Friday, January 25, 2013

Words of Wisdom from Cornel West in "Hope on a Tightrope"

Cornel West was one of my go-to theorists, back in university when I was writing cultural studies essays on race, communications, or sociology, and needed some good solid quotations. Along with Stuart Hall and bell hooks, Cornel West was someone who articulated exactly what I needed to help me figure out my own college-aged thoughts on black history and social progress. He was--and still is--that dude.

I was pleased to recently find a publication of his that I hadn't yet encountered. Written in 2008, "Hope on a Tightrope" is a 237-page book featuring "Words and Wisdom" broken down into short paragraphs, single quotations, and themes like "Philosophy," "Leadership," and "Freedom."

The first few pages gave me goosebumps, partially because I instantly remembered how much he would enlighten me back in the day. Books like 1994's "Race Matters" helped me uncover new understanding and theories on culture. So I was not surprised that on one of the first pages, his thought: "It takes courage to interrogate yourself." made me stop reading for the rest of the evening, as I thought about that quote alone, and what it meant.

That one initial quote made me remember that my mind is something that I need to regularly exercise, and be aware of the content that I allow in, and the superficial information that I easily waste time on. Cornel West reminded me that creating a "structure of meaning" in my life would involve the constant reception of information. Of wisdom.

The book was published in 2008, when Barack Obama was still a senator, and America was overflowing with rhetoric of hope and change, and new beginnings, and future aspirations. And while West shares these sentiments and his support of the ideologies, he also strongly reminds his readers that it takes more than simple hope or the acceptance of social scripts and routines. He reminds readers that they must train themselves in critical thinking, and avoid complacency.

I learned a new word that easily summarized West's message in "Hope on a Tightrope," and that word is PAIDEA. It means to have a deep education: "cultivating yourself and maturing your soul... realizing the difference between superficial and substantial."

His message is clearly supported throughout the book, and his wish is that individuals learn to think for themselves, learn to respect the traditions and struggles of their ancestors, and have the bravery and strength to make changes and make a difference through knowledge and its application. And at the root of it is education, seeking information, and seeking to understand that information.

"Hope is no guarantee," said West. It takes more than just wishing and praying for things to happen...it takes an awareness and what he calls the "deep education of the soul."

Looking at the current state of black youth, and the influences of this generation, West notes that the young seem to be disconnected from their rich history of sacrifice and commitment. He takes personal responsibility in helping to keep the legacy of our ancestors alive, for the younger generation, and also holds the current role models accountable for their actions.

In recounting a conversation with hip hop mogul Jay-Z, West stated: "You are successful now...but are you great?" He feels that courage and  power should be demonstrated, and not obtained too easily. Again, themes of accountability, and creating and maintaining a strong cultural legacy are key.

He called hip hop the "most powerful cultural force" and believes that the youth need a cultural renaissance of self-respect, and cultivation of activists at a national level in order to re-build the moral fabric and reconcile the "fundamental tension between a commitment to truth, and a quest for power."

Born in the early 50s, West is of a generation that was built on struggle, unification, and earning respect every step of the way. He's a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. from Princeton, who currently teaches at Princeton as well as religious studies at a Seminary college in New York. As I quickly learned in my own studies, Cornel West is an expert in race, class, and gender: a respected philospher, academic, and writer.

I think I understand the passion of West (even when I don't agree with his actions, such as his recent criticism of President Obama's use of Martin Luther King Jr's bible for his Inauguration oath) because it is so deeply rooted in well wishes for his people, a first-hand understanding of the past, and a sincere hope for the future.

His unique position as an observer of the passing of generations,has given him the authority to recommend that the community should shift from a "bling bling" mentality to a "quest for wisdom." It's a sentiment that many of us share and a logic that is easily understood, but as he mentioned....the lack of activists at a national level is limited.

So while he believes in hope, and believes that enlightenment is possible, he also believes that "hope is linked to combative spirituality"...it takes more than just wishing, it will involve dedicated actions, backed by sound intelligence.

I feel that Mr. West is so full of knowledge, opinion, academic intelligence, and historical understanding, that even the pages of this book couldn't contain his passion. But I GOT IT. I got the frustration, I got the praise, I got the message loud and clear. Each thought was emphasized through the chapters, and yet they all tied into the overall theme: progress.

Thinking back to my school essays and my intial impression of Cornel West...not much has changed. His words still have the power to move me, and still make me think and "interrogate" myself about what I am doing in my own life, who my actions will affect, what impact it will have on my culture, and to what extent.

It's easy to push social responsibility into someone else's hands. It's easy to look at Mr. West, Mr. Obama, or even Mr. Jay-Z as those in power, those with success, and those with the means to make change...and expect them to make it.

But just as President Obama can't change the collective mentality of Americans and their actions on his own...we all have a personal responsibility to make improvements to our surroundings, to educate ourselves, and to apply that knowledge appropriately.

West mentioned that there is a false notion that the [black] community must be homogenous to be strong, and to be unified. He said that progress for any group can not be made without the assistance and understanding of other cultural groups as well. Again, it comes back to the renaissance of self-respect. The renaissance of self-understanding. Education. Sharing that knowledge, and strengthening the moral fabric. Understanding others. Understanding the inter-connectivity, despite differences.

"Hope on a Tightrope" is truly a motivating collection of thoughts and spiritual recommendations. West didn't need to provide strict guidelines on how or why, but instead leaves it up to the individual reader to assess their contribution to society, and to understand the [North] American culture and what kind of collective conciousness it would take to strengthen it.

Hope is not a guarantee...but it is a pre-requisite, I believe. As West said, we must find sources of vision and hope...and through this inspiration, create and build upon our own structures of meaning.

As much as I admired these great thinkers over the years, and admire the Obamas, and the artists, and those in positions of power...I am also continuously being reminded that a great deal of power also lies in my own actions, and personal dedication to "PAIDEIA"...if we all make a pledge of higher learning and critical thinking to ourselves, change and progress will be inevitable.

The hope will be less abstract. The tightrope will become broader. West has reminded me that this is all possible...starting with self.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Defining Canadian Urban Fiction" ~ Part Two

We watch and honour the U.S. President Barack Obama as if he were our own national leader. I'm sure many of us are celebrating Martin Luther King Day in our hearts today, although it is not a recognized holiday in Canada. We know American history and culture inside out, we understand it, and we embrace it, sometimes at the expense of our own stories and unfortunately, sometimes the icons of our own culture are often overshadowed.

We accept and understand the American culture and documentation because it is widely communicated, defined, and accepted, and is often more accessible than our own. This is a common characteristic with urban culture in Canada, I believe. Although we have talented and passionate individuals right here at home...we are often under-exposed.

The February 2nd event "Defining Canadian Urban Fiction," taking place at the Malvern Branch of the Toronto Public Library (from 2:00pm - 4:00pm) is a forum for Canadian readers, writers, educators, and cultural advocates to discuss this age-old rhetoric of Canada vs. the U.S., in a literary context.

This is not to say we don't enjoy the urban American culture, or that we don't celebrate the American icons and historical events, but it is to say that we're taking a moment to step back from the wider genre of "urban fiction" and decide where our rendition of this type of genre stands. We are going to discuss what we think "urban fiction" is and what type of message we think should be communicated to readers.

The panelists of our upcoming event are all writers, with a common appreciation and understanding of urban culture. In Part One of this blog series, I asked panelist Camille Ramnath and moderator Angela Walcott to share their views on the subject. In Part Two I asked the remaining five panelists: "Why is it important for you, as a writer, to participate in this event?" Here are their responses:

Tanika Chambers ~ "As a Christian, Canadian writer it is extremely important that I participate in an event like this to share my insight on the subject of "Defining Urban Canadian Fiction." Writing is a powerful medium that conveys messages and the world in which we live can affect the way we interpret life. Canada is known as the "salad bowl"; we know how to celebrate our unique difference and cultures and then come together when we need to. This event will be another way that we can celebrate our uniqueness and define what I know is there; an urban Canadian fiction identity."

D.A. Bourne ~ "It is important as a writer to participate in this event because Canadians and readers need to know what makes urban fiction in Canada "unique" and do we really stand out compared to American urban fiction. We are still known as America's little brother and many will debate and say that we aren't much different than our neighbours. If we are indeed different, what are we as Canadian writers doing to highlight our uniqueness?"

Telisha Ng ~ "My purpose in life is to help others cultivate healthy relationships with themselves and with others. One of the ways I’ve been able to do this is by connecting with others through sharing my life experiences on a blog. Canadian Urban fiction is a genre that is quickly growing and transitioning; there is an abundance of talent from coast to coast with very little buzz being created. It’s important as a writer that I advocate for community support of the creative intellectual property of myself and other emerging writers. I participate in this discussion to help sustain creative expression and abundance in my community today and for years to come."

General ~ "It is important to be involved with this event because only we can tell our own story.  It's through forums like this that facilitate the discussion of our identity and allow us to share that definition with others inside or outside the community."

Angelot Ndongmo ~ "I feel it's an amazing opportunity to be a part of this panel and take part in this discussion because it's an important step towards finding our own expressive voices as African-Canadian writers. It is imperative that we share our own unique experiences and stories inspired by our lives here in Canada in order to preserve African-Canadian literature for generations to come!"

On days like today, witnessing the second Inauguration of President Barack Obama, celebrating the birthday Martin Luther King, and even just hearing the stories surrounding this historic week, listening to the musicians, and feeling the strong sense of American pride, that naturally make me think of my own culture, and how proud I am to be a black Canadian of Jamaican descent.

