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The Color Purpled: Who the Academy Rewards and Unapologetic Prince-isms

Dr. Robin L. HughesDr. Robin L. Hughes

The picture of the first love of my life (who didn’t realize that we were “going together”) hung in my locker for months before being moved to the “left.” I took great care to hang the freshly cut 1976 Jet magazine photograph of Prince in my locker. The beautiful singer’s picture survived four years of air kisses and good luck blessings before exams from a host of teenaged girls who attended St. Fuda, in Cowtown, Texas. (I use a pseudonym to protect the innocent.)

I was absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude of his talent and equally mesmerized by the music that we would all come to know as so fabulously Prince. In fact, I more than likely still can sing all of the words from the 1976-1985 catalogues. In those days, there was no internet. If you wanted to learn the words, you had to tune into the radio or buy the 45 or LP. Yes, pay for the work.

I was equally fascinated by the ability of anyone, specifically a contemporary, who was able to tap into and be successful at capitalizing on their own talent, in addition to resisting older and seemingly powerful folks who tried to dictate your work. He was outspoken, transgressive, and unapologetic. He also was kind, a humanitarian and truly humble. (He never claimed this like folks do now-a-days).

I watched him school folks during interviews through words and through subtle eye rolls and blank stares — now referred to as throwing shade — with cool and subtle swagger. His disposition resonated with my own at St. Fuda, but I was no musician and could only hope to know someone with one drop of the talent and half a drop of that cool, purplish, Prince-like stank disposition.

Although not all artist, that particular time, the 70’s, marshaled in a group of young people with similar dispositions at St. Fuda — mine included. Transgressions and aspersions became synonymous with my name and with my conduct grade on my report card. While my grades were “good,” I never made the honor roll because my “attitude” was never quite honorary-like — “character and compliance” counted.

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the hallway, complete with desk, listening to the lecture from outside the door, and in after school suspensions. I was once suspended from suspension for staging a coup d’etat of 16-year-old pen clickers who protested silly after school punishments.

My saving grace is that I didn’t grow up in this current era. I most certainly wouldn’t have completed a Ph.D. I more than likely would have been suspended, expelled or placed in some category that may have fed me straight through to the school to prison pipeline. Excuse me, people to prison pipeline. People must be accountable for the pipeline. Naming the structure, as in “school” to prison, lets the people off the hook. People are helping to push folks through the pipeline not the building.

Fearless of any type of repercussions, I shared my thoughts about schooling, fairness, equity and just how one might consider leading throughout high school. I was thanked a number of times for my “suggestions.” And at least on one occasion, I was personally escorted — while still sitting at my desk — outside of the classroom door.

Dare I claim that I had a deep appreciation and felt a high schoolers soulful yet bad-assed connection with Prince? (I am sure that everyone and their mother makes the same claim. **eye roll**) Prince did what so many of us, I think, want to do — transgress against the conventional and so-called normative, model or practice. Prince rebelled against a convention of overlords and overseers.

He interrupted practices that were in conflict with his own artistic gifts, beliefs and talents by changing his name to a symbol and writing “slave” on his cheek.  A sophisticated move — years before any of us could understand the economic genius and the social and racial justice for new artist and the impact that his fearless moves might have on the world.

In my own academic space, there also is lots of room for talent, discovery, thought and most importantly support for the work that needs to be accomplished in our schools and educational spaces. It takes neither a rocket scientist, nor a clairvoyant to know that we will never run out of stuff to explore or to think deeply about — or stuff to do. I have argued in a number of places that it makes no sense that a self-selected few might anoint themselves as the leading decision-makers who control how we all should define intellectual work and scholarship in an entire field of study.

We even use universal language liker tier one and flagship to describe all that is good. However, just like some folks claim music written by artist like Bach and Beethoven are classical, “must-haves” for young people’s development and growth. I claim James Brown and Aretha Franklin, too, as classical artist to which babies should listen while in the womb. I counter the elitist language of tier one by simply asking, according to whom? And I most definitely resonate with a “muthaship” epitomizing “all that is good” rather than the Flagship which quite honestly conjures a very different picture for me as an African-American woman whose African people arrived on “ships’ to this stolen soil (see CRiT Walk).

So, as I think about Prince — a sort of friend in my head (he and Shelia E.) — his purpleness, and his Prince-isms, I have to refer to that locker. While that picture is long gone, “my attitude” since I entered this academic space is pretty much the same. I am most concerned about how communities of color and other marginalized communities are actively supported and how schools of education, like the one in which I reside, can work together with communities to make broad, sweeping changes — political and otherwise.

I will continue to be engaged in critical scholarship that tries hard to actually make a difference in the lives of marginalized communities. In terms of scholarship, I am not changing — never have, never will. I will continue to select spaces that are most inclusive and accessible to everyone. I will continue to ignore many “journals” and even more works in my field that do not pay attention to scholarship written by people of color and marginalized groups. While a few have made significant change in what they deem “acceptable,”  few regularly publish critically conscious scholars of color — or anyone who is racially,  or critically conscious for that matter. (I can think of only one that has really undergone radical leadership change).

Ultimately, however, until significant change occurs in my own field of education, I, too, will follow the lead of his Purpleness.

Dr. Robin L. Hughes is interim executive associate dean in the School of Education at Indiana University.

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