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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Black Language Matters: Our Word is STILL Bond

With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:

  • if and what you can eat and drink in the room
  • when and if you can go out and pee during class
  • when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
  • how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
  • how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
  • what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
  • who to call for this and that and when to call them
  • who to email for this and that and when to email them
  • numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
  • the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
  • the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
  • the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.

This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder:  who would actually want to read this mess?  And what are students even learning?  And you know what is significantly short?  A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!  In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements.  When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it.  In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.

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A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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Black Language Matters: Beginning with “Ebonics 101”

grammarlyAt the risk of situating #BlackLivesMatter as merely a trope when it is so much more and cannot be de-neutralized with endless spin-offs, I want to talk out loud/digitally about BLACK LANGUAGE MATTERS.  I like MATTERS here as both a noun and a verb: 1) all of the attenuating political circumstances, past and present, around issues of language, meaning, and multiple Englishes; 2) all of the processes where Black Language carries the depth and resistance of Black suffering and resilience.

I start these conversations in my classrooms with a specific definition now— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and one of the classes I teach, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, my students and I worked to really define and anchor ourselves in race, culture, resistance, and African American languaging systems. It wasn’t easy.

For me, Steven Willis’s “Ebonic 101” gives me (in)sights and images to always keep in mind.  Black Language is:

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Black Language Matters: “If You Gon Sing It, Then Bring It”

At a recent meeting I attended, a participant talked very disparagingly about scholars who do work in digital rhetorics and digital humanities.  Now, it ain’t like I ain’t got my own questions about the aforementioned, mostly along the lines of why is this scholarship so damn white, but that was not the participant’s beef.  His beef was that scholars in digital rhetorics and digital humanities only offer meta-analyses of digital culture and not actual digital products and projects.  That’s not true, though I can see where the impatience is coming from: a dull, visually stale website that you paid someone else to create and an active twitter account ain’t exactly sophisticated digital production.  I said, for the most part, that these impressions were false and then really left it alone.

Because you see, I was operating from a black cultural/language frame.  And that means something very simple: if you dissin what somebody else ain’t doin, then it must be because YOU DOIN IT!

african_american_expressionsIn my childhood, we would simply say it like this: if you gon sing it, then bring it.  This expression could be applied to someone who was poppin off at the mouth about you behind your back but not bold enough to bring it to your face; OR if an athletic team, especially, talked a lot of junk about their impending win: this was a reminder to watch your mouth unless you were really bringing your A+ game.  What does this mean in the context of the situation I described in the first paragraph?  Well, as soon as I got home from the meeting, I google-stalked this participant like it was no tomorrow. And what did I find?  Not much of nuthin.

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