Friday, March 27, 2015

Emily Dickinson's "We Grow Accustomed to the Dark" (for the Common Core Crowd)

I. Reading

This poem begins with the word “we,” instead of “I.” Dickinson presumes to speak for all of us, and we are invited to see ourselves in this poem. So when I read the first stanza, I have to ask myself: is this true of me too? And Dickinson’s poem convinced me: yes!

“We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Goodbye—“

What does it mean to “grow accustomed?” Usually that means getting used to, or adjusting (a word she also uses in the poem’s last stanza) to something alien, something unfamiliar, something we didn’t want or that makes us uncomfortable, like an immigrant having to learn the customs of the country in which she finds (or loses) herself. Darkness, then, is contrasted to the light. And it’s true, in our society, light is often more valued than dark. Dickinson doesn’t say the sun is setting, she says, “light is put away.” There was no electricity in Dickinson’s time, but there were candles (and lamps lit with whale-blubber), designed to stave off the dark (and in a way extend the feeling of daylight beyond its naturally allotted time).

But this first stanza is not just about light and dark, or day and night, it’s also about what happens when you’re left alone. The most striking image here involves “the Neighbor.” It’s interesting that she says “the Neighbor,” rather than “a Neighbor.” This particular Neighbor is obviously a very important, close friend, and she’s leaving, and taking the light with her (so she can see herself leaving).

In the second stanza, Dickinson is left alone with the night, so she offers physical examples of how we “grow accustomed” to the dark.

A Moment -- We uncertain step

For newness of the night --

Then -- fit our Vision to the Dark --

And meet the Road -- erect --

I have definitely felt something like this when trying to walk and see at night. It takes awhile for the eyes to adjust, to “fit our Vision to the Dark,” but they often do, especially once you realize that darkness is often not entirely dark.[i] It may seem totally dark at first, in the “newness of the night,” but that’s because we’re comparing it to day (or to the lamplight). There are degrees of darkness, just as there are degrees of brightness: it’s not really a matter of “black” and “white” (as they say), but more of yin and yang.

Dickinson’s use of her characteristic dashes in this stanza is very artful, and helps show her own stumbling, her own “uncertain step(s)” in this seemingly alien, but ultimately very natural, darkness. Her capitalization of words like “Vision,” also suggests that this “Vision” is not mere physical sight, but a matter of consciousness. People often speak of the word “vision,” as their “world view,” or their insight. And this word leads her to the next stanza:

“And so of larger—The Darkness—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or star—come out—within—“

As she moves from a specific moment, a specific example, of leaving the neighbor and walking back in darkness (presumably to her own home) to these “Evenings of the Brain,” the poem becomes “larger” in its meanings, but also more “internal” and private. For Dickinson, “The Brain is wider than the Sky,” as she put it in another short poem, and in “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark,” everything she says about the darkness of the sky can be at least as true about the brain (or you can call it mind, or soul, or consciousness).

Here the darkness is definitely absolute. There’s no “Moon” to “disclose a sign” or
“Star—come out—within—.” Both the moon and the star become symbols
instead of images. A moon, or even one little star, can give meaning, direction, and
even hope: a sign. The analogy she makes between the physical world and the
interior world in this stanza seems more hopeless. It’s not just “A Moment”
of uncertainty that takes up only two-lines in the previous stanza. This despair takes
up an entire stanza of “Evenings.”

Her use of the word “Evenings” in this stanza is interesting for several reasons.
We usually think of evenings as happening between day and night, light and dark.
They happen earlier in winter than they do in summer (when the nights are
shorter). They are called “evenings” because they even the balance between light
and dark; both are necessary in nature. But in Dickinson’s poem these “Evenings”
are entirely dark, but her use of the word evening—rather than the word “night”
actually gives her a little hope that it is not endless night.

Still, these evenings of darkness can be treacherous, and we must be brave to cope with them. In fact, they’re much more treacherous than walking back from the Neighbor. We can “sometimes hit a Tree/ Directly in the Forehead.” This line is actually very comical, even in its pain and violence. It sounds like she’s saying the “Tree” has a “Forehead” too! Because the subject of this stanza has now switched from the first-person plural (“We”) to the third-person plural (“The Bravest”), I wonder if Dickinson herself actually still identifies with “The Bravest,” and if “we” can “learn to see” as she says they can. “But as they learn to see,” she writes:

“Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.”

