And today’s guest blogger is our homie Malik Lewis, current Assistant Principal, phenomenal teacher, dope dad and husband. So welcome Malik yall!
As urban legend goes, one day in the mid-twentieth century, a $10 bet was made in a room full of well-known and highly-esteemed writers and intellectuals over who could write the best and shortest novel. Each man tossed their ante into the center of the table. Novelist and poet Ernest Hemingway pitched in only a napkin with six words scribbled on it, scooped-up the money and left. It read: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” It took more than 30 years for this story to be recounted in the memoir of one of the men who lost the bet. Since then, the six-word novel — sometimes referred to as “Flash Fiction” — has become a teaching tool (and the subject of an annual event paying-out thousands of dollars to the winner), serving as a means to engage young people in the processes of writing and revision and in being imaginative.
While it is widely understood that long-form essays and prose have the capacity to demonstrate both the depth of knowledge and technical skill of a writer, an extremely short piece — like a six-word story — requires concision and control. In these flash fictions, the author must think critically about culling away all extraneous language and distilling a story down to the least common denominator of personal experience between the author and audience to convey big and emotionally charged ideas into what amounts to a handful of words. Think of the sensory response that is evoked by: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Consider the use of punctuation and syntax; dig deeper to discover its poignant allusion to a highly publicized child death of the time. While Hemingway’s genius went ignored for the better part of three decades, the internet and social media carry these kinds of micro-stories across our screens with regularity. As our connectedness to technology increases, the time we spend considering information dwindles. Hence, the evolution of memes. Memes, in their brevity, poignancy, shareability and relatability are the most advanced and impactful form of communication to emerge in this century — and it is a medium mostly dominated by young, Black people.
When the internet breaks, who breaks it? Those responding to Kanye’s Bound 2 video or Kendrick’s unbound Grammy performance? Detractors of “Becky with the good hair?” Defenders of Lebron’s hairline? Jordan cry faces? #Thanksgivingwithblackfamilies, #Blackplottwist or #AskRachel? Black Twitter run this ‘ish. And everyone knows it. Despite the fact that the media used to convey all these ideas were created exclusively and unfortunately by Europeans — like the language itself — the creativity and ingenuity of young Black people to use these increasingly formalized modes of communication in distinctly Black and empowering ways isn’t anything new. From slaves re-purposing Christian doctrine in the mid 1800s to the advent of modern urban slang and hip hop culture today, young Black people have used the language and platforms of their oppressors to develop linguistically and culturally unique forms of expression. Not only are memes Black as hell but they’re genius as well. We could wait 30, 40 or 100 years to recognize and value this or we could affirm it and those at the vanguard of this form of expression now and use it the same way schools in more affluent and less diverse neighborhoods utilize flash fiction. To do so would at once acknowledge the brilliance of our young people and engage them in the classroom in ways that would be nearly impossible using more stilted, unrelatable and inaccessible texts and forms.
In New York State, for example, high school students must demonstrate their mastery of English on an exam that requires that they analyze informational and literary texts, considering an author’s use of writing strategies (rhetorical devices, figurative language, language use, denotation/connotation, point-of-view, symbolism, theme, tone, etc.) to develop his/her central idea. At present, they practice these skills using articles about exhausted subjects such as whether cell phones should be allowed in schools, which they don’t relate to; have background knowledge in, i.e. GMO or non-GMO foods; or honestly care about. Consider all that could be addressed and discussed through analysis of even one meme created by and relevant to young Black people.
In fewer than 100 characters this Tweet from #AskRachel exploits symbolism and irony, is satirical, and requires students to activate schema, forcing them to think critically about the author’s intentions. By utilizing the standardized test format of a multiple-choice question, this artifact of youth culture seeks to achieve the same standards as the aforementioned literacy exam. This is brilliant! Entire op-ed critiques have been written about the subject of Rachel Dolezal’s “transracialism” that were less biting than this meme. It has been shared and read thousands of times more than any op-ed on the subject and it is of no less value. Dare I say, it’s just as good as a six-word novel.
While educators all over the country bemoan the new Common Core math standards and their requirement that teachers help students apply mathematical principles to real-world problems, the youth have seemingly figured out how to make the math relevant. So too do they use their distinctly-Black mode of communication through memes to chime-in and provide commentary about current events and history. If young Black people can create such brilliance, surely they can analyze it.
As educators, we would be foolish not to capitalize on the power of modes of communication like this to both educate and elevate our students. We should help them recognize the immediacy and merit of their intellect and connect formalized educational requirements to their authentic and intrinsic genius. Dr. Chris Emdin calls this “reality pedagogy” which seeks to engage students by recognizing, validating and utilizing the distinct cultural capital students bring to classrooms as a means of transforming schools into places of real learning. If your students are tweeting things like this on their phones under their desks in your class, you better re-evaluate what and how you’re teaching because they’re probably roasting you alive all over the interwebs.
Malik Abasi Lewis is an educator in the New York City school system and proponent of rigorous and relatable instruction of Black and brown students. He can be emailed at Malikabasi@gmail.com.