Far too many of the folk of color in the organization are so wedded to their own career advancement, name recognition, bourgeois credentialing, and upward university mobilities (that often gets conflated in white liberal tropes as leadership and voice) that their critiques are, at best, muffled. Yeah, I said it and will gladly say it to folks’ face too. White folk have never been the ONLY problem. We write statements… but we do not seem to MAKE statements. The ways in which these willing tokens on NCTE’s/4Cs’ celebrity red carpet have particularly marginalized and “managed” dissent about the 2017 NCTE and 2018 4Cs have been nothing short of violent: 1) accusing boycotters of representing a do-nothing activism as if the Black Radical Tradition of a Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott was about doing “nothing”; 2) suggesting that folk who leave the organization are “merely” or “irresponsibly” running away as if maroonage, fugitivity, and Harriet Tubman legacies are not deeply-rooted radical actions; 3) asking for more clarity and detail as if I have not been consistent or shy about an INTELLECTUAL critique of a field and its practitioners that have never included me (again, I mean white folk and folk of color). These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students and the newly anointed/nepotistic heirs to the KINGdom, will be out here quoting folk like Fred Moten and Robin Kelley all day long and yet enact none of their ideas (or maybe don’t have the political integrity to understand those ideas). I could go on and on. Like I said, I am disgusted.
Today, I am with my wonderful colleagues— Steven Alvarez, April Baker-Bell, and Eric Darnell Pritchard— at the Conference on Community Writing where we are facilitating a deep think tank on “Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Critical Literacies: A Teach-In and Work-In.” In our opening, we will each do a short framing and then start our first day of discussions (day two will feature organizing). This webpage collects the frame that I will offer about RACIAL REALISM.
I decided to write out my thoughts today in the hopes that would be easier to follow. I am placing these notes on a website— so you can follow along. Or, you can just listen. (I make a sincere effort to do what most ENG teachers tell vernacular black intellectuals NOT to do— write the way I talk. As it ends up, that is the most difficult thing to do… so please bear with me here.)
I am hoping that we can frame ourselves pragmatically and theoretically as racial realists— as coined by critical race theorists and afro-pessimists. Racial realism, put quite simply, rejects any notion that we have made racial progress. That’s a fantasy of white comfort and white fragility rather than any kind of proximation to the lived experiences of black peoples. Progress is always politically conflicted, contingent on whiteness/white approval, and reversible via white supremacy… one step forward, and then sometimes two steps back.
Some of my favorite racial realists are my undergraduate students (though they do not use this language unless I am explicitly teaching CRT). In my undergraduate classes this semester, I often have weeks where students can choose any one of 50-60 essays and videos about the theme we are studying. Since everyone has read something different, they are each asked to create a discussion question inspired by their unique reading. From our unit on feminisms of color this year, here were some of my favorite discussion questions that students created, none of which have easy answers:
- Given how many Puerto Rican and Mexican women the U.S. sterilized in the 1900s, what is the historical consequence of this for women of color today? What’s the message that we still receive?
- Black girls are suspended from schools at much higher rates than white kids, even for lesser infractions. What is the point of this? How do schools and colleges benefit from shutting out black girls/black students? … How do we protect black girls from schools?
- Given all that we have learned of racism, sexism, and inequality, why were you surprised that Trump won the election?
For me, you just can’t answer these questions without racial realism… in fact, you wouldn’t even think to ask them.
I saw a job ad recently for an assistant professor and lecturer in my field. I shook my head as I read it, feeling sorry for the early career scholar who might read that ad and not understand the coded meanings. The ad asks for someone to help design/run a (failing) program, publish in the field, work closely with the entire department, AND make a strong commitment to the college. No, those are NOT reasonable requests. It’s all just code for: we gon exploit the hell outta you and question your integrity and commitment if/when you refuse to let us get over on you and use you up til there is nuthin left. And I am crystal clear here too: if the new hire is Black, that person will get exploited even more with these kind of community service expectations since it is not imaginable that Black college faculty are— first and foremost— critical scholars and researchers. Because I know the context of this college, I know three things about this job: 1) the salary and package do not match the administrative requirements and are not commiserate with national norms; 2) there is no mentoring, available role model, or support for research and scholarship in the department that you’re expected to get so close to (publication is STILL the only thing that matters for tenure/promotion); 3) the organization and infrastructure of the college are so unstable with such constant shifts and changes in leadership that it is strange to expect NEW faculty to be the ones to bring longevity and consistency. I am able to read and understand these signs in that job ad because of the kind of mentoring I had in graduate school.
