Gentle reader, if you feel your knee jerking at Thug Notes, may I suggest taking a moment to gaze beyond the gold bling and du-rag favored by its fictitious host, literature lover Sparky Sweets, PhD.
Or do we think YA author John Green should hold the monopoly on witty, breakneck deconstructions of classic literature? No shade towards Green. The Crash Course empire he’s created with his scientist brother, Hank, provides a great and entertaining service to students of all ages. His cute-nerd vibe makes him an appealing host.
But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
A poor choice of metaphor, given the fictitious Dr. Sweets’ soft spot for baby felines. It’s not something he talks about on the show, but he frequently tweets photos of himself in their oh-so-cuddly company, tagging them #kittentherapy.
He (or perhaps head writer / producer Jared Bauer) also turns to Twitter to disseminate quotes by the likes of Cervantes (“Diligence is the mother of good fortune”) and Orwell (“Either we all live in a decent world, or nobody does”).
Thug Notes’ tagline “classic literature, original gangsta” may be its punchline, but the humor of incongruity is not its sole aim.
Comedian Greg Edwards, who plays Sparky Sweets, told The New York Times that the project is “trivializing academia’s attempt at making literature exclusionary by showing that even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion.”
Amen. As Sparky Sweets observes following Simon’s murder in the Lord of the Flies above, “Whoo, this $hit (is) gettin’ real!”
Is there a danger that white teenage boys who love comedy and hip hop, who are indifferent to literature, and who know few black people and/or urban dwellers, might run around imitating their favorite parts of these videos, not realizing that their attempt to embody the character is perpetuating a stereotype in a bad way?
Is there an equal or greater danger that a reluctant student might be prodded in a positive direction by Sparky’s zesty, insightful take on their assigned reading?
Thug Notes’ discussion of racism as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird is not the longest I’ve ever heard, but it is the most straightforward and bracing. It got my blood going! I’m inspired to drag my dog eared paperback copy out and give it another read! (Maybe I’ll have a Scotch and play some classical music. Sparky does that too.)
I’m hoping the kids at the high school a couple of blocks away – who, for the record, look and sound far more like Sparky than they do me – will be encouraged to supplement their reading of this book, and others, with Thug Notes.
As an out-of-character Greg Edwards, bearing as much resemblance to Sparky Sweets as Stephen Colbert does to his most famous creation, told interviewer Tavis Smiley:
We don’t want to stop kids from reading the book. We just want to open up doors. Maybe teachers can use it. It’s hard being a teacher nowadays. You’re underpaid, you’re overworked, the classrooms are full, the kids are crazy, so throw this on and maybe it’ll spark one kid’s attention.
As of this writing, Thug Notes has tackled dozens of titles (you can watch them all here, or right below), a heaping helping of banned books, and four of Shakespeare’s plays (above).
New titles will be added every other Tuesday. I can’t wait.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday