Big ups to the explosion of color, hair, and gender-fuckery on the first day of school y’all.
Posts tagged difference.
Growing up Oceana. Breathing Dam Neck. Living Little Creek. Locals called em SQUIDS. I was a theatre fag and never went to the strip growing up, in fact I grew to loathe the beachfront. The ocean isn’t majestic or full of unexplored fantasy for me. The beach is a small group of dunes off 68th that set the stage for losing my virginity in the back of a VOLVO station wagon in ‘93. The beach is a foul glow all orange and dying from 25th to 1st. The beach is a killing ground. The beach is all neon my sister blacked out. I prefer a Wisonsin lake or the quarry. But the beach is NAVY and now she’s got a NAVY man and a little NAVY girl somewhere down south, the dull tip of our nation’s fading dreams—Florida. The beach is different but the life isn’t. The beach breaks boys into men of war and sometimes those men break things back. At this point almost every memory I have of growing up feels like some SAILOR battering some YOUNG GIRL on base or downtown or upstairs. I remember the Gulf War starting in my stepfather’s black Taurus. I remember failing to graduate high school in Spring. I remember falling in love. I remember Alanis Morrisette. Everything else is violence and toll roads.
In college the straight friends would look at my Commonwealth of Virginia driver’s license taken when I was 15 and remark how much I looked like a lesbian. The queers said I looked like an ugly lesbian. At least I was consistent. It could have been the bowl cut or even the Houses of the Holy tee—Iowa collegetown dykes were woodsy CLASSIC ROCK with questionable hair. What can I say? It was ‘92 and although I mowed my lawn every week to a dusty cassette of PRETTY HATE MACHINE I hadn’t traded in my ZOSO cap for black boots and eyeliner yet. I listened to DIRT too much to not attempt longer hair. I played piano and broke my arm in football practice the day before our first JV game. A stack of PENTHOUSE from ‘86 in the same drawer as a pair of stockings I’d stole from my mother. Matt Montgomery probably saved my life one day driving me to school when he put in a tape of BAUHAUS covering ZIGGY STARDUST. I was a boy, a pile of sticks. Tinder.
In ‘95 two SEALS-to-be were convicted of killing a young woman from Georgia up visiting friends for the weekend. Those kind of dudes thicked out and cracking, beating anyone within earshot was nothing new around the bases. This was more of the same. And more terrible. Dumped her body in the woods off I-64. They’d all been to a bar my sister once worked called THE BAYOU and one of the dudes “spontaneously choked” the girl from Georgia while the three were driving. The pictures printed in the paper looked different than they do now. The color more vivid, the detail more fuzzy. The price of memory. A beauty queen. Soldiers. Her hair. Two pair dead eyes. They were hulks. Goliaths. Have you ever spilled a drink on a body like that, got yourself grabbed and lifted out of your shoes? Have you ever felt how large those hands are around your throat? My sister’s husband lifts my niece like that by her tiny arms. He is made of caramel granite and is broken. He’s dangerous. When he touches me I want to vomit. When he speaks I hear the Atlantic.
Sec. 117 of TITLE I in H.R. 3402, The Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005 states that funds from the bill can be used for “prohibiting violence in special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.” Bases, boats, oceans, forts. The bill never spells out what or how. The wording is tiny and ambiguous unlike most of the rest of the thing. We herby something something POOF. A girl can dream right? Not that it matters anymore because VAWA wasn’t renewed. The slow suck. Not very new left of me but Žižek and Marx are dead ends. Because CAPITAL flattens everything. This is historical-libidinal materialism. Foucault, Deleuze, Kristeva, Cixous. A politics of philosophy dedicated to exposing the historical force relations producing identity in all its ontological and epistemological forms (Protevi). Political physics. Difference. Sexuality. Gender. Race. Class. Flows of power. There is no violent erruption, no revolt. There is practice. Deliberate, rehearsed, boring. There are tiny things, insignificant moments. That’s what entranment is. OK yes, it’s about forgiveness too so maybe Derrida but I’m not ready to forgive, to try. I’m not that strong. I’m sticks.
