A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day Two

The biggest complaint I get from my students is that I assign too much reading and writing.  I heed this complaint only to the extent that I check myself that I am not being unreasonable with students who have to work to feed and clothe themselves and am not, thereby, making a college degree outside of their reach. Other than that, GAME ON!

For each class meeting, I assign a reading, whether undergraduate or graduate, with a short writing assignment.  I do not assign that one, major final paper at the end of the term. Instead, I opt for weekly short pieces through the semester culminating in a portfolio of sorts at the end.  Each week, you need to write/design/draw your thinking alongside what we are reading. I do not expect a coherent, linear essay or even written text for that matter.  I never assign a reading and then quiz students in class.  That takes up valuable time in class when they need to be talking to one another, pulling apart ideas, and piecing them back together again with their colleagues in the room who will see or notice something different.  I never assign a reading without a written text to accompany it.  I collect and comment to all of this writing as a reader, not a grader.  You are graded for doing it, not the form, grammar, or political agreement.  I won’t back down from this pedagogy, especially if students are reading about issues related to Blackness, gender, race, sexuality, bodies, and cultures.  I believe this pedagogy forces young people of color to do something school seldom requires of them when it comes to Black and Brown Knowledge: KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU TALKIN BOUT!

You see, when it comes to things like Black women’s histories, Black Feminist thought, Black radical traditions, Black queer theory, Black Trans studies, I meet students all of the time, undergrad and grad, who think they need to just come to class and discuss and debate “the issues.”  I just don’t respect mess like that.  Before you open your mouth on any of that, you gon hafta read sumthin, you gon hafta know a genealogy, you gon need a sense of an extant literature, you gon hafta #SayTheirNames, you gon hafta examine and look/listen closely.  Brown and Black students are not always expected to do this.  They are just expected to racially represent for a headcount; that alone will qualify you as a speaking authority.  Meanwhile, there is no hesitation, for instance, on that part of white students to condemn all of Black Feminism and Intersectionality Studies as essentialized identity politics (that’s how grad students say it) or racist and angry (that’s how undergrads say it) when, before they met me, they had never even heard the terms. White theory and scholarship do not work that way though— for whiteness, you are expected to know a FULL BIBLIOGRAPHY .

Many of my more mainstream undergrad students, for instance, are surprised that I expect them to read so much in my gender studies classes.  They expected to just come to class and argue and debate.  I’m real clear on why this ain’t happenin.  Why on earth would anyone want to hear what they have to say about Black Queer theory or Black Feminist thought when they have never even heard the terms and couldn’t name a historical or contemporary theorist or activist?  Blackness, you see, does not come with the requirement of a bibliography, not for white students or for students of color. This permeates the wider whitestream culture of academia too.

If a Brown or Black headcount is all that is needed, then anyone slightly malenated can represent the neoliberalist needs of a university or institution to perform master narratives of diversity and inclusion.  Once again, you do NOT need to know what you talkin bout.  I mean more than folk who are embraced because they are palatable to white comfort.  I’m mean people who are allowed to be a lil simple or outright dumb when it comes to Black and Brown scholarship.   You ain’t got to read, study, think deeply, or investigate anything to be an expert of Black and Brown issues … you just have to read the email request for your malenated attendance at a white function.

So, yeah, my classes ask students to know their shit before they presume themselves part of any critical discussion or any social change machine.  But that also means I gotta do my homework too. So on Tuesday, Day Two in A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, I am fully taking advantage of the luxury of reading and thinking.  I have to skip my committee meeting this week because I am on another campus that day. That frees up the time I would have taken to review the lengthy materials beforehand.  Thankfully, I’m not giving any talks this week so I don’t have to do that prep work.  My phone conferences/meetings are at the end of the week.  My errands can wait until the weekend.  My deadlines don’t come down until next Monday.  So on Tuesday, I get my own self ready for my own graduate classes.  This week’s topic: Black Feminist and Indigenous Feminist challenges to post-humanism— in particular, what Tiffany King calls “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism”  (and all the other posts: post-identity, post-race, post-intersectionality, post-composition, post-subject, post-sanity…. and the research methodologies therein).  It’s a good Tuesday!


