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.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” Meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy

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

“The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil, knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; and contact between pupils, and between teachers and pupil, on the basis of social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education, equipment and housing, and the promotion of such social and extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.”

WEB Du Bois

Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” (1935)


One day during second grade at Kearny Elementary School, I was called out of class to go to the office. This would have been sometime during the 1964-5 school year.  I was introduced to a white man in a dark suit and told to sit at at table. I don’t remember what the man looked like or what he said – only that he gave some games to play and puzzles to complete. Some of them were on paper, and others involved blocks and other manipulatives. I think it was afterward that my parents told me that I had been given an IQ test, that I had scored well, and that I was now being placed on the waiting list for admission to a special school called Masterman. Masterman was described to me as a special school for children like me – children who liked to think, read and ask questions about the world. While the previous post in this series was intended as a broad sketch of those factors in my early life that laid the groundwork for my interest in writing, this post focuses more on the barriers to equal educational opportunity that existed in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and reflects on one particular intervention in my own early schooling that I suspect was crucial to my future academic progress.

At the time that my entry into Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School was first discussed, the school was only five years old. It was named for the  founder and first leader of the Philadelphia Home and School Council,  and according to a brief New York Times article announcing her death in 1958, she left the School District of Philadelphia a $10,000 trust fund “to help bright pupils finish high school.” Masterman School opened its doors the next year. (Masterman obit)

Mrs. Masterman’s gift appears to have been made necessary in part because of the miserliness of Add Anderson, the District’s business manager from the 1920s until 1962. Reportedly, Anderson’s first priority was to keep taxes down, and as a result, schools throughout the city were poorly staffed and maintained. More than one scholar quoted Peter Binzen’s description of Anderson as, “a penny pincher all his life…a ruthless man filled with contempt for ‘educators.'” Anderson presided over the school district at a time when the number of black children in the district increased substantially because of the Great Migration. Wealthier whites abandoned the schools and the city in droves, and white working-class ethnics were made to feel as if they had been left holding the bag, fomenting a resentment that would spark the rise of tough cop mayor Frank Rizzo.

Structural disparities.Although the district schools had been legally integrated since since 1881, they were functionally segregated: black students were consistently assigned to the most dilapidated schools and fewer resources were directed to those schools. Tracking systems within schools led to black students being disproportionately assigned to “RE” (retarded educable) classes. (References) Scholar Lisa Levenstein recalls a 1960 Philadelphia Bulletin series entitled, “The Slow Learners,”  in which schools superintendent Allen Wetter blamed black children for their plight, calling the children of the Great Migration “culturally deprived slow learners.” The series referred to these “slow learners” as “unlovable characters” responsible for “a tragic deterioration of our schools.” (Levenstein)

In December, 1966, when I was in fourth grade, change came to the Philadelphia schools in the form of a new superintendent named Dr. Mark R. Shedd. According to a New York Times story announcing his appointment, (Reference) Shedd was the 40-year-old Harvard-trained superintendent of the Englewood, New Jersey public schools. He had won praise for negotiating the integration of the public schools there after years of sit-ins and marches. Shedd would bring experimentation to the Philadelphia schools, and become an advocate for disadvantaged students.

Ever since the release of the 1966 study on Equality of Educational Opportunity by sociologist James Coleman, education researchers have been debating the degree to which these kinds of racial disparate investments and attitudes matter. Coleman’s study pioneered the use of regression analysis of large-scale data sets in order to understand the multiplicity of factors that affect school performance. Coleman found family dynamics and the opportunity to attend an integrated school were stronger determinants of success for students of lower socio-economic status than the state of school facilities or teacher training.   Subsequent analysis of the data from that study, as well as subsequent research,  yielded more nuanced conclusions. Among those conclusions was the view that smaller classes (which presumably allow more teacher attention to students) and particular kinds of resource investments can positively affect educational outcomes, especially for African American children. I am reminded of this as I recall a small intervention by one of my teachers at Kearny that was, I suspect, crucial to my subsequent academic success. It was the moment that I still recall with some emotion, nearly half a century later.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “sympathetic touch”

My recollection was that I was enthusiastic about the idea of going to a new school. Although I had warm memories of first grade at Kearny, by second grade I was already feeling out of place. I had started first grade in Mrs. Hayes’ class, where I remembered a lot of picture books and finger painting. After a few weeks, I was moved down the hall to Mrs. Marie Jefferson’s class, where the children were already reading Dick and Jane books. I could sound out letters, but I did not know how to read words yet. (Sonia Manzano, the actress and writer who plays the character Maria on Sesame Street, bears such an uncanny and poignant resemblance to Mrs. Jefferson as I remember her.)

Seeing my plight, Mrs. Jefferson had me come to her desk at the back of the room when the other children were reading silently. She sat me on her lap, opened a Dick and Jane book, and asked me to read to her. I told her I could only sound out letters. She asked me to do that and pointed to a word. “O-H,” I said. “Not ‘o-h,'” she responded. “Oh. The “H” is silent.” We “read” together in this way for a little while longer, and I went back to my seat with the feeling that I had been let in on an incredible mystery.

After that, there was daily reading at home,  the arrival of a set of Britannica Junior Encyclopedias, and regular exposure to children’s literature alongside the sessions spent reading Shakespeare and Plato aloud with my father. (A conversation with my father about those sessions is forthcoming. Suffice to say that it bore many similarities to Chicago educator Marva Collins’ use of the the Socratic method in urban classrooms.)

So while I attended a school where teachers could give us little more than love, my father and stepmother created an incredibly rich intellectual environment for me. These were the things that, in retrospect, probably prepared me academically for Masterman, even as they made me the odd child out at school. For me, going to Masterman promised that I would finally find other kids like me. Educator Salome Thomas-El, who attended Masterman for 5-8 grade in the late 1970s, recalls his own sense of dislocation as he tried to negotiate between the culture at Masterman and that of his inner-city neighborhood:

“I never felt that I was as good as many of my [Masterman] peers, or that I belonged there, or that I was part of [Masterman.]…The kids I knew and liked were still back in the inner-city.

“Each school day, as they went in one direction, I took the bus and went a different way. By my second year at Masterman, I felt strange. I didn’t feel comfortable at Masterman, and yet I no longer belonged with my old friends.” (Thomas-El)

This feeling of dislocation strikes me as a  natural companion for child sent on a journey across the boundaries inscribed by race, class, gender, age and geography – what the late newspaper publisher Robert Maynard called the “fault lines” of  American culture.  It was a journey made by thousands of black children between the 1950 and 1970s  – children integrating schools with or without federal troops, court orders, or civil rights marches. We did not face dogs, hoses or jeering crowds as we entered schools such as Masterman, and except for one teacher, I don’t recall any instances of racism there, but we were crossing barriers nonetheless. Masterman, and later, Girls’ High, would also teach me that black children weren’t the only ones facing obstacles to academic achievement. It was there that I would begin to be introduced to the frustrations experienced by the white ethnic families in Philadelphia who had, they thought, played by the rules of immigration and assimilation only to see those rules change overnight.

What I would come to understand in later years is that Masterman not only afforded me an opportunity for a superior education – it was an opportunity to be socialized into an intellectual community. Without the sympathetic touch of Mrs. Jefferson and her colleagues at Kearny, and the reinforcement I received at home, it’s very possible that it’s an opportunity that I would have wasted.


