When White Violence Is “The Canon”

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science.  I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance.  Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller.  Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject.  Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.

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The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

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

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

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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.             _________________

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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.

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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!

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Big Mac, the Heart of Whiteness, and Composition Studies

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I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised.  There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated.  I wasn’t surprised by that, however.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either.  I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.

Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content.  I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work.  My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color.  And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.

hithereI have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids.  The problem is that this is a lie.  White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either.  This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz.  Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite.   Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).

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big_mac_meal

This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model?  Let me break it down.  I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus.  Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university.  Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT!  So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities.  That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach.  In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American.   If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school.  25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT.  97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.

At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation.  Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession.  It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities.  Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac!  And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience.  If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to  think of this example.

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A Black Education Congress (ABEC)

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

Please Click Here for ABEC website.

I originally intended to stop/ write/ reflect for each of my past three days at the Black Education Congress.  Yes, that was certainly the intention.  But this language and this written form of the Word just got in the way.  There were so many moments that touched me.  I wouldn’t be able to define and chronicle those moments linearly even if I wanted to.  This morning, I am left with one resonance that I am carrying with me.  I expect new resonances to fill me in coming days and weeks so I will keep that discussion going here.

I realize today the weight of an experience that I seldom receive, an experience that maybe I have never had… being in a room filled with concentric circles, nested cyphers, filled with people of Afrikan descent who have the education and well-being of Black children first and foremost in their heart, mind, spirit.  Just imagine it!  It might sound simple, but how many times have you actually experienced THAT? I needed to stop today and realize that I am never in such a space and to also realize what that space-powerfulness has given me.  I don’t mean the folk who are trying to usher black children into a middle class pseudo-bourgeoisie (I say pseudo because middle-classness means something completely different in this time, even though most folk don’t realize that.)  I don’t mean THEM folk.  These days I feel lucky if I can find a set of black colleagues, scattered across the country, who have a dynamic, critical vision for Black Education.  And I am lucky if have a sista across campus who I can meet after our classes are over and just talk.  Like I said… L-U-C-K-Y!  I had them sistas-in-the-wings at Rutgers-Newark, for instance (given the history and spirit of Newark), but you had to sustain a whole lotta foolishness in your department first. And while I attend professional conferences and panels where I do meet such soul-sustaining folk, more often than not, most black folk are busy trying to be famous and/or network so that they can become famous.  That’s the culture in which black youth must survive a hostile education and it is the culture in which we most often must fight to help them not merely survive but thrive.

I am thinking back to the opening night with the procession of elders punctuated by the opening words of Dr. Adelaide Sanford.  This is what I mean by these words not allowing the weight and fullness of a Black Experience.  Here is a video of the Queen Mother from a July 2013 talk in Philly:

As powerful as this video is, it does not begin to capture what it was like to be in that room that night at a circle with other black teachers and high school students (who were ENRAPTURED, by the way, of course!)  And as powerful as this video is, it does not capture what it is like to be in Dr. Adelaide Sanford’s presence with black educators at your side. It is THAT feeling that I am carrying with me today and that I now take with me as I educate young people of color.