First Things First

I teach three senior classes, and I have seen something more severe than the Senior Slump—it is the Graduating Face Plant!

The lure of pomp and circumstance is more alluring than the Siren Song Odysseus heard. I can’t tie them to the mast of the ship I am helming, but what I am trying to do is to get them to be active students instead of seat fillers as we all count the last days of the school year, and the remembrance of their high school career as something substantial in these last days and times.

In one of my classes, we are/have been doing a research project based on concepts and ideas that students love or hate; the only requirement is they are passionate about the topic they choose. I have named it the Social Gadfly project, and though it is a research project in nature, an inquiry (an educational term du jour), I want them to view it, approach it, as a discovery. I prefaced the assignment by asking them to find a subject they have a strong feeling about that would carry them through the work. Students took to it fervently. Many of them remarked they had never had an opportunity to “do” an assignment based purely on their own self-interest.

Students in that particular class have been Gadflying about a range of things, such as sex (they are teenagers), body image, religious judgment, perception/perspective, taste-makers, fashion trends, the afterlife, women in Greek Mythology, platonic relationships, access of healthy foods, the decline of baseball as the national pastime, existentialism, and social media. This list is not exhaustive, but those students are on their way.

My literature students are another story.

They ask me, “Are we done?” They seem to think after their AP Exam, that’s it. In other years, I would assign these students an assignment where they would have to step into the shoes of the writers they have been studying, critiquing, analyzing, and interpreting all year long—they would become the authors and creators. But this group was falling face first upon their desks. We were all plummeting. To save face, I wanted to give them excerpts of the novel we should have read but didn’t.

Invisible Man.

Every year I teach this novel, Hell or high water, but I didn’t, or couldn’t manage to do so this school year.

It was both Hell and high water this year in ways not fit to describe without earning myself a defamation suit, but I still wanted to expose them to Ralph Ellison’s great American novel and literary masterpiece.

Seniors, enthralled with the prospects and thoughts of walking the stage and celebrating their accomplishments, weren’t eager to welcome the reading of something new, especially after the AP LIT exam. Although foolish, I am not stupid enough to drop a 500-plus-page story in week 35 of a 39 week school year, but, I still wanted them to get a taste of the work they are going to miss fully digesting.

Today, we “opened” Invisible Man; the literature students read an excerpt of the prologue and bit hard; I mean, they chomped.

When we “open” a story, we look at all the richness the beginning pages gives us, laying out the blueprint and building the expectation of what to look forward both thematically and literary.

I hit them with the goodness. Here is a portion of what we worked with:

“I am an invisible man.

No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”

When I overheard (or eavesdropped) a student saying in a small group discussion, I am going to read this book, I knew the school year is not lost after all.

Say Say What!?

Saturday, on my way home from a class I am taking at Cal through my BAWP affiliation, I ran across this billboard at the intersection of 73rd and Foothill:

IMG_2154

Ironic, right? Going from “world class” to what’s considered “no class.” I was mesmerized by how ill the optics are, and by ill I don’t mean, to quote DMC of RUN DMC, “not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.”

No, this thing is foul, F-O-W-L.

This billboard’s message is not as simple as the “math” it is purporting (and who does this math benefit?).

Ironically, this billboard trying to scream a call to action about social responsibility is perched on top of a payday loan establishment and Metro PCS store, I mean, c’mon, are there any two things more economically irresponsible then those two ventures? 

Is it all so simple, that a young Black male’s (or any young man of color) only options are jail or school, and that one option is less expensive to tax payers than the other?

Yo, as a father of two Black males, I am perplexed, vexed, and heated.

Extremely. 

As a teacher, I am salivating at the opportunities this billboard offers me in the classroom. So much food to feast on. I am bringing this to my students so we can build and do the knowledge tomorrow.

We are going to go in.

Moments like these make me appreciate being an educator, not because I get to create a lesson, but because I can build consciousness and awareness.