What force determines the limit of one idea over another? On Friday my family was circulating a group text message and my brother-in-law kept saying how he couldn’t stop thinking about my niece and his son. Can’t stop crying and seeing their faces. How can something like this happen? Over and over. Makes sense in lots of very real ways. I never wrote back. I tend to withhold most everything I think from my family out of an intense desire not to be judged into farce. I still get shamed as overly sensitive and emotional for suggesting that celebrating the death of a terrorist over a group Skype was offensive and upsetting. They don’t get it and that’s ok most of the time. The intensity of surprise that flickers across the faces of my family in those moments of disconnect felt incredibly familiar and hopelessly sickening this weekend. Naming an idea or event as unspeakable, unthinkable, unreal, wholly evil, etc. places that event or idea outside the realm of actuality and experience. Such delimiting is dangerous and selfish. Your disbelief is nothing more than hollow affect.
I fantasize about a fully armed student coming into my classroom probably once a week. Not because I teach black and brown kids from bad neighborhoods. Not because I’m morbid or desensitized. Not because I want to be ready. I have a lot of friends who watch a lot of horror movies and always enjoy a good game of what would you do if zombies burst through the door. Right or wrong I can picture guns just as easy as I can zombies. You’re a goddamn fool if you think guns belong in the classroom. I wouldn’t feel safer. My students wouldn’t be any safer. Goes against every value that brought me to teaching in the first place. But you can bank on how often I wonder how fast I could chuck my laptop or a desk or my body. We must think these things. Absolutely. We must place the unnameable otherness of such an event in our field of vision and attempt to give it voice. The moment we start listening beyond the limit of naming is grace. We must move beyond ourselves. We must move beyond the unthinkable in order to speak to the other. Not to know, but to listen. We will never know the pain of those families who lost their children in that way yet run the risk of only listening to our own experience of their pain and flattening out difference. More violence.
He must have been sick. He must have been unhinged. He must have been autistic. He must have played Black Ops. He must have ____________. Naming the unthinkable in order to keep our subjectivities safe. The problem with subjectivity is that the bodies of those children were torn to shreds and I’m still here. The problem with subjectivity is 300 or so dead black bodies in Chicago since June. The problem with subjectivity is don’t touch me you faggot. It’s hard to watch Obama’s speech from last night because every time he quotes from the bible I picture that racist fuck D. teaching Sunday School. It’s hard to accept how central the idea of making children (and all that entails) is to the emerging narrative against gun violence. It’s maddening to hear my brother-in-law fixate on his kids and cry and cry while he propagates misogynistic and violent values to those very children, loaded guns stashed throughout his house. Those are very real feelings and are important but cannot be the only places from which to begin. Those limits are much too easy. I prefer the fading edge of giant orange sunsets on US 20 racing home in July, slowly giving in to the fields of corn. The beauty and terror of an impossible moment.
I believe in hope. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in difference. I believe in justice.
In some ways Discourse surrounding theory is no different than Discourse surrounding race, gender, literature, popular culture, music, film,writing, performance, etc.—all can be used as weapons to make others feel small or perhaps to fancy ourselves something of an expert-genius or sometimes to produce different kinds of knowledge, a different way of seeing. Value is arbitrary and almost always made-up. Reading and writing about Anzaldúa or Foucault is hard work and accomplishes very real things for certain audiences. So does listening to and writing about Freddie Gibbs or Carly Rae Jespen. The bro who stands up and scorns your feeble understanding of Infinite Jest, who practically spits on you you fool, for not slogging through every single footnote so here let me do it for you and tell you what it means is the same bro who effortlessly blows off RuPaul’s Drag Race as fag shit or Calloway as a vindictive bitch. Coincidentally he’s probably the same professor who wields theory like a Trojan shield and cries himself to sleep at night. Theorizing is different than criticizing. Making sense is different than estimating value. Neither are mutually exclusive.
