This blog was originally posted on April 9th, 2015
OK. If you have been completely out of touch for a couple of weeks, you’ve missed the CCCC meeting and thus Adam Banks’s 2015 Chair’s Address: “’Ain’t No Walls Behind the Sky, Baby’: Funk, Flight, Freedom.” And you’ve missed the thousands of tweets and postings commenting and celebrating it that have populated social media space ever since. From his opening allusions to George Clinton and Bootsy Collins’s “I’d Rather Be with You” to his final “Thank you CCCC 2015,” Adam held the packed-to-the-rafters ballroom rapt—and with lots of response: the standing ovation was thunderous, and prolonged. Since then, the presentation has been the subject of much admiration and debate on the WPA listserv. So right now, whether you were there or not, go watch Adam’s performance (here or below). It bears re-hearing and re-seeing. And you may want to chime in on WPA with your thoughts.
As I wrote at the time, the talk mixed rhythms from Jazz and Hip Hop with echoes of the African American sermonic tradition, theorizing with personal anecdote, high-falutin’ academic language with oral vernacular, and a whole lot more. It was in my view a bravura performance, embodying the themes of funk, flight, and freedom, arguing that “funk is worthy of scholarly attention” because it speaks of “honest expression and exertion,” of sweat and steaminess necessary to such exertion. “Respectability will not save us,” he continued, not in our scholarship or our classrooms, nor will it save our students. “Intervention comes from those who are irreverent,” who are “wild,” from those who resist the tidiness and staying-in-the-lines of the traditional academy and fly free, beyond boundaries and boxes.
In one memorable moment, Banks paused to address “the essay,” saying that on this day, he declared it “retired” (long and loud applause). Speaking directly to the retiree, he said that the essay could keep its office on campus and that we would even “continue to give awards in your honor.” But as of this day, it was now the essay emeritus/a. In doing so, Banks harked back to the work of Winston Weathers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and to his insistence that what he called the “Grammar A” of school writing was not the only kind of good writing out there—and he gave plenty of examples of Grammar B alternatives (An Alternate Style: Options in Composition, 1980). Along the way, Banks alluded to the groundbreaking Students’Right to their Own Language (1974) and to the foundational work of Geneva Smitherman and others who have done so much to document the power of African American English.
Banks’s speech featured a liberal mix of Grammars A and B in putting the traditional school essay taught by Miss Fidditch and her colleagues as the be-all and end-all in its place. But what most impressed me was the remediated essay that Banks performed, one true to the historical goal of the essay as a “try” or “attempt” and one emblematic of the essay as it lives and breathes and jibes in today’s discourse. “The essay is dead,” I say: “Long live the essay.”
We have work to do in understanding, describing, and embodying these deeply performative essays. So I’ve been very glad to see teachers writing posts about assignments that ask students to listen to Banks’s Chair’s address, to respond to it, to analyze its parts and the sources of its power, and to try their own hands at such a composition.
Beginning around 2002, I began teaching a course I called “The Language Wars, a class that moved from studying the struggle over vernacular languages in Europe and around the world and the debate over what the language of the new United States would be (some argued it should be German)—and eventually to what should count as “good writing” in college today. We read some of the scholars Banks referred to in his talk (Smitherman, Keith Gilyard) as well as June Jordan, bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Lee Tonuchi, Gerald Vizenor, and many others). Now I’m thinking I would like to teach this course again, this time beginning with Banks’s 2015 Chair’s address. At the end of his talk, Banks said “Thank you, CCCC 2015.” I would add, “Thanks to you, Adam Banks, for the inspiration.”