Funk, Flight, and Freedom” – 2015 CCCC Chair Adam Banks’ Address


[Applause][Music Playing]GC Riff from Martial Law and PFunk Wants
to Get Funked Up Funk is dead was what they said while sitting around shooting pool. The bags were baggy and they weren’t bragging,to tell the truth, they were looking real cool. They were choked and white on white. They wore candy striped ties that hung down to their thighs and they sported gold dust crowns. It was the 15th frame of nine ballgame and y’all still digging the plate. They simply dug a strange cat moving their way. He looked at five years old. He wore a and he needed a shine and he shivered as if he was cold. To all the other guys, they surmised this dude was some ordinary funk, but to the well trained eyes of how the mother ship flies, you can tell the comp stylers was funky.
[Laughter]
[Applause] That verse, from George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic’s
1993 song Martial Law links up at least 3 different generations of Black oral tradition,
as it is a version of the folktale titled either Hip Bud or Billy Bud, but it also provides
a poet in one of my favorite movies with the opening lines of his poem as he tries to court
photographer Nina Mosely. But as another character in the movie says over their own game of pool
“Let me break this down so it can forever and perpetually be broke.” Can I do that? I ask you for permission to do that because
my message this morning is not a scholarly one even though it is about our scholarship.
And I don’t want to use this moment to pretend to speak for the organization in any way,
this organization where I learn far more from the gifts and commitments you bring to it
than I can pretend to offer. All I have is my vision of what we do. And that vision,
everything I think about who we are, the best of what we do and who we can be comes down
to 3 words. Funk. Flight. Freedom. Actually, George Clinton’s protege says it even better
than George did. The sky is not the limit! “Ain’t no walls
behind the sky baby, so we just gonna fly on, and reach for the stars if you know what
I’m talkin’ about.” That line comes from the lyrics to one of the greatest slow jams I
know, from one of the greatest Funk artists alive, Bootsy Collins’s I’d Rather Be With
You. Many of you already know that funk and soul music are primary spaces through which
I enter this thinking, teaching, and serving work that we do. But beyond the thousands
of songs that rotate through my various digital devices, vinyl albums, and my friends’ facebook,
twitter, soundcloud and spotify posts. It is this one song that has stayed with me.
Through all our conference events and conference calls, through all the officers email exchanges
and in person exchanges, through all of my walking time, coffeeshop time and library
time, I keep coming back to Bootsy. I keep coming back to this song, I’d rather be with
you. Part of that is truly because I would rather
be with you–because there is no other academic discipline I would rather be part of than
composition. But more than that, I think that this song is the one that wouldn’t let me
go in all of my thinking about this moment because of its reminder, no its insistence
that there are no limits, that we need to fly on and reach for the stars that renews
me in a moment when I so desperately needed renewal. Bootsy’s song brings together the
three themes I believe can guide us as we respond to the call to risk and reward that
our program chair has chosen for us: Funk, Flight, and Freedom. In fact, Bootsy Collins and his Parliament/Funkadelic
family, made flight and space travel central themes and images in their music. From the
mothership as the central metaphor for PFunk’s role in the musical universe and the 20th
century chariot that they invoked to swing down and let us ride, to Bootsy’s instruction
to his audience that we gonna fly on, past any limits that our day to day lives might
impose on us, past any constraints that might wear on us, joined in a long line, to a long
tradition of tales of flying Africans in which flight–across oceans home to Africa, and
across galaxies to as yet unexplored stars and planets–has been an ongoing motif for
claiming freedom right here and now. These ideas–funk, flight, and freedmo–speak
to the role I believe composition and communication can play in the academy. Our program Chair
has talked about CCCC being the “mothership.” I’ll extend that metaphor past the Starship
Enterprise for right now, though. In many ways, I think of composition as the Deep Space
Nine of the academy. Because we have the opportunity to be part of the academic journey of almost
every student who pursues higher education, hub metaphors for our work are not at all
new. But I also believe that because of our training we have a chance to be a hub for
intellectual life on campus for other departments and for administrators as well. Because we
are a discipline and at the same time cannot be contained by ideas of disciplinarity, we
can be a model and connecting point for the hard work of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity
we often hear talked about across campus, but rarely lived out. In fact, I often imagine
composition programs and departments operating more like interddisciplinary centers than
as programs and departments. And I’ve always believed we ought to be a hub for connections
between the academy and local communities. I have Funk on my mind this morning not just
because it is a genre of music that I love, but because of the ways Funk artists imagined
the world and our place in it. One of the things that I love most about Composition–one
of the reasons I’d rather be with you–is because of ways in which our field has arrived
at a disciplinary maturity, and yet remains undisciplined, unable to be disciplined. Funk
is on my mind because for me it represents us dropping pretense and embracing boldness,
wildness, and irreverence. Poet and scholar Tony Bolden cites writers like Jayne Cortez,
Sterling Plummp and Talib Kweli as “funky.” Check his description: “Effusive and amorphous, the funk impulse