At the end of this poem, she has established her analogy (or her metaphoric conceit) between the physical darkness and the “larger—Darkness…of the Brain.”
But there are other crucial differences between what happens in the first two stanzas, and what happens in the last three stanzas, aside from the change from “we” to “they” (The Bravest).

As the seeing becomes not just physical seeing, but rather an interior Vision that could allow the bravest of us to cope with the darkness of despair (beyond the “irritable groping for certainty,” as John Keats puts it in one of his famous letters), something changes, but Dickinson can’t really figure out what changes. She offers two versions of “learning to see,” two perspectives, and two ways of saying the same thing. The darkness itself may alter—or change. This could mean the darkness becomes less dark, or “alters” could even suggest a religious significance; the darkness starts being seen as sacred! Again, Dickinson’s mastery of choosing single words with suggestive double-meanings is simply stunning!

“Learning to see” could also mean that “something in the sight/ Adjusts itself to Midnight.” This adjustment is similar to the way we “fit our Vision to the Dark” in the second stanza. But, here, it’s not us doing it; it’s not even “they” (the bravest of us) doing it. It’s “something in the sight,” something we may not really have any control over. So even though she locates this “something in the sight” inside the bravest of us in contrast to the “darkness,” which she had considered as outside of us, in this final stanza the difference between the inside and the outside seems to vanish! We’re becoming accustomed to our own darkness.

All she knows is that something changes, or adjusts, but since these “Evenings of the brain,” are so much more difficult to deal with, the final line of the poem makes one more contrast with what she wrote about mere physical, everyday (or every night) darkness. She ended stanza two, by concluding confidently, that we can “meet the Road---erect—,” but here she ends with “And Life steps almost straight.” The word almost is the key word here. Her comparison between the physical, external world, and the “evenings of the brain,” actually ends up emphasizing the contrasts, the difference between the two.

Dickinson’s little five stanza poem becomes more complex the more you look at it. “The World is Not Conclusion,” she wrote; and this poem offers no conclusion. “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant,” she also wrote, and here the “almost straight,” is certainly slant---but maybe it’s more true, and accurate, than “meet the Road—erect” in a deeply profound way.

II. Formal Structure & Music (And  Interactive Class Activity)

Dickinson’s poems are the only two poems in this “Common Core App,” that can easily be set to music!  Have you ever heard a gospel song like “Amazing Grace?” Or maybe you’ve heard the blues song (made famous by The Animals and Bob Dylan, “House Of The Rising Sun”)? Or have you even heard “The Gilligan’s Island theme?
Those are just three examples of song melodies and structures that you could use to sing, and to study, both “We Grow Accustomed To The Dark” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” In fact, thinking about singing these songs is the easiest way to teach, and learn, Dickinson’s formal structure, without all the technical jargon.

In considering those three melodies, and songs, one may notice how different they feel from each other. “Amazing Grace” is an uplifting sacred song (and still sung in both white and black churches), while “House Of The Rising Sun,” is dark and minor, and The “Gilligan’s Island” theme is a comic seafaring song. If you sing Dickinson’s poem to each of these melodies, you’ll hear how different they make her words sound, and feel. This could lead to a very productive class-room discussion about how to interpret the meanings of Dickinson’s poem, and also a fascinating discussion about poetry’s relationship to songs.

After all, the word “interpretation” can mean both “your reading of a poem,” but also the way you perform a song, as a cover version, or even a play: each performance of a Shakespeare play is an “interpretation” of this poem. And these two Emily Dickinson poems have been interpreted (read) in many different ways: some read her poems as very uplifting (like “Amazing Grace”) and others read the poems as much darker (like the melody to “House Of The Rising Sun”).

