Anyone who knows me knows that I come from a large, working-class black family. I am opening with that to say this: there IS such a thing as a black working class consciousness. If you are western/ bourgeois/ academic and you need to call that statement “strategic essentialism” in order to make you feel better about your politics, then go right on ‘head, but, make no mistake about it: a black working class consciousness exists. It is not some naturally-occurring thing; it is a socially constructed belief system, discourse, and political perspective shaped in conversation and proximity with other black people against the kind of super-exploitative, white-ruled working environments that black people must daily enter to feed and clothe their families, but also fully exit in order to maintain some humanity when they get back home. I also open with this because it seems to me that a black working class consciousness is more important today than ever.
I am picking up here from a previous post about the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC, as discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich. Their point is that the PMC’s work today looks a lot like the work that the working class always did— toiling in large structures as nameless cogs in automated systems. I want to juxtapose this change in the work that the PMC does today alongside the fact that more black college graduate students are joining this PMC than ever before. Instead of joining the PMC as the autonomous professionals that the decades before witnessed, first-generation black college graduates today will largely work in places where their everyday work life looks a lot like what their working class parents did (whether it be the service industry or a more factory-based industry). This is the secret that we don’t share with our college students in a college system that is promising more and more students that a college degree will get them the keys to professional status— an economic system that no longer even operates that way.
I am not suggesting that we tell students to stop becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and the host of other professional careers they come to college for. What I am saying is that students will need the black working class consciousness of their elders even more in this new system that tells them they are NOT exploited workers but treats them as EXACTLY THAT! This realization is in direct contrast to the ways that we often teach college curricula, especially college writing. We bamboozle our students with fantastic stories about learning and entering discourse communities, academic professions, and middle class/bourgeois life and work. These are lies. This is the way faculty, as part of the PMC, as the Ehrenreichs describe it, “rationalize” a dying system and extend current modes of capitalism.
Black working class people have always known that they were exploited; that the work that they are allowed to do is not soul-sustaining; that black men do not benefit from patriarchy’s role-making of the male breadwinner; that black women do not get to trade in homemaking/non-job life for female work subordination and privilege; that white men will not come to black women’s rescue as benevolent or non-benevolent patriarchs at work or home (even the oral traditions tell you that! See Flossie and the Fox!); that the labor one does will not equate to monetary gain; that the labor one does will not be written into the master script as the story of what has sustained and made the nation; that white co-workers, in the same financial straits as you, will more often than not cash in on the “wages of whiteness” to falsely identify with a white elite that hates them just as much; that prisons, projects, and criminally underfunded schools are just where they put you to keep you where you are or place you somewhere when the menial jobs you once did are no longer available. These are counter-ideological systems that I don’t think we fully situate. I have in mind here the ways that we talk about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and their focus on poor black folk as knowledgeable, usually in direct defiance of the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; we tend to think these women were making egalitarian, moralistic, feminist choices that re-defined leadership, and, yes, they were, but they were also forwarding and centering a counter-ideological system that the bourgeoisie just can’t give you. We who do the work of teaching and theorizing college writing are also stuck in this discourse of depoliticized, moralistic choices. We want to debate what it means, ethically, to ask students to give up “home cultures” and “mother tongues” when they are in the academy. We want to rest on paternalism and talk about “preparation” of subordinated groups to move ahead in the world (we do not rigorously interrogate that social world, we just embrace ourselves as having the answers to moving forward in it without an admission of our white power as the key.) Sometimes, we will call it racist to ask students of color to give up the communities in which they have made sense of themselves. But we seldom explicitly address our current complicity in one of the most egregious systems of racialized capitalism when we tell students they will enter new types of work worlds with their college degrees. We are, in essence, formulating and formalizing the process where students withdraw from and deny the kind of counter-ideological systems that they already have and can use to take on, see, and critique the system we are in. We would rather throw our students out into an exploitative world and pretend it will not devour them up in the same way it has always done with workers. In my mind, this is the worst kind of teaching we could provide.