Anyone who says that they are the most important person in the room is full of shit. Anyone who tells you that you can’t talk about yourself is full of shit. Anyone who drowns out the voice of others because they’re talking too loudly about themselves is full of shit. Any academic who tells you that you wouldn’t understand isn’t doing their job and probably doesn’t understand themselves because let me just say that theory is fucking hard and I don’t trust anyone who says they got it licked, and, oh yeah, that academic is subsequently is full of shit. Anyone who tells you that theory has no value in the real world is full of shit. Reading is as important as writing. I do not mean that reading a lot of books or even the right books is as important as writing. I mean that learning different ways of reading is as important as learning different ways of writing. Reading is like listening. Listening is hard and never perfect. We can always listen more. We absolutely must. We fail at it too. I do, all the time. We can always get better.
The assignment is straightforward enough for students to understand what they have to do but ambiguous enough that they’re never sure what the finished product looks like. A speech of introduction. Four minutes. Identify three characteristics, traits, identities, or values that you associate with who you are at this point in your life. Explain each characteristic to the audience using two songs (six total, two for each characteristic) as a means of communicating metaphorically what I’ve asked you to explain literally. Songs communicate in primarily two ways: lyrically (what the song says) and sonically (how the song feels/sounds). Using those two modes as a starting place explain each characteristic/trait/identity etc. relating what you are trying to communicate to your audience about yourself to what or how the song communicates to you. Songs do not have to be in English. Songs do not have to have words. Jazz, HipHop, Rock, Classical, Noise, Ambient, Metal, Electronic—and anything else you can think of. Be able to name the artist and song title, why you picked each song as a means of introducing yourself to the audience, what the songs say or feel like to you, and how they relate to your three characteristics. Make an album cover for the project. If the six songs represent an “album of you” what would that record cover look like? You can paint, draw, collage, pencil, illustrate, photocopy, or photoshop. Have fun.
It takes about two weeks of lectures and readings to cover all the information I expect them to draw on for the assignment—how to outline properly for this particular speech, speaking structures, organizational patterns, speaking anxiety, etc. My only hope by the time due dates roll around everyone feels comfortable knowing what my expectations are for them as speakers and that the assignment makes sense, that they know what to do. If they’re nervous or unclear about what exactly they’re going to say or do because OMG Dr. Powell it’s so much work, that’s different than not understanding the assignment itself. Students will always, inevitably freak out and no matter how much you advise everyone to practice out loud, at least 6 or 7 times before presenting, many won’t. However the ones that do the work, that practice and outline and think through the connections between themselves and the songs, those students do amazing things. Things I never could or would do. I’ve seen students bare the most amazing details and forge the most creative and intelligent insights about themselves. Fearless in all the ways I’d never expect. Afraid of speaking in front of people sure, but wholly unafraid of speaking about things like race or violence or class or love or fatherhood or role models or _________. All the things so many of us tiptoe around these kids hit head on, unapologetically. Because living it feels different probably than reading about it and really, because they’re living it Dr. Powell, and to keep on living there isn’t time to fuck around.
R.’s three traits were loyalty, family, and being driven to success. His album cover was a Pen n Pixel style cover depicting a giant wolf in a business suit, staring straight out. R. looks tough, tatted up and stocky. Shaved head, sneakers and jeans. Loyalty defined him he said because my dad was a drug dealer, shot and killed by his god-brother and then my brother was shot too by his drug partner over three thousand dollars he said, so loyalty is important to me he said. He showed us his gang tattoos but recently he realized that path wasn’t for me and I left and all those people who I thought were my brothers turned their backs on me after everything we’ve gone through and it’s makes me think of a song by Jadakiss and DMX ft. P Styles called Used to Be My Dog and the hook goes:
used to be my dog, you was in my left titty, scream ride or
die, I thought you would die with me, found out you a bitch
you can’t even ride with me, now it’s a war and you ain’t on
the side with me
and that really hits home and makes me work harder at being there for my friends in lots of different ways and especially for my family because those lines are the story of my life from my father to my brother to me. Which leads me to my next characteristic: being family oriented….
A. kept saying yeah I know I look hiphop but I’m really into metal. Tough for a kid from the Bronx growing up with no father, listening to metal. Sort of went my own way he said and learned from others how to be a man and treat others with respect, to respect yourself and to let that respect guide how you treat other people. Walk by Pantera talks about walking tall and standing up for yourself he said.
