Writing while black: The case of the missing letter grade
What do Geertz, DMX and Shakespeare have in common?
The year was nineteen hundred and ninety-nine. I was in my senior year as an English major at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. Gas was $1.49 a gallon, I was building my first website with the help of a now dated looking site called HTML Goodies, and College Club — now ancient history thanks to the dot-bomb fallout — was my Facebook.
I was enrolled in four writing classes during my last semester. For this particular course assignment, I chose to write about the experience of getting my hair braided in an ‘urban’ hair salon.
Now, on the surface, this may seem a mundane topic. But if you are from the ‘hood as I am — South Central Los Angeles, to be precise — then you know that anything can go down in the braid shop. I wrote about the cultural phenomenon of the African-American beauty salon, specifically the braid shop, in the style of Clifford Geertz’ “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” which I had studied during my sophomore year. It made for an interesting read.
Wherefore art thou, letter grade?
I approached that writing assignment like I did every other one during those days — obsessively. I crafted five to seven drafts (still my normal routine), and turned it in once it was adequately polished and written specifically to the criteria outlined on the rubric.
A week or so later, at the beginning of a regularly scheduled Tuesday afternoon lecture, the professor walked around the classroom to distribute the graded essays. I recall glancing over at nearby desks to see what grades the other students received (#reasons). I saw handwritten red letter grades in circles— a few A’s and B’s — on each of the cover sheets I eyeballed.
Mr. Professor placed my paper on my desk. I didn’t see any markings on the cover sheet, so I turned to page two which was also blank. I flipped to page three which was utterly devoid of any markings. It continued that way until I reached the end of the paper. There, at the bottom of my word-processed masterpiece, was a handwritten note in Mr. Professor’s cursive —
“See me after class.”
Something is rotten in the state of red marks.
I was so consumed with finding out why my paper hadn’t been graded, I could hardly concentrate during the remaining lecture period. When I was finally able to get face time with Mr. Professor after class, he sat me down and began hemming and hawing. I asked if there was a reason my paper didn’t have a grade on it. He said there was a ‘problem.’ After a bit of Q & A (heavy on my Q’s, light on his A’s), he finally got to the gist. He said he had doubts that I actually wrote the paper.
What do you mean you have doubts? Why would you think I didn’t write a paper about a hair-braiding salon? I launched a bunch of questions rapid fire style as my ego took control and my heart rate spiked. I told Mr. Professor I had been a customer at countless ‘black-hair’ shops since the age of seven and could prove that I had been to the braiding salon I highlighted in my essay. He claimed there was a certain sentence — in fact, a word within that sentence— that seemed a bit ‘sophisticated.’ He went on to say he had seen similar verbiage in ‘plagiarized’ papers.
I asked how I could even plagiarize such a unique experience. Keep in mind, this was the 1900s — before Google became the college student’s copy and paste paradise. Mr. Professor stated it was a ‘known fact’ that students would purchase scholarly papers at a local ‘popular public university.’
This was news to me. At the time, I was working three jobs —two on-campus and one off — to supplement my dwindling financial aid. Considering the Bursar’s office had just ‘lost’ the last cash tuition payment that I placed in the dropbox (the actual dropbox, not the app), I definitely didn’t have any mad money left over for buying pre-written papers from random students across town.
Mr. Professor’s responses to the rest of my inquiries were vague. He let me know he planned to refer this to the dean of academic studies for official review which may result in a disciplinary hearing. Mr. Professor concluded that if my essay was determined to be plagiarized, it would be in violation of the code of conduct and would jeopardize my upcoming graduation.
What in the entire f%$^?
This above all: to thine own self be true.
I was livid. After four years of juggling part-time work and a full-time course schedule, finally getting into a groove as an English major, and studying when I’d rather be sleeping, my college degree was in jeopardy because of one line of perfected prose? Mind racing, I rushed across the manicured lawn and up the elevator to my private dorm room. I did what I always do when I’m about to go DMX — call my mother.
Now, I won’t generalize black mothers, since they truly range the gamut in terms of modus operandi. Let’s just say that my mother don’t play dat. So whatever emotion I conveyed to her over the phone that evening was enough to inspire her coming to campus from across town for the next scheduled lecture.
Mr. Professor was quite shocked to have two people of color (up 100% from the norm) present in class that afternoon. My mother, a high-school teacher, took a seat in the back of the room and commenced to grading the papers of her own students.
I sat fuming in my regular seat, no doubt mad-dogging Mr. Professor the entire time he nervously stumbled through his lecture material. He dismissed the class a few minutes earlier than normal, and invited us to speak with him at his desk. My mother took the lead.
I wish I could call my mom right now and ask her what she said that day, but it’s after 9pm and she is fast asleep. I remember her being no-nonsense and respectful but firm. Her opening statement led to my claim and supporting material and before you know it, we had pulled out Exhibits A-X. In the prior 24 hours, we had managed to rummage through her garage full of boxed treasures and pull together every copy of The Loyolan weekly newspaper that I had contributed to as a writer or editor over the prior two years.
And now, the proof of my literary competence was spread across his desk. Like, whut?
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
By the time my mother and I presented our closing arguments, Mr. Professor’s tone changed. He seemed shocked that I had gone to such great lengths to defend my writing. He stated he would review the articles, re-read my paper in light of this ‘new’ information, and get back to me.
The following week, I received my paper, with a letter grade circled in red on the cover sheet. While I can’t recall if there was an apology, Mr. Professor did not go to the academic dean as he had previously hinted. I rushed back to my dorm room, called my mom to let her know the outcome, and let out a deep sigh. Though still flustered by the accusation, I was satisfied with the resolution. I walked the stage with my fellow Lions that May.
I can only theorize on why Mr. Professor selected my essay for closer scrutiny. Or why the sophisticated style of writing made him think someone else — perhaps more intellectual — composed it. I’d like to think my natural writing skills were enhanced greatly by my knowledgeable instructors and peers as well as the challenging coursework I completed in my 48 months as an undergraduate. A decade later, I began my graduate studies in Education and 18 months later earned a perfect 4.0 GPA thanks to all the writing assignments.
Academic integrity has always been of the utmost importance to me, including that time in second grade when I was required to ‘prove my work’. Creating original art in the form of writing has long been my hobby and joy. Hopefully, it will one day be a part of my legacy.
Until the next episode…
~i.am.mai (that’s a palindrome)™