Digital Labor, Race & Gender in the Academy

agendaThis fall, I taught a writing class where I introduced students to color as design and rhetoric, the CSS of their ePortfolio platform, and a rich text module (where they would write reflection on what they had done in the class and explain their visual design decisions). The agenda for that day of class was posted the night before, like every day of my teaching this year.  The “lesson plan” was hosted at my own ePortfolio so students could experience the text and weblinks on that platform.  There was also a 4-page handout, my personal worksheet and guide to CSS, all of which was followed by an exit slip as students left the lab.  Just a regular day of class really: tasks you need to complete, things you need to get done… with students who work hard to meet your expectations.  The pinch in the system on that day, however, came from an assigned observer of my class who claimed that no writing happened in the class and that I seemed unprepared for the day.  Yeah… you heard that right…UN-PRE-PARED.  So some 50 emails later and another 10 pages of 5th-grade-level explication of basic digital literacy practices in 21st century writing classrooms, I came to a crossroads where I DEEPLY understand the WORK of my digital labor… and the necessity that a black female professor always be able to PUBLICLY SHOW what she has done and what she can do. After all, it is difficult to make the case for unpreparedness if you have even casually perused the items that I list in just this blog post (unless, of course, you have NO clue how to work a web browser or google search).  It offers a digital visibility when an ideological imposition of invisibility tries to strike its ugly, white blows.  It won’t save or protect you, but it WILL throw a whole other kind of monkey-wrench in the mix, pun intended.

For each class that I taught this year, I created a class agenda that guided what we would do.  The agenda is meant as a guide rather than a script to keep me moving towards the goals and promises I have made on my course syllabus which is usually 12-15 pages long.  Each agenda for each day of my class is posted to the course website.

In addition to this website/blog, I have:

  1. a professional ePortfolio that archives all of my teaching, research, and service since I secured tenure two years ago now
  2. a wordpress site for my English 101 course (Public Writing, Rhetoric, and the 21st Century)
  3. a wordpress site for a class that I taught last year and hope to build as ongoing archive of black women’s rhetoric
  4. a weebly site for my English 201 course, Digital Rhetorics (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  5. two demo sites on digication as a skeleton for the ePortfolios that students create
  6. a website on digication for a series of workshops that I did for sophomores and transfer students designing digital resumes (with a companion weebly demo site as a skeleton for the websites that students create)
  7. a website on digication that explains the CSS of the platform
  8. a forthcoming website on digication for an honors seminar in writing and rhetoric that I will teach next year
  9. a website (not fully public yet) on digication for an online journal of first year students’ digital projects and essays (launched in fall 2013)
  10. a forthcoming online, undergraduate journal
  11. the beginning stages of a scribd account, youtube channel, and soundcloud account in order to upload media to my websites in different ways (I plan to create some apps and screencasts this summer also)

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Black Language Matters: “If You Don’t Like My Peaches, Then Don’t Shake My Tree”

peachesAs soon as I hear someone say it, I bust out laughing: “If you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.”   I love the self-assuredness and, well, the bit of threat and warning that come with these words. I consider this a very nice way of saying: YOU BETTA BACK UP! I AIN’T HAVIN IT!

I have always heard these kinds of expressions from working class/working poor black folk (these lines were ubiquitous in the Blues in the 1920s, what we call floating verses from the black oral tradition, but these lines still float now). Many still make the sad mistake of relegating that to some kind of “folk wisdom,” which is just a white, western trick of pretending to value you but really marginalizing you and calling your wisdom subpar instead. There are many things that you can learn from this philosophy that shape how you understand and do your daily living:

1) don’t mess with something you have no business (or talent in) trying to shake up;

2) if you know those peaches have nothing in common with you, your tastes, your likes, your life, then move on… otherwise, it will be assumed that you WANT to get it started;

3) when that shit falls on your head—and it WILL— that is the consequence that you shoulda KNOWED you had coming.

Because, you see, that peach tree (and the person who uses this expression) is rooted and strong enough to NOT care nuthin about you and bend back on everything you try and touch.

