Being in class (3, again)

Later, you see layers: our different perspectives on language and power. Beginning with your own history as an early devotee of James Baldwin, later a conflicted teacher of “Adult Basic Education” and then student of Literacy at the institution where white linguist William Labov claimed African American Vernacular English as a legitimate language–and also the histories of others here. And since teaching is a practice of do-overs, you will share your own history, commitments, admirations more freely; admit resistance to their resistance; attend to what’s happening in our remaking of each other.

Lesson plan for 11/7/14:

I. Introductions

II. We promised not to go back to Push–but to continue our conversation about language, & when-and-why we use different forms of it

Describe June Jordan’s essay, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” which opens with a story like what happened here last week: she had assigned The Color Purple, and her mostly urban black students said it didn’t sound right, didn’t look right, that they could hardly read it…and didn’t like it

but once they started analyzing the language, they realized that it was perfect for portraying the characters and their location (as we discussed about Push) and also that they’d never learned to read and write their own system of verbal communication: Black English (Jordan’s term)…

so Jordan designed and taught a new class on “The Art of Black English,” in which the students excitedly figured out the rules and the values that it expressed (person centered, present tense, clear communication…)

but then the brother of another student @ the college was killed by the police, and they tried to write a letter of protest in Black English because….

Read excerpt:
How best to serve the memory of Reggie Jordan? Should we use the language of the killer–Standard English–in order to make our ideas acceptable to those controlling the killers? But wouldn’t what we had to say be rejected, summarily, if we said it in our own language, the language of the victim, Reggie Jordan? But if we sought to express ourselves by abandoning our language wouldn’t that mean our suicide on top of Reggie’s murder? But if we expressed ourselves in our own language wouldn’t that be suicidal to the wish to communicate with those who, evidently, did not give a damn about us/Reggie/police violence in the Black community? At the end of one of the longest, most difficult hours of my own life, the students voted, unanimously, to preface their individual messages with a paragraph composed in the language of Reggie Jordan….With the completion of this introduction, nobody said anything. 1

What would you say….?

III. Other sources to refer to/distribute if/as needed:
NPR blog, “Five Reasons People Code Switch”2 and blog entry from Adichie’s novel Americanah: “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby”

IV. Write for 10 minutes about a time when you code switched:
tell that story by focusing on what you were trying to accomplish

think about your audience: who are you telling this story to?
what kind of language would best reach them?
(you could imagine that you are writing a blog!)

VII. Two visitors are going to teach us about another kind of code-switching: using the language of developmental biology

VIII. Handouts: essays from next week’s visitors, writing to return, & “Willie Jordan,” if wanted

We read from the June Jordan piece, talk more explicitly now about language and power–about code-switching in jobs people have had and for jobs they desire, in home and stores and streets, here and in college, with different individuals. Again we are here and not-here. The range of experience and knowledge in the room coming into greater focus, and with this an acknowledgement that those of us sitting here are in quite different relations to all this, not just by “inside” and “out” but also by gradations of race, class, education, family that signal whether you’re making, following, discerning the rules. And the woman who describes herself as American not Black: A man from Walmart came into our work readiness class, I ask if he’d hire me given what he knows about me, he says yes; I say, Everyone coming to the cash register will speak you know, ghetto, what if I do that too, I mean that’s who I’ll be talking to, would I keep the job? No, he says.

Still: proper English is necessary to communicate with more people, such as someone from Germany who speaks English; and for success in society. Still, you hear the whisper that someone’s better, smarter, something if using “proper English.”

So it’s easy and hard: we’re all teachers and all learners, yes, and structural racism and classism in the context of 21st centurystyle mass incarceration keeps us in our discrete places. But is there some way this contact among human beings sitting together in hard plastic chairs lit only from within can ripple out to disturb the very conditions of its existence? (And what to do with the individual acts you don’t want to hear, acts of carelessness, selfishness, impulsivity, cruelty, all the more shadowy because you know that, if not protected by birth and material reality, you might be inside for half-forgotten crimes: DUI, drugs, harboring…)

If contact isn’t just epidermal but can go deeper, become our metabolizing of difference, of the external into our organs, then can teaching make this metabolic process visible and available as a working method? There’s this indeterminacy:

“How do we ever really know whether and how our actions lead to any kind of reconfiguration of ideas or restructuring of inequality? What kinds of new mythologies of the self are lurking behind what we decide to do and how we decide to proceed in the world?”3 Although “the differential resides in the place where meaning escapes any final anchor point, slipping away to surprise or snuggle inside power’s mobile contours,”4 still: try to teach into the space of indeterminacy, neither refusing nor owning outcomes, opening up to what might occur.

  1. June Jordan, “Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan,” Harvard Educational Review 58, 3 (September 1988): 398, accessed May 20, 2016.
  2. Matt Thompson, “Five Reasons People Code Switch,” April 13, 2013 (12:26 p.m.), accessed May 20, 2016.
  3. Gaztambide-Fernandez, “Decolonization,” 55-6.
  4. Chela Sandoval, Methodology of the Oppressed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 179.