is a central component of all black music–from antebellum ring shouts and gospels to blues,
jazz, funk and hip-hop. Hence, George Clinton’s hyperbole: ‘In the beginning was the funk.’
Characterized by an aesthetic that foregrounds speed, self-reflexivity, asymmetry, dissonance,
and repetition, funkativity bespeaks a kinetic epistemology comprised of dynamic principles
stored in a virtual archive of cultural memory, replete with (pre)configuring riffs and rhymes,
twists and turns, shakes and breaks that are perpetually (re)sampled and (re)mixed in a
manner comparable to electricity.” Bolden also links Funk to Latina/o culture
by referencing Federico Garcia Lorca’s theorizing of the concept of duende. He quotes Lorca
this way: “the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of your feet.” I yearn for
my own writing to one day reflect THAT kind of electric, kinetic, epistemology. Funk is
worthy of sustained scholarly attention because it the sweat and the stank of Funk, the sweet
and nasty smell of exertion as we break it on down and shake it on down, that signifies
not only honest expression, exertion and integrity, but acumen, celebration, commitment to one’s
work, and yes, intellect. This intellectual, creative, and physical work has helped Blackfolk
and audiences across race and culture intervene into the nation’s racialized ideologies for
Bolden, because those steeped in the Funk are free enough to toss those ideologies aside
and refuse to play by the rules of the game. I’m talking about Funk as a guiding idea for
who we are in our thinking, teaching, making and doing because for just a minute, I want
us to drop our serious, scholarly, personae and just talk together. I want us move forward
knowing that just like the #BlackLivesMatter movement teaches us respectability will not
save us in the streets or in the bedroom or in relationships or in politics, or even in
a brilliant presidency, it will not save us in the academy either. So just like Viola
Davis took off her wig to let the nation know she would not be defined by someone else’s
oppressive standards, I want us to take off our own respectability politics for a minute
and realize that no matter how much we push our students to dismiss their home languages
for some assimilated standardized version, respectability will not save us. I want us
to realize that the funkiness of Cs the Day and our Sparkle Ponies is one of the best
things about us, and that even if we did not have them,Tthe Chronicle still wouldn’t understand
us, and much less save us. I’m beyond grateful that sparkle ponies roam our halls and listen
in on our sessions and inspire the connections across people and ideas that open up space
for new, imaginative scholarship and make people feel welcome and at home in the process.
I want us to realize the respectability of having Fellows like other academic organizations
will not save us. I want us to realize that all our citations of high theory will not
save us, and neither will trying to show that we are as rigorous and as serious as our English
department colleagues save us. And I want us to realize that even the respectability
of bigger budgets will not save us. As real as our struggles are, we act like being broke
is new. We always been underfunded. We always been figuring it out as we go along. We always
been dismissed, disregarded, disrespected. But we served any how. We took care of our
students any how. We transformed one discipline and created our own any how. And it was women
who did that work. It was people of color who did that work. It was Queer folk who did
that work. It was first generation students in New York City and across the country demanding
open admissions who did that work. It was people of all backgrounds building and running
programs while they taught and theorized. But sometimes it seems to me that the funk
of who we have been throughout our history is dead. Our conferences are sometimes too
clean. To paraphrase a poet friend of mine, Thomas Sayers Ellis, all their stanzas and
all our conferences and all our conference attendance look alike despite our brochures
and our resolutions and our best intentions. As real as the intra- departmental and institutional
condescension we face can be, our best work happened in periods of struggle. Our best
work happened when we dedicated ourselves to the students the rest of the academy didn’t
want. Our best work happened when our courses looked more like handcrafted Zines and broadsides
created on mimeographs than huge productions done and supported by huge corporate publishers.
Our universities spend all this time and effort at branding, talking about excellence and
distinction. But I want us, our courses, our programs and departments to be more than that–I
want us to create and work in spaces that look after the students and the teachers and
the communities the rest of the academy’s pursuit of “distinction” looks and sneers
at. I want colleagues who will show and tell and teach our students like Elaine Richardson
and Rhea Lathan taught us last year, The Shame Tree truly is dead. I want Funk to be our guide not just because
the rest of the academy feels too clean and too serene to me, but because intellectual
life is funky. It is messy. Trying to build a society worthy of our aims is messy. I want
Funk to be our guide because that is the only way we can close the huge gaps that exist
between our professed ideals and our practice, the only way we can own our privilege within
oppressive spaces. Funk means we are wiling to sweat. Funk means we are willing to deal
with messiness and complexity. Funk means we will look unflinchingly at all that pains
us, all that is wrong around us and STILL dance our way out of our constrictions. My hope for us is that as we worry a little
less about being neat and clean, a little less about respectability inside our departments,
programs and universities, that as we embrace boldness, complexity and even a little irreverence
and messiness that we will be able to take flight into intellectual, pedagogical and
