Thank you to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal for publishing the earliest version of this reflective essay in their Volume 2 dedicated to Black Studies edited by Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega. I will be building on this essay throughout this year as part of a new project. This year is a crossroads for composition-rhetoric so I am listening and looking closely at those who really step up to the plate or miss the moment as has happened at every past Black Protest moment for this field. In the coming weeks, I am especially working towards framing composition studies as a place that does dynamic, on-the-ground work to transform the what, how, and why of university curriculum and instruction towards radical, anti-racist, intersected, Black feminist, fugitive goals.
I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here. Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too. It’s a Black intellectual inheritance.
Black studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance. None of that truly exists in the academy. Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions. We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies. These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before. These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper. The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black studies.
As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy here, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric. The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations. Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me. Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards. Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death. Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university.
Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of these students’ Black insurgency which is always visible for me on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. I relay these lessons here as a foundation to realizing a Black Composition Studies. Composition studies in the university today is fraught with a colonial history on so many levels. We are most often housed in English departments that overshadow our labor and intellectual work. We still most often function as the illegitimate stepchildren of literary theory which often imagines itself as the only critical space that only rethinks the world and as the only frontrunner of English studies. With literary studies lost in in its own elitist self-delusions of bourgeois grandeur, composition studies inherits the daily legacy of what English departments actually do: maintain the colonial legacy of the English language. I could write books on the white settler colonial logic that I hear daily in English department to describe teaching (or rather, lecturing), students’ abilities, language variation, writing assignments, etc. Put most simply, composition studies is the space that focuses on language, particularly the teaching of writing while our cousins in communication studies (who left English departments long ago) focus in on speaking. Together, we and our cousins confront the dailyness of communication systems in the western world that have annihilated non-white languages and therefore ways of being that do not conform to whiteness. We and our cousins therefore always sit at the crossroad: automate colonization as an institutional pedagogy and rhetorical apparatus… or overthrow it. Black composition studies goes for the latter and, as such, our close proximity to the non-compliant racial protests of Black students has to always stay central.
When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember essay reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist. In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university. This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education. Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do here, not as metaphor or cross to bear, but as the purveyor of a radical, literate/language alternative to who and what count here.
Here’s my first story that gets at more of what I mean. My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005. They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored. Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes. White faculty were always: scheduling meetings for discussions on how they feel, scheduling meetings to gauge their collective “temperature,” scheduling meetings to read the agenda out loud, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays). Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same. These are not processes that are driven by Black folx or a vision for hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy. None of them meetings and discussions produced change and worked to stall Black freedom more than anything else. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into stuff, talking— yup, still doing all of that, and still accomplishing nothing of value for Black lives. It’s not an accident. Black composition studies always recognizes the micro and yet overdetermined white supremacist processing of our schools and programs and imagines time, space, and possibility differently.
My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University. Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on online discussion boards. I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now. Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me. I learned about the racism of writing program administration there. I also learned that I would walk alone in my field because I didn’t know a single professor in my profession who I would have truly called an ally or even friend back then. It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline. The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one— and I mean no one— was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it. Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it. And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA. It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA-Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long. There is actually a whole stain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress student learning. I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S. Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either. WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see. Black composition studies is about a disruptive kind of vision and envisioning for schooling.
My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that was 75% Black and Latinx. It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite. They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me. I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally low percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty. It was a complete cocoon of whiteness. Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized. When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”). In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it). There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies. I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil. Ridiculous? Yes. Harmful? No. The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast. These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here. At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it. Black composition studies knows that white affect in schools is not neutral, safe, or accidental and so centers alternative embodiments and enfleshments.
And now? As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee. The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is). I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:
It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.
It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.
It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.
It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.
It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.
It will always be contested.
It will always be unwritten.
It will never stop us.
I have yet to see anything different here. Black Composition Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy, in my classrooms, and especially in my field.
I am not suggesting that Black Composition Studies is only for Black folx. However, it ain’t for appropriation by folx in my field who continue to do stuff like write a Statement for Black Lives Matter in their departments and programs and not reference a single Black compositionist. Yall ain’t nowhere near ready yet and Black composition studies is here to let you know it. Black composition studies is not exclusive… but it is rigorous in the mechanisms and politics of its inclusions.
Dedicated to the seven Black women and author, Ntozake Shange, of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf… and the five Black women who have come forward as TCU’s Jane Does.
I skipped a department meeting this week. There’s nothing particularly urgent about this fact since such meetings are usually futile in their ability to accomplish actual tasks anyway. This time though, I just couldn’t bear the performance of non-Black faculty or graduate students, who are not usually even invited and were even once barricaded from entering a department meeting by a dean. Somehow all have discovered a new political voice in relation to instructional requirements under the Coronavirus… and have been deathly silent when it comes to the abuse faced by Black folk. Yes, this is a new resistance of a sort, but it is solely in the service of whiteness for whom danger and death under COVID are newfound, daily realities. I plan to keep chanting #BlackLivesMatter because I know we are not included in this rage against new white precarity.
This meeting that I skipped was with an administrator who started at the university less than a month ago. And, yup, you guessed it: a woman of color. And, yup, you guessed it: from all reports I have heard, faculty and graduate students piped up in ways they have never publicly done when white leadership was at the helm (even when it locked them outside of the door), and especially not when Black pain was the topic of discussion.
