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The Power of the Black Experience in the Classroom - Keith Mayes - TEDxMinneapolis

Previous Figure Next Figure. Email or Customer ID. Forgot password? This particular question did not seem to be paying attention to these ground rules of classroom communication. I was taken aback by the question and the way in which it was asked: frank, bold, and with no warning or acknowledgment that a "curse word" was about to be uttered, thus taking the talk of the classroom outside of its usual context.

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The student had interrupted the lecture to ask the question. In posing it, he situated his curiosity about the term with his love of hip-hop culture and rap music in particular, noting that he had always wondered about the meaning of this particular term that proliferated in the recordings of rap artists whom he admired. In his iteration of the question, he used the word motherfucker several times, seeming to relish, from my standpoint as listener, the actual enunciation of the word, out in the open, out loud and in the classroom.

The word seemed to hang in the air, defiantly proclaiming its arrival in the conversation of the class. With its utterance, the classroom dynamic suddenly shifted and changed as the other students watched and waited to see how I would respond.


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Ignoring the question and carrying on as if it had not entered the room was not an option. In the room of nearly fifty students, the majority of whom were white, I felt as if I was suddenly positioned, by this question, as an expert on all things Black, an experience that I had encountered before as a student beginning high school. I anticipated from personal experience and anecdotal conversations with other persons of African descent that being asked to take on the role of the Black expert could mean being asked to expound on any number of topics from various African and African Diasporan cultural traditions and historical epochs.

Being Black, Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies

This occurs because the positioning as expert in this context presumes a sameness of Blackness and Black experience that is shared across linguistic, geographical, cultural, religious, and even temporal locations. The assumed expertise is not based on scholarly study or training but on life experience.

Encountering it in the classroom, therefore, brings my location as a scholar, teacher, and expert by virtue of academic training and research into an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the underlying stereotypical assumption of Black expert knowledge based on a presumed shared cultural Blackness. My own experience in being positioned in this role, for example, had run the gamut from assumed expertise on playing basketball to southern African American cuisine, even though I, myself, am from a Caribbean background and have never played basketball or cooked southern African American foods.

Black expertise, at that moment, did not involve the basketball court or the kitchen, however, but invoked another arena of Blackness: the mythical streets of urban America as the locale of hip-hop and rap cultures. I decided that I would answer the question within the scholarly framework of the course by locating the term within the perfor-mative tradition of some genres of rap music, which used swearing and profanity for emphasis.

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I also noted that while the term could be used pejoratively, it could also be used affirmatively, depending on the context and the speaker and qualifying adjectives such as "bad" with an inverse meaning of "good" or "excellent. And yet, I could not help wondering at the end of the class, as I have on other occasions when positioned as "Black expert," what was it about the course content, the classroom space, and, specifically, myself as a teacher, that occasioned the opening of the space to profane language, or imagery, in a way that clearly, in my mind, went against the grain of the established relations of communication within the classroom?

Was the asking of the question rude and indirectly aimed at me? Was he calling me a motherfucker by asking the question, in public, in front of the rest of the class? In asking the question, was he assuming scholarly expertise or knowledge from a presumed experientially based, stereotypical, urban Black life represented through the lens of popular cultural images in film, music video, and television of U.

These questions, admittedly, are my own and reveal my anxieties and concerns about race, gender, and class relations in the classroom.

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In teaching popular culture, including music, film, and fashion that emerge from Black cultural contexts, in religious studies courses in the Canadian and American academy, I have experienced interactions, such as the one described above, in which popular cultural texts, and expressions associated with them, their producers and consumers, and the very sociocultural and historical contexts in which they have emerged, are considered salacious and rude—in a word, vulgar. Their vulgarity, however, renders them both titillating and potential sites of sustained critical attention in the religious studies classroom.

Similarly, my own embodiment and identity as a Black woman is implicated in the dynamic of teaching such material in classroom and larger university and community contexts that are predominantly "white. Addressing these issues of identity and social relations in the classroom is undoubtedly messy but also promises to open a space for discussion and learning that can be transformative for teachers and students.

This chapter will discuss the "the vulgar body" in the teaching of Black religious studies through examining its significance in both popular cultural texts in the classroom and the relationship of these texts to my own embodiment and identity as a Black woman teacher in the classroom. With reference to specific examples drawn from my teaching experiences, the essay problematizes the intersection of the vulgar body, in particular the vulgar body as Black and female, in the teaching of popular cultural texts suggesting that exploration of the tension between loving and desire for the vulgar Black body is a necessary part of critical pedagogy for teaching Black popular culture in a religious studies context.

It is not without trepidation that I share these stories for they are not heroic teaching stories.


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Copy link to selected items. Clear selected items. Select an item by clicking its checkbox. Additional Info: A group of eminent African American scholars of religoius and theological studies examines the problems and prospects of Black scholarhip in the theological academy.

They assess the role that prominent African American scholars have played in transforming the study and teaching of religion and theology, the need for a more thorough-going incorporation of the fruits of black scholarship into the mainstream of the academic study of religion, and the challenges and opportunities of bringing black art, black intellectual thought, and black culture into predominantly white classrooms and institutions.

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