history · stereotypes

reflecting on a final exam question

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, the controversial actor known as Stepin Fetchit, brought racial stereotypes into view in the 1930s. He is a native of Key West, Florida.


Happy Dance. Grades have been submitted for my “Bebop to Hip Hop: Music and Young America” class.

I was struck by the question that most students decided to answer for the essay portion on the final exam. When given a choice to write about 1) whether Bob Marley is a messy postwar story; 2) how the rise and fall of Tower Records unveils the promises and shortcomings of globalization or 3) change or the lack thereof in use of the “N” word since the 1970s, nearly all of the students selected the latter. I was shocked to see this even though I have to admit this was the most animated in-class discussion this semester.

The N-word centers “Lionel’s Engagement,” one episode of the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family.”

In this episode, we see George Jefferson, an upper class African American man and father of Lionel, and Archie Bunker, a working class white man, unveiling their often cranky attitudes.

The N-word also centers “Sister Sistah,” an episode of “Girlfriends,” a sitcom that aired early this century.

The students were asked to compare and contrast use of the word in both episodes. I asked them  to think about the use of the N-word in television shows and even music (i.e. Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Ni—s in Paris) and whether the response to such use of the word has changed since the 1970s? If so, how? If not, why not?

During an earlier lecture on the N-Word – which is mentioned in Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” –   I showed the students both episodes.

I also showed them a Youtube clip of elderly people watching the music video of “The Story of O.J.,” which is filled with stereotypical images of African Americans.

If you care to watch these three clips, they are posted here.

I was impressed by how much the students thought deeply about how the use of the N-word has or has not changed since the 1970s, or the decade following the Civil Right movement, a time when some African Americans experienced change in the quality of their lives even while facing ongoing social and economic challenges. This is partly where the messiness lies.

All of the students noticed how George Jefferson, the wealthy African American father, use the N-word. He did so after  being introduced to the parents of Jenny, his soon-to-be daughter law. Tom and Helen Willis, her parents, are an interracial couple. During the engagement party, they have a fight. George Jefferson notices this spat and decides that Tom, an upper class white man, would soon be calling Helen, his African American black wife, the N word.  To this, laughter is heard. The year is 1974.

The students’ noticed how there was no laughter in the 2002 “Sister Sistah” episode of “Girlfriends,” which found Tanya, a young white woman “acting black” and saying the N-Word. Tanya (the adopted sister of Lynne, a biracial character on the show) especially offended the African Americans around her when she carelessly uttered the word while singing a rap song in a south Central Los Angeles beauty salon.

During class discussion and on some of the exams, the students said that since the 1970s, many people have been desensitized to the N-word because of something that had happened since the initial airing of “All in the Family”: the rise in popularity of hip hop. This is a genre of music that is largely performed by people of African descent, among them ones who have used the word, and sometimes as a term of endearment as is the case in A Tribe Called Quest’s Sucka N——-. I thought this observation was spot on as in a history class we are greatly interested observing change across time.

That said, some of the students acknowledged that two standards apply to how the word is used (i.e. African Americans are less scrutinized when using it unlike white Americans who are scrutinized more because they have not directly experienced the pain attached to the word). A couple of students noticed that the word is more easily heard in music these days rather than on television. It would have been nice to explore why this is so. At least one student said television shows are more closely regulated. I would have loved to hear them discuss changes in television viewing since the 1970s. I would have also loved to hear them discuss the messy postwar story embedded in use of the N-word (one of them did) and how globalization and cross-fertilization, topics addressed in class, figured in.

The students who selected this prompt did understand how there has been more pressure to be politically correct since the 1970s. I would have loved to hear them spend more time discussing why this pressure exists. Some of them did mention social changes in the United States since the 1970s (i.e. greater attention to police brutality in black communities in recent years), but none mentioned growing conservatism and other possible outlying developments. During the earlier lecture, I showed them a Bugs Bunny clip and told them about the controversial actor Stepin Fetchit.

I remained very impressed with their analytical skills and this is one of the things that make saying good-bye to this class and this course very hard.  A colleague asked me this week rather than stop teaching my “Bebop to Hip Hop” class, perhaps I can press pause on teaching it. I think I’ll stick to my earlier decision as I know first-hand what’s been required to teach a class like this in today’s social climate. Self-care is critical in and outside the classroom.

The downside to stepping away from it is knowing I don’t get to learn what young people are listening to as easily. I will get to see how so many students at my university are great human beings. I truly believe many of them will make this world a better place.

Close up on my now tattered syllabus. We did it!

I will also miss out on seeing how millennials are processing current events alongside past events. To alleviate these issues, I will continue to meaningfully bring the present and past together in the courses that largely deal with the antebellum period (since we know how that period ended, some of the pressures involved in teaching it is off me unlike when I teach a course that largely deals with difficult and often racial issues tied to our recent past and present day). Perhaps music will figure into those courses. In the case of my “American Civilization to 1865” survey class, it already does as the students must write a “mixtape” essay filled with songs that narrate life in the United States before 1865. I will do the same when I teach the second half of the survey, “American Civilization Since 1865″ next Fall. Perhaps we will get music back into that lesson plan, too. One of the beautiful things about teaching is the opportunity to make adjustments the way one might when mixing music live. Even if they could not fully articulate it, I am sure the students in this class learned about the ties between making and recasting music and thinking through the social implications of consuming it while creating beats during one assignment this semester.

Let’s see how it goes.

The sticker the students enrolled in my class received as a parting gift. I had two left over and used one on my laptop to remind myself of this very sentiment.

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