Letter to My Former College President and Provost: Why I Left

Dear College President and Provost,

I hope this letter finds you both well.  Since spring 2019 was my last semester, I am writing to share some of my experiences with the hope that my insights might offer you a different perspective of life at the college for BIPOC.  Since my campus interview in 2013 up until my departure, I worked under two presidents, three provosts, three deans, three chairs, and four program directors.  To say that the university was unstable in those six years is obviously an understatement, so I admired the peace that you were trying to instill which, in turn, motivated my decision to reach out to you here.  I am not expecting a response to this letter, but I felt it was imperative that I write it anyway.

My sincere apologies that I could not write this letter sooner as family issues got in the way.  I never had any intention of choking my voice and always planned to offer you an image of the structural oppositions that people who look like me face in the predominantly white and hostile departments and programs that permeate the college.  In my inability to write this sooner, I fear that yet another dominant, racist white narrative at the college has gone unchecked: namely, the willful ignorance surrounding the racial delusions that my departure, as well as that of other folk who look like me, was rooted in the simple desire for better resources and prestige elsewhere.   You must know better than this.

You must know better than this!

For far too long, the conversations about retaining BIPOC faculty at the college have centered on support for tenure.  This logic assumes that tenure and promotion are something difficult for us. I assure you that this has not been the case for me or my peers.  My generation of successful Brown and Black professionals are a mobile generation and the most decorated amongst us do one thing when an institution continually devalues us: we leave.  This is as true for academia as it is for law, medicine, and business, especially for successful Black women, as I am sure you are both well aware given the ready availability of such statistical data.  This is also especially true for people like me who worked for six years at a salary much lower than male counterparts when their comparative CVs did not justify their higher salaries.  While there were no attempts to correct this wrong against my labor and intellect, there were plenty of ploys to get me to do MORE uncompensated work far beyond the scope of what would ever be considered reasonable or equitable.  All of this is just to say that Brown and Black faculty are not out here struggling with tenure and promotion requirements; none of us would have made it into and out of PhD programs, racially exclusive and hostile as they are, if we were struggling with research and writing processes.  Like most places, the college excelled in: 1) the continuum between outright neglect and layered silencing of BIPOC faculty; 2) shrouded guidelines and continual shifts around tenure and promotion requirements; 3) unacknowledged exploitation of uncompensated BIPOC labor towards service and away from scholarship (resulting in a white-racialized structure of who is supported materially and symbolically as a serious researcher/ scholar/ writer), and last, but certainly not least; 4) the chronic mismanagement of hot-mess departments that couldn’t direct somebody through empty traffic much less a university procedure.  When my former colleagues and administrators claim that I left the college because this is just my personality, you must know that this is merely a cover-up for all that is wrong with them.  When top administrators feel emboldened to declare that a Black woman professor is only leaving because that’s her personality (that was said to me), that is a sure sign of the institutional incompetence in retaining them and will require a radical facelift in the colleges’ rogue team of untrained/untheoried leaders who have vacated a research expertise of their work.  I have only ever left a university when I found its racialized exploitation, anti-blackness, organizational incompetence, and misogynoir intolerable.  Any discourse about my departure that deliberately ignores the hostile and inept environments that make a place unbearable for faculty of color like me obfuscates the college’s failure to develop effective recruitment and retention models for BIPOC and promotes the racism that the institution sustains. After teaching at multiple universities in the NJ/NY area, my experiences at your college remain the whitest and the most alienating.  Any explanation for my departure outside of these terms is just another example of routine gaslighting or, to quote Mary J. Blige, some real basic hateration/holleration in this dancerie.  When non-Black faculty and administrators insist that positive, racial change has arrived to campus and yet struggle to recruit and retain Black, tenured faculty, the empirical evidence is simply not on their side.  I share these experiences to contend that a university which does not value we high-achieving Brown and Black scholar-researchers is not a place that can ever critically educate students who look like us either. 

Real basic hateration!

