A Response to Jessica Parker’s “Writing and Unwriting Race: Using Hip-Hop in Writing and Literature Classrooms”

March 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

Dr. Jessica Parker is the Director of Composition at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Parker’s “Writing and Unwriting Race: Using Hip-Hop in Writing and Literature Classrooms” appears in Performing Antiracist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication, edited by Vershawn Ashanti Young and Frankie Condon.  It was published by University Press of Colorado in 2017, and it is available electronically for free at  https://wac.colostate.edu/books/antiracist/.

Performin Antiracist Pedagogy

Parker opens her article reflecting on her own background in coming to be a scholar of Hip-hop, noting the necessity  to “strongly consider [her] own position in the culture and in the academy as white-person and white scholar” (195).  This led her to begin using Hip-Hop as a vehicle to ask students “to reflect on and acknowledge their own identities and how these identities inform their readings of and writing about African American texts.”

Parker notes that an awareness of her own racial identification and position of authority and privilege goes beyond how she engages in texts.  It also informs the ways students regard “texts, cultural issues, and historical information” related to African American traditions.  She argues that students need guidance not only for contextualizing African American texts within broader literary traditions, they also need to examine their own positions, “both conscious and unconscious, about race” (196).  This is true even of students who already have an interest in the material: “Many students are unfamiliar with or only partly understand terms like white privilege, benevolent racism, and essentialism.”  Grounding the class in hip-hop allows students to approach this difficult material through a terrain with which they are often already familiar.

She tracks a professional discussion around hip-hop as pedagogically useful, noting a broad ground of existing scholarship. Her experience has been that when “using hip-hop in these ways, my students have been willing to engage deeply with difficult issues that they often are reluctant to discuss in the context of more traditional texts or simply ‘real life’” (197).  Such discussions open up ways for students to discuss racial politics in their classrooms, and particularly tricky questions, such as: “what is the line between appreciation and appropriation?”  They expose students to linguistic diversity within English and identify often unexamined notions about racial “progress” and post-racist attitudes.  She sees her job not as to call out students who have reductive ideas but to journey with them “below the surface of spectacle” (199).  Drawing on KRS-One’s insistence that Hip-hop is a way of life, she believes Hip-hop “provides the context in which students can resist the unwriting of race and class issues that it pervades the broader culture.”  She says, “hip-hop authorizes the examination of race and racism, class and classism.”  Examining issues of authenticity present in hip-hop presents an existing context for discussing the fact that issues with respect to race have certainly not gone away, despite claims that things have gotten better.

She outlines some specific activities for the opening days dealing with African American texts:

  • On day one of class or at the beginning of a hip-hop unit, have students either in free write or brainstrorm on the board.
  • Frame the discussion as non-evaluative. It is not about dislocating students from their positions so much as moving deeper into them with a critical eye.
  • Then have a class discussion. Discuss what the list says “about the assumptions we are bringing to the texts,” how we read texts, and “how these assumptions affect how we see connections between the textual tradition (both oral and written) and racial issues” (200).
  • Have the students reflect back again on their individual social positions, asking them to become conscious of their own positionalities.

Parker lists some of the common outcomes of such discussions, perhaps the most important being that the lists often tacitly suggest that African American texts only have meaning in relation to white people / culture.  It is especially important in the process that she positions herself alongside her students as someone who is also working out these issues for herself, and that these conversations force her to reflect on her own pedagogy both in the classroom and in her syllabus policies. This has led her to include the following syllabus statement, which I have copied verbatim:

A Note on Language: Because many of the texts deal with race and racism, there is some use of offensive terms. There is also use of terms that were acceptable at the time some texts were written but that we may now find offensive (Negro for in- stance). The presence of derogatory terms in the texts does not mean that general use of derogatory terms is acceptable in the class. Certainly in quoting from or referring to the texts (offensive terms are in some titles), the use of the terms is allowable, but please think carefully about your use of these terms. Also, some of the texts use African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which at some points was referred to simply as “dialect.” AAVE is a recognized variant of English, as is Standard American English (SAE), and we will discuss it as such. It is important to understand that AAVE is not improper SAE; it is a variant with its own rules. (201-202)

Statements like this help both students and professors maintain vigilance that “our language is our power.” Acknowledging linguistic power means confronting offensive aspects of language such as racial slurs, which perform that power.  It also allows her to foreground linguistic variations between AAVE and SAE with awareness of social power dynamics at work.  Because many students are not aware of AAVE to begin with, the attention to such distinctions helps them confront assumptions about being “proper” or “educated” and a more robust distinction between “slang” (sloppy-language), code-switching, and code-meshing – although Parker does not use these terms explicitly, focusing more on developing historical cultural power dynamics than expressive conduct.  Still, she says, “Students must consider whether they can ‘keep it real’ or ‘drop science’ in their own writing.”

Moreover, using a wide array of examples from within hip-hop, both well-known and not, Parker performs her mastery of the content without explicitly drawing attention to her knowledge bank.  She says, “Part of a responsible pedagogy is helping students in this navigation [around issues of cultural appropriation].  Awareness of the history of appropriation (e.g., in rock and roll) is a starting point in helping students in this navigation and negotiation of their context” (204).  Hip-hop as a pedagogical resource allows her to help students “confront the realities of the social iniquities and stereotypes predicated on race and class” (205).  Students become both aware of “the system” and even more aware of how strong hip-hop’s attempts to “unwrite race and class is” (206).

With this emergent knowledge of social positionalities and attention to linguistic power, Parker is then able to address historical issues in relation to African American texts and the more “canonical” works of African American literature.  She includes a hip-hop aesthetics exercise in which students look at statements about art and Blackness in W.E.B. DuBois and Amiri Baraka.  The exercise helps students see hip-hop as existing in a larger historical and literary continuum.  She also contrasts it with aesthetic statements by Beat Generation writer, John Clellon Holmes.  The frame of the exercise makes African American voices dominant and emphasizes the troubling “mimetic” relationship some white writers have when their cultural imaginaries locate African Americans in certain positions while simultaneously aggrandizing them.

The last exercise is yet another tacit indicator of Parker’s larger position as a scholar.  Although the references in the article are too many to mention here, Parker’s use of hip-hop examples throughout the text not only perform her expertise in the content area, they perform a cultural milieu in which African American aesthetics houses the space of the classroom rather than being refracted through the domestication of tacitly racist worldviews and pedagogical strategies.





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