The Power of BlackWomenTalk When Due Process Just Don’t Do (Misogyny & Academic Culture)

When I was a little girl, I loved listening to grown Black women talk to one another.  Now granted, I was not supposed to be in earshot but I learned early on that if you played very, very quietly close by, pretended to be asleep, or hid underneath or behind something (porch, sofa, cupboard), you could be blessed with all of the details.  It was absolutely fantastic. They would talk about ev’rything AND ev’rybody: white folk, men, recipes, white folk, men, school, white folk, men, jobs, white folk, men, health, white folk, men, government, and the list goes on.  At least, that’s what my ears heard. My favorite women were the ones who cussed every sentence.  If they were outside, that’s when it was worth it to even hide in the carriage of a nearby truck to hear that stuff.  I’m surprised I never got caught but I was determined. Today, I am a grown Black woman and I get to join the talkin.  Life is good.

Academics sometimes like to think of these kinds of exchanges as informal. I’m thinking of a Black male scholar who thinks that when he adds statistics and NYTimes references to a conversation that is already in progress that he is elevating the discourse to the level of the intellectual and sociological. In reality, he’s just a nuisance who wasn’t invited into the conversation in the first place and so everyone is just waiting for him to leave so we can get back to the real talkin again. Blackwomentalk is NOT informal, it is NOT gossip, and it is NOT trivial.  It is a life-skill and if you are not part of it, your world will be all the more difficult to navigate.  Not all Black women are active participants since some are more interested in finding a position for themselves within white supremacy rather than really challenging and speaking against it.  But most of us get our BlackWomenTalk in.

Blackwomentalk is especially on my mind right now in the context of the sexual violence that has been legislatively and socially approved within the terms of toxic white/wealthy male culture.  Last week, I watched Bill Cosby‘s crusty butt be walked off in handcuffs while white men were not.  I also had to listen to Black men express more anger at Cosby’s persecution than his sexual assaults of women, though BlackWomenTalk had spoken for DECADES about the FACT that Cosby was always a flagrant womanizer who was NEVER faithful to Faithful Camille (we just didn’t realize how much he liked his women drugged and non-consenting).  Yes, I agree that Black men’s hyper-crimininalization goes hand-in-hand with their hyper-sexualization.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in history to know that. But the (implicit) argument that if white men can sexually assault women with legal impunity (which they can), men of color should be able to do so as well ain’t the kind of equality or justice I’m looking for. I am still enraged that a white man in Anchorage who choked an Alaska Native woman and then masturbated over her unconscious body was given no jail time. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find very many white man at any time in the history of the United States forced to serve time for sexually assaulting an Indigenous woman… or a Black woman. Men of color don’t serve time for assaulting Indigenous and Black women either, only when they assault white women. Somehow, these racialized facts around sexual violence and white settlerism have escaped most men’s of color discussions right now.  I then watched Christine Blasey Ford have to relive and retell her story of sexual violence with a level of respect for words, truth, carefulness, ethics, evidence, detail, and composure that was never performed by or even expected of her perpetrator, Brett Kavanaugh. I feel like I am back in college watching everyone (including Black folk) denigrate Anita Hill in favor of Clarence Thomas, even though Thomas (emphasis on the TOM and the ASS parts) has never done anything for Black folk.  Meanwhile, Kavanaugh’s toxic white masculinity— which has run the gamut of multiple allegations of sexual assault at Yale University and Georgetown Preparatory School to the performance he gave in his unbelievable (and unhinged) testimony— was cultivated by none other than SCHOOLING. In the midst of all of this, I was wading my way through allegations of sexual assault and other criminal activities here in New York City where yet again, schooling has maintained white male culture at all costs.  And even with all of these allegations of sexual assault, the response that I hear most often from male-professor-colleagues is a critique of the writing quality of the articles which broke the news, as if that is the most pressing issue right now. I’m amazed at how much violence this fall semester has already witnessed.  Now I am left reflecting on the ways BlackWomenTalk helps me to process and survive times like this… because these incidents are not new and this shit ain’t over.

When you can’t count on any institution to protect you, believe you, or even grant you full humanity, you have to work amongst yourselves. The very foundation of Black women’s labor in the United States— as in slave labor— is founded upon sexual violence as ENDEMIC to laboring.  It is no coincidence or historical accident that (sexual) assault against Black women is still illegible today to the very institutions that classified them solely as property with no rights to their own bodies.  This is why BlackWomenTalk is so important. We warn one another of impending danger because due process will rarely work in our favor.  The warnings that we give one another are rooted in an embodied, historical understanding that no one will rescue you.  This means, in REAL terms here, that I have never worked at an institution and NOT known which men were sleeping with their female students AND pushing up on the women faculty.  Never.  I even know who got caught in their offices with their pants down (I mean this literally) and which older white men have a penchant for the young women of color on campus.  I know white men who “coincidentally” publish DETAILED erotica about doppelgänger white male professors who sleep with undergraduate students (who look “coincidentally” just like our students). I have known Black women graduate students who were appalled at the way their male peers in graduate school took sexual advantage of the undergraduate first year women of color in their classes; no one— not even other women of color faculty— cared when those undergraduate women fell apart.  I can name the schools, the programs, and the admin because all still look and act the same today. That’s BlackWomenTalk. We know who to watch out for.  This won’t 100% protect you from predators, nothing can, but your story will always be told and HEARD. I also know who has sexual harassment complaints against them, pending & old, women & men, young & old, white & of color. I know which departments have holiday parties, free alcohol flowing freely, where undergraduates and masters’ students are invited to partake in the festivities and where the most “accommodating” of these young people get adjunct positions later. I can name those schools, those programs, and those admin TOO.  I can tell you about male faculty who bring their dates— sex workers— to campus with them for various events (I ain’t knocking the sex workers here and even suggest that they charge TRIPLE for the likes of these male faculty). I know the male faculty who regularly hook up with, stalk, and/or marry their female graduate students, sometimes before their deceased wives are even cold in the grave.  I can name the faculty and administrators who co-signed  these kinds of violences— which oftentimes includes women looking to rise up in the ranks; in all of these instances, many people knew what was going on, never did a thing, never said a word (in public), and actually propelled these perpetrators into higher positions of power. I could go on with this listing FOREVER.  These are just the regular routines of academic culture.  Only BlackWomenTalk has taught me that these things are not normal, not acceptable, not ethical… and that I don’t have to co-sign ANY OF IT!

I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have been dismissed, mostly by male scholars, for addressing the issues that I listed in the previous paragraph with that same ol, tired argument about these being private, non-intellectual matters.  The argument usually goes something like this: who you sleep with has nothing to do with the politics and quality of your intellectual work.  It’s a lie. None of these men offer us anti-misogynist, anti-misogynoirist, anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal theory and scholarship.  NONE!   But if you are complicit in maintaining and ignoring misogyny, misogynoir, sexism, and western heteropatriarchy, then you won’t see anything wrong with scholarship that does the same.

While none of my stories here are “admissible” in “legal proceedings,” they are the only things that tell me how to protect myself and from whom.  As Audre Lorde reminded us years ago:

Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart. We have had to learn to move through them and use them for strength and force and insight within our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this difficult lesson did not survive.

BlackWomenTalk teaches me about the institutions that employ and surround me.  And now that I am grown, I am a full participant and I STAY on my job when it comes to talkin this BlackWomenTalk.  Due process may never bring us our due… but we have never been silent or complacent about the everyday realities of misogyny and sexual violence in our lives.

Black Language Matters: Black Languaging/ Black Mentoring of Young Black Faculty

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.

Happy Mother’s Day to the Women Who Have Kept Me

I did these sketches (above) many years ago.  When I first drew these, I was trying to capture what the women in my family look like on any given Church-Sunday.  I remembered this sketch today in thinking about Mother’s Day and so added some words: Today I thank every woman who ever kept me… [Yes, this post is a re-mix of previous mother’s day posts. Click here for those.]

I have strong memories of being a little girl when adults, especially my family and close neighbors, asked me: “who keep you when your momma work?”  OR “who keepin you right now?” (the second question was 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 one of my favorite expressions.  No one in my family or immediate kin network ever asked “who babysits you?” I was never babysat. I was always KEPT.

Continue reading

Black Language Matters: Our Word is STILL Bond

With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:

  • if and what you can eat and drink in the room
  • when and if you can go out and pee during class
  • when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
  • how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
  • how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
  • what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
  • who to call for this and that and when to call them
  • who to email for this and that and when to email them
  • numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
  • the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
  • the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
  • the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.

This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder:  who would actually want to read this mess?  And what are students even learning?  And you know what is significantly short?  A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!  In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements.  When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it.  In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.

Continue reading

Black Language Matters: Slick Mouths and the Fact of a Black Lexicon

Recently, I described a person in a (relative) position of power at a job as a woman with a real slick mouth.  This isn’t a compliment.  The loaded meanings of this term points to the reality of what a distinct Black Lexicon is and does.  Like I have said continually on this blog, Black Language Matters.

Continue reading