One possible class exercise is to listen to these two songs as a group and ask students which melody works with better with the lyrics, or to try to find other melodies that these poems could work with. Some of your students may even come up with their own songs. Exercises like this can help make the poem come more alive to the students, and also show that there was a practical basis originally for the technical terminology used to describe rhythm and meter in formal poetry.

That practical basis has tended to get lost as most poetry is written for the page, and not often memorized to be sung as songs are. But it’s still a practical concern in the craft of songwriting today, which at its best, is not that different from poetry. It helps emphasize the physicality of the rhythm. In my experience, it’s been exercises such as these that allow students to actually see a point to all the daunting talk of trochees, iambs, and dactyls. After doing these exercises, it’s much easier to bring that up.

Like many of Dickinson’s poems, the meter alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, but there are some deviations from it (noticeably the use of the word “Either” in the last stanza, which departs from the rhythm). All the stanzas generally rhyme the 2nd and 4th line, but there is only one exact end rhyme (“Tree” and “see”). All the others are “close rhymes” or “eye rhymes: (“Away” and “goodbye” in first stanza; “night,” and “erect” in the second stanza; “Brain” and within;” and “sight and straight”). In Dickinson, her use of these rhymes, and even her deviation from her standard metric form usually tells us something about what she’s saying as well.

[i] A personal example: I go to the bathroom to brush my teeth, and turn on the light. The light seems dimmer than usual. Too dim, but I can see enough to brush my teeth. Brushing, I take my attention off this general light to focus more specifically on the process of brushing (which isn’t entirely visual). But when I look back at the general light in the room coming from the ceiling, it now suddenly seems brighter. Did the electrical current just take awhile to kick in, or did my retinas or something else in my eyes, in fact, adjust? It’s a mystery, but a pleasant one.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


“Artists, cultural icons, can highlight, reflect and support a movement, but those of us with real organizing skills and consistent activist mindsets must be the one to make movements happen. The artists inspire activists to do what we do, and the activists inspire the artists to do what they do.”—Kevin Powell

“We warn radio stations to be smart. The canned response of “if you don’t like it, don’t listen” will be met with “if you don’t respect us, get out.”---RADIO-ACTIVE

In a recent essay, Kevin Powell writes about the roots of what today some call “hip hop activists” (or “raptivists,” as CNN’s Don Lemon smugly referred to Talib Kweli). In the 1980s, hip-hop was the soundtrack while Sister Souljah, Ras Baraka (now the mayor of Newark, NJ), April Silver and countless others—including Powell himself—were organizing, agitating, and resisting racism and economic injustice (Powell, 34). This was a natural alliance in which both musician and activist, culture and the economy, benefitted.

This point is especially timely since the national #BlackLivesMatter movement has grown in the wake of the state-sanctioned killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO during the summer of 2014. We can hear some very well-known rappers—and musicians in other genres—lend support and visibility to this movement (Kweli, Common, J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and the omnipresent Boots Riley of the Coup, to name but a few). In addition, lesser known artists--like St. Louis rapper Tef. Poe, one of the main activists on the “front lines” of Ferguson-- are marching and organizing alongside Ashley Yates and others in the MAU and the BLM movement.

Unfortunately, most of the songs that have come out of, or accompanied, this movement and articulate its demands most profoundly are not to be found on the corporate-owned mass media outlets with their near monopoly ownership of the wireless airwaves that promote and disseminate hip hop and other forms of music made by, and listened to, by black people in this racially and economically segregated society.

Many of these “raptivist” songs are released on small---in some cases self-owned—record labels that that have little chance to compete against the large media conglomerates. 99% of the time, Clearchannel refuses to air this “underground” music (that’s part of why it’s called “underground”). Instead, they play the music that the white owned record labels are able to spend millions marketing and promoting.

These record labels have had a broad policy of rejecting “conscious” hip hop with an uplifting message ever since the early 1990s when many of them purged the rappers from their label who refused to sprinkle in a quota of lines about “bitches and hoes” and slinging rock, as Phavia Kujichagulia recently pointed out at Laney College’s celebration of the Black Arts Movement. Kujichagulia refused to lower her standards, and as a result was not signed to the major label, adding, with both regret and pride, “that’s why many of you have never heard of me.”

