Why I Dropped Everything And Started Teaching Kendrick Lamar’s New Album

Brian Mooney

When Kendrick Lamar released his sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly (2015), I was in the middle of teaching a unit on Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). My freshmen students were grappling with some big ideas and some really complex language. Framing the unit as an “Anti-Oppression” study, we took special efforts to define and explore the kinds of institutional and internalized racism that manifest in the lives of Morrison’s African-American characters, particularly the 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove and her mother, Pauline. We posed questions about oppression and the media – and after looking at the Dick & Jane primers that serve as precursors to each chapter, considered the influence of a “master narrative” that always privileges whiteness.

Set in the 1940s, the Breedlove family lives in poverty. Their only escape is the silver screen, a place where they idolize the glamorous stars of the film industry. Given the historical context…

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grateful for everyone who has courageously and consistently given voice to the pain and outrage that i have not lately been able to express. may these words do the same for you:

flashpoint after flashpoint
crises call forth crisis
disrupting 
endless streams
of advertisements and Kardashians
flaming revelations
illume
clandestine pathology:
racism the ligaments
of these United States –
America,
is this what your Dream looks like?
hubris so brittle
self-awareness
chokes:
no contest.
patriotic delusions
of ethical authority
in obscene exaltation
of transient hegemony
that’s the Dream:
comfort enough to ignore injustice.
safety enough to be complacent.
security enough to be complicit.
privilege enough to forget:
as blood poured
over
and over
and over
goblets greedily drained
starts to taste like wine.

i carried a mattress around campus for 12 hours on wednesday. here’s what happened:

Have you heard about Emma Selkowicz? She’s a student at Columbia University in New York. She was raped. And even after bringing her rape to the attention of campus authorities, it was and remains unaddressed. She still sees her rapist around campus and in her classes. For about a month now, she has been carrying her mattress around as a symbolic representation of the burden she is carrying in protest of the school’s failure to take her and others’ claims of sexual violence seriously. Today is a national day of solidarity and support across university campuses both for her and for other survivors of sexual violence.

10:14am i’ve now said this twice: to people in this discussion section curious about the sheet-covered lump i’m sitting on.

one person has helped me thus far – Danielle: who walked with me the last arduous uphill block, where she left me with a hug.

several people walked past me without stopping with so much as a backwards glance. i wonder what’s going through their heads. are they in a hurry? would they react differently if it was a box? perhaps a bed seems too private and intimate an object to lay your hands on without knowing a person. Danielle asked before she touched it, popping her head around the sagging corner of my mattress, “do you want some help?

i would love some.

but perhaps that’s because this is a representation of someone else’s burden and not my own.

11:18am my TA holds the door open for me. “thank you for carrying our burden for us.”

11:45am have people been helping you carry it?

i’ve had one person help me so far.

she blows her lips out, scattering her bangs upward, “good luck” she says, and as she disappears into the library, “for us all.

12:35pm that’s so cute!

a petite woman with strikingly dark eyebrows

have you heard of Emma Selkowicz? …

really honor what you’re doing. i’m really invested in women’s empowerment and this really speaks to me.

12:40pm “can i take a picture of you? i’m in performance studies. i have a professor who’s writing about this and civil disruption…

silence reigns in the cool shade cast by the stoic facade of the ancient library. the sky is an empty blue.

12:52pm awareness is the first step to actually getting change, so… yeah. thanks.

awareness of what?

whose awareness?

1:06pm a man stares at the sign i’ve written in fluorescent green: ASK ME WHY I HAVE A MATTRESS

he breaks into a small smile

hello.

“hello.” he walks.

2:11pm 15 minute conversation with two fellows who stop individually to talk: about rape and rape culture.

one sits beside me at my invitation. he asks what i think about relying upon the preponderance of evidence in court rather than “beyond reasonable doubt”.

the way he frames the question compels me to begin with a clarification: i don’t speak for all women, nor can i represent anyone’s views but my own.

that’s true. good point.”

i don’t have a clear-cut answer as to which should be legally institutionalized, because both can be problematic. but we would do well to shift away from the latter towards taking more seriously claims of sexual violence.

he then asks whether i think defense attorneys should be permitted to mention the survivor’s dress or level of intoxication as a way of implicitly or explicitly discrediting her (or his) claims of sexual violence.

i think they should say it. say it by all means. “her skirt was too short.” “she had gotten herself drunk.” “he was flirting earlier.” <they had it coming.> say it. put it before everyone in the courtroom and let them stare their own assumptions in the face. these statements reflect and thereby reveal a pervasive cultural tendency to blame survivors for the acts of violence committed against them. instead of trying to bury these vicious assumptions, everyone – but prosecutors in particular – should be educated and prepared to address and dismantle them.

2:43pm UCPD

just shook my hand.

take care.”

as you know, i said, sexual violence is a very serious problem on this campus as well.

“oh, not just on college campuses, but everywhere. no, we don’t tolerate that here. nope. if someone comes to us… it’s full service. we will investigate that.

“that’s good to hear.”

