To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the eighth annual Decatur Book Festival will highlight authors who write about race, politics and racial identity in America.
Harvard University law professor Randall Kennedy, a leading expert on affirmative action and other legal issues involving racial discrimination, and University of Georgia professor Bettina Love, who focuses on hip-hop pedagogy in grade-school classrooms, exemplify the diverse perspectives to be offered.
Kennedy, the author of For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools. His family moved to Washington, D.C., when he was a child to escape racial discrimination. Although he also experienced racism in Washington, Kennedy said in a telephone interview, it “paled in comparison” to what his extended family faced in South Carolina.
Those experiences, he said, along with his parents’ educating him about such figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer, helped him understand the importance of affirmative action. Kennedy attributes his prestigious academic journey — from the private St. Albans School in Washington to Princeton University to Yale Law School and the professorship at Harvard — to affirmative action.
“Different sectors of the population need help at different times,” he said. “If there’s a flood, the government reaches into their pocket to help. [You] have to pay even though [you] didn’t cause the flood.” For the past few hundred years, he maintains, African-Americans have suffered far more than a natural disaster.
Kennedy believes that affirmative action brings greater understanding between races. For example, if two college roommates, one black and one suburban white, hear the news about the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, “they start talking, they learn. The shared experience takes on a very different weight. It’s not abstract any more.”
Kennedy, who was a law clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, said he’s been closely watching the justices’ treatment of affirmative action in university admissions. Earlier this year, Kennedy expected the high court to reverse Fisher v. University of Texas, thus nullifying the college’s use of race in its admissions decisions. It would have been a significant setback for affirmative action.
Though Kennedy is pleased that the court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals for further review, he’s concerned about the justices’ shifting views on race. “Clearly, Chief Justice [John] Roberts [in the recent Voting Rights Act decision] believes we’ve overcome racism … that racism is on the margins of American life. Unfortunately, I think he’s wrong.”
Love, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at UGA, grew up listening to hip-hop in Rochester, New York. After her brother, 14 years her senior, introduced her to hip-hop at a very young age, she said, she began swiping tapes of his rap music. “The music was, and still is, the soundtrack to understanding my community, and inspired me, in the words of Outkast, to ‘git up, git out and git somethin.’ ”
Love teaches an elementary school course, called “Real Talk: Hip-Hop Education for Social Justice,” at Kindezi, an Atlanta public charter school. She said the course aims to promote social justice, community-building and critical thinking though the “five pillars of hip-hop”: rap, DJ, graffiti, break dancing and knowledge of self and community. It’s the last element, knowledge of self and community, on which she focuses her research and teaching, exploring how urban youth negotiate hip-hop music and culture to form social, cultural and political identities.
Love is not naïve about the public’s negative perception of hip-hop culture. She believes people blame it for violence because the media focus on negative hip-hop music and give little airplay to the hip-hop music that offers positive, more complex messages.
Love believes that one cannot fairly criticize hip-hop without deconstructing the socioeconomic and political forces of its foundation. Though celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Jesse Jackson denounce it for its effects on black youth, Love says that one shouldn’t blame a teenager’s taste in music.
Because hip-hop “is prominent and in your face, people start to believe that hip-hop is the problem,” Love said in a telephone interview. “If we’re not going to talk about poverty, jobs, the economy, schooling, corporate America and so on in conjunction with talking about hip-hop, then we’re not talking about the full experience of children. … Anthony Weiner runs for mayor, but a boy with pants sagging is made a scapegoat.”
She said that thug stereotypes persist and plague hip-hop culture. “Trayvon Martin was walking with swag,” Love said. “He was proud of who he was, walking in that neighborhood, with his hoodie on … with confidence.” But the public perceived that confidence and pride, she said, as thug behavior rooted in violence.
Love’s “Real Talk” class, she said, allows her to teach her elementary-age students about a whole other world beyond hip-hop, one with positive language about love, acceptance and generosity. Her pupils use hip-hop as a vehicle to express their complex emotions and understand their identity. She has also brought break dancers into her classroom to demonstrate the scientific principles of force, momentum and velocity behind their movements.
Deeply saddened by Martin’s death, Love’s students used hip-hop to work through their anger, frustration and grief. They made a video, painted a mural and composed a rap to express their feelings:
I try to run
But I see him pull out his gun
then I hear bang bang
my life is done
Then I turn into ashes, son
We Got To Stop
Segregation, Discrimination in my nation
We have no more patience.
No more waiten
We need inspiration.
Love said that hip-hop pedagogy is finally beginning to get the attention from educators that it deserves. “Teachers are understanding that culture is important and that kids need to see images of themselves in the schools so they can understand their own culture.… Hip-hop culture gives kids the opportunity to show their genius.”
Though she would agree with Kennedy’s assessment that “racial discrimination is very much alive and well and shows up in every station,” Love hopes that teaching African-American children about hip-hop will provide them with the tools to understand their culture and cope with such prejudice.
“We have so much work to do,” she said, “not just to change the laws, but the hearts of individuals.”
Randall Kennedy will appear at the First Baptist Church Sanctuary stage at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, August 31. Bettina Love will appear at 1:45 p.m. the same day at the Marriott Conference Center Auditorium.