A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day One

I have decided upon a new series (though I have not finished the previous series: Academia as a Hustle/ Everything I Know about Academia I Learned from Rick Ross). This series will only last for one week though: Monday through Saturday (Ima take Sunday off from blogging because that’s when I spend my time responding to student writing).  I have been thinking a lot lately about the inherent hypocrisy of many “critical” teachers and scholars who have apparently found the answers to challenging our disciplines and universities.  From a life committed to Black Feminist Pedagogy in a neoliberalist university, a decolonial refusal of whiteness and neoliberalism in colleges today is a relentless, exhausting endeavor that is never easy. So I’ll take this week off to keep my own self in check, call out my own mistakes and challenges, and ignore the complicity that folk wanna disguise as political intervention and reflection. If you ain’t real careful, folk out here will have you thinkin veiled misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and/or anti-Blackness can represent you.

So…my trek to campus started like every Monday… at the grocery store.  I have a writing seminar this semester for seniors who are majoring in gender studies.  After I spend the morning working on our class agenda, I stop at the grocery store to pick up food.  I know that the students in my classes are hungry by the time we meet at 3:05pm (and go until 5:45pm).  Most have more classes until late evening. In fact, our wellness center posted on the Gram that 15% of students at CUNY (City University of New York) have reported going hungry sometimes or often. That percentage is higher on my campus. I know what it’s like to have to study and go to school while hungry so the least I can do is TRY to feed my students in both body and mind (when my class size is at 36, I can’t afford this so we are struggling together in those moments).

Before this writing seminar starts, I meet with Kinza who articulates for me the DOPEST reasons why first year writing MUST be politicized via her own history in my class two years ago when she chose to write and design as a Muslim activist and artist.  She is interviewing me for a project and tells me she is inspired by me.  I don’t think she will ever fully understand just how much I am the one who is truly inspired.  I am the teacher I am today because of young women of color like her.  There is another young woman waiting to see me but I don’t get to meet with her because I have to run to class.  As soon as I hit the button on this post, I will need to email her and check in.  I am worried about the things she is going through as a young, poor, Black, queer feminist tryna make it and keep her sense of herself in tact.  I’m not sure how to help her but I’m damn sho gon try.

Yesterday, Rafaelina brought chicken, rice and beans, and plantains for the seminar.  She brought Nellie, who has been sick for quite some time now, some soup.  Rafaelina wanted to ease my burden and the money I am spending on food for the class. I am going to find her a really nice thank you card and put money inside so that she is not coming out of pocket like this.  As the mother of two, she cannot afford this gesture for the class but I am so humbled by her spirit and generosity. She won’t like that I am doing this. The class wants to collect for her and maybe I will let that slide at the end of term.  I just can’t bare to see a single mother spending her little bit on us as long as I have the money in my pocket.  I did promise everyone though that when they are ballers, they can take me out ALL THE DAMN TIME.  Funny thing is: I think they really would.

We spent most of class talking about the activists they follow in relation to the topics of their senior theses which all come down to four areas of study: Black feminist resistance; Black masculinities and sexualities; queer of color critique; and Latinx masculinities and sexualities.  They are paired in what I call accountability partners (I need a better term) so that they are explicitly responsible for someone else in the room and their partners’ writing. The conversations in class are richer than I can even try and transcribe here.  Somehow, someway, we have to center our own stories, push the boundaries of what counts as text, do digital design for counterpublic audiences, engage our own activism, and have some fun with it.   While Broke.  While Hungry.  While Black.  While Brown.  While Queer.  In a university system that invisiblizes the Struggle, at best, until it can pimp out students’ pain to be marketed&pathologized on brochures and videos used to collect white benefactors’ sympathy money. I get nervous every semester wondering if I am cut out for this job.

When I try to explain something about a writing task to the class, Nelly yells out: “what she is sayin yall is don’t be basic!”  Thank you, Nelly, for breaking it down and reminding me to just SAY. IT. LIKE. IT. IS. when I stumble.

