White Women’s Racism & the Kind of Feminism I Need Now

Oreo.  Sell-out.  House Negro.  Uncle Tom.  Aunt Jemima.  Incognegro.  Miscellaneous.  Negro Bed-Wench.  Tragic Buck.  Coon. Actin White.  Talkin White.  If a black person says any of these things about another black person, it ain’t a compliment; it is intended as a deep critique of one’s racial mental health and identity.  Now, granted, these terms can be used in some of the most problematic and simplistic ways, I admit. Nonetheless, I am drawn to this kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that many black folk use to denigrate anything and anyone perceived as an insult and injury to black people.  I have grown up with these terms and, quite honestly, have used them to describe many a folk.  For me, this language can mark insiders, outsiders, and racial violence in some important ways.

As strange as it might seem, I think it is this very same language that makes me perplexed about many white feminists at times.  When the white men who I work with squash all moral obligation and dialogue in the academy, I have seen far too many self-proclaimed “radical” white feminists in these professional settings act in complete alliance with these most bigoted of white male patriarchs and racist systems.  And now, when a white female judge and an almost all-white female jury expects us to understand how and why they sympathized with George Zimmerman/white supremacy and sanctioned white terror under the name of the law, I need a radical feminist agenda that will call out such roles under white womanhood (rather than simply ask folk to remember that black women are as demonized as black men).  When a white woman goes on national television, accepts a major book contract (she has since cancelled) to explain her situation as one of the jurors in the case, and cries with the expectation that her pain will be a central organizing system for national sympathy in the murder of a black woman’s child, white womanhood has got to be called out as a fundamental mechanism for maintaining white supremacy: white male patriarchy never acts alone.   This kind of calling-out is simply an assumption that I readily make from the kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that black language has given me.  What black folk/black language seems to get as part of its daily consciousness is that we need some words, tropes, images— some language— for this kinda foul, racist stuff.

Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

At the Feminist Wire today, Zillah Eisenstein writes that “Racism in its gendered forms remains the problem here, not simply the law. Racialized gender in the form of the dangerous black boy/man is a form of white privileged terrorism.”  Also at the Feminist WireMonica Casper makes another compelling case: that we need to talk about “specifically the historical, systemic racism of white women.” And Heather Laine Talley makes it clear that expressions like “well, not all white women/white feminists are like that” is a form of white denial and bad allying. I stand with Eisenstein, Casper, and Talley here.  Their posts at the Feminist Wire, on the heels of a series of writings dedicated to Assata Shakur, have been compelling.  Meanwhile, Janelle Hobson at Ms. Magazine hits it right on the mark:

Adrienne Rich said it best in “Disloyal to Civilization” when she argued that white women could not form important connections with other women across the planet—the kinds of connections that would advance women’s collective power and overturn patriarchy—if they remained forever loyal to a white supremacist system. This year we’ve seen women like Abigail Fisher try and overturn affirmative action in a Supreme Court case, much like Barbara Grutter before her, even though white women as a group have benefited more than anyone else from affirmative-action programs. And now, another group of women have failed to give Trayvon Martin justice. These instances suggest that white privilege, power and dominance outweigh any notions of gender justice and solidarity.

The white female judge and jury in this case did not experience their own motherhood in sisterhood to the mother of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton; their motherhood set its gaze only on Zimmerman and property. And the white female judge and jury in this case did not experience the words of a young black woman, Rachel Jeantel, as representative of Knowledge and Truth either.  Hobson’s claim that there is no cross-racial gender solidarity in the context of white dominance seems worth heeding.

Close-up from the Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

Close-up from the Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935

I am NOT talking here to people who support Zimmerman and the verdict. I know that I am not part of that “sanctified universe of obligation” and have no expectation that dialogue will be possible— American lynch law has never required that the ones swinging from trees be heard and recognized.  That ain’t who I think of as my audience, nor where I mark the possibility of a radical humanity and a radical feminism. White femininity in this moment is being (re)scripted  in the most dangerous ways and shows itself as, once again, integral to the “sanctified universe of obligation” where white women and families mark themselves as needing protection from black people, especially young black men.  This is why I gravitate towards Sylvia Wynter’s re-mix of Helen Fein’s work: you need to look to the decades and centuries preceding a group’s annihilation to see and understand how the dominant group has perpetrated a regime that marks some groups as “pariahs outside the sanctified social order.”  It’s a conceptualization that protects us from the claims that we are simplifying history by saying racism today is the same as years before.  No, today is not like the lynching of Rubin Stacy as so brilliantly described by Justin Hill at the Black Youth Project.  Stacy left Georgia to go to Florida where was murdered on July 19, 1935 in Fort Lauderdale for allegedly trying to harm a white woman (who later reported that he only came to her door begging for food).   Apparently, Stacy had walked too closely and too comfortably up to white homes and needed to be killed for it. In the foreground of this now famous lynching photo, you can even see a young white girl, smiling, camera-ready for her special Kodak moment.   No, we can’t say that Sanford, Florida is the “exact same” as 1935 Fort Lauderdale, Florida but we CAN say that the “universe of sanctified obligation” created and sustained the murder of Trayvon and the acquittal of his murderer by a white female judge and jury today whose political lenses have, at least partly, manifested from the gaze of that smiling, little girl.

I also go back here to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” where she takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, as a white woman/the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”  What Wynter calls the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers” has seldom countered this “regime of truth”  that must be implicated in the ongoing murder of Trayvon Martin in the courts of the United States. As always, Wynter argues that contending with our present social reality requires a re-writing of the entire episteme and it should be obvious that race AND gender can never be disentangled from this work.

N.H.I., Part II: Street Tasks & Intellectual Tasks

New York City Protesters Yesterday

New York City Protesters Yesterday

What do we want?  Justice!  When do we want it?  Now?…..  Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will make this system fall….. Take a stand, not a picture….. Out of the shops, into the streets….. Zimmerman walked, why can’t we?….. Who’s streets?  Our Streets?……We are Trayvon! Trayvon!  Trayvon!  Trayvon!

For the thousands who I walked and rallied in solidarity with almost all of yesterday, these were the chants that carried our feet, mouths, and hearts.  I was not surprised by the verdict but the state of mourning mixed with outrage fueled my desire to find kinship at the rallies all over New York yesterday.  There had been a few times when I caught myself during the trial feeling assured that Zimmerman’s verdict would be guilty. I had to quickly remind myself that U.S. courts have always co-signed and maintained Black genocide.  Given the recent history of Florida, I was more surprised that the Miami Heat took the championship than I was with an almost all-white female jury acquitting Zimmerman.  With Wisconsin as the seeming first post-verdict incident, it looks like we will see more dark days ahead. As Raymond Santana of the Central Park Five reminded crowds yesterday, there is a historical context here.

Protesters in Times Square

Protesters in Times Square

When I was an undergraduate student, Sylvia Wynter— taking her cue from the Africana theorist, St. Clair Drake— called such protests, rallies, and petitions the “street tasks.”   She was referencing the 60s and, later, the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King.  She commended every move and decision black communities and college students made in those moments and also impressed upon us that there was a flip side to the coin that St. Clair Drake was always emphasizing: the intellectual tasks. The closest to what they meant is what we might call today blending the micro and the macro.  However, Drake and Wynter are talking about more: they are talking about the ways that social action must ignite an “epistemological break” from the categories that govern our current social systems, not merely an amendment or addition to existing policies and programs.   And that break has to be epistemological the way that a social order knows itself and thinks about/institutes the world.

There are deep intellectual tasks ahead of us. I noticed yesterday that many young college students seemed to insist upon a colorblind rhetoric, North American-ness (and therefore hegemony), and middle class politeness/etiquette: this is not about race; I am not Black/Arab/Latino because I am ____-American; stay in school; let’s all pull up our pants and be good fathers; this is not a Black-White thing.   And yet we have Zimmerman who was never even handcuffed when the police came; no one went door-to-door to ask who this slain young black boy was so Trayvon Martin was John Doe for many days, even though he was killed six houses away from home; the defense attorney opened with a knock-knock joke; and common sense defied any notion of self-defense (I was stunned by all the references to concrete when every photo shows Trayvon dead on the grass.)  You could go on and on here. The resistance to name race and interrogate whiteness and white supremacy by so many young people has been stultifying.  In the words of Sylvia Wynter: what is wrong with their education?  

In every major social protest led by black college students, those students were always connected to radicalism outside of their campuses.  It should go without saying that Black college students have always witnessed brutal murders of and threats to their peers:

  • SNYC, Southern Negro Youth Congress, was established in response to the Scottsboro Case and always raised money for civil rights activism, such as the case of a 16-year old African American girl sentenced to years of hard labor for allegedly stealing 6 ears of corn from a field.
  • When Barbara Johns led her high school peers in the protest that led the way for the only student-initiated case to be incorporated into Brown v Ed, she had to be immediately sent to another state to live after all of the death threats made against her.
  • Ibram Rogers reminds us that 12 black college students lost their lives in peaceful protest in the Black Campus Movement.

It seems historically safe to say that black college students have taken radical politics off-campus and made that radicalism come alive.   So maybe young people’s lack of analyses today simply reflects we grown folk and the radical intellectual activity that we have allowed to be displaced by media cartels and allied commercial academic/celebrities.  Indeed, what is wrong with their education?  Where have WE gone wrong?

One of My Favorite Posters from Yesterday's Rallies in NYC

One of My Favorite Posters from Yesterday’s Rallies in NYC

I have been fascinated by the way the Zimmerman family has been welcomed and embraced by the White Conservative Right.  The early insistence by conservative whites that we recognize Zimmerman as a person of color has all but faded.  In fact, on my way to the rallies, one of the triggers that sent me out into the streets, was finding myself terrified. In my newly-gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn, white men started waving American flags on their cars and homes— as far as they were concerned, all things were right with America again. And here we have young people of color insisting on colorblindness because Zimmerman has a Latina mother.  The critique of whiteness seems nowhere to be found: maybe we can’t call this man white but we can surely call him a white supremacist and his choice in this regard has been no accident (I said white supremacist, NOT racist).  For all of the pollyanna-ish talk about mixed-race children complicating today’s racial categorization models, no one seems willing to recognize that the race issues that murdered Trayvon Martin are as old as the white founding of this country.  Now more than ever, I wonder what mixed-race children are embracing when they say they embrace their “white side.”  It seems pretty clear for the Zimmerman children.  I am not talking here about representing individual white parents; I am taking about social and historical forces of racism that no one gets exempt from and that some groups deliberately choose to benefit from.

Homer Plessy

Homer Plessy

What has struck me most about this case is the implicit and explicit invitation made to white-skinned ethnic people: embrace white supremacy and you too can be white…. come one, come all.  We seem to forget that it was the courts that have decided who/what is white and who/what is not.  Do we need the reminder that Armenians were legally classified as Asian until they became white in 1909? Did we forget that Syrians were legally white in 1909 and 1910, then non-white in 1913, and then back to white again in 1915?  From the perspective of a race-based historical continuum, the courts anointed Zimmerman this past weekend also, a man who cannot even really phenotypically pass for white.  This is hardly a man with blue eyes, pale skin, red/blond hair (it seems that even Homer Plessy, the octoroon who chose to be the lead plaintiff in the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson, looked whiter than Zimmerman) who will still need a few more generations of miscegenation to reproduce pale-featured children.  But, when Zimmerman murdered Trayvon, he got anointed as white.  If we know that race is not biological, then we need to take seriously the ways the courts, as just one institution, have socially constructed race and racism.  Every time someone from the Zimmerman family even makes a public statement, they speak solely within the terms of white supremacy; it is almost as if I am seeing and hearing Bull Connor in 1950s Alabama. And yet I hear NO rallying cry from the media about family values and questions of how these Zimmerman children were raised— no one asks how or why a Latina mother and white father raised children to hate and murder young black men in the streets without remorse.  Black and Latin@ parents never get this kind of pass if their child commits a crime or even acts a fool in public, but, gee whiz, something seems so different with the Zimmermans.

To go back to Wynter’s words in my previous post, when we construct the optimal human to be white, of Euroamerican culture and descent, North Americanmiddle class, college-educated and suburban, Trayvon Martins must fall out of “the sanctified universe of obligation.”  This is why my favorite slogan in the rallies that I have witnessed is: WE ARE TRAYVON.  That’s a powerful statement if we really mean it, truly the intellectual task here.  To take on THAT statement means an ideological position.  It means choosing to fall outside of and think outside of our current “sanctified universe of obligation” which will require more than protest rallies, petitions, delusions of color-blindness, and the fear of naming whiteness.

N.H.I.: Sylvia Wynter Said There’d Be Days Like This…

ap_abc_george_trayovn_kb_130625_wgIn fall of 1992 when I was a senior in college, Sylvia Wynter published an essay forever etched in my mind:  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues” in Voices of the Black Diaspora ( pages 13–16). That letter was her response to the acquittal of the white police officers in 1992 who brutally beat Rodney King and the jury who further co-signed this social epidemic of white violence.  In fall of 1994, the journal, Forum N.H.I.: Knowledge for the 21st Century, published Wynter’s letter in its entirety in its very first issue themed “Knowledge on Trial.”   Both the journal and our mission as part of Institute N.H.I. (named from the charge of Wynter’s letter) was to follow-through on Professor Wynter’s call.

Now 20 years later, after a jury of white women and one Latina have sanctioned and anointed the murderer of Trayvon Martin, I find myself re-reading Professor Wynter’s letter.  After the verdict, as I sat for hours and reread her words, I am clear that things are even worse.  

In particular, Wynter reminds us in the letter that our social crisis is one that teachers/theorists/educators have created.  These people who have normalized anti-black brutality are, in fact, our students, the people who have been educated by us within paradigms that require the murder and annihilation of black people.

Here are the first two sections from the opening to Wynter’s essay. I will continue to post sections of the essay in the coming days (until I get thrashed for copyright issues):

Dear Colleagues,

You may have heard a radio news report which aired briefly during the days after the jury’s acquittal of the policemen in the Rodney King beating case.  The report stated that the public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles routinely used the acronym N.H.I. to refer to any case involving the breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes. N.H.I. means ‘no humans involved.’

Stephen Jay Gould argues that ‘systems of classification direct our thinking and order our behaviors’ (Gould, 1983).  By classifying the category as N.H.I., the public officials would have given the police of Los Angeles the green light to deal with members in any way they pleased.  You may remember too that in the earlier case of the numerous deaths of young Black males caused by a specific chokehold used by Los Angeles police officers to arrest young Black males, the police chief Darryl Gates explained away these judicial murders by arguing that Black males had something abnormal with their windpipes. That they had to be classified and thereby treated differently from all other North Americans, except to a secondary degree, the darker-skinned Latinos.  For in this classificatory schema too all ‘minorities’ are equal except one category— that of the people of African and Afro-mixed descent who, as Andrew Hacker points out in his recent book, are the least equal of all.

‘Certainly,’ Hacker writes, in Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (1992) ‘all persons deemed to be other than white, can detail how they have suffered discrimination at the hands of white America.  Any allusions to racist attitudes and actions will find Cherokees and Chinese and Cubans agreeing with great vigor… yet… members of all these intermediate groups have been allowed to put a visible distance between themselves and Black Americans.’

‘The Vietnamese,’ Richard Pryor quipped, ‘have learned how to be good Americans.  They can now say nigger.’

Where Did This Classification Come From? The Point of My Letter To You

TMYet where did this system of classification come from?  One that was held both by the officers involved in this specific case of the routine ‘nigger breaking’ of Black males, as well as by the mainly white, middle class Simi Valley jurors?  Most of all, and this is the point of my letter to you, why should the classifying acronym N.H.I., with its reflex anti-Black male behaviour-prescriptions, have been so actively held and deployed by the judicial officers of Los Angeles, and therefore by the ‘brightest and the best’ graduates of both the professional and non-professional schools of the university system of the United States? By those whom we ourselves would have educated?

