- Contrast and Comparison
- Criticism and Analysis
- Making Connections
- Using Narrative to Make a Point
Background – Full disclosure. It’s taking a lot of self-control to stop me from turning Mentor Text Wednesdays into a Hanif Abdurraqib fan column. I discovered him as a poet first, via FreezeRay Poetry, a journal that focuses on pop culture inspired writing. I read what he shared via Twitter, and snapped up his collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us right away, returning a week later to buy the other copy in the store for a friend. His collection of poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much was one of my Christmas book gifts. He’s a powerhouse of a writer, combining identity, race and pop culture in such a way that you are inspired and heartbroken in one fell swoop.
This essay happened into my Twitter feed without my knowing it was Hanif’s writing. It was one of those beautiful moments when the subject caught my attention, and when I clicked through, I discovered I was about to read some new work by one of my favorite writers. I love when that happens.
One of the amazing things about Hanif’s work is how he writes about music. He writes about what he loves so passionately, you want to love it too. (Seriously. I am so not Carly Rae Jepsen’s kind of audience, but he’s got me curious.) He’s not afraid to be honest, and say what he actually thinks, but so articulately, and respectfully, making his writing perfect mentor text material for writing about music. When he writes about music, you feel like you’re part of a dialogue, that someone is working to help you understand why he feels the way he does, yet cares what you think, and wants to hear it. I kind of hope my students feel this, and work to answer him back in a manner approaching the way he writes.
How We Might Use This Text:
Contrast and Comparison – As any music fan knows, artists frequently reinvent themselves. It appears as if Justin Timberlake is doing that, or, maybe, isn’t. Whatever the case may be, Hanif looks at a couple of the versions of Timberlake that we’ve been presented with. He succinctly presents each one, essentially allowing the introduction of each one to set up the contrast and comparison he wants to make – to pose the idea that Timberlake is reinventing himself, presenting a new version of himself as an artist.
What’s powerful in this piece is that it isn’t only a contrast and comparison, or rather that it uses music history, comparing Timberlake to other artists to highlight the contrasts in his evolution as an artist. Often, when our writers are writing analytical pieces that are about comparing and contrasting, they work from a list of differences and similarities between the two things they are writing about. Hanif shows a much more powerful model for them to emulate, using other subjects than the focal subjects. I think we actually learn more about Al Green than we do about Justin Timberlake in this piece, but it is Al Green’s story that highlights a key point that Hanif makes for us. What a powerful move for our writers to consider – is there a story about someone else that will allow you to make one of the points that you want to make about your subject?
Summoning Elvis when discussing a music superstar is also a strong move. What makes it work best here is that Hanif is using a perceived weakness of Elvis’ to highlight a strength of Timberlake’s. Elvis struggled as an actor, while Timberlake seems more comfortable in front of the camera. In evoking this, Hanif subtly reminds us that Timberlake does struggle too, taking on roles that aren’t a natural fit for him. Also subtle here, the reminder that Timberlake can present an image, play a role when needed. This could also be seen as an implication that the new image Timberlake is presenting, a serious role, could be something he’ll struggle to present convincingly.
Criticism and analysis – As he discussed the two Timberlakes, Hanif drops some significant analysis not only of Timberlake’s image in what will likely be a comeback of sorts, but he delivers a pointed review of the first song in this comeback. This is not done cold, as Hanif cites previous works. I love the succinctness of “the song itself is a dry, exhausting, half-hearted attempt.” I like that this is a review embedded in a piece that is ultimately about something else. The adjectives chosen here communicate an opinion pretty clearly. The metaphor that follows is a strong communicator of his opinion as well. “Unfortunately, listening to “Filthy” feels like reminiscing about an exciting and fulfilling meal from your past, only to be served a microwaved gallon of ice cream.” Ouch.
