This past semester, I taught 13 thoughtful, self-aware (and surprisingly alert and engaged at 8:30am) students in a section of “Introduction to College Writing” at Emerson College. I told myself and my students I was grounding my teaching practice in bell hooks’ work on “engaged learning.” I resolved to be as open as I expected the students to be, without over-sharing or crossing professional lines. This involved doing all the assignments along with the students, blog posts, discussion posts etc, and sharing these reflections in class alongside the students. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a lot of work, but I also believe it worked. For the most part, they seemed as invested in creating the classroom environment as I was, I assume because they could see that I was putting in a lot of effort to do the class with them rather than just talking at them all the time. I was incredibly nervous about teaching because one can write and read fairly well, but still be unable to share that love and those skills with other people. It took a lot of generosity that I wasn’t sure I would be able to find within after feeling like I’ve already given away so much of myself to anyone in my life who needed it. I might have proven myself wrong, but let’s wait until those course evaluations come through…
Here are some of my reflections on teaching and on some of my course material from the blog I titled “Sometimes, Teaching by Zoë Gadegbeku: Eager and Slightly Anxious Writing Instructor.”
A Lot of Thought Went Into…Thinking Some More (November 27, 2017)
I’m thinking about Bresha Meadows. I’m thinking about Cyntoia Brown, who I only just heard of last week. I’m thinking about the women with babies in jail in Ghana, women whose main offense is lack of access to legal assistance and finances to get them out of petty charges.
I’m thinking about the fact that I’m not sure that “bail fund,” “prison abolition” or even “prison reform” are just not part of the vocabulary of social justice work in Ghana at the moment, because I’m not there.* Corruption has different dimensions– and in a lot of ways a lot of the same– there, teeth that bite in a different way, and I’m thinking about the fact that being here with you means that I am not there and able to provide some more meaningful analysis or action than my sentimentality. And even if I was…
I’m thinking of 26 Nigerian girls and women buried in a land they must have hoped held more promise than where they had been born. I’m thinking of the fact that we only know two of their names, I’m thinking of how a nice burial complete with white roses is the absolute least anyone could do; governments at “home” and abroad, diplomatic officials, middle-men, armed vigilantes, everyone with a stake in lives that immediately tilted off balance they minute they had to decide that facing possible death was still a better option than the present.
I’m thinking of how long it takes for the news cycle to shift away from open secrets that we have all known for years and about which we have done little, or have been powerless to address, people being sold and bought like livestock, today, five years ago, and four hundred years ago before then.
I’m thinking about the fact that Tamir Rice and Aiyanna Stanley-Jones would have both turned 15 this summer, and about the hundreds of other names I can’t know because gunning down Black people simply for living is precisely what the American police force is for. I’m thinking of places were brutalizing Black people is business as usual even when Black faces sit in suits and on money and behind big steering wheels and and and…I’m thinking of Mesha Caldwell and Chyna Doll Dupree and Candace Towns.
I’m thinking about going home to a place where elites complain that “nothing works” because they have to wait longer than they would in DC or Boston for a brunch cocktail, as they dig their designer heels a little deeper into the necks of those who would be just as well off if only they worked and prayed a little harder. I’m thinking about the women who have had to wash and clean and wipe and remain unseen so that “madams” can chase a few more letters after their name, a higher salary, another branch of a store.
I’m thinking about those women who succeed at obtaining those many letters after their name, old money as a cushion or new money as a fan, and still trapped, because cheque books only turn liquid when the husband signs, still trapped because bruises don’t feel any sweeter even if you turn and paint them on your house help’s face.
I’m thinking about schools with no roofs or walls, schools with roofs and walls that cave in and kill, about districts too far-flung from the capital to matter to anyone who has too much money and too much power to be humane. I’m thinking about women giving birth on cold tile, of people dying in hospital corridors because they didn’t have enough big men in their family or enough big English in their mouths. I’m thinking of queer people who risk their lives as they try to live and love freely because law deems it “unnatural.”
I’m thinking about Rohingya Muslims caught between persecution and more of it, of bombs going off every other day for people’s entire lifetimes in the name of “democracy and good governance.”
I’m thinking about Haiti and how I love it from afar, and what I fear is my romanticizing a long legacy of triumph and struggle that is not really mine; of New Orleans, which I have loved both from afar and up close, because I went there looking for something I cannot really name, and found it.
I’m thinking about the shame that follows all this thinking, a useless emotion really, because no one can eat my shame for breakfast or turn it into a warm place to spend the night; about how disgusting it is that no matter how I phrase my thoughts, my concern ends up being more about me and my feelings of powerlessness than about the actual people I claim to care so much about. I’m thinking about how much of this probably sounds like sentimental drivel.
And I’m thinking about the fact that the weight of responsibility I feel is too large to fit through our classroom door and I still try to bring it in, because it’s urgent that I share with you as many words from people you may just ignore if they were not on the reading list, and may still ignore even now. So, I do it anyway, knowing that my writing and teaching can only go “so far,” that I will not be able to confer this urgency to every single one of you, that you may not think about this class again until years have gone by, and maybe not even then. I think and I write a lot, and I also do…anyway.
*I hope that I don’t appear to be trying to impose American frames onto Ghana, or to erase the work Ghanaian activists and advocates do. It just appears to me that we have demonized and dehumanized incarcerated people in Ghana to the point were little thought is ever given to the atrocious, dungeon-like conditions of Ghana prisons, unless of course a high-profile political figure happens to be sent to prison.
“Taking an Approach” with Lemonade (October 31, 2017)
Of “taking an approach” in writing and art in general, Joseph Harris writes, “To transform is to reshape, not to replace or rebut. The original does not go away but is remade into something new” (Harris 75). This kind of re-making and reformation of new out of old is the exact starting point of Julie Dash’s exquisite film, Daughters of the Dust. Set in 1902, Dash’s film offers the viewer a slice of life of the Peazants, a Gullah-Geechee family preparing to leave their home in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia to start new lives up north. “What’s past is prologue,” is a line that sticks out of the opening scenes of the film like a guidepost showing us how to enter into a story that spans generations and the harrowing trans-Atlantic journeys of enslaved Africans from their home to the Americas.
I introduce this film not just to sing the praises of Julie Dash’s storytelling and Arthur Jafa’s cinematography, but because it would be impossible to discuss Beyoncé’s approach to Lemonade without honoring Julie Dash and her work. The parallels between the two films are impossible to ignore. Julie Dash’s characters spend much of the film clothed in long white dresses embroidered with fine lace, and the Louisiana bayous in which Lemonade was filmed bear striking resemblance to the landscape of Ibo Landing, the island where Daughters unfolds. Beyond aesthetics, the themes of motherhood, of owning one’s own story, of reclaiming a self that has been ravaged by the memory (and in some cases lived reality) of enslavement resound through both these works.
It is no accident that Lemonade works so closely in the mode of Daughters, as Joseph Harris would put it. I would argue that this sort of transformation, of preserving past knowledge in present life, in actions both mundane and spectacular, are the essence of making an African diaspora that is not static, but always breaking and re-making, yet always still recognizable in some ways to its former iterations. Lemonade pays homage not only to Daughters but to films like Eve’s Bayou and Waiting to Exhale, and a rich and ongoing literary conversation including Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo and Sula by Toni Morrison. This approach comes not just out of an appreciation for aesthetic beauty, but out of necessity. This is how we do diaspora.
During Unit 3, we will be using Beyoncé visual album, Lemonade, to explore questions about how multimodal compositions are created, how writers targeting a wide range of audiences engage with multimodal works, and how we as writers and artists can take new approaches to already existing work.
I will use this post to curate supplementary articles that may help with our case study.
Lemonade From Screen to Stage:
- “Freedom” at the BET Awards
- “Formation” at the Super Bowl Halftime Show
- “Love Drought” at the 2017 Grammys
- “Formation” music video
- Lemonade Medley at the 2017 VMAs (We didn’t watch this one in class, but it’s another great example, and I encourage you to take a look when you have the time.)
Influences on (and of) Lemonade:
- “How Beyoncé’s Lemonade Helped Bring a Groundbreaking Film Back to Theaters, Vanity Fair (Interview with Julie Dash)
- “Why Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the most exciting film of 2016 so far,” New Statesman
- The Louisiana Project by Carrie Mae Weems
- From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried by Carrie Mae Weems
- Lemonade Syllabus, Candice Benbow
(Audio) Visual Storytelling (How data can shape and present narratives)
- “How Music Taste Evolved,” The Pudding
- “The Words that are Most Hip Hop,” The Pudding
- “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going,” The New York Times Magazine
- “See how deadly street opioids like ‘elephant tranquilizer’ have become,” The Washington Post
Writing about Film
Texts Inspiring Visuals (and Vice Versa)
“In the past I’ve employed elements of text in and around my work, but I’m certainly not a storyteller. Storytelling requires skills that I don’t possess. Rather, in my work, text functions as a conceptual frame for creating play, counterpoint, tension and/or positioning meaning.”
