Colonial outposts in the 36th chamber: Hip hop pedagogies and writing centres

Vol. 3, No. 2 (Spring 2022)
Brian Hotson,
Editor, CWCR/RCCR

I recently interviewed with Casey Wong who is the keynote speaker for the 2022 CWCA/ACCR conference. Wong (he/him) is currently an Assistant Professor of Social Foundations of Education in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is co-editing a forthcoming book, Freedom Moves: Hip Hop Knowledges, Pedagogies, and Futures?, with H. Samy Alim and Jeff Chang.


Thank you for taking the time for to speak with me. 

Wong: Thank you! I’m excited about entering into community with you and the CWCA/ACCR attendees.

First off, I’m interested in how you got to where you are now. What was your path to your PhD and UCLA? 

Casey Wong
Case Wong

Wong: I love this question, and I imagine I could begin academically, but I might start with my upbringing. When I’m thinking about the power of language and rhetorics, I think about all I witnessed growing up in communities in Southern California that were some of the poorest by size in the country. I saw a variety of literacies spraypainted across train cars that actively passed through one of my central places of upbringing, Colton, California. I consider how I grew up among interconnected and overlapping peoples from the African/Black, Latinx, Asian, and Pacific Islander diasporas. I consider how local Native peoples were actively involved in my elementary school in San Bernardino, California. I think about how White supremacy often found its way into the voices and lives of my poor and working-class White peers, but how often there were deep co-conspiracies and solidarities that went unnoticed. With so many peoples, from so many places, it made having access to multiple varieties of language a deep advantage, and their value, and beauty–even as Dominant American English was widely seen as the ideological norm in very oppressive ways. I saw this personally as my Cantonese father secretly refused to let us know he spoke Cantonese, nor let us learn–something myself, my brother and sister would not find out until he passed away while we were in high school.

Among all these communities that I grew up within, I became increasingly fascinated by the power of language and rhetorics as I witnessed my mother, who was one of the best storytellers and conversationalists who I’ve ever known. She became a key leader in one of the largest class action lawsuits in the state of California. She organized with our neighbors to fight against a housing developer who refused to take accountability for badly built homes, designed and bought by our predominantly poor and working-class neighbors from Los Angeles and gentrifying urban centers, many of whom had no choice but to move to the margins to live and raise their children. I witnessed the power of language and rhetorics as my mother made use of language that inspired people to gather and organize, and compel capitalists to take accountability for the harm they had done. I have carried those early formative experiences with me.

Relatedly, on a more academic note, I think about how these formative experiences led me to major in Rhetoric, with an emphasis in Public Discourse, when I got to UC Berkeley. Within some of these classes they challenged us to read dense texts, nearly unreadable for myself at the time, and to do our best, and make an argument about what we comprehended. To write about what we saw. That was incredibly difficult, as well as deeply rewarding. I wanted to gain a mastery of language, like what I witnessed from my mother. Hip Hop became a key part of that journey, as not only the language of my peers coming up, but the means by which I found a way to survive the passing of my father in high school. The verbal acrobatics, aesthetics outside of the White normative center, which was taken up to challenge and re-narrate the world, deeply inspired me.

With these fascinations and understandings of language and power increasingly came to intersect with pedagogy, which I saw was crucial in fostering, sustaining, honoring, lovingly critiquing, and revitalizing languages and cultures outside of the White gaze–a central tenet of culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). My dissertation research focused upon thinking about how to sustain the lives, languages, and cultures of youth actively engaged in struggles for justice and collective freedom. I witnessed how pedagogies of love and love-politics held together these efforts to learn and act upon the ways that language and culture was operationalized to oppress Black, Latinx, and Polynesian youth.

Based upon this research, building and cultivating new worlds became increasingly an interest of mine. Studying and following the lifeways of intellectuals like H. Samy Alim, Django Paris, Jeff Chang, James Baldwin, Sylvia Wynter, Toni Morrison, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Joan Morgan, the Wu Tang Clan, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, I saw that we need to sustain, revitalize, and innovate arts and language that can create cultures of joy and liberation, which are able to confront the oppressive material conditions of our current normative global, racial setter capitalist, and cisheteropatriarchal cultures. How can we engage in arts and language that doesn’t celebrate bathing ourselves in money, but instead inspire youth and communities to stand up against oppression, and create worlds where we can all be free? So I’m concerned with epistemic and ontological struggles that are deeply connected to the aesthetic and cosmological. I haven’t been to Canada, but from what I hear, and from what I’ve read from folks like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, I know this is broadly reflected there as well–of course in its own ways.