By the time I get back to my office, I am exhausted from everything that transpires in class but there are more students to see, in my office and on my train ride home. I get home by 10pm.  Typical Monday.  So much more week to go.

A Black Feminist Critique of Bourgeois Professional Organizations…. 40 Years after the Combahee River Collective

Like all academics, I regularly attend conferences that presumably catalyze my politics and research.  Though I have presented 100s of papers now at dozens of conferences, I have spent the most time and money at two in particular: NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and CCCC/4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). I won’t be attending either this year or any time soon for that matter.   I am enraged by the politically-compromised way NCTE and 4Cs have addressed the conference’s Missouri location this year where Senate Bill 43 was signed on June 20, 2017, essentially (re)legalizing discrimination.
I was once excited to participate in these conferences at this 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective’s statement alongside our current Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). But not anymore.  I have always had issues with NCTE/4Cs and the often unmitigated co-existence with the corporatization of (higher) education. Just look at the way the conference headquarters are organized: diversity consultants, NDAs, closed meetings, agenda styles, executive committees, hierarchy of roles, budget discourses, etc.  My point here is merely to state a fact: it is a corporate ethos.  That ethos goes all around so if your contribution in the field/at the conference can be displayed on a CV/career profile/tenure packet, it ain’t activism or community organizing.  It is bourgeois professionalism.  Let’s just call a thing what it is.
The Movement for Black Lives that has shaped every part of my current teaching life and every aspect of my Black and Latinx students’ current literacies is fundamentally a Black Queer Feminist framework… and there is nothing in these organizations that complements such a framework (and if that is not clear, a basic knowledge of BLM will suffice after you have divested from the misogynist, heteropatriarchal core in the field’s relationship to race and African American culture).  Yeah, I said it… cuz that’s what a Black feminist does!
When I think of an “activist conference” or a BLM/BlackQueerFeminist framing, I mean something entirely different from the usual paradigm of “including” a few endarkened sessions in the program and/or parading a few willingly-tokenized celebrity scholars of color who NCTE/4Cs can sponsor as supposed signs of progress. My teaching-scholarly life runs deeper than that. I am packed 36 deep in my undergraduate classrooms with students who commute to campus and work sometimes two jobs.  In the first week of classes this semester, multiple students shared coming out stories, often relaying horrific stories of their treatment as Black and Brown queer people and how they managed to survive. 10% of my students are undocumented (many of whom were not in class for the NYC protests in the second week of classes this semester). As with every semester, I am checking in regularly with at least one young mother of color, most times living in a shelter, who has recently exited and/or is in the process of exiting a relationship hinged on intimate partner violence.  And, of course, I can count on young Black, Arab, and Latinx men arriving late to class after being detained by an NYPD hell-bent on profiling them as if to deliberately remind them that every obstacle imaginable will be erected along their path to a college degree. And my graduate students ain’t playin either. They are the fiercest, queerest, most in-yo-face calling-out-neoliberalism, most activist graduate students who I have ever met.  They ain’t down for the okey-doke either. Despite all of this (or maybe because of it), these are the most gracious, energetic and intellectually alive young people who I know. There is very little at NCTE/CCCC that centers this racialized everydayness in the college literacy and creative power of racially subjugated young people. So on the bright side:  I won’t be missing much by not attending. 

Far too many of the folk of color in the organization are so wedded to their own career advancement, name recognition, bourgeois credentialing, and upward university mobilities (that often gets conflated in white liberal tropes as leadership and voice) that their critiques are, at best, muffled. Yeah, I said it and will gladly say it to folks’ face too.  White folk have never been the ONLY problem.  We write statements… but we do not seem to MAKE statements.  The ways in which these willing tokens on NCTE’s/4Cs’ celebrity red carpet have particularly marginalized and “managed” dissent about the 2017 NCTE and 2018 4Cs have been nothing short of violent: 1) accusing boycotters of representing a do-nothing activism as if the Black Radical Tradition of a Rosa Parks/Montgomery Bus Boycott was about doing “nothing”; 2) suggesting that folk who leave the organization are “merely” or “irresponsibly” running away as if maroonage, fugitivity, and Harriet Tubman legacies are not deeply-rooted radical actions; 3) asking for more clarity and detail as if I have not been consistent or shy about an INTELLECTUAL critique of a field and its practitioners that have never included me (again, I mean white folk and folk of color).  These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students and the newly anointed/nepotistic heirs to the KINGdom, will be out here quoting folk like Fred Moten and Robin Kelley all day long and yet enact none of their ideas (or maybe don’t have the political integrity to understand those ideas).  I could go on and on.  Like I said, I am disgusted.   

The fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs participation is rather expensive, especially for those of us who are not at privileged universities that allot significant professional expenditures for faculty travel (and who rarely see students of color in their classrooms since their university wealth is intimately attached to the exclusion of Brown and Black peoples, not to their education).  The other fact of the matter is that NCTE/4Cs, as an organization, financially sustains itself with its conventions.  I simply won’t pay them to keep excluding the Black Queer Feminist frameworks that are literally giving our current social movements and my classrooms life; I won’t pay them for their piss-poor silence about the violence of Missouri’s SB 43, despite the assurance that “we” will do something “local” at the convention (as if anyone should trust the activism outside the venue of a conference program that is lily white); I won’t pay for the promise of some 1990s-style “task force” as a solution for 21st century racism and racial violence;  and I won’t pay them for their pre-arranged co-signing by the small set of NAACP leaders who stopped being progressive many, many decades ago.  And I won’t use the money from my institution that services mostly Brown and Black students or from my salary based on teaching those students to attend a conference that ignores us in a state that newly violates/targets us. That means I would be allowing NCTE/4Cs and Missouri to profit off the backs of the young people of color I teach. I won’t be that kind of accomplice.  Not today. Not ever.

Notes on Racial Realism by One of the “Problem People”

Today, I am with my wonderful colleagues— Steven Alvarez, April Baker-Bell, and Eric Darnell Pritchard— at the Conference on Community Writing where we are facilitating a deep think tank on “Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Critical Literacies: A Teach-In and Work-In.”  In our opening, we will each do a short framing and then start our first day of discussions (day two will feature organizing).  This webpage collects the frame that I will offer about RACIAL REALISM. 

I decided to write out my thoughts today in the hopes that would be easier to follow. I am placing these notes on a website— so you can follow along. Or, you can just listen. (I make a sincere effort to do what most ENG teachers tell vernacular black intellectuals NOT to do— write the way I talk. As it ends up, that is the most difficult thing to do… so please bear with me here.)

I am hoping that we can frame ourselves pragmatically and theoretically as racial realists— as coined by critical race theorists and afro-pessimists. Racial realism, put quite simply, rejects any notion that we have made racial progress. That’s a fantasy of white comfort and white fragility rather than any kind of proximation to the lived experiences of black peoples. Progress is always politically conflicted, contingent on whiteness/white approval, and reversible via white supremacy… one step forward, and then sometimes two steps back.

Some of my favorite racial realists are my undergraduate students (though they do not use this language unless I am explicitly teaching CRT). In my undergraduate classes this semester, I often have weeks where students can choose any one of 50-60 essays and videos about the theme we are studying.  Since everyone has read something different, they are each asked to create a discussion question inspired by their unique reading. From our unit on feminisms of color this year, here were some of my favorite discussion questions that students created, none of which have easy answers:

  1. Given how many Puerto Rican and Mexican women the U.S. sterilized in the 1900s, what is the historical consequence of this for women of color today?  What’s the message that we still receive?
  2. Black girls are suspended from schools at much higher rates than white kids, even for lesser infractions.  What is the point of this? How do schools and colleges benefit from shutting out black girls/black students? … How do we protect black girls from schools?
  3. Given all that we have learned of racism, sexism, and inequality, why were you surprised that Trump won the election?

For me, you just can’t answer these questions without racial realism… in fact, you wouldn’t even think to ask them.

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