Black pain is not an abstraction in this space. In FACT, you can read all about it below in the 215-point STATEMENT OF FACTS of this lawsuit. I am pasting the whole thing here because this text needs to be required reading for those who are interested in anti-racist teaching, the racial history of higher education, and especially the brutal experiences of Black women-identified undergraduate and graduate students today.
This is what higher education looks like for Black women across the country, and these five Black women— called Jane Doe #1 (read pp. 30-66; pp. 94-99), Jane Doe #2 (read pp. 67-74), Jane Doe #3 (read pp. 74-78), Jane Doe #4 and Jane Doe #5 (read pp. 78-94)— are making history today. They faced abuse, ridicule, and neglect at the hands of their peers, faculty, and administrations in ways that would have us in uproar if they weren’t Black. The lawsuit details the ways that these women filed complaints with leaders of programs and departments seemingly everywhere, with any kind of faculty member who seemed they might listen, and with every Title IX-ish type of office designed to officially investigate such claims. NO ONE—and I mean NO ONE— ever helped or protected them. Honor and recognize these women in the ways that their campus hasn’t. I plan to keep chanting #SayHerName because I know we are not included in this rage against new white precarity.
Even though it’s summer time and technically, educators have the summer off (unless teaching summer courses), every week is some new foolishness in my inbox. It’s like school is still in session. So let’s REALLY get in session here and stay mindful of who we are as Black staff, educators, researchers, and students in this moment. Remember the stories of the Jane Does above and show some courage. It’s what they deserve. We are not going to change the academy overnight, but we can most certainly control how we act upon it RIGHT NOW:
All kinda folk need a Black friend or colleague to co-sign or advise them right now. Black advice and guidance are now the Golden Fleece of the Academy. Do not participate in these informal discussions, ad hoc committees, or free consultations. Your ideas will be plagiarized by people who do not have their own (this has always happened, but expect it to escalate). White feminists will especially call this collaboration. It’s not. Folk of color will try and milk your ideas for their own white favor and visibility too. It’s all just plagiarism without the Turnitin. Call them on it and steer clear. Stop needing to be needed. The closer you are to these vampiric people, the more you are implicated in their violence.
Let’s stick with #1 a little more here: All kinda folk will need you on their new committees, task forces, programs, mission statements, or suddenly conscious projects. Take notice when a group of BIPOC faculty is gathered together and led by a white (usually male) leader (or a person of color acting for a white leader). You are there to help the white leader who will get the credit. You are like a corporate silent partner, except without any remuneration. Don’t be fooled into thinking that whiteness values your thinking all of a sudden. The closer you are to these inauthentic projects, the more you are implicated in their violence.
If white administrators and leaders have been accused of racial harm and do not voluntarily step down from their positions, know that these are NOT allies. At a time of a global pandemic that is targeting Brown and Black peoples during unprecedented racial protest in every state of the union, an administrator who has not practiced real anti-racism and has caused harm to Black people is INCOMPETENT for the tasks at hand. IN…COM…PE….TENT. This ain’t something a workshop, apology letter, or deep meditation can fix. They must step down. If they do not, do not work with them, do not support them, do not sign on to their ideas. Monitor AS VIGILANTLY as you can how many of their meetings you must attend, how much of their policy you must implement, how much time you must spend with them. Keep your distance as best as you possibly can. Stop taking their classes and attending their workshops (contest it if it is a REQUIREMENT). The closer you are to these harmful administrators, the more you are implicated in their violence.
Notice the close friends of the white administrators and leaders who have been accused of racial harm. Their friends are NOT allies either. These are friendships based in white nepotism and advancement, a value system a real ally would forego. If you are a friend of a white administrator or leader who has been accused of racial harm, hold your homie accountable and if they refuse, get yourself some new homies. The closer you are to these anti-Black campus leaders, the more you are implicated in their violence.
For the folk who do step down (see #3 and #4), notice whether or not they actually STEP UP when they step down. I have never witnessed a white administrator step down and repair their harm. What I have always gotten is a lunch request where the only thing being served is gaslighting. For starters, the people who you have harmed do not want your lunch, coffee, or phone call so back off. We are also not interested in your life-story, list of Black-based volunteer activities as proof you are not racist, white tears, or convictions of how YOU perceive our misunderstandings of racism. Stay away from these lunches and excuses. And be wary of the warm, fuzzy, and congratulatory good-bye letters listing the outstanding accomplishments of demoted folk accused of violence. These writers are not allies either. Do not be lulled into this white complacency touted as sympathy for abusers. Wanna know what I call people who have made significant accomplishments for which they were never credited or recognized? BLACK FOLK! The closer you are to these fake apologies, the more you are implicated in their violence.
Black folk will be in high demand on thesis/ dissertation committees now. Ask yourself some questions. Are you the token? Has the rest of the committee (or at least some of them) perpetrated anti-Black harm? Does the dissertation center white theory and then merely pepper-sprinkle Black scholars on top and without deep analysis? Can you see trends in the racial politics of thesis/ dissertation committees across the country right now? How many students of a perpetrator have been hired in your field and department? How many graduate student assistants of a perpetrator have been hired in your administrative ranks? How has your department’s graduate program siphoned off its anti-Blackness into the rest of the academy? The closer you are to these anti-Black graduate students and their mentors, the more you are implicated in their violence.