How did they come to conceive of what it means to be both human and North American in the kinds of terms (i.e., to be white, of Euroamerican culture and descent, middle class, college-educated and suburban) within whose logic the jobless and usually drop-out/push-out category of young Black males can be perceived, and therefore behaved towards, only as the Lack of the human, the Conceptual Other to being North American?  The same way, as Zygmunt Bauman has point out, that all Germans of Jewish descent were made into and behaved towards as the Conceptual Other to German identity in its then Pan-Aryan and Nazi form (Bauman, 1989).

If, as Ralph Ellison alerted us to in his The Invisible Man, we see each other only through the ‘inner eyes’ with which we look with our physical eyes upon reality, the question we must confront in the wake of the Rodney King Event becomes: What is our responsibility for the making of those ‘inner eyes’?  Ones in which humanness and North Americanness are always already defined, not only in optimally White terms but also in optimally middle-class (i.e., both Simi Valley, and secondarily Cosby-Huxtible TV family) variants of these terms?  What have we had to do, and still have to do, with the putting in place of the classifying logic of that shared mode of ‘subjective understanding’ (Jaime Carbonell, 1987) in whose ‘inner eyes,’ young Black males, can be perceived as being justly, shut out from what Helen Fein calls the ‘universe of moral obligation’ that bonds the interests of the Simi Valley jurors as Whites and non-Blacks (one Asian, one Hispanic), to the interests of the White policemen and the Los Angeles judicial officeholders who are our graduates?

In her book on the 1915 genocide of the Armenians by the Turkish pan-nationalists, and on the Jews by the Pan-Aryan racialists of the 1930s-1940s, Helen Fein points out that in both cases there was a common causal factor.  This factor was that the millennium which preceded their group annihilation, ‘both Jews and Armenians had been decreed by the dominant group that was to perpetrate in the crime to be outside the sanctified universe of obligation— that circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other whose bonds arose from their relation to a deity or a sacred sources of authority’ (Fein, 1979). In both cases, although the genocides were inflicted in the secular name of a now sacred ‘national’ identity, based, in the case of the Turks on the discourse of a historical Pan-Turianism and, in the case of the German-Aryans, on that of the sanctity of a ‘pure’ racial stock, both groups had been defined ‘within recent memory similarly to pariahs outside the sanctified social order.’ It was this discursive classification that had enabled them to be misrecognized as aliens, as strangers who were, as if it were, of a different species, strangers, ‘not because they were aliens but because the dominant group was alienated from them by a traditional antipathy’ (Fein, 1979).

This is the same case, of course, with the N.H.I. acronym. For the social effects to which this acronym, and its placing outside the ‘sanctified universe of obligation,’ of the category of young Black males to which it refers, leads, whilst not overtly genocidal, are clearly having genocidal effects with the incarceration and elimination of young Black males by ostensibly normal and everyday means.

Statistics with respect to this empirical fact have been cited over and over again.  Andrew Hacker’s recent book documents the systemic White/Black differential with respect to life-opportunity on which our present North American order is based.  Nevertheless, this differential is replicated, and transracially so, between, on the one had, the classes (upper middle, middle, lower middle and working, whether capital owners or jobholders), who are therefore classified within the ‘universe of obligation’ integrating of our present world system and its nation-state subunits, and on the other hand, the category of the non-owning jobless young of the inner cities, primarily Black and Latino, and increasingly also, White, assimilated to its underclass category.

In the wake of the Civil Rights movements, and of the Affirmative Action programs which incorporated a now new Black middle class into the ‘American Dream,’ the jobless category has been made to bear the weight of the Deviant status that, before the Sixties had been imposed on all Americans of African and Afro-mixed descent, by the nation-state order of the U.S., as an imperative condition of its own system functioning.  Indeed, it may be said that it is this category of the jobless young Black males who have been made to pay the ‘sacrificial costs’ (in the terms of Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat, 1986) for the relatively improved conditions since the 1960s that have impelled many Black Americans out of the ghettoes and into the suburbs; that have made possible therefore the universal acclamation for the Cosby-Huxtible TV family who proved that some Black Americans could aspire to, and even be, drawn inside, the ‘sanctified category’ of Americans just like us— if still secondarily so, behind ‘women’ and the other ‘minorities.’

The price paid by the jobless Black male category for this social transformation is inescapably clear.  With respect to the judicial apparatus itself, statistics show that whilst Black men constitute 6% of the U.S. population, they have come to make up 47% of the prison population.  Whilst, in the entire prison population, in the wake of the mandatory sentences for drug offenses imposed by (largely White and middle class) Drug War officials, both Afro-Black young males and Latino-Brown ones, are to be found out of all proportion to their numbers in the society.  The May 7, 1992 New York Times editorial which gives these statistics, also points out that it costs $25,000 a year ‘to keep a kid in prison; which is more than the Job Corps or college.”  However, for society at large to choose the latter option in place of the former would mean that the ‘kids’ in question could no longer be ‘perceived in N.H.I. terms as they are now perceived by all; nor could they continue to be induced to so perceive themselves within these same terms, as they now do, fratricidally turning upon themselves, killing each other off in gang wars or by other violent methods.

Where does this ‘inner eye’ which leads the society to choose the former option in dealing with the North American variant of the jobless category of the post-Industrial New Poor (Bauman, 1987), the category to which at the global level, Frantz Fanon has given the name les damnés, the condemned (Fanon, 1963), come from?  Why is this ‘eye’ so intricately bound up with that code so determinant of our collective behaviours, to which we have given the name race?

‘It seems,’ a sociology professor, Christopher Jenks, points out in the wake of the L.A. uprisings ‘that we’re always trying to reduce race to something else.  Yet out there in the streets race does not reduce to something else’ (Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 1992).  I have come to believe, after struggling with this issue from the ‘lay’ perspective of Black Studies (which was itself able to enter academia only in the wake of the Civil Rights movements, the Watts urban riots, and the protests which erupted after the assassination of Martin Luther King), not only that ‘race’ cannot be reduced as an issue, to anything else, but that it is we in academia who alone hold the key to ‘race’, and therefore to the classificatory logic of the acronym, N.H.I.

My major proposal is that both the issue of ‘race’ and its classificatory logic (as, in David Duke’s belief that ‘the Negro is an evolutionarily lower level than the Caucasian’) lies in the founding premise, on which our present order of knowledge or episteme, [Foucault, 1973) and its rigorously elaborated disciplinary paradigms, are based.

(pages 42-47)

Citation Information:  Wynter, Sylvia.  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1.1 (Fall 1994): 42-73.


Miranda’s Daughters & Consumer Culture

The last time that I taught African American Women’s Rhetorics, I received a thank you letter from a black female student at the end of the term.  I am always deeply touched when I receive such letters, and always from students of color, who I don’t think always give themselves enough credit for the deep intellectual work they do themselves and want to, instead, credit the teacher.

This letter, though, was a bit intriguing.  In it, the young woman thanked me for getting her to love reading and writing again: the last time she was so engaged was when she was reading and then mimicking in her writing, the Twilight series.  Now, I consider myself someone well-versed in popular culture, or rather in the context of new capitalism today in its creation of what should be more aptly called: mass consumer culture.  Nonetheless, I just hadn’t paid any attention to this series at all.  I’m not sure what my fog was about since the reminders, ads, and paraphernalia are everywhere.  This past summer I decided that I needed to really hear what it was that my student was saying to me so I watched the entire series.  I am so thankful that I had my sister-friend and professor at Spelman, Michelle, one of the fiercest thinkers I know, who really helped me deal with how traumatized I (still) am by this series.  Imagine my surprise when I learned that this series was about…drumroll… vampires!  And white vampires, at that, in white cake make-up so that they can look even whiter within uber-wealthy elite circles, aesthetically enamored by white canons of art. Meanwhile, a community of Indigenous folk are animals/wolves living in poverty and out in the wild who cannot fully control their primal urges.  At the center of this foolishness is a young, sweet, innocent white virgin who everyone loves, adores, protects, and builds their life around to the point where she has no authority or personality (except for pained, cross-eyed, seemingly-constipation-induced, facial expressions… the acting is just horrible!)  I watched the series almost frozen… and deeply impacted by how much work still needs to be done when young black women are coerced into believing that any part of this story, a story that my student is/was literally reading and writing into her own life, will ever represent their own social circumstances or life opportunities as black women.  I have heard many activists argue that we need to stop criticizing young women for consuming popular culture like this because we have to meet these young women where they are.  I agree.  Of course, we need to meet them where they are (and where else would we meet them anyway: the moon?) but we need some analysis to comprehend these locations.

