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From the Barbershop to Chicken Night

Never been all that easy to get Black doctoral students through English departments. They know it and I know it. Research not needed to verify. I imagine that’s why my office remained a hub of activity for about fifteen years. It became known as the Barbershop. I’m not going to use the cliché safe space because feelings could get hurt up in the shop. And we definitely were not always on task. But the collective commitment was to keep it poppin, that is, generate projects we hoped would make a meaningful difference in the world of English studies and perhaps beyond. It was very time-intensive on my part, but that is what mentorship looked like to me---orchestrating the inchoate into full-blown dissertations and getting students ready for job-market conversations. We accomplished all of that best in groups, culturally inclusive groups eventually. Sometimes we were a dozen strong.  


I’m not sure when we added Chicken Night. One of the local restaurants featured all-the-fried-chicken-you-can-eat on Mondays. Now, before you go rushing for another cliché, I’ll inform you that none of us did crazy damage down there. We usually didn’t eat more than the normal portion. We also changed venues and meeting nights, but wherever and whenever we landed and whatever the menu, we mostly still called it Chicken Night. At any rate, that was the crew. Composition/Rhetoric. Seminars/Symposia. Barbershop/Chicken Night. Proposals/Completion. Professor/Students. Students/Professor. I had the legendary Sterling Brown in mind, the things I had read about him convening folks on a regular basis for serious discussion mixed with socializing. 

Building Legacy

I suppose all crews think they special. I’ll let history be the judge. I just know that I have taught canonical essays like Corbett’s on the so-called Cornell School of Rhetoric and don’t think BCN gon come up short by comparison when you consider impact on the course of rhetorical studies. Vorris Nunley, Howard Rambsy, Adam Banks, Jay Jordan, Stephen Schneider, Kevin Browne, Ersula Ore, and David Green. Call these charter members with more than a dozen authored and edited titles to their credit. And there are others who were contemporaneous with them as well as others that have followed. If you talkin African American rhetoric, African American literature (an aspect), Caribbean rhetoric, race and technology, HBCU pedagogy, multilingual instruction, or progressive rhetorical education overall, you will be consulting with these scholars to get your own work as tight as it can be. 

Deeper yet, ponder this: “This nation will have to be transformed if true equality and justice are to mean anything for African Americans. In spite of the stubbornness and spitefulness of racial injustice in the United States, I also remain convinced that it is somehow possible to make these dry bones walk again. We know the limits, however, of looking to our legal system, or even the hearts and minds of citizens for that change. The redesign of a nation---especially this nation, in this moment---must begin with its technologies” (Banks). Or “African American rhetoric 2.0 . . . means mix, remix, mixtape. Access and transformation. Healing, celebration, self-examination, and critique. Community. Flow, layering, rupture. Innovation, vision, quality, tradition. Afrodigitized. Word” (Banks).         

Or consider this meditation on the politics of teaching: “This [need for criticism of neoliberalism] is not to imply that literature and composition classrooms should become primarily sociological or ethnographic in orientation; after all, my personal goal in the composition classroom is to develop more effective writers, critical thinkers, critical citizens, more competent users of literacies, and fewer citizen subjects as homo economicus. Instead, it is to suggest that, as the pedagogical terrain expands through the Internet, social networking, and blogging, these sites need to be taken into account as affirming and competing spheres of pedagogy and those pedagogies need to be understood as, not mere techniques or neutral channels for the transmittal of knowledges, but as inherently pedagogical and political” (Nunley).  

Or regarding the programs of the Highlander experiment, “they demonstrate the importance of aligning educational programs with local grievance and collective-action frames in order for those programs to promote social change. Music, drama, journalism, and literacy education should therefore be understood not just as important rhetorical practices in their own right, but also as strategies and resources for organizing social action” (Schneider). 

And to keep sharp our understanding of the overall terrain: “The historically successive nature of lynching belies lofty narratives of racial progress to illustrate how antiblack violence shares a relationship of interiority with the making of the nation and maintenance of its people. Contemporary lynchings illustrate the changing same of antiblack racism in America in ways that render moot such colorblind rhetoric as ‘We are better than this’ and ‘This is not us’” (Ore). 

Props to Everett Hunt and Hoyt Hudson and their contributions to the study of rhetoric back in the day, but wasn’t nobody at Cornell a century ago hitting at this level of social significance. Go ‘head BCN. 

Much love. 


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