For Black Feminists Who Have Considered Solidarity/ When the Academy is Enuf

Dedicated to the seven Black women and author, Ntozake Shange, of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf… and the five Black women who have come forward as TCU’s Jane Does.

I skipped a department meeting this week.  There’s nothing particularly urgent about this fact since such meetings are usually futile in their ability to accomplish actual tasks anyway.  This time though, I just couldn’t bear the performance of non-Black faculty or graduate students, who are not usually even invited and were even once barricaded from entering a department meeting by a dean.   Somehow all have discovered a new political voice in relation to instructional requirements under the Coronavirus… and have been deathly silent when it comes to the abuse faced by Black folk.  Yes, this is a new resistance of a sort, but it is solely in the service of whiteness for whom danger and death under COVID are newfound, daily realities.  I plan to keep chanting #BlackLivesMatter because I know we are not included in this rage against new white precarity.

This meeting that I skipped was with an administrator who started at the university less than a month ago.  And, yup, you guessed it: a woman of color.  And, yup, you guessed it: from all reports I have heard, faculty and graduate students piped up in ways they have never publicly done when white leadership was at the helm (even when it locked them outside of the door), and especially not when Black pain was the topic of discussion. 

Black pain is not an abstraction in this space.  In FACT, you can read all about it below in the 215-point STATEMENT OF FACTS of this lawsuit. I am pasting the whole thing here because this text needs to be required reading for those who are interested in anti-racist teaching, the racial history of higher education, and especially the brutal experiences of Black women-identified undergraduate and graduate students today. 

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This is what higher education looks like for Black women across the country, and these five Black women— called Jane Doe #1 (read pp. 30-66; pp. 94-99), Jane Doe #2 (read pp. 67-74), Jane Doe #3 (read pp. 74-78), Jane Doe #4 and Jane Doe #5 (read pp. 78-94)—  are making history today.  They faced abuse, ridicule, and neglect at the hands of their peers, faculty, and administrations in ways that would have us in uproar if they weren’t Black.  The lawsuit details the ways that these women filed complaints with leaders of programs and departments seemingly everywhere, with any kind of faculty member who seemed they might listen, and with every Title IX-ish type of office designed to officially investigate such claims.  NO ONE—and I mean NO ONE— ever helped or protected them. Honor and recognize these women in the ways that their campus hasn’t.    I plan to keep chanting #SayHerName because I know we are not included in this rage against new white precarity.

Even though it’s summer time and technically, educators have the summer off (unless teaching summer courses), every week is some new foolishness in my inbox.  It’s like school is still in session.  So let’s REALLY get in session here and stay mindful of who we are as Black staff, educators, researchers, and students in this moment.  Remember the stories of the Jane Does above and show some courage. It’s what they deserve. We are not going to change the academy overnight, but we can most certainly control how we act upon it RIGHT NOW:

  1. All kinda folk need a Black friend or colleague to co-sign or advise them right now. Black advice and guidance are now the Golden Fleece of the Academy.  Do not participate in these informal discussions, ad hoc committees, or free consultations.  Your ideas will be plagiarized by people who do not have their own (this has always happened, but expect it to escalate).  White feminists will especially call this collaboration.  It’s not.  Folk of color will try and milk your ideas for their own white favor and visibility too. It’s all just plagiarism without the Turnitin.   Call them on it and steer clear. Stop needing to be needed. The closer you are to these vampiric people, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  2. Let’s stick with #1 a little more here: All kinda folk will need you on their new committees, task forces, programs, mission statements, or suddenly conscious projects Take notice when a group of BIPOC faculty is gathered together and led by a white (usually male) leader (or a person of color acting for a white leader).  You are there to help the white leader who will get the credit.   You are like a corporate silent partner, except without any remuneration.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that whiteness values your thinking all of a sudden.  The closer you are to these inauthentic projects, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  3. If white administrators and leaders have been accused of racial harm and do not voluntarily step down from their positions, know that these are NOT allies.  At a time of a global pandemic that is targeting Brown and Black peoples during unprecedented racial protest in every state of the union, an administrator who has not practiced real anti-racism and has caused harm to Black people is INCOMPETENT for the tasks at hand. IN…COM…PE….TENT.  This ain’t something a workshop, apology letter, or deep meditation can fix.  They must step down.  If they do not, do not work with them, do not support them, do not sign on to their ideas. Monitor AS VIGILANTLY as you can how many of their meetings you must attend, how much of their policy you must implement, how much time you must spend with them. Keep your distance as best as you possibly can. Stop taking their classes and attending their workshops (contest it if it is a REQUIREMENT). The closer you are to these harmful administrators, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  4. Notice the close friends of the white administrators and leaders who have been accused of racial harm. Their friends are NOT allies either.  These are friendships based in white nepotism and advancement, a value system a real ally would forego.   If you are a friend of a white administrator or leader who has been accused of racial harm, hold your homie accountable and if they refuse, get yourself some new homies.  The closer you are to these anti-Black campus leaders, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  5. For the folk who do step down (see #3 and #4), notice whether or not they actually STEP UP when they step down.  I have never witnessed a white administrator step down and repair their harm.  What I have always gotten is a lunch request where the only thing being served is gaslighting.  For starters, the people who you have harmed do not want your lunch, coffee, or phone call so back off.  We are also not interested in your life-story, list of Black-based volunteer activities as proof you are not racist, white tears, or convictions of how YOU perceive our misunderstandings of racism.  Stay away from these lunches and excuses.  And be wary of the warm, fuzzy, and congratulatory good-bye letters listing the outstanding accomplishments of demoted folk accused of violence. These writers are not allies either.  Do not be lulled into this white complacency touted as sympathy for abusers. Wanna know what I call people who have made significant accomplishments for which they were never credited or recognized?  BLACK FOLK! The closer you are to these fake apologies, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  6. Black folk will be in high demand on thesis/ dissertation committees now. Ask yourself some questions. Are you the token? Has the rest of the committee (or at least some of them) perpetrated anti-Black harm?  Does the dissertation center white theory and then merely pepper-sprinkle Black scholars on top and without deep analysis?   Can you see trends in the racial politics of thesis/ dissertation committees across the country right now? How many students of a perpetrator have been hired in your field and department?  How many graduate student assistants of a perpetrator have been hired in your administrative ranks?  How has your department’s graduate program siphoned off its anti-Blackness into the rest of the academy?  The closer you are to these anti-Black graduate students and their mentors, the more you are implicated in their violence.
  7. Don’t trust whiteness when it uses this excuse: I didn’t know this was happening. Ignorance is not a justification for not acting towards racial justice. I have never had the luxury of not knowing when a Black student on my campus was being brutalized, even when I wasn’t actually present on the campus.  Willful white ignorance is not a pass for the racial violence that serves as the foundation on which white institutions (and their white privileged accomplices) rest.

Everyone has somehow found consciousness and mission statements these days but all are still deeply wedded to institutional anti-Blackness. That is the nature of the academy.  If you think your university is somehow better, then you ain’t thinkin right.  If you think working outside of academia saves you, then you haven’t come to terms with the fact that INSTITUTIONAL RACISM means all institutions work within the terms of anti-Blackness, yes even in the non-profit industrial complex (actually, especially there). 

These 7 points are things many of us have always kept in mind as we move through the academy.  The stakes are higher now in a summer that will be like no other.

An AfroDigital Sign O’ the Times: A Big Sista Hug to Akilah Johnson

akilahIf you did a  google search at any time today, then you immediately noticed today’s Google Doodle by Akilah Johnson.  Johnson, a high school tenth grader, won this year’s Doodle for Google contest, winning a 30K college scholarship and 50K worth of technology for her school.  I did not actually know about the contest but was immediately drawn to Johnson’s doodle called “My AfroCentric Life.”

My initial reaction was related to the adult coloring book trend. I have been curious in the past few months about adult coloring books and their supposed connection to mindfulness and mental health. I tend to flip through the pages when I encounter one.  Though I have an abundant supply of colored pencils and markers, I seldom use these utensils for any concentrated creativity anymore.  More importantly, I’ve never been compelled to actually purchase one of these coloring books because I am not particularly inspired by the designs, though I appreciate their intricacy.  I am always annoyed that Africanized cultures are ommitted despite the undeniable power of pattern and design in African visual life.  Though I contemplate doing my own Afrocentric pages, I just never managed to do that work.  When I saw Johnson’s artwork, I thought: see THERE it is!  Her signature black sharpie, black crayon, and colored pencil style should be an inspiration for what an Afrocentric coloring book and line-design project could offer.

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Lessons from the University of Oklahoma: The Macro of Microaggressions

For Harriet released a video yesterday, “Black Women OU Students Discuss SAE, Race and the University,” interviewing three young Black women at the University of Oklahoma: Aubriana Busby (Junior), Chelsea Davis (Sophomore), and Ashley Hale (senior), all students involved with OU Unheard.  I was delighted to watch and hear these interviews as well as the general footage that we have seen in the past week from Black student protesters on the campus.