Yes, we all share the same universal appreciation for world leaders and visionaries, but we also need to do our part to make sure that our voices are being represented, and our own stories are being told. Urban fiction is just one genre of literature that is documenting the Canadian experience...I take this particular genre personally because I believe there is a generational voice and cultural uniqueness that specifically speaks to the generation of Canadians of which I am a part, and the culture in which I was raised [in Toronto].

I look forward to hearing these panelists expand on their thoughts, as mentioned above, and also look forward to sharing this discussion with the greater community who also play a role in how culture is documented, and to what extent our history will be recognized, and remembered.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"Defining Canadian Urban Fiction" ~ Part One

How do you define Canadian Urban Fiction?

It's a question I've been asking myself lately, as a fan of urban fiction authors like Sister Souljah, Terry McMillan, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, and the countless other African-American authors who have successfully carved a new niche of literature over the past two decades.

"Urban Fiction"--whether everyone agrees with the perception of the genre, the use of the word urban itself, or the other connotations and controversies that the terminology may bring--exists, it's booming, and it's dominated by American voices.

On Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Toronto Public Library (Malvern Branch), I've gathered a group of Toronto writers and urban cultural advocates to help define what we believe "Canadian Urban Fiction" to be. The panelists of writers includes: relationship blogger Telisha Ng, Christian non-fiction author Tanika Chambers, urban /scholar educator Camille Ramnath, hip hop artist General, children's author Angelot Ndongmo, and Life Fiction author D.A. Bourne.

Co-sponsored by the Toronto Public Library, this group will join Kya Publishing (my urban fiction publishing company, the first of it's kind in Canada) to define the type of writing we should be producting, and our intentions as writers.

Journalist Angela Walcott--who will be moderating the discussion with me--believes that "the Urban Canadian voice is an important one in this genre of literature because it reflects a relevant element of society that needs to be heard."
 
"As it is, Urban culture in Canada would benefit from more documentation because cultural significance of place is key to understanding the complexities that exist within this demographic. While hip-hop has maintained its stronghold in urban stories for decades through music, we are witnessing a renaissance of these complex stories presented via literature," Angela said.

"Today, the market for novels that are real and explore the urban experience honestly and authentically is growing. The subtext of the Urban Canadian culture, as an emerging voice, has had great impact on the way that we perceive the Black Canadian experience. It is the new voice--the voice of now, that isn't going anywhere because there is something very significant."

Panelist Camille Ramnath commented on the field of urban studies in general, and what it means in a Canadian context. As a graduate of the University of Toronto's Urban Education Master's program, and a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, Camille has taught elementary school students in an urban context for over ten years, and believes that literature plays a huge role in their development as individuals, as well as their identity as Canadians.

"The word 'urban' in education is something I am still working out," said Camille. "There is indeed a need to call it something, however, I struggle with 'urban' at times because I feel the term has had some negative connotations in education, which has perpetuated a deficit, limited, or misunderstood perception of what it is to live and work in these settings. Underserviced, rich, poor, perilous, vibrant, creative are all terms that could describe an urban school community."

"In education, we try to look at these characteristics and begin from a strength-based perspective. We try to learn from the resilience and bravery that people exhibit for example, as they make their way in a new place with a new language. We look to them to inform us as to where education needs to go so that it can be relevant and supportive of their human rights and freedoms. We do this through the use of inclusive materials such as historical fiction, and non-fiction texts recounted in many voices, across all disciplines."

"We seek across the curriculum to insert and validate the voices, concerns, and experiences of the different groups of people we often have co-existing within a community. Stories are a way of engaging people's hearts, allowing them to consider, even if for a moment, the reality of someone very different from themselves. This is so significant because it means new possibilities for peace, for solidarity, and for action," Camille said.

Camille and Angela are only two of the voices who will be approaching this subject on February 2nd. The Canadian publishing landscape is already rich with history, and full of talented authors from various regions of this country, and from international locations who have called Canada their home for years...so we will strive to see what the role of urban fiction is in today's landscape.

There are already many legends of Black Canadian literature like Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke, Althea Prince and George Elliott Clarke, and contemporary writers like Sophia Shaw, Kayla Perrin, and Dalton Higgins. But the Urban Fiction authors are few and far between...possibly because the genre that would contain them has not yet been classified. They exist in limbo because there's no infrastructure for this specific genre of writing where ethnicity or skin colour alone can not describe the content of what they are trying to communicate.

Every February as Black History Month approaches, intellects publically engage in conversation to advance perceptions, increase knowledge, and bring awareness to subjects and concerns that may otherwise get lost in every day discourse year-round. It is my hopes that minds like Angela and Camille will help to make the definition of "Canadian Urban Fiction" a little bit clearer, as a result of this discussion.