As part of a writing class. I was tasked with analyzing an academic article and presenting my analysis in a non-traditional format. I chose to create a podcast. Click the link to listen, or feel free to read the transcript provided.
Overarching question: How to make academic thought more available?
Hello, and good whatever time it is wherever you are. I hope you’re enjoying whatever weather you’re having and staying healthy. My name is Anthony D’Iorio and today I want to discuss an article written by David Kirkland titled, “The Skin we Ink: Tattoos, Literacy, and a New English Education.” The overarching issue which Kirkland deals with in this article is the inaccessibility of academic thought. Personally I would consider myself an outsider to academic thought. I am dyslexic which, at least for me, means that I think not in words but instead in pictures. When I first began reading academic texts it was incredibly difficult. I could easily understand the concepts and the thoughts that went into the articles I was reading, but the way they were written were wholly inaccessible. The goal of academic thought, at least in theory, is to bring society closer to the truth. Greek philosopher Plato first formalized this in his theory of the forms. This theory essentially says that somewhere, beyond the physical world, exists everything in its most true, most perfect form. He calls these truths forms. We as humans can understand them in the sense that we can differentiate an apple from a tomato because there is a certain appleness to apples and a certain tomatoeness to tomatoes. Academic discourse serves to bring us closer to these forms so that we can understand them in their more complex natures. In terms of schooling, the majority of education aimed at how to access or struggle to access these forms comes from English classes which only teach one way to represent thought. Imagine a multi-lane highway and a much smaller private road which both lead to these truths. Both go to the same place, but the highway is closed and thus the only possible route to reach the destination of academic conversations and thought is through formal English literacy. Only people with strong educational backgrounds and a certain amount of privilege in terms of having the ability and the time to dedicate to this education are allowed access onto the private road.
The fact of the matter is that there are academic conversations happening outside of academia, they are simply not being considered academic in nature.
One of the most important issues to address with this article is the perception of black males as illiterate, or less literate than white people. This is seen beyond a societal stigma. Kirkland highlights research done by A. I. Willis in 1995 which found that the actual literature discussing black men as literate and, or practicing literacy is quite thin (Kirkland 377). While this study does give academic credibility to my point, If I go to my university’s online library catalog and search the terms “Black Male” and “Literacy” the titles which come up on the first page are all focused on helping black males improve their literacy.
Dr. Ibram Kendi of American University published a book titled “How to be an Antiracist” in 2019. Throughout the book he discusses the difference between not being outwardly racist, and actively opposing racism. The latter he refers to as Antiracist. In his chapter titled Culture Kendi discusses the language known currently as Ebonics. Formerly this language was known as “Nonstandard Negro English” (82). Kendi draws on his own experiences growing up in Queens to discuss the different patterns of speech, as well as a vastly different vocabulary used by, specifically urban, black youth. What this makes me wonder is, if it was deemed by white people that black people spoke non-standard English then what is standard English. Certainly the English I speak is not standard because standard would imply that all English speakers spoke that way which simply isn’t true. I use words, phrases, and inflections which are tied to geographically where I grew up and where I learned to speak and practice literacy. All speakers of the different dialects of english, New Jersyian included, are merely avenues by which we try to access the “form” of English.
The only language which actually has direct access to its form is Arabic. According to the beliefs of Islam, the Qur’ran was written by God and this is the most perfect form, or to use Plato’s framework, is the “form” of Arabic. English has no such link to its form thus all dialects are valid and none are standard.
What our academic society has chosen however is that the English in which academic conversation takes place should be less accessible. Throughout the article, Kirkland disproves that this is the only way that academic thought can take form. One of the most metacognitive ways in which he does this is through his use of English. While he uses academically acceptable prose his actual writing is extremely accessible compared to other academic texts.
This brings up the conversation of what literacy actually is. In the academic context, literacy is known essentially as proficiency in academic English. Kirkland however brings up the notion of “multiple literacies” which Gallego and Hollingsworth coined in their 2000 book What Counts as Literacy: Challenging the School Standard. Kirkland uses this framework to understand literacy as multifaceted and going beyond the academic (Kirkland 380).
For his study, Kirkland decided to study a young teen named Derrick Todd and his use of literacy. Derrick Todd himself was, in the fall of 2005, a ninth grader who was a large, and tall black teen who identified with hip-hop culture and was a self-proclaimed rapper. He regularly wrote and practiced raps with his friends, kept a journal of raps and poems, and had several tattoos. Throughout the process of the study, Kirkland met with Derick and his friends twice a week for a few hours each meeting. These meetings went on for three years. Kirkland used these meetings to construct the boys’ literary biographies through discussing school and books and the ways in which they viewed and practiced literacy as well as watching them practice literacy free from authority or any enforcement of convention (Kirkland 380). Much of this was the friends practicing raps for one another. Kirkland also took an interest in Derick’s tattoos as a means of practicing literacy and went so far as to take photographs of them and interview Derick as to their meaning (Kirkland 380).
