A Black Feminist Critique of Bourgeois Professional Organizations…. 40 Years after the Combahee River Collective

Like all academics, I regularly attend conferences that presumably catalyze my politics and research.  Though I have presented 100s of papers now at dozens of conferences, I have spent the most time and money at two in particular: NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and CCCC/4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). I won’t be attending either this year or any time soon for that matter.   I am enraged by the politically-anemic way NCTE and 4Cs have addressed the conference’s Missouri location this year where Senate Bill 43 was signed on June 20, 2017, essentially (re)legalizing discrimination.
 
I was once excited to participate in these conferences at this 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective’s statement alongside our current Movement for Black Lives. But not anymore.  I have always had issues with NCTE/4Cs and the often unmitigated co-existence with the corporatization of (higher) education.  The Movement for Black Lives that has shaped every part of my current teaching life and every aspect of my Black and Latinx students’ current literacies is fundamentally a Black Queer Feminist framework… and there is nothing in these organizations that complements such a framework.  
 
I mean something entirely different from “including” a few endarkened sessions in the program and/or parading a few willingly-tokenized celebrity scholars of color who NCTE/4Cs can sponsor as supposed signs of progress. I am packed 36 deep in my undergraduate classrooms with students who commute to campus and work sometimes two jobs.  In the first week of classes this semester, multiple students shared coming out stories, often relaying horrific stories of their treatment as Black and Brown queer people and how they managed to survive. 10% of my students are undocumented (many of whom were not in class for the NYC protests in the second week of classes this semester). As with every semester, I am checking in regularly with at least one young mother of color, most times living in a shelter, who has recently exited and/or is in the process of exiting a relationship hinged on intimate partner violence.  And, of course, I can count on young Black, Arab, and Latinx men arriving late to class after being detained by an NYPD hell-bent on profiling them as if to deliberately remind them that every obstacle imaginable will be erected along their path to a college degree. Despite all of this (or maybe because of it), these are the most gracious, energetic and intellectually alive young people who I know. There is very little at NCTE/CCCC that centers this racialized everydayness in the college literacy and creative power of racially subjugated young people. So on the bright side:  I won’t be missing much by not attending. 

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. 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 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.  These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students, 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.   

The fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs participation is rather expensive, especially for those of us who are not at privileged universities that allot significant professional expenditures for faculty travel (and who rarely see students of color in their classrooms since their university wealth is intimately attached to the exclusion of Brown and Black peoples, not to their education).  The other fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs, as an organization, financially sustains itself with its conventions.  I simply won’t pay them to keep excluding the Black Queer Feminist frameworks that are literally giving our current social movements and my classrooms life; I won’t pay them for their piss-poor silence about the violence of Missouri’s SB 43, despite the assurance that “we” will do something “local” at the convention; I won’t pay for the promise of some 1990s-style “task force” as a solution for 21st century racism and racial violence; and I won’t pay them for their pre-arranged co-signing by the small set of NAACP leaders who stopped being progressive many, many decades ago.  And I won’t use the money from my institution that services mostly Brown and Black students or from my salary based on teaching those students to attend a conference that ignores us in a state that newly violates/targets us. That means I would be allowing NCTE/4Cs and Missouri to profit off the backs of the young people of color I teach. I won’t be that kind of accomplice.  Not today. Not ever.

Trigger Warning: This Post is about Academia and Its “Professional” Conferencing

I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will.   If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.

ccccRegardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles.  Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness.  Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization.  As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.

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The Former High School Teacher Reflects on College Teaching & Development

When I first started teaching college writing, I did so as a former high school teacher. I was told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I should not identify myself as a secondary teacher. College teaching was more intellectual and exacting; in fact, high school teaching wasn’t even respected enough to be called teaching, especially in university English departments. It was 1998; I was 27 years old and quite perplexed. I just couldn’t get my head around what people were telling me in comparison with what I was seeing at the college: the MOST horrible teaching and curriculum design I had ever encountered.

aolAt the time, Amazon was still relatively new as well as online bookstores. We were, after all, still using dial-up internet and AOL! This means that college bookstores actually ordered all of the books for students and created what were then called “course packets”— the binder that the bookstore created with the photocopied readings that you would use in the semester. That’s probably why I knew my readings and weekly course plans before a semester started… you HAD to back then. There was no possibility of finding a photocopy machine, emailing students in advance of class (not all had email), or using smartboard/electronic lecterns to share a new departure from the syllabus. At that college where I was told to never mention the fact of my high school teaching, I did what I had done as a college student: I went into the bookstore and looked at what every professor at the college assigned for the semester. That’s how I chose my college courses as an undergraduate student— who seemed to actually offer real learning based on what we would read? I remember that day at my new college teaching post very well. There was one professor on the whole campus who assigned a Toni Morrison book. I was THAT professor, the adjunct and former high school teacher supposedly so intellectually challenged by the curricular requirements of college learning and teaching that she was the only one who included Toni Morrison. If the classroom teaching and curriculum was bad, then the “official” faculty professional development was even WORSE!

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Culture, Care, and Competence

chartI walk through the main entrance of my college’s main building each day. There are three entrance points for the public in this ten-story building. We don’t have many campus buildings; space is limited in NYC so we build up rather than out, giving a large body-traffic flow at this main building.  This is my fourth semester teaching at my current college and, though this may be a strange observation, I have never entered or exited the building when the student in front of me did not hold the door open for me.

I noticed this pattern right away.  It is something that I have never witnessed at any other university.  It happens every single day.  And, if I am standing on line, the students let me go first.  I do not know any of these students, but they recognize me as a professor right away.

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The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

When I first tried to publish “ ‘This the ConscienceRebel’: Class Solidarity, Congregational Capital, and Discourse as Activism in the Writing of Black Female College Students,” I must admit that I was taken aback by white resistance in composition studies— the field to which I am most closely aligned by nature of the work that I do but certainly not by the nature of my politics , aesthetics, or pedagogies.  I was not surprised that the white editors saw the work— a text that focuses on working class Black female college students— as irrelevant to the wider field.  But, I must admit: I was surprised that it was Black female scholars in the field who gave the white editors rhetorical ammunition.

black womenIt was Black female reviewers who brought up the point that most professors reading the article would be white and have mostly white students and so would not be able to relate to the content.  Yes, you heard that right.  It was Black female professors who made that claim.  And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the white editors went to town on that right there. Besides the fact that it undermines all Black women when Black women see themselves as tangential to educational research, the idea that the majority of college writing classrooms today mostly enroll white, middle class students IS FALSE!  That’s not historically accurate and it certainly does not apply to an era where higher education gets browner and browner every year. Whiteness in this field gets maintained by scholars of color as much as it gets maintained by white scholars and it’s time we start talking about it.

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