Erykah Badu in the Classroom

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

Chicago, Ill—Interdisciplinary writing may offer a way to overcome value judgments and examine literature from “multiple perspectives” incorporating social, political, and economic factors, argues Professor Akua Duku Anokye. The Arizona State University professor told a Modern Language Association (MLA) audience this December that “if we label texts illogical, maybe they’re illogical to us… so sometimes we make these kinds of evaluative judgments without taking into consideration the circumstances and the culture from which they come.” Instead, she argues, readers should approach unfamiliar texts from the perspective of an outsider, considering what missing background knowledge would be necessary to decode the passages’ meaning.

An associate professor of Africana language, literature, and culture, Anokye adopted a similar non-judgmental attitude following the September 11, 2001 attacks. She responded to the tragedy by working with Arab-Americans on an oral history project. “For example, in the wake of September 11, 2001, my students in a first year composition and ethnic study learning community worked to develop an oral history project with Arab-Americans and people of Arab descent in” a nearby metropolitan area, she said.

Anokye offered the audience a glimpse of her classroom teaching style by deconstructing a “really effective” freestyle sketch by 1990’s pop singer Erykah Badu. She argues that Badu’s “Afro” piece “gives us some context to understand and reflect upon the experiences that she gives to us in a form that is immediately understood and embraced in the African-American community, but maybe not in our academic community.” African-American arguments, she asserts, are not formed through direct rhetoric, but by “associative meanings,” anecdotes, and indirect reasoning.

The skit, which Anokye regularly uses to introduce her courses, recounts a woman’s anger at her boyfriend for rescinding his promise to take her to the Wu-Tang concert. After her mother tells her that the boyfriend went to the concert anyway and sundry calls to his pager elicit no reply, the angry protagonist declares that she is “gonna take that hoe back, daddy, yes I will.” It contains such inspiring observations as “You need to pick your afro daddy/Because it’s flat one side” and “Well I be blowing up your pager daddy/But you never called me back/Well I be putting in 9-1-1 baby/But you never called me back, no no.”

Anokye asked the Ph.D.-educated audience how they would react if this piece was submitted as a composition assignment. “So, let’s pretend that one of your students came in and presented you with something like this as an assignment. You aren’t expecting it. What do you do?,” she asked the audience. “Well let’s think about some of the many ways that interdisciplinarity is reflected… in this particular piece,” she continued.

According to Professor Anokye, this stylized piece provides a springboard for profound economic, social, and psychological discussions. “It’s economic because we’re talking about exchanges here. It’s psychological because here’s this woman that’s kind of been dumped. It’s sociological because it’s talking about so many instances where maybe there’re not enough men to go around,” she argued. However, a closer examination of Badu’s lyrics reveal little about diminishing returns, Keynesian economics, Freudian psychology, socioeconomic circumstances, or other specialized material.

Anokye asserts that Badu’s lyrics contain “simplistic” logic. “One, you were going to take me some place. Two, I’m expecting to go. Three, we didn’t go. Therefore, you’re a fox!—basically…you look at the kinds of logic, you look at the argument, you look at the laws…The social laws say that if you invite someone there, that—unless there’s some really good reason—you take them where you promised,” Anokye said.

However, Professor Anokye failed to mention to the mostly-white MLA audience why Badu’s work would most likely be “immediately understood and embraced in the African American community.” According to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Erykah Badu “championed” the 1990’s “hip hop/soul movement” and “her smooth voice, trademark head wrap, and majestic demeanor manifest sentiments of black pride, self-love, and female liberation.” Originally known as Erica Wright, Badu rejected her “slave name” as a teenager and told BNET in 2001 that “I want to be a different example of what a Black woman is, what a Black person is. I wear my headwrap because a headwrap is a crown, and I am a queen. A headwrap demands a certain amount of respect—it just does, and I am always headwrapped.”

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.