In my first year writing (FYW) classroom this fall, I want to offer students a workable, go-to definition of neoliberalism. I don’t expect students to read political economy or write research papers on that. This is not the best way to teach and interrogate neoliberalism in FYW. Instead, I want to treat neoliberalism rhetorically. We are all neoliberal subjects so a writer’s stance on neoliberalism is always evident, whether or not you use the word, whether or not you fully comprehend the meaning, whether or not you are explicitly discussing economic issues. I am not so keen on using what passes as scholarship in my field as an offering to my students either though.
I haven’t made any final decisions yet, it’s still all coming together. I tend to get side-tracked when I do syllabus planning. I start taking notes for other projects or I make notes of new realizations. This moment is no different. Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought is what I keep thinking about right now– the moment when I first met the text when I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s. Every black female scholar/black feminist who knows the book seems to have a chapter, section, or set of sentences that impacts her most. Or, alternatively, she has a critique of something that doesn’t quite work or doesn’t work for the 21st century. I can’t say why, but Collins’s ideas about black feminism’s ethic of personal accountability offered a whole new way of thinking when I was an undergraduate: “people are expected to be accountable for their knowledge claims.” Maybe I was just stank and needed a justificatory system for why I couldn’t stand a whole bunch of the folk around me. Something just clicked when Collins framed her black female students’ ideas as black feminist consciousness. For Collins, there was a consistent critique from her black female undergraduate students where their value of an academic was related to that person’s character, that person’s treatment of the people around them, that person’s moral decisions in day-to-day life. You can’t just mouth the words. It was not a popular sentiment amongst heterosexual/heterosexist black men on campus who seemed insistent that what they did behind closed doors in their bedrooms had nothing to do with their politics of black life and culture. I wasn’t tryna hear that. If you beat the hell outta your wife/girlfriend/jump-off, then your version of black liberation is not one that can liberate me. I knew that at 20 years old and still have very little patience for the ways men want to discursively neutralize/control the misogyny they actively promote. I am not trying to suggest that there is or should be no help for such abusers, I don’t believe that, but if you think that you are entitled to the violence and deception that you instigate in your bedroom, then you aren’t looking for/capable of help.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
It is easy enough to see how this black feminist ethic of personal accountability works in relation to sexual abuse and violence against women. However, that ethic extends to other places too, especially in my own field where the racism that I see scholars inflicting should be treated as criminal. When a white woman mails to her only black student a book with the N-Bomb in the title after not assigning a single black author in her class (but openly dissing Gilyard’s work and calling Smitherman’s work irrelevant) and then casting that black male student as a predator when he displays his offense, I will never be interested in her publications on anti-racism. And I have nothing positive to say about the white people who co-sign her and treat her version of anti-racism as viable to anyone or anything but their own ongoing white privilege. I think of myself as fair-minded here: I have equal disdain for the people of color around her. Like I have already said on this blog, my culture gives me special words for such folk of color. When a non-white male (but phenotypically white) chair of a department sides with racist white students who violently attack the only black female assistant professor who asks her students to talk about racism, I am not interested in anything he ever has to say about diversity, administration, or the teaching of writing. I won’t implement or listen to the practices of those who find him insightful either. When a non-white woman (but phenotypically AND culturally white) brutally disrespects a black male scholar in his home and elsewhere but is always bowed down, on her knees, to white men, I do not want to hear a word of what she has to say about political economies, feminism, or decolonization. I refuse to trust this woman’s colleagues and co-authors who have silently stood by and casually watched such anti-black violence while labeling themselves radical. I got questions about the white scholars who are so politically comforted by the work of all these anti-black tokens too. I learned from Collins a long time ago as an undergraduate that oppressed people are also often invested in oppressive systems (we like to forget THAT part of intersectionality) which makes it very telling when white racists like these token-kind so much. I am not suggesting that any of these cases represent people who can’t change but in order for that to happen, they need to cop to what they have deliberately and consciously done, instigated, lied about, stolen, and attacked. When, instead, you are strutting around conferences, colleges, and journals like an arrogant George Zimmerman, full of confidence and non-remorse for having gotten away with the murder of another black person, I have no regard for you, your scholarship, your lifestyle. I am not being hyberbolic here, I am describing very real and VERY recent incidents. And I do not mean false alarm when I suggest that the scholarship from such actors in my field is akin to George Zimmerman, in his current political state of mind, writing a book about the end of racial profiling. Black people can’t afford to take THAT seriously if they plan to stay alive. If we are really going to proclaim “We are Trayvon Martin,” then we have much more than police and Stand Your Ground to challenge. Concrete experience— rather than the stand-alone sanctity of the rational, (Western)logical thesis— is a central criterion of meaning, consciousness, and intellectual radicalism. This stance is part of my black feminist consciousness.
I am reminded of how such black feminist consciousness works as I craft my syllabus, one that will never include scholars like I have described who act solely in the service of white violence. Some of the most egregious forms of violence against black communities have happened because of and at the hands of university scholars: the well-known instances of the Tuskegee Experiment and the impoverished Henrietta Lacks with her multimillion HeLa Cells should be proof enough. The scholars in those contexts, however, did not see themselves as doing anything wrong. They did not see themselves as unethical… it took history to teach us this. History will remember the scholars who I have described in the same ways where, just like now, people will someday look back and wonder how these folk could do such things and why folk said nothing about it. I won’t need the distance of history though. I do not have any hesitation about the kinds of people who will never be introduced to my college students and the kinds of people who will never influence my pedagogy. I may not know which scholars I am using to discuss neoliberalism yet but I certainly know who I am NOT using. And I certainly know the people in my field who maintain plantation-style racist violence, despite everyone’s dangerous self-delusions that they are offering black people freedom. Black Feminist Consciousness means knowing and doing better than that, in the classroom and out.