the humanities to value "nonconscious cognition,” as Conrad writes, “the interpretive function performed by nonconscious entities and systems—in order to avoid the ‘isolation of the humanities from the sciences and engineering’ and to participate in collaborative intellectual work” (ibid).
When Dr. Gabbin presented YouTube videos of Nikki reading poetry to Aretha to gospel hymns or her “Woman Poem” to Amazing Grace—during the conference lunch break—while many of us were looking on cell phones and thumbing our fingers waiting for the next session, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. On it were these giant projections of black women, being black women to black women talk-singing about black women. This “nonconscious” space, too, was part of the intellectual work.
In fact, a white woman, herself a poet and statistician, who on the lunch line yesterday shared with me some lines of a poem she wrote—“what kind of joy would send someone down a road and back again”—had asked me a question about my take on something Nikki had said. A woman next to me, a black woman chair of an English department at a university further down south, said—looking up from her phone, “I think she is in what’s happening on the screen,” referencing my stare. My gaze was on Nikki, on Aretha, on the digitized voices, while Ms. Giovanni, living and breathing, was a table away. I looked at the women—the women at the table with me. They looked, eyes smiling at each other, then back again, then us three, back at the screen—and understood—a kind of understanding between.
That program chair was looking up emails for departmental new hires. The statistician poet was visiting on a fellowship. I was on assignment from KU’s HBW. We were having lunch. And doing the work.
Photos by Adrienne Oliver
Writing Over: Black Girlhood Studies Showcasing How Education & Identity Are Entwined by Shayna S. Israel
On Twitter and in popular culture, many of us have heard a friend, a colleague or a celebrity reference #BlackGirlMagic. The hashtag phrase came about in celebration of the awesomeness that is young girls of color realizing their potential and ability in the face of less-affirming messages. However, less is known about the emerging field of Black Girlhood Studies.
Academic culture is not something divorced from our daily life experience. It is in response to it. The academic field of Black Girlhood Studies was formed by a “loose collective of scholars researching the experience of black girls across continents” . LaKisha Simmons, Corinne Field and Renee Sentilles met at a conference in 2013 at the University of Nottingham in England focused on how “space and childhood are mutually constitutive in historically and geographically specific settings” . From that meeting, they created the History of Black Girlhood Network, which has expanded to include hundreds of scholars.
With the advent of social media, there’s been greater exposure to the narratives of black girls…written by black girls and young women. In March of 2017 the Black Girlhood Network hosted its first conference at the University of Virginia. At the conference, there were “not just scholars and activists, but also artists and young people themselves, all of whom are sort of galvanized in this pivotal moment in which we’re seeing an increase in scholarship on black girls, and an increase in pushback from black girls themselves, who are demanding that their voices be heard,” writes Associate Professor Oneka LaBennett, of Africana studies at Cornell University .
'...In this pivotal moment...we’re seeing an increase in scholarship on black girls, and an increase in pushback from black girls themselves, who are demanding that their voices be heard' ~Professor Oneka LaBennett
Across most college campuses there is a Women’s and Gender studies program. Such programs now are taken as a given, but they were fought for. “Women’s studies as an academic enterprise had its roots in second wave feminism and originated as a challenge to male-defined and male-centred [sic] knowledge. Students studying sociology now take it for granted that gender is central to sociological analysis. This was not always so,” Stevi Jackson writes in her blog post “Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Feminism” .
When a freshman comes onto a college campus and looks through a course catalogue, they can feel a sense of excitement and anticipation at all of the classes potentially at his or her fingertips. Each line, however, represents someone or a group of people advocating for that course.
During the 1970s across the nation there were demonstrations on college campuses for the inclusion of marginalized programs or departments such as Latino Studies and African-American Studies. For example, at Chicago State University, African black students in the 1960s began to organize for the inclusion of African-American studies into the university curriculum because, as was the case in much of the country, “many formerly all white universities had begun to admit significant numbers of Black students who did not see themselves reflected in the curriculum” .
In looking at all that was transpiring around the nation, professors and students alike were seeking to better understand how to view and how to react to the cultural and political movements of the day. There is a connection between what is happening in education and what is happening in society—as there is a connection between education and identity.
We understand this dynamic mostly when we are talking about jobs and when were hear employers responding to school administrators about the need for specialized training to help with “emerging markets” or “the jobs of tomorrow.” The same dynamic is true in the academic sphere. When there are shifts in the social landscape, scholarly programs and fields emerge to respond to the new developments.
Thus, ta-da—we have Black Girlhood Studies. The question is then what is happening amongst and to black girls in this day and age.
A network of scholars has emerged to respond to the condition of black girlhood against the backdrop of the #MeTooMovement, the most diverse candidates running for elected office in history and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville.
In the Charlottesville school district, in the stories of Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes, we have a clue.
...Women have had to be imagine themselves out of stigma—as a means of survival.
Charlottesville is most recognizable for the white nationalists that marched through its town in August 2017. Charlottesville has had an embattled history when it comes to race relations. However, what is notable is the work of educators and administrators who have sought to balance past racial injustices in their school districts.
After the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education ruling, Charlottesville responded by closing down the white schools rather than integrate. At one point, “instead of outright segregation, the white-led district established testing requirements solely for black students who tried to enroll in historically white schools” . Years later “the board considered redrawing school zones to bolster racial and economic equity but worried about white flight” . After pooling in middle and high school students “the number of white students declined about 20 percent within a decade” .
The connection between Charlottesville and the young girls earlier mentioned, Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes, extends beyond their geographic locality: It is hard to write off what has already been written and cemented onto a people’s or a town’s consciousness.
Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes are both talented, smart and gifted young ladies. Yet, being black and being female in America means fighting off stereotypes and stigmas regarding intelligence.
Charlottesville’s board sought to do the right thing in following the Supreme Court’s ruling on integration, after some initial missteps. It is hard to create change against the backdrop of a segregationist’s past. It requires more than white washing the issue. One has to—if serious about doing the work—break new ground.
We are at a place in time where black women are, proportionately, the most educated class than any other racial-gender group . According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2013), black women were conferred Associates and Bachelor’s degrees at a rate of 65% as compared to their white, Hispanic and Asian female counterparts who were conferred the same degrees at a rate of 56%, 60% and 54%, respectively, out of each of their total subgroup populations .
However, the realities of the landscape have yet to catch up with accepting black girl intelligence—while it has been whole heartedly welcoming to #BlackGirlMagic.
Zyahna as early as preschool was awarded a scholarship to attend an elite private school at the most reputable elementary school in Charlottesville, Venable. That sent her on track to be eligible for honors and AP (Advance Placement) courses in high school .
There are millions of parents vying for the best early education opportunities for their children. They do so because they know what getting an early start can do for bettering the chances of their child’s educational success and opportunities. In some cases, being tracked, in the state of Virginia, for an “advanced” diploma rather than the “standard” diploma means the difference between getting admitted to a four-year college and a two-year college .
Ms. Bryant selected the requisite coursework to put her within reaching distance of the “advanced” diploma. “Zyahna’s achievements make her a prime candidate for an elite university,” according to reporters Erica L. Green and Annie Waldman—so Ms. Bryant “was taken aback when, as she was beginning her search, her principal encouraged her to explore community college” . In their article, “Separated, and Far From Equal, in Charlottesville’s Racial Divide,” Green and Waldman note that “All diplomas are not equal,” and that administrators have worked to create ‘equity-based teaching’ as countermeasures .
It is hard to extricate the long legacy and stain on America’s history that extends beyond slavery and onto systemic racism. Educators and administrators, dedicated parents and star students alone cannot lift the stigma that often befalls black girls—regardless of how smart and talented they are. Yet, they persist.
Ms. Bryant writes, “No matter how high your scores are or how many hours you put into your work, you are still black…There’s a whole system you’re up against. Every small victory just cuts a hole into that system reminding you how fragile it is. But it’s still there” .
In a social media culture looking for heroes and villains, black girls—no matter how magical and inspiring they are—too often are typecast as the villains. Girls like Ms. Bryant and Ms. Hughes, by their achievements, are rewriting that narrative. The same goes for the scholars in the Black Girlhood Studies Network.
Academic life, if done right, is not a distant Ivory Tower. It is trained researchers, noticing trends, going out into the field and recognizing a dynamic, a phenomenon that needs to change or be viewed in another light.
Ms. Simmons writes that “we’re seeing a generation come of age that is really engaged in feminism, anti-racism, and history…and engaged in theories around race and gender” .
In the collection edited by Suzanne W. Jones titled, “Writing the Woman Artist,” it speaks to how women have had to create, ala Rousseau, “literary self-portraits” as they “register the tensions between the fictional and the empirical figure, the problematic relationship between language and reality” .
Meaning that, women have had to be imagine themselves out of stigma—as a means of survival.
In rewriting themselves as talented, intelligent, empowered, girls like Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes are getting a true early education in this new climate. They like millions of other young women like them, are getting a head start, via social media and the advocacy of scholars, in shifting the language around black girls, that often gets foisted onto their bodies. In their everyday lives, in their daily pursuits, black girls across the country are rewriting their own narratives. This time, they are writing themselves as capable.
I found a Prudential print ad in Tuesday’s New York Times—two words caught my eye: College and tuition. Pretty much, all millennials do one of two things when thinking about the glorious price tag we attach to college: Cringe or shiver. Our student loan debt can be linked to the decreasing percentage of home ownership. We are the generation that graduated college around the time of the Great Recession. Our outlook, despite the looming student loan payments we make each month or have repeatedly deferred—strangely—still has not soured.
What is it that keeps millennials optimistic about their chances even when by all other metrics their lot in life, likely is no better or worse off than their parents?
First, here are the stats:
While we have grime stories about our time on “the market,” eccentric resumes and vivid memories of crashing on our friend’s couch, millennials, I found, tend to be garishly optimistic about their chances for success. This can be due to the fact…well, because we went to college.
Education has a particular effect on the outlook on the individual. It opens our minds to new possibilities and skillsets. Our sense of optimism is connected to the new kinds of access that learning and technological platforms have afforded us.
Also millennials have other millennials against whom to measure themselves. Notions of success are socially defined. Our lot in life socially marks us as belonging to one class or another. For millennials, we are the kids of the Great Recession. So, every day for us is boom or bust. We have developed either a taste for or a way to manage through—risk.
We know risk. What my post-30 millennial self is now learning and putting into practice: Building portable wealth.
"We are the kids of the Great Recession"
Fun fact: According to that Prudential ad, “18 years from now parents will need up to $200,000 for college tuition,” . While it is an insurance and financial management, Fortune 500 company, I found it somehow speaking to me—in tune with my millennial insecurities. Prudential’s initiatives, of late, are seeking to reach out to historically underserved populations who may have been unintentionally excluded from certain market segments . Communities of color, for example, like millennials have been stymied due to life circumstances in their attempts to create a retirement portfolio.
Access to housing is connected to wealth generation. Historically and presently, disenfranchised populations during downturns in the economy either lose their only form of wealth—their homes—or their savings that helps prepare them to purchase a home at a later date. That’s why the trillion dollar student debt crisis for millennials is tied to their inability to access economic prosperity and much needed stability.
In an initiative that brings together “a coalition of organizations in more than 30 states to pass legislation that requires companies to enroll eligible workers in retirement plans,” Prudential is pushing for greater racial equity since “nearly two-thirds of households of color do not have retirement savings” . What that means is that for intersectional millennials like me who are women and of color, a company leveraging its resources to reach out to marginal populations and assist them with financial stability is like a siren song.
I tell you, I, up until two years ago—when I was 30—never before spoke to a financial investor, let alone visited a money management site. The last couple of years changed things.
After being batted back and forth in the workplace and in graduate school for the last ten years, I wanted to put down roots. I said to myself, “I have enough work experience and schooling to create a job for myself.” I started a company—a very small business (PluralityPress.com). That got me thinking about the protections afforded to those already employed—such as some accountant to file business taxes and—a retirement plan.
This year, I called a financial advisor, one of those ones that offer a free consultation: TD Ameritrade. I was stunned to find such a compassionate voice willing to enthusiastically and gently answer my rookie questions.
I learned about IRAs and Roth IRAs, 401Ks attached to IRAs, investment limits and index options. Most of all, I learned that becacuse I had a small business, I could take my retirement plan with me. The person on the phone wasn’t bothered by my questions and provided me a strategy for how to speak to the next financial manager, even if it wasn’t with him, about what a millennial small business owners needs to consider. He said, “You got time.”
