Black studies is a conceptual movement that is trying to catch up to it’s more sensual and less formal cousin, black music.
“A globally legible or universally recognized bodily gesture, such as surrender through raised hands, becomes ‘illegible’ and ‘irrelevant’ on a black person.”
In this feature, we ask educators to list books they most enjoy teaching in their communities. Contributors include professors, graduate students, artists, journalists, organizers, activists, and other community leaders. Readers of the Black Agenda Report understand that the university classroom isn’t the only place where learning happens. Submissions therefore include lists of books that are taught at community workshops, mosques, churches, prisons, libraries, the local preschool, or even a weekly book study on one’s front porch. This week’s contributor is Alex Alston.
In my role as an instructor for an academic, residential summer program catering to black and brown students in the Tri-State area, I’m tasked with introducing my students to academic writing as a form, presenting the concept of reading practices, and emphasizing that the “how” of reading should be a crucial and open question. We don’t read book-length texts given that twelve and thirteen-year-old students don’t quite yet have the capacity (let alone the desire) to read several books front to back in a few weeks of what should be summer break. Further, this particular program centers math and science in a way that makes instructors of other subjects have to find ways to get ideas and material to students in shorter texts. Therefore, I’m offering a selection of short articles, pieces from blogs, and songs as the fodder for what I teach.
- Have students define and become familiar with the term “patriarchy” as a concept, a structuring social logic, and the ongoing production of inequality according to a Western gender binary
- Have students consider patriarchal violence as literal or physical but also ideological and a constitutive element of so many of the institutions that structure their lives (school, church, the family, etc.)
- Have students discuss their own indoctrination into a patriarchal social order and the ways that plays out in real time according to the gendered logics by which they were and continue to be socialized or disciplined
bell hooks’ “Understanding Patriarchy” is a profoundly straightforward, anecdotal and analytical piece that names, describes, and explores the concept of “patriarchy.” Crucially, hooks’s attention here is directed at the scene of the black intra-mural; she largely considers patriarchy as it defines and overdetermines social relations between black people. She indicts her father for his patriarchal violence and recalls the beatings he enacted on her and her brother in order to discipline them into normatively gendered subjects. The quotidian nature of such a scene encourages students to begin naming or objectifying patriarchal violence as they’ve experience it in their own lives. Many of them will have already been struggling with the feeling or suspicion that something about the enforcement of Western-gender roles is fundamentally wrong and dehumanizing, however, most lack the exposure to a vocabulary that would corroborate this. hooks provides the key pieces of this vocabulary and also sets the stage for an exploration of the ways in which violence against women and children, homophobia, and transphobia are (though distinct phenomenon) each symptomatic of the same kinds of patriarchal thinking and values.
“Hooks indicts her father for his patriarchal violence and recalls the beatings he enacted on her and her brother in order to discipline them into normatively gendered subjects.”
Following behind the dubious example of their adult models, black male students tend to be highly skeptical and downright resentful of the idea that they operate in not just with privilege, but in a position of structural power over (again, in the context of the black-intramural) black women, children, and queer or otherwise non-normative folks. hooks takes us to the root of the oft-spouted logic that black people’s problems are due to their lack of fathers, and she explodes Moynihan’s discourse of pathology as she exposes the ways in which black fatherhood is a site of violence and a site wherein black men externalize the negative feelings and powerlessness they experience in the world in the form of emotional, physical, and psychic abuse onto black women and children. These are generally novel concepts to my students, many of whom issue from single parent (mother) homes. hooks puts us on the road of not just rewiring masculinity, but abolishing fatherhood and masculinity as they exist in this world. And even as most students will remain invested in normative performances of gender, they all appreciate the opportunity and space to begin objectifying those performances as infeasible, unattainable, and violent impositions.
Given the pushback where it concerns my male students understanding their place as potential and likely purveyors of violence where it concerns our patriarchal social order, I supplement the hooks with “The Black Male Privileges Checklist” by Jewel Woods. Only some of the material will be relevant to eighth and ninth graders, as they haven’t quite come into the fullness of the relation of domination that we call “gender.” At the same time, they have immense amounts of experience with gender disparities and the female students are often willing and excited to testify to the ways in which they, from the space of the program itself to their homes and schools, are marginalized and seen as less than. The “Checklist” text becomes a useful resource to make sure our discussion stays rooted in the often overlooked day-to-day reality of living as a gendered being. It helps students begin to grasp the ways in which their behaviors are not manifestations of their unique and sovereign will, but part of social structures that organize life in this world according to profoundly sophisticated but decipherable logics.
“Eighth and ninth graders have immense amounts of experience with gender disparities.”
One exercise I do here is to split the students up into two groups by their socialized genders and have them say everything that comes to mind about the other gender over the course of about 7 minutes or so, going as fast as possible. Emphasizing that they can say anything they want and speeding them along, more or less functions to free their defenses, and so the male students time and time again reveal the ways they are already being indoctrinated into a patriarchal thinking that objectifies women as sexual objects and means to the end of emotional needs. Bringing the groups together and reading the lists is a profoundly tense and difficult next step of the exercise. I usually do the female students list first and then the male students, and after their female peers hear the associations they have, there is an open antagonism in the room. Of course, this is a tricky exercise, and best done with help and in a context where students have the necessary resources to address what might get stirred up for them emotionally. In conclusion, which I make sure does not come off to students as a “resolution,” I ask students to think really concretely and practically about ways they might navigate a patriarchal world more ethically based on their subject positions.
- Keguro Macharia, “Hands up Don’t Shoot,” (2014)
- J. Cole, “Be Free,” (2014), or Kenneth Whalum, “Might Not Be Ok,” (feat. Big Krit) (2016)
- Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” (1977)
- Have students think aloud and with one another about why it is that black people lack access to the bodily vernacular of surrender
- Have students rethink the relationship between blackness and being human, considering that “the human” is a project and a mode of life that is parasitic on blackness (and demands the exclusion of black people) for its coherence
- Have students think about and attempt diagnose the gaps in the analysis offered by J. Cole/Big Krit
- Have students understand “intersectionality” as an analytic that addresses the gaps in the analyses of black men who (alongside a larger world) treat their issues as being synonymous with black issues as such.
Keguro Macharia’s “hands up, don’t shoot,” from their wordpress blog, Gukira: With(out) Predicates, is a brief and beautiful intervention into the discourse on antiblack violence that examines the process by which even a globally legible or universally recognized bodily gesture, such as surrender through raised hands, becomes “illegible” and “irrelevant” on a black person. “Blackness becomes the break in this global bodily vernacular,” Macharia writes, in a piece that challenges students at the level of ideas as well as that of reading. Given its brevity, the text is perfect for an extended, collective close-reading, and provides students the opportunity to look up new terms and collaboratively come to an understanding of how the author is pushing the conversation well beyond what they’ve likely encountered so far. Ultimately, the piece deftly condenses a chorus of critiques of “the human” from black studies into something digestible for a high school scholar in a way that I find invaluable.
The above tracks by musical artists J. Cole and Kenneth Whalum, when read with Macharia’s text, clarify and affectively reinforce the critique of mainstream and liberal discourses or rhetoric around anti-black state violence offered in “hands up, don’t shoot.” The songs go well with Macharia’s piece as they, too, pose crucial questions about the ongoing nature of black subjection and the present tense of black unfreedom. They also aid students in the long-term process of learning to questioning abstract universals that they are taught to take for granted in the colonial education they receive from the state; “freedom” and “humanity” being chief among these. Initial questions such as, “Are black people really free?,” “Free from what exactly?” or “What does freedom mean?” lead to broader questions about the history of the idea of freedom in the West and its dialectical relationship to black chattel slavery in the New World.
“Are black people really free?,” “Free from what exactly?”
The musical texts ask to be read at multiple levels; lyrical content, formal structure, and soundscape (the music and the affects the sounds generate), and students tend to find it engaging to be able to practice (close-)reading in places beyond books and articles. By “close-reading,” I mean something like this: J. Cole’s metaphorical invocation of chains provides an opportunity for a formal exploration of metaphor as a ubiquitous literary device, but crucially, it also works to begin presenting a different paradigm for the temporality of black unfreedom. Similarly, Kenneth Whalum and Big Krit emotionally and intelligently intervene on the conversation, insisting that anti-black state violence be thought historically and structurally.
Where so many analyses of antiblackness peer into this abyss only to reflexively turn away and toward narrative equilibrium via resolution, “practical” or “feasible” policy change, reform, etc., these tracks ask us to stay in the hold, to stay held by our not having the answers, and to redefine this space as one of something other than nihilism. Students can already name and put their finger on what they sense as the refusal many of the adults and caretakers in their lives to significantly engage their reality. The idea that they are not “ready” or somehow can’t bear such intimate knowledge of the predicament of their own lives is one that most of them virulently reject and resent, so they, in many ways, greet the humility and honesty it takes to avoid the empty gesture of telling them it will all be okay.
“Students can already put their finger on the refusal of many adults to significantly engage their reality.”
