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-anemic 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. But not anymore.  I have always had issues with NCTE/4Cs and the often unmitigated co-existence with the corporatization of (higher) education.  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.  
 
I mean something entirely different from “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. 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. 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. 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 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.  These people, especially the young wanna-be chic-radical graduate students, 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; 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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How Institutional Racism Trained Me to Be a Doomsday Prepper

I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe.  I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.

Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment.  I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though.  There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment.  Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses.  The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”?  The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus.   As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman.  As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens.  Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that.  They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population.  Doomsday was always here.

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Trigger Warning: This Post is about Academia and Its “Professional” Conferencing

I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will.   If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.

ccccRegardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles.  Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness.  Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization.  As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.

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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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