The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

When I first tried to publish “ ‘This the ConscienceRebel’: Class Solidarity, Congregational Capital, and Discourse as Activism in the Writing of Black Female College Students,” I must admit that I was taken aback by white resistance in composition studies— the field to which I am most closely aligned by nature of the work that I do but certainly not by the nature of my politics , aesthetics, or pedagogies.  I was not surprised that the white editors saw the work— a text that focuses on working class Black female college students— as irrelevant to the wider field.  But, I must admit: I was surprised that it was Black female scholars in the field who gave the white editors rhetorical ammunition.

black womenIt was Black female reviewers who brought up the point that most professors reading the article would be white and have mostly white students and so would not be able to relate to the content.  Yes, you heard that right.  It was Black female professors who made that claim.  And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the white editors went to town on that right there. Besides the fact that it undermines all Black women when Black women see themselves as tangential to educational research, the idea that the majority of college writing classrooms today mostly enroll white, middle class students IS FALSE!  That’s not historically accurate and it certainly does not apply to an era where higher education gets browner and browner every year. Whiteness in this field gets maintained by scholars of color as much as it gets maintained by white scholars and it’s time we start talking about it.

civil_rights_tokenismI saw and heard all that I needed to see and hear and took my scholarship elsewhere… and I will continue to do so.  However, I became clearer on the kind of white, racist gatekeeping that scholars of color themselves contribute to.  This experience with “This the ConscienceRebel” would not be my first interaction with scholars of color intent on maintaining their own tokenism/coon-ism as the price of their prominence amongst white, racist researchers.  I am, however, confused by the rhetorics of scholars of color in my field who notice and critique the “white turn” in the publications of my field and yet replicate it in the ways that they respond to other scholars of color.

white-spacesThe “White Turn” in composition studies is most obvious in the top-tiered journals and university presses.  If you ain’t noticed, then you ain’t been reading very well.  As just one example, quite a few articles and books deal exclusively with white women, usually elite white women. So it’s not the focus on gender or females that makes a piece irrelevant in this field— it’s when those women are Black.  I also see quite a few white authors publishing about communities of color.  Sometimes, there is very little, if any, intellectual consultation with scholars of color. Here’s what I mean: a recent article about Latin@ students in high school and college included not one single current Latin@ scholar. All major theoretical frameworks came from white scholars who do not ever address race or nation. I also read an article that situates itself as offering a local response to one college environment’s structuring without ever mentioning the campus racism that I experienced daily in that space.  I haven’t seen these kinds of moves in any prominent educational journal tied to a national conference and national professional organization anywhere else in the United States.  But, lo and behold, we do have that kind of mess happening in composition studies in 2015!

I only started thinking about this complicit role of scholars of color in the past six months. This fall semester witnessed an entirely new genre in my life as an academic: I reviewed four books.  Yes, four!  I also chaired a committee that chooses the best article in one of the top-tiered journals in the field.  Needless to say, I am exhausted.  I made a critical decision when I decided to review these books, all of which are written by dope-ass faculty of color: if I had substantial criticism, I would do that one-on-one with the scholar and not in the letter to the editor.  I don’t trust white editors to not twist my words/recommendations so I am intent on not giving them any ammunition. As it ends up, I should have known better than to think I needed such a contingency plan.  The books I reviewed were so thorough and articulate that I saw no major issues.  It’s like I told my girlfriend at NWSA this year: if a person of color with a radical disposition makes it to the stage where a university press is sending out the manuscript for review, then that book is T.I.G.H.T.— especially in comparison to the kinds of weakass books that are already on the shelves.  At least in my field, that’s what I see.  In all of my publishing so far, I can only say that two scholars have ever approached me this way.  For the most part, scholars of color in my field see the review as a place to perform their self-proclaimed intelligence and knowledge for white reviewers who they are usually friends with rather than have a conversation with Black writers, Black vernacular culture, or a Black radical tradition.  It’s not that I don’t want critique but when you say things like— you need to review all of the Black male scholars who have written about this issue and THEN show how Black women have added on and challenged that— well, that’s just a simple polemic that was already resolved in 1990.  Can’t even take it seriously.  When white folk take that up, all you get is an all-around COON SHOW.  Or when your suggestion is to include scholars who work exclusively on Black masculinities that they direct to white audiences, scholars who never discuss the ways that their work was made possible by Black Feminisms, then I ain’t listening. Every racist, white editor who has ever given me a hard time built on the direct criticisms of scholars of color.  I’m not talking about criticism from the likes of radical intellectual powerhouses like Robin D. G. Kelley here.  Naw, I’m talking about simple stuff that people should be embarrassed to put in print.

I suppose I am only now realizing all of this given the opportunities of the previous semester.  I don’t see myself as some new 21st century rhetorical coon performing for white folks in my field’s most esteemed publications.  I wonder why so many other scholars of color don’t experience themselves in the same way.

Remembering George Whitmore this MLK Day

IDFor a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me.  I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it.  Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness.  This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking.  This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is.  Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint.  I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.

I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel.  One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas.  (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!)  Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow.  It was 20 years before the killers were caught.  One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years!  The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms.  Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it.  Nuthin quite like American shopping malls!  And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done.  The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers.  Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew.  Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case.  At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix.  The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly.  Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!

In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up.  Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin.  Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow!  This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows.  The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too.  I most certainly don’t.

So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.  The ID channel showed a dramatization of the “Career Girls Murder” today on MLK Day.  There was no commentary on race, racism, and criminal justice, but the storm of evidence that the ID channel showed makes you pause and reconsider the sacrifice someone like George Whitmore made, the kind of life that often does not get chronicled when we imagine the “legends” who paved our way.  I won’t even go into criminal justice authorities’ penchant for coercing blacks’ confessions alongside their seeming utter inability to “catch” white criminals; that is just too easy and will be self-evident in the upcoming story.  Yet and still, the difference in these two cases is astounding, all based on who America chooses to always already see as a suspect.

George Whitmore Jr., a 19-year-old unemployed laborer, is shown in a Brooklyn, N.Y., police station on April 25, 1964, after his arrest in the Career Girl Murders.

George Whitmore Jr., a 19-year-old unemployed laborer, is shown in a Brooklyn, N.Y., police station on April 25, 1964, after his arrest in the Career Girl Murders.

Here’s the story for those unfamiliar with George Whitmore. On August 28, 1963, on the day and at the time when MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., two wealthy, white women were brutally raped and murdered in their Manhattan apartment on the upper east side.  The case became known as the “Career Girls Murder” since the women’s decision to have their own apartment and own jobs without a husband was quite radical at that time. George Whitmore, a poor 19-year old black boy was pinned for the murder.  Though he spent that day at his food service job in New Jersey surrounded by other black workers who were all watching MLK deliver his speech at the exact time of the murder, Whitmore was charged.  Somehow, in some way, to the detective’s supposed surprise, Whitmore wrote a 61-page confession of a murder he supposedly committed when he was working in a different state.  Even when this “alibi” was revealed, the district attorney and detectives maintained Whitmore’s guilt, coercing a woman to pin him for a different assault just for good measure.  Whitmore stayed in jail for nine years and seems to have left jail so broken (and addicted to alcohol) that he never fully achieved mental health again.

whitmore drawingWhile Whitmore was in jail, weeks before he would finally be discharged, a CBS television movie was created about him in 1973.  Whitmore received a few dimes for his involvement while he was, literally, suffering from medical issues at the state prison’s medical wards.  The only thing anyone seemed to remember and take away from the movie is the new actor who emerged on the scene and stole America’s heart as the new movie-detective: Telly Savalas as Detective Theo Kojak. The ID channel, of course, did not highlight these facts about Whitmore’s immoral treatment, nor did the ID channel contextualize the violence of the New York criminal justice system against black bodies: one detective who got Whitmore to confess was awarded; no detective on the case was ever even reprimanded even though they arrested the real killer, Richard Robles, a few months after the murder and concocted other charges against Whitmore.  Civil rights activists worked the most on Whitmore’s case, a case that became a key factor in abolishing the death penalty in New York in 1965 and in the 1966 Supreme Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona which now so infamously protects criminal suspects under interrogation.  The price that Whitmore paid for the Miranda Rights that we take so much for granted today seems all the more horrifying in light of the fact that: 1) no charges were ever brought up against the corrupt white police officers and their criminal lying, practices that were rampant in the NYPD at the time and everywhere else for that matter; 2) no loss of life or property was ever waged against these police officers who maintained a salary and pension, ensuring a kind of cross-generational economic wellness for their families that was categorically denied to Whitmore.

George Whitmore died in 2012 with very few knowing his name.  My girlfriends were right about what the ID channel introduces, introductions not made anywhere else in mass media as evidenced by the fact that no media outlet ever announced Whitmore’s death (see T.J. English in NY Times about this).  That the media and mass public jumped at the opportunity to sensationalize a fictionalized story about a young black man raping and killing white women is a history all too familiar in the United States.  A black man’s innocence and torturous journey to truth after white men’s inhumane attack on him is just not the story of America that we like to tell, though it is a mainstay of our heritage.

On this MLK day, it seems we need to remember not the HEROES and the ways they are enshrined and thereby neutralized by mass media, but the victims who our heroes fought for: the George Whitmores who carried so much on the their backs given what a white supremacist world did to them.  Especially when the load was too much for them to carry, that is when/where we need to come in and remember them… and recognize the unbroken connections between their deaths and our lives today.

 

White Supremacy & Its Cognitive Deficiencies

A Shelf in My Office

A Shelf in My Office

This post starts with an issue that might, at first, seem a bit irrelevant.  Nonetheless, I am making a point.  Here it is: I HATE COFFEE.  I am a tea drinker which means that I often travel with my own kettle: I have one that stays in my suitcase for travel; another for my home; and another for my office.  I have tea bags and tea leaves everywhere.  I drink my tea strong and with almond milk, a regrettable concession since I had to give up my true preference, a habit I acquired from Jamaican students and friends: take a big ole dollop of sweetened condensed milk and stir it up.  (That’s some good ish.)  The tea kettle in my office today has travelled with me across four institutions and has the bruises to show it.  It sits on a shelf in my office with other tea accessories; behind it is a collage created by one of my high school students from 1997, a young man who at every stage of his high school career gave me some kind of painting to thank me for helping him become the man he is today (I cried with each gift he gave me).  To make this short story long: I am serious about my tea.

I needed to take this narrative detour to set the context for just how confused I was when a white male professor at my institution accused me of stealing his teapot last year, less than 3 months that I had been on the job. Continue reading

Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

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Cultural Assets, Language, and New Inspiration

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

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Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

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Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading