The Rhizome of Blackness

A Critical Ethnography of Hip-Hop Culture, Language, Identity, and the Politics of Becoming

by Awad Ibrahim (Author) Awad Ibrahim (Author)
©2014 Textbook V, 239 Pages


The Rhizome of Blackness is a critical ethnographic documentation of the process of how continental African youth are becoming Black in North America. They enter a «social imaginary» where they find themselves already falling under the umbrella of Blackness. For young Africans, Hip-Hop culture, language, and identity emerge as significant sites of identification; desire; and cultural, linguistic, and identity investment. No longer is «plain Canadian English» a site of investment, but instead, Black English as a second language (BESL) and «Hip-Hop all da way baby!» (as one student put it). The result of this dialectic space between language learning and identity investment is a complex, multilayered, and «rhizomatic third space,» where Canada meets and rubs shoulders with Africa in downtown Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal in such a way that it produces its own «ticklish subject» and pedagogy of imaginary and integrative anti-racism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Black Don’t Crack Marking the Unmarked: A Critical Ethnography of Becoming
  • Falling Under the Eyes of Power: Being or Becoming?
  • May 16, 1999: The Story of the “Dark Man”
  • The Problem of the Twenty-First Century: Research Questions
  • Being Made: Research Contentions
  • Hanging Out Methodology: A Critical Ethnographic Research Project
  • Unité dans la diversité: Research Sites
  • From Ethiopia to Sénégal: Research Participants
  • Progression of Chapters
  • Notes
  • Chapter One: We Got a Situation Herre Race, Culture, Language, and Identity: Theorizing the Rhizomatic Third Space
  • The Signifying Economy of Race
  • Culture: Popular/Youth Culture and the Black Diaspora
  • Diaspora Project and Black Cultural Expression
  • Rap or Hip-Hop?
  • Hip-Hop and Gender Performance
  • Linguistic or Cultural Literacy: The Politics of Language
  • Identity or No Identity, That Is the Question
  • Making Connections: Rhizomatic Third Space of Becoming and the Politics of Articulation
  • Notes
  • Chapter Two: “Wallahi, ils sont tous des racistes!” Striated Racialization and the Rhizomatic Process of Becoming Black
  • Behind the Scene I: A Teacher’s Agony
  • Behind the Scene II: A Vice Principal of Color and the Politics of Recognition
  • Displaced Subjects as Ethnographers
  • On Stage: African Students and the Experience of Racism
  • Racial Stratification
  • Justice and School Structures: Plight of Refugees
  • Excluding and Surveying the Black Body
  • Being Spoken To
  • Age, Displacement, and Interruption of Schooling
  • Le Contrat: Dropped Out or Pushed Out?
  • Language, Race, and Streaming
  • Language, Demarcation, and Social Boundaries
  • Black Noise and the Creation of New Markets: The Strike
  • Conclusion: Gimme the Low Down
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: “Si tu allais faire un sondage, ça vient souvent de l’orientation ou des personnels” Teachers, Curriculum, and Pedagogy
  • Articulating a Comparative System: The Teacher-Students Relationship
  • Who Is Teaching What, and From Whose Perspective?
  • Teachers, Counselors, and the Trauma of Being Spoken To
  • Colonized Curriculum, Language, and Representational History
  • The Need for Change: Curriculum and Language
  • The Agony of Education: Who Pays the Price?
  • Parental Involvement
  • Dreams From My Mother: A Pedagogy of Care
  • Conclusion: Gimme the Low Down
  • Notes
  • Interlude: Homeless Urban Dreams by Reenah L. Golden
  • Chapter Four: “Oh, I Got It, It Gives Me Great Pleasure!” Hip-Hop Culture and Language, Post/Coloniality, and the Imaginary
  • Post/Coloniality and Language Learning at MV
  • Becoming Tri/Multilingual: Sites/Sides of Learning English
  • “I Just, Like, Laughing at Languages”: Bilingualism and Normativity
  • Q7 in the House: Hip-Hop Ethnography of BESL Learning
  • “We Were Totally Seen”: Colonization of Cultural Imagination
  • Economy of Inhospitality: Forging a Separatist Culture
  • Conclusion: Gimme the Low Down
  • Notes
  • Chapter Five: “Peace and One Love!” A Rhizomatic Third Space: Race, Language, Culture, and the Politics of Identity
  • Possessing Black Identity, Learning Black English
  • The Absence of the Auxiliary Be
  • Negative Concord
  • Distributive Be
  • Gender, Gangsta Rap, and African Youth: Who You Callin’ a Ho?
  • Identity or Identification: A Question of Desire
  • Gendering and Sexualizing Performativity: A Politics of Embodiment
  • In the Name of Elle
  • The Ideal (Hetero)Sexuality
  • A Rhizomatic Third Space— Take I: Ethnography, Identity, and Cuttin’ ’n’ Mixin’
  • A Rhizomatic Third Space— Take II: Multiple Selves and the Language Question
  • A Rhizomatic Third Space— Take III: Are These Really Moments of Contradiction?
  • Conclusion: Gimme the Low Down
  • Notes
  • Conclusion: What’s the Dillio? Towards a New “Ticklish Subject”: Pedagogy of the Imaginary as Integrative Antiracism
  • Can You See Me Otherwise?— Take I: School(ing) and Social Consciousness
  • Can You See Me Otherwise?— Take II: A New Economy of Exchange
  • Concluding the Conclusion: Towards a Pedagogy of the Imaginary
  • Notes
  • Appendix I: Notes on Transcription of Interviews
  • Appendix II: Profiles of Students Interviewed for This Book
  • References
  • Index
  • Series Index

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My thanks and gratitude go to a friend whose refusal to be a “big name” made him an awesome human being: George Dei. Thanks to my friends: Nicholas, Rebecca, Handel, Boulou, Emmanuel T., Tamari, Tim, Joel, Marie-Josée, Francis, Meredith, Carole, Emmanuel D., Douglas, and Giuliano. Thanks to my friends in Ottawa: Galal, Hamid, Fadil, Abugargas, Sayed, Osama, Hatim, M. Khalifa, Nashwa and the kids, T. Khazin, Hassan and Hiba, Hana and Haneen, Mohamed and Mojtaba, Samah, M. Bashir, and all our kids in Ottawa. My mother-in-law, big up! Hafiz, Elmala and Rayed, thanks for the many conversations we had on this book. Kelsey, Annette, Shenin, graduate students, keep the hope! Back home in Sudan, thanks family: my sisters Osailat and Aziza, my brother Hassan, and my nieces (Swsan, Ishraga, Najat, Selma, Oula, Roa, Alaa, Bona, Malaz) and nephews (Hatim, Mohaied, Hisham, Mohamed M., Ahmed, Mohamed A., Mohamed H., Musa, Mazin). Ihab, Yasir, Zeinab and Zeinat and the kids—much love. My family in Sennar and Halaween, love you. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the schools where I conducted my research. Without their permission and generous hospitality, this research would not have been possible. My friends, Shirley, Rochelle, Reenha, Hodari, Tricia, Pierre, and of the Freire Institute—thank you. You keep me smiling, and for this I am utterly grateful. Thank you Alim and Alastair very much indeed. I want to thank a mentor whom I met only once: the late Stuart Hall. His work has been inspiring, and it came into my life at the right time. Paulo Freire and Joe Kincheloe, you will never die. Thank you Phyllis Korper, Sophie Appel and the incredible anonymous editor at Peter Lang. Finally, my partner, Hala, suffered quite a bit while I finished this book, so I am more than grateful for her patience and love. For the young women and men who lovingly welcomed me in their lives, keep the hope. Ya makin it BIG. I got lotsalove for y’all. ← ix | x →

Black popular culture does not determine the formation of social and cultural identities in any mechanistic way, but it supplies a variety of symbolic, linguistic, textual, gestural, and, above all, musical resources that are used by people to shape their identities, truths, and models of community. That culture has struggled over a long period of time with its transmutation into the closed form of commodity. It is used in dynamic ways that liberate it from the logic of commodification and supplement the original creative input of its producers with further contributions.

—Gilroy, The Black Atlantic (1995)

Je suis une combinaison de plusieures choses” [I am a collage of things] (Hassan, 17-year-old boy of Somali descent). Yet, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Let me begin with a caveat to any and all who find these pages. Do not trust large bodies of water, and do not cross them. If you, dear reader, have an African hue and find yourself led toward water with vanishing shores, seize your freedom by any means necessary. And cultivate distrust of the color pink. Pink is taken as the colour of innocence, the colour of childhood, but as it spills across the water in the light of the dying sun, do not fall into its pretty path. There, right underneath, lies a bottomless graveyard of children, mothers and men.

—Aminata Diallo in The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill (2007)

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Black Don’t Crack1

Marking the Unmarked: A Critical Ethnography of Becoming

In speaking, the act that the body is performing is never fully understood; the body is the blindspot of speech…[Therefore] there is what is said, and then there is a kind of saying that the bodily “instrument” of the utterance performs. (Butler, 1997, p. 11)

They are seen as black, therefore they are black; they are seen as women, therefore, they are women. But before being seen that way, they first had to be made that way. (Wittig, 2003, p. 159)

When Blackness encounters the syntactic structure of identity, it seems that a new becoming spills over, a rhizome2 is given birth to. This book is about the rhizomatic structure of identity when it encounters Blackness. It is about the unspoken, that which is speaking so loudly: the Black body. Specifically, it is about more than “saying ego”3—the capacity to posit oneself as a subject; it is about the grammar of how displaced and migrant subjects posit, “speak” their subjectivity. Fittingly, this book is about the following exchange. In a cold February afternoon—typically Canadian—Aziza4 and I have set up an interview at the school, one of the three sites for my research, which I will call Marie-Victorin (hereafter cited as MV). Aziza, one of the research participants, is an 18-year-old female of Somali origin, and we were discussing which language to use in conducting the interview:

Awad: You have the time? I have all the time in the world. Ahm tu veux le faire en français ou en anglais? [Ahm, would you like the interview to be in English or in French?]
Aziza: Oh, in French.
Awad: In French.
Aziza: But I don’t know, I might also talk in English, I don’t know.
Awad: Ah that’s exactly what I want, choose the language you like; it doesn’t matter to me.
Aziza: So, like, both?
Awad: You can; oh yah, switch in and out, yah if you want to. ← 1 | 2 →
Aziza: O.K. I do it in both, because I know ’m gonna slip in French and in English; ’m gonna talk in both. (individual interview, English, 1996)

This exchange is not simply about deciding on a language to use; more significantly, for me, it is about how we decide to speak our identities, how we come to terms with them. “Slipping in” or “slipping out” of English or French, for example, is not a simple linguistic act. It is a “performative act” of culture and identity (Butler, 2004, 2011), an act through which we “tell” others where we are located—or where we want them to locate us—socially, culturally, linguistically, and in terms of sex, nationality, gender, and/or race. English and French are not, and never were, exterior entities and simple instruments or mediums of communication, as linguists would have us believe (Bourdieu, 1991). These languages, I will argue, are expressing the complexity and the inseparability of Aziza’s identity or, better yet, identities. They are performed identities and, hence, to paraphrase Jacques Derrida (1996), une langue est une identité (language is identity). On the one hand, language is where power is instituted, formed, and performed, and on the other, it is that “thing” that “is so organized that it permits each speaker to appropriate to himself an entire [apparatus] by designating himself as I” (Beneviste, 2000, p. 42; original emphasis). Language is where Aziza is enabled to “say ego,” where she becomes a subject-in-language and a subject-of-language (Heller, 2011; Hewson, 2009; du Gay et al., 2000).

“Slipping,” here, is code-switching, and code-switching is about living in-between languages, cultures, and social cartographies and the temporality and the plurality of the I, the subject. Using each language as an identity within the speaking subject, this book is about translating, translated, and translatable identities; how the symbolic is appropriated, cited, posited, mimed, transposed, and per/formed on and through the (Black) body; how the global is negotiated locally; and how this translation and negotiation takes place through race, language, culture, and the politics of identity. In short, the book is about the processes—the politics—of becoming Black.

Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity ac-cording to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, at-tributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization, down which it constantly flees…. These lines al-ways tie back to one an-other. That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomy, even in the rudimentary form of the good and the bad. (p. 9)

These processes, I intend to show, are “rhizomatic.” In Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987), the rhizome is a crabgrass-like figuration that Deleuze and Guattari contrast to a tree-and-root system of power distribution as it functions on individuals and society at large. A rhizome, for them, is a weblike fabric that “must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight” (p. 21). Working against facile notions of “roots” and “origins,” a rhizome is always in “a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills” (p. 21). As such, the rhizome resists verticality and chronological “lines of flight,” where its growth is contained ← 2 | 3 → and conceived in a linear, arborescent and systematic line. Line of flight means a path, a line of possibilities. Both in the plural and the singular forms, in the end, line of flight is about pursuing and following paths where the end result is either unknown (rhizome) or assumed to be known, binary, and totalizing (arborescent). As such, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) argue, the rhizome is altogether different than the arborescent. It is more complex, complicated, fluid, multiple, and multiplying, and forever becoming. The rhizome is a constant flow or movement of deterritorialization. It is not a point we reach, and finally say, We are finally there! Rather, it is a way of becoming that we are forever struggling to attain. Being open to the unkown, the rhizome is an uncontainable dimension “or rather directions in motion” (p. 21) that are forever in “between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (p. 7). This is how I am approaching the process of becoming Black and the general politics of identity in this book. There is no simple reading and definitely no simple identity into which we slot ourselves; we are forever becoming. If we reach anything, as we shall see in the next chapters, we reach what I am calling rhizomatic identity: a rhizomatic “assemblage” that is welcoming sociality, with everything that it brings (the good and the ugly), but with no guarantees as to what it might finally look like or what maze it has to go through to get there. It is a tree that is welcoming the sun, the rain, the snow, and so on, whose branches and leaves are growing horizontally. There are no certainties about what shape or form they will take, or how green they will turn out to be. This rhizomatic assemblage thus finds itself in a constant state of flow, deterritorialization, and multiplicity.


V, 239
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
ethnographic documentation identification pedagogy anti-racism desire investment
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 239 pp.

Biographical notes

Awad Ibrahim (Author) Awad Ibrahim (Author)

Awad Ibrahim is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. He is a curriculum theorist with special interests in cultural studies; Hip-Hop; youth and Black popular culture; social foundations (i.e., philosophy, history and sociology of education); social justice and community service learning; diasporic and continental African identities; ethnography; and applied linguistics. He has researched and published widely in these areas. Among his books are Global Linguistic Flows: Hip-Hop Cultures, Youth Identities and the Politics of Language (2009; with Samy Alim and Alastair Pennycook); Critical Youth Studies: A Reader (Peter Lang, 2014; with Shirley Steinberg); Provoking Curriculum Studies: Strong Poetry and the Arts of the Possible (forthcoming; with Nicholas Ng-A-Fook and Giuliano Reis); and The Education of African Canadian Children: Critical Analyses (forthcoming; with Ali Abdi).


Title: The Rhizome of Blackness