There are so many contexts in which you can use this expression, it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, but for today, I would like to discuss one specific context that is related to the maintenance of institutional racism in colleges and universities where I have worked: white women who (attempt to ) correct my language.  At each and every institution that I have ever taught, a white woman has, in some way, sat me down to explain to me the inappropriateness of my language and/or my “allowances” with students of color, an occurrence always more pronounced at public universities than at private universities.  There is always some kind of overture where they explain academic discourse and academic writing to me.  Now, don’t me wrong, if you have some good advice for me on how to publish more than I already have, I’ll listen with deep seriousness.  However, in each case that I describe, the speaker did not have a Ph.D., OR had never published any academic writing (and by this, I am talking in terms of an R1 discourse so I mean research articles, not poems or novels), OR had not published anything rigorous or significant on this side of the 21st century.  If I did need some advice, these wouldn’t be the folk who I would go to, so now why on earth would these fools, who so obviously KNOW they do not like my peaches, think they should and could shake this tree?  Credentials and experience in academic publishing, online or print, clearly aren’t how these people construct their knowledge of academic writing. Biological whiteness and occupation at a university seem to be their sole practice of academic language and since I disrupt that, they seem to think they can come colonize the way the peaches grow in this orchard.  Except, of course, it just don’t work that way.

rappersdHere’s just one example. In 2005, when I was finishing graduate school, a white female professor overseeing a professional development project I was part of, told me that she thought I was using too much Hip Hop/youth language in what I do.  She wrote me an email detailing my “slippages.” Yes, you heard that correctly. She called herself an expert because her 17-year old white son was an avid consumer of Hip Hop so she knew that language.  Yes, you heard that correctly. And, yes, she got her feelings hurt. For a little chronology here, I’ll just say that I was 34 years old at the time when I received her email. For some more chronology: 1) I was eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979; 2) that was 10 years before this white professor even met the sperm that become her wanna-be-hip, white, suburban son; 3) that was 26 years before this woman’s son discovered Hip Hop by listening to Jay-Z.  As to whether or not I use Hip Hop language to semanticize my life is open to debate since this is not deliberate or conscious, but like I said, The Sugarhill Gang was my Sesame Street; Native Tongues gave my morning college lectures so, yeah, they are the soundtrack to which I hear words and I am proud of it.  All this is to say, I haven’t been copying white kids in white suburbia; they have always copied us and I let this woman know as much in my email reply back to her.  I also gave her a detailed analysis of the many things she had gotten wrong in the articles she had published, years before, about black culture and black language, since the white editors and white reviewers of this journal let her get way too sloppy, an obvious fact since she was thinking, years later, that her doofus, white, privileged son was the center of Hip Hop.  To this day, I look her up, every now and again, just to make sure she hasn’t published something out-of-pocket about black people in case I need to get at her ass again.  She hasn’t.  Like my family and communities taught me long ago: if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

I do find it curious that white women in the academy have been the ones who embolden themselves so constantly to correct my language.  When white men come at me, they always do so with a white woman on their side.  None of this is a surprise.  Every wave of feminism has witnessed black women pointing out to white women how their notions of gender equality are constructed for the maintenance of white supremacy.  Nothing new there.

peach-treesSince none of these women are people who I would ever call my friends, people who I would choose to hang out with, or people who I even want to have much conversation with, it is curious that they seek me out— I have never initiated any of these conversations. I mind my business, do my work, do it well, keep to myself, keep it movin, and only talk to the handful of friends who I like and trust, those folk who understand and theorize oppression.  These initiated discussions are an obvious and deliberate attempt at colonization and, each time, that I respond back, I get rendered as the angry, oversensitive black woman…or the mean, black girl.  The colonized are always rendered as subhuman, stupid (too stupid to know what REAL oppression is, at that), and violent when they resist/speak back to their colonization.  It is inconceivable to power that we might have an analysis of THAT power.  That’s how institutional racism in universities works, what we might call the daily microaggressions necessary to maintain racist culture, and there are always clear actors who deliberately maintain it.  It ain’t a mystery, it ain’t subtle, and it ain’t difficult to pinpoint.

At the end of the day, we can’t be faded though by white women with such limited ideological lenses and vocabularies that they need to label black women angry instead of analytical, loud instead of logical, mean instead of methodical, sensitive instead of smart. There’s only one message to send here: If you don’t like these peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

Witness to the Archive

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From One Black Home…

Since my father (unlike many of my OTHER family members) does not read this blog or any blog and hates the internet, I can tell all his biz’ness here with impunity.  I will use him here to think about digital archiving and its implications for my classroom.

DuctWorkAs I seem to always stress, my father’s working class status and disposition have never meant intimidation or lack of confidence, as many seem to associate with working class folk of color.  As a heating and A/C specialist, he works in many homes/churches/companies to install heating ducts, central air, etc.  If it has a motor, engine, or some such, he can fix it …BUT if you start telling him what he should do when it is obvious that you have NO knowledge or scientific background with the task at hand, he will nod, tell you to do it yo-damn-self since you know so much, pack up his stuff, and walk right back out the door. If you can’t see that he has knowledge and a skillset that you NEED and do NOT have, he ain’t dealin with you.  Ever. If you don’t know how to talk or respect someone like him, well then he ain’t gon give you the time of day.  He will watch you freeze to death, quite literally, without a morsel of regret.  It should go without saying: I think this is one of my father’s greatest attributes. I aspire to be like him each and every day!

And this is where technology comes in.  Just so he won’t forget your dumb behind, my father will add you to his archive, a routinely UPDATED database (names and all possible phone numbers) of people who shouldn’t get any answer when they call. He prints these out and posts them by the phone and at other strategic locations. He has other uses for technology like keeping up with sports stats and staying in touch with his 14 brothers and sisters, but maintaining his database is a main priority. I love to dig through the database rather than just read the posted lists because it gives so much more detail.  I am wildly entertained by the new names and the things folk have pissed off my father about.  I even like to issue warnings: “watch out now— you bout to get on the list.”  Hours of entertainment right there!  I don’t have a database like my father’s, but these days, I am certainly considering it and have plenty names and attributes ready.

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…to Other Black Homes

aretha-franklin-ebony-2As a child, I often went on jobs with my father.  Yes, I enjoyed when he would get mad and leave because, then, I could do my special dance on the walk to car: a bop to match our walk, quick pause every now-and-then for an “in yo face” side-to-side head bap, and then bop to the car door some more.  On the occasions where we stayed, I loved that too. I got to sit down and read Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazines and, since I was appreciative of the content, I was always given access to the stash of back issues that were always stored somewhere close by.  No one threw these out— they were archived as data of our lives.  And, yes, I consider these archives, NOT collections, ones that were freely accessible.  What was the point of collecting black wisdom if you weren’t going to share it?  I loved flipping through the well-worn pages and seeing which articles were the most read.  That’s where I would sink in.  Of course, those times do not match the politics of these magazines now, but they once offered dynamic polemics of and representations into black life.jet-1960-08-25

With every fix-it job that my father did, I was immersed in some kind of an archive.  It is a memory that I would like to carry with me as I imagine how to re-frame the annotated bibliography that is part of the freshman comp curriculum in my program.  While the digital component of my assignment was clear enough (students had to create e-pages for different kinds of websites, articles, videos, etc), I didn’t make the scope and purpose critical enough.  Archives help you live your daily life; they are not just the purview of privileged digital scholars who use the newest tools to (re)center the same white actors of history and aesthetics.  I needed to offer my students the opportunity to create their own archive of knowing and I needed to allow them more control of what that should look like and do.  Once again, it is a black framework that gives me this new approach and disposition.  I am never without a model in this newly technologically automated world, even for alternative archives.

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Black Language Matters: “I Ain’t Got No Time For That,” Sweet Brown, & Other Black Rhetorics

There are times when talking to my poet-friends is just so difficult.  You’ll say something and it will remind them of a memory or a line they had in their heads, so they will just interrupt the conversation and start writing.  You can be in the middle of dinner, talkin about sumthin real intense too, and then, all of a sudden, BAM, they stop cold-turkey and write in their notebooks.  I suppose I annoy people too, because I am always delighted by and stop dead in my tracks for African American language patterns. I  can get as enthralled by the content as the language and start crackin up at the ways my friends say things, not because it’s funny, per se, but because of their cleverness and verbal dexterity. I can’t help but trace the deep, sociological specificity of how, when, why, and where a term or expression is used.  “I ain’t got time fa dat”/“I ain’t got NO time fa dat” is one of my favorite expressions, interchangeable with: “aint nobody got time fa dat” or “aint nobody got time fa you” (a few expletives might also come.)  This expression is certainly not new since I have heard elders use it for as long as I can remember, so I suspect that my age and current circumstances correspond to its new frequency in my discursive toolkit.