K. spoke of growing up in shelters and what Nas taught her about feeling different. C.’s mother had him at 15. N. about being boat people. Poor in the DR is different than poor here. I’ve got a lot of anger he said. GED program changed my life he said. I’m an independent woman she said. I’m a dancer she said. Bachata he said. Wu-Tang. Cannibal Corpse. Kanye. Beyonce. Benny Goodman. Drake. Whiz Khalifa. Beach House. On and on.
Some of them are scared to talk because it’s school and am I doing it right and I don’t know any of you sitting out there and god forbid anyone to look foolish but in the exact same breath they’ll cop to growing up poor with no home, anger and fear due to a disappeared father, GEDs and protecting sisters and mothers. Drugs. Abuse. Loving grandma. Becoming a cop to make NYPD better. First high school graduate. First college student. Pride. Everything that could give pause. I’m not sure why we aren’t talking more about the metalhead from the Bronx getting off the street, avoiding getting shot by finding graffiti and becoming an artist. Why aren’t Obama or Romney talking about anything EVERYTHING all wrapped up inside that one small part of his speech? Pfft.
It’s my favorite assignment of the semester. Difficult and scary and beautiful and mesmerizing and never perfect. Getting better at listening. Been trained by whiteness and maleness my whole life and we all know that white dudes have a hard time not being the center of attention. Creating a classroom of possible modes of being. A space of learning. Always different. Always difference.
The world of the individual—and often the black individual—is the space where I write. It is true that I can tell you how racism—indirectly and directly—affected my life. But you should also know that I truly believe that I had the best pair of parents in the world, that I had six brothers and sisters (sometimes more) who took care of me. That my mother taught me to read when I was four, that my father put me to work when I was six. That my brother Malik taught me D&D when I was seven, that my brother Big Bill fed me hip-hop from the time I was eight till this very day. That my house was filled with books which I was given the privilege to dive in and out of. That my father published and printed books which gave a sense of Do For Self.
That at Lemmel Middle School, I had teachers who went to war on my behalf. That I was a drummer for Sankofa Dance Company, and learned, not simply how to play, but how to shave a goat-skin and construct a drum-head. That I used to rhyme with Big Bill up on Wabash, and for all my awful flow, no one kicked me out. That the same boys who tortured me in seventh grade, repeatedly saved my ass in eighth grade. That throughout my young life someone more street-wise than me often took me under their wing and looked out.
In short—you need to know that I was privileged. I can run you all kinds of stats on the racial wealth gap and will gladly discuss it’s origins. But you can’t really buy two parents like I had. Money can buy experience and exposure—but it can’t make you want those things. It can’t make your parents curious about the world. It can’t make them moral, compassionate and caring. It can’t make them love their children. As I have moved on up, in that old Jeffersonian sense, I have seen families who allegedly were more privileged. But ultimately I find merit in who they are as humans. I am unconvinced that money trumps all of their flaws.
Spent most of the morning and afternoon working at the LGBT “Safe Space” table at school and the thing I want most to talk about with the students who walk up curious knowing very little about the “right ways” to talk about gender, sexuality, bodies or diversity is that space is real and can be dangerous or scary for others even if it feels safe for you or me. So we need to listen. Let’s start there and work our way out.
Endlessly fascinated by anti-intellectualism. Nothing new but the opening lines of the review on Cindy Sherman’s retrospective at the MOMA in the Times feels pretty hackneyed:
There are several conclusions to be drawn from the Museum of Modern Art’s magnificent if somewhat flawed survey of Cindy Sherman’s brilliant career. But one of them is surely that reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated.
Roberta Smith tosses out a pretty weak dig at Barthes or Foucault, who knows, and sets up Sherman’s exhibit as a counter argument or example to “the death of the author.” Smith implies that Sherman has such an intensely “urgent, singular vision” and an “astounding artistic precociousness” which proves her point about authorship? The problem is that Smith then outlines all the ways which Sherman’s photographs counter ideas of one “correct” meaning to a text controlled and put forth by a hero-artist-genius-author. Barthes never suggests that the death of the author means that the author is unimportant or erased. He wants to make space for understanding texts as readerly rather than writerly. Writerly texts are closed by the author’s intention of a work and readerly texts are open, marked as constructed, show their seams or weave as it were, to make space for the reader to connect with and add to. Which is exactly what Smith seems to be getting at repeatedly throughout the piece.