programmatic places that we might partially see, but cannot yet fully know. This is a
time for exploration, for experimentation. This is a time when we can create and risk.
This is a time when we don’t have to have it all figured out just yet. Flight has been a fairly consistent theme
from our former chair’s speaking on this occasion. I’m also asking us to take flight across both
space and time because for me, flight means embracing and investing in innovation. It
means creating spaces for innovation not tied to byzantine processes of administrators’
or faculty senates’ approval. Being willing to really fly on and reach for the stars,
means that we drop at least some of our worries about what’s happening right now and fix our
gaze on big challenges and problems and then work backwards. Because Toni Morrison tells us “if you want
to fly, you have to let go of the shit that weighs you down,” let me say this right now.
By the power vested in me for the 30 minutes of this chair’s address, I hereby promote
the essay to dominant genre emeritus. I thank you for your long and committed service over
more than a century. We still love you. We want you to keep an office on campus and in
our thinking, teaching, and writing lives. We will continue to throw wonderful parties
and give meaningful awards in your name. And yet, we also acknowledge the rise and promotion
of many other activities around which writing and communication can be organized. And we
realize that if we are going to fly and find new intellectual spaces and futuristic challenges
to meet with our students and each other, we have to leave the comfortable ground we
have found with you. For those of you who might be wondering if
I’ve lost my mind at this point, let me state my case this way: the essay is a valuable,
even powerful technology that has particular affordances in helping us promote communicative
ability, dialogue and critical thinking. But we have gotten too comfortable relying on
those affordances as our writing and communication universe goes through not only intense change,
but an ever increasing tempo of change. I admit, that change gets dizzying. We have
been talking about technological changes in communication for more than 30 years thanks
to venues like Computers and Composition and many of our technical and professional writing
scholars. Jackie Royster challenged us years ago to expand our vision of academic discourses
in her classic “Small Boats in a Big Sea.” And we’ve been talking about multimodal, multimedia
forms of composing for a long time as well. This is the time for us to take those calls
to yet another level. Think with me, about the literacies, about the understandings that
the essay has helped us build with students: ethical source use and connection to scholarly
community; the ability to value other voices, including those with whom we disagree; the
ability to develop compelling support for an idea; experimentation with different rhythms
and organizing strategies in our prose. This is obviously only the beginning, but you get
the idea. Keep those abilities in mind and consider what the authors of Confronting the
Challenges of Participatory Culture argue are the literacies we have to develop with
our students for right now and for the future: Performance Simulation Appropriation Multitasking Distributed Cognition Collective Intelligence Judgment Transmedia Navigation Networking Negotiation across diverse communities But there is more than literacy–more than
changing literacies–at stake. As composing becomes more and more enmeshed in digital
environments, tools, practices and networks, we need to see this as a crossroads moment.
That crossroads, for me is one where we see that we have to embrace technology issues
not as part of what we do, but central to what we do. Technology is what we do–or what
we need to do–not just because literacy is always technologized, not just because of
computers AND composition, but because of the big picture technological issues that
are always brought to bear on all facets of our lives and work. So we need to ask different
questions about writing with technologies, but also about writing in relationship to
big picture technology issues. What happens to composing when laptop and
desktop computers go the way of the typewriter? How will wearable and implantable technologies
change our access to information and our ability to share with each other? How will the constant
sharing that sometimes makes us uncomfortable on social media go into warp drive when audio
and video recording of everything everywhere becomes as commonplace as clicking and sharing
a link are now? How will we respond when the dramatic changes in the pace of change exacerbate
racial and gender divides that are already staggering? What I am trying to suggest is that we need
to take the next step in our investigations of technology issues far beyond the boxes
and wires–that because writing, communication, composing, are always technologized, big picture
technology studies needs to become a crucial, a central part of what we do. It is time for
some new journals and book series to take as big a leap forward now as Kairos and Technoculture
and Computers and Composition did in their beginnings, journals and book series that
are dedicated to exploring the messy big picture concerns that structure technologies and our
relationships to them. In a cultural moment when we are fascinated by the visual because
of Instagram and Vine–perhaps blinded by the image. We need more work in Sound Studies
and oral composing and audio archives. We need more critical edge when it comes to technology
studies so that we don’t become hoodwinked every time governments and corporations unite
to try to sell us utopian visions about the next new gadget that will heal everything
that ails us. And to do all of this, we need some new friends.
It’s time for us to travel across campus, across programs, and into more strategic relationship
building by doing more with affiliate faculty and cross disciplinary courses and certificates.
