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Hope, Action, & Freedom in Times of Uncertainty

December 8, 2016

Conra D. Gist, Ph.D., Angela Davis Johnson, & Tyson E.J. Marsh, Ph.D.

Intended Audience: Middle and High School students

Overview: This lesson plan is the outgrowth of a Spring 2016 Black History Bulletin (BHB) Issue on Black Youth Activism, Guest Edited by Dr. Conra D. Gist. The purpose of the issue was to a) explore Black youth activism as situated historically in different disciplinary spaces with diverse epistemological perspectives, cultural traditions, and social-economic-political-historical legacies; b) grapple with youth empowerment from the viewpoints of a critical educator, artist, and preacher who build emancipatory and intellectual bridges between historical struggles and contemporary challenges and possibilities; and c) cultivate intellectual spaces that invite and encourage the generation of transformational and emancipatory ideas. Critical Educator, Dr. Tyson E.J. Marsh, grappled with the question, what is critical educational activism and how does it equip students to consume and generate emancipatory knowledge that elevates their political and social consciousness? Activist Artist, Angela Davis Johnson, made sense of the question: How can art function as a creative tool for personal and community freedom and justice work? Collectively our work is a synthesis and representation, or reversioning, of the work of an artist, teacher educator, and leadership educator working collaboratively to produce counter-narrative knowledges and educational possibilities for youth.

At a time when uncertainty and fear threaten to silence the spirits of hope, action, and freedom that embody our democratic project in the United States through imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 2004), it is vital that we assert pedagogies, practices and purpose that continue to advance the justice work of freedom. This lesson plan takes aim at such work by focusing on the ways we can work as educators and organizers to clear the space and deconstruct both the messiness of divisive and dangerous rhetoric, and the sociopolitical realities of injustice, by utilizing cultural scripts, images, and/or artifacts as a window to look through the emotional realities evoked in hostile and alarming environments. The ability to think in critical and transdisciplinary ways that honor the experiences and voices of youth, while also challenging them to act in ways that challenge the status quo, is the cultural work we encourage educators and school leaders to take up through the teaching of this lesson.

Scope and Sequence: Given our commitment to cultivating educational and learning spaces that are healing and transformative environments for youth, this lesson plan attempts to center the voices and experiences of middle and high school youth through three major components: 1) clearing a space for youth to ground themselves in their truth by asserting intentionality and purpose; 2) looking to discover stories within themselves and recognizing the power of their own voice by examining contemporary examples of artists modeling this work; and 3) walking through a cultural reversioning activity and unpacking and synthesizing experiences with the process while imagining new opportunities for action and activism.

In light of the tireless assault waged on communities of color through an intersection of unjust practices and systems of oppression, and in particular the acute attack on communities of color through state-sanctioned police violence, instructional tools and imagery employed with youth must provide opportunities to grapple with and make meaning of unjust realities they must often confront in their day to day lives. To achieve this goal, the lesson plan opens with a set of “clearing space” practices that create a context for youth to bring their authentic selves to the classroom community. These practices are informed by the Activist Artist work of Angela Davis Johnson who engages in this work with various community activist groups across the United States.

Once the purpose and intention has been set to open the space, the second component of the lesson challenges the class to grapple with the idea of stories (e.g., oral storytelling, testimonies, narratives) being utilized as a type of practice and vehicle of affirmation, critique, community building and resistance when making sense of the world around them. This portion of the lesson challenges students to discover stories within themselves and recognize the power of their own voice by examining contemporary examples of artists modeling this work.

The album “A Seat at the Table” by Solange is utilized as a medium to reflect the idea of discovering stories by considering the broader narrative the artist communicates through the title of her album, the particular audio recorded testimonial stories from her mother, father, and multi-platinum artist Master P, and the multiple mini-narratives interwoven within and across verses of particular songs. Read more on Solange’s process.

The third component of the lesson builds a bridge between the idea of storytelling as a critical practice in general, to consider cultural reversioning as a type of instructional tool that can be utilized to rewrite and reimagine social scripts of despair and injustice in ways that honor and reflect the experiences of youth. To do this, students apply the idea of cultural reversioning in practice in a two part process: 1) listening to “Mad”- a song by Solange and Lil Wayne – and rewriting the lyrics based on a set of questions that foster critical thought in small groups; and 2) synthesizing ideas discussed in the group to clips of paper to reimagine images of Black youth; in this case, students create a collage image of Mike Brown in his cap and gown. The lesson then concludes with student discussion about the cultural reversioning process and asks students to consider implications for socially just praxis.

Common Core Standards

CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.R 6-12

Key Ideas and Details

  1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

Craft and Structure

  1. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  2. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
  3. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

  1. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.*
  2. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Comprehension and Collaboration

  1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

  1. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  2. Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

National Core Arts Standards for Visual Arts

Anchor Standard 1: Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work

Anchor Standard 2: Organize and develop artistic ideas and work

Anchor Standard 6: Convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work

Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work

Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.

Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art

Anchor Standard 11: Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context

NOTE: The authors modeled this lesson at the 2016 Association for the Study of African Life and History (ASALH) Conference in Richmond, VA.

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Create a space to reimagine their lives in the face of present-day uncertainties and produce an image that counters narratives of lack with possibility and achievement
  • Discuss how everyday people find hope and liberatory possibilities through storytelling
  • Reflect, describe, and address the ways in which their lives can be impacted by social and systemic inequality
  • Engage in a cultural reversioning process as a freedom building practice
  • Synthesize key ideas processed in class discussion and generate strategies for taking up justice work in their everyday lives

Essential Questions

  • How do we create spaces to reimagine our lives in the face of uncertainty?
  • How are our lives impacted and / or informed by social and systemic inequality (e.g., white supremacy, sexism, racism, homophobia)?
  • Why do people seek hope and liberatory possibilities in the face of uncertainty and difficulty?
  • How can stories be utilized as sites of healing and resistance?
  • What is cultural reversioning and how does it function as the practice of freedom?

LESSON PLAN

Part 1: Clearing Space and Grounding Self

Clearing space is part of a contemplative art practice that integrates meditation, deep breathing exercises and visualizing to center oneself. This practice can serve as a healing tool to challenge the sting of poverty, state-sanctioned violence and displacement (For additional information). It helps to prepare one for the weight and impact of digging deep within yourself and confronting what you may find. Recognizing that there is power and creativity in creating healing spaces in community, it enables people to build deeper connections and remember and realize the common ties that bind humanity. In times of uncertainty it can be seen as the practice of freedom.

Step 1. Create a calming aromatic environment (for example allow students to smell or rub on essential oils like lavender, rosemary and/or burn sage if permitted on school grounds)

Step 2. Lead a meditative breathing exercise. Ask students to inhale positive thoughts (trust, confidence,love) and exhale negative feelings (mistrust, insecurity, hate). Repeat three times.

Step 3. Continue breathing exercise by asking students to imagine their favorite color, person, or place as they breathe deeply to center themselves in a peaceful state of mind.

Step 4. Set the intention by stating what the class hopes to gain out this activity.

Part 2: Discovering Stories Within

Explain to students they will now grapple with the idea of stories (i.e., oral storytelling, testimonies, narratives) being utilized by people as a type of practice and vehicle of affirmation, critique, community building and resistance when making sense of the world around them. For the purpose of this lesson, students are being challenged to discover stories within themselves and recognize the power of their own voice. In order to do this they will first examine a contemporary artist example unpacking the stories they have unfolded from her life, and then consider connections and implications to their personal stories.

Solange reflects her idea of discovering stories within ourselves in her album, “A Seat at the Table”, because she communicates a broader narrative through the title of her work. The audio recorded testimonial stories from her mother, father, and multi-platinum artist Master P, and the multiple mini-narratives interwoven within and across verses of particular songs (See interview explaining the album themes) emphasizes how the richness of layered meanings inform our lived realities. Guided by Solange, her process, reflective and powerful voice (See video referenced above, and have students read a synopsis of the album), students will explore their own voices and the experiences and lived realities that inform them.

After students have read the resources above, the instructor should pose the question:

What feelings, emotions, experiences inform Solange’s work?

After documenting samples of the feelings, emotions, and experience on the board, students should be divided into small groups and asked to discuss the following questions:

  1. What is a significant story and experience that has shaped your voice?
  2. How are your stories, experiences, and voice affected by white supremacy?[1]
  3. Have you experienced or witnessed racism, sexism, or homophobia?
  4. What are your fears or concerns surrounding thoughts of the future? What are your hopes?
  5. What is it like to live in your current neighborhood? What changes would you like to see happen in your local community, state, and country?

Part 3: Cultural Reversioning and Critical Discussion

After students engage in discussions about significant stories from their own lives explain that they will now engage in a cultural reversioning activity. Below is a brief conceptual description to anchor your understanding. You can use this background information to provide students a basic definition and framework of the practice they will take up. For further reading, additional information can be found in Keyes (2004) Rap Music and Street Consciousness.

