A Reflection by Ben Kuebrich
Some Reflections, Provocations, and Questions
When Courtney Danforth and Kyle Stedman asked me if I had anything for a collection on soundwriting, I went and got some help from my friends. Yanira Rodríguez and I had been talking about Kendrick Lamar's (2015) To Pimp A Butterfly and possibly teaching with it. We had been recently involved with an intersectional movement at Syracuse University, a movement that, through action, was deepening my commitments to anti-racist solidarity, while also opening up some painful awareness of my complicities—a journey I'm still on.
As I prepared to join Michael Burns and Tim Dougherty in West Chester, I was also wondering how I could better develop a pedagogy that was accountable to the movement work that was around me. As I was preparing to teach my classes at West Chester, I was also listening to some Stokely Carmichael speeches, and there's one in particular where he's at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966 that's stuck with me through the planning process.
White People Who Call Themselves Activists
And the question is, How are white people who call themselves activists ready to start move into the white communities on two counts: on building new political institutions to destroy the old ones that we have? And to move around the concept of white youth refusing to go into the army? So that we can start, then, to build a new world. It is ironic to talk about civilization in this country. This country is uncivilized. It needs to be civilized. It needs to be civilized. [Applause]
In this clip, I hear Carmichael [who later took on the name Kwame Ture] saying to me: You want to live in a world without racism? You want to roll back the damage of slavery and settler colonialism? Then dismantle the systems your people created, currently support, and benefit from. And restrain your people from murdering more people.
The words seem more relevant today than ever, and they guided me as I thought about teaching at West Chester University in suburban Pennsylvania, where 80% of the students are white, a university population that in many ways resembles the community in which I was raised.
How do I teach people in a way that is accountable to movements for Black freedom and the liberation of all people?
Near the end of my first year at West Chester, I was also listening to some Vijay Prashad lectures, including one titled "The Problem with Multiculturalism" (2014):
We end up learning that really the project of anti-racism is about exposing power and how power so carefully buries itself, and how power likes us to come on stage and dance, and how power likes to come to those events and watch us dance, and how power likes to come on stage before we dance and say "I'm so happy you're going to dance," and power likes to finance us doing all those things, and then we go home and take pictures and celebrate it and say "I've done my job."
— Vijay Prashad, "The Problem with Multiculturalism" (2014)
Prashad's "The Problem with Multiculturalism" also describes a course he teaches at Trinity College simply called "Racism." According to Prashad, the students expect to learn two things: "how racism is bad and it is often the police, and secondly, how their cultures need to be celebrated." For Prashad, it is especially the second part of this expectation that is central to a multicultural approach, one of three elements of what Prashad calls "the new racism" (the other two are colorblindness and model minorityism). For Prashad, the multicultural approach demands that we superficially celebrate each other's culture, but this minimizes or completely erases the fact that some cultures exercise dominance over others. Multiculturalism may help diminish prejudice, but if we understand racism as prejudice plus power, then we see how the multicultural approach perpetuates and masks racial hierarchies.
How does a color-conscious educator make sure that hip-hop does not simply dance for students? That it is not a superficially celebrated spectacle in the classroom, but that it is taught in the context of systemic oppression and struggles for rights, dignity, and liberation?
Prashad (2014) describes that the students in "Racism" read about racism and multiculturalism. But the project he finds most important is one in which students are assigned a campus building at Trinity College and must do historical research on the person the building is named after. They research all semester long, and then Prashad has them Krazy Glue their findings to the outside of the building.
He doesn't provide much detail for the assignment, but his analysis of multiculturalism helps fill in the gaps. It is safe to assume that, like most U.S. campuses, the buildings at Trinity College are named after rich white men. The students would be reading analyses of racism and meanwhile learning about how these white men became powerful enough to get buildings named after them. This would provide a local example of how power operates within a color-conscious lens from the class readings, and the final result is made as a public disruption to the silent working of power as manifested in this act of naming.
What can we take from this example and apply to soundwriting?1
Black Lives Matter and West Chester University
I titled my first composition course at West Chester University "Composing Ourselves in a 'Colorblind' USA." I assigned students texts like Frederick Douglass's (1852/1999) "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" and work from people like Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Jay Smooth, Tim Wise, and Michelle Alexander. My goal was to start with eras in which the right side of history is clear: pre-Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. After looking closely at these moments, students would then analyze, discuss, and debate moments and questions of contemporary U.S. racism. They could ask themselves, "What side am I on?" in history and then ask themselves, "What side am I on?" in the contemporary moment.
It didn't all work out as planned. About halfway through the semester, I polled students on debate questions that they had written. In response to the question, "Is the Black Lives Matter movement fundamentally racist?", 48% of the students in one class responded "yes" and only 11% of students responded "no."
They had read Audre Lorde's (1984) "The Uses of Anger," Michelle Alexander (2010) on mass incarceration, and watched Tim Wise break down centuries of white privilege all the way through the Obama presidency (Morris, 2013). We read article after article explaining how racism is prejudice plus power. But the students voted that BLM was still racist.
Over 50% of my course evaluations included comments like: "the class was good, but why did we have to talk about racism THE WHOLE TIME?" or "It was interesting, but he sort of wore out the whole racism thing." I witnessed some students opening up and deepening their analysis, but a similar amount closing off, becoming defensive and disinterested, especially as we got to the contemporary moment.