Header Image source: “Hans, Simran. Why Beyoncé’s Lemonade is the most exciting film of 2016 so far.” New Statesman, 26 April 2016, https://www.newstatesman.com/2016/04/why-beyonce-lemonade-most-exciting-film-2016-so-far. Accessed 31 October 2017.
“Another Country” (November 1, 2017)
Edwidge Danticat’s writing about Haiti, New Orleans, and natural disasters invite the reader to think about the (lack of) empathy and material support the US tends to offer to people who exist in a distant elsewhere. Danticat’s essay challenges the idea that “bad things only happen elsewhere, not here,” and invites the reader to look squarely at the inequality and environmental racism that exists with the US itself, and the global effects of US imperialism and hyper-consumption of goods and resources.
Here are some more readings with which you can trace connections between Danticat’s ideas and our current moment in time. (Content Warning: Some of the articles provide graphic details of violence and inhumane living conditions)
Here are some more readings with which you can trace some more connections between Danticat’s ideas and our current moment in time. (Content Warning: Some of the articles provide graphic details about violence and inhumane living conditions)
- “Puerto Rico, My Heart’s Devotion,” NPR Code Switch Podcast
- “This is What it’s Like for Thousands Trying to Find Food and Water in the Hurricane-hit US Virgin Islands, BuzzFeed News
- “Rohingya Recount Atrocities: ‘They Threw My Baby Into a Fire,’”
- “Can your blood not be moved for Somalia?,” Maclean’s
- “Where are African Victims?,” The Republic
The image above is of Haitian army lieutenant Sanité Belair, who fought alongside Toussaint Louverture during the Haitian Revolution. I chose her because I’ve been interested in uncovering the stories of women who were a part of anti-colonial resistance efforts across the African diaspora. Since many of us don’t learn this history in school, here’s an article that gives a brief overview of the events that took place in Haiti between 1791 and 1804: http://www.blackpast.org/gah/haitian-revolution-1791-1804
Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde: Open Letters (October 11, 2017)
Here are some additional resources that may help you to gain a deeper insight into Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde. Pay particular attention to parallels or connections between the ideas we’ve discussed, how these different genres/forms are able to convey their message.
First, some poetry:
“To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra española ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”
Read Gloria Anzaldúa’s full poem, “To live in the Borderlands means you” here.
“I have been womanfor a long timebeware my smileI am treacherous with old magicand the noon’s new fury…”
Here’s a brief extract from the preface of Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The MetaEthics of Radical Feminism (the text Audre Lorde to which Audre Lorde responds in her letter). I include this only to give you a broad overview of Daly’s work, but you don’t need to go much further into it than this. It’s particularly interesting because Daly is not only “forwarding” ideas from her own book Beyond God the Father (published prior to Gyn/Ecology), but she states that she has also “countered” ideas from Simone de Beauvoir, who she considers a “feminist foresister.” I mention this to stress how important extending others’ as well as expressing dissent are to academic discourse and social activism.
“This book voyages beyond Beyond God the Father. It is not that I basically disagree with the ideas expressed there. I am still its author, and thus the situation is not comparable to that of The Church and the Second Sex, whose (1968) author I regard as a reformist foresister, and whose work I respectfully refute in the New Feminist Postchristian Introduction to the 1975 edition. Going beyond Beyond God the Father involves two things. First, there is the fact that be-ing continues. Be-ing at home on the road means continuing to Journey. This book continues to Spin on, in other directions/dimensions. It focuses beyond christianity in Other ways. Second, there is some old semantic baggage to be discarded so that Journeyers will be unencumbered by malfunctioning (male-functioning) equipment. There are some words which appeared to be adequate in the early seventies, which feminists later discovered to be false words. “
- “I HEAR YOU SISTER: Women of Color Speak (to Each Other)“: A response to Anzaldúa’s letter to Third World women writers. Notice what this writer does with form. Also notice that she uses citations and footnotes in a very “academic” way, similar to Anzaldúa. I forgot to mention this in class, but it’s a fascinating technique considering that her essay breaks with a lot of other academic conventions.
- Gloria Anzaldúa Google Doodle (September 26th would have been her 75th birthday!)
- Mary Daly’s Response to Audre Lorde (If you don’t read anything else, definitely take a look at this! It’s interesting to see the interaction between Lorde and Daly (sort of) come full circle. Food for thought: how does Daly address Lorde’s concerns?
