Friday, April 23, 2010
On Teaching Black Power in China
So I managed to convince my university to let me teach a course on American Popular Culture that explores the emergence of Hip Hop and how it becomes (arguably) the dominant expression of American Youth Culture. Keep in mind that I am teaching this in China, as an English teacher. What that means is that, because I look white, I am qualified to only teach English or things that are guaranteed to make money (like Accounting, or Biology). Social Science and/or the Humanities? Hell to the no.
Still, I persevered and managed to successfully press my admins for this class, and now that I am teaching it I had to completely redo my syllabus (which was expected, I have no idea what the class is going to be like and it takes a month to really get a decent flow going). Basically I wanted to talk about people in America that many students might not have heard of, or even cared that much about. I wanted to talk about how governments can inadvertently (or deliberately) screw over people, and what that means for culture. I wanted to inculcate a sense of critical analysis, that taking learning is much more than reading texts without question. Really subversive stuff, basically. So I got through two weeks of class and then I wanted to teach about Black Power and Puerto Rican Nationalism. Race and nationalism are kind of a different beast here than in the United States, but even so I had to expose the kids to some Malcolm and Stokely (I said expose, I do not have the time or the resources to devote more than 15 minutes to this, because I have a lot to get through). The kids could not quite figure out what institutional racism means, and how that is different from individual racism (the term I always get is 'discrimination). I knew I could not do it justice so I just went ahead and did the whole 'read it at home' copout. What was the most surprising, and something I would love to delve into, was their reaction to Malcolm.
I located Black Power as the opposite of Civil Rights (yeah, I know the whole ‘two sides of the same coin’ deal and the cross-pollination of both ‘movements’, if they can be judged discretely, this was for pedagogy dammit!). I took two early Malcolm quotes, stuff that was easy to understand (the most crucial perquisite when teaching anything to the students is level of vocabulary) and I wanted to see what the students would make of them. They understood the meaning (huzzah!), and I wanted to put these quotes into a context of radicalism and the rejection of the status quo. I asked for what this Black Nationalist language sounded like, and everyone said it sounded like MLK. That was the LAST person I wanted them to say. I busted out some Sun Yatsen and Pan-Asianism, and broke out a little Mao, but the kids were not convinced. I could not understand how they did not see the connections between racial nationalism in the United States and in China. After talking with my dad about it, he said of course they would not, because the idea of civil rights cannot be differentiated between racial nationalism in China. When I put on some James Brown ‘Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’, some of the students were bustin out with the song and replaced ‘Yellow’ with ‘Black’, which to me is really interesting. I asked the students if they were proud of their race, and the majority of them agreed. And then I asked them what proud meant, and whether it exists in isolation or in relation to other things. Are you proud to be Yellow because it’s a good race, meaning other races are not as good? Are you proud to be Yellow because it’s a better race? Just some light probing. When I start getting into conscious Hip Hop this is going to get even more interesting.
And yeah, I know how generally race works here (Liu Xiang, the Olympic hurdler’s immortal lines from 2004: “My victory has proved that athletes with yellow skin can run as fast as those with black and white skins.“), but I do not know how people teach about race. This is something I am going to investigate.