Towards a Black Composition Studies: BLACK AS GRAVITAS (PART I)

Thank you to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal for publishing the earliest version of this reflective essay in their Volume 2 dedicated to Black Studies edited by Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega. I will be building on this essay throughout this year as part of a new project. This year is a crossroads for composition-rhetoric so I am listening and looking closely at those who really step up to the plate or miss the moment as has happened at every past Black Protest moment for this field. In the coming weeks, I am especially working towards framing composition studies as a place that does dynamic, on-the-ground work to transform the what, how, and why of university curriculum and instruction towards radical, anti-racist, intersected, Black feminist, fugitive goals.

I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here.  Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too.  It’s a Black intellectual inheritance.

Black studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance.  None of that truly exists in the academy.  Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions.  We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies.  These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before.  These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper.  The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black studies.

As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy here, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric.  The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations.  Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me.  Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards.  Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death.  Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university.

Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of these students’ Black insurgency which is always visible for me on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. I relay these lessons here as a foundation to realizing a Black Composition Studies. Composition studies in the university today is fraught with a colonial history on so many levels. We are most often housed in English departments that overshadow our labor and intellectual work. We still most often function as the illegitimate stepchildren of literary theory which often imagines itself as the only critical space that only rethinks the world and as the only frontrunner of English studies. With literary studies lost in in its own elitist self-delusions of bourgeois grandeur, composition studies inherits the daily legacy of what English departments actually do: maintain the colonial legacy of the English language. I could write books on the white settler colonial logic that I hear daily in English department to describe teaching (or rather, lecturing), students’ abilities, language variation, writing assignments, etc. Put most simply, composition studies is the space that focuses on language, particularly the teaching of writing while our cousins in communication studies (who left English departments long ago) focus in on speaking. Together, we and our cousins confront the dailyness of communication systems in the western world that have annihilated non-white languages and therefore ways of being that do not conform to whiteness. We and our cousins therefore always sit at the crossroad: automate colonization as an institutional pedagogy and rhetorical apparatus… or overthrow it. Black composition studies goes for the latter and, as such, our close proximity to the non-compliant racial protests of Black students has to always stay central.

These are notecards that I received in the mail last spring as a reading response to the course assignment.

When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember essay reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist.  In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university.  This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education.  Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do here, not as metaphor or cross to bear, but as the purveyor of a radical, literate/language alternative to who and what count here.

Here’s my first story that gets at more of what I mean. My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005.  They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored.  Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes.  White faculty were always: scheduling meetings for discussions on how they feel, scheduling meetings to gauge their collective “temperature,” scheduling meetings to read the agenda out loud, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays).  Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same.  These are not processes that are driven by Black folx or a vision for hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy. None of them meetings and discussions produced change and worked to stall Black freedom more than anything else. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into stuff, talking— yup, still doing all of that, and still accomplishing nothing of value for Black lives.  It’s not an accident. Black composition studies always recognizes the micro and yet overdetermined white supremacist processing of our schools and programs and imagines time, space, and possibility differently.

My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University.  Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on online discussion boards I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me.  I learned about the racism of writing program administration there.  I also learned that I would walk alone in my field because I didn’t know a single professor in my profession who I would have truly called an ally or even friend back then.  It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline.  The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one— and I mean no one— was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it.  Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it.   And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA.  It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA-Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long.  There is actually a whole stain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress student learning.  I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S.  Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either.  WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see. Black composition studies is about a disruptive kind of vision and envisioning for schooling.

My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that was 75% Black and Latinx.  It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite.  They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me.  I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally low percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty.  It was a complete cocoon of whiteness.  Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized.  When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”).  In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it).  There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies.  I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil.  Ridiculous?  Yes.  Harmful?  No.  The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast.  These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here.  At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it. Black composition studies knows that white affect in schools is not neutral, safe, or accidental and so centers alternative embodiments and enfleshments.

And now?  As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee.  The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is).  I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:

It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.

It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.

It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.

It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.

It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.

It will always be contested.

It will always be unwritten.

It will never stop us.

I have yet to see anything different here. Black Composition Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy, in my classrooms, and especially in my field.

I am not suggesting that Black Composition Studies is only for Black folx. However, it ain’t for appropriation by folx in my field who continue to do stuff like write a Statement for Black Lives Matter in their departments and programs and not reference a single Black compositionist. Yall ain’t nowhere near ready yet and Black composition studies is here to let you know it. Black composition studies is not exclusive… but it is rigorous in the mechanisms and politics of its inclusions. 

Stay tuned for PART TWO…

Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.”  I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too.  Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone.  Of course, nothing I am saying here is new.  I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left.  Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist)  triumph and achievement.   These two poles do not have to be opposing though.  Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality.  Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals.  Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities.  This ain’t no surprise though now is it?  Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning.  Hardly a coincidence.

This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my  class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):

In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you.  But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live.  There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.”  This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.”  Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women.  Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group.  She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!

What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this.  It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.

Remembering Sojourner Truth: 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.

“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.

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 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 school year before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues 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 (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  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 sho-nuff 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. I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much, but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogynoir and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black men colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking women students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with women students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  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.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.   I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we 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 understand this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (toxic masculinity).  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 .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black women that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  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 .  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.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black women cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations seriously.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.

Class of 2013: Congratulations!

700-0-CC908-Class-of-2013-Cheek-Cheer-Tattoos-000Today was the first, soon-to-be-annual Graduate/Faculty brunch at my college.  Graduating seniors who are connected to student clubs and/or student government invite faculty who they would like to say goodbye to.  Thank you to Christina Berthaud and Chanel Smith for inviting me to be their guest today.  We ended up talking way past the event until we got kicked out of the room  when it was being prepped for the next function.

It was such a pleasure to sit and just talk with these young black women today, one off to law school and the other set for a career in public relations.  Unbeknownst to me, I had heard of them before since their roommates had taken previous classes with me. Amazingly, these 8 black women met as assigned roommates in their freshmen year of college and pretty much stayed roommates (along with other freshmen dormmates) throughout their four years of college.

Congratulations CHANEL AND CHRISTINA on your gradation and for living, understanding, and so fully valuing sistahood.  I wish you all the best and, of course, much much  love and ongoing sistahood!