“I got time?” I thought. I was so behind the ball from where my parents were at my age. My mom already had three kids and a small stint at EY, when it was called Ernst and Young, and my father had a famed savings account that got our family out of several jams—and then some. I had time, the financial adviser told me.
Millennials are the “latest generation to suffer the scorn of their elders,” according to David Roos, a blogger for HowStuffWorks.com . “Generation blaming,” Roos explains, for millennials, has meant that nearly a third of the American population (30%) routinely has a blanket thrown over them before they even walk into an employer’s office—typifying them as “narcissistic, lazy, overly entitled, addicted to social media, and coddled by their helicopter parents,” . Great employee material, huh? Yes, once the blanket it thrown off—once we start speaking to both employer and millennial fears.
Prudential’s mission is to “assist its clients with financial prosperity and peace of mind” . Letting millennials know that they are okay matters—and, that most importantly, irrespective of what happened in 2008—the most valuable things they have is—time.
This past Saturday, I went to see the UniverSoul Circus for the first time in nearly 15 years. It was its 25th anniversary. It never fails: Before I even get under the big tent, I’m dancing. Fifteen years ago, I was a rising college freshman, just finished from prom and on my way out of high school. That moment was etched into my memory. So was the idea that my childhood love of the circus could meet the contemporary context of hip hop in the 2000s. To develop, one did not have to summarily do away with the past.
To my delight, many of the elements stayed the same. There was rap and soul music played during intermission and between the acts to get the crowds riled up and keep the energies flowing. There was calypso and soca music during high-wire acts; African drummers with stilt walkers and giant puppet mascaraeders; spinning and twirling disco roller-skaters; Chinese tumbling wall-builders and dreadlocked and afro-ed clowns doing the #KiKiChallenge. One thing that was not there, thankfully, was an elephant.
While it is important to be reverent of the past, it is important to acknowledge the benefits of progress. Elephants don’t belong in circuses. Period. That’s a development. They also stopped using tigers in their shows. Wanting to be near the majesty of such beings is understandable; they represent the wisdom of nature in motion. Yet, nature has already programmed a place that can care for them: indigenous habitat. Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Earlier this spring, the NYC Branch of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indians, introduced a new addition: The imagiNATIONS Activity Center. Its aim is to re-present the technologies of First Nations peoples in the Americas and their legacies in our modern engineering. For example, in one of the exhibitions there is a videogame called the Crop-etition Challenge.
Players, in this digital farming simulation, work to respond to weather and vitamin deficiency challenges by craftily selecting the best combination of crops, according to the museum’s website. The structural constraints: “Up to four can play, but there is a surprise: if they compete, the outcome won’t be as good as if they cooperate” .
According to ScienceDirect.com, “It is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America. The foods of the Native Americans are widely consumed and their culinary skills still enrich the diets of nearly all people of the world today” . “New world foods” such as potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, maize, cacao (chocolate), sunflower, and squash revolutionized 15th century European societies and were developed in the Americas . This a bit of the “picked up” tech from indigenous peoples’ tech that was “discovered” during the purported “Age of Exploration.”
It takes scientific know-how to accomplish what First Nations peoples did. We are still benefiting from their technologies today, in the field of chemical engineering, architecture and medicine. Aspirin, is included in that list. They used willow bark—whose extract’s scientific name is salicin, or salicylic acid (note that salix is Latin for willow) and the active ingredient in one of the most common painkillers in the world today .
Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Cooperation is a technological process in itself. This is another advancement we still use today. It’s called democracy, a governmental structure that also originated with First Nations peoples.
This is what the UniverSoul Circus seeks to showcase—the diversity of cultures working together. In a way, they showed their math: Social organization--how to get different people interacting without fighting. Each culture during the show had its time to shine and be celebrated by the present audience. It was a kind of modern assembly of organizational forms under the pretext of a circus.
Let’s take the Chinese wall builders. Just imagine, it’s the Qin or the Han Dynasty (221 B.C.-230 A.D). There is a sudden barging in: An invading army enters the emperor’s hall. The stationed guards have to quickly form a blockade before the attackers reach from the other side of the hallway. A flip is going to get you there faster than walking. Forming human wheels to erect a wall of men three times tall than horses to guard the king gives both advantage in height and aerial sight. Smart.
Today because of advances in modern warfare where people confront their targets at a distance and less directly, human wall-building can seem obsolete. Save if you transform it into a cultural relic and harness the social benefits of fitness and group cohesion.
The marketing expertise of the UniverSoul Circus organizers is that the crowd they attracted more likely than not would view the tumbling display with the cultural reverence that ancient assemblies would. To see less of the spectacle in it and more of the wisdom embedded in its structure—is having the eyes to see its science.
Take, for example, the disco roller-skaters spinning around on a small circle platform with one skater balancing the other on top of his head while continuing rapid revolutions. What is the physics formulation to represent bodies in centripetal acceleration? Mass times speed squared divided by the radius of the circular path . Were these dancers thinking about their TI83 calculators on the circus show floor? Mostly likely not. Yet, their bodies knew the math—meaning that in two people dancing, in the meeting of their hands or bodies or climbing on each other’s heads while in motion they had to calculate the added weight of the skates, their movement, the movement of their partner and how much space they had to skate on. (Their little platform was fairly tiny. Maybe six feet in diameter). They lived the math intuitively—and I am sure with great practice.
It is said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, that means it takes 1,000 words to see a smile. How many formulas does it take to dance with someone? Who knows? Our bodies, for one. And we don’t need to pinpoint the math to the millisecond. In the moment of the dazzling show, all we know is that it’s amazing and so are our bodies.
Ancient technology has given us the food that we eat, math that sent us to the moon and a way of social organization that can calm a hundred armies. The ingenuity of the UniverSoul Circus is using a common medium to assemble the world’s greatest mathematician: Culture.
As a vegetarian and a friend of the wonderful bodies of wisdom we call animals. The horses, dogs, zebras and the one camel I saw at the UniverSoul Circus looked well groomed, well feed, and well treated. Yes, I was still a bit uneasy—and thankful that 15 years later, the circus is still evolving away from the use of animals.
More ticketholders are pushing the company in that direction. (See PETA back class action suit). This, too, is part of the social dance that helps us in more sustainable ways appreciate the bounty of nature and honor our roles as stewards of that wealth. Wealth is more than a simple calculation or an adding up of dollars. It is the way we treat each other, the way we treat the beings we share the planet with and the way we continue on the cultures that formed the scientific wonders of our times.
Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes. That means they learn better when they see people who resemble them as key historical actors. For example, “when kids enjoy reading titles with characters who look like them, it helps form a connection to the book on another level” . It helps them in “identifying with the characters in a story,” allowing, “for a deeper comprehension of the text,” Scholastics.com writes.
Being able to place oneself as the inheritor of heroes imbues learning with both import and excitement. That energy brings learning to life. Implied in the notion of something valuable being “tried and true” is the reality of that something being tried by, at least, someone. What treasure it is to have a century or more of “someones” from which to draw?
"Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes."
An unconventional example of the curricular benefits found in channeling ancestral legacies is seen in the rugby team at Gisborne Boys’ High School in New Zealand. Gisborne is majority Maori. It considers rugby as a credited course. Its rugby team, the All Blacks, “emphasizes a connection to Maori culture” at all levels of team interaction, even utilizing the hongi, a traditional Maori salutation, to greet each other .
“Since the introduction of world rugby rankings in 2003, New Zealand has held the No. 1 ranking longer than all other countries combined,” David Maurice Smith writes in this article “Reading. Writing. Rugby.” New Zealand’s success on the international stage of rugby is credited, in large part, to the Gisborne’s team. The All Blacks credit their success to the ancestral Maori legacy, kawa, that they harness.
The school's leadership sees “nurturing a connection to cultural identity as key to developing” strong athletes . Dean Ryan Tapsell aptly remarks, “Most sporting teams strive to create a team culture, whereas our team is modeled after an actual living and breathing culture.” For Gisborne, they are not reinventing the wheel. They are redeveloping the axles.
Gisborne’s All Blacks are reapplying the techniques and tools of kawa in a present-day context to solve a contemporary problem: How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?
Reaching back to move forward, a West African principle called Sankofa, is a beautifully fraught process. Done successfully, it has immense rewards. For example, in Gisborne’s case, it elevated a small North Island town into international stardom. In the case of the South African town, Mpumalanga, its Sankofa dream was intercepted.
"How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?"
For Nelson Mandela, education was a liberatory force of which the school building was its symbolic embodiment. During the anti-apartheid movement, in Soweto 1976, bettering the condition of the schooling system was a rallying cry, particularly the instituting of native language(s) instruction over instruction in Afrikaans, the language of the minority-white population in control.
But what happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes asked this very question in his famous poem “Harlem.”
Mpumalanga’s former premier and education minister, David Mabuza, who is now the second-in-command under the newly installed president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was one of the main student organizers building ties across the anti-apartheid groups . “Yet under Mr. Mabuza’s leadership, millions of dollars for schools in his province have been misspent…His province routinely spent less on poor students than required and school construction projects have been riddled with inflated costs,” Onishi and Gebrekidan report in their article, “Amassing Power in South Africa as Corruption Rots Its School.”
Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans. He misused both the legacies of the country's freedom fighters, like the Mandelas, and the cultural legacies of small villagers by playing on duplicitous liberatory rhetoric. This is when the resurfacing of ancestral intelligences goes wrong.
How to distinguish between leaders using cultural awareness to bolster educational activities and those using it as a smoke screen for something more nefarious?
"Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans."
This is the question parents and community members, earlier this summer, were asking regarding an Eastern Cape, South African choirmaster who produced a seminude traditional performance featuring teen-aged schoolgirls . According to The Daily Dispatch, the choirmaster was on the record saying, “We are proud of our Xhosa tradition,” and, “We are proud of Xhosa women and girls,” . Education minister Angie Motshekga repudiated the performance by saying, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage” but that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation” . One reader on The Daily Dispatch’s website, writes “How is this not pedophilia masquerading as culture?” .
How to reintroduce historical cultural practices in a moment where those practices have morphed and comingled with the norms and mores of modern society? How to do so with an awareness that roots out exploitative motives on both sides?
The kawa is a set of Maori traditional protocols centered around public gatherings in the marae, a village court. Maori culture also a has set of protocols for war, and the Gisborne All Blacks rugby team has additionally gained fame for performing a Maori war cry and dance (haka) during, for example, the World Cup games. [See video]. One does want to be cautious of replicating the mistaken “passive, tame native” myth in highlighting the merits of various cultural practices. [See The Ancient History of the Maori, his Mythology and Traditions].
As the popularity of history is waning in provinces across South Africa, Pule Rakgoathe an education specialist states that “eventually, young people will know little of their country and the society in which they live” . That has wide-ranging implications for underrepresented students’ ability to learn in ways that helps them excel.
Students learn better when they see both people and practices that resemble them and environments with which they are familiar. They need access to diverse historical narratives. In seeing their ancestors as historical actors, they are more likely to become participatory members of society in a way that continues to move history forward.
What is an academic conversation? And why should anyone care? With the increase of anti-intellectual rhetoric around the country, it is more important than ever to talk about the constructive qualities built into academic discourse. A discourse community implies the existence of undercurrent rules of engagement that support the production and exchange of knowledge. The difference at the level of scholarship is that the aim is the production and exchange of new knowledge--not ideas that everyone agrees with. What that means is at some level agreeing to be discomforted by what someone else knows or thinks.
Three weeks from my students’ final project in freshman composition, and three days from submitting their grades, I am still thinking, “What would it mean to advocate for the inclusion of more academic conversations as part of the daily ways in which we think about having difficult dialogues--in politics, with our neighbors, with our spouses.”
For their final projects, my students had to display “an academic conversation.” Here were their instructions: “To put your concerns in conversation with other budding scholars, your peers.” It was more in-depth than that, actually three pages and 927 words in length. But, it really came down to those twelve words. My aim was to help students make the connection that the papers they were writing in class were representing a larger conversation with me, their instructor, and their peers.
In their assignment prompt, I wrote, “Discourse is what the written text traces, mimics, represents.” Thus, a scholarly paper--particularly one in a journal publication--is meant to highlight what it means to enter a dialogue, most often one that has proceeded us.
Have you ever entered a party and a group of people are huddled near the food table where you are headed? As you get to the cheese platter, you overhear a conversation that you find intriguing and want to chime in. Yet, you hesitate, wonder how to begin? That feeling you got, well, it was because part of you sensed there are unspoken rules of engagement before entering a conversation already in progress.