Can you tell us about your work at UCLA? 

Wong: Wow, so much, which I know that I briefly touched upon as I ended the last question. I was grateful to initially get to UCLA through the legendary Dr. Pedro Noguera. Dr. Noguera had recently started the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools (CTS), and he had invited me to apply as a postdoc and work with him on initiatives designed to transform schooling. Dr. Noguera was deeply invested in maximizing the fugitive work taking place in compulsory, state-sanctioned schooling—which I imagine as very applicable to the work of attendees here at CWCA/ACCR. I worked on a project trying to advance justice within the state of California’s attempt to broadly implement a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) to address educational inequities and disproportionalities in discipline–I would love to speak more with folks here about the shortcomings, as well as limited successes of those efforts.

The same can be said with my work on CTS’ juvenile justice project, where I worked with graduate researchers to study an innovative educational model within its juvenile probation camps and halls. We attempted to provide further recommendations on how this educational model might move toward abolition of youth carceral facilities–again with varied results. I have continued to organize with a group of folks who worked on that project, including Joaquin Noguera, Kai Matthews, Miguel Cesar, Julio Alicea, and Annie Le, as part of what we now refer to as the Abolition and Education Collective. We’re currently working on an edited volume that centers previously incarcerated youth in thinking about what type of arts, languages, cultures, and knowledges we need to abolish youth prisons, and more broadly carceralities permeating every facet of American society—which again, I know is also impacting Canada in differing, but similar ways.

For the past 2 years I’ve been a postdoc in the UCLA Department of Anthropology, closely working with H. Samy Alim and Django Paris to study culturally sustaining pedagogies (CSPs) across the world. This work has been deeply inspiring, even more so as we’ve worked with incredibly oppressed communities that have continued teaching and organizing for justice amidst the global COVID pandemic and conditions of increasing colonialities and carceralities. We’ve begun to deeply think and teach alongside our partners in Seattle, East Palo Alto, Barcelona, and Cape Town, doing incredible CSP work, conceptualizing what it means to pedagogically foster, honor, sustain, lovingly critique, and revitalize the arts, language, cultures, and knowledges needed for justice and collective freedom. I’ve been working particularly closely with our partner, Youth United for Community Action (YUCA), and we’ve been thinking about how restorative and transformative justice can be taught and operationalized through culturally sustaining pedagogies. As a a part of this work, I’ve been studying how YUCA has been fostering, sustaining, and innovating their own model of political education for over 20 years that has been successfully confronting localized processes of systemic violence–particularly policing, gentrification, and racial capitalism.

Can you talk about your forthcoming work, Freedom Moves: Hip Hop Knowledges, Pedagogies, and Futures?

Wong: Of course, thank you so much for asking! I’m deeply passionate about this project, which I’ve been working on with H. Samy Alim and Jeff Chang for years, since our time together at the Stanford University Institute for Diversity in the Arts. The book was primarily inspired by a research project exploring the incredible pedagogical work of a community-based Hip Hop educational organization and a high school performing arts program that centered Hip Hop. Situated in Alim, Jeff, and my own lifelong engagements with Hip Hop education and justice work, and our research project, the edited volume chronicles our conversations with Hip Hop artists, organizers, educators, and intellectuals from across the world that began in a class at Stanford, and then continued after. The volume travels across generations and borders to understand Hip Hop’s transformative power as one of the most important cultural movements of our times. We think with our collaborators about how Hip Hop has become much more than a wide-ranging musical movement, but a powerful catalyst for activism—a global culture—that offers us new ways of thinking and doing freedom.

What are the main aspects of hip hop pedagogies?  

Wong: I’ve often got this question, and the beauty of Hip Hop pedagogies is that there’s not one answer—and perhaps we could root this in the African diasporic knowledges that led to what has come to be known as the “5th element” of Hip Hop. To understand the 5th element, we first have to know that it is the 5th element, because there are 4 aesthetic elements that have since expanded and grown: 1) rapping/emceeing/spoken word poetry; 2) DJing/beatmaking; 3) graffiti; and 4) Bgirling/Bboying (now including a variety of Hip Hop embodied aesthetic traditions). The epistemic foundation of these 4 aesthetic elements is the 5th element: a “knowledge of self” that seeks to understand the relation of your personhood and position in the world, to how you know what you know. This knowledge of self has also been referred to as “overstanding.” Within Hip Hop ways of knowing, being, valuing, and speaking, overstanding has often been invoked to think about how when you are looking at some entity in the world, you aren’t just trying to comprehend it of itself—you’re situating that entity within understandings of power.

So when operating from the 5th element, Hip Hop has become incredibly empowering for oppressed communities across the globe, seeking to teach and learn in a way that seeks to understand the beauty of one’s self and communities in relation to the beauty of the world. Relatedly, Hip Hop intellectuals have profoundly pointed out how Hip Hop has taken up and built upon a number of West African spiritual traditions. All of this is to say, you can’t have a culture concerned with “knowledge of self,” understanding one’s in relation to the world, and it not be inherently pedagogical and concerned with freedom. In the volume, we go on a journey to reveal how different communities across the world have engaged Hip Hop to approach teaching, learning, knowing, being, producing art, and organizing for collective freedom.

This, of course, is not to dismiss the contradiction embedded in Hip Hop. Hip Hop was also born as a fugitive culture to enable artists and particularly Black and People of Color to survive within a racial capitalist society. Reflecting the unjust society that they could not yet disentangle themselves from, folks who have engaged Hip Hop have had to inevitably participate in accumulation at the expense of others in order to live long enough to get free, and in that process, have sometimes become deeply invested in racial capitalism. With all that money, all that material wealth, and all that power, Hip Hop artists and participants in the culture have sometimes arrived at places where they forget, are made to forget, its cost. Their knowledge of self is lost. All that accumulated materiality for yourself can feel like freedom, but it’s not freedom at all. You’re in a cage of capital that feels so good, you forget it’s a cage. But in the words of so many of our ancestors, we’ll never be free ‘til we’re all free. When you accept that your grandma, your cousin, folks on the street, all deserve to have their labor stolen so you can endlessly gain more and more than what you need to live, so you and a handful of your friends and family can feel good, your spirit and humanity are decayed, your soul is held captive. Not to mention the cost on the Earth. That’s not freedom. That’s the cage.

What work do they do?

Wong: So what do Hip Hop pedagogies do? At heart, they help you learn what you need to know about yourself, in the context of the world, so you can live and join the struggle to get free. We see this across the chapters in the volume. Hip Hop pedagogies decenter the White gaze, White ontologies of pedagogy. Hip Hop pedagogies give folks the opportunity to converse, deeply engage, and connect with each other through aesthetic and expressive practices that are both globally shared, and local. White normative ways of knowing and being are decentered, in favor of African diasporic freedom cultures that not always, but often do much more to welcome non-Black People of Color—and notably also poor and working-class European-descended peoples attempting to dismantle and refuse White supremacy—across societies and communities. You can be your true self and connect to others through shared communicative, epistemic, ontological, and axiological acts. Hip Hop pedagogies can help you learn what you need to know to live and cooperatively locate ways to thrive in the existing oppressive order, while supporting yourself and others to conceptualize and organize with other Hip Hop folks to create new worlds: Freedom moves.

Writing centres traditionally have positioned themselves in the literature and in practice as “safe spaces.” On the other hand, Garcìa, as a Latino writing centre scholar and practitioner, writes that “For me, the writing center is neither my safe space nor my home.” There is an implicit “othering” in this safe-spaces positioning, especially for BIPOC students, tutors, and faculty. How do these concepts relate to your work?

Wong: I have to admit that I’m not sure that I’ve ever stepped into a writing centre, even though I have some friends and colleagues who have found them very helpful. Much of my never seeking a writing centre has had to do with exactly what Garcìa is saying here. In a White supremacist society where monolingualism is the dominant ideology, where command of a European-descended language is seen as necessary for participation in intellectualism—particularly what has been named in the context of the U.S. as “Standard English” or “Dominant American English,” or within the context of classrooms as “Academic language”—writing centers can not so controversially be referred to as colonial centers. Colonial outposts. Linguistic checkpoints. How could you feel or be “safe” in a space that was designed to help you in linguistically molding yourself into a productive worker able to effectively communicate with managers, 21st century overseers, of the dominant order? To facilitate your own exploitation? Othering is inherently a part of a writing center. It’s difficult not to be othered, to have your dignity and humanity questioned, in so many ways you have to acknowledge your lack of alignment with the communicative norms of power.

But with that said, that’s exactly why radical work could and should happen within writing centers. They are highly political spaces for exactly the reasons I just described. If writing centers can become fugitive spaces, that is, spaces that enable folks to gain the literacies to navigate the dominant order with—and I emphasize with here—with an understanding of why gaining “academic” and hegemonic ways of writing should not be necessary, then wow. Imagine if writing centers could become fugitive spaces that respected and loved you for you, carrying all that you carry, being all that you be, knowing all that you know, and made sure you knew that, and ontologically and materially transformed that physical space so you could know that–like that would be incredible. Then you enter into the tradition of intellectuals like Gloria Ladson-Billings who has arguably dedicated her life’s work to that very idea with cultural relevant pedagogy, right? Culturally relevant pedagogy was developed by Ladson-Billings as a way to support educators in finding ways to effectively support “academic success” and “cultural competence” for oppressed students only if—and again emphasis on the only ifonly if that process seeks the development of critical consciousness. Because without critical consciousness, cultural relevance becomes yet another means to assimilate and prepare oppressed students to become cogs in the machinery of White supremacy.

This is also the case with culturally sustaining pedagogy. Without the foundational decentering of the White and hegemonic gazes–Django Paris and H. Samy Alim’s shout out to Toni Morrison’s brilliant intellectualizing, of course following in the radical lifeway of artists and intellectuals like James Baldwin—then culturally sustaining pedagogy can become yet another means to also sustain the inclusion of oppressed youth into the machinery of White supremacy.

As a plenary speaker for this year’s conference, can you give up a preview of your talk? 

Wong: I have to be honest, I am still sitting with and thinking about what exactly will be the content of my talk, and much of that has to do with the state of our world right now. I’m thinking about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and war in Europe amidst unacknowledged and ongoing neo-colonialism and settler colonialism across the world—in Canada and the U.S. nation-state, as well as battlegrounds for global colonialities like Palestine. I’m thinking about increasingly unfettered racial capitalism, and the consolidation of White supremacist cisheteropatriarchal rule in the U.S. through anti-abortion, anti-woman, and anti-LGBTQIA+ ideologies and laws. There’s so much to think about, right?

There’s also a lot to lift up and enter into conversation with, as folks continue to organize and resist systems and processes of oppression through language and rhetorics. I do know that I am going to think about cultural relevance and sustenance in relation to neocolonialism, and how moves from expansive conversations around neocolonialism since the 60s and 70s have led people who come from oppressed communities to be able to join in oppressing their own communities—when they think they’re doing the opposite. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Django Paris, and H. Samy Alim have pointed this out in the ways they’ve seen their work operationalized without a justice-based lens. I know I will reference my latest collaborations with Django Paris, H. Samy Alim, Youth United for Community Action, and radical educators engaged in critical literacies and pedagogical work, reminding folks of radical possibilities that are far from farfetched. The work of these folks can help us understand what happens when we advance righteousness in social, political, and cultural ways that do not forget, and crucially think about, fundamentally changing material conditions.

So I know that I will likely bring in one of my most recent publications in the Review of Research in Education, “The Wretched of the Research: Disenchanting Man2-as-Educational Researcher and Entering the 36th Chamber of Education Research.” Entering into conversation with my work on what it might mean to materialize a 36th chamber of education research, I’ll think about a writing center as a 36th chamber. Where would it be located? Who would it be responsible to? What would be its relation to lands and waters? What would be its ontology of writing? How would it conceptualize language? What could we learn from radical literate Hip Hop traditions that engage fugitivity and freedom? How could it incorporate culturally relevant, culturally sustaining, and strength-based pedagogical traditions in ways that honor their radical intentions, theorizing, and roots? Perhaps inspired by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s groundbreaking, and too often marginalized work, Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, I’ll think about what it means to Move the Writing Centre and the Struggle for Pedagogical Freedoms. Just talking through all this with you, I’m even more hyped about entering into community with you and the CWCA/ACCR attendees! I can’t wait for what we dialogue about and conceptualize together…

We’re very much looking forward to your plenary at the conference. Thank you for this. 

Wong: Thank you, Brian, and thank you to all who made this incredible convening possible! I’m deeply grateful for your invitation, see you soon!


References

García, R. (2019). Unmaking Gringo-Centers. The Writing Center Journal, 36(1), 29–60. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/44252637

Ngugi, W. T. O. (1993). Moving the centre: The struggle for cultural freedoms. James Curray.

Wong, C. P. (2021). The wretched of the research: Disenchanting man2-as-educational researcher and entering the 36th Chamber of education research. Review of Research in Education, 45(1), 27–66. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X21990609