Countless others have testified to similar instances of corporate censorship. In the early 1990s, as Powel puts it, “what we thought was a burgeoning social movement for change, fueled by hip-hop, got decimated by a shift toward what the corporations were suddenly permitting to be marketed and sold.” (36). As a result, in the subsequent 20 years, Powell argues, there has been a split between authentic “hip hop culture” and “the hip hop industry, the bastard child of the culture, manipulated, twisted and bent out of shape by a few corporations.” (36)

This “bastardization” of hip hop often takes the form of corporate censorship—even though I’m well aware that many still argue that these radio stations are playing, and these record labels are promoting, the songs and musicians that listeners demand. Yet, in most cases, the people only demand these songs after they’ve been pushed from above. The listener of music is supposed to assume that the executives of these corporate media conglomerates have impeccable—unimpeachable—taste in music and let these people (or algorithms) decide what the options on the musical menu are before the listeners have any say in the matter. We’re also supposed to assume that these corporations have our best interest at heart. Both of these assumptions are debatable, at the very least.

As Powell sees it, these corporate gate keepers have game blocked hip hop culture’s evolution from occurring. Similarly, Black revolutionary artists like Amiri Baraka—co-founder of the Black Arts Movement, a precursor to the hip hop movement, argues that “our enemies have created our spokesmen”[1] when considering how the hip hop industry has elevated some songs and artists while excluding and censoring certain others. This process may masquerade as democratic, but it’s not---even if you have a chance to call up a station and request a song, you’re only allowed to choose from what’s on their official menu, a mere fraction of the quality music being made today.

Anthony Johnson points out that they’ll only play Tupac if you request it, but there’s much more they won’t play even if you do request it. Even if local Radio DJs want to play more (insert municipality here) hip hop—like “Davey D” Cook did at Fresno’s Q97—they have little or no control over the playlists, and would be let go—fired—if they tried. This is especially troubling given the historical importance of the local DJ in the development of African-American music in the 20th century.

No wonder some music critics and historians have claimed there’s been a successful corporate conspiracy in the era of the New Jim Crow to remove whatever self-determination had been achieved when “Urban Radio” was still called “Black Radio.” It was only after many years of struggle with this white supremacist culture that positive messages such as James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud),” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” or Public Enemy (and The Isley Brothers’) “Fight The Power” were able to be heard on radio…and it didn’t take too long after this for the corporations to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. This is why music is at the front line of the struggle and why these hip hop activists must fight as much for the right to be heard—in music and words—as those who wish to hold the justice system accountable to the communities they purport to serve.

As the co-author of the Black Power manifesto with Stokely Carmichael, Charles Hamilton, put it, “for blacks to gain control of a significant portion of the electronic media would be the most important single breakthrough in the black struggle, and would justify every bit of time, talent and resources, expended towards its achievement.” [2] Over 40 years later, this is still as urgent a necessity as it was then, and it is still a dream deferred.

The lines of this battle between Hip Hop culture and the Hip hop industry need to be made clear, for anyone who has a stake in preserving and extending what’s best in hip hop culture, and more generally in African-American, and even American culture as a whole.

For instance, when activist (and former kingpin in the CIA supported illegal trade of Crack) “Freeway” Rick Ross tells people that hip hop is a government weapon against the people, he is referring to the hip-hop industry and not the more inclusive hip hop culture.[3] In short, he’s not hating on hip hop, but rather on the way the corporate media outlets support rappers-- like the young man who took Ross’s name—to propagate an image that encourages the destructive (to self and others) lifestyle that the original Rick Ross (in contrast to the imitation) once practiced, but now preaches against. When Rick Ross #1 crusades against the hip hop industry, it’s because he understands that it’s part of the prison-industrial complex as much as “Stop And Frisk” and “Broken Windows” laws.

Likewise, when the Detroit based RADIO-ACTIVE activists recently petitioned Clear Channel Communications to remove Genasis’s “Coco” and Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” (among others) from regular radio rotation on Urban (I.e. Black) radio, they are criticizing the hip hop industry, not the culture.[4] Perhaps Radio Active’s statement doesn’t make this distinction clear enough, since quite a few of the people I’ve shared this with (students, mostly) react to RADIO ACTIVE’s call for Censorship as an attempt by well-intentioned, but overly puritanical kill-joys to blame a harmless little song for some of the nation’s most pressing social/cultural ills.

