Forging identities through hip hop
As Miles Williams ’15 co-captained the Elon Phoenix football team over the past year, he was also conducting undergraduate research just a few miles away on the way hip hop music might help African-American children develop self-confidence and a sense of self.
Before loading up his car in December for the long drive to Chicago to begin his career, Miles Williams ‘15 had one more task on campus to complete - and it, too, involved packing boxes. With books. Lots and lots of books.
There was “The Skin I’m In” by Sharon G. Flake. “Under the Same Sun” by Sharon Robinson. “Hip Hop Speaks to Children,” a poetry collection edited by Nikki Giovanni. He made sure to include “Letters to a Young Brother” by Hill Harper and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” both of which were foundational to his own growth in middle and high school.
Many had been donated. Others Williams had purchased with leftover funding from a summer research project. Once boxed inside a South Campus academic building, Williams and his mentor, Associate Professor Judy Esposito, delivered the 250 books to the Burlington Housing Authority’s main offices just a few miles away.
It is in those offices where Williams hopes the books will be read by countless children, most of whom are African-American, to help them understand and strengthen their identities as students. As artists. As young men and women of color celebrating their cultures.
“Elon has given me so much. My parents have given me so much. It was only right to pay it forward,” the former co-captain of the Elon Phoenix football team explained a few days later, just hours from departing North Carolina for a position with the LEARN Charter School Network in the Windy City. “These kids really deserve it.”
The book donation was an expression of gratitude for a project Williams conducted months earlier as part of Elon University’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience. Under Esposito’s tutelage, the human service studies major from South Carolina set forth to create a program using hip hop music to measure impact on the identity formation of high-achieving, male African-American youth.
The research project last summer was of personal interest. Williams had attended private schools through eighth grade, where his classmates were almost all white. He left for public school in ninth grade to play football. At the time, Williams said, it was hard to navigate both worlds when he didn’t fit stereotypes of what it meant to be “black,” especially among his white friends.
“I couldn’t truly be me,” Williams said. “Being who I was wasn’t ‘black’ enough. Black was loud. Black wasn’t ‘articulate.’ Black wasn’t money. I couldn’t identify with their image of blackness.”
It was just as hard to fit in with black friends. In school, Williams took part in honors and Advanced Placement courses. He was frequently the only African-American student in the room. Outside of class, Williams said, African-American friends didn’t understand his interest in baseball and country music.
What helped him eventually thrive in his identity was the ethos of service his parents instilled in him, combined with his strong Christian faith.
At Elon, Williams was sidelined his junior year with a hip injury, which left him with one season of eligibility after completing his degree requirements in 2015. Since he was already planning to be on campus over the summer for football activities, Williams applied to the SURE program to continue research he started in a senior seminar taught by Esposito.
“Dr. J pushed and encouraged me to do this research and find a way to positively use our resources,” Miles said. “None of this would have been possible without her.”
The research project, however, wasn’t without unanticipated challenges. Williams initially wanted to study black male identity formation as it related to interactions in predominately white settings. Once he arrived at the housing authority, he quickly realized that identity wasn’t a problem for the children there, as they weren’t saddled between two cultures like he had been.
The children taking part in Burlington Housing Authority programs were almost all black.
The research also changed due to realizing their assessment measures weren't the best fit for the population. The children couldn't effectively tell Williams how, or even if, their cultural identities were being affected by the hip hop program.
However, when Williams and Esposito asked the teachers to tell them what they had seen, that's when the impact came to light.
“Miles, in that moment, grew by realizing how sometimes the answers aren’t necessarily what you’re looking for, but there’s so much more going on and you don’t realize the impact you have,” Esposito said. “A project doesn’t always turn out the way you wanted it to - it’s even better.”
Instead of giving up, Williams shifted his focus from identity formation to educational influences. Burlington Housing Authority counselors working with the children in their summer enrichment programs reported to Williams that his weekly visits, and what he taught about hip hop and school, made an immediate impact on intellectual interests.
Among other effects, the children found in hip-hop a way to express themselves through writing and poetry in ways they hadn’t previously considered. They also learned from Miles that some of the biggest names in hip hop earned college degrees and use their intellect for creative purposes.
“Understanding the lyrics, and the entrepreneurship, and what it takes to become a rapper, that was one of the things Miles shared,” said Allen Blue, the family & youth services director at the Burlington Housing Authority. “He told them you have to stay in school. You have to take math. You have to take English."
Williams had leftover money from the SURE program after his research project ended. His decision to spend funds on books for children who live in Burlington Housing Authority properties was easy to make.
He may have wanted to study the way hip hop influenced identity formation, but for someone now working as an educational assistant in a second grade classroom, assessing children’s desire to learn was even better. Now, hundreds of miles away in Chicago, Williams’ legacy is still playing out.
“This is a prime example,” he said, “of how Elon helps students find their passion, connect it to academics, and then use it to serve the greater community.”