Also, I would like to hear what you see when you look at this billboard. Please reply and create the conversation this billboard deserves.

Weigh in.

Respect Due: Professor Westbrook

The first schoolteacher, who made a difference in my life, in a positive way, was a professor I had my freshman year in college. With all respect due, Professor Westbrook was a surly-looking dude with no chance of making People’s most attractive list from his outward appearance—he had the look of a wooly-headed Char Pei and he often wore dashiki’s (yes, it was anachronistic then as it is now). The true beauty of the man (and any person for that matter) is what he offered others. By the time I met him, he had already lived a full and experienced life, but he still had the lean and hungry look that would make the Julius Caesars’ of the world uneasy.

On the first day of class, he was late.

It seemed to be strategically planned as he let us all settle into comfortable spaces and ways of being before he broke through the door powerfully ambling into the room, forcing himself inside the quintessence already seemingly set. He told me and my fellow “Intro to Sociology” students, “if you aren’t here to learn something, let the door hit you were the good Lord split you.” The tone was set, and those, like myself, posturing in the back of the classroom or seated by the window, still desperately holding onto our K-12 tropes of unaffected coolness, sat up a little straighter, a smidgen or two taller. The guys I hung with immediately knew he was, to quote Marshawn Lynch, “about that action.”

The precedent had to be set, I mean, it was junior college after all, and most of us in the classroom where still high school silly, with no idea community college was a sort of academic purgatory were we could right the wrongs of sins we innocently committed in our ignorance or those more damning, the iniquities we had no control over which were projected upon us by those who had no faith in who we were or could become. The two year college experience could go either way—it could point us to a sort of heaven or hell, but the chance at redemption (or revelation) was in our hands, which is something I love about the JUCO system—it was the first time in traditional schooling where I felt I had some control over my own fate and destiny.

Until this point, no one spoke to me, or young men like me, with that kind of direct intention beyond my grandmother (the most influential teacher/educator in my life). The Black males I did come in contact with in school settings were most often dealing with some form of athletics, whether they were custodians, campus supervisors, team coaches, or P.E. teachers. Before Professor Westbrook, I only had one other Black male teacher of record, Mr. Brown, my junior high art teacher, who was perpetually frustrated with me despite my ability to draw better than the rest of my classmates. At that time, his conversations about potential were lost on me; I just wanted to know why he gave me a “B” instead of an “A” and why did I have to be judged by what I could do, rather than what I did, when the other students weren’t.

Like Mr. Brown, it was in this agency Professor Westbrook saw an opportunity to make a difference. He propagated in us, his students, to be people “who [think] too much,” because he knew the Julius Caesars’ of the world know “such [people] are dangerous,” and he wanted to do his part to make sure we weren’t “fat, sleek-headed [people] . . . [who were] sleep.”

I am continuing the legacy of Professor Westbrook (and with less disgust then Mr. Brown but the same level of expectations, in the role of non-athletic Black male educator on campus), and when students tell me, of any race, color, ethnicity, or creed,  “dang, Mr. Ali, you’re giving us the cold hard truth,” I am pleased, because I didn’t even have to wear a dashiki to get them to understand I am there to educate them instead of teach them, though in the tradition of my esteemed professor, I am often late to class.

Dawg, It’s the S.O.S.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”

— James Baldwin

When I was in college, at one of the many learning institutions I attended on the winding path to graduation and getting my sheepskin, a friend of mine was a football player for the school we were both attending at the time. We were both starving students and athletes, trying to figure out how purchase textbooks and afford lunch at the same time. Eventually we learned how to glad hand beef jerky and tear pages out of assigned texts in the student store to survive, physiologically and psychologically.

I played basketball and he played football. The great thing about those years, among others, was each team really supported one another. We populated each other’s practices and games, becoming well-versed in languages sport-specific.

Often times, during practices and games, standing on the sideline, I would hear my friend, who is a brother to me, even in the miles between us now, would yell “S.O.S.!” from his position as safety when the offense hiked the ball and moved into a play. He was the quarterback of the defense, and me, playing point guard at the time, curious and a student of games, wanted to know what the call he made was all about, and if I could incorporate onto to the basketball court as well as weave it into the game of life.

“Same ol’ shit, dawg” he told me. He would pick up on the play from his safety position, which was furthest from the line of scrimmage, offering him a perspective those closest to the ball didn’t have; his job was to ring the alarm for his brethren. It was a way to alert his teammates something they had seen before was coming again.

Power in understanding, just like power in numbers, can effect change.

This week, another Black man was shot and killed by another white police officer. Peace to that man who will never breathe a physical breath again. He was 50 years old, shot in the back, and now, to justify the actions of the officer, he is being made out to be sketchy in all types of nominal ways. The victim had a warrant from Family Court. He had a tail light out. He had “shiny” rims on his car. The officer in question, the one charged with murder is being called on the carpet too, he was named in several complaints of excessive force.

I am not naming names in this case, because, as unfortunate as it is to state, and with all respect due to the families left in the wake (both victim and victimizer), their have been too many of these cases recently, one falling atop of another like a weird and callous domino pattern that seems to run on endlessly. We are all waiting for the last domino to drop, but it never seems to come crashing down.

Unfortunately, the victim and perpetrator are interchangeable, links in a rusted chain.

The outrage will be predictable—there will be some leaked information about the fallen to justify the smoking gun, then there will be some type of well-meaning ineffective protest that will lead to an unsustainable change.

Ultimately, what will happen is another body will drop under nefarious and perplexing circumstances, the attention will shift to the need for body cameras on police or some sleight of hand movement to shift our attentions from the problem at hand, and the victim’s family will show a grace, nobility and restraint those assigned to protect and serve never seem to exert in the instances they really need to.

It will follow historical precedent that the victim shoulders the burden of the victimizer.

To quote my brother, it’s the “S.O.S.”

There is a reason why these events keep happening—it’s atmospheric.

James Baldwin’s quote to begin this post says as much. The panacea is not coming through legislative moves, marching and protest songs can’t do the trick either, nor will a twitter hashtag.

Our collective consciousness has to change.

James Baldwin, in Take This Hammer, asks the question, “Who is the nigger?” His stance is I am not a nigger, positing that folks label others in how they see themselves.

See the video here:

(here’s the link just in case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0L5fciA6AU

In recent weeks we have seen less life-altering instances, at least in a physical sense, where this projection has taken place, where we treat them “the same” as something more heinous. It is obvious the young men in college environments, the exact places where they are supposed to be developing sensibilities in collective empathy and understanding of the human family, are being failed in true education, but alas, you can’t seems to help singing a “no nigger will ever join my frat” song on the party bus, or as a sore loser, say “[eff] that nigga” at a press conference when asked about the white basketball player who bested your team of hyper-athletic young Black men.

Sadly, we treat all of the events referenced above as the same, Black and white, when they are all about the gray matter.

KRS-One, the legendary Hip-Hop MC/Artist (nicknamed “The Teacher”) recently spoke to a group of college students, two of whom happened to be my sons. One thing the icon said that resonated with one of my young men was “Ferguson has nothing to do with you.”

I agree with “The Blast Master.” Although we are conditioned to internalize these events as reflections of who we are as a particular race, culture, or ethnicity, these dramatic happenings are actually mirroring the society we are living in, framed by the powers that be, who need to take a hard look at who they are, and what constitutes the make up of their collective character to effect systemic change.

Self-assessment is the hardest test to take, the one folks need to undergo the most, but the single examination people perpetually postpone.

It is historically proven these “race matters” will continue to happen until our society does some soul-searching, and look hard into the mirror.

Yeah, until then, it’s the same ol’ stuff, again.

(If I had time I would get into Kendrick Lamar’s “Blacker the Berry,” but I will try to incorporate that into another dialogue.)