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

For many non-Black folk, the first time they noticed this expression was from the now infamous, internet-sensation Sweet Brown in early 2012.  When Sweet Brown escaped an apartment fire in Oklahoma City, she told the local news that she left, without shoes or clothes, and ran for her life.  After then explaining that she has bronchitis and the smoke was getting to her, she proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”  From that point on, the memes and remixes ridiculed her, circulating her last words seemingly endlessly, with of course, an incessant focus on her headscarf.  Ironically, with all that arrogance and surety that she was saying something simple, none of these folk were smart enough to actually know what Sweet Brown was articulating: about the apartment building, about her life, about her health, and about her social circumstances as a black woman.  The time spent on caricaturing her voice and look was appalling, though she SAID she ran out the house unable to even put on shoes. And, true to white appropriation, not a single meme used the expression correctly.  Most of these folk even thought Sweet Brown INVENTED the expression.  Unfortunately, not enough black folk saw the light either.

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

The use of “that” in “I ain’t got time fa dat” is never solely about a specific event you simply cannot attend or that causes an inconvenience for you. “That” means pure foolishness, the kind of mess you should not have to waste your time, essence, energy, and spirit on.  If someone asks me if I am going to a certain event and I say, “naw I ain’t got time fa dat,”  I am making a criticism of the event, the people involved, the ideas being promulgated, and the social world being maintained.  I am NOT talking about a conflict with my schedule, calendar, or date book!  On top of that, I am proclaiming the worth of my energy and attention in relation to the sponsoring person, event, or issue.  It is a public declaration aimed at re-assessing the worth of the speaker and the listeners who she is trying to define the world for and with. I see black folk everywhere publicly proclaiming who and what they don’t respect with this obvious phrase and yet so many miss the meaning.  I mean, really: you can tell folk to their faces that you ain’t feelin em too tough and they will think you are talking about your dayplanner!  In the words of James Baldwin: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is!”

Of course, it goes deeper.  It also depends on HOW you say it.  We can gender the term too.  If you are a love interest (with the interest coming more from your end than mine), and I say “ain’t nobody got time for you” in an annoyed way, look you up and down, and roll my eyes, I am telling you that: a) I am not ever going to be interested in you; b) you are stupid, AND; c) your momma dresses you funny.  Yes, all that from 6 words.  If I say this about my boss, colleague, or some fool with a title or “authority,” I am calling them stupid and useless to my life, other than as another source of oppression, which I hardly need more of (which was EXACTLY what Sweet Brown was actually saying).  Yup, all that from 6 words.  This is precisely why translation exercises from Ebonics-to-Standard-English or simplistic contrastive analysis don’t work: the context of Black Language always suffers and loses depth of meaning, hardly a coincide since we live in a world where its speakers are not considered people who produce deep sweet brown meanings either.

It goes deeper still.  Since the expression always uses the word time along with any variety of emphatic double negatives, we have to notice how time is configured completely outside of a western norm.  The use of time in  “I ain’t got time fa dat” does not reference the here-and-now alone.  This means we need to turn to all that AfroCentric stuff that white academics and their bourgeois allies of color think is so, so far beneath their high-brow western theories of their western selves.  This expression is based on an Africanized notion of time! Time here counters the run-til-you-are-ragged hustle under hyper-consumption and neoliberalism.  And yet, the expression also makes time cyclical, non-linear, and, therefore, more of the spirit than of the temporal body (maybe even something like habitual be).  Given its Africanized originary impulse, its place as a marker of oppression, and its circulation in the context of white institutions, it is a markedly black expression, not simply because black people have produced it but because THEIR EXPERIENCE has produced it.

