I just arrived to Denver today and so I want to situate myself on this Land. I begin this letter to you by acknowledging that the land on which we are meeting is the territory of the Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples and all of their ancestors, past, present, and future. Here on this Land, I am committed to undoing white settler colonialism in the ways in which I work, speak, and act as part of my acknowledgement. As a descendant of enslaved Africans on stolen lands, I am among those whose lived realities sit at the intersection of what I call an INTERTWINED ABOMINATION — kidnapped from one land and forced to labor on stolen land… as such I am called to work towards a sisterhood of abolition and decolonization against apartheid, settler colonialism, genocide, and settler occupation everywhere.
For a visual description: I am a light-skinned Black woman wearing three afro-puffs down her head in an afro-puff/mohawk fashion. The puffs are in the color of brown and gold in T27 Marley Hair. It’s giving the lowwww-key version of a HIGH-key Lady Charlotte of Bridgerton. I am wearing a black cowl neck shirt and black pants with a very long jewel green bib necklace and very large silver hoops. Thank you to disability justice activists/theorists who have charged us with making such visual descriptions so that we might all see our bodies and our multiple selves in deeper ways.
We have come together on this day of the conference to move towards radical imaginings. For something like that, I always turn to Black feminisms and go way back for inspiration, examples, and ways forward. This time I found myself sitting with Combahee River Collective Statement as I have so many times in my life. What I am sitting with today is how current this statement feels for me, especially these words:
We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses… We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation…
A political contribution which we feel we have already made is the expansion of the feminist principle that the personal is political… Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political…
We exist as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.
When I return to the Combahee River Collective Statement today, I do so as a writing teacher, as a community literacies practitioner, as a literacies/composition educator. Almost 50 years later, the Collective’s words still galvanize, the ideas still ring true, the impact still remains the same for me. 50 years later! So I ask us here, as part of our radical imagining, as part of how we do our philosophies of writing and literacy in communities: what are your words/ collective manifesto/ call to political action that will embolden the most marginalized amongst us, not just today, but 50 years from now? This means something very different from what schools and school literacies present to us: a way out through bourgeois middle class consumptions and assimilations. That’s not a future— that’s just more of the same of what we already have. Radical imaginations change the very purpose of literacies and writing— because you don’t look to the here and now; you charge yourself for wide-away and far-far-away futures with the conviction that the future is moldable.
This is especially critical for me right now because this moment asks us to shrink back and make smaller demands. We see DEI programs being banned and cut. And while we must fight these bans and cuts for what they represent, we have to remember we were always asking for more anyway. Many of us were deeply enmeshed in challenging the neoliberalist, for-profit, white comfort work of DEI projects, quoting decades of criticism by Sara Ahmed practically from memory. Now we are asking and fighting for the thing that never went far enough.
After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, countless people saw that it was lucrative to present themselves as anti-racist” from schools to professional journals to Target advertisements to university think tanks. White racist, heteropatriarchal backlash came soon and swift, like it always does, and those same folx hightailed it out, all after claiming abolition and the Black Radical Tradition, but won’t even say and think FREE PALESTINE right now or challenge their publishers who are honoring racist school districts’ book bans.
That’s not the future. That’s not our radical imagining. And that’s not the kind of writing the Combahee River Collective did 50 years ago. I’ll end here with the Collective’s words: “As Black feminists and Lesbians we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.” Let’s radically imagine 50 years from today, 50 years at least, of future-making against the world we have now. Understanding the Combahee River Collective demands no less than that.
I wish somebody had told me that teaching about Black Language in The South would be this smoove. I’m almost scared to say this out loud, because some of yall will bring your sorry butts down here and mess this up. I remember when I told folx I was moving to Texas and they swore they would never move here or anywhere South. There is no such thing as a space free from white supremacy in the USA, so suggesting otherwise is just stupid… especially given all of what you must ignore to equate the Midwest, NorthEast, Westcoast, and all points on the compass with racial/political progress.
I grew up in the Midwest, my family is from Alabama, I went to college in California, and I spent my adulthood in the Northeast. Today I teach college in the South. I started teaching in 1993 in the Bronx, NY which marks my very first experience of teaching about Black Language as a classroom teacher when I introduced my high school students to Geneva Smitherman, including her foreword to the book, Double Snaps (where she contextualizes what we then called snappin inside of the Black Language tradition of signifyin). It was the Golden Age of Hip Hop and my BIPOC students were “South South Bronx” all the way through… and they were as anti-Black in their ideas about Black Language as any white supremacist out here. I had to go to WORRRRRRKKKK to get them to think through their internalized anti-Blackness. As dope as those students wore, it took even more work to get them off the side of white supremacy during the Ebonics “Controversy” in 1996. They came around… eventually.
Centering Black Language in the college classroom– where I have taught courses spanning gender studies, composition, Black studies, rhetoric, and education— ain’t been easy either. Not in Queens. Not in the Bronx. Not in Harlem. Not in Brooklyn. Not in Newark. Not in my 26 years of teaching in those places. These are spaces steeped in Blackity-Black Black Language and yet far too many Black folx don’t want to claim it. At a Black college in Brooklyn, many of those students complained about my focus on U.S. Ebonics, Hip Hop Nation Language, and Caribbean Nation Language. I actually scared many students right out of my classes. For some students, it would take something drastic to get them to come to the light. In one instance, one woman was insulted that a college class and a college professor like me would even mention Ebonics and she let everybody know it (usually using Black Language herself)…. that is, until her son’s elementary school tried to put him in special education because of language issues. I went to bat for her and that little boy and kept him out of special education, but that was what it took for her to change her tune. I’ve written about these moments extensively, so I’ll just chalk it up here: I could tell dozens of stories like this. Granted, it wasn’t everybody, but it was always enough to make me almost lose a professional disposition.
2019 was my last year teaching and living in the Northeast. I vividly remember my last undergraduate class— a small capstone that I treated as a writing seminar. Those students’ final projects were fabulous (see here for their collections), but a few were very vocal that they did not want to hear anything about writing and language that intersected with narrative, translingualism, Black Language, or non-essayist literacy. That got shut down pretty quickly when they realized that all that white school language that they had mastered for the majority-white and very traditionalist faculty at that CUNY college (City University of New York) was not something that would get them a multiracial audience who would listen to them. It was 2019. And they was still working my nerves. I do miss those students dearly— their vibe, their rhythm, their flow, their language, their loudness, their daily aesthetic… and even the way they made me get in they asses about their negative attitudes on Black Language. That said, the South is dope. I had to re-learn how to teach about Black Language. Cuz it’s a whole other world here.
Because there is no dissent.
Not even a little.
It’s just full steam forward… like, yeah, let’s get this. All of the time.
By my fourth semester of centering Black Language in my undergraduate courses here in Texas, I really got it. After years of resistance, I’ve learned how to teach about Black Language on the offensive. But I ain’t really learn how to teach it on the offense and WIN! At first I thought it was a fluke, but by the fourth time, I was like, naw, they open AF. They write notes on the evaluations, to my email, and in my DMs thanking me for lessons on Black Language. Like, what? I done died and gone to Black Language Heaven?
I’m tellin you right here: It’s the South.
From September 1993 all the way up to May of 2019 in New York and New Jersey, I faced some kind of resistance in the classroom to Black Language. Three months later, I landed in Texas and the tide shifted. It ain’t me. I ain’t change THAT MUCH in three months. And it ain’t cuz a new Black liberation cultural movement emerged in three months either.
This is the South.
And we winnin.
I decided that we would rock out a little different this semester and create our own Black Language Workbook that future semesters will build on. This semester seemed like I had the perfect course to do this work: DIGITAL BLACKNESS.
Like always with real Black learning and intellectual work, when you ain’t fighting and pleading and explaining the legitimacy of a Black thing, you can get down to the actual nitty gritty of the thing and do and think some new fire into it. That’s what teaching now is like. We hit the Black Language theme unit somewhere in week six but by week five, one student, Josulyn, had already presented, telling us that what many call internet slang is really Black Language that racism won’t let be fully credited as such. By the time we started creating the Black Language Workbook, we understood that there is no such thing as Black Digital/Black Internet Language. The digital makes its meaning through, with, and because of Black Language. It’s like the technology today is only now catching up with 100s of years of Black Language and that’s only because Black folx are training social media to do so!
Black Language is future-oriented in the way it does Language; it’s like it was able to predict the needs of current digital communication long before it was even available to us. The hallmark discursive features of Black Language are the foundation of such digital communication today, all of which my Texas students defined in the workbook below (hit the arrows to go forward):
Black Language is alllll about…. thecreative play on words, image-makings that make the text come alive, metaphors everydamnwhere all the time, quick wit on even the seemingly mundane, lightning fast comebacks, exaggerated language that drives home a point, call-and-response to get audiences involved, signifyin on any-and-everythang, semantic inversions that can flip the meanings of any word, tonal semantics that make the words sound the way you mean them, mimicry that will clapback by just imitating you, narrative sequencing so that multiple stories can tell a main story, directness AND indirectness, proverbial statements that make everyday feel like a Sunday school lesson….. and just willlllld creativity all the time with morphology and syntax.
