Teaching Inside: On Du Bois, Washington, Jay-Z, Nas, Toni Morrison, and Stringer Bell
Last week, we wrapped up our exploration and analysis of the original beef between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. We spent an entire week (two class periods) on Du Bois and then a week on Washington. I have some ardent supporters of both scholars (the class was pretty much split in half, crossing age and race lines), and our discussions were often heated with both sides feeling so strongly about what path, ultimately, would be best for the uplift of Black folk.
The Washington supporters stressed the importance of “casting down buckets”, especially as men who, upon release, will be stigmatized due to their incarceration history. Finding a job/trade, for them, was of primary importance in order to find legal ways to secure personal, economic stability. One student admitted that his support of Washington grew out of his own father’s professional employment choice; he learned a trade in high school and supported his family from it. This student said that his dad discouraged him from pursuing a similar route, insisting that he “go to college” after high school; in class, the young man thought aloud and wondered if securing a trade might have allowed him to make different decisions that wouldn’t have landed him in prison. It was a touching reflection and I was thankful for his honesty and transparency in that moment.
The Du Bois supporters, while conceding that one must work one’s way up, felt that too much of a focus was placed on the importance of trade labor that they equated to manual labor. There was a sense that this kind of labor, while certainly honorable given the contexts within which Up From Slavery and The Souls of Black Folk were written, would eventually keep Black folk on fields, not striving for more beyond industrial and vocational endeavors. What I got from their conversation, and their support, was that Du Bois, more than Washington, told Black folk to strive to be the best they could be, regardless of circumstances.
Ultimately we all know that pieces of Washington and Du Bois, when “Burger King Have it Your Way”-ized, comprise a solid plan of educational, economic, and personal uplift and advancement, but perhaps it is our human inclination to “pick a side” that brings us to points of disagreement. And this is how we got to rap.
I know; you were worried about how I would make that segue work. I am glad you hung in there.
At the beginning of last Friday’s class, one of the Washington supporters (the student whose dad discouraged a trade) asked if I had heard Jay-Z’s “4:44” yet and I told him no. He then asked me what I thought about Jay-Z’s philanthropy and whether I believed he, Jay-Z, should be “doing more” for the Black community. I asked him if he could better define “doing more” because I was aware of a number of philanthropic endeavors and wanted to gauge the expectation. I then asked him what was the acceptable “threshold” of “helping the community” so that we had an objective bar against which to measure whether Mr. Carter was falling short, meeting, or exceeding expectations.
As I contemplated, the student who asked the question — let’s call him Student A — mentioned that he and another student — who we will call Student B — had gotten into a debate about Jay-Z and Nas and who had done/is doing more for the Black community. I said, well, it depends on, again, how one is defining “done more”.
Obviously Nas is the better lyricist. But that wasn’t the question LOL
I said, welp! I knew Nas had provided scholarships to students at Occidental and that he was making moves in and with Harvard. I also knew that he was looking at stepping into venture capitalism to support entrepreneurs. Similarly, I knew that Jay-Z had his foundation and scholarship organization, but a Shaun King article in Daily Kos highlighted the ways in which Jay is doing more than we will ever see. So, I said, it depends on the REAL question being asked here: you really just want to know who is a better human being.
And that is not an answer I can provide. But this is where things got interesting. Student B chimed in.
Student B: Yo, I’m the guy who started the conversation with Student A. I’m just saying, though, Jay-Z is a brand now. He has an agenda and makes decisions to strengthen his brand. Nas is more for the people, telling them to be better and do better. Jay-Z left the ghetto and never told the rest of us how to get out. All he talks about is his money — how much he got, how much he worth. What about the rest of us? We ain’t got $8 million paintings. What are we going to do?
Student A: But, B, he gives money! He’s helping the community! Just like Booker T.!
Student B: And just like Booker T., he’s doing well for himself and leaving the scraps for everyone else. Flaunting his money but keeping the connects so nobody else can be as rich.
I basically just sat there, dumbfounded. Not because I found any lies in the argument (though, arguably, I might have assigned Jay to Du Bois status…maybe?), but because these guys were taking this 114 year beef and applying it to the beef with which they were more familiar. And they were doing it reasonably and rationally so, there was no need for me to interrupt with my thoughts. Sometimes it’s just best for us, as educators, to sit back and listen because not long thereafter, another student contributed more gems to the conversation.
Student C: Well, Jay has sold more albums. How many platinum albums Nas got?
Me: (I couldn’t help it. I COULDN’T!!) Just because you sell more albums doesn’t mean you’re better. It simply means you’re more commercial. And yes, if we’re judging commercial appeal, Jay-Z clearly rises above Nas. But, Ether. Soooooooooo there’s that.
Student B: Exactly! Jay ain’t rapping for the people! He said so hisself!
Student C: When? When did he say that?
Me: (Seriously, somebody stop me LOL) Well, see, there’s this song called “Moment of Clarity” off Jay’s Black Album.
And as I started reciting the lyrics, a look of astonishment crossed everyone’s face.
Student C: Doc. How? Wait. Seriously? YOU KNOW THE WORDS?!?!
Me: Yes, but that is not the point, here, because….
Student D: Ya’ll keep tryin’ her. Don’t underestimate her.
So, after a hearty chuckle, and the recitation of more rap lyrics (and the repeated truth that Nas is the superior lyricist), I transitioned from the great debate to how that debate trickled into works of fiction and the ways in which various authors strove to document the human condition, from the vantage point of the Black person, and highlight the success and failures of and within humanity. We are reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (they had to read chapters 1–3 for tonight’s class) and I intentionally had them stop right before we read about how Milkman is tired of Hagar. But, I also know they read ahead, so I decided to share one of my favorite passages with them, which happens to be at the beginning of Chapter 4.
I set up the discussion of the book by relating it to the biblical book Solomon and noting how it is often referred to as one of the books of love; I said that Morrison’s work is equally about love and the way that it can both transform and destroy some people. They will read about how the love in the Dead family withered; they will read about Milkman’s infatuation turned love for Hagar and how it was doomed to go astray; they will read about Ruth’s love for her family and the ways in which she protects herself and her children.
Tonight, after our discussion, I will prep them for the next few chapters and I will highlight love, once again, with the following passage (found on p. 91):
“Now, after more than a dozen years, he was getting tired of her. Her eccentricities were no longer provocative…He didn’t even have to pay for it. It was so free, so abundant, it had lost its fervor. There was no excitement; no galloping of blood in his neck or his heart at the thought of her.”
Every time I read this passage, because I have read the book like 13 times, I think of Hagar as the “40 degree day.” For those not entrenched in The Wire lore, Stringer Bell tells us about the (NSFW) 40 degree day and why nobody gives any damns about it at all. It is way better when you see Idris Elba in action, but for those who prefer to read words, here you go (NSFW language):
I am almost 100% certain no one is ready for this Morrison/Bell comparison. If my knowing Jay-Z lyrics was a shock, I am confident tonight’s lesson will have them shaking their heads, wondering where my life went wrong LOL
Thanks for reading!