Don’t trust whiteness when it uses this excuse: I didn’t know this was happening. Ignorance is not a justification for not acting towards racial justice. I have never had the luxury of not knowing when a Black student on my campus was being brutalized, even when I wasn’t actually present on the campus. Willful white ignorance is not a pass for the racial violence that serves as the foundation on which white institutions (and their white privileged accomplices) rest.
Everyone has somehow found consciousness and mission statements these days but all are still deeply wedded to institutional anti-Blackness. That is the nature of the academy. If you think your university is somehow better, then you ain’t thinkin right. If you think working outside of academia saves you, then you haven’t come to terms with the fact that INSTITUTIONAL RACISM means all institutions work within the terms of anti-Blackness, yes even in the non-profit industrial complex (actually, especially there).
These 7 points are things many of us have always kept in mind as we move through the academy. The stakes are higher now in a summer that will be like no other.
I would say that what this essay is about – the imperative to develop an ethical and dogged practice of honoring the intellectual and emotional labor of people of color in rhetoric and composition and beyond – is a new thing. But that is not the truth. Instead, as Carmen Kynard remarked to me recently in one of our sadly TOO MANY conversations about the exhaustion of having to say the same thing over, and over, and over again: “[y]ou been writing this critique for a LONG TIME because this bullshit is so constant and unrelenting.” As usual, she tells no lies.
Indeed, if I had a nickle for every time someone has
complained about the epistemological violence of being a person of color and publishing
in rhetoric and composition, in the words of legendary House/Ballroom scene
Mother Pepper Labeija in the documentary Paris
Is Burning, “I would be rich for coins!” This is the very problem being
illuminated and powerfully checked through movements such as #CiteASista and
citeasista.com, whose “praxis is the inclusion and validation of the voices and knowledge” of
all Black women, which they give specificity to the fact that Black trans women
are women and that the knowledges and voices of women beyond the academy are
just as valuable.” Indeed, the only thing as regular as scholars
of color having our intellectual and emotional labor erased and capitalized on
in the field of rhetoric and composition is the regularity with which people
either 1) twist themselves into pretzels to deny its occurrence, 2) respond
with the usual fragility go to of outrage, tears, or gaslighting to hopefully
squash any attempts at accountability, 3) or offer the nominal and passive
statement “I am listening,” “I hear you,” “I’m here to learn,” or whatever
other performative activist-scholar phrase that gets them much but risks them
little. In short, the constant and unrelenting nature of this exhausting
practice is like clockwork, as are attempts by those on the margins to create a
rupture and diligent practice to honor all of our labor, humanity, and
potential for a beautiful collective future through doing the work of truth,
justice, and accountability through the praxis of love and ancestor-led
intellectual practices. But here I/We go again.
Why again? Because, as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best
you can until you can do better, then when you know better, do better.” Also,
why: because I believe in miracle work, the everyday work of activism that my
ancestors, elders, and their descendants across numerous movements for social
justice have done in their efforts to create the world we all deserve. This
miracle work is what Marianne Williamson, in her book The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles,
defines as “a shift in perception from fear to love.” And what I know is that
the kind of energy, regardless of intent, that creates a space-time in which we
are literally not present to or acknowledging the magnificence of the humans we
share life – and in this case an academic field with – is the energy of fear
manifested as exclusion, gatekeeping, erasure, and the literal disposal of
whole people and what they bring to this world. I reject that with everything
I’ve got. I believe that the work that will make the kind of intervention that
will last is heart work. As a Black queer femme and feminist “community-accountable”
(Alexis Pauline Gumbs) and ancestor-led writer, teacher, scholar, learner, and
alchemist, I know, as Williamson has said, that miracle workers “know what
changes the heart and if we know what changes a heart, then we know what
changes the world.” My intention here is to hopefully change some hearts, including
my own. Indeed, there certainly had to be some molecular shifts in my heart,
mind, body, and soul to write this post. People who know me well will affirm
that while I love people and take seriously creating space and community, I am
also very introverted, including in the digital realm. I prefer to mind my
business and be about the work I am here to do on the page, in the classroom,
and as I engage and collaborate with my kindred. Thus, the energy and cycle
that blog posts can send one through is not the context in which I like to
engage. Still, writing is my joy. That too has been true my whole life. And
while this is not an essay I wanted to write, the exigences that led to it were
so egregious I had no choice, my ancestors and my truth will not let me rest.
As a forever student in the school of ancestor-led
intellectual practices, what I also know is that my ancestors too have been
here before, here being speaking truth to power about the siphoning of the
intellectual and emotional labor of women and queers of color without
In this moment I am present to June Jordan and Audre
Lorde’s solidarity in holding accountable the lesbian feminist magazine Chrysalis, as discussed by Alexis
Pauline Gumbs in her guest essay for GLAAD’s blog “LGBT Black Feminist Legacies
in Publishing.” As Gumbs shares, though Lorde served as poetry editor for
Chrysalis, she ultimately “quit the publication in frustration with the shady,
disrespectful and racist behavior of the otherwise all-white editorial board.”
Jordan, an honorary advisory board member, publicly quit Chrysalis’s board,
writing to the magazine’s editorship “I hereby resign as Contributing Editor of
Chrysalis. I take this action in absolute support of my sister, Audre Lorde.”
Jordan concluded the letter daring the editorial board to prove that Lorde and
her critiques of them were wrong, saying: “Tell me/show me how your hopelessly
academic, pseudo-historical, incestuous and profoundly optional, profoundly
trifling, profoundly upper middle class attic white publication can presume to
represent our women’s culture.”
notes, Lorde and Jordan’s actions leave us with many questions to consider for
our own self-reflection when we inevitably find ourselves in the same position:
What would it mean today for LGBT writers of color to refuse to be tokenized by publications that do not demonstrate accountability to the communities we love? What would it mean to refuse to be the next token when our comrades are burnt out by the racism of well-resourced organizations and publications?
What would it look like for us to stand for excellence, transformative inclusivity, and true accountability from our movement publications with passion and audacity?
As they have so many times before, by ancestor
helping spirits – in this case Lorde and Jordan – as well as the loving yet
hard truth in the questions posed by Gumbs, are what I had/have in mind in this
moment. Through the transformative work of Black queer feminist writers and
pedagogues like Jordan and Lorde, I know that regardless of what scarcity,
careerism, opportunism, and other forms of fear say to me, another way is always
possible. And I/We get to choose.
This is a story about a choice I made. A
choice I am still making as I write to you. A choice to honor the intellectual
and emotional labor of myself and others. A story about a response I received,
and a story about my sense of how we move forward collectively in miracle work
toward creating the world we all deserve. As always, I trust that the
story I am telling and the specificity of experience will make my meaning
In February 18, 2019, I was invited by the journal Literacy in Composition Studies (LiCS) to join their editorial board. The invitation was warm in stating “We are familiar with your work and would be honored if you would serve on our editorial board. Your scholarship represents the kind of intellectual commitments we would like to see in the pages of our journal, and we trust your judgment to take the journal in exciting directions in the future.” Having previously published in the journal, and having read, cited, taught, and shared other work published in its pages, I would ordinarily have received such an invitation with great joy and happily accepted. Unfortunately, the context for my receiving this email was different.
Just one week prior to receiving this invitation, LiCS began to circulate this call (click here) for papers for a special issue on “Queer and Trans Embodied Literacies.” The special issue was to be guest edited by Zarah Catherine Notter-Moeggenberg with Brenda Glascott, managing editor of LiCS. While I began to read the call with great excitement and interest, it was not long before my reading the CFP, for many reasons, turned to an all too familiar experience of disappointment and exhaustion as a Black queer femme and Black queer feminist studies scholar in rhetoric and composition.
As I wrote
on February 21, 2019 in an email
to the LiCS editorial management
team, as well as the two guest editors of the special issue, “the planned
special issue had not referenced race, women of color feminisms, queer of
color theory, or the lives of queer people of color in ways that were
meaningful and vested with the criticality we have brought to queer theory and
trans studies from their inception in composition and rhetoric and
in the interdisciplines of Queer and Trans Studies writ large.”
I also noted that reading this CFP was the second time in just that same week
that such an occurrence had transpired. Indeed, the very same week another
rhetoric and composition journal had published a queer theory special issue with
its own forms of erasure and exclusion of work by queer people of color in the
Having, at this point, been in the field as a Black queer femme and a Black queer feminist theorist and pedagogue since 2004 and been witness to and pushed back on such actions; having suffered any number of epistemological and interactional violences from queer theorists and critical race theory scholars alike; having seen this same stuff two times in the same week after having written a whole book and numerous essays that talk about this very violence, my spirit couldn’t look the other way. So, I did the only thing I know how to do, I wrote the aforementioned email, which I link for you to read in its entirety. But to briefly summarize the email’s most salient points, I discussed how race was only mentioned twice in the entire CFP and the bookended violence of fetishizing of Black queer death on the one hand and the complete erasure of queer of color scholarship in rhetoric and composition on the other. I noted that in a special issue focusing on queer and trans embodiment, the CFP did not demonstrate an understanding of race and embodiment, and excluded research by women of color feminists – many of them queer and trans women of color – who had contributed so much to understandings of embodiment long before the existence of sexuality studies, queer studies, trans studies, or critical race theory. Indeed, in the whole original CFP not one queer of color or feminist of color scholar was cited.
epistemological violence of the original CFP, I asked that LiCS retract this CFP and reissue a revised one that explains why
it was being reissued, arguing “that there
is a real opportunity for LiCS to be a thought leader here
and not simply contribute yet another collection of queer studies work
that makes queer, trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people of
color, and analyses of race and ethnicity, a spoke in a wheel
that turns only between erasure and tokenization. Rather, LiCS can move
the conversation forward in ways that really should have happened 23 years
ago. Let me be clear: my request is not and does not
have to be punitive. Rather, this can be an example to the
field of a future for the field, and for queer and
trans theorists in particular, about how we can act ethically, with
humility, and productively when mistakes are made.”
As for the journal itself, I provided quantitative evidence that it too needed to address the fact that since its 2012 inaugural issue “only 1 in 5 articles published in LiCS were authored by visible people of color (that is 13 articles of the 64 published in the journal since its beginning),” only one book authored/edited by a scholar of color was reviewed in its pages, and that with regards to queer and trans theory, the only books reviewed in the journal were written by white authors “despite the fact that recent books by scholars of color who work on and engage queer and trans people of color and two-spirit literacies and rhetorics and women of color feminisms have been visible award-winning works and were not included. (Note that I do not mention my own work). Finally, and most egregiously, I had to note that if I were to accept their invitation I would be the only Black person on the board, and thus also be replacing the previous only Black person on their board. As such, I noted, “[u]nfortunately, this means that unless the plan for LiCS is to take concrete steps to rectify these exclusionary practices, I cannot accept this invitation at this time.” To conclude I acknowledged then, as I do now, that “I can imagine that hearing or reading these words are difficult. I can only ask that they be received with the intent by which they are offered, which is with the sincerest hope that LiCS and the field does change, because we can change. All that is required is a desire and consistent effort to do so, and to go through the difficult but necessary growing pains to create the field and world we all deserve.”
I did receive
an immediate and gracious response on February 21, 2019 from two members of the
six members of the journal’s editorial management team. One editor, Holly
That same day Brenda Glascott, LiCS’s managing editor and also an
original editor of the special issue, wrote to me:
To which, on February 22,
2019, I responded:
And then on February 25,
2019, Zarah C. Moeggenberg, the other guest editor of the original special
issue proposal, wrote to me:
I never heard back from the
journal again following this last correspondence.
If you are attentive to the scholarly developments in rhetoric and composition you may know then that LiCS did retract the CFP, removing “embodied” from the title and reissued a CFP for a special issue on “Queer and Trans* Literacies.” The reissued CFP notes that two additional scholars Wilfredo Flores and Collin Craig – both people of color – will guest co-edit the issue with Zarah C. Moeggenberg, one of the two original guest editors of the special issue. I, for one, am excited about the publication of the issue and the possibilities for how it will prompt prospective contributors to author work that could make interventions that take queer and trans research in literacies, rhetoric, and composition in meaningful and long overdue directions. However, given all the details I’ve shared thus far you might surmise that there is a “But,” and you would be correct.
One concern about the new
CFP, which dovetails back to the larger overlooking of the intellectual and
emotional labor of scholars of color, is the lack of a direct link between
queer and trans literacies and women of color feminisms. Indeed, at the
conclusion of the reissued CFP the coeditors ask “How might we consider citational practices as a
form of queer/feminist literacy? As queer literacy practices and histories and
rhetorics are bound to privilege, to which working class queer literacies may
our field more readily attend? What queer and trans* literacies have we
overlooked, silenced, and erased?” They also express a desire for the special
issue to “elevate the queer literacy practices we have overlooked, silenced,
erased, and colonized…we call upon other LGBTQ+ scholars and accomplices to
challenge what we know about queer literacy.” Given this reference to and call
for self-reflexive citational practices, and attentiveness to amplify what has
been silenced, the lack
of citation of Black feminist women scholars in literacy, composition, and
rhetoric who, as I noted in my letter to LiCS,
are (along with other women of color feminists) owed a debt by queer and trans
theory, is unacceptable. While the work of Karma Chavez and Sarah Ahmed are
cited, no Black women or women of color in the field who have published work on
queer literacies and composition, are cited. For example, the work of Samantha
Blackmon, Carmen Kynard, Gwendolyn Pough, and Adela Licona receive no
recognition. Given that intersectionality and work at the intersections of
sexuality and race owes much to the contributions of women of color feminists
in literacy studies, this oversight is especially egregious. In fact, while the
CFP correctly states, as I say in my email to LiCS “[w]e see
this special issue as an opportunity to ask the questions our field has needed
to ask for more than 20 years,” the CFP does not acknowledge that many of these
questions – at least those that center race/ethnicity in their analysis – were
in fact introduced more than 24 years ago by Harriet Malinowitz in her book Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay
Students and the Making of Discopurse Communities, the first book on
lesbian and gay literacy, composition, and rhetoric. Malinowitz’s work is not
cited in the CFP. As I note in my book, while gay and lesbian students of color
were central to the argument and analysis of Textual Orientations, unfortunately, queer literacy, composition,
and rhetoric research did not pursue Malinowitz’s important lead and include or
center queer and trans people of color.
In addition, queer of color
and decolonial feminists outside the field who make intersectional work
possible within all fields, including literacy, composition, and rhetoric, such
as Barbara Smith, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Cathy Cohen, Sharon Patricia
Holland, Eve Tuck, E. Patrick Johnson, Mae G. Henderson, C. Riley Snorton, Jax
Cuevas, Kai Green, Sandra K. Soto, among others are also omitted. Importantly,
and consequently, the activist roots of the queer and trans literacies the
special issue seeks to embrace and illuminate are completely untethered from
the critical genealogy in the citation practices of the CFP. As such, ancestor
activists like Lorde, Jordan, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Toni Cade
Bambara, Gloria Anzaldúa, Grace Lee Boggs, some of whom worked outside the
academy and others who worked inside and outside the academy, are not given any
credit for what they have done to make our expressions of queer and trans*
literacies and scholarship on that work even possible. The same is true for
contemporary activists such as CeCe McDonald, Reina Gossett, Che Gossett, Yolo
Akili, Adrienne Marie Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Alok Vaid-Menon, whose
activist literacies evidence and inspire so much life to contemporary queer and
transgender studies scholarship, pedagogy, and cultural activism.
Relatedly, I must note also that while both the initial and
reissued CFP for the LiCS special
issue centers trans* literacies, some key work on trans* literacies is not
cited. For example, the many publications of KJ Rawson on the topic of transgender and queer
literacies, rhetoric, and composition is not mentioned. There are a few other scholars
in rhetoric and composition who have published transgender literacy, rhetoric,
and composition research, especially those working on literacy pedagogy, and
those too are not included for some reason.
A separate though related
point I wish to make about the recognition of the intellectual and emotional
labor is about the ways some practices of citational politics enable, albeit
perhaps unintentionally, a practice of rhetorical tokenism that leads to a lack
of recognition of the fullness of people’s contributions. For instance, when
people talk about addressing the politics of citation, sometimes the response
to that is to insert a name where you can. And while this is preferable to
complete non-acknowledgement, listing a name does not amount to citing people’s
work in a meaningful and substantive way that disrupts problematic citation
practices. This requires a deep engagement with a person’s work, otherwise it
is rhetorical tokenism that is superficial and doesn’t do the work, though it
may in fact allow a scholar to feel they have done their due diligence. In the
reissued CFP, for example, G Patterson is mentioned for their scholarship that
addresses “the university’s neoliberal
diversity agenda.” However, G Patterson has consistently produced scholarship that
has discussed needing a constant intersectional analysis of trans and
non-binary identity that constantly needs to be in conversation with an
analysis and deconstruction of other forms of inequality such as racism, not
just cisnormativity. Acknowledging that work and depth is important because
that’s where the cutting edge is and that is what should be animating a call, not
contributing work that has already been offered. We are more than a hamster on
the wheel. The function of a CFP is to engage deeply with the work and say
where does it take us now. Even if the citation is parenthetical or signposted
in notes as for further reading, this is a practice that can maneuver well with
the conventions of citation in a genre that leave us time to do little more
than cite a name and work.
I confess that, as with
citational erasure, I am especially sensitive to rhetorical tokenism because of
personal experiences. In recent years, and also in the reissued CFP from LiCS, I have seen my own work uncredited
or not properly recognized for the totality of its contributions. For example,
in the reissued CFP the concept of “literacy normativity” that I introduce in
my book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers
and the Politics of Literacy, is cited, however, at no point is my work
connected to any of the CFP’s discussions about Black queer literacies,
composition, and rhetoric, which is all anything I have ever published has ever
been about. The takeaway, to an uninformed reader, would be that the only work
cited on the topic of Black queer literacy, rhetoric, and composition is all
that has been published, which would not be true given my work and the work of
others beyond the scholar cited. Similarly, I have seen similar such citations
of my work in other publications where it is cited as literacy and
“intersectionality,” which is not incorrect, but when untethered from the
intervention it has made through its labor to make space for Black queer
literacies, composition, and rhetoric research, it potentially undermines those
interventions I have labored long and consistently to make. As I say multiple
times in my book, while my work is an example of Black LGBTQ literacies, I
never intended nor could it say all the things about Black queer literacies
that we still need to have said. I also say my work would not exist if not for
the important interventions made by my intellectual ancestors, elders, and
peers. To signpost this for my readers, I write amply about the people and
scholarship who made my path clear, and in the conclusion, I note where folks
in the future could go and should go for future projects because there is still
so much left to do. Also, in an interview about my work in 4Cs for Equality’s
Zine “Writing for Change,” I am clear to name the work of multiple scholars in
rhetoric and composition and also literacy education who are researching and
writing on Black queer literacies, composition, and rhetoric. Why is this
important? Because labor – emotional and intellectual – must be honored. As
David Glisch-Sánchez, my partner and a specialist in the field of the sociology
of emotions, Latinx Studies, and Queer Studies has taught me, one of the most
inhumane scholarly practices is to ignore and minimize what someone’s
intellectual work and full presence in the space-time we share with them has
done, is doing, or can do.
I wish also to return to the last
correspondence I received from LiCS,
as a way to highlight a concluding important way we must be attentive to the
intellectual and emotional labor others perform and the responsibility we all
have to acknowledge that work. Recall
that in the message from Glascott, on behalf of the LiCS editorial management team, I was told that LiCS planned to come back to me about
their plans to move forward. As I said, they have not. Instead, Moeggenberg
circulated the new CFP on Twitter with the following message:
In the tweet Moeggenberg assigns the reason for the CFP
being retracted and revised to the mentorship she and the other two coeditors
received from the LiCS editorial
team. To be clear, I do not doubt they received feedback and guidance from the LiCS editorial management team on the
initial and the second/reissued CFP. But, what is clear from the email record
is that the only reason any effort was made to even consider, and ultimately retract
the CFP, and revise it, was because of my initial letter and feedback. This
tweet erases my intellectual and emotional labor, and also the goodwill I
demonstrated (for which Middleton, Glascott, and Moeggenberg thanked me) when I
chose to go to them directly as a courtesy to offer a shared opportunity to do
better. Even though I find there are problems with the second CFP, despite the
improvements, I never believed that my feedback had to be acknowledged. But,
when Moeggenberg chose to give all credit to the editorial team, and once they chose
to do so and thank someone publicly (which is their right) ethically they
should also acknowledge all the sources of feedback received. As such, given
their decision to go semi-public, I do have an expectation that I be
acknowledged and I think it would be fair for anyone else to have the same
expectation. The nature of my comments did not have to be noted given the
substance of my contribution, but it would have been appropriate to acknowledge
all sources of feedback. Instead, not only was my feedback not acknowledged,
surprisingly, I didn’t know they were even reissuing the CFP until I saw it
online. It was also forwarded to me by colleagues who were asked by the special
issue editors to submit their work and circulate the CFP to others. What this teaches us is that in order to truly
form coalitions and be community-accountable, people need to be impeccable with
their word, to quote a tenet of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. I would have shared this directly with the LiCS editorial team or the special issue
editors if LiCS came back as they
said they would.
Finally, in addition, note
that the reissued CFP mentions that the initial CFP was retracted, however no
explanation was provided. In the absence of this key information, the fullness
of what we could all stand to learn from LiCS
choosing to do better is lost. The reissued CFP seeks to claim space for
doing the work of addressing their initial error, but does not say what was
wrong in the first place. I would argue that the proverbial “teachable moment,”
one that was dependent on truth and reconciliation, is lost in the partial
truth and partial mention of the CFP. As my colleague Rasha Diab often said
when we were graduate students, “you cannot have justice without claims to
injustice.” The reissued CFP tries to have justice, but silences the claim to
injustice that animated it in the first place.
Practices of benefiting from, yet not
acknowledging, the intellectual and emotional labor of people happens with far
too much ubiquity, and especially happens consistently to scholars of color,
women, and queer and trans scholars who do so much mentoring and emotional
labor behind the scenes that is either not acknowledged or ignored, and it has
I speak the truth of the faculty of color who
have graduate and undergraduate students attend office hours to “pick your
brain” for the scholarship they should be reading to do a thesis/dissertation project
in your research area, only to then choose your white, male, cisgender, and/or
heterosexual colleagues to make up their committee to your omission.
I speak the truth of the graduate students of
color in seminars across the country, who do the emotional and intellectual
labor in their classrooms to teach their peers and their teachers, and then
have to make do with the little energy left to put a balm to heal the
spiritual, physical, and psychological wounds they have to face just to obtain
a graduate school education.
I speak the truth of the scholars of color
who work on race/ethnicity who have been asked by journals to review work
submitted for publication in your area of expertise, only to have your own work
gate kept out of those same journals or not even have your work cited in the
publications sometimes by editors, sometimes by reviewers who were clearly
chosen just to make sure you were not published in that venue.
I speak the truth of those people who, like
I, have the undeniable receipts in hand that when it comes to scholars of color
the field has engaged in this practice of not acknowledging our intellectual
and emotional labor for decades, and rather than tell the truth and do the
work, what we see are them ushering graduate students and junior faculty of
color onto the same red carpet of tokenism that they used to exhaust their mentors,
elders, and ancestors in the field on endless committees, task forces, and
performances of doing the work that are nothing more than a cloaking device so
that they can remain unaccountable and leave you with no energy to serve your
I speak the truth of the women and femme
colleagues who get asked to do the administrative work that makes the wheels
turn at our institutions and in the field every single day, and not only are
they never recognized, but their work is in fact also used against them in the
processes of tenure, promotion, and award.
I speak the truth of those who speak truth to
power and have people say they appreciate your feedback and are listening, only
to show through their actions they resent that you told the truth while
simultaneously benefiting from your labor.
I speak the truth of the Black feminists in
the field who have seen “intersectionality” leveraged on whole panels and
plenary sessions at conferences without one Black feminist included in the
discussion, as if “intersectionality” is not Black feminist intellectual and
I speak the truth of the queer of color
scholars in the field who have seen their white queer scholar peers either
ignore queer of color and two-spirit critique altogether or nominally cite the
work of queer of color scholars outside the field so as to check the citational
politics box, as they simultaneously offer no recognition of the intellectual
and emotional labor of the very scholars who work alongside them in rhetoric
I speak the truth of disability studies scholars
and people with disabilities, who have witnessed professional organizations and
institutions use their work and activism to pat themselves on the back to claim
they are doing the work to address ableism, while simultaneously holding
inaccessible conferences and offering no challenge to the ableist policies and
practices all around them.
I speak the truth of the activist
scholar-teachers – faculty and graduate students alike – who have devoted
countless hours to national service for professional organizations, with the
enticement that their labor will change things, and yet somehow the intractable
status quo preserves itself and their labor is exploited.
I speak these truths because, despite
mounting evidence to the contrary, I am and will always be optimistic about the
human potential – and the field’s potential – to do and be better.
Less anyone believe that my comments here are
exclusive to my experience with LiCS or
its editors, I want to be unequivocal in saying that my point here is an
indictment of and call for all to do better. There are a number of stories from
myself and others about their own exhaustion with the ways that other journals
such as College English, CCC, Composition
Studies, Rhetoric Review, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly, as well as
professional organizations including CCCC, NCTE, RSA, and NCA have engaged in
the violence of ignoring or minimizing the intellectual and emotional labor of
those maligned on the basis of identity and difference. Also, let me state unequivocally
that I have no interest in gatekeeping. I suffered the wounds of that practice
so much in my experiences as a graduate student and junior-scholar in the field,
and what I know that the people who tried to silence me and my work chose not
to know, is that there is nothing to gain from gatekeeping other people and it
also will always be unsuccessful. The work – the miracle – will always be born,
gatekeeping be damned. It will profit the gatekeeper nothing but the bad karma
they clearly are choosing. I want more people to publish in queer and trans*
literacies, composition, and rhetoric, and in critical race and ethnic
literacies, composition, and rhetoric. We need more people to do that work. And
I am grateful to LiCS and to the
special issue editors for the reality that they will be giving someone an
opportunity to publish in those areas who I and my students will learn from.
Still, what I know is that it is possible for that work to be done without
doing harm to one another, and my spirit cannot accept less.
As people read this, I hope that we will
individually (at first) and collectively finally get down to the business of
assessing and evaluating how we have contributed to this toxic and harmful
dynamic, regardless of intention. Practices like this sow the seeds of
resentment, fear, anger, and in its most extreme form, despair. Whether
conscious or not doing these things are a way of saying to people that they do
not matter, and that is by definition a toxic and harmful practice.
I trust that deep down the vast majority of
people do want to honor the humanity and labor of those around them but we must
also contend with the reality that we are rarely taught to do just that, and in
some cases, we are encouraged through norms, institutional structures, and ego
to do the opposite. Still, we can learn and choose to better. It is my hope
that something I have written here will find your heart, and find also my own,
and that we will at last do and be better, together, infinitely shifting from
fear to love as we create the world and field we all deserve.
Please note that all comments at this site are closely moderated and vetted by Carmen Kynard.
People often ask me about my experiences teaching a 3/3 and 3/4 load as a tenure-track, full-time college professor. It should come as no surprise that teaching fewer (and smaller classes) makes it much easier to publish, the holy grail of the academy. But the 3/3 load and large class sizes are not what dominates my time at a teaching college. I wish it was all about the classroom. It’s not. It’s all about the service.
In the past two months, here is what my service (committees, meetings, and such) has looked liked:
A graduate admissions committee where I read thousands of pages of personal statements, sample essays, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc
A classroom observation for my department
Attendance and participation at five different candidate talks for a new tenure-track position (this meant hours of meetings beforehand to determine the candidates and hours of meetings afterwards to discuss/select the candidates)
Participation on a departmental curriculum committee (no meetings yet but plenty of time needed to read an enrollment agreement for state accreditation issues, a new course proposal, a revision of a minor, etc)
Participation on a college-wide curriculum committee (which meets 3X-4X per month with heavy reading beforehand)
Participation on a committee to select undergraduate essay award winners
Participation in meetings and email exchanges to discuss/assess undergraduate capstone courses
Participation in meetings, email exchanges, and assessment design of my own undergraduate capstone course
Attendance at multiple department/program meetings
Participation in a site visit for external review of a program
Participation on a committee to select undergraduate ePortfolio award winners
Participation in a day-long outcomes assessment meeting as part of the writing program
I do not hold any administrative positions at my college and do not aspire to. And yet service takes up as much of my time as when I was an actual administrator. This list does not include service to the professional and community organizations I am part of since those are the things that I want to do. On Thursdays, day four of a Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, I try to do the prep work required of my campus service obligations. I also mentally map out the next week’s meetings so I know when I will get some space and time to myself in an upcoming week. Many times, I am on campus, not teaching, but doing service.
I am sure I have forgotten some stuff from numbers 1-12 above. The list would be even longer if I had not outright said NO to many other requests. Every week brings me another email solicitation to perform yet another mundane task. There is no real recognition for any of this work and certainly no extra pay or course release. This is the nature of service at a teaching college in a moment shaped by the logics of austerity and neoliberalism: adjuncts teach almost all of the classes while the main role of full-time faculty seems to be the performance of bureaucratic tasks, bottomless meetings, and infinite committee appointments. Programs are so severely under-resourced that only a Herculean effort on the service work of faculty can keep them afloat, an exploitative cycle that admin will expect and naturalize if you let them.
To be sure, I see some of this work as necessary: the opportunity to select a faculty person of color as your new colleague; an opening to challenge the uber-traditionalist instructional model of a college; the chance to ensure that graduate students of color get a fair shake and recognition; the occasion to bear witness to the endless machinations that determine the look and color of a college curriculum, its assessments, and its awards. The procedures to do these things are, nevertheless, utterly ridiculous.
Necessary or not, I won’t be serving on most of these committees in the future. I can now say: yeah, been there, done that, it was a waste of time and I ain’t doin it again (I mean this very earnestly… this IS exactly what I will say). I have more to say about service as part of my hustle in academia but I will do that later as part of my ongoing Academia as a Hustle posts. For now, I will just say that service also has a Black Feminist ethos in my week’s pedagogy. On some level, many of my colleagues think they are doing socially transformative work in these uber-western, bureaucratic processes and can lose sight of their political center or the very meanings of radical transformation. Riddled with insecurities in an academy that makes you feel like you have to always prove your worth, many of my colleagues want to feel involved and important and they think this college service stuff is the way. Some of these folks act like these committees are the equivalent of planting a tree or working with disaster victims! Get a grip! What Tiffany King calls “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism,” what I have been referencing across this series of posts, requires you to have a much more critical lens on the ways you are challenging or co-signing service and the logics of austerity and neoliberalism in higher education. This is especially true since it is women of color who will be most expected to do all this free labor. If you let them, folk will run your body, mind, and spirit into the ground by: 1) over-tasking/over-taxing you; or 2) wasting your energy and time in meetings and committees where progress is slow, where your input is miles higher than what the structure will allow as output. It’s always worth it to peek behind the emperor’s curtain and see how the shenanigans back there really work but you don’t need to keep visiting. One time is all you need. Skepticism and refusal are important services too.