Be Alright

A Reflection by Michael Burns

Michael BurnsBe Alright

Where I'm From

I teach courses in composition and rhetoric, multi-ethnic literature, and African American rhetorics and writings. I am Black, and I think that matters in lots of ways, but especially in terms of how students at a predominantly white institution (PWI) perceive me as an educator. I am the first Black teacher many white students have ever had (an informal poll in each class confirms this), and for students of color, I am often the first Black professor they have had in college. So my body and politics figure into how students respond to my pedagogy. In my experience, white students in general education classes with no specific racial or ethnic focus are typically fine with me so long as race does not come up. Most are even fine if race and ethnicity are breached from a benign, multiculturalist perspective. However, as soon as whiteness is explicitly revealed or critiqued, or white supremacy is called out, most white students display resistance to the idea or shut down altogether. Black students and students of color typically have the opposite reaction and savor the opportunity to grapple with the topic of race in white-dominated space. Most students in courses focused on multi-ethnic or African American topics, regardless of race, tend to be more receptive, though a multiculturalist perspective still prevails. And in all cases, there's a need to help students develop more critical understandings of how race impacts all our lives.

The prompt I've offered in this collection was first used in a course I taught on African American Rhetorics in a senior-level seminar for English majors. My overarching goals for the class are to have students

  1. actively engage texts connected to Black Americans' resistance to oppression and acts of liberation;
  2. consider how Black Americans' rhetorical activity can foster more nuanced understandings of the Black experience; and
  3. develop a more critical awareness of the role language serves an available means to improve the social, political, and material realities of Black people.

This assignment is my attempt to move toward a more critical pedagogy. I want students to understand that there are aspects of Black American language practices that originate before Black folks arrived in the U.S. I also want to de-center ideas of language hierarchy, and thus notions of deficit, so that students are open to the possibility that Black American language (or African American Vernacular English/AAVE) can mean and matter differently than what Geneva Smitherman (2000) calls the "Language of Wider Communication" (p. 20). There's also a goal to convey to students that the Black experience does not begin with slavery, and that even within the institution of slavery there are maintained connections to Africa, even as those connections have been variously and vigorously challenged.

Given my intentions, in the first week of the class students are assigned two central readings: Geneva Smitherman's (1977) first chapter in her foundational work Talkin and Testifyin, "From Africa to the New World and into the Space Age"; and Maulana Karenga's (2003) chapter in Ronald L. Jackson II and Elaine B. Richardson's Understanding African American Rhetoric, titled "Nommo, Kawaida, and Communicative Practice: Bringing Good into the World." These readings are central to the assignment prompt, so I'll start my discussion of process with a brief analytically summary of each work. In "What We Did," I will offer an excerpt of their application from a class discussion on Ms. Lauren Hill's (2014) "Black Rage (Sketch)," and I will conclude with a few thoughts on reimagining the course in light of soundwriting as a pedagogy.

Where I'm At

Smitherman's (1977) first chapter accounts for the sociolinguistic and cultural origins of Black language practice in the U.S. She offers: "Black Dialect is an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America's linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression, and life in America" (p. 2). For Smitherman, there is evidence of a trajectory in Black language practice that connects the present to an African past. Simultaneously, however, Smitherman notes, "Black language is Euro-American speech with an African American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture" (p. 2). Here, Smitherman disrupts the idea that Black language is derivative of Euro-American speech. Instead, Euro-American speech is but one component of Black language practice. Smitherman cites two key dimensions in Black speech—language and style—that, while overlapping in terms of how they are evidenced in practice, each extend from the historical conditions of pidgin (learned via cross-language contact) and creole (acquired from birth) language development during enslavement. Smitherman supports this claim with brief analyses of idiomatic expressions (like Nina Simone's [1967] truism, "It be's that way sometime") and a historic account of syntactic development from 1619 (pp. 3–7).

