Monday, June 4, 2018

Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, and Jay-Z

This past spring, I taught a course on Jay-Z, which was part of a series of course I've taught on rap music over the past few years. Early on in the course, we covered Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka, as ways of putting Jay-Z in the context of an older generation of African American cultural figures. There are many others I could've chosen, but Malcolm and Baraka are important touchstones for my own intellectual journeys and for my experiences as a professor over the last decade and a half.

Malcolm and Baraka have been mainstays in my literature courses over the years. They are exemplary figures whose dynamic presentation styles have captivated my students and given us all kinds of topics to discuss. Similar to Jay-Z, Malcolm and Baraka convey anger and humor in their compositions, and they regularly deploy poetic insults. All three give us much to consider given our interests in black verbal art.

When I first began teaching, I taught courses on the Black Arts Movement, with Baraka playing a central role. My Black Arts courses led me to teach courses on just Malcolm X, with works by Baraka making regular appearances. The Black Arts and Malcolm courses led me to rap courses and then to Jay-Z.

Our English department, similar to many English departments across the country, offers African American literature surveys, black women's writing courses, and Toni Morrison major author classes. Aside from my Jay-Z class, there have been no courses in recent years (or ever?) focusing on black men. Not surprisingly, the Jay-Z course draws a larger number of black men college students than our typical courses.

Black men don't simply show up. They end up becoming really active and leading participants in the rap and Jay-Z classes. They arrive with considerable knowledge, and they are constantly raising questioning and providing insight well beyond the syllabus.     

So far, I've introduced Malcolm and Baraka early on. What I'll do in future courses is mention them more times throughout the course of the semester. I want to underscore the idea that for me and others Malcolm and Baraka have an ongoing influence on how we think about rap, Jay-Z, and other artistic compositions. And just as important, Jay-Z, Black Thought, and others influence how we think about Malcolm, Baraka, and a long line of black verbal artists.

A Notebook on Malcolm X
A Notebook on Amiri Baraka
• A Notebook on Jay-Z

1 comment:

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. said...

Perhaps, to use a cliché I much dislike, putting Jay-Z "in conversation with" W. E. B. DuBois might galvanize your black male students.

J. W. Ward, Jr.