Friday, February 12, 2016

Covering Jay Z in Af-Am lit at SIUE & UTA, Pt. 2

By Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

This semester, we’re both teaching courses on rap music at our respective universities. One of us is teaching a course entitled “The Life and Times of S. Carter” (UT Arlington), and the other is teaching a course entitled “Biggie, Jay Z or Nas” (SIUE). What follows are a few notes we’ve taken and shared concerning the first month or so of the classes.

Good things about a course like this

The high level of interest that students bring to the class has been one of the good things about a course like this. Several of the students arrived with a range of knowledge about hip hop and various rap artists. So they’ve felt really empowered about how their prior knowledge and experiences prepared them for this course. Also, more than any course, I’ve ever taught, students regularly bring their friends to class with them. -H. Rambsy

Even though many of my students and me are fans of Jay Z, this course has allowed us to understand another dimension of the rapper. Using text-mining software to quantify Jay Z’s language usage has been very exciting. It’s one thing to talk about Jay Z’s growth over the years, but actually pinpointing specific changes in his flow, his vocabulary, and song content clarifies the significance of him as well as a literary figure. -K. Rambsy
Surprises and new discoveries

It seems the more knowledge one has about Brooklyn, pop history, and American culture in general, the more Jay Z’s rhymes and references resonate. Despite our previous familiarity with his music, my students and I have been making new discoveries. --K. Rambsy

I somehow under-estimated how much time would be involved in covering just a single song in the class. We’ll read, discuss, and then listen to lyrics, or we might listen and read, and then discuss. I’ve been surprised at how involved we can become in just one song. –H. Rambsy

What’s next?
So far, we’ve covered songs by Nas and B.I.G. We’ve just started a unit on Jay Z. I’m looking forward to delving more into his work. He has such a rich catalogue and expansive cultural influence, well beyond rap, so I’m curious about the kinds of conversations that we’ll have about him and his music, especially following our discussions of various others rappers. –H. Rambsy

We will begin building datasets on Jay Z’s four classic albums. We will track information such as frequently used words, numbers of similes and metaphors as well as references to locations and people. We will use this information to compare Jay Z’s work to other rappers and black male literary figures. --K. Rambsy

Covering Jay Z in African American literature courses at SIUE & UTA 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Frederick Douglass books

What follows are the texts and images from an exhibit on Frederick Douglass's Narrative that I curated today.

The Frederick Douglass books

For a few years now, I’ve been collecting editions of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. As part of my larger, ongoing effort to share aspects of my personal library with a broader public, I decided to produce this exhibit to show and share some of my Douglass books.

Why so many editions?

“Why so many different editions of the same books?,” people ask when people become aware that there are more than 400 editions of Douglass’s Narrative. One main reason, in addition to intrinsic value of the book, relates to the high demand for the book.

Since the 1960s when Douglass’s book was first reprinted, high school teachers and college professors regularly assigned the book in their courses. There are no copyright restrictions on the book, so any publisher that is willing and interested can reprint the book. Also, the accumulated general and scholarly interest in Douglass and the Narrative over time have accumulated over time

Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and Book History

For years, I’ve been interested in Book History – a field where scholars study the promotion, production, reception, and circulation of print publications. My interest began with investigations of different versions of Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy (American Hunger), which was first published in 1945. I collected more than a dozen copies as I studied the evolving publishing and packaging histories of Wright’s book. My research on Wright’s autobiography inspired me to investigate Douglass’s Narrative, which gave me a wider time frame and a larger number of printings to consider.

Frederick Douglass and Teaching

By Erin Ranft

When I poll literature students at my community college in northern Houston, a majority of them have never read Frederick Douglass’s work. There are numerous reasons that they have not read Douglass, but a repeating theme relates to what they were taught in high school. The curriculum at various secondary schools does not require students to spend much time studying African American literature and history, and though there are a number of educators who are invested in their students learning this important material, too many students are graduating without contact with Douglass.