Of course, keeping with the practice of close-reading, Krit’s opening lyrics, “Mamas been cryin’ an’ they gone keep cryin’ / Black folk been dyin’ an, they gone keep dyin’,” risk taking part in a discursive universe wherein “woman” is made synonymous with “mother,” and wherein black women enter the conversation around state violence as a degree removed or as strictly mothers, when we know that this is not just a trite but dangerous misrepresentation. I would be remiss in my duties as an instructor, to insist on reading the tracks as a text in a vacuum. After close-reading, sitting with and feeling through these songs and Macharia’s piece, I invite students to think about more popular works produced by J. Cole and Big Krit and the ways in which the logics and lyrics of their other works appear to function against the liberatory impulse of these songs. Caught in an economy of performances of black masculinity that reactionarily pivot around, first and foremost, denigrating all things feminine (women, especially black ones, queer folks, emotions, openness, vulnerability, nurturing, care, domesticity, etc.), J. Cole and Big Krit’s discographies work in a very different direction than these two tracks. So the tracks, ultimately, just as much through what they lack and their silences, as what they contain, offer a vital opening into a critique of the overrepresentation of black men’s issues as those of black people as such, and black men’s active and passive complicity in this overrepresentation.
In closing, I would introduce students to the #SayHerName movement and the litany of black women and girls murdered by the state and its vigilantes as well as a text like The Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement so that they can clearly see and contextualize what an “intersectional” analysis of phenomenon and power relations looks like as well as the gaps in male-centric analyses that this analysis addresses.
- Have students grapple with the concept of “anti-blackness” and begin to distinguish it from “racism”
- Have students consider the associational force of “blackness” and “black” as linguistic units in a range of contexts
- Have students discuss what the rejection of blackness symbolically means for them at a personal, social, emotional, psychic, and collective level
Brady’s short and illuminating piece takes a word and a concept, “anti-blackness,” that is often used but rarely explained, and admirably, lucidly, and concisely seeks to begin defining it. Brady unfolds anti-blackness as a “paradigm that binds blackness and death together so much that one cannot think of one without the other.” Before reading the piece, I model free-association (writing down whatever comes to mind with no filter) for the students and ask students themselves to do it where it concerns the terms “blackness” and “black people.” Of course, this is best done in an atmosphere where students feel safe exploring difficult and, often times, repressed knowledge that they hold deep in their minds, hearts, and bodies. The free-association exercise doubles as a window by which to introduce students to the study of symbols. A complementary exercise is to straightforwardly explore the meanings of “black” as used in everyday language. The “black market,” the “black plague,” “black-ice,” being “black-balled,” etc. The corroboration of Brady’s analysis of the symbolic force of the terms “blackness” and “black” is all around us, and again, the students come, however frightened of it they may be, with this knowledge already. Brady pushes beyond this conceptual level and anchors the piece with the concrete example of MLK and the ways his image has been used to promote American hegemony despite the radical politics he reached before his murder. Crucially, the text situates anti-blackness historically, as the living and mutating legacy of racial slavery, and it will be the first time students are presented with the idea that forced labor is not the essential category for thinking slavery in the New World, but the slave’s status as a commodity, an object among other objects. This is a difficult concept, and sometimes ends up being just a seed planted, in the hopes that its implications grow into fruition at a later time.
“The text situates anti-blackness historically, as the living and mutating legacy of racial slavery.”
Big Bill Bronzy’s “Get Back,” originally titled, “Black, Brown and White Blues,” embodies Brady’s theoretical provocation in the blues form. The black vernacular tradition is a dogged and brilliant repository for the resources necessary to grapple with, and continue living and loving in the wake or alongside our analyses of anti-blackness. The song is also a nod to the ways in which black studies, as a formal and institutional body, is a conceptual movement that is trying to catch up to it’s more sensual and less formal cousin, black music. Bronzy beats Brady to the spot, and with less words in the refrain, “If you white, you alright / If you brown, stick around / but if you black, oh brotha, get back! get back! get back!” In my experience, students have found it something of an oddity, but very catchy, and a useful affective reinforcement or supplement to, again, in line with a black vernacular tradition, the same embodied knowledge that Brady and others touch on conceptually. Regardless of their class positions, students know and will have known that something about this hierarchy of value is familiar, and being able to give words to what they’ve already seen (and, tragically, so often have begun to internalize as a degradation inherent to themselves and their being (black), collectively and individually,) lifts a burden from their hearts and minds even as it tasks them with the responsibility to live in light of their knowledge.
Alex Alston is a graduate student and cat-companion at Columbia University. When not teaching, he plays guitar and struggles to keep houseplants alive. His research interests include ecological ways of thinking blackness, slavery, and animality; theories of the human; afropessimism and the anthropocene; trauma in all its social and psychic genres; black simulations of masculinity; and the non-human flora and fauna that hide out in black literature.
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