In accounting for the emergence and development of Black language, Smitherman notes the similarities in sociolinguistic processes for all language learners, who "attempt to fit the words and sounds of the new language into the basic idiomatic mold and structure of their native tongue" (p. 6). Still, while Smitherman holds that there are some consistent practices that reveal a direct connection between West African language syntax and idioms and contemporary Black language practices, "it is also true that the distance between contemporary Black [language] and White American English is not as great as it once was" (p. 10). Part of this reduced distance is due to the ratio of Blacks to whites in the U.S. (as compared to Caribbean nations) and external pressures on Black Americans to "assimilate and adopt the culture and language of the majority" (p. 10). Even as Smitherman accounts for these pressures that manifest in mainstream institutions, there is also a suggestion that the maintenance of Black language practices can in and of itself serve as a form of resistance and liberation. Smitherman describes this process as the "push–pull," which she equates to W. E. B. DuBois's idea of double consciousness (pp. 10–11). It is this ambivalent positionality of Black Americans that locates the largess of cultural production and identification.

Where Smitherman (1977) establishes a framework for understanding the development of Black American language practice as a synthesis of West African syntax and European American language, Karenga (2003) works toward a general theory of African rhetorical practices that can be applied to the communicative practices of Black Americans. Here Karenga is interested in "using classical African sources, principally Egyptian (Kemetic) texts, as a fundamental point of departure and framework for understanding and engaging African American rhetoric" (p. 3). As Karenga advocates for a theory based on African sources, he is first interested in making the distinction between rhetorical traditions that extend from Europe and Africa. Secondly, he notes that this distinction also reveals different intentions in the ways that rhetorical traditions have been called into service, which he forwards with "an implicit critique and corrective for the dominant consumerist conception of a rhetoric pressed into the service of vulgar persuasion, advertisement, seduction, and sales" (p. 3). Where Karenga presents the critique that Aristotelian rhetoric has been compromised into service beyond the disciplinary interest in the polis, his corrective offers that "the communal character of [African] communicative practice is reaffirmed and rhetoric is approached as, above all, a rhetoric of communal deliberation, discourse, and action, oriented toward that which is good for the community of the world" (p. 3). The distinctions Karenga makes in rhetorical traditions here, while stark, do clarify the idea that rhetorical theory is political and thus related to power, oppression, and liberation.

The four themes offered in the assignment prompt all reside within Kawaida philosophy, which "defines itself as an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world and is directed toward the enduring historical project of maximum human freedom and human flourishing times" (Karenga, 2003, p. 4). Though the framework of Kawaida philosophy is positioned as changeable and responsive, it does contain "four enduring socioethical concerns" which include "the dignity and rights of the human person, the well-being and flourishing of family and community, the integrity and value of the environment, and the reciprocal solidarity and cooperation of mutual benefit for humanity" (p. 4). In turn, these socioethical concerns correlate with the African rhetorical themes of community, resistance, reaffirmation, and possibility that students are encouraged to apply in their analyses.

When placed into conversation with each other, the Smitherman (1977) and Karenga (2003) chapters offer a specific yet deep set of concepts students can reference for the assignment. There is also a set of organizing principles they can reference, which students can then use to inform their analyses. Given that for most students this is the first time they will have been required to work with Afrocentric theory, this is also an opportunity to decenter whiteness and Eurocentric theory from their critical approaches to textual readings. This move extends both from my concern for critical pedagogy and addressing the diversity requirements put forth by our university's strategic action plan, which mandate that our instruction should "promote trans-cultural literacy [and] cultural competency" (Building on Excellence, 2013–2014, p. 31).

What We Did

As I stated above, the first run of the course was in the fall of 2014, when the Black Lives Matter movement started to gain national attention. There was an outpouring of protest songs, some of which emerged out of the activist swell that manifested after the August 9, 2014, murder of Mike Brown by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. If there was one track that set if off for me, it was Ms. Lauren Hill's (2014) "Black Rage (Sketch)." I played the tune in class and used it as a sample text in light of the assignment and references to Smitherman (1977) and Karenga (2003). I'll offer a partial account here of the analyses that came out of our discussion.

That Ms. Hill shared the tune for free on her blog and SoundCloud account already positions the song as a sort of offering. In Karenga's (2003) terms, this move can be interpreted as a rhetoric of possibility which "seeks not simply to persuade, but to share, to inform, to question, and to search for and explore possibilities in the social and human condition" (p. 6). Ms. Hill (2014) adds a statement to accompany the song's title: "An old sketch of Black Rage, done in my living room. Strange, the course of things. Peace for MO." Hill's allusion to "the course of things" situates the song as a reaffirmation of the continual struggle, and it immediately connects the personal ("in my living room") to the political ("Peace for MO"), an example of the community relation that Karenga (2003) offers as a component of African communicative practice.