4:19pm a man with a gap in his smile

“i want to be a prosecutor (and if they make me a supreme court justice – don’t say i didn’t tell you) i wanna prosecute people who abuse women. domestic abuse, and sexual… and i’m gonna be really tough.” a strong black line appears between his upper front teeth.

“that’s what we need,” i say.

is it?

4:55pm a mother and a towheaded princess in stripy tights

look, her sign says ‘ask me why i have a mattress’” mama says, looking down at her chubby little hand. “why do you have a mattress?

well… (the girl can’t be much older than two.) …i’m carrying it in support of a Columbia student…

i know“, she says

they walk on.

thanks for asking.

thanks for doing that!”

some folks sitting nearby say, “that one’s locked. you have to use the other door.”

and mama, having opened the door that so many people have walked around me to circumvent, says “you just have to pull it hard enough. she knows.” she and her daughter walk in, hand in hand.

the folks sitting on the wall try it themselves.

that’s crazy,” they say.

4:59pm “uh, i really wanna ask… i do.”

stoppppp”, her friend says.

they continue walking down the stairs.

5:34pm red hair and an olive shirt

that’s awesome. that’s so great. thank you. i mean, i don’t know if that’s the right thing to say…

i know, it’s awkward… it’s easier when people don’t know what it’s for and i just explain haha

we start talking

she wants to know how it’s been going, if people have been helping

a few. there was Danielle. several friends in my last lecture helped me move it to the steps where we’re now talking.

there’s an interesting parallel, perhaps, between the way people perceive the mattress and the experiences with sexual violence that it symbolizes. who knows how many of those who walked past me all day empathized with my struggle, but didn’t know how to help without encroaching upon a very intimate, personal space.

maybe if it was a box…

i worry about initiatives that seek to “raise awareness”. i worry that they allay prematurely the individual frustrations that drive them without truly improving anything besides participants’ sense of self-satisfaction. but if not the awareness of campus or state powers, i hope that the sight of me lugging a mattress around inspired self-reflection and sparked conversation around the topic of sexual violence. because rape and sexual violence are rooted in a culture that engenders embarrassment, shame, and internal conflict in survivors and thus smothers their trauma and silences their struggles, an essential step towards the elimination of sexual violence is the confrontation and eradication of pernicious discourses that attach masculinity to sexual domination; that denigrate sexual experiences to “dirty” acts; that place blame for sexual violence on survivors. this mattress is a claim upon the rights of Emma and every other survivor to seek institutional justice against the perpetration of sexual violence. it is a physical manifestation not only of the weight and pain that must daily be carried by survivors, but also of a refusal to remain silent in the face of shame, blame, and institutional failure to stand alongside them and defend their human dignity. this mattress is a symbol of their courage, and of their right to freedom from abuse.

that’s awesome.”

“good luck.

and still i walk

what’s the difference between ravens and blackbirds? the afternoon sun gleams off plump backs. along the lush-carpeted banks of the gully, they peck at delicate sprigs of grass scattered with nameless white flowers, one, two, three… there are six. a doubly bad omen, glistening black and blue in the last rays of watery light.

but there, a seventh: observing from its broken concrete perch the minutiae that absorbs its counterparts, a laugh curled hard and shiny in its clenched beak.

i walk. hands bloodied by fervently applied paint, a battered cardboard sign stained with crimson fingerprints and matte black gashes: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. i walk. warm sunlight filters through lazy leaves and drooping boughs. my hands are red. the ravens nibble at sylvan ambrosia. i walk. the air is sweet and empty. between my limp fingers dangle loosely the words: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE.

beneath the paint my skin is dry and orange, pink and green. i was writing on the poured cement: NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. the sun of late morning streaming strong across my narrow shoulders.

“sir,” a man approaches me. “excuse me, sir.”

i stand. “ma’am,” i correct, and his mustache repeats, “ma’am.”

he aims a leathery finger at the ground. “did you draw that?”

it’s the outline of a body. a colorless body, with skin and soul the shade of concrete. only a faint pink shadow marks its final resting place.

i shake my head.

he doesn’t listen.

black furrows burn between his eyebrows: they aren’t gonna like that. i have to clean all this off the ground. the words are okay. fine. but the police aren’t going to like that outline of a body. they’re not gonna like that. i have to take it all off the ground later. you be careful. you watch what you’re writing.

“yes sir.”

i think i’m being ironic.

he vanishes, and i tear the knees of my jeans and the tips of my fingers on the pebbled cement scratching orange and green and pink deep into the rocky contours of memory. engraving the shadow into the cement that last cradled its beloved shell.

NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. stand your ground for Michael Brown.

we march. the sun is hot and people don’t even stop to stare. a hundred unblinking eyes on all sides, standing proxy for their voiceless bearers, blinking faster than i can see, uploading all of our rage and grief into the clouds.

hey hey, ho ho – police brutality has got to go.

we march. my sticky fingers grasp at the edges of JUSTICE and PEACE. i yell until my voice is a squeaky shriek floating above sweaty heads drenched in sunshine and ardor.

indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail. the whole damn system is guilty as hell.

the pavement rises resolute to recognize the rhythm of our soles. we march between trees standing tall.

on the margins, they watch. some give us a thumbs up or add their voices to the chorus. but mostly they sit where they are: on the curb, on overturned crates, on benches and fire hydrants. quiet. unperturbed. i’m usually the one ignoring the calls for spare change. today they have little change of their own to spare. NO JUSTICE NO PEACE.

i walk by them everyday. the sun rippling overhead. the same pavement that absorbs my furor will not return it to them as warmth tonight.

police brutality – NO MORE. mass incarceration – NO MORE. torture in the prisons – NO MORE.

NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. but it’s not about them today.

we march. i walk. my hands are red.

Black lives matter – BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Latinx lives matter – LATINX LIVES MATTER.

ALL LIVES MATTER – 

all lives matter.

sun in a jar

I don’t see women as human.
And I didn’t realize it until recently.

I myself identify as a cisgender woman, and my whole life I’ve been walking around in a world half full half empty.

I was sitting in class the other day, and we were talking about William Cronon and the wheat trade in 19th century Chicago. Someone said the words, “commodification is a process of abstraction”. And boom. It hit me like 3.5 billion bricks.

Women have been commodified. It’s apparent everywhere. We’re compared to fruit: to luscious apples and phallic bananas and sumptuous pears. The word “attractive” is used as a compliment. And I can’t look at the person before I’ve looked at the woman: up and down.

By “abstraction” I mean turning a whole, unique, fundamentally incomparable entity into a series of units and measures that can be compared and traded, bought and sold. Hot. Cute. Smart. Curvy. Long legs. Funny. Sexy. Creative. Kind. Descriptors have become containers for everything I am and am not allowed to be. My value as a human being is strained first through how I measure up as a woman.

Up. Up to what?

Other women? Sometimes. But what those other women represent is a set of ideals. And those ideals, those measurements, those reductions standardize half the human race to a list of adjectives that can be charted and graphed and comparatively analyzed so that the word “attractive” carries meaning not just for your face or your laugh or the curve of your smile but for your value as a woman and your right to human being.

“It’s not that I don’t like girls, I just have more guy friends for some reason.”

I’ll tell you the reason, pre-Wednesday Kristian:

It’s because you don’t know how to treat women.

You were, I’m sorry to inform you, born into a patriarchal society in which women are cast as redundant objects of attraction more or less worthy based on systems of norms that can’t even contain all of any one person.

You are jealous and competitive and less of everything you can be because you compare yourself to other women with the limited language, within the finite terms of patriarchy. You’re trying to bind up something infinite in a feeble string of illustrative words. You’re trying to capture the sun in a jar. And you yourself have occupied that jar your entire life, floating out of reach of the rim because it’s only ever been half full.

Here’s an article by Cynthia Kane to start you climbing: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/12/seeing-other-women-as-allies/?utm_content=buffer2d09c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

BMI

I’ve always had a below average BMI. I weighed 60 pounds in 7th grade, and people frequently asked my mother if she fed me. She did. Within Korean culture, food is one of the primary expressions of love, respect, and a shared heritage told in whispers of fragrant steam. My grandmother, whose deepest wish as a child growing up in war-torn Korea was to have a full dozen eggs to eat, is our common oracle. She never measures anything, but weaves our family’s history into savory folds of buchinge and lovingly stirs with wrinkled hands her own story into bowls of spicy yukejang bigger than I can ever finish: soup red like blood that has trickled from her veins into mine and carries with it memories transplanted across an ocean of waves and war. It’s unthinkable to refuse a second bowl. More than anything, food shared by my family is a means of communication: of bitterness, of sweetness, of pain, of the past, and of love.

Cooking for myself, mostly pasta with canned sauce and bruised apples by the pound, food loses the richness of heritage and takes on a mantle of deep purple privilege. I don this robe every time I step into a grocery store: a refrigerated microcosm of capitalism at it’s finest. Exploitation on sale this week for $0.99/lb.! The veins of delicate baby spinach leaves, organic rainbow chard, and tender red leaf lettuce pulse with imported sunlight and the distilled stories of other people’s grandmothers, mothers, fathers, brothers, children, friends. Tradition and tribulation smothered in a sea of Hunt’s tomato, drowning in salted boiling water, crying over the edge of a black, black pot. Food is oppression and privilege, foreign and mine: their hurt, my health. I eat spaghetti topped with flash-frozen dreams cooked into the sauce.

Don’t (Tell Him Not to) Cry

When he breaks a favorite toy

Or falls and scrapes his knee,

The day he finally kicks a goal –

But for the other team.

That child, that boy, that someday man

Is hearing this from your command:

Don’t care: neither you nor I

Don’t cry, you hurt myour pride

And you will never be a man

Until those tears have dried.

“Don’t cry, grow up.”

Big tears, young eyes –

You lecture, curse, and shout.

– And just as he grows into them,

You tell him to grow out.

“Don’t cry”

You’ve told him all his life,

And “be a better man than me”

The first a roar that swallows what becomes a hollow plea:

One that drowns in unshed tears

That stored to form a sea.