We need deeper connections with the disciplines that get lumped into area studies. We need
to build deep and long term relationships with university libraries and iSchools that
go beyond the first year comp trip to the library to learn about source use. And we
need to keep working hard on that 4th C in our title: we have to do long term work build
more on our relationships with communication programs, schools and departments. Many of
our members attend RSA and NCA, but how can we take those individual relationships that
exist and use them to deepen our programmatic and organizational connections? What can we
do to build long term relationships with Hispanic Serving Institutions and Tribal Colleges and
HBCUs? We need greater connection and collaboration across programs and organizations because
even the most brilliant faculty, even the largest writing and rhetoric programs, even
the best organizations like CCCC, cannot do this futuristic work alone. However, to invoke flight–even imagined flight–at
a time like this might seem fraudulent. We are not free to fly when one of our own, my
sister Dr. Ersula Ore was assaulted and thrown to the street because a police officer didn’t
like the way she responded to him. And on our own campuses we are not free to take flight
when the exploitation of highly skilled teachers and scholars labeled as contingent, labeled
as adjunct, minimized with a “part-time” tag is allowed to flourish. It may be that we
will never see this society become brave enough to move beyond sexism, homophobia, racism
and economic exploitation. But I am still here to ask us to think about freedom as crucial
to our work. I’m asking us to think about freedom in this
unfree world because the only freedom we will see, the only freedom we will get is the freedom
we take. And the only way we get free is to walk with and learn from those who are out
here working to get free. One thing this means is we have to focus less on the rhetorical
“exemplars,” focus less on “successful” movements. Freedom work is funky rather than refined.
It is becoming rather than overcome. It is in process rather than proclaimed. A major obstacle we have to free ourselves
from is the set of handcuffs the same old theory and the same old theorists and the
same old scholarship place on us. All their stanzas look alike–and too much
of our theorizing and scholarship do too. As
important as people like De Certeau and Jameson and many others can be to our work, there
is just as much theoretical richness to be gleaned from Anna Julia Cooper, from Minnie
Bruce Pratt, from Vine Deloria, from the Young Lords in New York and Dreamers and Dream Defenders
and the Crunk Feminist Collective and from local people and organizations whose names
we don’t yet know. The moment when we will be free or represent freedom as an organization,
as a group of scholars will be not just when the demographics of our conferences and our
faculties look like the demographics of our society, but when our works cited lists do
too. I woke up this morning with my mind stayed
on freedom because the only way to gain the freedom we so desperately need as a society
and as a discipline is through the very problems that threaten seem so intractable. Katie Geneva Cannon in Living the Life of
Jubilee says: “And in these modern times, what do we do,
what do we say, when the powers and principalities, when the spiritual wickedness in high places,
say to us go get your sons, go get your daughters, go get your nieces, go get your nephews, go
get your grandchildren, go get your great grandchildren, go get your sisters and brothers,
and hand them over to us.” “Yes, church, what are we saying, what are
we doing, when the bureaucrats and the drug dealers, what are we saying, what are we doing,
when the global capitalists and the gang bangers,what are we saying when the cold-hearted, mean
spirited power brokers and the misogynistic, bible thumping homophobes demand the souls
of the people in our families, the people in our churches, the people in our communities?
When the people who don’t mean any good to us demand the souls of our sisters and brothers
anywhere in the world?” But it’s what comes next that is so powerful
to me. Rather than proclaim Jubilee as some single moment when those who are enslaved
are free or people are relieved of their debts, she challenges her people to long term work:
instead of a powerful moment of celebration of freedom gained, she challenges them to
live the life of Jubilee Justice. Rather than some single moment, Jubilee becomes a life
long commitment to the work of seeking justice. Being able to reach higher ground, or to fly
on, and reach for the stars demands service in the valleys where we live and struggle.
And when we see it this way, our service mission, to our students, to our campuses and to our
communities becomes the very thing that gives us the freedom to fly. Take, close out or keep it tight depending
on time… Let us make this space that we create here
together for these few days be one where we proclaim ain’t no walls behind the sky baby. Let us embrace the funk that keeps us from
being completely disciplined by academic silos and conventions. And let us fly on, reaching for stars we cannot
yet map, see, or scan. Let us be committed to creating free spaces
for ourselves, and to standing with and learning from those who are engaged in freedom struggle. Let us use that freedom we take for those
who do not have our protections or our privileges, inside and outside the academy. Let us use it to become a hub for intellectual
life and critical dialogue both on campus, and off. And let us use it to serve our students,
to serve the local communities in which we live, love, work and play, and to serve our
broader society, which needs our attention to discourse and our ability to enter messy
public conversations maybe more now than at any point in our recent memory. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Funk, Flight, and Freedom” – 2015 CCCC Chair Adam Banks’ Address

