Friday, November 2, 2007

Read a ___ Book

(Hey, there's still time to add your Perfect Movie Moment to the post below. As of this posting, we have a total of, well, none)

I'm at the annual meeting of the Council of the Great City Schools this week, in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee. At lunch today, we were treated to an exhortation from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, which was, as you can imagine, 50% inspiring and 50% depressing.

One of the things he complained about was the video below, which he said had been broadcast on BET and was now on YouTube. I went to see it after his speech, and I thought I should share it with you.

Jackson was mightily offended by the video, and said it was degrading and depraved. He especially objected to the repetition of "Read a motherfucking book." He used it as an example of educators' sad history of Just Taking It. He said, "If ten school boards across the country called BET and told them they found this video offensive, you know they would have taken it off. But we don't complain. We don't stand up for what we believe. We don't fight."

Having now seen the video, I find the issue very interesting. If you haven't seen it before, take a look. Then we'll talk.

I think what it's trying to do is say all the things Bill Cosby (the currently vilified and maligned Bill Cosby) is trying to say, but in language aimed more directly at its target, rather than the parents. Is the language harsh? Well, sure--but no more so than in the way any teenager talks to any other teenager. Is the imagery degrading to women? Well, sure--but no more so than the imagery in any rock or rap videos. Are the messages positive and important? I would say HELL YES. And who dares say them? Could I have said any of these things to my students (other than "read a book")? No way. NO WAY. These are things that only a parent or a friend or a very close adult (coach, mentor) can say. And to say them--to say them and have them heard--they have to be said in the listener's language.

But Jesse Jackson was offended, not by the message, but by the medium. I wonder if he feels as though the vernacular is passing him by. I would worry too. I do worry. I would like to think that soaring rhetoric and old-time, passionate sermonizing can still resonate, can still move people. But if you find that they can't, well...use what works, right? What's more important--that you teach, or that they learn?

And what did the rest of the audience think about what he was saying? Well, walking out of the hall, I saw one African American woman shake her head and tell her friend, "Honestly, for a minister to use such language. It's just not right."

For more on this, go to YouTube and see the piece that ran on CNN, where someone says, "People who aren't in our community are not going to see this as satire." I find that sad. But there are a lot of points of view on this.

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