The Me Nobody Knew Then

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“When I first get up in the morning I feel fresh and it feels like it would be a good day to me. But after I get in school, things change and they seem to turn into problems for me. And by the end of the day I don’t even feel like I’m young. I feel tired.”

John, 13

The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices From the Ghetto, Stephen M. Joseph, ed.  (first printed in 1970, reprinted in 2003)

The word that I had been admitted to Masterman, a public school for gifted children, came not a moment too soon. It was April, 1967, I was 10 years old,  I was considered one of the top students at Kearny Elementary School, but socially and emotionally, I was failing badly. Had I not been transferred to Masterman when I was, I am not sure how I would have coped with my growing sense of loneliness and isolation. Reflecting upon these experiences leads me to think about how a child’s interactions with home, school, neighborhood and the larger environment affects her perceptions of her place in the world, and her chances of overcoming its obstacles and seizing its opportunities.

In recent years, psychologists have advocated for models of child development that give central consideration to the role of culture and socio-economic status in shaping the way a child views the world and functions within it. Yvette Harris and James Graham, author of the 2007 book: The African American Child: Development and Challenges (Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY.) argue that this is especially important for understanding children of color.

I had never been accepted in Penn Town, the neighborhood in which I had lived since moving to Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey at the age of six. To begin with, I soon learned that only a few of my peers had ever been to New Jersey, so I was something of a foreigner. Even though Camden was only a few minutes away by car, and we lived fairly close to the Benjamin Franklin bridge, not many families owned a car, and the public transportation services that shuttle between the two cities now hadn’t yet been built. I must have talked about Camden too much, because I remember a boy telling me that he had been to New Jersey once, and it wasn’t so special, so there!

My  father’s second-hand Chevy and my outsider origins weren’t the only problems. I lacked the social qualities that would have given me some currency among my peers. I was a slow, awkward runner, I couldn’t fight, and I had left Camden before I learned to jump double-dutch. Worse yet, I was double-handed, which meant that I couldn’t turn the ropes with a sufficiently reliable rhythm. To make matters worse, I was an only child, so I had no natural allies, and I had my own room. My father and stepmother wore second-hand clothes, but I had a new school wardrobe from Sears every year, and the latest toys. Worst of all, I was the teachers; pet.

I might as well have had a kick me sign tattooed on my forehead. As is true in every neighborhood, we had our designated bullies, and I was a favorite target for teasing and occasional beat-downs. For the longest time, I didn’t fight back; I’m not sure why. Nor did I know how to play the dozens, the ritual game of  insults built on race, class and gender stereotypes. I also had the annoying habit of questioning the logic of the taunts directed at me and others during an argument. It was common, for example, for a girl to say that she would “beat the black off” another girl. I couldn’t help wondering about that, because they also went around saying there was something wrong with looking too black. Following that logic, wouldn’t they consider it an improvement to have some of the “black” removed? Like the robot in “Lost in Space,” I spent a lot of time saying, “That does not compute.”

Eventually, there was a girl who declared that she would beat me up after school that day. She had been threatening to fight me since summer camp, and now the weather was cold enough for a coat. She had been a constant menacing presence. We met at the appointed hour, and, thinking that I would stand up for myself for once, I took a swing at her. She pulled my coat over my head and pulled my hair out  An excited crowd ringed around us and made enough noise that eventually some neighbor heard and got my stepmother to come rescue me.

Her response to the incident is telling. She brought me and the other girl into our apartment and told us that we were letting down the race by fighting like dogs in the street. She extracted apologies from us, and a promise to try to get along. I think a conversation with the girl’s mother followed, or at least attempted – that would have been the norm.  I think it was not long after that when my birthday coincided with the date of our regular Girl Scout meeting and she decided to host it at our place, complete with cake and ice cream. My tormentors were part of the troop. I can’t say we became friends after that, but I don’t recall any more beat-downs.