- Another Open Letter, this time from poet, thinker, and activist Sonia Sanchez. This letter is addressed from Sanchez to Audre Lorde.
- The Epistolary Novel: Essentially, a work of prose in the form of a letter. My favorite example of this sort of text is So Long a Letter, by Senegalese writer Marima Bâ. It functions a lot like the open letters we read for class, in that it seems to be addressed to a particular intimate audience, but actually reveals a lot of larger issues about gender and sexuality in Senegal at the time Bâ was writing. You can read more about it here.
- Where is Dahomey? And who are the Dahomey Amazons?: Audre Lorde references them several times; in Eye to Eye, where she talks about the power of solidarity between Black women, again in her open letter, as well as in her poem “A Woman Speaks.” Read more about Dahomey (now the nation Benin) and the Dahomey women warriors here.
Always (Trying to Be) in Formation (October 1, 2017)
I wrote this post the week we read Kiese Laymon’s essay “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel).” We each wrote about the music that we consider part of our life’s soundtrack.
My Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings are often marked with many of the same signposts of habit that are common for most people commuting to work, especially if those people are (only slightly) neurotic artists who are also working as educators for the first time.
What time is the bus *actually* going to get here?
Did I pack my charger? Let me check again, just to be sure.
Which “professional but still hip” outfit am I putting together today?
On these mornings, from the moment I begin to wake up at 6am (I say begin because waking up is more often than not an ongoing, at times difficult process, rather than a one-off occurrence), I walk through this routine in pretty much the same order. Between the mundane rituals, I am also forced to confront more challenging truths about my new profession, that teaching is an incredible responsibility, and I still worry that I lack the generosity with which I must approach my students in order for them to produce the finest work they can, and to do so in an environment that is affirming, and rigorous without being overwhelming. I walk into the classroom on a tightrope, trying to balance all these concerns, being generous without coddling too much, demanding high expectations while respecting students’ individuality, among other sets of considerations.
For the moment, I feel steady, and it has far less to do with my own balancing act, than the eagerness to learn and writing skill my students demonstrate daily. I can also attribute the (somewhat surprising) ease with which I am adjusting to this role to my “F*** Your White Horse” playlist, named for one of the most memorable lyrics from Rihanna’s 2016 track “Needed Me.” 41 songs, about 2 hours and 30 minutes of fur-coat wearing, long-braid swinging, nothing but Black women “in formation.”
I have turned to this playlist for solace and encouragement when I can no longer bear school and work stress combined with the seemingly relentless cycles of violence and oppression rolling on and on all over the world, and all over our backs. But I don’t just hit play when I’m in crisis mode. After all, what could be more refreshing than having Kelis, Missy Elliot, Trina, Eve, Rihanna and of course, Beyoncé as the backdrop for a walk to the grocery store or for a long train ride at the end of the day?
I am very fickle when it comes to crowning any one track my favorite, and am more prone to take the approach of wearing one song completely out before discarding it and moving on to the next, never again to look back. With this playlist though, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” by Beyonce, featuring Jack White, is the rock anthem, wake-up-call, and warning signal for anything or anyone that dares to stand in my way.
I can walk into every building wearing my fur coat and long braids, sometimes literally and other times in spirit, like I don’t even have to ask Who the f*** do you think I is? because everyone already knows. Or at least, pretending as if I carry this boldness may one day lead to me moving about the world like I am in actual fact all that and more.
Alice Walker: “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (September 27, 2017)
1. From womanish. (Opp. of “girlish,” i.e. frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, “you acting womanish,” i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist, as in: “Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige and black?” Ans. “Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented.” Traditionally capable, as in: “Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.” Reply: “It wouldn’t be the first time.”
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
4. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. The Women’s Press, 1984.
Patricia Hill Collins on the Womanism and Black Feminism
“What’s in a name? Womanism, black feminism, and beyond.” This text also serves as a good example of more “academic” prose in comparison with the blend between personal, political and academic that we have been reading with Cliff and Walker so far.
Hidden Figures Syllabus blog post about Alice Walker and the Harlem Renaissance: “In Search of Harlem Renaissance Women.”
Michelle Cliff’s “Journey Into Speech” (September 27, 2017)
We’ve had some really dynamic in-class discussions about Michelle Cliff’s work, particularly with our exploration about how form embodies purpose in a writer’s work, and the ways in which fractured narratives and “fragmentation” are an integral part of her intellectual and artistic process. Below, you will find some supplemental reading relating to Cliff herself, code-switching, intersectionality, and other issues that came up during Unit 1-Origin Stories.
