Renowned black culture scholar brings new perspective to race discussion

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

In the middle of lecturing earlier this month for AF 57: “Black Feminist Thought and Practice in the U.S.,” Professor Tricia Rose Ph.D. ’93 pauses for a moment to take stock of the class. “Are we going too fast? Are we going too slow? Are we falling asleep?”

A glance around the room proves Rose’s forceful discussion of the myths of black immodesty and sexual deviance has caught students’ attention. Students are nodding their heads as Rose talks about the ways black culture has been associated with excessive sexuality while “wild, white middle-class practices” often escape notice.

Take music, she suggests. Elvis may have done his famous hip shake, but it did not persist as a symbol of white culture. Jazz, blues and hip-hop, however, have long been viewed as expressions of black hyper-sexuality.

A specialist in 20th-century African-American culture and politics, social thought, popular culture and gender issues, Rose is currently settling in during her first semester as a professor in the University’s Department of Africana Studies.

Rose is no stranger to College Hill. As a Brown graduate student, she recalls working with an “exceptionally generous” team of professors in the Africana studies department. Now she feels she has the chance to contribute to the very group that helped her as a student, she said.

Before coming to Brown, Rose taught at New York University for 10 years and then at the University of California at Santa Cruz for another four. But it was at Brown that she felt she could make her biggest contribution. “I had the sense that Brown was in a state of growth that was right on target,” Rose said. The University’s commitment to acknowledging racial discrimination and its investments in diversity led by President Ruth Simmons also contributed to her decision to join the faculty, she said.

Though she is not currently teaching on the topic, Rose is perhaps best known for her work on hip-hop music, for which she was dubbed a “Hip Hop Theorist” by the New York Times and a “Ph.Diva” by Essence magazine, according to a Sept. 5 University press release. Rose was originally drawn to hip-hop as a vibrant music form with potential for motivating change, but now sees it as crippled by commercialism. “What makes it valuable to me has been corrupted,” Rose said, pointing to the elevation of destructive icons and the exaltation of ignorance and violence. “It’s been pressed into service of the things it was designed to resist.”

Besides teaching and lecturing around the country, Rose also has published two books: “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America,” and, most recently, “Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy.” She is now working on the tentatively titled “Intimate Justice Project,” a book that will explore the need for community-based motivations for social change.

“It’s about how creative people have expressed the value of interpersonal politics as a social justice project,” she said of her new book. “You can’t just talk about rights and responsibilities without looking at the kinds of communities that we create. You need a group you care about whose lives you want to be better.” To do this, one has to leave behind feelings of despair and hopelessness that interfere with the process of sustaining community action, Rose added.

This is no easy task considering how disconnected the “hip-hop generation” has come to feel from politics, she said. In this context, being hopeful starts to seem stupid or na’ve – something Rose said she is “very worried about.”

Rose investigates these issues and others in the two courses she is teaching this semester, “Black Feminist Thought” and AF 128: “Writing About Race in the Post Civil Rights Era,” and her students often share her enthusiasm for the issues.

Evan Wright ’10 is an engineer but took “Black Feminist Thought” because he was drawn to the way Rose delved into questions that were relevant to his life. “We sit and critically discuss issues that I see every day,” he said. “Now I see them even more readily.”

It is exactly this kind of critical discussion that Rose wants to encourage and finds Brown students to be particularly inclined to engage in. “(Brown students have) a kind of idealism but also an awareness of the practical application of ideas, of their role in the world,” she said. While elsewhere it can be a struggle to get students to engage, Rose said at Brown, “it’s like feeding a hungry person, not forcing an anorexic to eat.”

Laura Gerace ’07 is one such student. An education studies concentrator, Gerace is auditing Rose’s course because she did not want to miss out on “Black Feminist Thought,” despite having a full course load. Gerace said she enjoys the broad range of material the class covers, not just the issues specifically relating to black feminism.

“It was the first time a class like this has been offered, as far as I know,” she said. “Rose is really engaging and the material is new and fresh,” Gerace said, also noting that Rose is renowned in her field.

Among Rose’s other concerns is the issue of feminism in today’s world and how it has come to be a “dirty word,” especially among young women. Citing a Sept. 20, 2005, New York Times article “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” which was written by a recent Yale University graduate, Rose expressed her frustration that many of today’s young women aspire only to marry into elite status, becoming wives and mothers. “I believe in education for education’s sake but also for helping the world. What good is it if the best and brightest women aren’t interested in using their educations?”

Rose said she is pleased by the diversity of opinions and backgrounds represented in her classes. “We have to encourage a more multi-faceted vision of how racial discrimination affects members of the black community,” she said.

This doesn’t mean falling prey to the “rhetoric of color blindness,” Rose added. Rather, it means trying to get to the heart of the problem. “I have a larger community request: don’t run from the deep impact of whiteness, its celebration, its economic support and its social power,” she said. “We have to fix the structural situation and acknowledge our hidden investments.”

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