Cultural Reversioning: Drawing from and building on the work of Gilroy (1993), Keyes (2004) developed the concept of cultural reversioning to describe the way in which African peoples brought their cultural understandings and ways of being in the world to bear on their experiences in the new world. Describing the concept of cultural reversioning as “the foregrounding (consciously and unconsciously) of African-centered concepts”, Keyes (2004) contends that:

In the New World, Africans were enslaved and forced to learn a culture and language different from their own. In the face of this alien context, blacks transformed the new culture and language of the Western world through an African prism. The way in which they modified, reshaped, and transformed African systems of thought resonates in contemporary culture. (p. 21)

Contributing to the development of a hybrid culture, the first African Americans drew upon and reversioned their indigenous African practices to serve as tools of survival that would assist them in navigating, surviving, and resisting oppression, from genocide and slavery to mass incarceration (Alexander, 2012). This hybridization coupled with oral traditions and communicative practices contributed to the reversioning of African-centered concepts that would help them name and discuss their experiences, while also utilizing them to interrogate their condition. Keyes (2004) attributes and identifies the development of distinct African American expressive traditions including, but not limited to, field hollers, the blues, jazz, sermons, and hip hop culture to the process of cultural reversioning, which ultimately served as key locations for resistance to white supremacist state-sanctioned violence. Operationalizing this concept, Keyes (2004) presents rap music and hip hop culture as the culmination of these cultural forms of expression and tools for survival.

However, just as Black cultural practices and traditions can be reversioned, revitalized, and reinvigorated, that we must continue to insist that #BlackLivesMatter in 2016 is indicative of the way in which white supremacy, state sanctioned violence, and technologies of racism have also evolved. Compounded by the election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world, the potential appointment of white supremacists to the White House Staff, and the rise of violence aimed at communities of color, it is critical that we prepare Black youth to understand that their cultural practices and traditions are rooted in resistance. Once again, these tools must be reversioned.

The Cultural Reversioning Process

In order to operationalize the concept and pedagogical value of cultural reversioning, we then take students through the following activity.

  1. Introduce artist/author and contextualize the text: In this case, the artist will be Solange (see video references listed in part 2 of the lesson plan for additional information).
  2. Listen to song: Explain that the class will focus on the song “Mad” by Solange and Lil Wayne, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTqNemB6mio Print the lyrics and have students listen to and follow along with a song that captures contemporary articulations of the struggle against white supremacist state sanctioned violence.

NOTE: Depending on the nuances of your local context and struggle against white supremacist state sanctioned violence, we recommend choosing a song/resource that speaks closely to that struggle.

  1. Use heart lenses to reflect on lyrics: Once students finish listening to the song explain that there are different “heart lenses” that can be utilized for engaging with lyrics: thinking, feeling, and seeing. Share the questions framing each of the heart lenses with the students.

Thinking: How do we teach/challenge Black Youth in ways that cultivate a critical consciousness in a productive and transformational fashion? How do we as leaders—scholars—activists—artists challenge Black youth to take up this work?

Seeing/Hearing: What will we see and hear as evidence of Black youth walking in their power? How do we create spaces for Black Youth to voice their experiences and reimagine their lives as free and limitless beings?

Feeling: What feelings are most apparent in Black youth expressions about the state of Black life in America? What can we do to be sure we are providing spaces for Black youth to express grief, aspirations, fears, loves? What emotions do we experience as artists/scholars/activists working to create more humane dwelling spaces? How can emotions be expressed, channeled, and /or molded in ways that work on the side of justice for the betterment of self, family, and community?

Next, explain that students will be organized in groups of three with each group focusing on a particular heart lens (thinking, feeling and seeing/hearing). Each group should first grapple with the assigned overarching heart lens questions to consider their own experiences and make connections to lyrics where appropriate.

  1. Rewriting responses to lyrics: Distribute the heart lenses handout to students (see attached). Explain that each heart lens focuses on selected verses from the song “Mad.” As a group (or in partnership depending on classroom dynamics) have students begin engaging in the cultural reversioning process by writing the verses through the lenses of their own experiences and tapping the stories within in ways that honor their own experiences.
  2. Auditory to Visual: Each group will receive color coordinated pieces of construction paper that will be used to make an image. In this case the image will be a cutout of Mike Brown, but you can select any image that is reflective the local struggles and experiences of your student population. Prep work is needed to create pieces that, when joined together collectively portray the image of Mike Brown.

First, examine the image and with a pencil create a silhouette of the subject on a large posterboard. Next, reduce the design in simple lines; no color (simple line drawing resource). Once the simple line drawing is established, fill the image in with pieces of construction paper that are shaped to the contours of the image, color coded to reflect resemblance, and numbered so students will know where to place each slab of construction paper.

For this lesson plan the slabs of construction should be divided in three groups (1-3); each representing one of the heart lenses (e.g., thinking (1), feeling (2), seeing/hearing (3). Each group member will receive a slab of construction paper to then translate their reversioned lyrics in a way that reflects their individual artistry; their handwriting is their own unique expression that will be eventually represented visually within the broader collective image.

