Teaching Great Students #3: Brothers and Sisters

Above: Danielle Milton, Jillian Thompson, Ariel C’nae Johnson, and Carson kicking it during homecoming week.

Race and independent schools have been the focus of much of the work I have done and would like to continue over the next five years; it is a topic of passion as it not only relates to the development of my non-minority students, but has been shaped by my own past: a black kid in an all white private school. God has blessed me with the ability to transcend race; I do not want people to fail to see my race or understand why my race and past have shaped my current prediction. I do want people to say “wow he is a great guy and a dynamic teacher and scholar.” Because of this, seeing my race is clear and there — but allowing it to take hold is not. I have a great relationship with many of my minority students on campus; however, it is clear that I miss a number of them in my advanced courses — a fact that I am constantly working to change. As seen in the pic above, one cannot help but notice the number of great minority students on campus. At 21%, we are pleased but not satisfied.

While attending a private upper day school in Montgomery, Alabama, I found myself trapped in one of Ralph Ellison’s descriptive allegories of being invisible while clearly being visible. This construct was greatly exacerbated due to my race and the expectations of one’s color. As a black kid growing up in a low socioeconomic community, the idea of being hard and tough greatly outweighed that of being smart and academic. Because I attended a private school on scholarship, I was surrounded by peers who were not like me; I often felt invisible.

Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man, highlights the challenges many blacks felt in white America:

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.

Ellison is addressing this distorted perception — the failure to see the humanity and individuality of black people — has its roots in the historic veil of slavery and Jim Crowism that separates the black world from the white world. This is the veil that W.E.B Du Bois addressed is his epic Souls of Black Folks.

Many of my affluent private school classmates made it okay to relax and be myself, which often included jamming to the likes of Garth Brookes while reading a classic or two. This seems to be the case for our minority students on campus — though there have been minor issues at times, as was the case for me as a student. However, while out with people from my neighborhood, I found myself jamming (who uses this term) to my favorite gangster rappers. It is very difficult for me to listen to most of today’s “want to be a gangster” rapper. True, many of the eighties and early nineties gangster rappers used harsh language and graphic illustrations to represent black urban life, but many of them were simply being poetic and artistic in addressing their everyday life.

Tell me, do you believe that gangster rap and country music reflect both urban/rural and political problems? Why do country music stars address their problems without the degree or language, violence, and sex that rap artists continue to use? Does this promulgate racism and classism? How does this reflect the dichotomy of being black in a white world? Independent schools tend to show case this dichotomy very well. I am excited that HCHS has worked hard to diversify its faculty and student population. But, we still have much work to do as we consider the topic of class.


16 thoughts on “Teaching Great Students #3: Brothers and Sisters

  1. I have to say, I think you are pretty great. I hate feeding your ego but it is true. I love that you are willing to take on this topic. On my campus, in my very public school, we are pretty diverse. I think to the point that we have lost sight of what you are writing about. I find it hard to believe you were ever really invisible. Is that to make a point? Or, did you feel that non minority teachers could not and cannot understand the issues facing young black students? This is a topic I deal with here. We have so much diversity to the point that we do no realize how great we got it. Think about the contribution you would make here. Hey, I will keep trying. My dept. head is still sick that you turned us down.

  2. In regard to your question, I feel that over the years, the status quo has been that rap is expected to be edgy to be cool- if it doesn’t have an explicit it is not hard enough for some people. Another view is that rural life doesn’t necessarily denote poverty, so thier music shows hardship, but not with the same resentment and angst as usually represented in your “gangsta rap”.

  3. I don’t know what our percentages are here at SBS, but I know I’ve got some great Black students that I really enjoy.

    On the topic of counrty music, check Geoge Jones’ “White Lightning”
    “Why do country music stars address their problems without the degree or language, violence, and sex that rap artists continue to use? Does this promulgate racism and classism?”
    I think it might address some of the issues you speak of; violence, classism, see if you can find it.

    I also can identify with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a rap classic. “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge…” My kid, and students, hear me say that quite often.

  4. George Jones — I will check him out; I tend to listen to the new country — the rock’n country. I must say that minority in A4 has a point: ruralness does not mean poverty; I did not realize it came out that way.

  5. Rap music of 80s & 90s was good. It was harsh, but it had a poetic quality to it. Rappers had to be smart and creative. And you are right, the depicted reality.

    Now? This is considered rap:

    “Stacks on deck. Patron on ice.
    We can pop bottles all night
    Baby you can have whatever you like
    I said you can have whatever you like.
    Late night sex, so wet and so tight
    I’ll gas up the jet for you tonight and baby you can go wherever you like
    I said you can go wherever you like

    Congratulations, you can depict your wealth and sexual escapades using the vocabulary of a kindergartner.

    I am not trying to be stereotypical or rude, but I think that rap music has been a contributing factor to the lack of motivation among black children and teenagers. “Why go to school when I can just become a basketball player or rapper?” Many black athletes and musicians are poor role models for black youth.

    Just a thought…

  6. I particularly enjoyed the phrase “jamming to the likes of Garth Brooks.” As one of your former students, I would like to say that it never occurred to me that you were black, per se. Obviously it registered it my brain, but it never had anything to do with the way I perceived your teaching. You are hands down in the top three instructors I’ve ever had and based on the number of college and graduate school hours I’ve had, that’s definitely saying something. So go on and jam to your Garth Brooks. You’ve earned the right to a bit of respite.

  7. You are great Kristi — thanks; I do mean that. I love what I do and at it despite race, status, etc… Yes, I do like Garth; oh, I even went to a country club once right after hugh school; I was in Nashville of all places. It was great.

    Dillon: Do you think that maybe balck youths are in a position only to reflect their pain by way of their music?

  8. Carson –

    No. I think that music is a big part of every culture, not just African-American culture. Unfortunately, rappers today don’t express any sort of “pain” through their music. They reflect their wealth, drug and alcohol usage, and sexual escapades through their music. Mos Def has a great song that says exactly this:

    “Ooh-ooooooooooohhhh, ooh-ooooooooooooooohh-WHEEEEE!!!
    That was for Brooklyn..
    Ha ha, we get it everytime
    You got me on? Ohh
    Shout out to all of my crew, East-West, North-South
    All the continent, Europe, all abroad international
    Bring it in, bring it in, bring it in, bring it in
    It’s a lot of things goin on y’all
    21st century is comin
    20th century almost done
    A lot of things have changed
    A lot of things have not, mainly us
    We gon’ get it together right? I believe that
    Listen.. people be askin me all the time,
    “Yo Mos, what’s gettin ready to happen with Hip-Hop?”
    (Where do you think Hip-Hop is goin?)
    I tell em, “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop?
    Whatever’s happening with us”
    If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out
    If we doin alright, Hip-Hop is gonna be doin alright
    People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside
    comin down to visit the townspeople
    We (are) Hip-Hop
    Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
    So Hip-Hop is goin where we goin
    So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is goin
    ask yourself.. where am I goin? How am I doin?
    Til you get a clear idea
    So.. if Hip-Hop is about the people
    and the.. Hip-Hop won’t get better until the people get better
    then how do people get better? (Hmmmm…)
    Well, from my understanding people get better
    when they start to understand that, they are valuable
    And they not valuable because they got a whole lot of money
    or cause somebody, think they sexy
    but they valuable caause they been created by God
    And God, makes you valuable
    And whether or not you, recognize that value is one thing
    You got a lot of socities and governments
    tryin to be God, wishin that they were God
    They wanna create satellites and cameras everywhere
    and make you think they got the all-seein eye
    Eh.. I guess The Last Poets wasn’t, too far off
    when they said that certain people got a God Complex
    I believe it’s true
    I don’t get phased out by none of that, none of that
    helicopters, the TV screens, the newscasters, the..
    satellite dishes.. they just, wishin
    They can’t really never do that
    When they tell me to fear they law
    When they tell me to try to
    have some fear in my heart behind the things that they do
    This is what I think in my mind
    And this is what I say to them
    And this is what I’m sayin, to you check it”

    He is amazing. It takes to talent to write that.

  9. I doubt you felt isolated in school. You mix in well and you are and were smart and athletic. How do “all” minority students feel at hchs? Do they feel unseen at times? Are there special programs?

  10. I must say, I sure do enjoy the rap of the 90’s- Tupac, Notorious BIG, NWA, Public Enemy- and I do think that it addresses the harshness of the black urban lifestyle.
    Today’s rap… not so much. People say that Lil’ Wayne is the best rapper… I’m sorry, but are they deaf?

    As for country, today’s country music is a joke; however, back when Johnny Cash walked the earth and Waylon Jennings was big… that was true country.

  11. Today’s rap really doesn’t express much pain. Earlier rap did and had a point to it. However, today’s rappers simply glorify drugs, alcohol, and sexual promiscuity.

    Most country today does not touch on important topics like older country did. I agree with you Jon; Johnny Cash was something else compared to today’s country singers.

    Music in general has gone from being an expression of one’s pain or beliefs to having no theme or idea behind it at all.

  12. so rap is interesting, the fact that they can say it really fast is funny.
    its kinda sad that they only thing they sing about is what you’ve guys
    already discussed. and i don’t think that about 40% or maybe even
    higher percent of rappers come up with that on their own. im not
    dissing rappers but it gets annoying when lil wayne is like featured
    in every single song. i just like the beats to the song, don’t really
    care for the lyrics…thats why i love r&b more than just pure rap
    but i do like it..and almost every kind of music

  13. ps- you should have a Latina in that picture! haha
    there’s also Hispanic people here, let’s not forget about them!:D

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