Stunning is how I would describe Family Pictures, a current exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum scheduled to run until January 20, 2019. Even though I was interested in the exhibit, which according to the website “explores the ways in which black photographers and artists have portrayed a range of familial relationships, from blood relatives to close-knit neighborhoods to queer communities,” I was dragging my feet on a cold, inhospitable day to the exhibit. Fittingly, when I entered the museum, I discovered it was Family Sunday and the museum was bustling with the energy of families making the best of a cold Wisconsin day.
Even though I knew the subject of the exhibit, in some ways I was unprepared for its impact. After descending a staircase, I was greeted by the stark title included in the image above. Then, I turned left. Lyle Ashton Harris’ photo “Mothers and Sons II” in its full-color glory depicted a black woman sitting on a throne while flanked by her two adult sons. Beside it were similar pictures displaying not only powerful familial bonds between parents and children but also the dignity of the subjects within the compositions, something often denied in the photographic images populating the internet. According to the placard accompanying his work, other images by Harris offer “an intimate look at the artist’s given and chosen families and subverts various notions of familial, sexual, and racial identities.”
Harris’ work coupled with a series of photographs by Deana Lawson chronicling men with their families at Mowhawk Correctional Facility offered a diverse, fuller perspective of black males. For me, it evoked some of Vershawn Ashanti Young’s observations in his book Not Your Average Nigga: Performing Race Literacy and Masculinity. Young laments the restrictiveness “performing race” in his text, suggesting the polarization and exhaustion of conforming to an identity that cannot fully encapsulate his full self. The photographic images suggest a fuller self, a self that is rarely seen in media images of black males depicted as criminals or threatening stereotypes. All around me were images of tenderness and love, of proud sexuality and black masculinity.
Another area of the exhibit featured the work of Carrie Mae Weems, a photographer who captured the lives of her own middle class black family in response to 1965 Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s callous assertion about black communities and families. Moynihan argued, “the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society” is a result of a weak family structure. Weems counters by presenting issues such as poverty in a broader context, revealing the lives of people affected by challenges as more than simply statistics. Her photos, like those of many other artists, reinforce the strength of familial bonds. For me, her work evoked empathy and admiration, qualities not apparent in Moynihan’s somewhat dismissive statement. Just as Steven Alvarez’s research on Mexican immigrant families revealed in Brokering Tareas: Mexican Immigrant Families Translanguaging Homework Literacies, the families of so called minoritized populations are often sources of strength instead of impediments to happiness or success.
I couldn’t help but reflect upon the culminating effect of the exhibit. I am white and the images reflected back at me are often those that resemble me, which is something I am largely immune to. Standing among so many beautiful and diverse pictures of a population other than my own, a population often distorted by others, was moving and engrossing. Then, I thought of how much more powerful this experience might be for those that do not have the benefit of seeing their reflection everywhere they look. It made me think of the little girl standing, mouth agape, in front of former first lady Michelle Obama’s portrait and of the importance of expanding the context in which we present and perceive people.
Expand your own perspective by checking out this exhibit between now and January 20, 2019.
While there, you may want to capture a family photo of your own in the exhibit’s designated space (pictured below).
This fall, students at Shorewood High School prepared to perform To Kill a Mockingbird based on Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Less than a week before the premiere scheduled for October 11, protests broke out because of the use of N-word in the script, and this sparked a heated controversy as to whether the play should go on or be cancelled. One outcome of the debacle was an event titled “A community conversation about race” which was organized by the school board and superintendent as a response to “the need to engage in these difficult conversations about race and racial inequities as a way to improve our schools and our village”.
Listening to the protesting voices at the community event on October 16, I heard several people emphasize the trigger effect of the N-word caused a re-traumatization of the students of color; some suggested the actors omit the N-word in the performance , a solution that proved unrealizable due to copy right laws. To frame the protesting voices within a discussion on literacy, Eric Darnell Pritchard’s Fashioning Lives conceptualizes, in the tradition of Paolo Freire and Sojourner Truth, literacy as “reading the word and reading the world” (80). In our case, we literally have a word that is situated in a context of colorblind racism; to help us see the potency of that word in that play, Pritchard’s conceptualization of “literacy normativity” - which describes literacies designed to sustain marginalization of racialized bodies, inflicting harm and pain - is instructive. In insisting on the play - an act of literacy normativity - to go on in spite of protests against inflicting harm and pain, that is exactly what is happening. Saliently, however, Pritchard also proposes the concept of “restorative literacies” which are literacies that heal. Pritchard writes, “Restorative literacies are part of the long African American tradition Elaine Richardson calls ‘survival literacies’. These survival literacies work to guard individuals against … ‘the living death of silence’.” (34). Indeed, the resistance expressed at Shorewood High School can be seen as restorative, an act of self-care and even love, which Pritchard defines as, “a radical praxis of freedom and self-care in the face of a social, political, and cultural circumstance in which you and your people are targeted for debasement, degradation, and in many cases, death.” (36).At the event, a student read aloud an Instagram message reacting to the protesters with racist and threatening content, reminding us these conversations do concern life and death.
Heeding the voices of resistance against the N-word in any context (and colonial ideologies that buttress it), I think the time is ripe to reconsider the benefits of asking high school students to read, and much less perform, Harper Lee’s novel. I understand that if the goal is to generate classroom dialogues about racism and equality, there are other novels and plays available that center and humanize people of color rather than representing them as minor characters (e.g. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, and David Chariandy’s Brother). At the meeting, though, Shorewood High School’s drama director rather unapologetically claimed to have chosen To Kill a Mockingbird to encourage more “minority students to join [the drama club]”, and though his intentions appear to be harmless, he is, in fact, enacting a modern and subtle form of colonialism. Using Django Paris and H. Samy Alim’s Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (2017) as a lens, we learn “CSP is about complicating, sustaining, and extending what is important to students and their lives, not just what is important to educators and their agendas, whether their agendas are social justice-driven or not” (Wong and Peña, 125). The colonialist aspect of the drama director’s actions lies in his setting the agenda for the minority students; in plowing ahead and disregarding what the students might have deemed important to dramatize; and in silencing their voices when they raised them in protest against having to listen to White students utter the N-word 44 times. Many people voiced the point that this is a play; it is White characters. - not White students - shouting the word. But guess what? Testimonials confirmed White students do habitually use the N-word, and even if they didn’t, does a White person get to decide hearing the N-word in the context of a play isn’t harmful? The epitome of the modern colonial spirit is when the colonizer dictates the terms of healing and reconciliation.
In the end, whether the voices of resistance were heard or whether safety concerns were given priority, the play was cancelled, leaving me hoping for climate changes in the community, and for instructional and staffing changes at the school. -GPF
Last Thursday, our class had the rare opportunity to discuss a book with its author: Morris Young generously answered questions about his book Minor Re/Visions: Asian American Literacy Narratives as a Rhetoric of Citizenship. We also extended our discussion about literacy narratives by looking at the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives.
First, Morris Young contextualized his research in terms of Hawaiian history and personal history. He delved into the complexity of Hawaii’s history in terms of colonization, literacy and citizenship. Referring to colonization and “settler colonialism”, he explained how languages and literacy have become a “proxy for social class and race” (Young):
As an Asian American from Hawaii, Young grew up with this legacy. He mentioned how his mother went to English Standard school and talked about it with pride. In contrast, he noted that when he went to school, English Standard schools didn’t exist anymore, but that the Asian American community still experienced the weight of English norm, however more with resentment than pride. Influenced by Anna Ruggles Gere’s Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms of the Extra-Curriculum of Composition, Young thus looked at literacy outside the classrooms and placed the start of his research at the intersection of two Hawaiian archives: the historical archives (in English) and the literary archives (in Hawaiian pidgin) trying to figure out how narratives could bring them together. That is also when he heard the emerging term “literacy narrative” in the field of rhetoric and composition. His research had just found a vessel.
