Taken from Modern Ghana (Mar 08, 2019)
The America That Is Not For Me: Part 15
by Francis Kwarteng
American dream is just fantasy
"Life really is a bad actor," I told myself with penetrating conviction.
With an edge of brutal honesty on my side regarding what I should do next, I left for another college after the unending cycles of frustrations and emotional dissipation at the previous college.
My marriage with America hasn't been a cakewalk, but if truth be told, I had reached my wit's end by the time the screaming controversies with the Scholarship Office and the Financial Aid Office came to an end, a false end.
A false end indeed!
The screaming controversies weren't over yet. I had found other ways to make a detour around trying circumstances that I couldn't rein in. In these difficult moments I read voraciously, wrote prolifically, and consumed music-roots reggae, traditional highlife, jazz, Afrobeat-as never before. I listened to Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, Miriam Makeba, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, Mustapha Tettey Addy, Thelonious Monk, Kwabena Onyina, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane and Miles Davis among others.
Of all things, I jumped right into the open arms of another writing class besides physics, general chemistry, sociology, speech communication, anatomy and physiology, organic chemistry and microbiology, for, among other potential benefits from this decision, I conceived of writing and reading essentially as the major cathartic outlets I had always sought out for psychological, emotional, and physiological balance. I'll say with absolute confidence that reading and writing bailed me out of an irreversible psychological, mental, and emotional collapse.
At one time, I bought a copy of William Strunk, Jr.'s The Elements of Style when I studied for the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).
My writing professor at this new institution of learning, a Nuyorican, was a doctoral student and a rap-loving aficionado who made us study rap as lyric poetry. He even imitated the gestural vocabulary, aesthetic sartorial bagginess, and other mannerisms of rappers with admirable precision in the English and writing class. One of his favorite rappers whom we studied on the first day of class was KRS-One. Old-school rap was one of his favorite sub-genres of hip-hop culture. On the first day of class we studied KRS-One's "You Must Learn." KRS-One raps in part:
"I believe that if you're teaching history
Filled with straight up facts, no mystery"
"Teach the student what needs to be taught
'Cause Black and White kids both take shorts"
"When one doesn't know about the other ones' culture
Ignorance swoops down like a vulture..."
"No one told you about Benjamin Banneker
A brilliant Black man that invented the almanac..."
"Granville Woods made the walkie-talkie
Lewis Latimer improved on Edison
Charles Drew did a lot for medicine
Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights
Harriet Tubman freed the slaves at night..."
"But you won't know this is you weren't shown..."
"'Cause we're just walking around brainwashed..."
"One that caters to a Black return because
"You must learn..."
KRS-One's "You Must Learn" sums up everything that I think is wrong with the American educational system-think of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's "The Danger of a Single Story." In this song he laments the exclusion of black achievements-historical and contemporary-from the American curriculum.
WEB Du Bois's The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America and Africa and the World reinforce the lyrical and philosophical content of "You Must Learn."
I've always fallen in love with KRS-One and his deep philosophical and political rap repertoire.
Like my Nuyorican writing professor, KRS-One is one of my favorite rappers of all time. Again like the political music of Public Enemy, the soul of Chuck D, the music of KRS-One became a soundtrack to my formative existence.
KRS-One's conscientious lyricism, his lyrics-based political correctness, his Afrocentric poetics, and his political consciousness stood in sharp antipodal coordinates to the double-tonged compass of my Nuyorican writing professor.
In that case the forceful presence of KRS-One's political music made him the equal of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism.
My Nuyorican writing professor, on the other hand, epitomized the heart and soul and mind of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Instead of learning to sing the emotional warmth of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," my Nuyorican writing professor elected to ran into the open arms of Orwellian dystopia. There he assumed the cover of an Orwellian doppelganger, the very essence and personification of doublespeak.
But this man, namely my Nuyorican writing professor, an Orwellian paterfamilias of an English class, born in New York by parents from the exotic island of Puerto Rico, eventually became a characteristic negation of KRS-One's "You Must Learn."
Simply put, my Nuyorican writing professor, who could rap and gesticulate and wigwag in the emotional and physical likeness of Jay-Z and Mos Def and Tupac, became a scheming contradiction in the sarcastic mold of Hegelian dialectic.