  • I'd like to get the transcript for this.  Students in general, and African-American students in particular, need to know that being able to write speak articulately about writing issue before a widely diverse audience is not incompatible with knowing who George Clinton is!

  • 10:46–12:15 — "Because those steeped in the funk are free enough to toss those ideologies aside and refuse to play by the rules of the game. Intervention comes from those who are irreverent, from those who are contrary, from those who are wild. I'm talking about funk as a guiding idea for who we are in our thinking, teaching, making, and doing, because for just a minute, I want us to drop our serious, scholarly personae and just talk together. I want us to move forward knowing that just like protesters in Ferguson and New York and in the Bay Area and Cleveland teach us: Respectability will not save us in the streets or in the classroom. In relationships or in politics. Or even in a brilliant presidency. It will not save us in the academy either. So just like Viola Davis took off her wig on How to Get Away With Murder and let the nation know she would not be defined by someone else's oppressive standards, I want us to take off our own respectability politics for a minute. And realize that no matter how much we push our students to dismiss their home languages for some assimilated standardized version, respectability will not save them or us.

  • 12:15 – 16:40 — "I want us to realize that the funkiness of Cs the Day and our sparkle ponies is one of the best things about us [woo-ing and clapping] and that even if we did not have them, the Chronicle still wouldn’t understand us and much less save us [even more woo-ing plus whistling, and clapping]. I am beyond grateful that sparkle ponies roam our halls and listen in on our sessions and inspire the connections across people and ideas that open up space for new imaginative teaching and scholarship and make people feel welcome and at home in the process. I want us to realize the respectability of having fellows like other learn-ed societies will not save us. I want us to realize that all our citations of high theory will not save us, and neither will trying to show them that we are as rigorous and serious as some of our other literary colleagues save us. I want us to realize that even the respectability of bigger budgets will not save us.

    "As real as those issues are and our struggles with fair budgets are, we act like being broke is new [laughter]. We always been underfunded. We always been figuring it out as we go. [crowd: yeah] We always been dismissed and disregarded but we served anyhow. [crowd: yeah] We took care of our students anyhow. We transformed one discipline and created our own anyhow. And it was women who did that work. [crowd clapping] It was people of color who did that work. It was queer folk who did that work. It was first generation students in New York city and across the country demanding open admissions who did that work. [crowd is seriously going wild] It was people of all backgrounds teaching four and five and six courses a semester contingent and part time and full time and sometimes even more time who did that work for us. Building and running programs while they taught and theorized.

    "But sometimes it seems to me that the funk of who we’ve been throughout our history is dead. Our conferences sometimes too clean. Thanks to Joyce not this year. Not so fresh and so clean clean but serene clean. To paraphrase a poet friend of mine Thomas Sayers Ellis: all our conferences and all our conference attendents look alike despite all our brochures and our resolutions and best intentions, as real as the intradepartmental and institutional condescension can be, our best work has happened in periods of struggle. Our best work happened when we dedicated ourselves to the students the rest of the academy didn’t want. Our best work happened when our courses looked more like handcrafted zines and broadsides created on mimeographs than huge productions done and supported by huge corporate publishers. [hesitant but crescendoing claps]

    "Our universities spend all this time and effort and branding talking about excellence and distinction and matrices and best practices. But I want us, our courses, and our programs, and our departments to be more than that. I want us to create in working spaces that look after the students and the teachers and the communities the rest of the academy’s pursuit of distinction looks and sneers. Ain’t nobody got time for that."

  • Deeply inspiring talk on what writing professionals should aim for in their work! It is a master piece in so many levels! So many memorable quotes, one that stands out is "Let's be committed to standing with and learning from those who are engaged in freedom struggle, not in the past, but right here right now."

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