It didn’t surprise me that folk couldn’t see depth into what Sweet Brown was saying and opted for black-face performances instead.  Academics/scholars who imagine themselves to study language or rhetoric don’t do much better either.  They too, and proudly so, take a white framework and simply apply that to black lives and act as if they have created anything other than the same kind of blackface caricature of the likes of those offensive memes about Sweet Brown.  I am not suggesting that black scholars not use white theorists, since that would be stupid.  But I have also never forgotten Professor Sylvia Wynter’s warning either: that when you borrow and inform yourself, you must ALWAYS notice when race as an overarching sociogenic code of our present episteme is untheorizable/unseeable in a scholar’s work.  I like to use Black Rhetoric to understand those kinds of academic slippages and the slippin’ and slidin’ that academics do in the context of whiteness: I ain’t got no time for that.

Decolonization, ePortfolios, and Students of Color

Though I have had some reservations about ePortfolios, I am more turned off by the ways ePorts get used rather than with the actual ePortfolio technologies available.  These platforms are already pre-packaged and pre-formatted so I am deeply disturbed when faculty create a master template where students (or staff) just input data.  It amazes me that ePortfolios can become just another 5-paragraph formula so quickly.   Here is what I mean by a template:

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The box wrapped in a gray line is called the top navigation bar of an ePortfolio.  You click on a word/item and then you get a series of corresponding ePages that have another series of left navigation options.  What happens in many of the classrooms that I see is that teachers set the topics of the navigation bar to match the requirements of the department, state standards, etc.  Students just load in their work, almost like sifting recyclables into the correct bin.  While that kind of automated sifting is an important task for one’s daily household chores, it most certainly does not qualify as digital literacy or even LITERACY.  For me, it is simply tragic that this sifting passes mustard for writing classrooms.

This sifting into digital templates is yet another kind of standardization and corporate cloning.  That kind of ePortfolio robs students of even minimal levels of digital design in already pre-formatted platforms.  The technology actually allows you to remove the line around the box, thicken it, shadow-box it, color it, round its ages, make buttons, add a background color, etc.  You can do the same with the left navigation (click here for my own ePort as a sample).  You can have multiple backgrounds in all of these spaces. The examples are so countless that you need an actual design plan.  In fact, most websites start with a sketch, a practice that stirs significant conflict since far too many teachers do not see sketching as composing and writing.  I am always so wonderfully surprised when I hear web designers talk about their design choices in the same way that an interior designer does.  It makes sense since we are, in essence, designing a space.  So if students are not allowed to think about any of these design elements for themselves, then can we really call their work an ePortfolio? I remain stunned that writing teachers do not think design has any part of literacy in the 21st century.  While that fact alone is not shocking, such teaching practices are especially violent for students of color.

The images of smiling, happy students of color are masterfully manipulated in college marketing for every brochure, poster, and college webpage— images that, once again, are not controlled by people of color. The overall saturation of images in a multimedia era has not meant anything positive for people of color.  When you do not control the resources, you certainly do not control how your image is portrayed.  I am talking about decolonization here: what might it mean for people of color to (re)imagine their image inside of  the violence of a visual/media culture that denies them this kind of self-determination?   Self-determined visual cultures will be vital for digital literacies in the 21st century, all the more so given the stunning number of college teachers who use educational technologies to strip students of their own cultural-visual rhetorics.

Giving students control of their own visual image has meant that I have had to introduce a little CSS in my class. It’s not that difficult.  While many of my rather crotchety colleagues might seem to think that the sole focus of college writing in the 21st century is grammar in print texts, I know better than to trust such systems and teachers. I am disappointed by how many remain intent on denying my students the REALEST and most basic of human rights/literacy in the 21st century… self-determination.

Django Rechained: Russell Simmons in Context

horsesI might be the last hold-out, but I finally watched Django Unchained.  I had read and heard so much about it that I really did forget the nature of  Quentin Tarantino’s tomfoolery.  I was stunned, for instance, at the scene where none of the white male nightriders, intent on yet another vicious murder, could agree on what to do with their masks because no one amongst them had the skills to cut eye holes in the right place.  When you see and hear historical footage of the likes of southern police commissioners, governors, et al  justifying Jim Crow, north and south, you won’t be hearing anything that sounds even close to intelligence.  In his zeal to make KKK-styled nightriding into something funny, Tarantino might just have captured white men in that era quite well.

I didn’t watch Django Unchained because I actually wanted to see the movie though.  I watched it because I wanted a deeper context for understanding Russell Simmons’s “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” parody.  Unlike so many others, I didn’t have any questions of why Simmons thought this short skit was fine.  Simmons doesn’t have the kind of ethic or high standard in any aspect of his life for me to expect right-thinking from him.  I am pretty clear that Simmons thought he would be cashing in on this feel-good-slavery-movie era so I have to ask: why the prevalence of this genre in the neoliberal era?  And who does it really belong to?  Who’s “new” history is this?

Lincoln-Movie-Poster-1536x2048_extra_bigI needed to see what this genre is actually doing so I self-hosted my own personal movie night.  I started with the movie, Lincoln, and I was amazed.  Here we have a film that displays just how pro-slavery and anti-black the North really was but yet and still casts the white men of that era and location as the heroes.  We see with our own eyes that many voted in favor of abolishing slavery simply because of the monetary/status/job favors they received because hardly no white man wanted to see slavery end.  It takes some real cinematic orchestration to make it look like progressive thinking triumphs in the end.  And, of course, it is as if the supra-radical Lincoln invented the idea of freedom for black folk. Spielberg insists he created an accurate film of Lincoln’s radicalism but his accuracy is along the likes of his most fantastic cinematic fantasy… E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.  I knew this movie would be as fantasy-based as Django Unchained; I only started with it because it was long and incredibly dull and gave me some background sound and image while I dusted my house.

Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-by-Henry-Jackman-The-Horse-Stampede-2012Next was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  It is actually a good follow-up to Lincoln because in both films, Abe is the sole location of humanity, progress, and radicalism.  And once again, white violence gets minimized, but this time not by a dramatization of white property owners in Congress.   Slavery in this movie is really the work of vampires and so we get a whole new narrative for the origins of white terror and inhumanity that invented and sustained slavery.  It’s all a battle of good vs. evil with the North being good.  This movie is as fictional as Lincoln.  And we get to really see how extreme this absolute cinematic inability to look whiteness in the historical eye of slavery really is.

By the time I got to Django Unchained, I was not surprised by anything anymore.  I knew I would get some real gore and violence but there was, of course, no context for it.  We do get a new male gaze in this movie, however: the white male gaze on black women’s bodies.  There is no black woman in the movie who has any agency but here’s the new, cinematic twist: every sista in the film is stunning, even the mammy who controls the kitchen of Candyland is gorgeous.  Movie mammies are never supposed to be pretty. Kerri Washington is more attractive (and naked) in this movie than she is with all her make-up, fake hair, and designer warddrobe on Scandal… and she has absolutely no personhood.  There are no tired, haggard, tore-up-from-the floor-up black women in this movie because white men are surrounded by dozens of beautiful black women who serve merely as delicious, beautiful backdrop— a Candyland, indeed.  We certainly know that white men did not visit black women in the slave quarters and people their plantations with rainbow hues simply because they had sexual urges. Plantation discourse presents a public discourse that white women were the center of beauty, femininity, and virtue but that has never been true nor was it ever endorsed in private by white men.   All that public discourse did was offer a cover for white men’s sexual violence against black women.  The media unleashes that same public discourse now, with the addition of the Jennifer Lopez’s and Kim Kardashian’s into the center of beauty and purity (yes, after all that impurity, beauty, desire, and profit for them are never threatened). Either Tarantino slipped and let his private world/longings show through and/or he wanted us to really see what white men see and want when they see black women.  

harriet-tubmanWatch these three movies and then play the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” skit.  It all fits together.  I really do believe Russell Simmons thought this video would be subversive and funny and that he really never meant to offend.  Black people are not at a place where they can create a good, sellable, laughable fantasy story about slavery though, even when we think we are recreating Django Unchained, part two.   We WERE the auction block, not the auctioneers.  That’s the only history we have in the context of slavery and it ain’t re-inventable or fantasizable.  White property today may not mean explicit ownership of black bodies like in slavery, but white property today certainly means an unequivocal control of the ways the histories and legacies of slavery get told.