Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Dec 4: John Proctor on June Jordan

It Be Like That Sometimes but Sometimes It’s Not, and The Present Life of Alexandria and Nykeira

Early December is many things to many people, most of them good. Early-season snowfall, the darkest nights of the year, and of course the advent with its daily hope of something new and interesting with each day, like a brightly lit candle, or a stale piece of chocolate, or an essay.
     But of all the essay-related advent events, one in particular brings my heart not elation, not dread, but perhaps mostly let’s-get-this-over-with: the season-before-the-season, end-of-semester grading. And with my freshman classes it means, in particular, grading persuasive essays.
     Of all the commonly practiced essay modes, persuasion is perhaps my least favorite. This might be because the mode forces me to think on at least a couple of unpleasant facts: 1) We Americans are really bad at this mode of discourse, and 2) I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do, but probably more than my students assume I do.
     To keep both of these facts from working too firmly against me, I’ve taken this time of year to trying to assign persuasive work around an idea or issue with which I myself am struggling. This year I decided to mold an assignment about the confluence of language and power, specifically how people and systems use language to challenge or reinforce systemic power structures. In a way I was presupposing something my colleague Sarah Pape said on social media this week when describing her liberal studies students making a collective curriculum of resources for victims of the wildfires that tore through Paradise, California: “…[T]eaching is a call to action. Language is our tool. It transforms.”
     I started with a discussion on the relationship between the singular “they” and evolving notions of gender fluidity, and then asked them to spend a few minutes thinking about linguistic sleights of hand they themselves make to take control of language and by proxy their lives. Then I gave them dry erase markers and had them write some of their favorites on the board. I did this with three sections of; here’s a sample from one:

This exercise made that day my favorite of the semester. My students were busting each other up, teaching me, the adult in the room, some of the ways they speak to each other. We talked about using words like “mad” and “stupid” not as adjectives but as intensifiers, about “Dead-Ass” as an interjection to let someone you’re being totally serious right now, about how many expressions they use are malapropisms of heist fantasies (“make bank,” “let’s get this bread,” “green”). I then perhaps flippantly posited to my students—each section a medley of black, brown, and white—a position I believe I first read Nick Tosches take writing about blackface minstrel Emmett Miller: That the progress of American language and culture is primarily of white appropriation of black utterance. I said this in the first section I had that day, then found myself saying it in every section after it in reacting to their shared language.
     By the time I got to my third and last section of the day I was wondering how I might say something new, but it turned out I didn’t have to say much of anything once I got them going. As one student—a young white woman who has decided as a freshman, god love her, that she’s a writer—spoke of the many expressions she and her high school friends described being knock-down drunk, another student said, “It be like that sometimes.”
     I paused for a moment, unsure if she was responding to the other student or positing her contribution. This student, Nykeira, was doing both. She went on to describe how her parents say it as a lighthearted response to any situation.
     “You put your clothes in the dryer and forgot to press start…It be like that sometimes.”
     “You left your phone in the charger all night, and it’s still at 20%? It be like that sometimes.”
     I told Nykeira that “It be like that sometimes” could be circumscribed into the Guidelines for Black English (Rule #4) that June Jordan developed with her own college students in Brooklyn in the mid-Eighties: “Use be or been only when you want to describe a chronic, ongoing state of things.” The essay that contains those guidelines, the seminal and sublimely titled “Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” has cited by many white people as perhaps the first time they’ve had a black person attempt to explain what it’s like speaking the language of their historical oppressor, and how they circumnavigate that oppression through their use and disuse of that very language:
[O]ur culture has been constantly threatened by annihilation or, at least, the swallowed blurring of assimilation. Therefore, our language is a system constructed by people constantly needing to insist that we exist, that we are present. Our language devolves from a culture that abhors all abstraction, or anything tending to obscure or delete the fact of the human being who is here and now/the truth of the person who is speaking or listening…For example, you cannot say, “Black English is being eliminated.” You must say, instead, “White people eliminating Black English.”
     Late that afternoon during my office hours, Nykeira and Alexandria, the only two black women in that section, came by to thank me for letting them teach me during class. They said they had fun, it didn’t feel like a class, they didn’t know it could be so interesting. (I’m paraphrasing. This is what I remember hearing.)
     Alexandria and Nykeira also told me how isolating their first semester has sometimes felt, with the expectations they carry in their own families, and the expectations they rub against in college, wondering when to talk like they talk at home and when to talk, you know, like I do. They said—or, again, this is what I remember them saying—that the discussion in class on this day was the first time they felt free to address this in class without fear of judgment.
     It’s rare for a student, much less two of them, to stop by my office to let me know how much they enjoyed my class, much less to be so specific about how I affected them.  I wanted to let them know they affected me too. I thanked them, then responded the only way I could think to respond in that moment, with a question: What would it sound like if I started saying, It be like that sometimes?
     I fumbled around in my seat on the other side of the desk from them, but what I was trying to say was something like this: I’m still learning to navigate being a white male college professor. I think many students approach me with the expectation that my whiteness and my maleness will define me and my relationships with them as teacher and mentor, and if I’m being completely honest with myself, it does. I read essays like “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You,” or “Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “Should Writers Use They Own English?” with a similar feeling I get when discussing the use of the singular “they”—first with the distinct grammatical discomfort of seeing the rules broken, then the deeper discomfort that the rules are only important in defining the relationships of the people using language to shape their personal, political, intellectual, and emotional landscapes. I want to be a person who says, “It be like that sometimes,” because I hear it and it resonates. It be like that for me too.
     I’ve always struggled with authority, including my own. I realize, in thinking about the power imbalance of the conversation at my desk, how unfair my request was, to ask their permission to appropriate their words. This suspicion was confirmed when I sent an early draft to these two students yesterday and they sent me a brief response and commentary that evening. I’ve spliced together the comments and email response here:
Hi professor, [we] read over your essay. Overall it was good however we have our opinions. Since you are going to publish this you have to think about the Black audience and how they would feel reading this. [We] understand we recommend using the phrase "It be like that sometimes.” We told you that because we finally felt as though someone cared and in the moment we were enjoying ourselves giving you examples of "it be like that sometimes,” we developed a comfort to express ourselves with you. However, this is a serious situation. In your office we did say you should try using it but however, [We] are only 2 black people out of thousands in America. The rest may not feel this way and would be deeply offended. Thinking you are making light out of a heavy situation. 
You actually using the phrase in society would be appropriation. People would be very offended because that's not how you speak. We understand and appreciate you learning black language but coming from a black perspective when you mention you want to use certain phrases it does become offensive. People can also feel that you reading other essays that deal with this still does not give you the right nor ok to want to speak black English. We want white people to accept our language before anything. 
Truth is you will never hear that phrase on a regular. I would highly suggest taking it out because it means more than you as a white person wanting to be able to say it. Or explain that.
I honestly can’t explain that, except to say I was doing exactly what I critiqued in that class session: practicing white appropriation of black utterance. For this I was wrong, and the only reason I’m leaving it in this essay is to acknowledge that here.
     I read Alexandria and Nykeira’s email on my phone while on my way home from work. I’d caught a ride home with my friends Mike and Vanessa, a married couple who also work at and around my college. I told them about my experiment, and summarized my students’ reaction.
     Vanessa said, “I don’t know. I feel like right now, with ‘woke’ being such a thing, lots of people in college try to be fake-woke, you know, to be cool.”
     “Maybe I’m fake-woke,” I said, trying to sound like I was joking.
     “No, you’re not,” she said, but not in a way that convinced me. “I mean, I’m Puerto Rican, but I’m married to this white dude here. We live with my Puerto Rican family, and I feel like I’m always walking this line. And I found my own place, with my own people. I spend so much time talking to my friends about RuPaul that I probably talk like a gay black man from the Nineties.”
     As a white person in a position of given authority, I can’t understand the “rules” of Black English that June Jordan and her class identified, because I haven’t had a background or experience that informs them. I am a middle aged white guy, informed by decades of experience as such, and I can’t use an expression like “It be like that sometimes” without the person I’m speaking to thinking I’m joking, even if I don’t intend it.
     Jordan’s essay ends with an essay-within-the-essay, the title student’s words in response to the shooting death of his unarmed brother at the hands of Brooklyn police which concludes:
…I believe that to a large degree, justice may only exist as rhetoric. I find it difficult to talk of true justice when the oppression of my people both at home and abroad attests to the fact that inequality and injustice are serious problems whereby Blacks and Third World people are perpetually short-changed by society. Something has to be done about the way in which this world is set up. Although it is a difficult task, we do have the power to make a change.
     We are unfortunately still living in an era in which cops are allowed to shoot unarmed black men with impunity. We are, though, hopefully now living in an era in which educators think about the ways their teaching is informed by the same systemic racism. It is only a matter of degrees between comfort in appropriating linguistic usage and excusing a person in a position of authority for performing acts of violence on those people whose language we steal.
     As I finish writing this, I’m looking forward to reading my students’ work next week. I mean that mostly as, I’m looking in the general direction of forward, which holds next week and all those essays. But I’m also maybe a bit more eager than usual at the prospect of reading my students’ words as they try to educate me with their facts and perspectives. I expect at least a few will educate me, and more than a few will fulfill my expectations of them to at least explore the relationships between their words and their perspectives. And if a few, or more than a few, don’t match up with my expectations…Well, I guess things happen that way.

John Proctor’s work has been published in The Weeklings, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and the forthcoming anthology of work on the rhetoric of suffering, Beyond Pain (Routledge). He is a lecturer of writing and media studies at Manhattanville College, and runs a weekly writing workshop for men at Rikers Island.


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