Lists Go H.A.M.

I like listing things.

Not listing for ranking, because I know by my race, gender, class, ethnicity and place of rest I am perpetually owho.am.i.yon the bottom of lists by those who value hierarchy over humanity (that social/cultural/racial totem pole is, in the words of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, “a real mother for ya”).

I like listing as a generative source.

In an odd way, making lists are both tangible and abstract at the same time. On one hand, the very idea of making a list is very concrete–you have a topic, jot and bullet, no complete sentence need apply; but by nature it’s an exercise in subjectivity even while you are trying to be objective! The true beauty of the list allows you to begin with something safe and known, then mushroom cloud that linear idea into tangential digressions which are actually congruent to your starting point. Often times, to construct these loose connections,  especially in a class setting, teachers fall to the default generative structures, like outlining, brainstorming, and clustering. For the most part, outlining is seen as archaic and orderly, formulaic and too sequential, a shape begging for a rough draft before it can even become a piece of clay fit for molding. On the other side of these mine dumpings are the cluster and brainstorm, which are considered hip and avant-garde, seen as experimental when, in truth, they both are of the “pre-writing” cannon. Like outlines, the thoughts they bring forth are connected in a faux wilderness, figuratively and literally by lines (though I am a believer of brainstorming when push comes to shove).

Lists are entirely different, though.

IMG_1566The connectivity in listing is not created through some stiff geometry, or any relative theory thereof, but through an understanding that all things are of one thing, which are the invisible strings that link everything in a list. Listing, when thinking in the English teachers’ domain, is most closely related to free-writing, which encourages the hand to follow where the mind goes, the consciousness streaming rapid and flush. Simply stated, in the words of George Clinton’s Funkadelic, “free your mind and your [arse] will follow.” When we create a list, just like when we free-write, we are improvising on top of a jazz riff; the notes struck are harmoniously incongruent, stretching the boundaries of the motif being faithfully played to.

Ironically, students have trouble listing (and free-writing, too). It makes me laugh when I assign an “inkshedding” prompt to students, and watch them struggle with something open-ended, or how their brows furrow when I suggest they are multiple ways to approach one prompt, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. I tell them something positive can come from a negative, something negative from a positive, but regardless of the genesis of the event, the memory is important no matter the constraint, the experience is the key. Because students are always searching for answers (the right ones of course), I tell them I am, we should be, more interested in the lesson of any moment, the question not the answer, because the response to the query opens up doors we are all reluctant to unlock and venture in (in Wu-Tang speak, I’m talking about “chambers”).

IMG_1568We unpack prompts and talk about loaded words like “best” and “worst,” “significant” and “important.” In their minds they are always adding articles and qualifiers like “the” or “most” in front of those heavy terms. They ask questions like, “is it okay if . . .”, “what about . . .”, “is it possible to . . .”, and “can I . . .”? My answer to these student questions is always “yes.” They are like reluctant swimmers with a toe above the pool water. I tell them as long as you can make a connection to the core of what you are being asked to think about its fine, go ahead and dive in.

I remember a few years ago, when everyone in the class had to share one thing from a set of lists we created; a young man wrote on the board, “Egypt is going H.A.M.” So as I read this phrase among the ones students penned on the board, folks laughed and chuckled when I got to his, more than likely made nervous by the honesty, rawness, and fearlessness of what he scribbled in expo pen. It made me pause too. I asked myself was he being serious, or making fun of the process?

IMG_1562To me, what came out of this sharing (the hidden benefit of listing) is a great example of what a list can do for a student–it’s the power of transformation and opening up a classroom community’s perspective with a few words–a conversation naturally ensues.

In a prompt asking him to think about things affecting him, he wrote that phrase. In effect, the list allowed him the freedom of thought and expression to bridge several worlds, which was very transparent when he broke down what was behind what he committed to board marker. He talked about being in our classroom in Hayward, his ethnic heritage as a young man of color, how Jay Z and Kanye West’s song “H.A.M.”(abbreviation for “Hard as a Mother-Effer” from the album Watch the Throne) aptly described what was happening in his homeland, how he carried himself in the overt understated way he did, the use of twitter to keep him abreast of events he couldn’t receive with the same kind of candor through mainstream media, the opportunities he has in America and not in Egypt, and how he was “going  H.A.M. too” in becoming the best person he could be, creating a future he wanted for himself. The young man graduates from UCSB with an engineering degree this spring.

As I continue to operate in the domain of an English teacher, why wouldn’t I want to encourage my students to swing like this gentleman did, to find spontaneity in the directed, a place to sing in the assigned?

Why would I not encourage my students to go H.A.M.?

The list allows liberation from narrow-minded, straight-forward thinking, a detour from practiced call and response, dressed up as divergent thought.

IMG_1569All pre-writing strategies have their place, some more cannon fodder than others are. But, the key to teaching is not just about introducing the concept to the student, it is getting them to understand once they get “idea,” they can deconstruct it, reconstruct it, manipulate it, elevate it, and recreate it for their best use, not for the instructors bidding. Students need to understand they can pick and choose, and totally discard something if the like.

Case in point:

Two weeks ago, a student, in her brilliantly sarcastic astute way asks me, “Hey Ali, is it cool if don’t ‘what, how, why’ my essay? I can pre-write anyway I want, right? You won’t be offended, will you?”

I answered, “maybe a little, but, you know, do your thing anyway.” She did, and I smiled, knowing her actions spoke for others.

She wanted to break the rules because she had mastered them, and who was I to tell her she couldn’t gig when she had the moves? At this moment, my job is to get out her way, and let her dance.

I will stop here before I begin a discourse on columns, boxes, and t-charts.

The Madness Marches On

coaching.in.blk.whiteI have a certain lens I look at the world through.

Actually several, because like you, our one “self” is really several “selves,” nested in the matryoshka doll of who we are. But, I apologize and am unapologetic at one and the same time for what I write next.

Okay, that is my disclaimer.

I am a Black man in America, and those two things together, “Black” and “man,” mean something very much different than any other two identifiers that might be connected with race and gender, and of course, “white man” trumps all of those combinations in the fantasy game of racial and gender hierarchy.

In addition to just being a “Black man in America,” I am also a conscious human being, who understands, among other things, I have a heritage and culture that extends beyond the legacy of slavery (though I am not ashamed of that particular genesis), and the roots of genius in my forbearers runs deep in the manifestation of all developmental aspects of society, culture, and civilization.

Furthermore, like many other Black males from the inner-city, basketball runs deep in my collective DNA as well. I have a little bit of history with the game, playing it, coaching it, and being a student of it.

To quote Cheech and Chong, “I gotta basketball jones, baby, ooo-eee-ooo.”

With all that being said, all of my lens are coming together to take a hard look at the kaleidoscope  of this seasons’ men’s NCAA basketball tournament and the ads that promote it.

White supremacy, today, is more Leviathan than Kraken, surrounding society, influencing it by boiling the waters of the land it borders to satisfy its hunger, as opposed to erupting from the seas and violently devouring whatever is in its wake; the difference is in subtlety and nuance, dominance and destruction, but the mission is the same—elevating one, and minimizing another.

Back to the March Madness and the ads.

Through my Black man lens, I study the commercial as a genre, and observe how it is used as a propaganda tool (obviously), among many of them, to promote Black inferiority and white superiority.

Case in point:

AT&T is running a series of ads with recognizable figures from men’s college basketball lore to promote the greatness of the tournament and the individuals who have participated in it. These ads feature four individuals: Julius “Dr. J” Erving (U Mass), Shaquille O’Neal (LSU), Christian Laettner (Duke), and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler (Houston). These players were exceptional players in college, and transcendent as professionals, well, all except Laettner. The Duke standout was prolific as a college player, winning two Division I championships, while the legends, who had fair to middling success in the tournament, pale in comparison to Laettner’s accomplishments as a collegian.

