Before entering college, I learned under the guidance of teachers who required students to think for themselves. We students were not to accept what teachers said, and we were rewarded when we didn't and had a valid argument.
Once in college, that type of instruction became hit or miss, depending on the course. But, in my English classes, I nearly always found that same encouragement and acceptance when we discussed the works of authors.
I was reminded of those times when I talked with Adam Banks earlier this week.
Banks, associate professor of writing, rhetoric and digital media at the University of Kentucky, is conducting free classes in which he wants to engage us in the type of thinking that pulls us out of what we call our comfort zones but in reality have become ruts.
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"It is a class in a kind of way, but really it is a reading and discussion group," said Banks.
Banks started Tuesday with the first meeting of "The Queen of Real and the Real MLK: Nina Simone, Martin King and The Movement — In Their Own Words," a reading group that will meet each Tuesday at Jazzy G's on Old Georgetown Street
The purpose, Banks said, is to create a space where African-Americans may come together in a comfortable setting to "remember our history, remember the struggles we endured and use that history, use that struggle, to make things better right here and now." Participants receive free books.
Because the images of King and Simone have been hijacked by personal agendas — including by TV commentator Glenn Beck, who held a rally in August at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th anniversary of the March on Washington led by King — young people need to have a direct line to their words, thoughts and deeds, Banks said. That way they can think for themselves.
"We decided to put Nina Simone and MLK together because they both have autobiographies," he said. "We need to explore what King was all about and how Nina is undervalued."
Born and raised in Cleveland and educated in its public schools, Banks came to Lexington this summer from Syracuse, N.Y., where he taught in Syracuse University's writing program for more than six years. He is offering the same reading and discussion group in Syracuse, hoping to bring the communities together through the discussions.
Banks is the author of Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc., $29.99), which won the 2007 Computers and Writing Distinguished Book Award. He also wrote Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, scheduled to be published next year by Southern Illinois University Press.
At UK, Banks teaches undergraduate and graduate composition courses focusing on African-American rhetoric and digital rhetoric. He will teach a graduate seminar, "Beyond the Building Fund: The Rhetoric and Politics of the Black Sermon," next semester.
Banks credits Willie Kay Lewis with connecting the pieces to get the reading group started. Lewis, who works at Jazzy G's, was reading when Banks stopped in one day and began talking about starting a reading group.
"I just more or less offered Adam a place to have the club," she said.
The meeting Tuesday was an introductory session, she said, in which seven people talked about what they liked to read. Banks also gave out copies of I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone.
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone was a singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist. She is best known for the song To Be Young, Gifted and Black, an anthem of sorts for protestors in the 1970s.
"He told us to read several chapters and we'd discuss it next week," Lewis said of Adams. "I'm very excited. I'm not partial to autobiographies, but I'm willing to try them. Having someone to discuss it with will make it so much better."
I agree, and I think those discussions will help us all to expand our minds and our community.