Mentoring of young Black faculty (and graduate students) who work at colleges across the country usually hinges on teaching young Black professors the rules of college life as it pertains to tenure and promotion. You can find all kinds of empirical research on the best strategies for mentoring young Black faculty so that they secure that golden fleece in the end. This research is also really clear about the importance of Black mentors for these early career professionals. But there’s always been something missing from these discussions for me. It’s not just about teaching young Black faculty the rules of the academy. It’s about centering Black thought and Black life in people’s lives at the academy. That’s where Black Language comes in for me.
When I have become obsessed with yet another dysfunctional episode at the colleges where I have worked, the words of my graduate mentor, Suzanne Carothers, always ring in my head: do not confuse the WORK with the JOB. Those words have kept me sane and grounded …and those words have helped me move onwards and higher when the limited horizons of other folk have attempted to confine me. I locate this mantra— and its many offshoots— squarely within Black culture. I see this as a kind of cultural memory and hence language for a social group who has had to continually invent dignity and identities that run against the menial “jobs” and “positions” they have been relegated to. It ain’t difficult to feel good about your job when the people who look like you/live with you are the ones always chosen as the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, et al (I include college administrators in these titles given the corporate nature of higher education today). It takes more imagination and humanity to carve out a communal sense of worth when your labor exists solely in terms of some kind of subservience to whiteness: slave, domestic, factory worker, janitor… you name it. In my own family, the J.O.B. did not dictate the limits of one’s worth, no matter how little you were paid. As we usedta say in the 90s: It’s a Black Thing… Plain and Simple.
My mentor’s reminder to never confuse the WORK with the job gives me a framework for surviving hostile environments based on the cultural memory and history of my own people. That’s so much more than simply telling me the rules of publication for tenure. Suzanne’s mentoring and example have helped me shift the political, linguistic, and aesthetic center of gravity in my own self-actualization in spaces that work directly opposite of that. For so many of my colleagues, the work that they do is confined to the physical building that houses their job. For Suzanne, the WORK is always much bigger and much more meaningful than that. That’s why I could never support a job ad like the one I described in my opening. If you don’t know the difference between the WORK you have chosen to do/that has chosen you and the JOB that employs you at this one moment in time, you will fall for any ole kind of okey doke that exploits you rather than transforms/challenges/ understands the world around you. Black language teaches us to do/think/be better than that.
I found myself listening to Marta Moreno Vega’s words last week. It offered some sanity after an Atlanta-based rapper released a video on social media of 1990s sitcom actress, Maia Campbell, who was completely unraveled in a conversation with him at a local gas station. I cannot vouch for the young man actually being a rapper; certainly, no one ever really heard of him until he used his phone to garner internet fame by exploiting a Black woman who was once a beloved child-star. It becomes quite obvious in the video that Maia, who has battled bipolar disorder and drug addiction for many years now, is not doing well and is in complete relapse mode.
The video, which of course went viral, was meant to be “funny.” The wanna-be rapper who filmed Maia even defended his actions, ranting about how he was not sorry for what he did (he has recently recanted, claiming that he jokes with Maia like this often). I won’t link the videos here because they are too traumatizing, both Maia’s obvious breakdown and the young man’s willingness to dehumanize her (I won’t say the rapper’s name either since he does not deserve more air time than he has gotten). I see this as yet another example of the spectacular spectacle of Black women’s dehumanization that runs the gamut from Iyanla Vanzant’s/OWN’s pseudo-therapeutic “intervention” in Maia’s life to a young Black man’s calculated decision to humiliate and hypersexualize her. While it may seem extreme to connect Iyanla to this wanna-be rapper, they connect quite seamlessly for me: both offer up Maia’s body solely for PUBLIC, CONSPICUOUS consumption; neither offer her substance or support in return for the otherwise unttainable attention and stardom they achieve via their chosen media outlets.
As I stated in my opening, in times like these, you need the words of your elders to show/remind you who you really are in the world. This week, for me, that has meant the AfroLatinx activist, scholar, and teacher, Marta Moreno Vega. Her closing story in the video below is especially relevant here where she describes her brother’s childhood friend, Jimmy, who was an addict. One day, Jimmy spoke to her on the street and in her teenage/youth arrogance, she decided he was too dirty and embarrassing to warrant a response or acknowledgement from her. When Jimmy told Vega’s mother about the incident, Vega was quickly punished and warned that Jimmy’s life could very well be her own, her brother’s, her sister’s, or even her own mother’s life. Her mother warned her that she must never NOT RECOGNIZE HERSELF IN SOMEBODY ELSE. As much as social media has offered radical opportunities for a radical Black Presence/ Black Voice/ Black Vision/ Black Humanity, it can eradicate all of that at the same time. The generational wisdom of the elders here as passed down to us from Vega seems critical… seeing ourselves in Maia rather than so easily exploiting her belongs to a legacy of Black expectation that we need to uphold now more than ever.