Vershawn Ashanti Young, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Vershawn Ashanti Young grew up in Chicago’s housing projects and went on to earn three advanced degrees: master’s degrees in performance studies and educational administration, and a doctorate in English. Six years ago, he joined the University of Iowa faculty with appointments in African American studies, rhetoric, and the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry.
He attributes his success to his mom, who demonstrated the value of education by putting herself through college and graduate school when he was young, and his teachers, who recognized his desire to learn and pushed him to do well.
But the path wasn’t always peachy. Young often felt obligated to downplay his African American characteristics in order to be taken seriously. Because of that challenge, he studies black “performances” and is making an argument for integrating black English into academic settings.
Young took a moment to discuss his work with fyi. He also opened up about his love for cooking soul food, a surprising professional aspiration, and why he selected an in-your-face title for his first book.
You study the African American experience post–Jim Crow and blacks’ efforts to become “full citizens.” Tell me why this topic appeals to you.
I have been privileged because of my education and the way I’ve learned to speak and present myself. But people I grew up with in the projects are treated differently because they have what I would describe as a more “ghetto” persona. They are not afforded the same opportunities I am. I don’t think people should have to perform in a certain way to access the privileges they deserve.
Did growing up in the projects affect your path in life?
You hear a lot about gang and drug culture in the projects, but I never was presented with the option to be a part of that. People in the projects saw me as a bookworm and didn’t want me to get into trouble. In seventh grade I asked a gang leader if I could join because I thought it would be cool. He said no and gave me a lecture about staying in school. He said I was smart, that school was my thing.
Your first book came out last year: Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity. What is the book about?
I examine episodes in my life that have to do with race or gender or language, and make an argument for code meshing, allowing African American vernacular in academic settings, as opposed to code switching, or weeding out the black English in school. I use language as a metaphor for identity. African Americans have to check other aspects of blackness at the door in order to succeed, which feels like having your cultural identity erased. People often see me as a success story but I want them to understand the complexity of that success story.
The title has raised some eyebrows. Why did you choose it?
Nobody likes the title. But I expected it. I did it deliberately. People might not have liked the title anyway, but the political terrain at the time it came out added to the negative response. A month before the book came out, Michael Richards, the comedian from Seinfeld, dropped an N-bomb in the middle of his stand-up routine. Then there was a movement to bury the word. I chose the title because it doesn’t side-skirt the issue. It says this is definitely a book about race, and it’s about some of the more touchy aspects of race.
You describe your work as performance rhetoric. Could you explain it?
Performance rhetoric looks at the way in which people perform with their bodies and use language in daily life. I analyze how people walk and talk, how they inflect their voices, and why they do it that way. I write my research up and translate it into a performance so people can see it. And then I act it out.
You’ve noted how African Americans sometimes feel the need to change their behavior to gain respect—for example, adapting their language in certain company. Did you see Barack Obama doing this?
Yes. Barack never let himself display characteristics that are considered typically African American. He never raised his voice too much and he never displayed a wide range of emotion because he didn’t want to be viewed as an angry black man. When John McCain took stabs at him in a debate, he just smiled. Michelle was the opposite, and the campaign reeled her in. At first she was vocal and direct. She said things like “this is the first time I’m proud of my country.” When they won Iowa, she said “ain’t no black people in Iowa” using black vernacular. When she introduced him, she’d say things like, “This is my man, my babies’ daddy.” After he got the nomination, they refashioned her performance to diminish her black characteristics. She was reintroduced as a guest host on The View so people could get a long view of her new, sanitized performance.
In what ways have you personally held back on your culture?
Sometimes I want to talk at a louder, higher pace that’s familiar to black people. I feel inclined to speak that way because it comes naturally to me and I like it, but I second-guess myself before I open my mouth because I don’t know how it will be perceived. I avoid using my big gestures because I’m afraid they might be viewed as threatening. One feature of black rhetorical style is to be very direct, but in mainstream environments there’s a lot of passivity. If someone does something wrong, you try to not make it about them but gently place the blame outside of the person.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on four books. Two edited collections—one is called From Bourgeois to Boogie: Black Middle-Class Performances, and one is on how to accomplish code meshing. Another book features several middle-class African Americans, including the Obamas, who exemplify racial anxiety. The last book, The Myth of Black English, looks at how we’ve exaggerated the differences between black and standard English.
What do you do in your free time?
I’m a social guy, so I love to cook and have people over. I am particularly good at soul food: fried chicken and corn bread, candied yams, peach cobbler, caramel cake, macaroni and cheese. I’m a yoga instructor. And I like to go to the movies and go out to eat.
What’s one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
One of my professional goals is to become a bartender. I like mixing drinks and talking to people. When I entertain friends I’d like to be able to make a drink and know what to put in it.
What is a life goal you’d like to accomplish, personally or professionally?
My fiancée, Tonya Isles, and I are getting married next year, and I hope to have two kids. I’d also like to eventually become a provost.
by Nicole Riehl