Kirkland analyzed Derick’s tattoos as “literary artifacts” (378) and deconstructed their meaning to Derick as well as their meaning to the outside world. We’ll get further into what his tattoos mean and how they are examples of literacy but I want to first discuss what they actually are. One of his tattoos reads “live or die.” In Derick’s own words this tattoo “talks about the part of me that goes all out. We live in a world where hard work is rewarded… if you Black, though, you gotta give it your all or you gon die”(Kirkland 382). Derick also has two tattoos dedicated to his very young late cousin who was killed after a car struck him as he was waiting for the schoolbus. One of these tattoos is a cross, and the other is an eagle with the words “RIP Clarence Doulley” in the eagle’s mouth (Kirkland 384). The last tattoo that we’ll be discussing is Derick’s tattoo of a bulldog with the word “Boss” written underneath it which he got to commemorate his brother after he was killed (Kirkland 385).
Now that we know what all of the tattoos are, physically, I want to get into the weeds as to what they mean to Derick and to the larger environment that surrounds him beyond the physical level as well as what they might say about literacy. The first tattoo I brought up, which says “live or die” expresses Derick’s own philosophy of life, and in particular, of black life. Walking into the office of any Academic, one can usually find a poster, or a shadow box or a picture frame with some similar life philosophy. They may be original creations or clichés but regardless they reflect a value the owner wishes to emulate. Some Academics have written papers and journal articles about personal life philosophies. In the same way that these Academics write poetry, display art, or write papers about personal philosophies in order to make a statement and contribute to humankind’s collective thought on the matter, Derick has done so by inscribing himself with his philosophy. The tattoos in commemoration of his cousin serve to, as Kirkland writes, “[connect] him to a present rooted in the past, to other people- dead or alive- and to their stories”(Kirkland 386). In the same way that some writers or artists choose to commemorate, and even extend the life of the fallen. In the words of writer Ernest Hemmingway, “Every man has two deaths, when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name. In some ways men can be immortal.” Derick is, according to Hemingway, extending the lives of his cousin and brother by commemorating them in ink.
These tattoos also commemorate events of deep emotional trauma for Derick. The loss of a cousin, the loss of a brother, and the harsh social reality of living as a black man in an urban area are all things from which Derick had to cope. He used his tattoos as a means to reclaim his trauma and his grief and his anger as his. In my own, vastly different life from Derick’s I have used writing as a means to cope with situations as well as make commentary about them. In my senior year of high school, I was the Editor-in-Chief of my school’s newspaper. To the distress of many students and families, a junior took his own life that year. I wrote an op ed piece the day we returned to school because that was all I could do. I remember when I showed it to my advisor at the end of the day he told me that there was no way the piece would get through the administration and I said, “I know, but I just write when I feel things.” I used writing to express my views on a situation as well as to cope with my own emotions regarding the loss of a classmate. The only difference between the purposes behind my writing and Derick’s tattoos is that his tattoos are much more personal.
While writing is a very personal act, Derick’s self inscription is so much more personal. In his open letter to his son, Ta Nasisi Coates spends a lot of time talking about the power of the body. And, more specifically, the politics of the black body. One section which always sticks out to me is when he describes the constant devaluation of the black body, “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed… You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body. And should one live in such a body? What should be our aim beyond meager survival of constant, generational, ongoing battery and assault?”(Coates 84). Coates goes into the frustration he has felt growing up and living as a black man in the United States. While Kirkland doesn’t expressly discuss everything that Coates does he does hits on one very important aspect which is perception of literacy. Early in his article Kirkland discussed the perception of black men as less literate. When I wanted to make a statement about the society I was living in after the loss of a peer, I had a tool which helped me do so, the newspaper I ran. Derick on the other hand used the most personal tool he could, the tool that no one could take away from him. He used his body to make a statement about death and the safety of his community. Derick did make a contribution to the human discourse which has always been more than words. As a society the purpose of having an academic discourse is to bring us closer to the truth, to bring us closer to the forms. Derick’s tattoos and journal entries, and raps all serve that purpose and are therefore included in literacy.
In a truly academic society we wouldn’t limit avenues to academic thought but open them so all could contribute to and enrich the great conversation of humanity. That begins with opening academia to songs, poems, art, tattoos, and the thoughts of those people who have for far too long been excluded from these conversations. In my first semester writing class one of our assignments was to enter into an academic conversation. These conversations were literally locked behind password protected journals and databases. And, were limited to quite dry and relatively inaccessible journal articles. The ideas they discussed in these volumes of academic conversation however were anything but dry and inaccessible. But, what’s happened is we as a society have prioritized form over function with our academic conversations. We’ve taken the great human discourse and imprisoned it behind the walls of an enforced convention. I’ll leave you with this thought: imagine what our academic conversations could become if they were broken out of convention. Imagine how expansive our human discourse could be. Now, think about how to get to that point and do it.
“A Quote by Ernest Hemingway.” Goodreads, Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/9556005-every-man-has-two-deaths-when-he-is-buried-in.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Letter to my Son.” The Atlantic Monthly vol. 316 no. 2, September 2015, pp. 82-91.
Gellego, M. A., & Hollingsworth, S. What Counts as Literacy: Challenging the School Standard, 2000, pp. 1-23.
Kendi, Ibram. How to be an Antiracist. 2019, pp 81-91.
Kirkland, David. “The Skin We Ink: Tattoos, Literacy, and a New English Education.” English Education vol. 41, no. 4, July 2009, pp. 375-395.
Willis, A.I. “Reading the World of School Literacy: Contextualizing the Experience of a Young African American Male.” Harvard Educational Review 1995, vol 65, pp. 30-49.