Indeed, in a culture that values “freedom of speech” as much as America says it does, any attempt to censor is looked at skeptically. Historically, hip hop artists—as well as their precursors/ancestors—have fought against both overt and covert censorship ever since the Slave Masters took away black folk’s drums on the plantation and in Congo Square (or, more recently, when Al Gore and the PMRC attacked hip hop on moral grounds, while sparing white country and pop music that encouraged at least as much destructive behavior), so it makes sense that many who recognize the prevalence of such lyrics that glorify killing and the use of crack cocaine is a problem still question RADIO ACTIVE’s particular proposal.

As Joel Singleton writes, even songs like “Coco” should be defended because “some artists are telling their stories. Plus, a lot of this generation can relate when pushing drugs and street life offer more work than jobs.” This has been part of the hip hop tradition ever since the creation of the “hustler” persona in the 80s—even before it became the dominant mode of the hip hop industry. And I agree with Powell when he writes: “I do not believe in censorship in any form….I know full well our society is riddled with racism, sexism, violence, ant-intellectualism, and materialism, and that hip hop didn’t create any of these things.” (37)

Thus I, too, am skeptical of the RADIO-ACTIVE petition. By itself, I don’t see it being able to make things better, even if it does manage to succeed to get these songs taken off the air. At this point it’s too late to censor “Coco.” The song’s already extremely well known, and has effectively hooked many toddlers with its “simple, easy to remember melodies, much like nursery rhymes;” any campaign to censor it will just make it more popular. Furthermore, as Patricia Blincoe writes, “Sheltering our youth from such things…will only make them want to lash out even further and go completely against the grain.”

Yet, something must be done, and I believe that RADIO-ACTIVE is right to call out Clearchannel. So while I signed their petition, and encourage others to do so, I agree with Powell that censorship is not the most effective way to fight Clearchannel’s censorship, but demanding balanced, more inclusive, programming from the conglomerates who use Hip Hop to steal from the poor to give to the rich is. We must let them know we’re sick of their plantation mentality as the major mediators of this culture, as they step between local, independent, rappers and their potential listeners down the block—less like a bridge and more like a wall.

A Modest Proposal (Open Letter To RADIO-ACTIVE And Kevin Powell)

I’d like to see Kevin Powell, and others, who have “real organizing skills and consistent activist mindsets” join forces with RADIO-ACTIVE, and consider proactive ways to challenge the Hip Hop Industry on behalf of Hip Hop culture, such as:

1)   to help achieve that balance that Powell writes of, make a list of new songs
(non-corporate, underground, or indie, such as the music that is played on KPOO’s “Hip Hop For Change” Radio Show) that Clearchannel and the others currently don’t play, but which people would like and demand they play. You might have more of a chance with this more inclusive strategy—especially if the corporate owners realize they can make money off this as well.

2)   Encourage conscious hip hop artists to write more songs with hooks that are
as catchy as “Coco” to appeal to the kids as much as these negative ones are. Use these songs as your theme songs. Have fun with it. Support a local contest—in Detroit where you’re based—or here in Oakland---to showcase these songs on a podcast. And drive around town in a pick-up truck or van blaring these songs through the streets of the city (like Baraka’s “Jazzmobile”), then park in front of the local outpost of the Clearchannel, Entercom, colonizers to stage a danceable, “in the pocket” #BlackLivesMatters protest that may be at least as effective as any of the other protests---to (re-)unite artist and activist as Powell asks.

3)   Keep the pressure of accountability on these radio stations who think
globally, and are programmed nationally—but still (even despite themselves) have to act locally through their colonial outposts and transmitter sites. Beyond this, hold the FCC accountable. Demand that it enforce the laws that claim radio stations should operate in the public trust and serve the community in which they are licensed. Take the battle to city, state and national government. Reverse the poisonous effects of the Telecommunications Act. Demand government regulation and enforce the Anti-trust laws Clearchannel clearly violates. Demand community ownership of at least one radio station per region and make more initiatives to support small labels.