Of course, I go straight back to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” that I have already talked about here.  It seems that the mass consumer culture that is targeting youth has simply recreated Prospero, Caliban, and Miranda where the presence of black women is again in absence.  Wynter’s essay takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”  In sum, she argues that being a black feminist/womanist means contending with this mode in a way that must rewrite the entire episteme.  Black women’s absence is, thus, always “an ontological absence… central to the… secularizing behaviour-regulatory narrative schema… by which the peoples of Western Europe legitimized their global expansion as well as their expropriation/marginalization of all the other population-groups of the globe.”  I can’t think of a more relevant context for Wynter’s essay, despite post-modernist pundits that would suggest such categories are no longer entrenched (Have they not watched this movie?) than this movie/series my student is so compelled by.  It becomes even more horror-laden when you think that Twilight has its adult-counterpart in the mega-million-selling sensation, the Fifty Shades series, whose story almost mimics the plot of Twilight.  Obviously, it ain’t just kids who like Miranda’s saga and for whom mass consumer culture continually reproduces her, what Wynter more aptly calls a “regime of truth.”  This seems directly related to what Wynter called the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers,” a frame that she contends even critical theorists like Irigaray did not fully escape.

From the time I first read  “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” I have been drawn to Wynter’s notion of what it means to shift or mutate an age/epoch/episteme into another, a shift she doesn’t feel most bourgeois African American feminists actually achieve (often mimicking or refiguring “Miranda” and other forms of empire).  Her 2000 Interview with David Scott in Small Axe (Volume 8) also challenges how I think about popular culture/mass consumer culture.  In the interview, she argues that an economic/bio-economic conception of the human mandates that capitalism currently functions as the only mode of production for our everyday expressions (see page 160). Her argument convinces me that what we often do theoretically and academically in scholarship about mass consumer culture reifies these bio-economic conceptions.  There seems an undeniable willingness to engage scholarship itself as a commodity for writing/researching about grossly commodified, popular culture. I do follow popular culture and think it is critical to understand how oppression and domination look and get maintained.  However, Cedric Robinson‘s warning is one I can’t ever forget: black intellectual work always gets commodified, as easily and readily as the work of any rapper, singer, dancer, actor/actress.   Investigating popular culture in a way that shifts our current bio-economic overdetermination is a feat different from producing writing/research that will be widely consumable.  Maybe many of us have gotten to a place where we think the commodification and mass appeal of black intellectual thought are the same things as a deep, political and intellectual engagement with it.

As for my Twilight-loving student, I think/hope she will still hold on to what she walked  away with: a deep anger that Twilight was imposed on her will and imagination rather than the singular text of the semester that really rattled her and got her to love to read and write… Ida B. Wells’s The Red Record.  In other words, I hope she/we will move beyond Miranda’s meanings and I hope she/we can move closer towards that kind of epistemic shift that Wynter always describes.

World-Historical People

I attended a conference this summer and though many of the researchers and presenters left a lasting and positive impression, there was one graduate student who I still just can’t get out of my head.  I don’t know her name but I found her absolutely entertaining to observe, albeit somewhat horrifying.

