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.

Notes on Racial Realism by One of the “Problem People”

Today, I am with my wonderful colleagues— Steven Alvarez, April Baker-Bell, and Eric Darnell Pritchard— at the Conference on Community Writing where we are facilitating a deep think tank on “Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Critical Literacies: A Teach-In and Work-In.”  In our opening, we will each do a short framing and then start our first day of discussions (day two will feature organizing).  This webpage collects the frame that I will offer about RACIAL REALISM. 

I decided to write out my thoughts today in the hopes that would be easier to follow. I am placing these notes on a website— so you can follow along. Or, you can just listen. (I make a sincere effort to do what most ENG teachers tell vernacular black intellectuals NOT to do— write the way I talk. As it ends up, that is the most difficult thing to do… so please bear with me here.)

I am hoping that we can frame ourselves pragmatically and theoretically as racial realists— as coined by critical race theorists and afro-pessimists. Racial realism, put quite simply, rejects any notion that we have made racial progress. That’s a fantasy of white comfort and white fragility rather than any kind of proximation to the lived experiences of black peoples. Progress is always politically conflicted, contingent on whiteness/white approval, and reversible via white supremacy… one step forward, and then sometimes two steps back.

Some of my favorite racial realists are my undergraduate students (though they do not use this language unless I am explicitly teaching CRT). In my undergraduate classes this semester, I often have weeks where students can choose any one of 50-60 essays and videos about the theme we are studying.  Since everyone has read something different, they are each asked to create a discussion question inspired by their unique reading. From our unit on feminisms of color this year, here were some of my favorite discussion questions that students created, none of which have easy answers:

  1. Given how many Puerto Rican and Mexican women the U.S. sterilized in the 1900s, what is the historical consequence of this for women of color today?  What’s the message that we still receive?
  2. Black girls are suspended from schools at much higher rates than white kids, even for lesser infractions.  What is the point of this? How do schools and colleges benefit from shutting out black girls/black students? … How do we protect black girls from schools?
  3. Given all that we have learned of racism, sexism, and inequality, why were you surprised that Trump won the election?

For me, you just can’t answer these questions without racial realism… in fact, you wouldn’t even think to ask them.

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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.

How Institutional Racism Trained Me to Be a Doomsday Prepper

I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe.  I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.

Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment.  I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though.  There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment.  Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses.  The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”?  The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus.   As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman.  As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens.  Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that.  They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population.  Doomsday was always here.

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A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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