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The Rhizome of Blackness: A Critical Ethnography of Hip-Hop Culture, Language, Identity, and the Politics of Becoming

reviewed by Elizabeth Simmons - February 23, 2015

coverTitle: The Rhizome of Blackness: A Critical Ethnography of Hip-Hop Culture, Language, Identity, and the Politics of Becoming
Author(s): Awad Ibrahim
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433126028, Pages: 239, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. (Adichie, 2013)

In the novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie finds many occasions to use humor to talk about painful realities for continental Africans living in North America. In The Rhizome of Blackness, Awad Ibrahim takes a more sober look at the process of adapting to a place that mistakenly categorizes many as Black American, based solely on skin color. This book asks: How does it feel to be relegated to a narrow understanding of what it means to be Black? Ibrahim begins his ethnographic study by presenting fieldwork data he collected in and around Ontario, Canada. He explores the impact of an imposed, constructed, North American Blackness on recently immigrated continental African youth. He asserts that their identities are in a continuous state of flux as they navigate an environment that is often unwelcoming and ignorant of both their backgrounds and current experiences. In 1996, the author collected data at a school he calls Marie-Victorin, a French-language intermediate and high school; later, he examined Sunnyside and Maxwell High (2007 and 2011, respectively), both of which are English-language high schools. The majority of the book uses data from Marie-Victorin, and material from the two other sources are interspersed. Ibrahim describes the rhizomatic space as “a constant flow or movement of deterritorialization . . . a tree that is welcoming the sun, the rain, the snow, and so on, whose branches and leaves are growing horizontally” (p. 3). The rhizome is used to contextualize the circumstances of African students—both the effect of having an identity imposed on them, and how they understand their experiences and make Canada their home.

In Chapters Two and Three, Ibrahim deconstructs why and how most African immigrants assume characteristics from Black American pop culture. Ibrahim describes the social imaginary as “a discursive place where they are already imagined, constructed, and thus treated as ‘Blacks’ by hegemonic discourses and groups, and hence asked to racially fit somewhere” (p. 59). He cites multiple instances of ignorant practices implemented by school administrators and teachers, both subtle and overt, which enable the students to understand the construct of race and otherness in North America. Included are occurrences of general-level course tracking, language-based exclusion, ageism, and a lack of high expectations. One example describes a system, Le Contrat, which punishes tardiness and absences with expulsion. Many African students, particularly males, were affected by this ruling. They felt it was punitive, and without consideration for the cause of such offenses, which at times stemmed from handling household responsibilities. He explores how students express disinterest in a Eurocentric curriculum that is both unappealing to their experiences and debilitating to non-African students, who continue to harbor stereotypes and misunderstandings toward the continent of Africa and its inhabitants. He offers insight into the obstacles to parental involvement in school affairs due to differences in cultural norms and language barriers. He argues that a consequence of this racist, patronizing treatment is the debilitating internalization of exclusion and inadequacy.

Chapters Four and Five recount continental African students’ experiences with exclusion, and present the effects of these encounters on their identity development in the rhizome. Similar to other marginalized groups, these students exhibit a resistance to the dominant culture because it is not accepting of them. Ibrahim states: “In this striated atmosphere of negativity and negation, claiming an African identity has become an unapologetic act of resistance, a political statement; and African students taking up Hip-Hop identity and learning Black English as a second language have become a second layer in this act of resistance” (p. 150). In opposition to assimilation, students maintain native cultural mores in defiance to Canadian norms, and incorporate American Blackness as a complement. Ibrahim highlights the language of Hip-Hop that was adopted, their style of dress, and the ways in which they fuse urban dress and their native clothing.

Toward the last few pages of Ibrahim’s conclusion, he suggests “the pedagogy of the imaginary” (p. 209), an anti-racist pedagogy that encourages educators to serve as allies for their students, and to recognize and support the experiences of underrepresented students. Though society is not ready for colorblindness, or a post-racial society, I agree that it is ready for an allied survey of societal norms. In support of Ibrahim’s pedagogy of the imaginary is the Borrero, Lee & Padilla (2013, p. 114) study of resilience among immigrant youth which found: “If students, teachers, administrators, and parents work together to harness the multiple, varied, and fascinating learning contexts that youth encounter regularly, and begin to see school as one (instead of the only) context that matters, more youth of color will find ways to make connections between ecologies.” The population Ibrahim studied did experience success through perseverance, and this would only strengthen if comprehensively supported in school. Ibrahim’s pedagogical suggestions are beneficial for all groups of students; his contribution supports the need for a continued critical view of school culture and societal norms, and the damaging effects exclusion has on a significant portion of the population who do not or cannot fit into the classic ideal.

The Rhizome of Blackness offers insight into the ostracizing experiences of continental African immigrant youth in three Ontario schools. Ibrahim illuminates experiences in the rhizome, and how students cultivate their new identities. A rhizome also exists for those in North America who do not meet the criteria of the established norm—powerful women, the LGBTQ community, and various ethnic groups who are proud of their heritage and unwilling to forfeit their cultural practices. Quite possibly, even the majority of the population no longer possess an abundance of cultural characteristics considered normal. While providing a voice for yet another marginalized population, it would be powerful for future studies to bring the experiences of different groups in the rhizome together—providing strength in partnership and reducing the power of the exclusionary hegemonic standard. This survey is of particular importance as North America’s ethnic demographics continue to shift.


Adichie, C. N. (2013). Americanah. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Borrero, N., Lee, D. S., & Padilla, A. M. (2013). Developing a culture of resilience for low-income immigrant youth. Urban Review: Issues and Ideas in Public Education, 45(2), 99–116.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17870, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:09:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Simmons
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH SIMMONS is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is studying Teaching, Learning, and Teacher Education. Her research interests include activating student engagement, developing interdisciplinary curriculum, and multicultural education. She has eleven years of teaching experience, primarily middle school Humanities.
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