I dare say the sweeping flourish of his rhapsodic lips and hands and feet while teaching buried this symptomatic contradiction.
My Nuyorican writing professor's literary affectation and rhapsodic gesticulations further amplified his symptomatic contradiction.
My subtle criticism of him notwithstanding, I couldn't say I didn't appreciate the fact of being sucked into his literary universe where bell hooks and Kahlil Gibran lived. We read Gibran's The Prophet and hooks' Bone Black: Memories of Childhood for his writing class. We spent the first ten minutes of each class to read assigned sections of The Prophet, following which he gave us another ten minutes to compose and submit half-page breviates of what we had read.
The class was really fun.
While we read and wrote in absolute silence, our Nuyorican writing professor encouraged students to write down new words they came across while reading The Prophet. He would then write down these new words on the board and explain what they meant to the class after we'd submitted our half-page summaries for grading. In one instance he confused physiology with physiognomy in definitional terms. One could, however, easily forgive him as physiology with physiognomy may look alike to some. He did repeat this error of definitional interchangeability at another time. In another instance he defined naught as "not nothing." There were several other instances where he misdefined one word after another. This caused me some uneasiness because most of the words were simple, pedestrian words that a native English-speaking person like him should have known by heart-given also that he already had undergraduate and graduate degrees in English and was working on his doctorate in English. This is not to say I'm an expert syntactician.
Most of the students in the class, many of whom had recently graduated from high school, accepted some of his questionable definitions without question. I was, however, more concerned about the intellectual health of these impressionable minds and the misinformation being pumped into their heads by none other than their professor.
I never drew his attention to any of these definitional errors in class. I instead brought them up only after class as we both walked to a designated spot where we boarded different buses bound for our separate destinations. He always promised to do something about this problem the next time we met in class but he never did. I stopped bringing it up after three or four attempts on my part had failed to produce the desired outcome, more so because I usually didn't ask questions in class and therefore refused to broach this matter in class. My taciturnity in class was almost proverbial among my classmates.
My Nuyorican writing professor unequivocally failed to follow KRS-One's "You Must Learn." Little did I know I'd be paying a heavy price for this simple act of professional courtesy. This happened when the professor later accused me of plagiarism. This plagiarism charge arose in connection with a paper the class wrote based on hooks' Bone Black. Bone Black broadened my knowledge of feminism and gender relations.
The professor allowed each student to turn in two drafts first, both of which he edited without grading them but graded the third draft after the student had effected all the necessary changes in the drafts by incorporating his corrective notes or suggestions located in the margins, as well as in the body of the two ungraded drafts, into their third and final drafts. At one time he wrote over one of my unedited drafts that from should always be followed by to in a list-according to the rules of sentential or phrasal construction. And yet that was exactly what I'd done. On other occasions he re-wrote, reworded, or re-phrased some of my sentences which I had included in subsequent drafts after doing some editorial work on them only for him to take issue with the changes, forgetting that the new sentences he was taking issue with were his own sentences. He wasn't reading my drafts closely.
Because I respected him and wanted to learn everything I could about the English language from him, I never questioned his dogmatic and traditional approach to pedagogy. His authoritarian pedagogical style-which turned a professor into a status symbol of consummate knowledge and wisdom and a student into an ignorant, wormlike, and credulous empty vessel-manifested itself through his grim faÃ§ade and uppity, his grimness instilling fear into his students. Most students refused to ask questions because of this. And characteristic of his spoken English was a structural lack of grammatical formality. A few street slangs even made it into his spoken English in class. "I'm a product of the streets," he boasted. Double or multiple negation flowed through his spoken English with characteristic celerity. All these did not augur well for a non-abstruse writing and English class. I was helpless and clueless as to what I could have done to reverse these negative tendencies and behaviors.
"All you do is to string big words together," he once said to me in the presence of other students, "but not essays with substance." When I respectfully pressed him for more information on how best one could compose essays with substance, he neither provided constructive ideas for composing substantive essays nor substantiated his criticism of my work. I never noticed any formal symptom of skeletonized uppity in his frigid demeanor following his failure to tender any convincing enucleation for his groundless claim, at my request. Even so I never took umbrage at his groundless claim regardless, because I took it essentially as a constructive criticism. Because I respected my professors' opinions because I wanted to do better, I welcomed their criticisms with critical openness.
