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

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

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

CCNY Protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will choose. But not as we were chosen, weighed and measured, pinched, bent backwards, under heel.  Not as we were named: by forced dispersal of the seed, by burial of history, by crippling individuality that led the rulers into crimes of dollar blood . . .

We do not deride the fears of prospering white America.  A nation of violence and private property has every reason to dread the violated and the deprived . . .

Education has paralleled the history of our Black lives; it has been characterized by the punishment of nonconformity, abridgement, withered enthusiasm, distortion, and self-denying censorship.  Education has paralleled the life of prospering white America: it has been characterized by reverence for efficiency, cultivation of competence unattended by concern for aim, big white lies, and the mainly successful blackout of Black life. . .

[The university] is where the norms of this abnormal power, this America, receive the ultimate worship of propagation. . . the citadel of technology and terminology . . .

There are three moves that Jordan seamlessly connects here: 1) the unique circumstances of oppression in what Katherine McKittrick has called post-plantation geographies, 2) the role of white universities in maintaining both knowledge of and admission into the structured and material inequalities of universities, and 3) the spatialization and FACT of black insurgent life.  There is no moment in which we teach where we are not operating within these… at both the institutional level of our schools and also our day-to-day work in classrooms.

And so, the Black student enters the gates. . .

We know American violence, power, and success.  Is the university prepared to teach us something new? . . .

Serving the positive implications of Black Studies (Life Studies), students everywhere must insist on new college admission policies that will guide and accelerate necessary, radical change, at al levels of education. Universities must admit the inequities of the civilization they boast . . . [and] literally adopt these living consequences as its own humane privilege.

I close here, as does Jordan, with the full unveiling of the fourth demand: namely that Black and Puerto Rican students deserve to be centered at CUNY.

More than twenty years before Houston Baker and Manning Marable argued that the Black and Puerto Rican Freedom Movements of the 1960s and 1970s offered us college students who re-vocabularized the academy— its inflections, tastes, content, look, sound, personhood— June Jordan was revocabularizing those classrooms with students.  If, in fact, this was the first moment when the academy, albeit not fully, was re-vocabularized (and I think it was), then June Jordan is a central force of this new lexicon and the possibilities for its teaching styles.

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