Geniusing the Black Body in Study Abroad

You may shoot me with your words,

            You may cut me with your eyes,

                        You may kill me with your hatefulness,

                                    But still, like air, I’ll rise.

                                                ~Maya Angelou, Still I Rise

 

Growing conscious of one’s own subjectivity, humanity, and citizenship is a work of struggle for adults, so how exactly do we expect youth to do so in a time of rapid globalized messaging and mobility? This is not say that youth cannot do so on their own, instead it is say that we infrequently allow the space for resistance by policing how youth inhabit their bodies and also how they choose to be and become in the world. In this essay, instead of problematizing what our youth are getting wrong and casting those who we identify as “youth” to be a problem, mismanaged, misguided, and at risk, I want to give examples of how art imitates life which imitates art. Whatever do I mean by this? In this short essay I want to posit that “youth culture” is often a mere reflection or a resistance to the reflection of adult culture.

 Because of the shortness of this paper I will attempt to use the book keywords in Youth Studies: tracing affects, movements, knowledges edited by Lesko and Talburt to answer the following question: Given the dimensions of “youth culture” – how might we foster creativity and critical thinking given the influence of mass media, commodification, consumerism, and peer culture? How do these factors constrain and enable the future aspirations of particular youth personally and professionally?

I plan to use the text and question above to situate the creative space of study abroad as an aesthetic for youthful action personally and professionally. A subquestion I will address in this piece is how might study abroad be used as a space of praxis and discursive practice for the black male body?

Media Representation and Problematizing Study Abroad

The above comic strip of Calvin and Hobbes renders youth illegible to the adult perception in TV listings. Hobbes by the end of the strip insinuates it is hard to make money off of adult audiences only. Is Hobbes on to something? According to Box Office Mojo the top five revenue grossing movies of all time are 1. Avatar 2. Titanic 3. Marvel’s The Avengers 4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and 5. Frozen. (Box Office Mojo, Worldwide Grossing Movies, 2014). Each of the above titles have a PG 13 or PG MPAA Rating allowing me to argue here the target audience needs to include the youth in order to make a large profit. The emergence of the teenage market, movies target and promoted as PG 13 have taken full advantage of the “free time” issued by the market. Lesko and Talburt tell us “the emergence of the teenage market offered, for the first time, a specific space for consumption aimed at youngsters, a group with an increasing power of purchase: fashion, garments, leisure centers, music, magazines, and so on (p. 39).

There is a clear representation of youth in the movies above, but along with this representation also comes misrepresentation. When it comes to positioning the black male body as legible, or readable in the movies above there is little space positioned for the black male body. Media representation and movie representation of the black male body all so often render us illegible while also misrecognizing the importance of such positioning. In an interview with Art Nouveau, Hank Willis Thomas notes “series of works that is questioning how the media represents and portrays black bodies, particularly with regard to their physicality. To me, popular culture influences the way we as a culture learn and perpetuate stereotypes about ourselves” (Hank Willis Thomas, Interview 2012).

Geniusing Black Bodies Abroad

Lesko and Talburt go forth with a further historical critique of how the black male body has been positioned in the media by positing:

The Black male was envisioned as “absent and wandering” from the 1930s to the 1950s; as “impotent and powerless” in the 1960s; and then in the 1980s as the prototype “absent father,” who is psychologically powerless and with a common cultural pattern of speech and social interactions. Recently the narratives stress the positive “soulful” and “adaptive” Black male.While it is apparent that media representations of black boys as criminal, as thug, as unintelligent, as needing saved, and as being absent and impotent, there is less research on the media representations of black male bodies in study abroad and international education that could turn these stereotypes on their head.

Kasravi found (2009) found with the total number of U.S. students studying abroad more than doubling over the last twenty years, the number of students of color as a percent of that total has remained the same. See the table below:

Table 1.1: Profile of U.S. study abroad students by percent and total number

 

 

1993/1994

2006/2007

Caucasian

83.8%

81.9%

Asian American

5.0%

6.7%

Hispanic American

5.0%

6.0%

African American

2.8%

3.8%

Multiracial

3.1%

1.2%

Native American

0.3%

0.5%

Total number

76,302

241,791

 

What Kasravi establishes through her graph and dissertation are the amount of students of color, who still fit the elastic term of “youth,” and the factors contributing those studens of color to study abroad. Like Kasravi, I aim to disturb the low numbers of students of color studying abroad. To do so I must give background on the presence of black bodies in study abroad.

Lack of diverse youth possibility models is an issue in many spheres. Instead of looking to the older adult generation to model what can be and what cannot be, I believe we need to encourage the younger “youth” generation to take part in the modeling of possibility. In international education, specifically study abroad the GSA Green paper What Will it Take to Double Study Abroad drafted by the Institute of International Education tells us the following that is noteworthy:

Seventy eight percent of students studying abroad are white, and they represent 62 percent of the enrollment in higher education. Asian Americans represent 8 percent of study abroad students, which is close to their actual proportion of all college students. However, African American students comprise 14 percent of the college population, but only 5 percent of study abroad students (p. 10).