That’s like the WHOLE ASS internet.
Yup, it took coming South to learn and understand all this (I am arguably in the Southwest though, not the Deep South, but still South). It makes sense though, since The South is the home of Black Language in the United States as we know it. I remember way back when I would share with my students something one of my graduate school professors, Robin D.G. Kelley, talked to us about in class. He talked about the “accent” of the Deep South as Black Language as that “accent” developed in the parts of the United States that held the most enslaved Africans. This goes against the “commonsense” suggestions that Black Language was developed from the accents of Southern whites (as if white Southerners are homegrown vs. new settlers and as if slavery didn’t last for 100s of years for Black folx who imprinted the South everywhere). Kelley flipped all that to say, naww naww, the accents of Southern whites developed based on a proximity to Black folx that Northern white folx didn’t have. White supremacist relationships to slavery simply re-center whiteness in linguistic politics and so suggest otherwise. Granted, Kelley did not talk like my crude paraphrasing, but the message is still there. When I told students in the North all this, they disagreed and I had to check them real quick in their anti-Black assumptions that they knew more than a brilliant Black historian like Robin D.G. Kelley based on something their majority-white high school teachers told them. Fast forward to 2019 when I share the same thing here and you know what the students say? I remember it like yesterday, cuz a student from Augusta, GA (and Augusta stay tearing it up) raised his hand and said something like this: Oh, yeah. That makes so much sense. I knew white people like me talked different for a good reason. Ain’t heard a dissenting voice yet. Good reason, indeed!
Other times, well, they just say what’s on their minds.
While I’m having the time of my life, I think most of my students are actually just pretty chill, like it’s just another day for them, or, like maybe I shoulda been teaching in the South all along.
I am so glad I am a rhetoric-compositionist because this is the work I get to do in classrooms every week, every month, every theme unit, every semester. And as a researcher and scholar, I write about these things, examine language/writing politics closely, and situate classroom learning in the historical and current contexts of racism, education, language, and literacy. We have decades of research on Black liberatory /anti-racist/anti-colonial/ intersectional teaching and learning that connects me as a writer-teacher-scholar to an entirely different community of thought and action. This allows us to move in ways that go against the opposing whiteness of the school, department, district, and/or campus which is often hell-bent on re-centering whiteness no matter that even white students are asking for something different. Like now.
My current context (yes, where my first-year and second-year college students do work on Black Language so brilliantly) recently decided that one of the categories of specialty for a new hire for composition classrooms would be: “Argumentation and Propaganda Analysis.” Foolish on so many levels!! Those of us who are “PhD-trained” as rhetoric-compositionists know that this is not even how speciality and expertise in the field are named in 2023. The wording comes instead from the title of a course that looks like it has been on the books for a while. A year ago, the then-administration asked me if I would teach this class. I declined explaining that the course is not something that I would ever put on my CV. I also questioned why the course is still in the curriculum given that every organization, conference, and journal in my field is facing a serious reckoning for the kind of white indoctrination that such a curricular choice represents. It goes in the opposite direction of what I communicate to my students as 21st century rhetorical study and is too deeply rooted in an exclusionary traditionalism that has worked as its own white “propaganda” (ironic that whiteness sees propaganda everywhere but in itself). Now fast forward to a year later and they wanna hire someone in this defunct category— and name it as such on a public-facing, national ad. It’s not even even giving a contemporary white supremacy tea— it’s just some old 1950s Cold War retrograde stuff designed from the perspective of a white male bourgeoisie (it ain’t, after all, W.E.B. DuBois’s or Aime Cesaire’s perspectives). Meanwhile, folx act surprised at the racist backlash that we see from someone like Ron DeSantis when white retrenchment like that is clearly present everywhere. The professors who center their work in rhetoric-composition studies did not propose this category; the literature faculty did. There was even an almost-unanimous vote on this white racist construct— I was the SOLE ONLY vote of NO— but it passes anyway because white curriculum is considered democratic and faculty-governed when voting this way. In the end, the professors in rhetoric-composition studies will be blamed and thrown under the bus when graduate students and folx on the national scale call out this white supremacy for exactly what it is ….and the perpetrators will, like always, gaslight their way out of it. It’s as colonial of an enterprise as you can get.
And it’s easy to see and decipher.
But then again: I belong to a Black Language Legacy that sits at the intersection of the Black Radical Tradition. Like my students can even show you, we do and think real differently over here. White retrenchment never wins. Listen to Black Language and you hear all the evidence of that. We ain’t goin nowhere and neither is the Black Language that will always deconstruct you.
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 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— in its most simplistic point of origins (we all do more than that). 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 crossroads: 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 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.