We Have a Responsibility to Shine a Light Into the Darkness

We feel that we have a responsibility to, shine a light into the darkness you know?

And you know, there’s a lot of darkness out here, we watch it all the time. I’m busy looking at the darkness saying “Damn! There’s some darkness over there.” Whatever. And we have a responsibility to focus on it.

This is what education is. This is what teaching is. Teachers shine light into the darkness. We take ignorance, misunderstanding, and fear, we shine a light into minds and create knowledge, understanding and courage. And that requires us to look closely at the darkness. We need to look darkness in the face in order to understand it.

Education requires a deep understanding and empathy for the student. This is just as true as we work to teach against hatred and oppression as it is when we teach geometry or physics. We cannot fulfill our responsibility to shine light into the darkness without looking at it. And the darkness will stare back at you. Putting up walls to reflect light back onto yourself does not remove the darkness.

I didn’t want to look at white supremacy. I didn’t want to look at American neo-Nazi movements. I didn’t want to look at white nationalism. And yet, when I saw images of young white men holding torches in Charlottesville I thought “Damn, there’s some darkness over there”. And I have a responsibility to focus on the darkness.

 

Y’all be cool. We know, that we know how to make some music, and the music ain’t supposed to stand still.

And little bits of inroads into the music ain’t enough, we have a serious responsibility to do it anyhow. But we prefer to think about the responsibilities we have to the music. And the music is all consuming. I’ll tell you. It’s tyrannical.

Serious musicians push music forward, bringing new experimentation and thought to their work. They are constantly adapting and pushing against boundaries and conventions. They are unwilling to blindly accept the status quo. We need that same attitude when teaching about racism, oppression, and white supremacy in schools. We know that we know how to teach and the teaching ain’t supposed to stand still.

New situations and new circumstances call for new pedagogies. The return of mainstream white supremacists, Klan members without hoods, and public displays of Nazi allegiance call for new bravery on the part of teachers. The responsibilities of education are all consuming. In every setting I am an educator. I am a teacher. It is so integral to my identity that I don’t get to switch off.

Legally I am a mandatory reporter of child abuse. Not just when I’m on the clock. All the time. Socially I am always a space for people to ask questions about the state of public education, or where to send their child to school. That used to bother me. No longer.

I relish the responsibility of educating against hate. I have long held that schools attempt to imagine a society that is better than the society beyond the classroom walls. That is more obviously true now than at any other time in my life. The teaching is all consuming.

 

Now, we found out some time ago that if you take a whole group of really superbad dudes and hang em in together, they’ll make some music whether or not somebody else thought it was hip or not. They’d be ok. Ya dig? Somebody’s gotta start it. And we Mike Deasy, Ernie Watts, and Roy McCurdy, Walter Booker, George Duke, and Airto Moreira, along with my brother Nat, we figured that we can make some music just by doing it. And it’s very easy to make music if you start out with musicians.

Let’s build a group of really superbad teachers and let’s hang em in together. We need teachers that will work together to teach effectively whether or not somebody else is doing it down the hall. We have to start it. I know that I have colleagues, and mentors, and brand new teachers who are here for this work. I see a lot of it happen all the time and we need more.

I have colleagues who teach high school classes on understanding race and racism. I have colleagues who integrate social justice into their science and art classes. I have colleagues who discuss multifaceted identity with first graders. I have a mentor who is never shy to tell me when I make mistakes or when my standards are too low. I work with administrators who put themselves on the line. It’s easy to educate if you start out with educators.

 

So we’re going to begin to do something that is comprehensive by establishing some kind of musical premise and it will develop. You know, everybody will make his own statement according to Holye or whatever.

The eight musicians are all going to improvise together, each making their own statement. It is a misconception that this means the eight musicians will all just play whatever they feel like. On the contrary. Effective improvisation is highly organized even if it is unplanned. Hip hop cyphers are highly organized. Improv theatre is highly organized. Soccer is highly organized. All are collaborative improvisations.

Each participant has to attune themselves to the others with great care. Always paying attention to how the collective is changing. Who played which note? How did the movement of the ball shift the team? Like entering an acting scene, the individual has to know precisely what every group member is working with and how their introduction to the mix will change the whole and the individuals. This only works with deep empathy and intense focus.

Teaching is a collaborative improvisation. Not once have I delivered a lesson plan precisely as expected. Something new always comes up as ideas collide and connect. And so the teacher and the class collectively adjust. The teaching ain’t supposed to stand still.

Teaching about race in the United States is even more of an improvisation and we have little practice. The topic is so completely taboo, particularly in white or multi-racial settings, that we simply don’t have practice in the basics. The musicians that improvise effectively practice scales for hours on end. The athletes that adapt most effectively put in countless hours of drills. Thousands of tennis serves. Thousands of free throws. Endless hours of batting practice. Sprints. Scales. Martial arts forms. Color theory. Sketches. Shuttle Runs. We master the basics in order to improvise more effectively.

Find your superbad teacher peers and practice together. Practice a lot. Practice all the time.

 

We’re going to start this particular thing with Walter Booker, our bassist, and Ernie Watts, our tenor saxophonist, or flautist, or whatever he wants to do. I think he likes to play the saxophone sometimes, ya know. He’s good, so I mean, you know, what the hell.

Somebody has to start it. Who is your Walter Booker, a bassist who can bring a consistent groove and foundation to the work? The person you can always rely on to bring you back to the downbeat when you go off into the clouds? Who is your Ernie Watts? The saxophonist, or flautist, the one who can build endless lines of spiraling notes contrasting the reliable bass and developing artistic tension?

Can you be your own Walter Booker? Your own Ernie Watts? Your own Cannonball Adderley putting the band together and bringing the vision for how to move things forward? The teaching ain’t supposed to stand still.

 

Anyhow: The statement that they make will determine what everybody else plays very shortly. Ya dig? And that’s the way it goes. So here we go, music y’all.

Teachers create the future. We build young minds who become the population this country. We create leaders. We create followers. We create artists. We create mechanics. We create politicians. We create doctors. We create more teachers. This is an enormous responsibility and if it freaks you out a little that means you’re probably taking it seriously.

The statements we make will determine what everybody else plays very shortly. Ya dig?

 

 

Context:
In trying to figure out how to think about and teach adults about the tragedy/violence/terrorism/brutality/march/rally/protest in Charlottesville I put on some music and sat down to rewrite my lesson plan. It was 5:30AM and I’d decided not to head to the gym. When I get angry, or frustrated, or sad, or worried I dig into art to help me connect to my emotions. Others’ emotional expression through art helps me understand my own.

On that particular morning I wanted something to help feel more positive. Something I knew well enough to let me write and remain in the background. I put on Blackstar and Cannonball Adderly’s voice came through the speakers telling me precisely what I needed to hear in the moment even though I’d heard it hundreds of times before.

The italicized words above are from “Cannonball Raps 2” on the album Music You All from 1972. The album is a live recording in Los Angeles and Adderley is setting up a his premise for a fully improvised piece of music midway through the set.

Cannonball Adderly’s words are then sampled in the introduction track on the 1999 Blackstar album. Words from a concert in 1972, sampled on a rap album in 1999 inspired my thinking in 2017. This is the power of context and hip hop is the master genre for re-contextualization.

I’ve heard those words hundreds of times since I picked up the album back in high school and they’ve never hit me quite like they did that morning. Above I’ve used the full clip of Adderly’s talk on “Cannonball Raps 2” and not just the piece sampled on the Blackstar record. Both albums are brilliant.

 

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