The writer herself:
- “Voices from the Gaps” Bio of Michelle Cliff (Links to an external site.)
- Obituary in the New York Times
“Now more than ever, it’s important to look boldly at the reality of race and gender bias — and understand how the two can combine to create even more harm. Kimberlé Crenshaw uses the term “intersectionality” to describe this phenomenon; as she says, if you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to get hit by both. In this moving talk, she calls on us to bear witness to this reality and speak up for victims of prejudice.”
- Why Intersectionality Can’t Wait, Kimberlé Crenshaw in the Washington Post
- “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Kimberlé Crenshaw
“Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.”
- “How Code-Switching Explains the World,” Gene Demby
- “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch,” Matt Thompson
- “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma.” Episode of the NPR podcast aptly named “Code-Switch,” where they address the uses and limits of pausing to offer additional explanation or context for audience members who may miss certain cultural references (think: how much context did Cliff provide about Jamaican history and British colonialism as she shared her personal “journey into speech?)
The Artist’s Statement
This is a genre I mentioned very briefly but didn’t get to discuss in detail in class, but it’s somewhat relevant to us as far as our discussion of writerly “origin stories” is concerned.
The purpose of the artist statement is to convey a little slice of the artist’s persona and the motivations behind their work; why they choose to paint/draw/film etc. the way they do.
- Kara Walker Introduces Her Next Show With an Artist Statement About Being Fed Up with America and Artists Statements
- Wangechi Mutu Interview and Artist Statement (Wangechi Mutu is an incredible visual artist from Kenya, now living and working in New York. Check out some of her work here.
My Diary Aloud (September 15, 2017)
Concealed between the more well-known career and personal highlights of Michelle Cliff’s life as laid out by her New York Times obituary, is a detail that has wound its way in my thoughts and will not leave, regardless of how much I write about it. Much like Clare Savage, the protagonist of Cliff’s novel Abeng, and I suspect a stand-in for the writer herself, Cliff kept a diary as a young girl, inspired by Anne Frank. According to the obituary writer, Cliff’s parents came upon the journal one day and read it aloud in front of other relatives. She was apparently so hurt by this moment that she would not write again for years. I haven’t been able to read Cliff’s own re-telling of the event, but I feel as mortified by the prospect as if I was the one whose private musings were exposed to an audience of mocking family members.
From the age of 8, my (mostly mundane) internal life is chronicled in several journals that now sit on my dusty bookshelf in my abandoned bedroom in Accra. While I trust my mother enough to respect my right to keep my angst-filled, childish rants private, I took on this role as a writing instructor holding some of Cliff’s terror within myself. I’ve spent my past two years in Boston completely immersed in my writing and academic research to the point where my mind never fully lulls into rest, a constant frenetic state that is equally exhilarating as it is exhausting. The works of women like Michelle Cliff, Lorraine Hansberry, and Beyoncé (especially when she’s angry, cursing, swirling a baseball bat and surrounded by fire) have been my stability, solid pieces of advice and inspiration to hold on to amidst troubling, violent and fluctuating times.
To read and discuss these texts with a room full of strangers, be they earnest and bright young students or not, loomed over me, not unlike the shame that must have followed young Michelle Cliff after the violation of her privacy. I draw this comparison not to minimize Cliff’s trauma, but to express how apprehensive I was walking into class on the first day.
How much could I trust myself to not only share, but dissect works of art that resonate so deeply with me that I have started to believe they were addressed specifically to me?
Beyond my personal chaos, I’ve also had to contend with the less “intellectual” concerns that haunt first-time teachers.
Damn, my mouth is really dry…
Can they tell my mouth is really dry?
Am I talking too much?
Are they bored?
Am I speaking too quickly?
Has my accent always been so jarring?
Then there is the dilemma of mediating my in-class persona so that I am sufficiently witty without some of my at times off-putting snark, and enthusiastic and engaged without overwhelming my students with huge grins and effusive praise, especially so early in the morning.
And…how to end this post in a way that reassures my students that I am not as insecure and confused as I may have shown myself to be up until this point? There is no clear conclusion, not yet, and there may not be one by the end of the semester. If I am to run headfirst into the uncertainty and anticipation that is teaching this class for the first time, I couldn’t have a better group of students to learn with and from.
To crack the “professional” mask even more, please enjoy some live footage of me reading your brilliant and insightful responses this week:
The eager, and slightly anxious, first-time teacher; from my desk (and the T, the library, and the coffee shop table.)