The fact of the matter is this: being a professor at the college meant career and financial sacrifice.  Even the difference in the larger contribution that my previous university made to my retirement funds (though I worked at your college longer) was SIGNIFICANT.  For sure, we do not choose the City University of New York (CUNY) to become rich and famous; we know that the resources and salaries will never be competitive.  And truth be told, with the exception of those who have wealthy spouses and/or family backgrounds (a significant percentage of the faculty, by the way), employment at CUNY cannot financially sustain even basic housing in NYC today.   When I look at all of the professional and financial sacrifices, just to be at a place where I was ignored, disrespected, and marginalized, I have real questions about the institution’s commitment to diversity and equity and why any BIPOC stay. The most strong-willed will leave or, when that is not physically possible, find a way to do the work they are called to do in scholarly communities far away from the campus.  Attrition rates do not even begin to convey what you have really lost.

It is not my intent here to run a discursive style that might sound like I am singing an old Lou Rawls tune: You’re gonna miss my lovin.  Institutions pick up and go along as if we were never there, but they do so at the grave risk of repeating past mistakes and never truly moving forward.  My experiences as woman of color/Black Feminist/first-generation college-goer/working class Hip Hopper/AfroDigital Humanities teacher illuminate more mistakes than successes.  Though my negative experiences have been countless, I will share a few instances here.

More than attrition!

I’ll begin with my last semester at the college as part of the Gender Studies advisory board who attempted to revise the undergraduate major in Gender Studies, particularly those parts that promoted horribly whitewashed and white colonized historical content.  In fact, the history curriculum in Gender Studies was more Western European in its content and racist in its outlook than anything I had witnessed in schools, even going back to when I began teaching in NYC public high schools in 1993.  The response to our curricular revision in Gender Studies was met with such hostility from white faculty and administration that I felt the need to address the issues in a letter to the dean (that letter is attached here… click and read this mess).  After learning of our proposed changes to the Gender Studies curriculum, history faculty secured letters from faculty across CUNY (with the HIS chair praising their efforts) about our work in Gender Studies.  The most prominent CUNY faculty who wrote letters in support of HIS faculty rescinded their support after learning what these HIS classes really entail.  That formerly supportive faculty also informed me that the HIS faculty themselves wrote the prose, merely asking faculty across CUNY to cut and paste their words into an email to the Dean. When they began quoting from these letters, they knew that they were, in fact, merely referencing their own words.  When the advisory committee withdrew the revisions to the curriculum, the HIS department then sent emails to their original letter writers thanking them with the following message: “we accomplished our goal.”  The only thing that they seemed to achieve was a bullying of the faculty who volunteered without any recognition or compensation to run an interdisciplinary program and the maintenance of a recalcitrant white colonized curriculum.   This kind of curriculum, pedagogy, and discourse are quite literally rewarded and protected at the college and it is an embarrassment.

This particular instance with Gender Studies serves as an example and not an exemplar. I arrived exhausted by the battles and racist attacks that I had witnessed and fought at my previous colleges.  Your college only added new dimensions and taught me that I can trust no institution to treat BIPOC well and hence I no longer expect it. That pessimism is, in fact, the only gift that your college gave me.

It was simply routine for faculty of color to describe senior white faculty who had reprimanded them for congregating with other faculty of color in the physical spaces and meetings of the college. I am not sure what shocked me most: 1) that POC faculty obeyed these plantation-styled surveillance regimes; 2) that the university does not face more discrimination law suits, or; 3) that the college has chosen these same white faculty as administrators today.  I mean, really, this is the kind of stuff that made Marvin Gaye write songs like “What’s Going On” because this kind of madness needs its own whole melody.  The outrageous behaviors of hostile faculty against BIPOC went unchecked in all of my encounters, especially in the first semester of my arrival with a dean and chair who remain the most unsupportive of any that I have encountered.  I tape-recorded the discussion of my first classroom observation and, unsurprisingly, the tapes revealed major discrepancies between what was said and what the administrator recorded as evidence of the discussion. I secured a lawyer to review my legal options given the egregiousness of the encounter and the final record.  I only decided to forego pursuing the obvious legal breaches so that I can present and write freely and openly about the events on a national stage.  Since then, I have advised countless Brown and Black faculty to consult their state laws about recorded conversations and their allowance in court rooms, a lesson courtesy of my experiences at your college where a routine classroom observation did not follow basic, ethical employment guidelines.

In my time at the college, I was further accused by a white faculty member of stealing his property.  My mail was opened and damaged on three, separate occasions.  Since these three items included a paycheck, an honorarium, and a contract, it seemed obvious to me that my mail was targeted. On yet other occasions, when I would, for instance, inadvertently leave a text on the photocopy machine in what was then a locked room in the department (that only faculty could access), my papers were shredded with careful attention paid to ripping words and sentences that represented racial critique by BIPOC.  I have actually kept these pieces of paper so that I can show national audiences exactly what macro-aggressions look like for BIPOC. None of these events are particularly surprising or new, but these kinds of routine experiences call into question the college’s market campaigns about “educating for justice” with a predominantly Brown and Black student body in a city with the highest concentrations of Black/Brown populations in the country.  To keep the old skool R&B playlist running here, I’ll go with Keith Sweat on this one: “sumthin, sumthin just ain’t right.”

…Sumthin sumthin just ain’t right!

As a discourse community, the culture was further troubling.  I heard, on countless occasions, faculty and administrators describe their desire for administrative work in terms of being able “to get out of the classroom.”  When I arrived, I had left an administrative position with a 1/1 load, then turned down a more competitive offer at a state university campus with a 2/2 load and smaller classes, just so that I could get back into the classroom.  I chose the college for the heavy teaching load and for its students and ended up traveling all over the country to cull and share research-based ideas and theories about 21st century Brown and Black classrooms because there was NO such intellectual exchange at the college. To say that I was disappointed would be a compliment.  It was also incredibly difficult to listen to faculty talk about minimizing their time in Brown and Black classrooms while performing a self-congratulatory righteousness that they were doing the greater good by racking up years of course releases with their “service.”  A very specific language was consistent and repetitive: doing administrative/leadership work meant getting out of teaching and being able to pick up one’s children in time from school (and in each of these instances, the speaker meant an expensive, private or parochial school).  I heard so many public, paternalistic pronouncements about us doing “the best that we can” from faculty who sent their children to elite and/or private schools and colleges (even expending extra endowments to them) that it became nauseating.  What does it mean to celebrate doing “the best with what little we have” for what education scholars call “other people’s children” when you would never call those same things good enough for your own children (or the children in your segregated neighborhood)? I share these re-occurring instances as an indication of the kind of toxicity experienced by a woman of color who had to constantly hear the students of color and people in her communities discussed in this way.

It also became increasingly more intolerable to hear faculty comments about the allegations of sexual misconduct that were investigated in 2018-2019.  I appreciated the Climate Review process but did not feel safe in attending a focus group with faculty given the nature of many of their attitudes. On multiple occasions, faculty initiated conversations with me defending the actions of the male faculty members who were investigated.  Most often, faculty insisted that each of these three men, naming each of them separately as longtime friends/colleagues, had consensual sexual relations with the undergraduate students who filed the complaint. I did not solicit these conversations and yet these were the so-called “facts” presented to me.  I heard very little sympathy for the accusers, but all manner of excuses for the accused. I didn’t know what to say to my faculty peers other than to simply insist: my momma taught me betta than that.  At one point, the lawyer of one of the accused emailed countless faculty, explaining that the accused did research in poor and Black and Brown communities and learned to mimick these people’s lingo and affect for greater street-cred; students, in turn, merely misinterpreted the casual, street vibe.  As someone who comes from these po folk and these very same streets, I can assure you that we do not look and sound anything like what this lawyer suggested and we most certainly were not groomed to commit acts of violence to people under our care as representative of our “street lingo.”  Like I said before, we were taught betta than that. Listening to all this became, in of and of itself, another form of violence.  It should come as no surprise that for someone on the outside of the old-crony gangs that roam the college, and as someone on the outside of the mainstream/ whitestream ideological apparatus that seemingly dominates all space there, the campus climate just became more and more unbearable.

It deeply saddened me to leave the young people at the college who gave me life for six years.  My entire career has been dedicated to the education of Black and Brown youth so it was an honor to do part of that almost 30-year career work at your college. Though it was difficult to leave them, it was more difficult to watch institutional actors refuse to see or match students’ brilliance in ways that are commensurate with a culturally-sustaining and critical education rather than the current colonial, rudimentary-skills-based, vocational training that racism and white settler logics have designed for them.  My only salvation today is in knowing that the communities and ancestral heritages that myself and BIPOC college students represent have sustained far worse and will survive and thrive despite these new colonial regimes. 

My heartfelt wishes for the work ahead of you!

Warmest regards,

Carmen Kynard

p.s. You should know that I plan to go public with this letter (of course, omitting all specific references to the college) in the hopes that my unsilencing helps other BIPOC faculty out there somewhere.  You should also know that when my former colleagues reach out to me to assuage their white guilt or racial complicity, I have no intention of responding to or comforting them. They have done enough damage and will no longer have access to my mind, body, or spirit. I have refrained from using the names of the perpetrators who I have catalogued here because they simply are not important enough (they are merely generally representative and not especially individual in their routine acts of violence), but should you ever want to know who I am referencing: I will be more than happy to spill that tea.

A BLOG NOTE: Part of my desire to write this letter has also been to add to the archive of Black and Brown feminists who have taught at CUNY.  There is increased interest, for instance, in the archives of Black feminists like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and Toni Cade Bambara who started their teaching/writing/activist careers at CUNY.  We learn important things from these archives: 1) that radical Black feminists were treated with disdain and disregard in their time at CUNY, despite the public celebrations performed for them decades later; 2) that radical Black feminists left behind a record such that their critiques and larger visions could never be appropriated without the truth behind their experiences; 3) that radical Black feminists worked with their students, often in isolation, to imagine alternative definitions and processes for a transformative, critical education for Brown and Black youth.  I aspire to follow in their footsteps and also leave behind my own record. I hope that CUNY will someday end up on the right side of history when it comes to a radical Black feminist presence. It didn’t see it in my time there, but I remain hopeful that CUNY’s students might one day experience a culturally-sustaining and critical education.  In the meantime, we can get real about what stands in the way.

Bothered But “Unbossed”: An Open Letter to LRA (Literacy Research Association)

I have been suspicious of the exclusionary and anti-justice impulses of academic/professional conferences for a long time now.  Here is my most recent lesson/letter about the violences that whiteness commits in these spaces. 

Dear Members of the Executive Committee of the Literacy Research Association,

We write to publicly express our deep dissatisfaction with the LRA board’s handling of our invitation to the LRA conference and the events that led to the eventual cancellation of the panel.

To review: We were each initially invited to participate by Dr. Haddix in late 2017 and we gladly accepted, in large part due to our respect for her leadership, vision, and integrity. On February 26 of 2018, we were each provided contracts that offered a stipend, registration fees, accommodation for the duration of the entire conference, roundtrip airfare, and travel related expenses. We each signed and dated these contracts. Up to this point the process was fairly typical as most of us book speaking engagements about a year in advance. At least one of us accepted this invitation over others (with higher rates of compensation) given the quality and promise of the LRA panel.

On October 23rd, we received the following email informing us that our contracts had been “revised”:

I hope this note finds you well.  I wanted to reach out to you with an important change regarding your participation as a speaker in the 2018 LRA Integrative Research Review session that is scheduled for Saturday, December 1st from 10:15 – 11:45 AM in Palm Springs, California.  

Attached you will find a letter on behalf of the Conference Planning Committee detailing the change. Feel free to let us know if you have any questions. Additionally, please confirm receipt of the email by Wednesday, October 24th, 2018. 

Since there was no mention in the subject line or body of the email that there had been a significant change in compensation, not all of us were immediately aware of the  degree of “change”or responded right away. The new contracts informed us that only one night of accommodation would be covered. In other words, no flight, hotel, or general travel fees and no stipend. The reason provided was that the original contracts were found to be in contradiction with an LRA bylaw.  

If the new contract had been the original terms, we would have had opportunities to apply for funding from our institutions to help shoulder the cost. Moreover, since the conference was barely a month away, early registration was no longer possible, the hotel was nearly booked, and plane fares were exorbitant (at and over $1000 per speaker, sometimes with multiple stops requiring anywhere from 14-24 hours of travel for just one leg of the trip). As such, each of us experienced this “revision” as an effective dis-invitation and we independently sent emails expressing our disappointment and dismay regarding the new contracts and with being forced to withdraw from the panel.

In addition to the material costs of this cancellation (and lost opportunities to accept other invitations) we each registered concern about how the actions of the board not only undermined our professional lives and commitments but also Dr. Haddix’s vision for the panel and the conference. As we understand it, Dr. Haddix’s work, along and in communion with many other BIPOC  leaders in LRA, has affected important discursive and material shifts in the policies, culture, and impact of LRA to something that prioritizes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and responds critically to nonbinary ideas and embodiments of gender and sexuality. This has been long needed in LRA, and it is beginning to take shape, form, and space.

All of us are women of color who employ radical and critical scholarship and, as such, this is not the first time we have been disinvited. We are not mollified by the explanation of a just-discovered bylaw as we are quite familiar with how the dismissals and erasures of whiteness happen. For example, even though we framed our responses in terms of structural, policy and material costs, this was the response that one of us received:

“I can certainly understand your concerns and why you feel so hurt by the last minute change…it was definitely not (the) intent to harm you or make you feel unwelcome”

The move to frame what is structural critique into an issue of “hurt feelings” is a classic mode of white resistance; to psychologize what is fundamentally structural. This mischaracterization of our experience partly inspires this response – we want to be sure that the intellectual work we put into our decisions to withdraw was registered publicly and in our own words. Although we imagine our absence spoke loudly, we felt it important to add nuance and analysis – and to come together as a collective – to address the situation with the hope that it might be broadly instructive.

While we hesitated to bow to an unprofessional withdrawal of material support, we also knew that we could not, with integrity, pastiche together a space that was envisioned to truly be integrative, rigorous, and generative under such unreliable board leadership. We regret any impact that our withdrawal may have had on Dr. Haddix, the STAR program, and the many sessions that involved us, particularly Dr. Kynard’s several sessions. Since LRA, we have seen only further leadership, grace, honesty, and vision from Dr. Haddix and we continue to support her work.

To put it plainly, we are disappointed, bothered but “unbossed” (Shirley Chisholm), by the actions of the board. We hope our words add to the call for this association to be in right relationship to its discourse of “community.”

Professor Sandy Grande

Professor Carmen Kynard

Associate Dean Leigh Patel

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.

My August Ode to the #DifficultBlackProfessor

DIFFICULT. I have heard this word consistently in the past five years.  Obviously, it is not a new word within my vocabulary but its use in these past years has been unprecedented.  It’s an adjective that is used to target Black professors, not ALL Black professors, just some of them. I have never witnessed so many Black professors labelled “difficult” as I have at one particular institution where I have worked and it’s been a real eye-opener.

The slur always comes from White faculty and administrators in reference to Black professors (and sometimes activist Black students) and it has nothing to do with teaching.  I never hear students use this word to describe Black faculty (for them, it only references quantity of homework and applies to all faculty). I have heard it so much from White faculty and administrators that I started to catalog its multiple, racial iterations.

Here is what the #DifficultBlackProfessor looks and sounds like:

  1. The #DifficultBlackProfessor interrupts the flow of discussion, offline and online, reminding a predominantly White audience that they are, in fact, predominantly White. Institutions and their appointed, central actors (this includes folk of color) automatically act in the interests of White privilege, misogynoir, anti-Blackness, racial violence, and/or White faculty-student-staff dominance. The #DifficultBlackProfessor’s reminder will always slow down and sometimes outrightly thwart conversations about hiring practices, policies, elections, programs, panels, finances, public statements, curricula, and courses and she* will be resented even though she is dead-right on everything she is critiquing. While it would seem like the Black FULL professors, endowed chairs, distinguished professors, and the like would interrupt the most, that is not always the case since some of these folk really believe in their own brand and only come alive when something benefits them individually. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will do selflessness when they step up though. At these moments, the #DifficultBlackProfessor will be called non-collegial, non-team-playing, or bullying but that won’t stop her. She knows that’s just code for White discomfort and White fragility. #WhiteSupremacyIsNotMyTeam
  2. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will often get tone-policed.  He will be told that if his words and/or his tone were just a little bit different, it would be easier to digest his points.  He will be told this to his face and he will be talked about behind his back in public settings, using his full name, as a kind of warning to other faculty on what not to do and say (and who not to hang with). This White bourgeois etiquette lesson will be delivered offline and online, really just anywhere that language gets used. Make no mistake about it: these are lies.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will not be heard any differently if he says things in a fake-nice, warm-and-fuzzy-feel-good way because the #DifficultBlackProfessor is not supposed to be heard.  This tone policing is really about White control of racial affect, racial emotion, and racialized counter-publics.  The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t fazed by this either and keeps talkin that talk the way he talks it. #YouAintReadyForNoRealTone
  3. The #DifficultBlackProfessor will say NO to you.  And OFTEN. She ain’t here for your endless requests of uncompensated, intensive labor doing things that do not benefit her or Black people in any way that will then be plagiarized as the idea of someone else.  She will see the irony of having her research and teaching marginalized in every way and yet constantly asked to do marginalizers’ heavy labor. This will stir up all kindsa controversy. White men may be allowed to offer little or no uncompensated service/time/work to a college but Black folk are not entitled to their time, money, and bodies this way. The #DifficultBlackProfessor refuses this kind of super-exploitation and will preserve herself since no one else will.  She does not suffer from the kind of low self-esteem where she covets the attention of White authority and she refuses to perform the perfunctory mammy role where she caters to White needs before her own. #YoMammyDoneBeenGoneWithTheWind
  4. The #DifficultBlackProfessor is not here to psychologically assuage White guilt.  This is especially true for Black women and women of color whose nurturing will be in constant demand. When White professors have a resistant student of color, they will come to you for advice.  When White professors need to infuse “race” or a “Black author” into their scholarship or syllabus, they will come to you for ideas.  When White professors need Blackface on their panel, committee, edited book, grant/program proposal, meeting, etc they will come to you with the request.  When White faculty need to better understand Black resistance, they will come to you for sociological analyses. When White faculty have a question or curiosity about another faculty member of color, they will come to you expecting you to give up any secrets that you have. When White professors get caught sayin dumb racist stuff, they will come to you to tell them that it’s okay.  These are, sometimes, signs of collaboration but when it’s time to have YOUR back or publicly speak back to White violences, many of these same White professors will be nowhere in sight. Many Black faculty will perform these menial race-help tasks without even being asked but if you dare ask the #DifficultBlackProfessor for any of this mess without the prospect of real, anti-racist solidarity, expect to be ignored… or told about yourself, sometimes nicely, sometimes not.   #NotYourQuotaOrYourRaceCoach
  5. The #DifficultBlackProfessor doesn’t do silence and acquiescence, not in their research and scholarship and not in the way they live their scholarly lives.  Institutions are really, really, really bad at legally training their mid-level managers/administrators who are, for the most part, walking-talking law suits with the things they say and do and the hostile climates they create.  How universities can afford to keep their doors open with the blatant illegalities that I have experienced and witnessed has been truly mind-boggling!!  The #DifficultBlackProfessor will make one of two choices: 1) keep the best lawyers, lawsuits, and official complaints on rotation so that egregious racism and incompetence can be exposed to the tip-top decision-makers of the institution and state; 2) deal with administrators’ racial hostilities as an ethnography to be seriously analyzed in scholarship and exposed to the tip-top of intellectual and political discussions.  They will ALWAYS say/do something rather than choke their voices into compliance and passivity.  #DontComeForFolkWhoWillReschoolYou
  6. The #DifficultBlackProfessor handles their biz’ness at all times and never forgets that they work at institutions that have historically designed and benefitted from racist, social hierarchies.  When you have to work harder than everyone else because you are Black, a strange thing happens: you develop some real high standards and get your research and scholarship all the way done. You are not trying to trick, smooth-talk, lie, cheat, or weasel your way to the top, to the next gig, or to celebrity status, because you don’t need to. This means that the #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t all that pressed by the foolishness around them. They know that the buildings and organizations where they do their work are not the alpha and omega of their aesthetic, intellectual, professional, or political life’s work and accomplishments.  They belong to larger histories, traditions, achievements, mentors, and communities that guide and motivate them onwards to real success.  They know the difference between their work and the job  . . . and superficiality.  #RealWorkIsAlwaysBiggerThanThis
  7. The #DifficultBlackProfessor ain’t worried or afraid of being called “difficult,” of being called “un-collegial” by racists, of being seen with other faculty/students/staff of color considered “difficult,” or being disliked.  They are not so desperate for White favor and upward mobility that they will sacrifice Black Radical Traditions and choke out their public complaints of institutions that continually do harm to Black lives, minds, and spirits. The academy’s attempts at racialized traffic control do not shape their sense of direction.  #NeverTurntAround

Each of my lines above was written with very specific events in mind, all together representing instances that have been repeated over and over again across multiple semesters. Before the school year ends, I am sure that I will be able to add more to my list.  As I watched a specific institution, I began to notice these same practices at previous places where I have worked, in attitudes of other faculty across the country, and in the vibe I have always gotten at many national conferences. Strangely enough, these seven attributes are supposed to be negative, where “difficult” is almost like the academy’s version of a racial slur.  I can’t think of anyone more noble or worthy in the academy than a #DifficultBlackProfessor. Now that we are in the full swing of August and I begin planning and thinking about my #NewBlackAcademicSchoolYear, I will remind myself of this list as my #ProfessorGoals.

Starting a new school year takes more than renewed energy to meet your new students.  You also need a renewed vision of who you truly are. I hope with all my mind and heart that I too will have the wisdom, dignity, and strength of my most radical colleagues, mentors, and ancestors to be and always become a #DifficultBlackProfessor.  Welcome to the 2018-2019 school year!

 

*Pronouns shift throughout this piece from: she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/their.

A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Days Five & Six

It’s never just about the “microaggressions.”  Daily aggressions derive their political and emotional meanings and are legitimized inside of the larger contexts of dehumanization. When the white male professor down the hall accused me of stealing his little measly stuff, that happened at the same time that I watched, over and over again, Eric Garner tell NYPD that he couldn’t breathe.  They killed Garner anyway, for standing on the corner with some loosies.  Though the inability to even walk down the hall at the college where you work without being perceived as a thief is not the same as Garner’s murder, a singular social system justifies both.  When I was questioned by a hyper-privileged white administrator about my academic credentials, as if I didn’t have them, that happened at the same time that the initial jury wouldn’t convict Michael Dunn of first-degree murder of Jordan Davis. It took TWO TRIALS to rule against Dunn, a white man shooting at a vehicle with 17-year old Black boys in it. Again, my experience is not similar to Davis’s murder but the trial made the aggressions I faced all the more unbearable. The microaggressions that are sure to come as soon as school starts will be happening alongside countless other incidents: like white people, mostly white women, calling the cops when they see a Black child mowing someone’s lawn or selling bottled water . . . when they see Black folks having a BBQ in the park . . . when they see Black folk _____.  When school starts, we will be fighting today’s current fascist regime to get Brown children out of cages at detention camps.  When school starts, we will still be marching against more theft of Indigenous land and more police shootings of unarmed Black men and women.  There’s only one thing you can do in the midst of all of this when you are a college professor and work in the academy.  GET. OUT.

You’ve got to take your mind back. The microaggressions that you face everyday on campus and living your life in light of what is going on in the world will mess with your mind.  And that’s what Fridays are for in a week in the life of a black feminist pedagogy.  Honestly, you gotta take your mind back everyday, but by Friday, it gets real official for me.

Though we don’t always talk this way: as academics, we are also fundamentally scholars … writers … and researchers.  You need inspiration to maintain that.  I am talking about something different from self-care.  I mean something IN ADDITION to self-care.  Yes, you will need to know how to protect yourself from endless requests on your time and energy, long lines of folk who need something from you yet again and give nothing back, and just the general, never-ending drains on your time and energy.  You have to learn how to replenish, rejuvenate, meditate, and calm your spirit for the work that you do.  But you also need some intellectual inspiration and when it comes to radical theory and praxis where it relates to race, gender, etc, I have never found that at any university where I have worked.  Like I said, you have to GET OUT or your ideas will be as compromised as the folk who tout justice and perpetrate microaggressions like in the campus examples that I opened with.  While my students certainly inspire me, I still need to get away from the classroom at times.  When the weekend comes, I’m out.  It’s a struggle with errands and family but it’s hard to come back to work on Monday to more meaningless, inane, or violent situations unless you refilled your mind with something worthy of your people and your history beforehand.

You need intellectual inspiration in droves if you want to think new things, write in new ways, and research unexplored corners about anti-Blackness and radical futures.  And so when T.G.I.F. comes, I hit the road and get far, far away from my college.  I have even arranged my teaching schedule to accommodate my T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays and weekends.

Many colleges are lenient when faculty cancel classes, especially for professional travel. Unlike every other college where I have worked, my current institution does not play when it comes to canceling classes though.  You better have that cancelled day of class on your syllabus with a detailed assignment that students can do and understand on their own.  All kinds of other mess slides for college-level expectation at my college, but cancelling class does not, at least not in my department. I appreciate this vigilance on the part of my unit.  My students are not busting their behinds for a college degree to have professors who do not bother to show up or just let TAs do the job.  This means that I only teach on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and get the service work done by Thursday.  I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.  This way I don’t have to cancel classes and disrupt the flow of my teaching.  Allowing Thursday-Friday-Saturday for travel and other intellectual excursions is a lifesaver for my thinking.  Even when I don’t travel, I try to attend some kind of event in New York City to get my mind out of the mess my institution makes of it during the week.  It seems simple but I need to be vigilant with my time and energy too ….otherwise, I will hand over entire weekends to meetings, emails, or phone conversations coddling grown folks who dominate your time because they refuse to figure out meaningful lives for themselves.  You have to fight for the time and space to think and be.

Faculty colleagues of color are not something you can count on either.  There are either too few of them or the ones who are there are too busy soothing white egos and catering to white comfort.  I have no patience for them and am REAL CLEAR that this does not belong to the Black Intellectual Traditions of our ancestors . One of my colleagues of color told me that they were warned not to fraternize too closely with other Brown and Black faculty (i.e., sitting next to one another in a department meeting).  I’m not shocked that senior white faculty and administrators would articulate and execute these kinds of slave codes to Brown and Black professors (reminder: slave codes prohibited the enslaved from assembling without a white person present).  However, I AM surprised by how many faculty of color comply so willingly with these campus-plantation rules.  You won’t miss out on any real conversation or interaction of political depth with these Sambo types though.  This is why you need to always fellowship with the radical Brown and Black academics across the country and form a circle that extends well beyond your campus.  Like I already said, I front-load the week so that come Friday, I can be out.

I attend many conferences, but only those that theoretically and politically inspire me and that have folk of color in large attendance.  I refuse to be mesmerized by attending an intellectually-mediocre conference because, like so many academics that I see, it is the only place that makes me feel famous and important.  I also give many talks where I get to meet graduate students and faculty and hear more intimately about their work.  This also lets me see what other universities are doing and keeps me from the provincialism that would suggest that the way my university does something is the only or most contemporary way. Other times, I am just reading a set of articles or a book that pushes me to see, think, or write something in a different way.  I resist the academic rule that you need to read solely or mainly in your discipline.  You won’t grow intellectually that way— you just join the old boys’ club.  And if you are of color, you don’t have the luxury to be so closely wedded to any one field or discipline anyway since none have your people in mind (even ethnic studies often looks for its legitimation today from neoliberalism).  So on T.G.I. Intellectual Fridays, I am reading and learning.  It seems like working at a college, learning would automatically fill my days.  Strangely, it’s not that way.  You have to plan your week around thinking/ learning in order to take your mind back.