I decided to switch up my course the next semester, but still with the goal of being accountable to movements for social and racial justice.
Soundwriting: What We Did
In a class around political rhetoric, I used soundwriting for my third unit. You can check out the syllabus for details, but the inquiry moved from electoral politics to a broader sense of the politics students encounter in daily life, to political disruption through contemporary music. Current events, both hyper-local and global, would help bring us into discussions about structural inequality and white supremacy.2
For the final section of the course, students were asked to pick a song that interrupted and/or disrupted political debate, policy, powerful interests, and law enforcement (see assignment). When I first introduced this assignment, I showed a trailer for What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix, 2016), featuring a performance of "Mississippi Goddam" spliced in with brief commentary from civil rights activist Dick Gregory and visuals of white supremacist (often police) repression of the Southern Black freedom struggle. I then read students an analysis of the song from Signature, which provides important context about the audience and moment (Staggs, 2013). And then I played Brother Ali's "Uncle Sam Goddamn" (Rhymesayers Entertainment, 2007) to demonstrate how themes and lines are picked up and cited across time and place (see the palimpsest theory mentioned in our introduction). This became the first example of what could be done through our podcast assignment, exploring the political depth and influence of a song.
Lamar's (2015) To Pimp a Butterfly became the shared text for a week's worth of discussion and analysis, developing an understanding of the specific political potentials and disruptions of music. I assigned "Alright" and "I," and they had to choose one more song to analyze. They also read Alexander Billet's (2015) "Rough Theses on To Pimp a Butterfly" from Red Wedge, an article that gets to several political contexts. A group of five students gave mini-presentations on the article and Lamar. They taught about Lamar's trip to South Africa as he worked on the album, his "Red and Blue" Reebok ventilator shoe advertisement, and gave statistics about police violence in the USA. These presentations are one way that I'm trying to leave space in the class so as to not teach about hip-hop but to facilitate conversation around hip-hop and its political contexts.
The next class period, I played a series of videos to give more context to Lamar and hip-hop, including videos that implicate whiteness and the largely white consumer base for commercial hip-hop music.
After providing examples through Simone and Lamar, students brought in song ideas and started their analysis, and I gave three in-class tutorials about creating podcasts with Audacity. I also gave students a couple online resources (Audacity Manual Tutorials, 2016, and CNET, 2014), encouraging them to troubleshoot on their own. During one class period, I created a podcast introduction in front of my students.
Most of my students' final products included an introduction with a chosen song playing in the background, and then the rest of the episode is the song used like a block quote in writing: A section is introduced, dropped, and then picked up by the student for analysis before moving on to the next clip.
As I close this reflection, I'm thinking about conversations I've had with other teachers who also do movement work. I've been thinking about the role of formal education in relation to social justice. What should we ask from our students? Or, more precisely stated, what does our contemporary moment ask of us ethically and politically? What can be accomplished in 15 weeks?
While teaching the unit on political disruption and interruption described above, I was looking for a text that might help build a more intersectional approach to racial justice. I was telling Tim about the class, and he mentioned Hurray for the Riff Raff, in particular their "The Body Electric," which NPR named "The Political Folk Song of the Year" for 2014 (Powers, 2014). The song and video are beautiful and disruptive, and I screened it for my class.
As I researched the band more deeply, I came across an op-ed that Alynda Segarra (2015), the band's lead singer, wrote to folk musicians. Citing bell hooks, she asked them to fall in love with justice. The short op-ed, written in May 2015, opens: "People are dying. This is not a lie. Black women, men, and children are dying." Segarra describes where she stands in society in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement: a Puerto Rican female folk singer who has been tokenized by the press and described as a "voice for the voiceless." But with her ability to reach other folk musicians, she's redefining folk music back to historic roots in Odetta, Harry Belafonte, and Woody Guthrie, among others. She describes "the unheard" as distinct from "the voiceless" and the role of folk musicians in amplifying the unheard stories of others. To her contemporaries, she says: "If you are too afraid to stand up for people who are marching in the streets saying 'STOP KILLING US' then you, friend, are not a folk singer."
I assigned my students this op-ed, as well as the NPR story, and I think it offered some possible connections to them. Segarra identified the connective tissue from violences that may feel or seem individual. She also calls out and calls in, making clear the responsibility of her peers to movements for social justice. It is all complicated, but it feels like a relevant opening.
Since reading the article, I've been thinking about "loving justice" as a pedagogical goal. I haven't had enough time to let it settle and consider what it would really mean to be guided by the idea, but it seems both inclusive to a classroom like the one I was teaching while necessarily talking about systemic oppression, necessarily defining justice in our contemporary moment. Perhaps most importantly, it is available as process. Fifteen weeks is not very long in someone's life, but an ambitious goal is that I help set up the classroom so that we all begin to love justice a little bit more deeply.
1 Prashad's (2014) argument for the problem with multiculturalism is thorough, and I find it very persuasive. His arguments for what to do in response, including his description of polyculturalism, is less thorough and I find it less persuasive. This is no clearer than when Prashad described hip-hop music as all about critique and not transformation.
2 As of January 2016, the primary season had already featured a race-baiting Donald Trump, "abuela" Hillary Clinton, and Black Lives Matter taking the stage from Bernie Sanders. It would continue to provide ample opportunities to talk about dog whistle politics, outright racist hatred, appropriation, and rhetoric versus policy implications.