Young then developed his idea of Minor Re/Visions through literacy narratives, practice that he has reflected upon and adapted to different body of students. His approach to research has been reflective too as Young defined Minor Re/Visions as dated. He explained how Minor Re/Visions are now seen as conservative because they position themselves in relationship with the dominant narrative, when minority communities don’t want to define themselves in this relationship anymore. However, Young wondered if it would ever be possible for minority communities to totally abstract themselves from this relationship…
Young is pursuing his amazing research in literacy narratives in other areas as well. Lately he has been looking at how places shape rhetorical activities, especially within Asian American narratives. He gave the example of graffiti in Japanese classical forms used to warn and to advise new migrants about what they would face after they leave the immigration station. He closed our discussion by letting us ponder about the wall that the U.S. President wants to erect and what literacy it might generate.
After our discussion with Morris Young, many in the class expressed the idea that Minor Re/Visions doesn’t seem outdated when one looks at how Standard English is still so pervasive in the U.S. educational system. We acknowledged that it takes time for new forward ideas to actually seep into the structure of a system and be implemented in term of practices. One classmate noted that Minor Re/Visions could be the first step towards wider deeper change. The discussion also led us to reflect on the valence of literacy. We all agreed that literacy is not inherently good or bad but that it all depends on what one does with it. As an example, we talked about the complexity and ambivalence of literacy during slavery in the U.S. We also worried about how neoliberal argumentations contribute in pushing towards Standard English as a norm. We finally talked about what we could take from the discussion in term of research: a method. We noted how Morris Young connected fields for his research–– literacy narrative/fiction and education policy. I am particularly interested by the pollination that can happen between different fields in term of research. How can research in poetry gain from rhetoric, and vice-versa?
This week, we read Vershawn Ashanti Young's book, Your Average Nigga: Performing Race Literacy and Masculinity. As we discussed Young’s experiences and arguments, we shared key terms, ideas, and topics that we thought were central the readings.
In his book, Young tells his personal story, including how education separated him from his family and friends, and from a black, masculine identity. However, in his profession in the field of education, he felt singled out for being black among mostly white colleagues. Young shares his experiences because he knows that he's not the only black man who has felt such things.
In each of these areas of his life, he had to leave a part of his identity behind.
Young realized that he made specific rhetorical moves in order to signal certain identifications to certain groups of people (110). While this rhetorical dexterity may be applauded or praised, it is mentally and emotionally exhausting for the speaker. One classmate pointed out that Young describes his existence as liminal: he is always between identities. We wondered if the image on the cover of the book was speaking to that at all (below).
Young suggests that when people are forced into changing their speaking and writing in certain contexts, they are linguistically performing. These “Linguistic Performances” are tied to identity, including racial identity, and cause a sense of “Linguistic Schizophrenia” (96). Linguistic Schizophrenia happens when people feel they have to switch from performing one part of their identity to performing another. It is like switching between multiple personalities in order to guard against discrimination, insult, or violence.
Specifically, Young speaks of black males who feel pressured to make different linguistic and rhetorical choices whether at home, at school, or at work in order to fit the identity expected of them in those contexts. When Young performed his academic identity in academic circles, he felt that he was insufficiently masculine or insufficiently black. When he performed a black, masculine identity around friends and family, he felt insufficiently himself as well.
He claims that this problem is due in part to education, which is standardized and normalized by the dominant culture (white people). Black males tend to view elementary education as white and feminine, and fear not being seen as masculine by their peers (90). And so, they give off an attitude of not caring. Young argues against some scholars we've read about this semester, including Rosina Lippi-Green and Lisa Delpit, refuting their claims that black student merely need access to certain codes of power, i.e. 'Standard English' in order to be successful in the marketplace (94-95).
Young declares that education must change. He introduces the idea of 'code-meshing' as a way in which everyone – regardless of language – can benefit, because it's “more in line with how people actually speak and write” (7). He claims it is more effective than 'code-switching', which makes people use separate codes of language in contexts such as home and school, performing partial identity linguistically. Code-meshing allows people to mesh codes rhetorically, freeing them to use their full linguistic repertoires.
We wondered how this would work in education, leading us to ask:
We are learning to be willing to grapple with tough topics without clear answers. This complex topic deserves more attention from educators, not only in writing theory but in practicing possible solutions.
At the end of Young’s book, he is still grappling with validating his full identity. He is currently the chair of the CCCC, and caused a heated discussion by not writing his Call For Papers in 'Standard English'. How can we continue grappling with the realities of linguistic performances, linguistic schizophrenia, and systems of education... and how they affect peoples’ daily lives?
