6 Takeaways from “On the Come Up” for Educators

Here are some of my big takeaways for educators (and students) from On the Come Up, the sophomore novel by Angie Thomas. There are no major spoilers, but I do include plot details and character descriptions so read at your own discretion! 

1. The School-to-Prison Pipeline

A major theme of On the Come Up is the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which the ACLU describes as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” The pipeline disproportionately affects children of color and those with disabilities, histories of poverty, abuse, and neglect. Zero Tolerance policies isolate and “push out” these students as opposed to restorative practices that aim to provide the resources, counseling, and supports needed to keep students in school.

We can see evidence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline throughout the novel, as it creates the conditions that lead to Bri’s major conflict with her school. In Chapter One, she describes Long and Tate, the school security guards, insisting, “if you’re black or brown, you’re more likely to end up on their radar…even though Long himself is black” (11-12). Later, Bri has a violent interaction with these same officers as she enters school through the metal detectors. All she has in her possession is candy, but she’s treated like a dangerous criminal, called a “hoodlum” (60), and suspended for three days.

Midtown is a specialized school of the arts and Bri’s mom is persistent that even though she’s treated unfairly there, things are worse at their neighborhood school, Garden High, where “they have actual cops…[and] the damn school is treated like a prison” (70). This discrepancy, between the specialized magnet school and the public neighborhood school, is coded in politics of race and class.

The criminalization of black and brown children at Garden High by the presence of “actual cops”, as well as the targeted, discriminatory racial profiling and physical violence perpetrated against the black students at Midtown are symptomatic of the School-to-Prison Pipeline, as students like Bri are pushed out of schools every day, and into the for-profit prison system.

2. Sexism in Hip Hop & Society

There is a lot of great scholarship about sexism and misogyny in hip hop written by black feminist scholars. One text that was recommended to me was When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, by Joan Morgan (2000), who coined the term “hip hop feminism.”

On the Come Up is another contribution to the hip hop feminist canon. Bri, our teenage narrator, calls it “misogynistic fuckery” (24) when she gets to “The Ring” for her first battle and observes “mostly guys in here…which is reflective of the small ratio of women to men in hip hop” (24). This observation opens up space for critical dialogue with young men and women about the nature of sexism in hip hop and American culture. Films like Byron Hurt’s, Beyond Beats & Rhymes (2006) although dated, are powerful teaching tools that assist teachers and students with interrogating problematic elements of rap music, such as hyper-masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, and other misrepresentations of women and men in hip hop and wider American popular culture media.

After Bri defeats her opponent Miles in a battle, she discusses the victory with him, questioning if he was surprised because she’s a girl. Miles testifies that his playlists are “full of Nicki and Cardi” (213). Bri tells Miles that she likes both of them too and “refuses to ever “choose” between two women. It’s so few of us in hip-hop as it is” (213). What follows is an empowering discussion from two young hip-hop heads who recall how Lil’ Kim taught that “not only can girls rap, but they can hold their own with the boys” (213).

On the Come Up creates opportunities to study and celebrate great female MCs and scholars (starting with Bri!), discuss why hip hop has historically been dominated by men, explore what this dynamic means in terms of power and privilege, and discover new possibilities that arise when we reimagine a landscape of social equity that empowers black women and girls in classrooms and beyond.

3. Hip Hop History Lesson

OTCU is one big Hip Hop History Lesson, demonstrated by the section titles of “Old School” + “Golden Age” + “New School,” which divide up the book into three parts. These parts correlate to Bri’s development as an MC, and serve as a narrative framework for her coming-of-age, much like those eras defined the coming-of-age of hip hop itself. In this way, On the Come Up is a story about Bri finding her voice through a process of struggle and self-exploration, but it’s also the unfinished story of hip hop’s emergence into the twenty-first century.

It’s clear that Angie Thomas has an appreciation for all the different eras of hip hop, with a special affinity, like many hip hop heads, for the golden era. Referencing Nas’ classic album, illmatic, Bri confides, “nothing’s been the same since Nas told me the world was mine…it was like waking up after being asleep my whole life. It was damn near spiritual. I fiend for that feeling. It’s the reason I rap” (25).

If we could recall for a moment a time when something moved us that deeply. Maybe it was an experience in nature, a person we met, an album we heard in college, our favorite film, or a transformational book we read. And think how important, even how sacred that experience was/is to us. That’s what hip hop means to many of our students. That’s the spiritual and healing potential of hip hop. Bri hears Nas tell her “the world is yours” and it awakens her to possibility. Maxine Greene discusses this kind of “wide-awakeness” as a goal for education. And Paulo Freire discusses a similar concept of awakening to a kind of “critical consciousness,” or “conscientização.”

On the Come Up teaches us about activism, social justice, and media portrayals of hip hop. In one profound passage, Bri speaks to her manager Supreme about how her new song is receiving negative publicity and how she’s being portrayed in the media. Supreme reassures her:

Well they probably will make a lot of noise about the song. Folks love to blame hip-hop. Guess that’s easier than looking at the real problems, you know? Just think though, you in legendary company. They did it to N.W.A., they did it to Public Enemy. ‘Pac. Kendrick. Shit, anybody who’s ever had something to say on the mic, they’ve come at them ’bout how they’ve said it (253).

This passage, and others like it, highlight in the novel something fundamental about hip hop as social critique. It’s always been overtly political.

4. School Segregation

It’s critical to look at the way Midtown and Garden High Schools are described in OTCU because their characterizations provide a commentary about school segregation in the United States. Many scholars, educators, journalists, and civil-rights advocates agree that school segregation is getting worse, isolating poor black and Latinx children in both public and charter schools.

Bri tells us that Midtown has, “rich kids from the north side, middle-class kids from downtown and Midtown, and hood kids like me” (49). While it appears that Midtown has made an attempt to integrate, Bri and her African American classmates are still in the minority and they experience racial discrimination at the hands of school officials. They also believe that Midtown HS, “only started busing kids in from other neighborhoods so they could get grants” (151-2). Although Bri and her peers attend Midtown, they are fully subject to the effects of school segregation.

The way Bri describes the city’s population along lines of race and class paints a realistic picture of de facto segregation in today’s American cities. According to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, “a half century of research shows that many forms of unequal opportunity are linked to segregation.” While Garden High, the neighborhood school, isn’t a focal point of OTCU, its symbolic presence in the backdrop functions as a place waiting ominously for “the bad kids,” a place “with actual cops” where you don’t want to go if it can be avoided, a site of erasure, a place that makes children, what Marc Lamont Hill calls, America’s “Nobody.”

OTCU brings to light the effects of segregation within a larger social context, amidst the backdrop of social unrest, economic inequality, the erosion of democracy, and the loss of faith in public institutions, especially schools. If we look at the root causes of school segregation, we see a “fundamental defect in American schools…[which have] exhibited patterns of racial concentration, mostly due to housing segregation and decades of discriminatory education policy.” (The Atlantic). These social inequities are woven into the American education system, which has “vestiges of engineered inequities, and those inequities have created unequal opportunities for a huge chunk of black Americans” (Vox)

5. Trauma-Informed Care

There is now more research about the effects of trauma on brain development. Some researchers have been exploring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among urban youth. And in recent years, an approach to the human service field has arisen known as Trauma-Informed Care.  It can be described as, “an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma” (The Trauma-Informed Care Project). Schools, teachers, and mental health workers have adopted Trauma-Informed Care approaches to working with students and families. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), “one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior.”

According to the TICP, trauma can affect “individuals, families, and communities by disrupting healthy development, adversely affecting relationships, and contributing to mental health issues including substance abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse” (TICP). In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, & Body in the Healing of Trauma, psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains how trauma causes physiological changes to the body and brain that can persist throughout our lifetimes.

The characters in OTCU experience many forms of trauma. Bri’s brother Trey, a psychology major in college, believes that if their mother Jay, “had gotten counseling after seeing Dad die, she wouldn’t have run to drugs to deal with the trauma” (94). While Trauma-Informed Care may include therapy, it involves much more, too. It means thinking about people differently, “recognizing that [they] often have many different types of trauma in their lives…and need support and understanding from those around them” (TICP).

6. The Complexities of Recovery

It’s often said that “addiction is a family disease.” This can have multiple meanings, but it plays out this way in OTCU, as Jay’s addiction and recovery affect her children both positively and negatively. There’s a section of the novel where Jay (Bri’s mom), a recovering addict with eight years clean, stays in her room for days at a time and no one is sure if she’s using again. Eventually she reassures her children that she was in a dark place, but that she’s alright. Towards the end of the novel, Bri still isn’t sure if she can trust they’ll be okay but she seems to find peace with “maybe.” Just maybe. That seed of hope is the cornerstone of recovery. And what is recovery but a path to a better future for people who have been in the dark.

People often think the recovery process should be nice and linear. An upward trajectory measured in milestones and celebrations of perceptible success. The truth is that for those in recovery, myself included, it’s much messier than that. Just like teaching, there are days when it feels like nothing is going right, when you want to stay in bed, and maybe you do. There are also days when you feel a sense of complete freedom that you never thought possible, days that put all your suffering into perspective and fill you with enough gratitude to get through one more day.

I don’t know if OTCU has heroes, but if it does, Jay is mine. She made some terrible mistakes in her active addiction but she doesn’t have a moral deficiency. She has a complex, brain disease, as science tells us. Many believe the problem and solution to addiction is mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual in nature. Struggle & success look different for everyone because addiction & recovery are complex. As a society, educators included, we need a fuller, more compassionate and humane understanding of addicts, of the disease of addiction, and its effects on families and communities, especially communities of color who still don’t get the equivalent benefits of compassion.

One Last Note

There is much more to explore and discuss in the novel, amongst teachers and students. From intersectionality, code-switching, teacher perceptions of hip hop, and the entrepreneurial spirit – to name a few. I’m excited to hear about all the young people who will be reading this book amongst themselves, and with their amazing teachers in the coming years. Please share your experiences, share this post, and tell me YOUR big take-aways!

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