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Congratulations, Andrene!

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Click here for Andrene’s ePortfolio, PRETTY FOR A BLACK GIRL (created in her first-semester “Freshman English” course)!

Thank you also to the Africana Studies Department’s willingness to embrace what Abdul Alkalimat, in his definition of eBlack Studies, has called “a new conception of mapping our existence in cyberspace.”  We are proud of you, Andrene!

Remembering Maya Angelou: “Everybody Takes Their Chance By Taking a Chance On Us”

angelou-picEvery semester, one of my students references or presents one of the following two poems by Maya Angelou: “Still I Rise” or “Phenomenal Woman.”  I think back to the first time I heard those two poems and I remember their stunning impact on me too.  Nevertheless, I get nervous now that Angelou’s work, especially these two poems, are completely commodified and co-opted such that any radical representation of black women in her writing is gone.  Of course, nothing I am saying here is new.  I have especially liked Cheryl Higashida’s discussion of Angelou in her book, Black Internationalist Feminism, where Higashida reads Angelou’s autobiographies as the legacy of black women’s work in the post-World War II anti-colonialist Black Left.  Higashida achieves a nice balance: she acknowledges Angelou’s presence as a Pan African radical; she criticizes the ways that Angelou oftentimes undoes the collective action and consciousness of the Black Left by celebrating individualist (and, thus, capitalist/neoliberalist)  triumph and achievement.   These two poles do not have to be opposing though.  Like I already showed just with black women’s scarf wrapping styles, you can be a bold and emboldened individual and part of a collective too: it just depends on the ideologies you use to situate that individuality.  Black women are often co-opted by mainstream audiences who, in turn, force Angelou’s revolutionary politics into the background by only celebrating the notion of a rise of phenomenal individuals.  Higashida gives me a way to resuscitate Angelou’s fierce Black Feminist Left/Internationalism since, more often than not, that is deliberately erased from view in public celebrations of her work, including those celebrations by mainstream black academics and popular black celebrities.  This ain’t no surprise though now is it?  Put a black woman’s words in the mouths of misogynistic men, undercover-racist white folk who just want folk of color to join the mainstream, or bougsie/wanna-be-rich-and-famous black folk and the message will surely lose its meaning.  Hardly a coincidence.

This semester was a bit of a switch with the video below that one student asked us to watch in my  class. This video features an interview with Maya Angelou after shock jock, Don Imus, authorized himself to call black women on the Rutgers Basketball team out of their names. In that interview, Angelou calls out black men who publicly call black women b**ches but who would never do such a thing with white women in power, giving the then president’s wife, Laura Bush, as an example. I found her most compelling when she responds to Russell Simmon’s comments (at 1:32):

In the beginning of the interview, Angelou erases racial and gendered specificity by calling all vulgarity the same and marking all speakers the same— that’s just not historically accurate as any rhetorician would tell you.  But then the FIRE comes, you can even feel a palpable difference in her speech and vibe. As she states, if black men called white women in power B-words, they would see how powerful they are: “see how long you will live.  There wouldn’t be enough rope to hang your butts.”  This is Angelou at her finest: a poetic way to basically call these men cowards and coons. Angelou goes on to remind us that black women “are last on the totem pole” which means that “everybody has the chance to take a chance on us.”  Again, Angelou at her finest: another poetic way to show that the deliberate degradation of black women by black men for public consumption (while being too scared to do the same with non-black women) only makes you a stupid fool and sell-out. This is the Maya Angelou that mainstream America doesn’t readily present to us: one who locates words and experiences in the unique bodies and historical experiences of black women.  Like she says, there is a reason black men and white men feel so free and comfortable to call women of African descent B-words and no other group.  She leaves it up to imagination and drops off a powerful suggestion at the end, at least this is how I hear it: keeping taking your chance by taking a chance on us and see how we handle your stupid butts!

What Angelou teaches me (and I would say that the same thing is now happening with Ntozake Shange and For Colored Girls) is that I must teach how and why black women’s writings get co-opted… and participate in uncomfortable conversations of how we ourselves participate in this.  It ain’t just the rap video vixens who are out here shaking their behinds for public consumption and pseudo-access to white male power. It’s an important lesson for understanding capitalism, black women, and black women’s rhetoric.