As a teacher, I am regularly thinking of new ways to meet my students where they are and guide them down an intellectual path. But my traditional pedagogy is holding me back.
Despite my relative youth (31 years old), I am an old-school instructor. During my four years as an Africana Studies professor, I have trained by the mantra: the text, our thoughts, our imaginations, our voices are all we need in the classroom.
For me, it is difficult to meet today’s students where they are through our cherished 100,000-word academic books. My students are more used to the sound bites, five-word texts, 500-word blogs, 140-character tweets, short Facebook posts, and page-turning, juicy novels.
I would not jump off the cliff of reality and lament that my students do not read. They read—they read a lot of texts, blogs, posts, stories and tweets. How they read, though, conflicts almost totally to the traditional non-fiction academic book.
I refuse to abandon the centrality of the academic book. However, I am starting to realize it is imperative to use other scholarly mediums to attract students to the subject early in the course. Even better is an attractive, academic book: the kind of book that would entice my visually oriented students with short reading spans while also being deeply and profoundly academic, insightful and, most importantly, thought-provoking. Sometimes well-written narratives do this. But even some of these books do not do the job. Documentaries often are successful. However, my book-centered tradition restrains me from showing more.
When I laid my eyes recently on a preview of the soon to be released (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, I finally found the type of book I had been looking for—intellectually stimulating and socially appealing. Author Yaba Blay, co-director of Africana Studies at Drexel University, labels it a “bookumentary.”
The term bookumentary is defined differently in our publishing world. They are the popular short documentaries that promote books. These short motion pictures may be a clever way of attracting potential readers, but they are not a true uniting of the book and documentary like (1)ne Drop and other tomes like it.
(1)ne Drop features arresting portraits (mostly taken by the project’s director of photography, Noelle Theard) and frank narratives of 60 contributors from 25 countries. The bookumentary challenges our narrow perceptions of Blackness through presenting—in word and image—the diversity of people who identify as Black. It addresses everyday classroom questions like what is Blackness, who is Black, what does it mean to be Black. “(1)ne Drop takes the very literal position that, in order for us to see Blackness different, we have to see Blackness differently,” Blay writes.
The (1)ne Drop project was the inspiration behind the fifth installment of CNN’s Black in America, entitled “Who is Black in America?” Airing on December 5, 2012, Soledad O’Brien hosted this amazing documentary, tackling colorism in the Black community, what Blay on the show defined as a “system in which light skin is more valued than dark skin.”
Aside from inspiring a prominent CNN documentary, I think Blay’s bookumentary has the capacity to modernize the pedagogy of the academy for old-school teachers like me wedded to the text. And I know I am not the only professor who deems the book holy, who holds it up high in the classroom above everything else. Well-written and visually appealing bookumentaries like (1)ne Drop can meet students where they are.
With their interest seized, we can then take them over to the traditional well-written books. Attention hardened, they will then go searching themselves for all of the academic books. Through the entire process, from the scholarly bookumentary to the traditional scholarly book, they are being challenged, forced to critically assess our world. In the case of (1)ne Drop, the images and narratives force and challenge students to complicate their definition of blackness, complicate their picture of blackness, and most of all complicate their way of thinking.
Bookumentaries are not just attractive to our generation of students. They are a useful tool for achieving our common scholarly goal—the dissemination of whole truth. Sometimes, oftentimes, the written or spoken word does not wholly provide the depth, scale and intricacy needed to truly elucidate our academic questions—especially one like, Who is Black? It is one of the central questions of Africana Studies. Other disciplines have central questions and approaches that could be more effectively pondered through the medium of bookumentaries. The best historians, for instance, seek out and use pictures as documents to tell us stories about the past, verifying and/or filling in gaps or massive holes in the written and oral record.
Bookumentaries like (1)ne Drop can be the remedy for certain forms of scholarship. They can be our remedy for this generation of students. They can be used as our latest windows of truth, if scholars make them, legitimate them, see them, read them and circulate them.
I am as wedded to the traditional book as anyone. But I know it is time for me to open my mind to the future—the bookumentary.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi (formerly Ibram H. Rogers) is an assistant professor of Africana studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter at @DrIbram