How does a scholarly paper assist with butting into conversations you like? By asking you to cite with whom you are in conversation and putting those conversations in context. That is why college papers can be quite long--they want to treat the dialogue they present such that the background, the argument, the aims and the references are systematic enough to follow for future scholars, readers and conversations near cheese platters.
Another aspect of academic discourse that I found really helpful is: exhibiting a generosity of engagement. That was actually a criterion for my students in their “oral text” presentation, what I called the academic conversation they had to display.
Three - four students sat in chairs in a semi-circle facing the class and I who were in a semi-circle behind several desks facing them. What else did I look for? How students dovetailed from the ideas of their group members, how they built on the commentary their group made.
They had to present on their revised paper. However, with ten-minutes and three - four people in each group, the constraints were such that they couldn’t just read each of their papers (which is a totally okay way to have an academic panel or conversation given extended time). This forced them to think about how their paper’s main point could be communicated succinctly and be part of an interplay of ideas.
One group created a book of rhymes to introduce each other’s themes. In another group, a couple of participants would reference the topic of the previous person in connection to their papers. One other group extended the conversation almost immediately to the audience (although the audience had to wait until the Q&A&C to respond). The question and answer and comment (Q&A&C) time was an opportunity for the students to open to the audience.
What would politics or social media or conversations with our partners look like with more generosity of engagement? There are complications in any discourse community. Dialogue is tough. What thinking about “academic conversations” helps us do is to provide more context before launching into a diatribe about the wrongness of whomever we are discussing at the time. What scholars have to customarily do is first show that they understand the side they are presenting well-enough before critiquing or continuing a line of conversation.
Post Script is a way for me to signal post-class reflections after teaching. It serves as a tag would in archival system, a grouping so that both the writer and reader can trace developments and connections between entries. I have as of late, been more and more interested in the archival process and how data become available for future generations. Currently, I teach English 102 at the University of Kansas and have titled the course Inquiry-Based Writing & Thinking. My question thread for Post Script is: How would a weekly record of post-class reflections be used and useful for audiences to come?
My hope is to explore that questions through “doing” the question, through writing it. When I start a project, I am painfully inductive--meaning I have to touch the work to know it. To think about teaching, I have to teach. I do as well all do, carry preconceived notions about what it means to be a teacher, what it means to be a student and what it means to be “learning.” Yet, as a matter of practice, I try to keep those things in my back pocket. I am aware of them, seek to be aware of any that has landed there unbeknownst to me. Does that stop those preconceived notions from showing up front and center? Not always. Nonetheless, I still keep trying to hold as much uncharted space before me such that I can offer that starting place for student to present what is uncharted for them. In this way, we break new ground.
For today’s class we read from Deborah Tannen’s “How Male and Female Students Use Language Differently.” Admittedly, I am not a fan of touting absolute ways of bodies are supposed to behave in a gendered fashion, particularly when speaking with young people. I feel it stunts their abilities to experiment with ways of being that are not gendered but human ways of knowing and learning. For example, the idea that men learn outdoors and women learn indoors flies in the face of healthy engagement with our world which occurs in both private and public spaces.
So, instead of having students recount various gender-based stereotypes in response to the reading, I began class with discussing Durkheim's Division of Labor in Society and the ways that arguments about a respective place for boys and girls, men and women are based in supposedly evident biological terms. Then student did a free write, which allowed them to quietly reflect on the ways in which they notice gender differences in the classroom and school environment. This way, the verbal space could be reserved for new ways to rethink gender and learning.
One of the exciting discoveries we made together was what I call finding the lioness in arguments about gender. So, if the premises for the conclusion that men belong in the field and women belong at home is based on women’s ability to incubate fetuses and men’s ability to inseminate, then, I asked me students, how would you make sense of the a pride of lions? For, the females hunt as well as incubate, and the men, inseminate as well as protecting the homefront. Thus, one way to challenge any conclusion, particularly about gender, is to present an additional material example.
With only 50 minutes of class time, the questions has to go unanswered. Yet, where left off was understanding that in holding the space for the question about the lioness hunter, we are able to in future classes, download the discussion--pick it up again.