As a class, we noted that Hill's song gets to the essence of Black language that combines "Euro-American speech with African American meaning, nuance, tone, and gesture" (Smitherman, 1977, p. 2). For example, the melody that Hill uses belongs to "My Favorite Things," a song composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II (1960) for The Sound of Music. While there are several notable versions of the song, two stand out as the most popular. The first is by Julie Andrews, who first performed the song in 1961 and again in 1965 for the movie version of the musical ("My Favorite Things," 2016). The second notable version is performed by John Coltrane on his 1961 album of the same title (Hammerstein & Rodgers, 1961/2004). We made the connection that by virtue of her melodic choice, Hill (2014) situates herself between white mainstream and Black popular culture versions of the song, right in line with what Smitherman (1977) identifies as the "push–pull" (pp. 10–12) in Black American language practices.1

In terms of her lyric, Hill (2014) repeats the phrase "Black rage is" throughout, citing the various locations where the rage of Black Americans is justified. In the song's opening line, for example, Hill offers that "Black rage is founded on two-thirds a person." This reference to being viewed as part of a person connects comments Hill (2002) previously made in her "Interlude 5" on her MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 album and the Three-Fifths Compromise enacted during the 1787 Constitutional Convention that deemed enslaved people of African descent as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of "determining a state's total population for legislative representation and taxing purposes" ("Three-Fifths Compromise," 2016). Hill's intentional use of ambivalent lyrics, rather than leading to an easy interpretation, instead facilitates conversation among readers (as a rhetoric of community) whose interpretations become constitutive of the song's meanings, as well as working across the personal and the political as a rhetoric of resistance.

A Few Thoughts to Close

This class discussion served as a model for what was expected for the assignment, and I was mostly pleased with the results. In the first run of the assignment in the seminar course, I allowed students to select any text that they thought could work as a subject of analysis according to the prompt. Some students picked speeches (like Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet" and Ida B. Wells's "The Lynch Law in All Its Phases") or works of literature (for example, Alice Walker's "Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit" and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Two students (perhaps because of the in-class example I discussed above) chose to use music for their analyses (The Roots's How I Got Over and Childish Gambino's "Sweatpants"). I proposed a repeat of the seminar for the following year, and I revised the assignment prompt to the version that appears here. However, the course was under-enrolled and subsequently cancelled. I decided to convert the course from one reserved for upper-level English majors into a general education offering for all undergraduate students. I also made the choice to have students select a protest song to use for the assignment, and with the encouragement of my co-authors, I've decided to also include the option for students to compose with sound. This class is now on the books and can run as soon as Spring 2017.

What difference will it make? Going back to the ideas we raised in the introduction, the choices to use music as a focus of analysis and to use soundwriting as a mode to account for that analysis are not, in and of themselves, critical moves. However, if taken on with the intention of helping students make connections between our classrooms and the other spaces they inhabit, these choices can align with critical pedagogy. For my part, I think that examples from popular culture of Black language practices in the service of resistance and liberation are just as accessible to students. Too, I think the use of contemporary texts can give credence to the trajectories offered by Karenga (2003) and Smitherman (1977). There's the opportunity for students not familiar with AAVE to develop a more nuanced appreciation of the dialect via music produced in the vein of Black protest, which can also impact their views on Black American experiences. For Black students who speak AAVE, there's a space created for needed validation of their language practices within the classroom and the university. Both in terms of the potential texts we choose to analyze and in the use of orality and sound as an alternate mode of composition, a critical engagement of Black music and Black language can send the message that Black students belong. That "We gon' be alright."


1 Coltrane was dealing with his own "push–pull" in 1961, having just received the horn from Miles Davis in 1960 before leaving the trumpet player's band and embarking on his exploration of modal jazz and East Indian music and culture (Thomas, 1975, p. 108).

Michael BurnsBe Alright