I let go of his unsubstantiated claim without thinking twice about it. I never revisited it. But the raw, unadorned sarcasm and mocking squint in his voice when he alleged that I only composed insubstantial essays was loud and clear.
It didn't take long for the plagiarism charge to emerge, an outrageous charge I vehemently denied. I reported the matter to the halcyon Chair of the English Department when my Nuyorican writing professor refused to change my grade. The Chair of the English Department then asked me to petition him to provide supporting evidence for his claim. I went back to him with the Chair's request. He produced an online document from which he alleged I had sourced some words from, without attribution. This came as a big surprise to me because that was the first time that I was reading something I hadn't set my eyes on before-ever. Because I couldn't identify or establish any meaningful corresponding compatibility, I quickly collected my essay and my Nuyorican writing professor's so-called documentary evidence and rushed them to the office of the Chair.
The Chair likewise juxtaposed the two writings for reasons of establishing a verifiable, objective manifestation of structural compatibility in the bodies of the two writings-strictly measured by direct orthographic replication of ideas. After that, he informed me to go back to my Nuyorican writing professor and ask him to change my grade-which I did but he was having none of that. I went back to the Chair again and he suggested constituting a committee to look into the matter, a proposition I readily agreed to. The English Department created the said committee and my Nuyorican writing professor and I appeared before it separately at different times to argue our cases. I insisted on my innocence, forthrightly admitting to sighting my Nuyorican writing professor's alleged documentary evidence for the first time in my entire life.
I informed the committee that I was a budding writer, an excellent reason for me to learn to compose my writings with a critical pen of auctorial originality and authority, and therefore that I had no reason whatsoever to appropriate or steal others' ideas without attribution, ideas which I'd boldly highlighted in the pages of Bone Black. I took out my copy of Bone Black and showed the highlights to the committee members. Thus, I used Bone Black to confirm the presence of every word my Nuyorican writing professor claimed I'd plagiarized from others. I also showed the committee members samples of other essays I'd written at various points in my life, one of which won me a grant for a doctorate in biomathematics. "We've heard both sides of the story," the pedantic Vice Chair of the English Department told me. "We'll make a final determination in this matter and apprise you of our decision." I thanked the committee members for their time and professionalism.
And I was dismissed.
The Vice Chair sent me an email a week or so following my appearance before the committee. He said in the email that the committee had reached a decision, with an invitation extended to me to visit his office for us to review the decision together. I got on a bus right away and about fifty minutes later I found myself standing in front of his door-gasping for air in a state of inanition. "Come in," he said when I knocked on his door. "Sit down and make yourself comfortable."
I found books and papers everywhere. Then I occupied a seat across from his disheveled desk.
He explained to me that the committee reviewed all the evidence and it didn't appear that I'd plagiarized anybody's work. "We've therefore asked your professor to review his grading of your work. But Francis, you should wait until I've sent out copies of our decision to you and your professor," he concluded, "then you can contact him about your grade."
"Thank you, sir." I went back home in high spirits.
A copy of the committee's decision finally arrived-guilty, guilty of the crime of plagiarism! What was I to make of the double-tongued Vice Chair? This decisional volte-face shook me to the core. How could he betray his conscience in this questionable manner? Why couldn't he tell me to my face that I plagiarized? What was he afraid of by telling me his "truth"? I initially conferred with a lawyer about this matter but later gave up on my plans to seek legal redress for this insalubrious betrayal by an entire department out of sheer emotional, mental, and psychological exhaustion. Being in dire financial straits was another for me to dispense with this decision altogether.
It was this lawyer who advised me during the scholarship and financial aid controversies. I remember him at one time telling me to request the person in charge of the Scholarship Office to put in writing everything he discussed with me, which I in fact did. "You can't come here and tell us how to do our jobs!" the person in charge of the Scholarship Office told me when I politely asked him to provide me with a written proof clearly stating that I had to be born in the US to qualify for this scholarship. I didn't get any such written of documentary proof from him. In fact if he was stunned or infuriated by my deferential request, he didn't betray it conspicuously.
