Turning the Tables
There’s a line in Dr. A.D. Carson’s song, “Letter Home,” that says, “being Black ain’t never been the thing to be.”
Carson doesn’t sugarcoat what it means to be Black. It’s a theme throughout his 34-track dissertation rap album, Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions, for which he recently garnered national attention. A revolutionary himself, Carson’s sights are set on using his voice — both written and vocal — to help change the perception of Blackness in America and around the world. From his dissertation to activism in his lyrics to organizing the “See the Stripes” campaign at Clemson University, Carson aims to join literary legends like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison by battling the perceived negative connotations associated with Blackness through the power of his words.
Track 1: Intro [Dixie Remixed, or I Wish We Were So Great] 01:40
As a kid in Decatur, it wasn’t Carson’s ambition to be a rapper. He wanted to be both a teacher and a poet. When tasked with a writing assignment in the fourth grade, he asked his teacher if he could make his paragraph rhyme.
“I was always really interested in writing and rhyming,” says Carson. “Alongside that, at home, we would play school, and I would always play the role of the teacher.”
It wasn’t until later that he considered morphing his poetry into rap.
“Initially, I wanted to be like the people who were in the American poetry anthologies. I didn’t have a word to call the performance of the poems,” he says.
Carson’s creative process has always been highly intuitive. “Honestly, the process starts when something kind of tugs at me,” he says. “It might be a phrase, a word or a thought. Or I’ll hear a piece of music and the words automatically populate the beat. It’s my responsibility to catch the words and write them down. When something needs to be said, I’m urged by whatever forces; so, I submit to that urge, say it and move forward.”
Eventually, Carson found that delivering his poems in the form of rap made him more approachable to his peers. “It’s not that I had a concern that my friends didn’t think poetry was cool; even if that was the case I didn’t mind being an outcast. It was really that it was more accessible. I could actually engage my friends with rap more effectively than I could engage them with poems.”
Track 5: Internal Contradiction [The Showdown] 03:36
Carson didn’t plan to go to college. He just assumed that he would get a factory job or a traditional 9-to-5. But he had a team of people, including high school administrators and counselors, who encouraged him to think bigger and consider pursuing his art and his dream of teaching after graduation.
When he arrived at Millikin, the only programs on his mind were English education and English writing, in which he double majored.
“Overall, my experience was a great one with the English department faculty and staff,” says Carson. “Additionally, I had invaluable mentorship from Bryant K. Smith, [then] director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He’s still a great friend and mentor to me presently.”
As an MU student, Carson still had a passion for rhyming, and his professors were receptive to him doing the work that he wanted to do.
During the spring 2003 semester, he served as a student assistant, team teacher and “expert extraordinaire” for a Creative Writing Hip-Hop Roundtable course, allowing him to merge his teaching craft and his hip-hop passion. Led by Carson and Dr. Terry Shepherd, former associate professor of English, the course examined the role of hip-hop lyrics in American culture: how the form alludes to and is an opening for more traditional literature; how it is perceived and valued as an art form; and what effect the genre and its stigma has on the public.
“A.D. took the reins of his education and shaped his own educational experiences while he was here,” says Dr. Carmella Braniger, associate professor of English at Millikin. “He has always used poetry as a vehicle for his activism.”
After graduating from Millikin with a bachelor’s degree in 2004, Carson went on to complete a master’s degree in English from the University of Illinois Springfield. He taught high school English for a while in both Decatur and Springfield before deciding to continue his education.
“I wanted to prepare myself professionally to teach in places beyond the high school classroom,” Carson says.
While researching graduate programs online, Carson came across the rhetorics, communication and information design program at Clemson University.
“There was a phrase in the program description about ‘knowing, doing and making,’” says Carson. “That’s a very hip-hop approach — knowing, doing, making. As I looked at that program and their philosophical approach to graduate studies, I decided I wanted to drop a line to the director of the program.”
The program director responded later that same day, asking Carson to send materials and more information. That email exchange and resulting conversations led Carson to pursue his doctorate at Clemson.
Track 13: See the Stripes 05:58
Even before Carson completed his dissertation, he was making headlines on Clemson’s campus. In 2014, he started “See the Stripes,” a campaign aimed at combating what Carson calls the “sanitized history” of CU’s campus and insensitivity toward its non-white and historically marginalized community members. According to the campaign’s website (seestripescu.org), the purpose is “to help raise awareness within the general student population about commonly overlooked contributions to Clemson University’s history.”
Clemson’s campus was formerly a cotton plantation, and the first buildings on campus were built using convict labor. While attending, Carson noticed many people avoided acknowledging those significant aspects of Clemson’s history.
“[I thought it was] really odd that we would wear solid orange if the mascot is the tiger,” Carson says in response to Clemson’s “Solid Orange Fridays,” a campus tradition encouraging students to wear orange on Fridays to promote school spirit.
“I started thinking about the sharecroppers, the convict laborers and the enslaved people — all of them somehow representing stripes in one way or another: The land that the sharecroppers worked was striped. The convict laborers had striped uniforms. The enslaved people had stripes on their backs from being whipped. Each of these represented a stripe on the tiger that Clemson wasn’t recognizing because the tradition was to wear solid orange.”
Carson felt that “seeing the stripes” would make the Clemson community more aware of its issues with inclusivity and diversity. According to the campaign’s purpose statement, “While the Tiger could be seen as ‘Solid Orange,’ a solid orange tiger could not survive without its stripes. Similarly, Clemson University’s history has its dark parts that should be acknowledged.”
“I thought it would be more responsible of us as a collective, rather than having Solid Orange Fridays, to see the stripes that exist not only in the mascot but also in the history,” Carson says.
However, not everyone agreed.
When presenting these concerns directly to the administration didn’t work, “See the Stripes” supporters conducted a sit-in at Sikes Hall in April 2016, which lasted nine days. During that time, five students, including Carson, were arrested for trespassing. Though he was ostracized by some on campus for bringing the darkness surrounding Clemson’s history to light, Carson doesn’t regret it, and the charges were later dropped.
“It was worthwhile because the community made a difference, the community was heard, and the community came together,” he says.
Track 2: Dissertation [Part I: The Introduction] 04:24
Last year, Carson became the first Ph.D. candidate to submit a rap album as a dissertation at Clemson University. Along with the 34-track album, Carson included the URL to his website (aydeethegreat.com), which featured a digital booklet, annotated timeline, images, additional music tracks, a link to his YouTube channel and more.
“The dissertation is actually a digital archive in which the primary component is a rap album,” Carson says.
Although Carson’s choice of medium for his dissertation was hailed as innovative and bold, the choice seemed logical to him.
“I don’t think there’s anything particularly novel about using rap music to engage the philosophical and theoretical — that happens every day,” he says. “I was thinking about what we call knowledge production at our universities. It seems we have a very narrow perception of what that is. How do we demonstrate what we know? How do we demonstrate scholarly engagement? I was thinking of ways to help facilitate conversations in a very basic way and to articulate my experiences in South Carolina. I found the traditional formats inadequate.”
So, Carson turned to familiar formats — music and poetry — to help express himself and to defend his central thesis: Are certain voices treated differently? Throughout the album and supporting materials, Carson explores voice, particularly how the general population perceives the Black voice. While Carson recognizes that certain voices are easier to sell as commercial products, a level of exploitation or marginalization can come with that.
In his song, “Letter Home,” Carson likens this struggle to writing a letter home from a war that is still raging:
“It’s like we’ve seen it all before. History repeats. It ain’t unique, and being poor or being Black ain’t never been the thing to be, but even more at least they had the decency to speak and see it as a war.”
“We’re always having to remind ourselves that we aren’t inherently bad,” says Carson. “I don’t think that’s the way it should be, and that’s not the way that I see myself. The intent is to challenge the status quo. My Blackness is not something that I am ashamed of, nor is it something that I have to apologize for.”
Even so, he realizes that there is danger involved when it comes to challenging the status quo, and this concept was emphatically demonstrated when Carson moved to Charlottesville, Va., last spring.
Track 1: Charlottesville Summer 17 (Intro) 03:57
After defending his dissertation in February 2016 and earning his doctorate that May, Carson left South Carolina to accept a new position as an assistant professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South at the University of Virginia.
Unbeknownst to Carson, a group comprised of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other alt-right groups was planning to march in Charlottesville in May to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Carson moved to Charlottesville the same weekend as the march.
“It was a warm welcome, so to speak,” says Carson.
After receiving national coverage for its rally in May, the group announced plans to have additional rallies over the summer, virtually ensuring that Charlottesville would remain embroiled in racial tension for months. That tension reached a peak when hundreds of protesters staged a torchlight march through the UVA campus on Friday, Aug. 11, in connection with the next day’s “Unite the Right” rally. The following day, “Unite the Right” demonstrators and a group of counter-protesters each planned to hold marches in downtown Charlottesville before the rally, after receiving official permission from the city.
Because of Carson’s noteworthy new position at UVA, as well as the national attention garnered by his innovative dissertation, he was asked to join the counter-protesters in a peace march the morning of Aug. 12 and to speak at the following rally.
“My work speaks to what was going on there; it’s part of a conversation that’s been going on in our country for some time,” says Carson. “I felt that, as a newcomer to the community, it was important to go and stand in support of these people saying, ‘We will not allow the message of hate in this community.’”
Carson recalls hundreds of people participating in the counter-protesters’ march that morning, singing, chanting and traveling from McGuffey Park to a location which had been reserved for their group near the courthouse.
“The morning march was very peaceful and gave me the impression that the rest of day would be the same,” Carson says. “But we all know how it unfolded.”
As the time drew near for the white nationalists to gather at the Lee statue in nearby Emancipation Park for the “Unite the Right” rally, protesters and counter-protesters were overflowing their designated areas and encountering each other as they navigated the 6-8 block area. According to news accounts of the event, many rally supporters were dressed in camouflage, flak jackets and other “riot gear,” and had armed themselves, while some counter-protesters also wore helmets and carried improvised shields and weapons.
Not surprisingly, numerous skirmishes occurred and many participants were injured. Shortly before the rally was due to start, Charlottesville police declared the event an unlawful assembly, and marchers were ordered to disband. Soon after, a state of emergency was declared by the governor.
The order to disband, however, did not prevent tragedy. As a group of counter-protesters attempted to move away from the demonstrations in the early afternoon, a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into the crowd, injuring 19 and killing a 32-year-old woman. Later that afternoon, a helicopter conducting surveillance on the clashes in Charlottesville crashed outside the city, killing two Virginia State Police officers. When night fell on Charlottesville, three people were dead and dozens injured.
Track 10: By Design 03:35
Being a firsthand witness to the violence in Charlottesville this summer led Carson to express his feelings about the experience in an album released this fall: “Sleepwalking, Vol. 1: A Mixtape.”
“The project starts with a recording of my remarks to the group of people at McGuffey Park on Aug. 11,” Carson says. “It’s relevant that my first project in my official capacity as assistant professor of Hip-Hop speaks to what’s going on in my unofficial capacity as a new resident of Charlottesville.”
Carson sees a definite correlation between the events he experienced as a student at Clemson and the violent confrontations in Charlottesville.
“What was going on in Charlottesville in August was a different, more violent version of what was happening in Clemson for the previous four years,” Carson says. “It’s where we are, wherever we are. Seemingly we’re all on the brink of it, and this was just a demonstration of it.”
That feeling of being on the brink is a common topic of conversation in Carson’s classrooms. As a professor, he encourages his students to discuss their feelings and experiences, while using songwriting and critical analysis to think through some of the difficult questions being raised on campus and around the world.
“[The classroom environment] creates conditions for us to have conversations about politics in Virginia, the current presidential administration, ideas surrounding Blackness and the way we get along with one another.”
Track 4: The Script [Sleepwalking, Vol. 1] 04:23
Carson has come a long way from making his fourth-grade writing assignments rhyme; he is exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up. He’s writing, performing and teaching, both inside and outside the classroom.
He’s also working to change the way young aspiring rappers can move forward.
“I’m hoping to provide an example of another direction for a rap career,” he says.
According to Carson, he remains “diligent in working to tear down barriers that were constructed to prevent certain types of people whose voices are used to perform in particular kinds of ways — that might be understood as ‘Black’ — from being heard or understood as worthy of humanity because of the way they speak or sound.”
There’s still much work to be done in changing the way that the world views Blackness in America, but Carson and other like-minded activists are on the front line to enact that change.
As he says in Dissertation [Part 1: The Introduction], “It’s not a matter of simply rapping, I really happen to have a strategy being enacted.”
Learn more about A.D. Carson, and listen to his music at aydeethegreat.com.
Painting of A.D. Carson by Angela Simone.