  1. “Mrs. John Masterman.” New York Times (1923-Current file); Mar 8, 1958; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. 17
  2. Sources for Peter Binzen’s description of Add Anderson and racial disparities in the Philadelphia school district: Paul Lyons, The people of this generation: The rise and fall of the New Left in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2003. p. 15; and Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia UNC Press, April, 2009. p. 125. Levenstein details the policies that shunted black students into inferior schools, and the scapegoating of black families for the subsequent poor performance of black students on pages 126-137.
  3. Levenstein, p. 137
  4. Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective
    Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long, WCER Working Paper No. 2006-9 December 2006, 27 p.
  5. Thomas-El, Salome and Cecil Murphrey. I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City. New York: Kensington Publishing. 2004, p. 26
  6. “Englewood Educator Named Head of Philadelphia Schools.” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007)
    pg. 77

“What we investigate is linked to who we are”

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

Phliadelphia: 1963-67

Literary scholars of the Freudian sort sometimes speak of the fantasmatic, a kind of archetypal drama etched into a writer’s subconscious, rooted in childhood experience, that finds expression in the structural elements of that writer’s work. In her groundbreaking 1998 tome, Psychoanalysis and Black Novels, Claudia Tate (pictured below, left) used to concept to explain WEB DuBois’ penchant for eroticizing the quest for freedom in his creative writing. I recall a conversation with Tate not long after the book was published in which we speculated that writers would probably do well not to dig too deeply into the oedipal roots of their creations.

Nevertheless, this work would be incomplete without some exploration of the ways in which personal experience and social location helped shape my way of doing journalism and thinking about journalism education. Research related to the effort to enlarge and diversify the computing pipeline discloses that young people’s career choices are heavily influenced by parents, teachers and guidance counselors. (References) In plumbing my childhood experiences, I see evidence how I began to think of myself as a writer, and the values I began to internalize that would shape the kind of writer I ultimately became.

Investigative journalist Florence George Graves alluded to the impact of the personal on the professional in her May 2003 Columbia Journalism Review essay, “The Connection: What We Investigate Is Linked to Who We Are.”(.pdf) Graves speculates that her penchant for uncovering secrets was probably affected by the coded rituals of segregated life in the Waco Texas of her childhood,

“I couldn’t stop wondering about certain aspects of life in Texas. Why were there separate drinking fountains for “whites” and “coloreds” in public places? Why did my close friend’s parents treat her decision to marry a Catholic as if there had been a death in the family? Why weren’t Jews allowed to join the country club? Why should girls bother to excel in school if they were not entitled to use their knowledge in the world beyond the home?”

I was born in 1957 – the year of revolution in Ghana, federally-enforced integration in Little Rock, and the first human foray into outer space – accomplished by a Soviet regime considered the West’s chief global adversary. It was, in other words, a time when old orders were under siege, new power equations were being drawn and no one seemed sure whether the future held hope or annihilation. My childhood was lived in the space between the restrictive past and future possibility. On one occasion, my parents and I stood in one long line at an armory to receive a vaccine-laced sugar cube that promised protection against polio. On another, we stood in another long line to see the desk and other effects that had belonged to Pres. John F. Kennedy, who had been murdered in a Dallas street while I sat in my first-grade class and made a paper turkey to decorate our Thanksgiving table.

Unlike Graves, the adults around me openly discussed the reasons behind the inequalities that she observed in silence. The questions revolved around how those inequalities might be eliminated – or at the very least, how their destructive impact might be minimized. Racial justice and the quest for enlightened governance had been matters of vital concern in Philadelphia since the 18th century, when the Quakers debated the morality of slavery, and black freemen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones protested segregation within the Philadelphia Methodist conference by founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

From a sociologist’s perspective, I suppose my family’s prospects seemed fairly fixed in 1957.  My paternal grandparents had been part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow south to the de facto segregated north. Their parents had been slaves. The men in my family mostly worked with their hands, mostly in construction. My father had done that kind of work as well, although by the time I started school, he had landed at the Post Office, and there he saw other black men who were going to college. With the help of his veteran’s benefits, he enrolled first in trade school, and then Temple University, fitting his classes around his swing shifts at work.

