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May 5, 2003

Harvard Takes on Tupac

While perusing Mike Barthel's blog I found a report in the Harvard Gazette about an academic symposium devoted to Tupac Shakur. Mike got the link from this blogger, who seems awfully offended that such an event would occur.

As I said to Mr. Barthel, I'm not sure I understand why some people find this so outlandish. I mean, of course whenever academics tackle a pop culture topic some silliness and pretension will ensue, as witnessed in the article below. But that doesn't mean the subject isn't worthwhile.

Why wouldn't Tupac be worthy of scholarly analysis, as a cultural phenomenon? It's not like this symposium was based on the premise that Tupac composed literature worthy of replacing James Joyce in Harvard's English curriculum, or anything like that. As far as I can tell, it focused on his impact as a cultural icon, which has certainly been profound. So why do folks find it so absurd that Harvard might devote a few hours to him? Is it an assumption that all pop culture is irredeemably frivolous? Or is there a more specific bias at play?

Symposium analyzes, celebrates 'thug': Tupac looked at as cultural artifact, force

Few spaces at Harvard are more burdened by symbols of the University's glorious past than the Barker Center's Thompson Room.

While the room itself is not particularly large, everything in it is on a grand scale, from the towering grandfather clock to the walk-in stone fireplace topped by a bust of John Harvard, both prominently inscribed with Veritas shields. Standing portraits of Theodore Roosevelt, Percival Lowell, and other Harvard notables hang from the floor-to-ceiling oak paneling, in which names such as Emerson, Longfellow, Bulfinch, and Agassiz have been carved in bas-relief.

But for one day last week (April 17), these dignified totems of authority and rectitude were all but effaced by portraits of a young black man, his head shaved, his muscular arms and torso heavily tattooed, and his heavy-lidded eyes conveying an expression both menacing and soulful. In several photos he brandished a handgun, and in one he wore a large automatic tucked into the waistband of his boxer shorts.

The occasion was an academic symposium titled "All Eyez on Me: Tupac Shakur and the Search for the Modern Folk Hero." It was co-sponsored by the Hiphop Archive, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the Program of Folklore and Mythology, and IKS University of Oslo, Norway...

...Mark Anthony Neal, an English professor from the State University of New York, Albany, gave a talk titled "Thug Nigga Intellectual: Tupac as Celebrity Gramscian," in which he argued that Shakur could be seen as an example of the "organic intellectual" who expresses the concerns of his group, a concept articulated by Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist political theorist...

...But the guy who blew everyone away was the keynote speaker Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Professor in the Humanities and African American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur"(BasicCivitas Books, 2001). Speaking in an intense, cadenced, crescendoing style that clearly derived from black preaching, Dyson combined the vocabulary of post-structuralist theory with the language of the streets while quoting liberally from Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dog, Nas, and Mos Def.

Dyson, who has written books on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as issues in contemporary culture and race relations, said that when colleagues heard he was writing a book on Tupac Shakur, they asked "Why would you waste time and energy writing about this thug?"

Dyson's answer was that "Tupac spoke to me with brilliance and insight as someone who bears witness to the pain of those who would never have his platform. He told the truth, even as he struggled with the fragments of his identity..."

Posted by jsmooth995 at May 5, 2003 6:28 PM

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