Examples of code-meshing:
Gloria Anzaldúa: "How To Tame a Wild Tongue"
Jamila Lyiscott: “3 Ways to Speak English”
Vershawn Ashanti Young: "Should Writers Use They Own English"
~ DK ~
The reading that produced this week’s discussion was Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening, a book that asks its readers to consider the rhetorical value of listening consciously to the beliefs and experiences of others. Ratcliffe calls this practice rhetorical listening, which “signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (17). In order to explore how this happens, Ratcliffe delves into the history of rhetoric, theories of identity, and strategies for listening to others rhetorically.
As a class, some issues we focused on were those of identity vs. identification, non-identification, invisible whiteness, and Ratcliffe’s overall message for the field of Rhetoric and Composition.
Identity vs. Identification
Ratcliffe spends ample time discussing identity vs. identification. In class wondered if there was much of a difference between the two, and, if so, what was the significance? We came up with a few thoughts, but what resonated with me the most is the idea that all of our individual identifications are part of what makes up our identity. The significance of this lies in the fact that if we try to read someone based on one identification, we can easily lead ourselves to stereotyping. Because of this, Ratcliffe urges us to focus on non-identification as a tool for rhetorical listening.
Because one can (even inadvertently) use identification to objectify people, non-identification asks us to see the whole person and to “admit that gaps exist” (73) in what we know about those we are listening to.
With a need to clarify non-identification further, we wondered, does a place of non-identification mean that one does not claim their marginalized identity? We considered how one goes about non-identifying. Through discussion we determined that maybe non-identification means you’re not putting up barriers as the listener. It’s, as one classmate said, “disidentifying yourself, not for the sake of yourself, but for the sake of what they’re saying” because learning happens when we use “the capacity to hear” and feel the “obligation to listen.”
We also wondered whether one can really be in a space of non-identification, especially if identification is not just how you see yourself, but how society sees you. After all, we’re constantly being shaped by the concepts and tropes around us, and we also reproduce them.
Despite this, Ratcliffe seems to emphasize that all people need to search for understanding and connection with others. To develop understanding, those in spaces of power need to recognize unearned privilege, while also engaging in discourses other than their own. Rhetorical listening requires us to, as another classmate put it, “understand the context, but still make the choice to not let that context inform the relationship, the listening.” By being accountable for our social positions, we can practice non-identification and aim to listen without objectifying others.
Ratcliffe’s work makes it clear that not having to acknowledge race is a privilege. Often times in America, race may be invisible to white people, but it remains visible to non-whites. This invisibility of whiteness is something many don’t want to discuss, but Ratcliffe argues that choosing to not discuss race isn’t the answer. She makes it clear that avoiding racial discussions perpetuates the privilege of not having to talk or think about racial issues in our society. While some white people may feel uncomfortable discussing race, non-white people have to deal with the day-to-day realities of not being white, putting them in a position that forces the issue of race into their lives.
One classmate pointed out that “White people might not think of white in terms of a race category,” whereas other races are seen as categories, “in silos, so to speak.” One key idea that stood out to me is that Americans in the dominant culture often see their culture as “that’s what America is,” but it’s only one view of the country. However, this isn’t the case because, even if they think their life is the norm, Rachel reminded us, “everyone else has a qualifier in front of them.” This racial qualifier is an identification often pushed upon people, one that often gets falsely equated with identity, rather than a single identification.
Implications for Rhetoric and Composition Studies
With this knowledge, Ratcliffe hopes that, first and foremost, we practice listening rhetorically, and discussing the gender and race issues that makes us uncomfortable. One person reminded the class that, “So often, when these issues are addressed, it’s in a non-productive, narcissist way.” The focus is on the self, not on society and others. By utilizing rhetorical listening strategies, we can work to avoid this self-centered trap.
Some strategies that stood out to the class included:
Rhetorical listening asks us to listen in spaces and ways we are not used to. We must spend time thinking through how we can responsibly and respectfully hear the words around us in order to move past dysfunctional silences and into a place of productive listening.