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.

Defining Neoliberalism from Black Feminist Ethics

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.

feminism-4I 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

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.

“Because of Whiteness as Property”

MJCongratulations to Dr. Mary Caruso who defended her dissertation this week!  After losing her beloved mother/best friend just weeks before the final defense, she has now crossed the first major threshold in her life without her mother by her side… but her mother has certainly been looking over her!

Dr. Caruso’s dissertation asks us to think deeply about race when we imagine higher education today.  Using a private college that is 66% minority/underrepresented group and 44% white, she highlights the obvious path of an ever browner college student population and how those students understand and live race today.

The very language we use now does not seem to apply.  “Minority” has no meaning here: white students are still the largest population in Dr. Caruso’s study but students of color carry the majority.  The OCR (Office for Civil Rights) and U.S. Department of Education currently has a category, Minority Institution, for colleges like this that serve a majority of students of color via multiple groups (as opposed to one minority group) in its classifications of the many colleges enrolling significant numbers of “minority” students:

These designations have been important in the past because universities become eligible for grants, contracts, or benefit programs; however, even the OCR concedes that its listings are never complete or total.

Given the number of colleges already officially registered in these categories, it becomes baffling as to how and why scholars in composition and writing studies so steadily imagine its college student today as one who is white, middle class, and Christian.  The default position for many white researchers in the field is what Bonilla-Silva has taught us is color-blind racism: this means you simply do not mention students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds in your study at all, which ends up being just another whitening tactic.  When I asked Dr. Caruso why these white practices were still so dominant in the field, she brilliantly referenced Cheryl Harris’s work on whiteness as property and argued that as field/discipline, whiteness is its property.  This means that who the college student is imagined as, which professors get to write/publish about “today’s college students” and their learning and how, and what we offer to college students does not look that much different from white neighborhoods and banks who make sure people of color are not moving in or white professionals who have fled to suburbia’s zoned schools that keep students of color out.

As someone who has only taught a majority of college students of color by CHOICE and DESIGN, most of what I read in the field feels, at best, irrelevant.  It is an honor to get to work with people like Dr. Caruso who do more than chronicle the writings and teaching of students of color (as white researchers often do in voyeuristic, parasitic fashion like the spectacle Holloway describes).  Dr. Caruso knows to interrogate structural racism and institutional racism.   These supra-organizing structures are more than just the theme of first-year courses, as many in the field so stunningly and stupidly proclaim.  Structural racism and institutional racism are the stories that all of us in higher education live in, some of us just choose not to promote those stories. 

Black Bodies, Public Spectacle, and Narrative: Lessons from Karla Holloway

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

I recently listened to a talk given by Karla Holloway at Georgia Tech University.  In her talk, Holloway discusses Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, now destined for HBO, courtesy of Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.  In her book trailer, Skloot herself confirms that it is the characters that basically make this science book readable and riveting to a general audience.  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 have even health insurance.  The story is now widely known and was even dramatized/re-mixed by one of the Law and Order episodes.  What Skloot’s book does though is take us deep into the interior of this family, putting her, rightly so, in the direct line of Holloway’s fire.

In her talk, called “Henrietta Lacks and the Ethics of Privacy,” Holloway asks a compelling question: “which bodies have earned the public presumption of the right of privacy and which are available, reasonably available, for public scrutiny?”   Her own research shows that it is blacks and women who are most “readily rendered up for public storytelling,” what she calls a “persistent loss of privacy” where privacy is a “right” only granted to some audiences.  Holloway connects Skloot’s book to shows like the Real Housewives series and their exploitative representations of women, Maury Povich’s media publication of paternity cases, and Jerry Springer’s public consumption of community and family dysfunction.  She sees these media empires as the motivation and subtext for the ways in which Skloot invades and publicly showcases the lives, medical records, and stigmatized diseases of Henrietta Lacks and her family.  The most intimate medical histories are made public in this book, alongside a kind of voyeuristic unveiling of Deborah Lacks’s (the daughter) challenges with understanding medicine/science, the details of one of Lacks’s son and his time in prison, and even the amount of Deborah’s disability checks. Deborah Lacks actually dies before the manuscript was published so there clearly was none of what we qualitative researchers like to call “member checking” on the final product here.  Holloway reveals that she herself is uncomfortable in even summarizing Skloot’s book because it would mean participating in the very violation of this family’s history that the book exploits. What Holloway clearly shows here is a kind of parasitic relationship between a wealthy white journalist mining the stories and family histories of the Lacks and to brilliant fanfare given how well the book has sold and been awarded.  In sum, Henrietta Lacks’s body was “stripped” as a spectacle, first, in the name of science research, and now in the new telling that Skloot engages.   Holloway doesn’t hesitate to connect this history of violence and exploitation on black bodies in the name of academic research and public spectacle to James Marion Sims and his experiments on black slave women (Sims invented the speculum, made of bent spoons, to see inside of women’s uterus) and Katherine Stockett’s imagination of race in The Help.

What Holloway also compellingly shows me is that the focus on crafting a tantalizing, evocative narrative about black women’s bodies is rooted in historical white violence. A story is not good because it is widely read by and marketable to a general public already mesmerized by the likes of “Real Housewives,” Maury, Jerry Springer, The Help, and the general set of pathologies and dysfunction under capitalism.  This is not to say that black people do not themselves choose to offer their bodies and stories up for public spectacle, only that there is a history of white supremacy and consumption that makes this thinkable and desirable.

I am compelled by Holloway’s discussion as both a qualitative researcher and a writing teacher.  How you write, what you say, how you say it, who you talk about, and what you say/include are always deeply political and enmeshed in the ways that the culture tells you to consume black bodies. If the narratives we write as and about black women do not take as their first call of duty an unflinching critique of the unjust systems in which our bodies get defined and used, including the marketing and/or academic systems that tell/sell our stories, it seems to me that we are just being served up again as a James Marion Sims’s experiment.  Holloway has a stunning critique of these unjust systems and points us toward new directions in how we analyze, write, and talk about those systems too.