In order to make legible the bodies of black males, educators in international education must heed the words of Paulo Freire finding “human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men (women) transform the world. To exist, humanly is to name the world, to change it” (p. 76). Searching for the black male body as legible in the public sphere is one of the major theses marshaled by Mark Anthony Neal in his text Looking for Leroy. Neal (2012) tells us hip hop artists such as the highly acclaimed JayZ may embody the very essence of making the black male body more legible in the international sphere by finding “I’d like to argue that JayZ/ Shawn Carter serves as an entry point to examine more concretely how black bodies (as constructed via the discourses of mainstream American hip hop) travel through the world, but also how the world travel through those bodies (p. 39). If JayZ serves as an entry point into the conversation about geniusing the black male body as relevant, more research and writing needs to be done around the difference in the space between the private self and the public self. I used in the former sentence the word genius not as a noun or adjective, but as a verb. When operationalized as a verb genius makes possible the usage of intellectual or creative power and other natural abilities as multiple dictionaries suggest. By positioning the black male body as geniusing study abroad brings about the innovativeness which has been seen in rock n roll, hip hop, dance, black church, and other spheres deemed firstly unfit for the public sphere, but then later became commodified.

Fazal Rizvi (2012) echoes Neal’s earlier point about the mobility of people by formulating “the mobility of people cannot hence be understood within its own terms, but linked to many other forms of mobility (p. 192). The complex articulation of making the black male body fluent in the sphere of study abroad might mirror the complexity of making the black male body legible as a father, in school, business, government, public parks, and other public arenas facilitated and critiqued by the state. Rizvi and Neal both present entry points to making the American black male body into a transnational subject. Because the construct of study abroad and the construct of youth are relatively recent historical constructions, more work needs to be done to discuss the implications study abroad has on youth culture. The opposite is also true, more work needs to be done to inquire how the youth are geniusing and influencing study abroad. Within the relationship between study abroad and the youth underlies current of youth participation, cultural production and cultural reproduction. One of the points of cultural production in and through study abroad are chapters of citizenship, capitalism, and supremacy. So often, study abroad is positioned to be a great professional development technology and a personal growth technology, but few scholars position the field as global youthscape.

Weems (2012) puts it well by finding “feminists and race scholars extended the concept of commodification of culture to analyze how specific elements of youth identities (such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality) are highly mediated through the culture industry (p.72). Weems (2012) goes on to find “Maira and Soep (2005) use the term “global youthscape” to describe a “site that is not just geographic or temporal, but social and political as well, as ‘place’ that is bound up with questions of power and materiality” (p.73).

By recasting study abroad not just as a geographic or temporal site, but rather a social, political, and possibly a cultural site, we may be able to position the black male body as relevant, legible, and visible. If what Weems (2012) finds with “contemporary studies of youth and commodification illustrate how cultural productions influenced by sociocultural, mediated forms of style and representation that take place inside, outside, and between national boundaries” is true, the geniusing of study abroad by black male bodies is critically important. For far too long, the curriculum of study abroad has stood as a white supremacist tool to uphold race, gender, class, and citizenship oppression.

Throughout this piece I have tolled over the critical position of situating the black male body inside of study abroad. Returning to the beginning, Maya Angelou’s words from her acclaimed poem Still I Rise may visible the pain of observing the oppressor without internalizing the oppressor. Also, by still rising in the face of transgression is a black cultural response I would like to posit as apart of the genius of being black. Even more, this could also be associated to being at the intersection of black and woman.

Returning to the Beginning

Sarah Ahmed in the text On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, speaks to the notion that institutions alone are not responsible for the efforts of diversity, rather individuals, collectives, cooperatives, social movements, organizers, and artist do the work of making the institution transform and stall static. If I would like the institution of study abroad to make the bodies of black male youth become more legible, I, along with others interested in study abroad efforts need to be pushing the issue. Ahmed (2012) also gives us energy by noting

We can also consider the language of critique and how it is assumed to be dated. I think even within some feminist writing, the idea that we should be critical of sexism has indeed become understood as rather dated and even as a habit that is blocking us, holding us down, and keeping us back: stopping us from reading or engaging most positively, affirmatively, and creatively with the texts that the objects of critique. (p. 182).

This datedness which Ahmed speaks of issues to critical scholars, those who may take up the notions of the Frankfurt, a challenge to embark on using the language of critique to genius our fields. Because of the requested shortness of this inquiry into taking up a critical position, I will begin my final project with the attempt to tie this polemic to a better, more thorough researched inquiry into youth studies as a transnational project.

 References

Ahmed, S. (2012). On being included: Racism and diversity in institutional life. Duke University Press.

 Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.

 Berdan, S. & Johannes W. (2014). What Will it Take to Double Study Abroad: A ‘Green Paper’ on the Big 11 Ideas from IIE’s Generation Study Abroad Think Tank. Institute of International Education White Paper Series.

 Lesko, N., & Talburt, S. (Eds.). (2012). Keywords in youth studies: Tracing affects, movements, knowledges. Routledge.

 Lipsitz, G. (2011). Youthscapes: The popular, the national, the global. S. Maira, & E. Soep (Eds.). University of Pennsylvania Press.

 McMillian, Ilysha “Strange Fruit: Interview with Hank Willis Thomas.”Art Nouveau Magazine, March 23, 2012, http://www.an-mag.com/hank-willis-thomas/

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