What Will We Do When School Starts?

Ferguson 2A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students.  A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors.  As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building.  He was, simply put, quite genius.  The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates.  I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college.  In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me.  He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction.  Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.

i am a manAs I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry.   The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered.  While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.”  I didn’t catch it right away. Continue reading

Digital Labor, Race & Gender in the Academy

agendaThis fall, I taught a writing class where I introduced students to color as design and rhetoric, the CSS of their ePortfolio platform, and a rich text module (where they would write reflection on what they had done in the class and explain their visual design decisions). The agenda for that day of class was posted the night before, like every day of my teaching this year.  The “lesson plan” was hosted at my own ePortfolio so students could experience the text and weblinks on that platform.  There was also a 4-page handout, my personal worksheet and guide to CSS, all of which was followed by an exit slip as students left the lab.  Just a regular day of class really: tasks you need to complete, things you need to get done… with students who work hard to meet your expectations.  The pinch in the system on that day, however, came from an assigned observer of my class who claimed that no writing happened in the class and that I seemed unprepared for the day.  Yeah… you heard that right…UN-PRE-PARED.  So some 50 emails later and another 10 pages of 5th-grade-level explication of basic digital literacy practices in 21st century writing classrooms, I came to a crossroads where I DEEPLY understand the WORK of my digital labor… and the necessity that a black female professor always be able to PUBLICLY SHOW what she has done and what she can do. After all, it is difficult to make the case for unpreparedness if you have even casually perused the items that I list in just this blog post (unless, of course, you have NO clue how to work a web browser or google search).  It offers a digital visibility when an ideological imposition of invisibility tries to strike its ugly, white blows.  It won’t save or protect you, but it WILL throw a whole other kind of monkey-wrench in the mix, pun intended.

For each class that I taught this year, I created a class agenda that guided what we would do.  The agenda is meant as a guide rather than a script to keep me moving towards the goals and promises I have made on my course syllabus which is usually 12-15 pages long.  Each agenda for each day of my class is posted to the course website.

In addition to this website/blog, I have:

  1. a professional ePortfolio that archives all of my teaching, research, and service since I secured tenure two years ago now
  2. a wordpress site for my English 101 course (Public Writing, Rhetoric, and the 21st Century)
  3. a wordpress site for a class that I taught last year and hope to build as ongoing archive of black women’s rhetoric
  4. a weebly site for my English 201 course, Digital Rhetorics (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  5. two demo sites on digication as a skeleton for the ePortfolios that students create
  6. a website on digication for a series of workshops that I did for sophomores and transfer students designing digital resumes (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  7. a website on digication that explains the CSS of the platform
  8. a forthcoming website on digication for an honors seminar in writing and rhetoric that I will teach next year
  9. a website (not fully public yet) on digication for an online journal of first year students’ digital projects and essays (launched in fall 2013)
  10. a forthcoming online, undergraduate journal
  11. the beginning stages of a scribd account, youtube channel, and soundcloud account in order to upload media to my websites in different ways (I plan to create some apps and screencasts this summer also)

Continue reading

Frat Boy Culture: Life under Institutional Racism, Part II

Though working at a conservative, denominational university could never have been a very good fit for someone like me, I must admit that I miss some of the piousness of a religious institution. A strange confession, surely, but it was a nice reprieve from what I call the frat-boy culture of academia.   I began to really notice frat-boy culture in graduate school, though that culture plagued my undergraduate years as well. As an undergrad, I just assumed frat-boy culture was what folk would someday grow out of. No such luck.

I was, quite honestly, floored by the nature of sexual activity in graduate school where everyone was sleeping with everyone, married or single. When you are the one drop of chocolate in the flymilk, you know better than to think you have enough privilege and power to participate in this culture… though I have certainly seen more than a few black men get fully entrenched (grad school has a way of making them forget that they are black, but they usually get THAT reminder soon enough). Here we were in graduate school and a man could sleep with 3, 4, 5, 6 different women in his program/college and not even think twice about it… AND even get a few of them pregnant! Professional conferences are no different. It’s all fray-boy culture. You can see why a religious university, for all of its problems, was a nice, short breather in between all of that. I never once suspected my chair, directors, dean, etc to have slept with every young woman/man who walked past them and I am the type of person who once I SUSPECT it, I know that that ish has gone down. It’s not to say that power and whiteness are not everywhere exerted and celebrated in other ways on such religious campuses, but it is not inserted THAT way.

inferiority complexI am NOT talking about upholding respectability politics here, which really just becomes a buy-in of black inferiority.  Critiquing and rejecting respectability politics does not mean we lose the critique of frat-boy culture and its role in maintaining power and inequality. Notice here how I am critiquing male dominance and not women who use their sexuality to manipulate and vie for power (think Kim Kardashian, Mimi Faust, or the “video hoe”). It is just TOO played out to keep castigating individual women or, on the flip side, to call them sexually revolutionary or powerful (all the while, of course, ignoring that race determines which women will be most denigrated for these sexual choices). Insomuch as white fraternities have been marked with the most economic and political power in U.S. history of higher education and beyond (go to any campus and see who has the biggest and nicest frat houses…or who has them at all), then I connect frat-boy culture with whiteness and patriarchy.

frats on FOXFrat-boy culture is about power that gets controlled through sexual domination. For sure, religious universities are still controlling sexuality (with the Bible), which explains why whiteness and power were not ruptured in any way on a campus where the men kept it in their pants. But when you are in a closed-door meeting with a white man and woman who have surely had (maybe still have) sexual relations, let me tell you: THAT shit is palatable. You are navigating a whole other kind of terrain when they vie to maintain their whiteness and position over you. Like I said, I KNOW frat-boy culture so I can spot this in a minute. That’s the most powerful position you can be in though. When you are in the academy and workplace, you need to be able to read the hell outta EVERY aspect whiteness and power… sexuality is always a marker. That’s how frat-boy culture and inequality work.

Black Language Matters: “If You Don’t Like My Peaches, Then Don’t Shake My Tree”

peachesAs soon as I hear someone say it, I bust out laughing: “If you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.”   I love the self-assuredness and, well, the bit of threat and warning that come with these words. I consider this a very nice way of saying: YOU BETTA BACK UP! I AIN’T HAVIN IT!

I have always heard these kinds of expressions from working class/working poor black folk (these lines were ubiquitous in the Blues in the 1920s, what we call floating verses from the black oral tradition, but these lines still float now). Many still make the sad mistake of relegating that to some kind of “folk wisdom,” which is just a white, western trick of pretending to value you but really marginalizing you and calling your wisdom subpar instead. There are many things that you can learn from this philosophy that shape how you understand and do your daily living:

1) don’t mess with something you have no business (or talent in) trying to shake up;

2) if you know those peaches have nothing in common with you, your tastes, your likes, your life, then move on… otherwise, it will be assumed that you WANT to get it started;

3) when that shit falls on your head—and it WILL— that is the consequence that you shoulda KNOWED you had coming.

Because, you see, that peach tree (and the person who uses this expression) is rooted and strong enough to NOT care nuthin about you and bend back on everything you try and touch.

There are so many contexts in which you can use this expression, it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, but for today, I would like to discuss one specific context that is related to the maintenance of institutional racism in colleges and universities where I have worked: white women who (attempt to ) correct my language.  At each and every institution that I have ever taught, a white woman has, in some way, sat me down to explain to me the inappropriateness of my language and/or my “allowances” with students of color, an occurrence always more pronounced at public universities than at private universities.  There is always some kind of overture where they explain academic discourse and academic writing to me.  Now, don’t me wrong, if you have some good advice for me on how to publish more than I already have, I’ll listen with deep seriousness.  However, in each case that I describe, the speaker did not have a Ph.D., OR had never published any academic writing (and by this, I am talking in terms of an R1 discourse so I mean research articles, not poems or novels), OR had not published anything rigorous or significant on this side of the 21st century.  If I did need some advice, these wouldn’t be the folk who I would go to, so now why on earth would these fools, who so obviously KNOW they do not like my peaches, think they should and could shake this tree?  Credentials and experience in academic publishing, online or print, clearly aren’t how these people construct their knowledge of academic writing. Biological whiteness and occupation at a university seem to be their sole practice of academic language and since I disrupt that, they seem to think they can come colonize the way the peaches grow in this orchard.  Except, of course, it just don’t work that way.

rappersdHere’s just one example. In 2005, when I was finishing graduate school, a white female professor overseeing a professional development project I was part of, told me that she thought I was using too much Hip Hop/youth language in what I do.  She wrote me an email detailing my “slippages.” Yes, you heard that correctly. She called herself an expert because her 17-year old white son was an avid consumer of Hip Hop so she knew that language.  Yes, you heard that correctly. And, yes, she got her feelings hurt. For a little chronology here, I’ll just say that I was 34 years old at the time when I received her email. For some more chronology: 1) I was eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979; 2) that was 10 years before this white professor even met the sperm that become her wanna-be-hip, white, suburban son; 3) that was 26 years before this woman’s son discovered Hip Hop by listening to Jay-Z.  As to whether or not I use Hip Hop language to semanticize my life is open to debate since this is not deliberate or conscious, but like I said, The Sugarhill Gang was my Sesame Street; Native Tongues gave my morning college lectures so, yeah, they are the soundtrack to which I hear words and I am proud of it.  All this is to say, I haven’t been copying white kids in white suburbia; they have always copied us and I let this woman know as much in my email reply back to her.  I also gave her a detailed analysis of the many things she had gotten wrong in the articles she had published, years before, about black culture and black language, since the white editors and white reviewers of this journal let her get way too sloppy, an obvious fact since she was thinking, years later, that her doofus, white, privileged son was the center of Hip Hop.  To this day, I look her up, every now and again, just to make sure she hasn’t published something out-of-pocket about black people in case I need to get at her ass again.  She hasn’t.  Like my family and communities taught me long ago: if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

I do find it curious that white women in the academy have been the ones who embolden themselves so constantly to correct my language.  When white men come at me, they always do so with a white woman on their side.  None of this is a surprise.  Every wave of feminism has witnessed black women pointing out to white women how their notions of gender equality are constructed for the maintenance of white supremacy.  Nothing new there.

peach-treesSince none of these women are people who I would ever call my friends, people who I would choose to hang out with, or people who I even want to have much conversation with, it is curious that they seek me out— I have never initiated any of these conversations. I mind my business, do my work, do it well, keep to myself, keep it movin, and only talk to the handful of friends who I like and trust, those folk who understand and theorize oppression.  These initiated discussions are an obvious and deliberate attempt at colonization and, each time, that I respond back, I get rendered as the angry, oversensitive black woman…or the mean, black girl.  The colonized are always rendered as subhuman, stupid (too stupid to know what REAL oppression is, at that), and violent when they resist/speak back to their colonization.  It is inconceivable to power that we might have an analysis of THAT power.  That’s how institutional racism in universities works, what we might call the daily microaggressions necessary to maintain racist culture, and there are always clear actors who deliberately maintain it.  It ain’t a mystery, it ain’t subtle, and it ain’t difficult to pinpoint.

At the end of the day, we can’t be faded though by white women with such limited ideological lenses and vocabularies that they need to label black women angry instead of analytical, loud instead of logical, mean instead of methodical, sensitive instead of smart. There’s only one message to send here: If you don’t like these peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

Still Reading Men and Nations!

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

I remain amazed that Black History Month oftentimes still celebrates decontextualized people and events.  If the context were the substance, however, we would be promoting new thinking and radical action.  Hardly seems a coincidence that we have one model and not the other. Today I find myself thinking about Sojourner Truth and the ways that my students have talked about learning from her.  This is a post that I wrote last spring that reminds me today of what Black History compels us to really do and understand.             _________________

[ezcol_1half]

In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these past nine years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues, especially those of color, who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late.  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head is a RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.  That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.  These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color.

[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end]

I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly, those who will read the institution out loud with you, the sistafriends who read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of male rappers (these are easy targets).  I am talking about the women who also criticize the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color.  My sistafriends at my first college didn’t just co-sign misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, meeting with female students “after class”, texting/ calling/ closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence like the white women on campus did.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  They are the legacy of someone like Sojourner Truth.

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations” are the famous words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit.  I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mix throughout a semester— always noticing how the black women who we have studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is about the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity.

graveMy students’ reverberating references to Sojourner Truth also compel me to be a different kind of teacher-researcher.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree.  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their “prior knowledge” which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  So I push myself to see recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’ get treated.

Today, when I celebrate, recognize, or honor someone like Sojourner Truth, I must remember to do more than study her life.  We should all be pushing ourselves to analyze the world the way that she did.  That would, indeed, be a different kind of Black History Month!

[/ezcol_1half_end]