"How could the folks be 'civilized' when wasn't nobody writing nothin down?"
-Gil Scott Heron, "Black History / The World"
Today was an exciting class; through the work of Gil Scott Heron, I got to share with students one of my motivations for focusing on sound and literature in the course, challenging the equation between writing and civilization that has served as a justification for colonialism and slavery, and denigrated the status of oral history and storytelling.
Last class we had looked at the intersection of music and poetry in Langston Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues" and Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool." I assigned a few of my favorite Memphis Minnie tunes so that we could compare the lyric structure of classic country blues with that of Hughes' poem. 5-05 I'm A Bad Luck Woman.m4a
I started by alerting the class that we'd be jumping forward in time from the 1920s to the 1970s, from looking at blues' influence on poetic form, to a poet's role in the inauguration of a new musical form: hip hop.
We listened to Heron's "Black History / The World" (courtesy of Black Media Archive) and watched a Youtube video of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (the recent video helps illustrate the song lyrics for students unfamiliar with 1960s/70s pop culture references like Spiro Agnew and Natalie Wood).
We talked about the last lines of the former:
I'd be sure every time folks knew this version wasn't mine
which is why it is called 'His story'.
Specifically, we considered the consequences of Heron's pun on "history."
Since we'd talked about enjambment in "We Real Cool" last time, students were prepped to discuss the effects of inserting a visual or aural space between words or lines. In this case, the possessive pronoun "his" emphasizes that who tells the story determines what is told.
Linked to Heron's emphasis on different versions of history is the idea--prominent in LeRoi Jones's music criticism--that "reference determines value." I wrote this sentence on the board, reminded students that we'd be discussing Jones's perspective later in class, and asked them how this idea relates to Heron's satiric voice in "Black History / The World." (Heron takes on the voice of white "discoverers" of Africa who "couldn't have been robbing nobody" because "there was nobody there.")
Students presenting their podcast script on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" did a good job of articulating the split Heron sees between mainstream media and social change. I intervened to remind students that Heron was performing before the era of Internet, cell phones, facebook, and Twitter. I showed a minute or two of a lackluster "tribute" to Heron, called "The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized," in order to provoke student responses to the question, "Does Heron's media critique hold true today?" Students cited corporate control of television and radio to support his message's continued relevance, and freedom of information on the internet to challenge it. SOPA came up in the discussion, as well as the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring.
Finally, with far too little time left to do them justice, I gave students a set of quotes from the reading they'd done by LeRoi Jones and Ralph Ellison. I'd chosen excerpts from LeRoi Jones' Blues People arguing for a strong connection between Africa and African American music, identity, and history, and Ellison's critique of what he sees as Jones' focus on politics at the expense of poetry. I listed opposing points of view in two columns and offered prizes (candy) for the group that could identify which quotes were Jones, and which Ellison. I ended up summarizing key points and pelting my students with the chocolates as the clock ticked down to zero.