I was standing outside of a room, waiting for that session to end, when I overheard this woman talking with other graduate students who she had obviously met at the conference.  She explained a very specific conference strategy: she attended the sessions of the most famous scholars, made sure to sit up in front, ask really smart questions publicly in the session, and then go talk to the individual presenters after the session.  This, according to her, was how you get the “famous people” to notice you, remember you, work with you, and help you forward your career.  I found this conversation absolutely fascinating so I did the inevitable: I watched her… because when someone doesn’t see you, you’d be surprised at just how much you can see of them.  She did not disappoint.  In every feature session, there she was: all up in the front, asking a question with little regard for whether or not it actually contributed something to the conversation, and then there she was on the que waiting to talk to folk afterwards.  I was wildly entertained, I will admit, but I am, at the same time, sympathetic to her cause.  She was only mirroring  the  kind of superficiality that academic culture sustains today, a culture that is telling a young black woman grabbing at a Ph.D. that groupie-stalking is what it takes for her to survive and thrive in the academy, not a serious engagement with ideas and thinking.  While this young woman’s practice might seem, well, a bit CRAZY, what was more astonishing was the actual response from the “famous people.”  They ate it up like famished souls where only this kind of attention could satiate their hunger.

These are the moments when I often think of Professor Wynter, when I am reminded that the work one does is the WORK one does: the way you live out your life is the way that you live out your words on the page too. They are not opposing forces.  What concerns me most about the young woman who I have described is that the reality she describes for being noticed was not a hallucination on her part.  It served her to good effect at the conference and it might also serve her to good effect in her larger career.

Meanwhile, every chance Wynter gets, she reminds her audiences to think past the epistemic boundaries of a given world/social order and reach out past it, as evidenced even in a letter she wrote to the Centre for Caribbean Thought.  Even in only a letter, she talks about what it means to be “world-historical people” who have no choice but confront “the imperative of the effecting of a profound mutation in what is now the globally hegemonic Western European, secular, and thereby naturalized understanding of being human.”  It becomes wildly absurd then to imagine trying to get the attention of famous people at an academic conference in the context of Wynter’s call that we begin to completely upturn the “naturalized, now biologized, globally homogenized, homo oeconomicus understanding of being human” so that we can finally displace its referential system with its “now internet-integrated planet of the middle class suburbia/exurbia/gentrified inner city ‘referent we, on the one hand, and on the other, that of the rapidly urbanizing ‘planet of slums.’ ”

It makes sense to me that Wynter does not call the “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” in this historical moment ONLY the product of white liberalism and racism in the academy.  She loads that crisis with the processes and products of what black scholars themselves have created in the quest to replicate the very models which had ontologically, intellectually, and aesthetically excluded them in the first place, fully incorporating all of its cognitive closures and impediments to radical social change.  That’s more than a notion right there!  I also see Wynter’s points here in the very way that she enacts her scholarly identity.  I am often amazed at how connected I feel to other scholars who deeply engage her work, a connection I had never once even articulated to myself because it just seems so self-evident.  But even this aspect of her scholarly identity points to the alternate space in which she does intellectual work. I am often stunned by how graduate students, for instance, of a specific scholar will go above and beyond to “market” themselves as the heir of that advisor  (i.e., which can quickly become the “auction block” code for which plantation provided the best skills) and/or do their best to patrol who and how their advisor is referenced (making the example of the woman I describe all the more believable).  Scholarship in this mode becomes a kind of white property to be maintained and sustained by measuring its exchange value against other properties.   I no longer think it is a mere coincidence that the folk I know who engage Wynter do not unleash these kind of beasts/pseudo-intellectual pathologies.  In fact, it seems safe to say that Wynter herself would not allow it!

I certainly don’t mean to harshly castigate the young woman who I described at the beginning of this post.  Like I said, I am sympathetic and very concerned for her cause.  At this point in my life and career, I find myself most drawn and interested in those black thinkers and scholars who are really interested in liberation rather than bling, status, and attention.  I think this is why I have become so much more deeply grateful for the model that Sylvia Wynter offers, a model that has lately become a kind of life preserve in this sea I must swim in.