What Will We Do When School Starts?

Ferguson 2A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students.  A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors.  As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building.  He was, simply put, quite genius.  The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates.  I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college.  In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me.  He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction.  Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.

i am a manAs I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry.   The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered.  While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.”  I didn’t catch it right away. Continue reading

Black Language Matters: Mean Well, But Do So Poorly

european-colonialism-in-the-middle-eastI was sitting in my office one evening, getting some work done before I left for the day.  A student happened to pass by my door and stopped to talk about my office artwork and decoration.  I had never met or seen this student before.  He rightly assumed that I did work related to African American and African Diasporan cultures.  I was curious about his interests and became even more curious when I heard he wanted to teach English overseas, especially in the Middle East.

I began to tell this young man about a friend of mine, a rather radical Black studies scholar, who is currently teaching in the Middle East.  The young man grew excited by this example and began to talk excitedly about his dreams of teaching The Great Gatsby to people in Palestine.  It was difficult for me to listen to much of what he had to say after that, all about his civilizing mission, all about how he could get Palestinians to understand themselves better with his hit list of white male authors.   Continue reading

Congratulations, Andrene!

andrene congrats

Click here for Andrene’s ePortfolio, PRETTY FOR A BLACK GIRL (created in her first-semester “Freshman English” course)!

Thank you also to the Africana Studies Department’s willingness to embrace what Abdul Alkalimat, in his definition of eBlack Studies, has called “a new conception of mapping our existence in cyberspace.”  We are proud of you, Andrene!

Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me (re-posting)

mD2014Many already know that my mother lives with me now.  After she lost her job in the recession crunch, I had to do some financial wizardry and move her from Ohio to Brooklyn and become a new head-of-household of sorts (I have always been able to make a dollah outta 15cents but this took a little EXtra creativity).  As I get older, I realize that most of us daughters will be facing similar circumstances in caring for aging parents. My mother, however, does not consider herself aging so we go to a Jazz Brunch/Bar in Manhattan every Mother’s Day and by Jazz, I mean a real quartet that does covers like “All Blues” from Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, NOT that Kenny-G-Twinkle-Twinkle foolishness.  It has only been in the last few years that I have even been in the same city as my mother on Mother’s Day so I figure we may as well go all out (which, for my mother, also means eating my dessert.)

"Fruit of Generosity" by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

“Fruit of Generosity” by Leslie Ansley (exhibited at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in 2012)

I know Mother’s Day can be mostly a Hallmark invention, but I must admit that I like a day to put it all on pause for mothers. For me, that means all the women in my family who have raised me… which is a lot.  I have strong memories of being a little girl and various adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asking me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was for when I was on a part of the block where I wasn’t supposed to be or at the corner store without permission). Who keep you?  That’s always been a favorite expression of mine.   Continue reading

Still Reading Men and Nations!

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

I remain amazed that Black History Month oftentimes still celebrates decontextualized people and events.  If the context were the substance, however, we would be promoting new thinking and radical action.  Hardly seems a coincidence that we have one model and not the other. Today I find myself thinking about Sojourner Truth and the ways that my students have talked about learning from her.  This is a post that I wrote last spring that reminds me today of what Black History compels us to really do and understand.             _________________

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In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these past nine years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues, especially those of color, who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late.  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head is a RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.  That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.  These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color.

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I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly, those who will read the institution out loud with you, the sistafriends who read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of male rappers (these are easy targets).  I am talking about the women who also criticize the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color.  My sistafriends at my first college didn’t just co-sign misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, meeting with female students “after class”, texting/ calling/ closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence like the white women on campus did.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  They are the legacy of someone like Sojourner Truth.

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations” are the famous words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit.  I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mix throughout a semester— always noticing how the black women who we have studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is about the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity.

graveMy students’ reverberating references to Sojourner Truth also compel me to be a different kind of teacher-researcher.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree.  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their “prior knowledge” which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  So I push myself to see recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’ get treated.

Today, when I celebrate, recognize, or honor someone like Sojourner Truth, I must remember to do more than study her life.  We should all be pushing ourselves to analyze the world the way that she did.  That would, indeed, be a different kind of Black History Month!

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