Did I mention Laettner is white and the other individuals are Black?

You may ask, why is this a big deal?

You may question, how is this propaganda?

You may inquire, what does this have to do with white supremacy?

You may even demand, how does this impact my tournament bracket?

I offer the answer for each of those queries lies in what’s beneath the surface of these commercials, which have been characterized as “hilarious.” (which I would ask at who’s expense?)

In this “one shining moment” (the extension of the March Madness slogan used to define the purity of the tournament in its goodness, wholeness, the warm and fuzzy feel-good tournament ending montage in images and song), why, in these ads, is he the only champion, not only white, but also the only one of the quartet not to have either sustained, or eclipsed their college greatness in the pros?

All of the players appearing in those commercials alongside Christian Laettner are considered to be among the top 50 players in the history of the NBA. The former Duke standout played for 6 teams in his 13 pro seasons, and was an all-star only once. This is not to discredit the Duke legend, he was clearly dominant as a college player and serviceable in the NBA, but why is it there are no other players “on his level” from the perspective of the landscape of college basketball, March Madness, and “shining moments?”

Instead of having Erving, O’Neal, and Drexler in those AT&T ads, how about their “equals” in Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse), and Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Michigan State), all great college players who won NCAA tournament championships, while also going on to become even greater players in the NBA and considered to be among the greatest who have ever done it, either at their position or in their skill set, claims that Laettner cannot make in either case at the pro level.

(and I am not even trying to include multiple college tournament champions like Bill Russell or Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who were considered legendary, not only for their accomplishments on the basketball court, but for being standard bearers off of it, using their athletic platforms for social activism and awareness, neither man compromising himself to be accepted by the masses)

I will acknowledge that Laettner is a lightning rod, largely due to his performance and attitude while he played at Duke (see the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, I Hate Christian Laettner), but I contend this is one of the ways white supremacy is more Leviathan than Kraken, it creeps up on you in ways you don’t imagine or suspect before it takes over your psyche—there is not a beast emerging from the seas to devour you with its enormous height and crushing tentacles, no, you just notice the water is getting a little bit hotter, you feel the eyes of seven heads constantly upon you, and without thinking, your brain tells your body to adjust, and you become comfortable being uncomfortable until it is too late.

Like the Leviathan, this whole thing stinks.

In these commercials, Laettner is the voice of authority, and the other men, in their profundity and excellence, pale in comparison to his greatness. At one point, Shaquille O’Neal, who was bypassed by the Blue Devil for selection on the Dream Team (compromised of NBA greats, and considered the best basketball team ever assembled), has to authenticate his aggrandized name of “The Big Dance” (a riff on other “Big” names Shaq has given himself, which is a riff on another one of the monikers for the NCAA tournament, which is called “the big dance”), this giant of a man, a looming presence in his Blackness and accomplishments, gets up before the others, and begins to dance, you know, “cut a rug,” “get jiggy with it,” or like Chris Rock’s character in Top Five, “put some stank on it.”

Laettner nods approvingly at Shag, and says, “impressive.”

O’Neal is now vetted, we can all laugh, and go back to our tournament brackets.

Time out.

Should we?

I’m sure some will read this and say, it was all in fun.

No harm. No foul.

I’m sure others, like me, who have to look at the world through sets of lens some folks will never have to wear, saw something subversive, subliminal and egregious.

At this point, I have decided to toss my tournament bracket in the trash, the same rubbish where my rose-colored glasses lay, and focus on the real games being played, which, if you’re watching, ain’t always on the court.

Let’s. Go. Team.

See the commercials here: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2015/03/christian-laettner-shaq-att-commercials-march-madness

(in another of the ads, the Dukie lays in a hammock of cut-down championship nets, while the others look at him in his state of repose, and discuss the irony of him actually resting in/on his laurels, because, you know, they don’t have any collegiate ones of their own)