After reading Douglass’s Narrative and his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” my students, who are largely African American, become irritated with their secondary institutions for not ensuring that African American literary productions are a permanent fixture within the curriculum. Based on his important Narrative, these young scholars write and speak about Douglass as an influential, radical, and courageous figure – an icon they should already know. He becomes another important activist in their arsenal of Black revolutionaries who faced implicit danger in order to fight the racism within dominant white institutions and society.

#FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies

Erin Ranft is a professor of literature at Lone Star College–North Harris.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

“Man,” “Covey,” and top 10 words in Frederick Douglass Narratives

Kenton Rambsy and Howard Rambsy II

We previously listed the most frequently used words in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative. Below, we have extended our discussion on Douglass’s word usage by documenting the top 10 words in all three of his autobiographies—Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In addition, we have noted the top 10 words from Douglass’s narratives combined.

We were intrigued by the rise of the word “Man” across Douglass’s narratives. The term appears 75 times in The Narrative, 335 times in My Bondage and My Freedom, and 560 times in The Life and Times. Granted, each subsequent narrative is much longer than the previous one. Still, the increased use of “man” in the narratives gives an indication of how Douglass was participating in conversations about masculinity and the shift from enslaved to free person.

In a previous entry, we noted the frequent mentions of Douglass’s overseer Edward Covey in The Narrative. The term “Covey” was among the top 10 words in that first book, but falls to the #19 most frequently mentioned word in My Bondage and My Freedom, and to #61 in The Life and Times. Douglass only mentions Covey in the first part of his narrative for approximately 50 pages. Ultimately, as Douglass revises his narrative and emphasizes the other hardships he endured during slavery, Mr. Covey becomes a less central figure in his life.

#FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies

The Warmth of Other Suns: 95 - 164

[The Warmth of Other Suns]

"Some 555,000 colored people left the South during the decade of the First World War--more than all the colored people who had left in the first decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, which promised the freedoms they were now forced to pursue on their own" (162). --Isabel Wilkerson

In the sections that we've been reading Isabel Wilkerson continues to sketch the "beginnings" of migration, or more simply movement, for her main characters -- Ida Mae Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster -- in The Warmth of Other Suns.  

On the one hand, Wilkerson mentions macro-economic conditions: "The sharecroppers owed the planters, the planters owed the merchants, the merchants owed the banks, and the banks were often beholden to some business concern in the North, where most of the real money was in the fist place" (96). At the same time, Wilkerson highlights daily indignities and troubles that black people endured in the South that would raise the possibility of them seeking out lives under other suns.

After reading the pages 95 - 164, what topic or scene did you view as most helpful for thinking about the Great Migration? Why? Please provide page number citation. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Frederick Douglass, a 19th-Century Tummler

By Elizabeth Cali

In his book Smarter Than You Think, Clive Thompson refers to Ta-Nehisi Coates as a modern day tummler, in reference to the Yiddish term. A tummler, one who engages a crowd at a party, one who is responsible for getting a large number of people to interact, both catalyzes and builds bridges, according to Thompson’s research (79). I’ve increasingly been curious about the tummlers of 19th-century African American public thought and intellectual communication. Of course, Frederick Douglass must be in the mix.

In 1847, Douglass publicly disengaged from Garrisonian abolitionism by starting his own independent black print periodical, The North Star. Douglass would later re-title his publication Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, when merging with another anti-slavery entity. In each periodical, Douglass published various statements inviting readers to the pages of the periodical, encouraging African American thinkers and writers to engage.

How does positioning Douglass as a tummler fine tune our focus on the intentions and the methodologies of both The North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper? If we see Douglass as a tummler, how might that decenter concepts of Douglass the icon, and enable us to better understand the community he beckoned to his pages?

#FrederickDouglass: Technology & African American Literary Studies

Elizabeth Cali is a literature professor at SIUE.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Public Thinking Event: The Great Migration

On February 3, we coordinated a public thinking event that concentrated on the Great Migration. The event subject was linked to our online reading group concentrating on Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.

February Humanities Programming
Spring 2016 Programming

Spring 2016 Programming

February 3: Public Thinking Event: The Great Migration
February 2: “I own my own masters”: An exhibit on slavery references in rap music

Online Reading Groups for Spring2016:
Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns