Sunday, January 14, 2007

Researching the Origins of Black St. Louis

I am seeking any information about the history of African Americans in Saint Louis, Missouri during the colonial and antebellum period, and through the civil rights era. I would particularly like to know more about the arrival of the French speaking Africans that came from Haiti by way of Canada, the Mill Creek neighborhood and Gaslight Square, and civil rights activities. I’ve already collected a few websites and articles, but if you know of or have any information about any others, or books or places of interest, please email info to me at


Thursday, January 11, 2007

On Possession of My Gift

So, I’m taking a class this semester called “Issues and Methods in Writing Consultancy”. Sounds serious, huh? It’s actually a class to help me develop my tutoring skills in order to intern in a new writing center that the university is establishing. Key students were invited to participate in this inaugural program, and I was one of them. I never thought much about tutoring. Most people just want you to correct grammatical errors, or even sometimes they want you to tell them what to write. But, I thought hey, not only will it create an opportunity to earn credit hours towards my degree and a stipend, it will also look good on my application for graduate school, and perhaps I could snatch one of those teaching assistantships at Georgia State. But, when in class the professor wanted us to openly talk about our own writing process, I felt myself begin to withdraw, wondering if I’d made a mistake.

It was like being asked to strip down to my underwear, and I was wholly unprepared for how awkward and potentially exposed I felt. That was when I realized just how personal, how internal my writing process is. Who knew? First, I’ve never truly committed to a process. Writing, I thought, is just something I do. And, when I talk about it, I chose who to talk about it with. While everyone else in the class was eager to tell what seemed like a lot about themselves and their writing, I've never wanted to gather a crowd of people and entertain them with what amounts to my private sphere.

I felt myself at a crossroads. But, somehow deciding to let my guard down in order to develop the skill of tutoring, and perhaps help others cultivate their own writing processes, I feel that I have already shattered some barriers in my own writing.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Inherit the Wind and Other Academic Hustles

While today marks the beginning of the second semester of my new life as a full-time student (I’d been part-time for the previous six semesters), I’ve been going to school long enough to be of the opinion that: college is a hustle. Universities raise tuition fees at will, and book publishers make minimal changes to textbooks in order to come out with new editions almost yearly for courses that are required; and of course, the new editions are ten bucks more every year. Since I’ve been back in school, our student activity fee has increased 18%, the student health fee has more than doubled, and the athletic fee has increased 12%; and I’m not that athletic. Also, even though non-traditional students make up close to half of the campus population, more and more remedial classes are being fazed out of state curricula. So, if you decide you want to change your life and go back to school after a twenty year hiatus, but you haven’t seen an algebra book since high school, you’re really going to have to step up your game. My school’s minimum required mathematics is a “low-level” calculus class. These are some of the ways, I think, institutions weed out those who may be less focused, perhaps less capable, or those of us who may simply need a little help forging our educational goals. Frankly, the way I see it: it’s a racket.

But, that’s just one of the hustles.

One thing I’ve learned: college is a game, and she who finishes, gets the degree, and the job. Get multiple degrees and your opportunities grow. Get a technical or science or mathematical degree, and your possibilities increase further. But, with the exception of the information that you’re actually interested in (for me it’s English), all of the “required” courses are just the hoops you have to jump through in order to gain the knowledge you really want. And, you pay dearly for privilege. The lower level courses, such as “Introduction to This or That”, are pretty formulaic. The professors are generally part-time, with only a Masters degree, as opposed to a Ph.D., so they generally don’t even create their own syllabus. It’s a standard syllabus created by the department with exactly what they think you should know by the end of the course, and every instructor follows it from semester to semester.

Enter Dick York and Spencer Tracey.

It so happens, that just last night I saw the movie Inherit the Wind for the first time. It turns out that this “Creationism vs. Evolution” debate is nothing new. This movie is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Trial (the "Monkey" Trial), which resulted in Scopes’s conviction for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to a high school science class, contrary to a Tennessee state law that mandated the teaching of a form of creationism. Now, it so happens that Biology 1112 begins with the discussion of “evolution”, seeing as how evolution is the unifying theme in biology. But, in the spirit of political correctness, professors always have to provide a disclaimer at the beginning of a class, “I’m not trying to tell you how to think” or “It’s perfectly okay if you believe in Creationism, but this is what we teach based on the material” or, “Please don’t go tell your pastor that we don’t believe in God”, yadda, yadda, yadda. And, while college is supposed to be a safe place to ask “Why”, it’s not the most convenient. These professors have a schedule, ya' know. They don’t have time to entertain questions like, “If you chop off one of a bird’s wings, will birds evolve into one-winged creatures?” Yes, someone actually asked that question. In a room full of youthful curiosity, thick enough to encrust a fossil for thousands of years to come, I could feel people secretly questioning their paradigms.

But, I understand. At nineteen and twenty most of us aren’t that secure in our beliefs. What we believe is constantly being challenged and constantly evolving. And, that’s okay. Or, it should be. Because, whatever you believe, if it’s that important, no one or no thing will be able to breach it. And, if a new idea does get through, then maybe it’s worth considering. However, with higher learning, like with religion, you have to know how to eat the fish and spit out the bones. The tests for classes such as this are all multiple choice, Scantron forms. That’s how standard it is. They don’t care what your beliefs are. Memorize the material, mark the right answer on the form, get the A, get the degree, pass go and collect the $200. Save the questions for your guru.

I even had to reign myself in once or twice in a history class (before I mastered the game). My then, blond, Finnish (from Finland) professor, whose concentration for his Ph.D. was African American studies, who is married to an African American woman, father to biracial children, who enjoys rapper, Fifty Cents, who thought Hustle and Flow was the Best Movie of the Year, made the mistake of comparing slavery to the holocaust. Humph! Because the class was full of eighteen to twenty-somethings, he thought he would get no response when he implied that slaves somehow had it good because they had regular meals and clothing. I had to remind him of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, where Douglass talks about how as a slave child, he ate mush from a trough with other children, like pigs. Or, how adults were given one pair of socks a year and children were given none; they walked barefoot year-round. Even in the winter. But, I raised up, and got a B out of his class. Cause no Finnish, wannabe who thinks he knows black people will ever be able to convey what I know my folks went through; no matter how many degrees or black women he has.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Winter Break

My recently acquired status as a full-time student, while leaving me with less “play money”, also leaves me with vacation time between semesters. Working a full-time job, you get two, maybe three weeks a year. Except I usually break those two or three weeks down into one to three day “mini vacations”, and thus I rarely got a “real vacation”. So, while having these last few weeks to essentially do what I want has been amazing, I’ve often felt just a little guilty. That my family, the people I used to work with and my beloved occasionally and sarcastically remark that, “Wow, some people have got it sooooo good”, makes me feel just a tiny bit embarrassed, I know I’ve earned this time in my life, so the embarrassment doesn’t last long. And, now after cleaning all the stuff that I just couldn’t get to during the semester: the top of the refrigerator, sorting out all my receipts from the past year, cooking more often during the week, organizing all of my books and papers from classes, pulling out beds to vacuum those hard to reach spots, ceiling fans, etc., I now find that the closer it comes to the beginning of the next semester, I get a little…bored. “Embrace the boredom”! I tell myself. It won’t be long before I will be frantically trying to finish a reading assignment, or staying up until 3 a.m. to complete a research paper that I’ve know about for two months.

I didn’t think I’d have much time for “fun” reading. That is, reading that has not been assigned by an over zealous professor who thinks that their class is the only one you have. But, actually it was one of those professors who organized a book club gathering at her house for the holiday. After reading six novels in her class this past semester, she’d thought it’d be fun to read one more! And, you know what? It was. The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai is a challenging, yet approachable exploration of the genetic and collected consciousness of a colonial legacy. And, though it is a story which takes place in a village at the feet of the Himalayas, I find as I do in all Postcolonial literature, that the legacy is the same as that of African Americans. Our “double-consciousness” is equivalent to the thread of hybridity common in the literature of colonized people. The mark of the colonialist is an indelible one which has left us all fragmented; even they themselves. Desai’s writing is a thoroughly ambitious continuation of the efforts of Indian literature to claim and reclaim her own histories. Her experimentation with form inside the novel is mildly impressive. And, while it occasionally seems wordy and ostentatious; it is still a beautiful, youthful and clever addition to the annals which include her mother, Anita Desai, V.S. Naipaul and Salaman Rushdie.
Now, let's see if I can squeeze in one more book by next Monday...

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Last Rites

Having grown up in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, I have attended funeral services that are spirited, to say the least, and most often animated. Although there is a start time, the end time is often unpredictable and sometimes determined by how many people pass out from having the Holy Ghost descend upon them. A soloist wails a gutsy, bluesy rendition of “Precious Lord”, and the choir rock and sway to a thunderous bass line whose vibrations jolt the most solemn of mourners. So watching more reserved tributes to the deceased, such as that of a president, seem a little surreal in its execution.

Nevertheless, I am always taken aback by the formality of white Americans and Europeans, whether it is the funeral services of former presidents, popes or even the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. No matter what we think of these individuals living or not, the grandeur of these ceremonies is arresting, and commands the awe and attention of the world (and, they cost a lot more than passing the collection plate will ever pay for when the deceased couldn’t afford insurance). There is always a prevailing sense of being in the midst of something historical and memorable. The pomp and circumstance regarded in these universal customs of death and marriage, (although Europeans seem to evoke a little more pomp that Americans), takes on a remote, timeless and enduring quality. In short, white people sure can put on a show. And, whether the program is done in a day, or whether it plays out over the course of a week, I find myself glued to the television and internet until it is over.

The funeral rites of the Pope, with its Sistine Chapel backdrop, the coordinated flow of red Cardinal robes, and the colorful regalia of the Swiss Guards revealed the splendor and mysteries of hundreds of years. A ceremony that, until the death of Pope John Paul II, had only been witnessed by a small fraction of the worlds’ population. And, while the tribute to Gerald Ford was not as over-the-top as Ronald Reagan, it still was a performance for American record books. No matter how scruffy and disheveled American soldiers look in the field, when they put on those dress blues, marching with deadly precision, making a coffin appear to float on air, they bring a degree of dignity to any program, regardless of what people may think of the dead person.

Still there is something more satisfying in watching a sad, New Orleans dirge break into an upbeat, jazzy “O When The Saints, Go Marching In”; people dancing in the street with their ushering uniforms/Mardi Gras costumes on. You haven’t had a good send off unless Sister Jackson does her infamous hoochie, coochie shout down the isle, or the preacher, with his adenoidal lament, attest to your faithfulness in tithing. The image of M.C. Hammer wiggling and gliding on the stage at James Brown’s funeral service in Augusta, Georgia, although unnerving, somehow just feels right. And, as usual, the funerals of others always propels me to think of how I myself would liked to be eulogized, and how I’d like my life to be celebrated when I leave this earth. For starters, I know I want a lot of good music; I’d like some African drumming and dancing, and that New Orleans vibe sounds good. There’s got to be a lot of good food and fellowshipping. And, I want to be remembered for my persistence, my never-give-upness, and maybe my mouth watering Curried, Vegetarian Fish and rice, my words and…

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