It'd, however, come as a big surprise to me when the lingering shadows and questionable behavior of the old Financial Aid Office resurfaced at the new institution I enrolled in. The Financial Aid Office at this new institution initiated me into another nerve-wracking merry-go-round bureaucratic game. This office approved my first financial aid application only to reverse the decision. As far as I can remember, and I hope I am sufficiently correct about these facts, a staff brought to my knowledge during my academic advising that I had to take a Physical Education class. I had already taken this class in secondary school. He also asked me to take other classes which I thought I didn't need. I explained at length to this staff that the senior college I had just transferred from did evaluate my transcripts and exempted me from taking certain classes, classes not dissimilar in content structure to the ones he was now asking me to take.
But when I did, he sharply reminded me that the two institutions weren't the same even though they belonged to the same public university system.
I won a number of major concessions through my persistence, but the exchanges with this staff came at a prize in the form of the Financial Aid Office's surprising decisional reversal. My self-advocacy seemed to have touched a raw nerve. I spoke with a financial aid counselor about the situation, after which she referred me to the Financial Aid Office. I spoke with a staff from the Financial Aid Office who referred me back to the counselor. Yet I failed to see a convincing thread of advisory consistency in their measured remarks and opinions though, in substance, I had a strong feeling that they agreed with my non-establishment refusal to accept the courses being foisted on me. It was as if we lived on different planets where none of us understood the language of the other. Their inconsistencies led me on a merry dance. I found myself again in an infinite loop of despair and frustration and bitterness.
In spite of the impasse, I pressed upon the financial aid staff and counselor to review their earlier positions in the light of my general arguments, subject to an unbiased reexamination of the conclusions of their own evaluation of my official transcripts. Only one official agreed to take the substance of my arguments under advisement. I appeared to have made headway in my consultative approach when the counselor finally asked a financial aid staff to accompany me to a room of computers for an online quiz based on readings of a number of financial aid documents. The counselor then asked me to see her with the quiz results when I was done. She also gave me additional information on her office hours, insisting that I be there within her stipulated time bracket with the quiz results.
I was happy she didn't hand me a lucubratory document on financial aid to read.
The staff took me to the computer room without telling me what to do next. She walked away without saying a word to me. Her behavior stood in sharp contrast to what I had seen that day during my back-and-forth consultations with an assortment of financial aid staff, when other staff members from the Financial Aid Office accompanied students to the computer room with hands-on instructions on what to do, with these staff members either sitting or standing close by as these students took the online quiz. I got the quiz done and went to see the counselor but she wasn't there in her office. "She has left for the day!" another staff told me on her way to a restroom. How could she have left when I got to her office within her stipulated office hours? Did she leave by reason of an emergency?
I kept knocking on her door and stopped only when it dawned on me that she couldn't be there for real.
I had literally spent the entire day there after my overnight shift. I was completely exhausted, hungry, and sleepy.
The next shock, however, came when every staff member I went to see refused to take the printout. "Take it to the counselor!" one staff member after another told me. But the counselor had left for the day and they all knew it.
I began to weep when a staff Financial Aid Office who felt sorry for my situation finally agreed to take the printout on the counselor's behalf. I left for home without achieving my ultimate objective that day-to finalize my financial aid package. Of course I didn't sleep that night.
However, my package was later approved but the new package wasn't of the same size as the initial award.
And then my Nuyorican writing professor appeared from nowhere with an entirely different kind of headache-a false charge of plagiarism.
To make a long story short, a faculty member confided in me that either the Vice Chair of the English Department or the Chair of the English Department was my Nuyorican writing professor's dissertation advisor. At this point I was no longer interested in this institution of learning anymore, or who was what and who did what. None of that mattered to me anymore. I walked out of that institution of learning when the time came, like I did at the previous institution of learning. It was my Nuyorican writing professor this time who excluded me from "You Must Learn."
My Nuyorican writing professor was now a negation of KRS-One, of victorious consciousness, of equal representation in the marketplace of ideas, of the political and moral realism of "You Must Learn."