Calling out academics as know-it-alls or snobs and then espousing those same ideas or theories reinforces false splits between high and low culture, artists and theorists, academic and cultural. Boring and naive and cynical. Sloppy criticism. I’m no better in this moment right now because I’m taking the bait because it’s Friday and I’m touchy. Because when another person suggests that the things you’ve spent your life working on are somehow less than it pretty much blows. I spend every single day teaching my students to believe in themselves and trust their smarts and voices even though they are poor, black, brown, white, dumb, worthless, or whatever else they’ve been told by ________ their whole lives. A cultured critic shitting on academics is just another kind of classism, not so different than four year universities on 68th and Lex snickering at 2 year college community kids from the Bronx, than Romney talking about safety nets. Not the same but not so different.
So what. Maybe it’s as simple as taking a page from Barthes and making things more readerly. Maybe it’s Deleuze and affirmation. Maybe it’s some cliche about books and covers. Probably all that and more. Whatever the answer trust that respect and difference are waiting underneath it all as gentle and constant reminders of how little we’ve got right, how far we’ve to go.
I sat in the hallway outside my 8:00AM class this morning talking T. through the next presentation. She works with the horses cops and tourists use to move through the city. Her hair hangs in a pile of deep red ringlets. She’s more awkward than anyone else in class. Born in Russia and adopted at 3 months by a couple in the Village. Dad makes documentaries and mom is a psychoanalyst. She was confused about the assignment. All of this in one prolonged breath. She wore a thick plastic bracelet on her right wrist that said in fat white letters I LOVE MY BOYFRIEND. On the first day of class she told us he was a giant nerd but that she loved him anyway. I could tell she was having a lot of difficulty finding or trusting the words she wanted to use for her speech. She cries as she struggles to get the words just right if out at all. This isn’t the first time she’s cried in front of me although I suspect it’s the first time anyone else noticed. An aspect of the job that will never be the same thing twice is listening and talking with students who are upset or fragile or maxed or burned or just having an off day. Giving the space, listening, not correcting or teaching or fixing those moments is incredibly difficult. Finding a reentry point is delicate and breakable. Every single word was a battle she was losing over and over in her head.
A. another woman from my 800AM came to my office later in the afternoon. She’d made the appointment and I knew she was coming in. She’s a great student. Lots of questions, works incredibly hard, and wants desperately to do her best and succeed. She’s very tiny and wears eyeglasses the color of empty perfume bottles. She sat down and took out her outline for the next presentation and it was something ridiculous like 8 pages longs because she wanted to make sure it was exactly right and even though we only have 4-5 minutes she was already at 9 when she ran through it the past 5 times and what am I supposed to do does any of this make any sense. One of the biggest differences between teaching at a two-year community college in the city and say a four-year state university in Ohio is that, generally speaking, these students don’t take a goddamn thing as a given or as their right. A. is 20 years old. A high school drop-out. Single mom. Two kids: 4 & 2. Putting herself through school and working and wakes up at 3:30 to get everyone ready for school provided day care. Her mother and grandmother tell her everyday she should drop out and take care of her children, find a man and focus on her real life. She said to me that she feels like if she fails even one assignment anywhere in her classes it might push her over the edge and make her quit all of it. These students aren’t throwing frisbees on the quad. They can’t afford to blow off class for some Pita Pit to saok up the mistakes of last night. The students here make most everyone else look like spoiled kids. This woman is my hero. Yet I’m supposed to teach her.
Two wildly different moments of intense expression by two students on Friday that I’ve been carrying about all weekend. Every step I’ve taken these last few days, every photo I’ve taken and every smile I’ve given. Now I’ve got just as many slackers and blowhards in class as I did everywhere else but it’s easier to let them go. Even though I give them just as much as students like A. & T. they don’t stick with me. Three steps out the door I’m already thinking about the crosswalk at Chambers and Greenwich. But the ones that give something back even eye contact. Teaching me. I’m very very lucky.