“I think this anthropology is just another way to call me a nigger.”


“I think this anthropology is just another way to call me a nigger.”  That’s a heavy title for a blog post.  It is the epigraph to the introduction of John Gwaltney’s Drylongso, words spoken by one of Gwaltney’s research participants. Drylongso remains the book I turn to when I see/read/hear mainstream white scholars christening themselves and their research as THE work that critically engages race and the lives of people of color, all while, of course, maintaining their own white privilege in academic institutions (and often perpetuating acts of racial violence rather than fighting against it).  I don’t mean these things in the abstract either, I mean everyday practices that I have witnessed… but those details will be for another post for another time.

What you see with Gwaltney’s methodology and politics are communities of black folk who unwrap oppressive white worlds with wit, political consciousness, and uncanny navigational abilities.  Gwaltney’s book, first published in 1980, chronicles his interviews with more than 40 African Americans, mostly working class, from 12 northeastern black communities in the early 1970s.  Gwaltney’s very methodology and communications are a community endeavor.  As a “blind ethnologist,” Gwaltney was, quite literally, escorted and driven to each interview setting, what he calls “seminars,” where his participants kept and transported his tape recorder, typewriter, and brailler.  Reciprocity is the foundation on which Gwaltney built this study, making sure he was not one of those academics who talked with “paper in hand.”  Like I said, I come back to this study when I encounter white scholars who imagine that they and their white colleagues originate and ground intellectual and social analyses on race.  I am thinking of one of my graduate students who is focusing on Derrick Bell, Cheryl Harris, and Richard Delgado who had to listen to a white male tell her she needs to incorporate the work of (white) scholars in his field who have already addressed the issues of race she examines.  Gwaltney, however, reminds us that these scholars maintain codes of race and white liberalism more than they have ever analyzed it (what Delgado called “imperial scholarship”)… as Gwaltney’s epigraph, a quote from a black factory worker, states:  “I think this… is just another way to call me a nigger.”   

1I am also thinking about Gwaltney in relation to a white scholar whose work on race I have valued, particularly the arguments that have remained undervalued in ways that I have always found perplexing.  I am talking about Catherine Prendergast’s text, Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education.  I won’t go into detail here and spoil what I say in the inaugural issue of Literacy in Composition Studies next month.  I will just say that I have always found it interesting that there has been no real, vociferous debate around one of Prendergast’s most critical contributions, her chapter on Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words, chapter three.  After that chapter, given Prendergast’s racial analyses, some of this stuff we talk about in composition-rhetoric studies should just be a WRAP!

Part of the obscurity around Prendergast’s challenge to Heath’s work comes from the fact that few compositionists really know educational histories of race, connect that history to their current work, or know the history of race across a K-16 spectrum.  Heath just gets relegated to the K-12 scrapheap, seen as work that is intellectually beneath composition rhetoric. On the flip side, educational scholars in k-12 realms do not respect composition studies as work with rigorous methodologies, social science lenses, or publication standards.  Mix into that cauldron, a legion of white composition scholars who write about race in the most liberalist and anti-critical ways and you got one helluva eclipse-stew on Prendergast’s chapter three.  If we knew any better, we would know that Heath’s Ways with Words helped launch the disciplinary norms we deploy to talk about multiple languages and students of color in post-Brown schools that see large numbers of students of color today.  And if we knew any better, we would see that those disciplinary norms have, at their root, a very conscious and deliberate erasure of analyses of race.

chain gang

This photo depicts a chain gang near Asheville, NC in 1915 (see NC Office of Archives and History in Raleigh, NC). Following Reconstruction into the 1950s, chain gangs were used to re-organize slave labor: black men like those pictured here essentially built and maintained the public roads and highways of the South. It was only when road building was more mechanized that this system of neo-slavery subsided.

My focus on Gwaltney here is not coincidental. He conducted his study at almost the exact time Heath did hers— publication dates are also very close to one another.   As a refresher, Heath’s linguistic ethnography broke new ground in how it documented the literacy practices of a working class black community and a working class white community in 1960s/1970s South Carolina; both communities, according to Heath, had the same conflicts with the middle-class schools, thus, positioning these social clashes with school as a cultural clash.   But all of this clashing in school together was the result of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, which Heath’s book leaves unaddressed, precisely the thing that Prendergast takes up.  This notion of a culture clash also, non-coincidentally, does very little to take up the  histories of structural racism that impede white communities’ ability to respect communities of color who, left at the bottom, do not need to be seen, heard, or taken seriously.  Prendergast reminds you that Heath quoted people like a white working class male who said he only went to college when the town’s mill (where he worked) began hiring blacks because “when the niggers (pause), uh, the blacks, you know, started comin’ in, I knew that wasn’t for me.  I wasn’t ever gonna work for no nigger….”  Obviously, his clash ain’t with the white middle class folk… and it don’t sound like his clash is about “culture” either.  So here we have a canon on the cultural and social meanings of literacy that precludes a real conversation about race, all while acting like it is having just that kind of conversation… nuthin like talkin outta both sides of your mouth.

And so, now, to my last point.  I must admit that I almost fell outta my chair when I read Prendergast’s dissection of Heath’sWays with Words. Prendergast goes to the library that has archived Heath’s notes from her study and reads that stuff (hard-core right there!). Of course, she finds a gem: a letter Heath wrote to a colleague/respondent dated September 13, 1975 about a conversation with a black father who wasn’t too impressed with the research that Heath was doing. According to Heath’s notes/letter, the man told her: “I’ve heard my wife say you study me and other people, and I want to know how you do it and why… I also want to know why you care so much about my wife and kids… there is this black-white thing.  I am what I am and you are what you are.”  Heath decided that those last lines were about the “am-ness” of two human beings and that this was a conversation about gender.  Now see, I like to read these lines aloud to black folk, especially those who call themselves ordinary— drylongso— black folk. I have never found one who shares Heath’s interpretation or who regards such “researchers” as smart people (but I’ll keep looking for the naysayers.)  Here is where I insert Gwaltney back again.  I hear this man telling Heath EXACTLY what Gwaltney’s participants openly discussed and critiqued about academics and their research on Race and Black Folk:  “I think this… is just another way to call me a nigger.”   I am with Prendergast on this one: we HAVE to take these omissions seriously.  Despite self-celebratory claims suggesting otherwise, it looks like many of us have offered up pedagogical and language theories inside of and into a racial vacuum.