4)   Hire local DJS who have some autonomy and are responsible to the
community (analogous to the Black Lives Matter demand to require police to live in the neighborhoods they patrol), and make the request line vital.[5]

The righteous moral fervor with which RADIO-ACTIVE has announced its campaign is laudable, especially if it’s understood that they are not blaming Shmurda or Genasis. Powell helps make this point clearer: “there is nothing wrong with rhyming about the ghetto, about parties and material things, if we are also expanding our worldviews enough to discuss our other concerns ,too.” (38)

Rather than trying to beat the corporate censors at their own game, Powell defends the wider inclusiveness of hip hop culture over the more narrow hip hop industry.  There’s a hope that, if given the choice between 2 songs with equally infectious grooves and verbal agility, many would choose the song with the more positive message. At least the listener, as well as the producer of the music, should be allowed equal access, a level playing field, so that people can make a real, informed, choice…just as people had in earlier times when radio was a more accurate reflection of the communities it served. And if, THEN, people still prefer “Coco,” well then we can say the “experts” at Clearchannel were right after all. Then we can say, democracy could have a chance, in radio at least…and even in reality.

Finally, there’s a battle for cultural and economic self-determination that shouldn’t be ignored here. Before mass culture became centralized in Hollywood (“where the white man sells himself to the world,” as Judy Juanita aptly put it), it used to allow for a larger number, and wider diversity, of musicians to find gainful employment. Today there are far fewer people making a living from it, though the few who do make it make more money. No one voted on tis change in how music culture is made and received in this country—except the corporate CEOS, and this has had an effect on the communities from which hip hop, and other “Urban Music” forms, emerge (which in term perpetuates a vicious cycle).

Since there are so many amazing contemporary rappers who have been reduced to making their music a mere hobby because they refused to move to LA and try to buy the Mega-star Lottery ticket by censoring their lyrics and beats to please the white owners, it should be obvious that taking the culture back could—at the very least—spread the wealth around and create more equal economic opportunity—not just for the musicians, but for the various related creative fields that go into making a song, especially in this heightened visually-oriented era.

This lack of economic opportunity is not hip hop’s fault. In fact, hip hop, if allowed to evolve naturally beyond the watchful eyes of the Industry gatekeepers, could be much more a part of the solution. As Powell writes: “This is why I always say to those critical of hip-hop to keep in mind that if Kool Herc and others had not created this art form in the first place, there would be even more blacks and Latinos, especially, who are unemployed, on the streets committing crimes, in jail, and without healthcare….” (41-42)

In contemporary Detroit, where RADIO-ACTIVE is based, even the public water system is being privatized, causing over 17,000 residents to be without water. While music may not seem to be as essential a basic need as water, it too has become increasingly privatized in the 50 plus years since the heyday of Detroit’s legendary locally owned record label, Motown. Whatever the failings the “black Capitalism” of Berry Gordy had (and yes, it wasn’t perfect), it did create a large number of decent paying jobs for a wide variety of local artists and culture workers that is practically unthinkable in today’s corporate dominated economy. We can learn from their successes as well as their mistakes and/or betrayals, while fighting on the other fronts—not just by proposing song bans, but by proactively demanding these stations play music that appears on KPOO’s “Hip Hop For Change,” for instance.
The struggle against the minstrelsy of the corporate behemoth’s must be waged on many fronts, but the talent and hunger of youth (and elders) to make a better world is there…and this is why I support efforts like RADIO-ACTIVE to take back the music industry. It’s, at the very least, a start.

[1] The Amiri Baraka Reader, pg. 512
[2] Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding (University of California Press, 1998: pg. 431)
even calling it “Urban Radio” is a sign of the “post-racial” official line, to erace the word “black” (Urban radio used to be called black radio) and obscure the ongoing legacy of a distinctly black culture in America.

[5] These proposals should be coordinated with other ideas that fall outside the scope of radio programming, such as the school curriculum changes Powell advocates.