But by then, I carried the terror inside of me. Not just the fear of the neighborhood bullies, but the spectre of even worse violence. There were the tales of the tackheads, dark–skinned black girls with (snap fingers) that much hair who would supposedly grab girls, beat them, and carve up their faces to make them ugly. There were the gangs – in our neighborhood, there was 12th and Wallace and the Valley – gang geography was a required survival course in in everyone’s curriculum. During my childhood, the gangs went from zip guns to real guns, and before I left high school, some of my childhood neighbors, schoolmates and relatives were dead, or had suffered near-fatal injuries.

These dangers were mostly visited on boys, of course. In her book, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality and Gendered Violence (NYU Press, 2010), sociologist Jody Miller described the violence and threats of violence routinely visited up African American girls and women in urban neigbborhoods.

Without going into detail, I will say that by the time I was ten years old, I witnessed or experienced actions that I now recognize as acts of assault and sexual harassment, and coercion, and I know that I was not alone. One did not talk about having been the victim of such experiences, although it was not unusual to hear a boy brag about having “felt somebody up,” or to hear that some group of boys, “ran a train” (gang-raped) a girl. That was usually told without sympathy for the girl, who was thought to have allowed herself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Layered on top of all of this was the violence in the adult world – the real and rumored incidents of police brutality, the arrest of a neighbor’s father for killing someone in a bar fight, the occasional sight of a violent domestic argument that spilled out into the street.

I write of these things now because I recognize them as experiences that could have derailed me, and that did, over time, derail some of my peers. I also recognize that today, I could easily have met with the fate that befell Derrion Albert, the  16-year-old Chicago honor student who was stomped to death in September, 2009 as he was trying to escape a street fight that erupted as he was leaving school.

If we are serious about getting more young people from under-represented backgrounds into computing-dependent professions, our interventions must be sensitive the lived reality of children’s lives.

In another section of this work, I will explore these culturally sensitive models of child development and their implications in more detail. For now, I want to close with a presentation by Dr. John Rich, a trauma physician who heads the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University. Dr. Rich’s work focuses on young black men who are victims and perpetrators of violence. Using an ethnographic approach, he tries to help us see and understand the human hurt at the heart of behavior that is beyond the comprehension of most people.

What Would WEB Du Bois Tell Henry Jenkins and Soulja Boy?

The Criteria for Negro Art in the Age of Computational Media

In June, 2008, I attended a presentation in which Henry Jenkins, then Director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, contemplated the lessons of Soulja Boy Tellem’s use of what he calls “participatory culture” to create a career as a hip-hop star. Jenkins described how teenager DeAndre Ramone Way (Soulja Boy)  built a fan base by posting the music and a home video of his song, “Crank Dat,” and encouraging listeners to remix it, make video responses to it, and share it freely. (The presentation video is only available to members of the New Media Consortium.)

The process illustrates Jenkins’ concept of “spreadable” culture — a term that he argues is more accurate than the  “viral”   model, since viruses proliferate by attacking their hosts, while “spreadable” culture invites voluntary participation. He showed examples of fan videos of “Crank Dat,” including produced by his MIT grad students. Then Jenkins paralleled Soulja Boy’s encouragement of artistic appropriation and the cultural borrowing employed by Herman Melville in crafting Moby Dick.

In his blog, Jenkins mused about Soulja Boy’s precocity:

I can’t decide what fascinates me the most about this story: the fact that this teenager broke into the front ranks of the entertainment industry by using tools and processes which in theory are accessible to every other person of his generation or the fact that he has recognized intuitively the value in spreading his content and engaging his audience as an active part of his promotional process.

Jenkins did not address the actual lyrical content of Soulja Boy’s music, and the actual ideas being packaged in the catchy beat and the playful dance steps. The content wasn’t the point of the presentation. The lyrics offer the kind of  puerile vulgarity one might expect from a boy who is trying to impress his peers with stories about his sexual prowess and toughness.  “Crank Dat” includes such lines as:

“Soulja boy off on this hoe…

“Then Superman that hoe…”

“I’m jocking on your bitch ass
And if we get the fighting
Then I’m cocking on your bitch ass…”

The lyrics reflect the cliches associated with the worst of hip-hop:  degrading women while  declaring dominance over other males by feminizing and threatening them.  When Soulja Boy released “Crank Dat,” he was a 16-year-old high school student, and the song was spread largely by other teenagers.  The character that Way portrays in the video is the stereotypical black male hip-hopper: hypersexual, prone to violence, gaudily attired. But the implausibility of the lyrics suggest that, like most amateur writers, Way is imitating what he has heard or gleaned from listening to others, not writing from life experience.

Jenkins showed videos of smiling teenagers and young adults bouncing on one foot, cranking their arms and lunging forward to make the “Superman” gesture.

In conversations with other conference participants, I seemed to have been the only person who was profoundly disturbed by the content that Way, AKA Soulja Boy, his minions, and ultimately, his record company were spreading. In part, I later learned, that was because many of my colleagues weren’t familiar with the lyrics. There was also the fact that “Crank Dat” was only another in a long list of songs, cartoons, games and other media content that they knew kids were exposed too. It wasn’t the worst thing most kids would be exposed to. And after all, it’s not as if vulgar or even racially stereotypical music originated with remix culture.

I probably sounded like the scolds of the 1950s yelling about rock and roll, or the highbrows at the beginning of the 20th century inveighing against comic books and “pulp” novels. The Republic was still standing. I’m sure some thought I needed to smooth out that bunch in my panties and move on.

Or maybe not. The practice of analyzing form and distribution apart form content sits well within the tradition of media studies, going back to Marshall McLuhan’s declaration that “The Medium is the message,” and in rhetorical terms, “The medium is the massage.” However, I find Kathleen Welch persuasive when she argues that rhetorical analysis of both content and delivery is important to understanding the social justice implications of modern communications. If one follows the history of remixing trail of “Crank Dat,” one finds that its commercial success, facilitated by social media, led to the song being played in venues that would have been unimaginable in earlier times.

For example, a few months earlier, I had been sent a link to another performance of the song by a frustrated colleague and fellow member of the National Association of Black Journalists. It seemed that someone thought it would be fun to liven up a New York local morning traffic report with a performance of the song. The traffic reporter, Jill Nicolini, was part of the morning news “happy talk” format. A former Playboy bunny and occasional reality TV star, she routinely drafted men to dance with her after detailing the morning’s jams, delays, and alternate side-of-the-street parking rules. On this particular morning, she summoned Craig Treadway, the co-anchor, as her dance partner.


The Dancing Weather Girl – Watch more Funny Videos

The most telling moment for me was when Treadway broke into a tap dance.  What was Treadway’s shuffle? And what do we make of the black male crew member bunny-hopping in the background?

I don’t know Mr. Treadway, Nicolini or any of the other members of that newscast, and I have hesitated for more than a year about writing this post because I’m not trying to cast aspersions on him or any other cast member of the show. If this post does that, I apologize in advance.  They were doing their jobs, and perhaps they even had some fun. What I am trying to probe, as delicately as possible, is the meaning of the moment for journalistic norms in the age of remix culture.

Of course, the packaging of local television news as entertainment has been going on for a long time. A quarter-century ago, Neil Postman demonstrated the emerging parallels between the television news show and a television show designed as entertainment in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Entertainment (Penguin, 1985.):

“If you were the producer of a television news show for a commercial station, you would not have the option of defying television’s requirements…. You would try to make celebrities of your newscasters…. You would have a weatherman [sic] as comic relief, and a sportscaster who is a touch uncouth (as a way to relate to the beer-drinking common man.)  You would package the whole event as any producer might who is in the entertainment business.

“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the world….” (p. 106)

I came of age professionally during the early 1980s, so as a news consumer and media professional, I understand the pecking order of news shows. The anchor might smile and exchange some banter, but the anchor stayed dignified. I wasn’t thrilled at Nicolini’s shtick, but I understood it for the reasons, Postman described. What I wasn’t ready for was an anchorman to be drawn into the clowning. It is very likely that what stuck in my craw was the sight of Treadway, who probably had to endure a great deal to attain an anchor desk in a major market, pulled out of the role on which, traditionally, his credibility rested.

There is one sense in which the problem is entirely mine, because it represents a collapsing of norms my generation of media professionals can’t quite stomach. It has become clear in recent years that there is a great deal of skepticism about the kinds of conventions that journalists traditionally adopt, whether it be certain standards of decorum, or a studied modesty about stating their political views.  Even a growing number of journalists reject that last standard.

Then, too, there is the shifting calculus of racial symbolism to consider. Surely, the sight of a black man dancing alongside a young white female in 2008 does not mean what it meant in my childhood during the 1960s. In those days, such a sight was restricted to Shirley Temple movies. Treadway and Nicolini’s performance occurred the same year that a man with an African father and a wife descended from slaves won the White House.

It’s unlikely that WEB Du Bois would have approved of SouljaBoyTellem’s art, or much of hip-hop, for that matter. The pioneering scholar, editor and activist hoped that those African Americans who gained access to the instruments of culture making would infuse high culture with the gifts of Africa. For him that meant spirituals (delivered Jubilee-style, of course) the vibrancy of traditional African art and artisanship, the nuanced poesy of a Jessie Fauset or Countee Cullen, with the occasional swinging riff from the deceptively accessible Langston Hughes. In his definitive essay on aesthetics, The Criteria of Negro Art, he implored:

“If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans; if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful; — what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners, and buy the longest press notices?

“Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your hearts that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that — but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.”

Part of Jenkins’ point is that participatory media expands the ranks of the tastemakers beyond Hollywood elites, intellectuals, and activists. Jay Rosen has been saying similar things about the shift to participatory journalism in essays such as The People Formerly Known as the Audience.” But when the ethos from which these new media products emerge can be tainted by values that are corrosive, a critical perspective is necessary.

In her essay, “Learning the 5 Lessons of Youtube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype,” Alexandra Juhasz makes the argument that corporate dominance of this major media sharing site has turned do-it-yourself culture into a tool for replicating ideas and values that are fundamentally anti-democratic. In particular, she and her students found that depictions of African Americans that reinforce vulgar race and gender stereotypes are more popular, and thus more prominently featured, than those promoting more positive images or cultural critique.

And this is part of my concern, even as I contribute to this participatory culture and teach students to do it as well. The uncritical replication of negative images of black males in particularly is particularly vexing, because it undermines the effort to transfer of positive values from one generation to the next. In some ways, the current environment is arguably more challenging than the pre-Civil rights era, because in those days, there were alternative, black-controlled civic institutions that promoted images that countered the stereotypes of the dominant culture.  Byron Hurt’s 2008 mini-documentary demonstrated Barack Obama’s rise exposed a deep-seated confusion and ambivalence about the possibilities of success, respect and power for black men in an era that is supposed to be “post-racial:”

I thought about this ambivalence as I watched clips from DeAndre Ramone Way’s videoblog, which has since been removed. He has been known to talk about his interests in art, education, and business along with his  “beefs” with other rappers, his jewelry and his cars.  Pop culture never was a good place for a complicated persona. When pop culture goes “spreadable,” what gets lost? Sometimes I’m afraid it’s the substance of a culture that we can’t afford to lose.

L’Heureux “Dumi” Lewis: Black Male Privilege

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis is an assistant professor of sociology at City College of New York. His professional website is at ProfessorLewis.com and he also maintains the blog UptownNotes.com. This talk was one of the presentations from the Morehouse College Founders Day Symposium.

Women in the Newsroom: Burned Out and Fed Up

That’s the title of a live chat held by the Association for  Education in Journalism and Mass Communications last week about a recent study showing that women are being driven from the newspaper field. The survey, published in the summer, 2009 Newspaper Research Journal, found that 60 percent of respondents either plan to leave the field or are seriously consider it. The link below takes you to the replay of the conversation with the study’s author, Scott Reinardy, an assistant professor  in the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. Other participants in the conversation include women who have given up newspapering and others who are considering it.

LIVE Chat Replay: Women in the Newsroom.