One of the challenges that I see my writers facing when we are being critical is moving past a simple statement of worth. Things are good, or bad, and expanding upon how we arrived at that judgement is hit or miss. “It begins with Timberlake issuing the decree, “I guess I got my swagger back,” in a tone that doesn’t even sound like he believes it himself.” pinpoints a moment that generates the judgement, higlighting the fact that, in Hanif’s opinion, Timberlake may not, in fact, have regained his swagger.
Organization – Since some of my writers who find it challenging lean on structures that organize their pieces as a collection of parts, I don’t often given them opportunites to do something done in this piece, using Roman numerals to divide the piece into subtopics. In their hands, such a device contributes to clunky pieces that lack a flow, and therefore have a somewhat stilted voice. This is a great mentor text for this organizational device.
Parts I and II make perfect sense. Here is the first Justin Timberlake. Pause. Here is the second Justin Timberlake. Since our title promises us two, this device serves to keep that promise. After that, the Roman numerals seem to serve a different purpose, serving as transitions. Sections IV, V and VI allow us to explore his connections to Memphis, something that the “first Justin Timberlake” is evoking in this iteration of his image. These stories are not disjointed as they’re shared, but actually flow as a series of related points about music and image, relating back to Timberlake.
Making Connections – In so many instances, encouraging students to make connections between texts, or between ideas, feels like one of the most frustrating things in my classroom. They often struggle to see the connections, and say things like, “I couldn’t connect to this story because I’ve never been a migrant farmer during the Depression.” We’ve done a lot of work on this, and while things have gotten better in areas such as analysis, it sometimes feels as if my writers remain somewhat myopic when writing about any given topic.
That’s what I love about Hanif’s work, his ability to connect stories to support his arguments, doing so in such a way as to bolster the quality of the piece as a whole. The connections to Al Green and Elvis serve to expand upon the image that Timberlake is trying to sell.
If you read the Al Green story, it’s clear that, as my students would say, Green is “legit.” He lived some tough times, and it is these things that fueled his transformation as an artist. So subtly, the idea that Timberlake’s transformations as an artist are about selling an image is suggested. Though Timberlake might have us believe that Green was a musical influence, the connection Green in this piece points out that the idea of reinvention is perhaps where more of that influence lies.
In music history, specifically rock and roll, Elvis was one of the first “crossover” icons, bridging a career in music into work in film. Hanif discusses their work in film, highlighting where each struggled, as well as where they found success.
What’s great for our writers to see in these two particular connections is a doubling down of sorts. The Green and Elvis stories both come back to the idea of selling an image. I really appreciate this, because it’s a wonderful thing to model for our writers, that you can make the same point in a couple of different ways, really driving it home, creating a depth of argument by restating the point with a different connection.
Using Narrative to Make a Point – I’ve read a lot of Hanif’s work lately, and one of the things he does so wonderfully is use narrative in his essays. Sometimes, he uses stories from his life. Other times, he uses stories such as the ones about Al Green and Elvis in this piece. He weaves these pieces together to argue the points he is trying to make with the essay.
Really great writing is a marriage of informative, narrative and persuasive writing. Feature articles have increasingly been using narrative as a hook, embedding a story in their articles, at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Hanif’s work, as evidenced in this piece, does this less overtly. The narrative elements in this piece are informative, giving the reader things they may not know. Arguably, the purpose of this is to convince us, the readers, to see what he’s arguing. If we share this piece with our writers, let it be for no other reason than to demonstrate that narrative writing can be used for more than just telling the story, and is much more than a tool that can be used to hook a reader. Let this piece spark a discussion about the purpose of using narrative in our writing.
As I stated at the outset, I’m writing this in a period where I’m convinced that there is no greater writer than the one I’m sharing. When I read, I generally flag pieces and passages that I can see classroom use for. My copy of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us actually has no flags. That’s because pretty much every page is flagworthy. I’ve been half considering proposing that my school offers a course on writing essay, with that book as the text, supplemented by material like this piece. It is clear that Hanif Abdurraqib is a writer that cares deeply about the craft of writing, and it is that kind of writer that Mentor Text Wednesday exists to celebrate.
Who is your (current) favorite writer? Is their work making its way into your class?
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