We weren’t the kind of people whose lives and concerns took up much space in the daily newspaper. The scholar VP Franklin (pictured, left) notes WEB Du Bois’ pointed critique of American journalism as he experienced it in the 19th and 20th centuries:

“The American press in the past almost entirely ignored Negroes. Very little of what Negroes wanted to know about themselves, their group action, and their relationship to public occurrences to their interests was treated by the press. Then came the time when the American press so far as the Negro was concerned was interested in the Negro as minstrel, a joke, a subject of caricature. He became, in time, an awful example of democracy gone wrong, of crimes and various monstrous acts.” (Franklin)

Philadelphia, where I spent most of my childhood, was no exception to this general rule. In her 2008 doctoral dissertation, communications historian Nicole Maurantonio supplied the scholarly support for the sense of invisibility and alienation that I and so many others experienced as we searched for some reflection of our reality in the Philadelphia newspapers. Maurantonio argues that in the years between the end of World War II and the fatal 1985 attack on the headquarters of the radical group MOVE:

“[N]ews organizations were not merely impartial storytellers providing a language with which to narrate crises. Journalists inscribed a rhetoric of racial marginalization that shaped discourses surrounding race and ‘radicalism’ within the city.”

It was of course, the black press who tried to cater to the needs of African Americans in those years. From the time of its founding in the early 19th century, the black press had, as scholar Matthew Holden puts it, “facilitated the umbrella issues of freedom, racial uplift and the emancipation of the slaves.” My family, and most my peers regularly read the Philadelphia Tribune (which billed itself as  “The Constructive Newspaper” in those days) and Ebony magazine alongside the Philadelphia Bulletin. Many of us listened to black radio stations, where DJs such as Georgie Woods (“The Guy With the Goods”) would become indispensable allies of the Civil Rights Movement.

Maurantonio recounts how the Tribune tried to counter this dominant “rhetoric of marginalization”  by calling for police restraint during such moments of crisis as the Columbia Avenue riot of 1964 – a series of violent clashes set off by false rumors that the police had killed a pregnant black woman.  Maurantonio discusses the ways in which the Tribune and the other local newspapers framed their coverage  in the following video segment (from 9:12 to 15:03):

My teachers created what I now recognize as a hidden curriculum designed to reinforce our belief in our own humanity in the face of segregationist school district policies and a a culture that, as Du Bois had explained decades before, constructed us as a problem. Between school, the neighborhood library where I discovered Carter G. Woodson’s magical Encyclopedia of Negro history, the devotion to learning that my parents modeled, I came to understand education as a pre-requisite for personal and racial advancement.

When my parents and teachers noted my curiosity about certain aspects of science and writing, they shepherded me into Saturday morning writing workshops and science classes. My stepmother folded lined paper into little booklets that I filled with short stories.

When I was 8, I appeared as a panelist on a children’s version of the popular College Bowl television quiz show. The show ran on WHYY, our local public television station, and was hosted by Philadelphia’s answer to Mr. Wizard, Bess Boggs. (At least that’s her name as i remember it; having failed to find a record of the show during my research, I’ve posted a Facebook query to fact-check my memory.)  My parents dressed me in my Easter outfit for that year (a powder-blue tailleur with a faux-fur collar, don’t you know) and put my hair in a bob instead of the usual school-day pigtails. They cleared their work schedules to accompany me to the studio (no small feat, especially since my father worked swing shifts full time and went to school full time).

It will tell you something of who I was in those days to know that when Bess Boggs entered the studio, I jumped up and down and started tugging on my parents as if the Beatles and the entire Motown Revue had just strolled by. (Or maybe more – two years later, on a summer camp field trip, I was quite calm when we ran into Marvin Gaye in the Philadelphia International airport. It did please me mightily, of course, when he held my hand and planted a kiss on my cheek.) In any event, my admiration for Bess Boggs was in keeping with the fact that one of my other hobbies in those days was keeping journals on the Gemini space flights.

I don’t remember the show much, other than the fact that I was Kearny’s only representative. Kearny was not known for its academic prowess. The neighborhood it served included the Sunday Breakfast Mission, then at 6th and Vine. The tow-headed brother and sister in my class,  the only white children in the school, if memory serves, were the missionaries’ children. They had transferred in from somewhere, and I don’t think they stayed long.

Kearny was old school. We lined up on the concrete playground by class in the morning and stood at attention in the stairwells once we were marched inside. Two or our more imposing teachers, Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. McCoy, patrolled our ranks to ensure that we kept our mouths closed and our hands to ourselves while we awaited the class bell. Any transgression would require that you step out of line to have them smack you with a ruler. The school day began with a salute to the flag, the pledge of allegiance, and a moment of silent meditation. (We were told that the silent meditation was a substitute for the prayer that had been required until the Supreme Court banned the practice.)

My teachers exhorted us to be a credit to our race. A local historian, Ed Robinson, spoke at one of our assemblies about the glories of our African past. They were also steeped in art and culture – the crossing guard taught piano, and one of the teachers sang opera. One of the few white teachers taught us about Woody Guthrie and Huddie Ledbetter. They got us some instruments to start a small string ensemble, and had us learn two pieces for my one and only instrumental recital: an aria from Verdi’s “Aida” and “Go Down Moses.”

In Mrs. Moore’s class in second and third grade, I sat next to a handsome, sharply-dressed, husky-voiced and mischievous boy named William Cook. His brother, Wesley, who was three years older, was a fixture at the Friends’ Neighborhood Guild, whose library was one of my favorite haunts. My clearest memory of Wesley, whose neighborhood nickname was “Scout,” was of him sitting at a table at the Guild, telling another older boy, “Listen Up! Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin!” If I was 8 or 9, then, he was 11 or 12.

Two years after that, in November, 1967, after Wesley went to Stoddard-Fleischer Junior High School, we heard about the police cutting loose on a throng of high school and junior high school students who had gone down to school district administration building to petition for black history classes in the curriculum. We heard that Frank Rizzo, the inspector to whom mild-mannered George Fencl’s civil disobedience reported, had reportedly unleashed his men on the peaceful crowd with the command to, “Get their black asses!”   (The year before, Time magazine had cited Fencl’s unit as an innovative way of managing protests with minimal conflict.) In later life, after he changed his name to Mumia Abu Jamal, embarked on a career as a journalist and activist, and ultimately landed on death row.

By the way, the city’s new superintendent of schools, Mark Shedd, earned the enmity of Fencl’s supervisor, Frank Rizzo, when he criticized the aggressiveness of police response to the demonstration, leading to Shedd’s ouster when Rizzo became mayor in 1971. In a subsequent section of this work, I will treat Shedd’s legacy in more detail, but for now, I merely want to note the controversy over the police action.

All of that would be later. Suffice it to say that by 1967, I had internalized my parents’ and teachers’ messages about the power of the pen, the fun and necessity of learning, and the certainty that Lord have mercy, we were moving on up!


  1. 1. Franklin, VP. “W.E.B. Du Bois as Journalist,” Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 56, No. 2 (1987). P. 240-244
  2. Philadelphia Tribune page one flag, Sept. 1, 1964
  3. For example, see: Cohoon, J. M. and W. Aspray, (eds.) Women and Information Technology: Research on Underrepresentation, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006; Barker, L. J., E. Snow, K. Garvin-Doxas, T. Weston, Recruiting Middle School Girls into IT: Data on Girls’ Perceptions and Experiences from a Mixed-Demographic Group, in Women and Information Technology: Research on Under-representation, Cohoon & Aspray, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2006. pp113-136;
  4. References on the black press during this periodFor an on overview of the black press generally, see the PBS website for Stanley Nelson’s documentary: The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. Pamela Newkirk’s Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media (NYU Press, 2000) offers a comprehensive and concise overview of the process of integrating white newsrooms and its impact on the black press.

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.