Notes on Racial Realism by One of the “Problem People”

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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Black Language Matters: Beginning with “Ebonics 101”

grammarlyAt the risk of situating #BlackLivesMatter as merely a trope when it is so much more and cannot be de-neutralized with endless spin-offs, I want to talk out loud/digitally about BLACK LANGUAGE MATTERS.  I like MATTERS here as both a noun and a verb: 1) all of the attenuating political circumstances, past and present, around issues of language, meaning, and multiple Englishes; 2) all of the processes where Black Language carries the depth and resistance of Black suffering and resilience.

I start these conversations in my classrooms with a specific definition now— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and one of the classes I teach, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, my students and I worked to really define and anchor ourselves in race, culture, resistance, and African American languaging systems. It wasn’t easy.

For me, Steven Willis’s “Ebonic 101” gives me (in)sights and images to always keep in mind.  Black Language is:

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Black Language Matters: How High School Students Taught Me about My Black Language Use

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 those 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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