I often talk about the importance of common sense but that term doesn’t work for the kind of fierce Black Common Sense I have in mind. I like the term I learned from Fela Kuti better: sense wiseness. Just like Fela Kuti conveys in the song, black academics and professionals, especially graduate students, have very little sense wiseness after all of the studies and travels within the empire. Wisdom is not the purview of books and Western schools. Far too many of us see the world outside of academia as incompatible with the work we do inside of academia. For sure, black masses are not welcomed into academia and that is no coincidence but, also, for sure, you better hold on to the sense wiseness of the black masses or you won’t survive academia.
When I think of sense wiseness, I think of my family members (who do not have college degrees… like Fela Kuti says, education and sense wiseness are often an inverse relationship). Between sense wiseness and quick wit, couldn’t NObody get over. My uncle, Uncle Bay, who passed away a few years ago now, was fierce, even when cancer was ravaging his body. My cousin, his son, tells a story of coming home from school one day really upset because a friend told the whole school my cousin’s secret. My uncle quickly told my cousin to stop complaining and take full responsibility for his foolishness. As my uncle told it: if you can’t keep your own secret, why you ’round here expecting somebody else to? That makes a whole lotta sense to me, sense wiseness, actually. I still don’t know what this secret was, some 25 years ago now, so apparently my cousin learned this lesson well. Like in the case of my cousin, sense wiseness also means you listen to people who are telling you the right thing and who know what they are talking about: choose your teachers wisely and ignore fools. I am often baffled as a teacher in this regard: stunned by how many of my students and colleagues listen to the dumbest people offer the dumbest advice about the discipline, who’s who, what’s what, and end up gettin NOwhere. And since sense wiseness is not something you can read in a book, some folk will be like them old 7Up commercials: never had it, never will. Like my Uncle Bay taught my cousin in high school (that my cousin, in turn, taught us): when you trust the wrong folk, something is wrong with YOU, not them, so get yourself right. Friendship, trust, and the intimacies of your selfhood are not things to be given so freely.
Stories of Uncle Bay’s sense wiseness abound in my family. Uncle Bay was a manager at the factory where my father worked when I was a small child (until the factory closed and moved overseas). On one occasion, my father was apparently SHOWIN OUT (and let me attest to the fact that Pops can be good at THAT!) because his paycheck wasn’t accurate and significantly slighted. When my father’s anger didn’t seem as if it could be “contained,” my uncle was called for assistance. Uncle Bay, however, did not oblige and did not intervene: “if you want him to stop actin out, just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.” I know very few black folk like Uncle Bay. Catering to white comfort, fearing white power, or being mesmerized by/chasing whiteness were never part of the game for him. Uncle Bay did not try to placate my father or ask him to forego his righteous indignation and he did not try and explain/domesticate my father’s behavior to his white bosses who knew they were in the wrong. “Just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.” I think of Uncle Bay’s example in the context of my profession often. Time and time and time again (click here for an example), I have witnessed white men want/tell my black graduate students to tone down their anger and verbal forthrightness against the racism they have experienced as students and young faculty. And yet NO single one of these white men has ever taken a stand against or spoken out against the racism these students encounter; they only want to make sure they can squash black students’ voices and keep the status quo exactly as it is. Sense wiseness can keep you from being fooled into maintaining this kind of white dominance that works by silencing black folk and ignoring the wrong done to them. Uncle Bay will always be my model in these instances.
There is a similar story about my Uncle Mac. Apparently, one of the workers got caught doing something, no one really remembers, but everyone does remember that he accused Uncle Mac of ratting him out and being an Uncle Tom. Now you have to understand that Uncle Mac is probably the quietest in my family but that quietness doesn’t mean he is going to tolerate disrespect… so Uncle Mac held the man at knifepoint and let him know what would happen the next time he came at him like that. The man ran straight to Uncle Bay who, by that time, was a manager at this new factory where Uncle Mac worked. Uncle Bay just told the man: Well, he didn’t cut you, did you? You look alright. Now some of the more bougsie types might cringe at the knife in this story, but I don’t have that issue. The man got what he had coming: don’t dish out something you can’t take in return. You don’t get sympathy and coddling when you choose to be stupid. Uncle Bay taught me that and he taught me that you don’t take the side of someone who is WRONG and disrespects your people, that’s not where you put your allegiance and you let them always know it too. This goes for black folk who want to do wrong and then come at you sideways disrespectfully too— this is that real equal opportunity right here. Sense wiseness doesn’t let you forsake real allies and loyalties.
Yes, I am using sense wiseness as a racial concept here. If you have been told by every form of media that the darkness of your smooth skin, the thickness of your kinky curls, the fullness of your perfect lips, and the soul-stirring curves of your hips/thighs/backside are ALL WRONG, you need some hardcore sense wiseness to know these are lies and to see the beauty that everyone denies. You need sense wiseness to know the truth behind a jury and judge of white women who say an unarmed black boy is a danger and should be killed. You need sense wiseness to know that no, there’s nothing wrong with you when you see the white graduate students and faculty around you get support, nurture, and get-out-of-jail free-passes that you don’t. You need sense wiseness to know that your people are not unhuman, unlovable, unpretty even when the world suggests otherwise. Every group does not have to cultivate sense wiseness like this; sense wiseness is what you need to counter dominance and power so those who represent that are not part of this counter-system. Sense wiseness is what lets you question the dogma of a world that denigrates you and tries to control your thinking and action. Certainly not all black people have it… and surviving this world won’t be easy for them.
My family taught me who to trust and who not to trust, who is real and who is domesticated. I know a white supremacist when I see one and I know someone who is acting in the service of white supremacy. I know what it means to be loyal and I know who my allegiances are reserved for. I call all that sense wiseness and I am grateful for it.