Who Are The Rest of Y’all? (On Dr. Emdin’s For White Folks …)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose

First, it’s important to note that I’ve been following Dr. Christopher Emdin’s ascent into superstar academic. From the hip-hop pedagogy classes he organized at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the collaborations with Wu-Tang Clan elder statesman GZA to conferences in South America and rendezvous with Kendrick Lamar, the dapper dandy reppin’ the Bronx has made this “work” look easy. (Note: it’s not.) What’s most captured me is that, despite the plethora of praise he’s received from Harvard University and the American Education Research Association to the Department of Energy and the White House, he has found time to wage war with both ideas and the figures who espouse said ideas. He doesn’t simply resort to calling them haters, but uses the academic language he inherited on the way to his doctorate to address and redress.

Which is why Dr. Christopher Emdin’s For White Folk Who Teach In The Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too was so fascinating, not because he names names, but because he avoids names and focuses intently on ideas. For all of y’all: past, present, and future.

For those who’s been “doing the work” for some time, this book is a conglomerate of influences like Gloria Ladson-Billings (culturally responsive teaching), Lisa Delpit (analogizing the struggles of a people outside of his personal experiences to explicate his people more directly), Paulo Freire (bringing in students’ knowledge to make them the teachers and thus activating their knowledge), and, yes, John Dewey. But, as we know, John Dewey didn’t truly believe that progressive pedagogy rested in the hands of people of color, so the boulder that other academics like the aforementioned as well as Pedro Noguera, Sonia Nieto, Antonia Darder, and Angela Valenzuela keeps rolling with Emdin and the up-and-comers he stands to usher in. If you’re in this category, reading the book feels conversational, familiar, and will either affirm what you already believe and / or help you tweak that which you know. As a classroom teacher, I definitely nodded in affirmation and winced at my own empathetic memories.

For the rest of y’all? Well, that’s tricky.

The phrase “for white people who teach in the hood” works like a chorus in his book. It reminds the reader to place themselves as foreign to those he calls the “neoindigenous,” the black and brown kids we serve in our schools. Whiteness serves as an arm stretched to either keep one’s distance from the children they serve or to pull students in depending on how you use the arm. While the first (and important) chapter of his book deals specifically with the ethos necessarily to pull off a reality pedagogy, the rest of the book is intensely focused on providing thorough tips for how to create a successful classroom with neoindigenous students in mind, from teaching students how to teach others to even the kicks (sneakers) one might wear to attract conversation.

Each C in his framework work in conjunction with what one would see in an underground hip-hop cypher, a point that works like a heartbeat for the book.

But this is “for the rest of y’all too,” which inherently means the folks who’ve espoused middle-to-upper-class Eurocentric norms as the utopian vision for students who want little to do with that save maybe the fortunes. He makes a clear distinction between himself and the hucksters and shysters who don faces of color, but espouse values that run headfirst against our students’ cultures and understandings. One can infer (even if you hadn’t been following him on Twitter and seen his battles with said folks) he would dismiss calls for boys to pick their pants up, and instead advocate for these tricksters to embrace our students’ music and art and teach through that for the most disaffected students.

So yes, it’s about white people, but, more, it’s about white supremacy, alive and thriving in pre-K through 12 and beyond.

The language of the book takes on a style that asserts his research arm and his hip-hop arm are one and the same. He finds ways to deconstruct incidents that have happened both when he was a teacher in the earlier part of his career to becoming a professor at an Ivy League institution (he presently teaches at Columbia University Teachers’ College). He eschews the pining for poetic acumen (think Coates or Raquel Cepeda) and anchors the work in the academic, as if to tell the world that white people his work is not merely for entertainment, but to engage black and brown students who might not otherwise engage in STEM that such knowledge is theirs if introduced through alternative methods.

The commitment is evident in one specific paragraph where he says:

[Letting students teach their own way] is important because many youth have become acculturated into urban schooling in ways that silence their neoindigeneity, and adopt styles of teaching that they think the teacher will accept rather than an approach that engages peers who share their culture. When this happens and these youth are given the opportunity to teach, they spend more time emulating their teacher than introducing their way of teaching to the teacher. Therefore, it is important for the teacher to make the goals of coteaching clear: to foster family, to give voice to students, and to help the teacher learn from students the best ways to connect with them.

He drops a bunch of jewels worth highlighting early and often.

So yes, this is an endorsement of the book, and yes, everyone should read it. But if you’re in the group that’s already hip to this, this book is also the 2016’s book to go tell sumadeez people to go read and stop asking you questions about why you’re so angry. For White Folks … belongs in the library of critical race education work, especially as it seeks to pull the academy and the street closer together.