I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.” He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there. I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them. She gives me an explanatory model for things. I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs. That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.
As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about. Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact. Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally. I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in. That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs. Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power. For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it). That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color. You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence. That’s just patriarchy working there. And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice. These examples are things I have just come to expect.
I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs. Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom. Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms. He doesn’t mean any of that. Let’s take another example. Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E. Is this critical theory in action? Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators? Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right. Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.
Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different. I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester. I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist). Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website. I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos. In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink. That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets. All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display). If only Marx could see them now!! If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.
My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though. When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism? You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top. As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you. It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be. The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*
These have all been hard lessons for me to learn. As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn. My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains. Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say. Know who you are and what you are really about. The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field. From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL. My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.
*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that. She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.