  1. Visual to Kinesthetic: Students will then take their individual artistic pieces of construction paper and place on the appropriate number coded place on the simple line drawing black posterboard. As they begin pasting their handwritten expressions on the image, an image of Mike Brown will begin to take shape. With their hands students are reversioning Mike Brown, and the possibilities and potential that could have existed within his voice, had it not been taken away from him through white supremacist state sanctioned violence.
  1. Unpack and discuss: Once the image is completed, allow time for students to begin processing their reactions to seeing the image of Mike Brown. Use the following essential questions as a way to allow youth to begin synthesizing their broader takeaways related to the lesson: a) How do we create spaces to reimagine our lives in the face of uncertainty?; b) How are our lives impacted and/or informed by social and systemic inequality (e.g., white supremacy, sexism, racism, homophobia)?; c) Why do people seek hope and liberatory possibilities in the face of uncertainty and difficulty?; d) How can stories be utilized as sites of healing and resistance?; e) What is cultural reversioning and how does it function as the practice of freedom?

Looking Ahead: Future Justice Acts

Our future is not certain but it is certain that tomorrow is tomorrow and the struggle will still be a struggle, as previous generations can attest. From these generations we continue to gather, refine, and reversion our traditions and practices, to once again serve as weapons of resistance in the struggle against white supremacist state sanctioned violence. It is critical that we not only pass down these traditions and practices to youth, but that we enable them to envision their voices as powerful voices that offer additional layers of meaning on top of ancient and powerful knowledge bequeathed to us from our ancestors. In addition to working with youth to assist them in recognizing the power behind their voices, we must also encourage them to take action, and engage in the process of praxis.

In concluding this lesson, we encourage teachers and facilitators to co-create spaces in their classrooms and pose questions to foster the translation of critical thought into action with the aim of resisting white supremacist state sanctioned violence in their schools, neighborhoods, and communities.

Revisioning Organizer

THINKING: How do we teach/challenge Black Youth in ways that cultivate a critical consciousness in a productive and transformational fashion? How do we as leaders—scholars—activists—artists challenge Black youth to take up this work?

Draft verse rewrite: identify at least two lines you’d change to reflect the conversation you had about seeing/hearing.

Verse 1: Solange & Lil Wayne:

You got the light, count it all joy

You got the right to be mad

But when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way They say you gotta let it go

Now tell ’em why you mad son

Cause doing it all ain’t enough

‘Cause everyone all in my cup

‘Cause such and such still owe me bucks

So I got the right to get bucked

But I try not to let it build up

I’m too high, I’m too better, too much

So I let it go, let it go, let it go

 

[Pre-Hook 1: Solange]

I ran into this girl, she said, “Why you always blaming?”

“Why you can’t just face it?” (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

“Why you always gotta be so mad?” (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

“Why you always talking ****, always be complaining?”

“Why you always gotta be, why you always gotta be so mad?” (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

I got a lot to be mad about (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

[Hook: Solange]

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love, baby?

[Verse 2: Lil Wayne]

Yeah, but I, got a lot to be mad about

Got a lot to be a man about

Got a lot to pop a xan aboutI used to rock hand-me-downs, and now I rock standing crowds

But it’s hard when you only

Got fans around and no fam around

And if they are, then their hands are out

And they pointing fingers

When I wear this **** burden on my back like a **** cap and gown

Then I walk up in the bank, pants sagging down

And I laugh at frowns, what they mad about?

Cause here come this **** with this mass account

That didn’t wear cap and gown

Are you mad ’cause the judge ain’t give me more time?

And when I attempted suicide, I didn’t die

I remember how mad I was on that day

Man, you gotta let it go before it get up in the way

Let it go, let it go

[Pre-Hook 2: Solange]

I ran into this girl, she said, “Why you always blaming?”

“Why you can’t just face it?”

“Why you always gotta be so mad?” (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

I got a lot to be mad about (Be mad, be mad, be mad)

[Hook: Solange & Both]

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love go?

Where’d your love, baby?

[Outro: Solange]

I ran into this girl, I said, “I’m tired of explaining.”

Man, this **** is draining

But I’m not really allowed to be mad

References

Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of  colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

Gilroy, P. (1993). The black Atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hooks, B. (2004). We real cool: Black men and masculinity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Keyes, C.L. (2004). Rap music and street consciousness. Champaign, Il: University of Illinois Press.

[1] For more information regarding resources on white supremacy, racism, sexism, and homophobia, we recommend exploring the extensive resources available at http://www.tolerance.org/

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