A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day Three

I have met a lot of graduate students in the past three years: at national conferences, at talks and workshops that I have given, from personal emails/DMs, and in the classes that I teach.  I wish I could stay in touch with ALLL of them.  I have seen graduate students from seemingly every corner of the humanities and social sciences, and even some from math and science education.  There is one thing that they all have in common at this historical moment: THEY. ARE. MAD. AS. HELL.  I love it and hope with every connected fiber and tissue related to my being on this earth that they STAY MAD… MAD AF!

On day three of any given week, my Wednesdays, I teach graduate studies.  This semester I am teaching a course called “Intersectionality and Activist Research in the Movement for Black Lives.”  It’s a methodology course that tries to take seriously that a critique and refusal of neoliberal anti-blackness in higher education has to be achieved before our research can make a difference. There are 18 students in the class and at least another 10 still on the proverbial waiting list— there just weren’t enough seats in the room to let them in.  I make my whole day available to my grad students, up to and after my class.  I leave the house between 10am and noon and get back between 10pm and midnight.  I wish I could spend more time with them, but that’s as long as I can stay awake. So this day, day three in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, is all about teaching graduate students in the 21st century.

It’s only been in the past two years that I have even liked teaching graduate students.  Before now, I found them mostly whiny, nervous, and needy and I gravitated towards the undergraduate students who were just so much better at keepin it all the way real!  Graduate school infantilizes you, makes you feel like the big, bad academy and its arbitrary rules are beyond your grasp so you forget you a grownass wo/man who knows how to navigate and cut through bullshit (and you gon see a whole lot of basic bullshit in the academy; it ain’t nuthin erudite or difficult). It was exhausting being around so many graduate students who had no social awareness or critique of their environment or higher education and so just wanted you to hold their hands, give them rules/standards, and answer dumbass questions they should have been able to tackle with their own common sense. The graduate students who I meet today ain’t like that at all…. and they do solidarity like none I have EVER seen.  Like I said, their anger and disgust with the academy and the whiteness, patriarchy, and exclusion of their disciplines fuels them to act and to act up.  I love every moment of it.  They come with RECEIPTS every damn week. Yes, RECEIPTS!  Callin mofos out each week of class, naming the names and takin it to to folks’ face!  These graduate students understand the depth and possibilities of decolonial refusal.

I know this is a radically different era because it diverges so sharply from my years in a PhD program (2000-2005).  By the time I started dissertating, my advisors— Suzanne Carothers, Gordon Pradl, and John Mayher— supported and trusted whatever creative move I tried to make, regardless of whether or not it ended successfully because they valued my process.  However, getting to that point was a LONG journey.  My very first graduate seminar in my very first semester, a required doctoral course, was the worst class I have ever taken.  I remember it vividly.  I was simply cast as the antagonistic loud-mouth.  No one wanted to make waves and jeopardize their future opportunities. This meant that no one had a intelligent critique of anything. It was a curriculum theory seminar and it didn’t matter where you landed on the political spectrum, this class taught you absolutely nothing.  Because I worked part-time and did consulting as a full-time student with four classes per semester, I chose my coursework quite deliberately.  I just did not have the time to waste on useless reading and writing. This class pissed me off every week!  Many of our required readings came from the Brookings Institute. I was the only one who brought that up in class as an issue as, of course, the antagonistic one.  Most of the students in the class did not consider themselves conservative or right-wing like Brookings and yet they did not flinch or ask a single question about the relevance of this to our work.  After all, being down for the go-along eventually produces silence, complacency, and complicity.  Internet search was a REAL thing back then (though google search was still a baby) but my peers had not even bothered to do that because they were determined to obey.  If you asked most of them today, they couldn’t tell you what Brookings was/is or that Mickey D assigned so many readings from it (Mickey D is what I called that professor because he was about as real and deep as McDonald’s). There was only one required reading all semester about race (from Brookings) in a class about curriculum theory and nothing from a Black author.  No one said a word against it.  Not once. The class was so bad that even if you were a conservative, right-wing Republican, you wouldn’t have learned a thing, certainly not enough to get you taken seriously by Brookings.  Issa all-around failure.  Mickey D wrote on my final paper that he was not interested, as a white mainstream man, in my ideas regarding race, hegemony, dominance, and whiteness (his exact words) and gave me an A-.  I got an A in the course but still stomped my way to the dean’s office on his basic Mickey D butt.  My fellowship required me to present and publish annually and I so insisted that this would not be possible if I had to sit in submediocre classes that did not reflect current research trends.  From that point, I got out of every required course in the program and only took the courses I wanted to take.  It made no sense to me, as someone who studied language, to have to sit in classes taught by folk like Mickey D when someone like Ngugi was teaching across the street.  I fought for myself and won that battle… and I was the only one in my cohort and program/school who took classes with Ngugi, who taught me more about teaching just from his presence than anyone I had met.

I had no peers who battled our curriculum and program with me, but if I were a graduate student today, it would be different.  This is as much a rhetorical and linguistic shift today as it is a political/curricular one.  I see and hear this in the ways that radical scholars like Tiffany King and Eve Tuck have taught me, work that I see within the terms of what Tiffany King calls a “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism”:

Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism … diverge from the polite, communicative acts of the public sphere…  they do not play by the rules…practices of refusal and skepticism interrupt and out codes of civil and collegial discursive protocol  …. The force, break with decorum, and style in which Black and Native feminists confront discursive violence can change the nature of future encounters…. Refusal and skepticism are modes of engagement that are uncooperative and force an impasse in a discursive exchange.

I can’t say all graduate students today are ready to burn shit down.  Many, if not most, are mediocre, careerist weasels with hopes of nothing more than selling us out so they can become the next celebrity tokens.  But there are enough dope, decolonizing, critical graduate students today to get some fires started.  There’s no way that I would go back and re-do graduate school. No one wants that but I do wish I had been in graduate school with the folk I see today. If I were a graduate student alongside the students I see today, I would be further advanced theoretically, politically, and ideologically because I wouldn’t be as suffocated by the mediocre theory and praxis that are often sold as the only viable options.  I feel sorry for all these fools with their Mickey D inclinations today.  Their days are OVUH!

A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day Two

The biggest complaint I get from my students is that I assign too much reading and writing.  I heed this complaint only to the extent that I check myself that I am not being unreasonable with students who have to work to feed and clothe themselves and am not, thereby, making a college degree outside of their reach. Other than that, GAME ON!

For each class meeting, I assign a reading, whether undergraduate or graduate, with a short writing assignment.  I do not assign that one, major final paper at the end of the term. Instead, I opt for weekly short pieces through the semester culminating in a portfolio of sorts at the end.  Each week, you need to write/design/draw your thinking alongside what we are reading. I do not expect a coherent, linear essay or even written text for that matter.  I never assign a reading and then quiz students in class.  That takes up valuable time in class when they need to be talking to one another, pulling apart ideas, and piecing them back together again with their colleagues in the room who will see or notice something different.  I never assign a reading without a written text to accompany it.  I collect and comment to all of this writing as a reader, not a grader.  You are graded for doing it, not the form, grammar, or political agreement.  I won’t back down from this pedagogy, especially if students are reading about issues related to Blackness, gender, race, sexuality, bodies, and cultures.  I believe this pedagogy forces young people of color to do something school seldom requires of them when it comes to Black and Brown Knowledge: KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU TALKIN BOUT!

You see, when it comes to things like Black women’s histories, Black Feminist thought, Black radical traditions, Black queer theory, Black Trans studies, I meet students all of the time, undergrad and grad, who think they need to just come to class and discuss and debate “the issues.”  I just don’t respect mess like that.  Before you open your mouth on any of that, you gon hafta read sumthin, you gon hafta know a genealogy, you gon need a sense of an extant literature, you gon hafta #SayTheirNames, you gon hafta examine and look/listen closely.  Brown and Black students are not always expected to do this.  They are just expected to racially represent for a headcount; that alone will qualify you as a speaking authority.  Meanwhile, there is no hesitation, for instance, on that part of white students to condemn all of Black Feminism and Intersectionality Studies as essentialized identity politics (that’s how grad students say it) or racist and angry (that’s how undergrads say it) when, before they met me, they had never even heard the terms. White theory and scholarship do not work that way though— for whiteness, you are expected to know a FULL BIBLIOGRAPHY .

Many of my more mainstream undergrad students, for instance, are surprised that I expect them to read so much in my gender studies classes.  They expected to just come to class and argue and debate.  I’m real clear on why this ain’t happenin.  Why on earth would anyone want to hear what they have to say about Black Queer theory or Black Feminist thought when they have never even heard the terms and couldn’t name a historical or contemporary theorist or activist?  Blackness, you see, does not come with the requirement of a bibliography, not for white students or for students of color. This permeates the wider whitestream culture of academia too.

If a Brown or Black headcount is all that is needed, then anyone slightly malenated can represent the neoliberalist needs of a university or institution to perform master narratives of diversity and inclusion.  Once again, you do NOT need to know what you talkin bout.  I mean more than folk who are embraced because they are palatable to white comfort.  I’m mean people who are allowed to be a lil simple or outright dumb when it comes to Black and Brown scholarship.   You ain’t got to read, study, think deeply, or investigate anything to be an expert of Black and Brown issues … you just have to read the email request for your malenated attendance at a white function.

So, yeah, my classes ask students to know their shit before they presume themselves part of any critical discussion or any social change machine.  But that also means I gotta do my homework too. So on Tuesday, Day Two in A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy, I am fully taking advantage of the luxury of reading and thinking.  I have to skip my committee meeting this week because I am on another campus that day. That frees up the time I would have taken to review the lengthy materials beforehand.  Thankfully, I’m not giving any talks this week so I don’t have to do that prep work.  My phone conferences/meetings are at the end of the week.  My errands can wait until the weekend.  My deadlines don’t come down until next Monday.  So on Tuesday, I get my own self ready for my own graduate classes.  This week’s topic: Black Feminist and Indigenous Feminist challenges to post-humanism— in particular, what Tiffany King calls “Native feminist politics of decolonial refusal and Black feminist abolitionist politics of skepticism”  (and all the other posts: post-identity, post-race, post-intersectionality, post-composition, post-subject, post-sanity…. and the research methodologies therein).  It’s a good Tuesday!


A Week in the Life of a Black Feminist Pedagogy: Day One

I have decided upon a new series (though I have not finished the previous series: Academia as a Hustle/ Everything I Know about Academia I Learned from Rick Ross). This series will only last for one week though: Monday through Saturday (Ima take Sunday off from blogging because that’s when I spend my time responding to student writing).  I have been thinking a lot lately about the inherent hypocrisy of many “critical” teachers and scholars who have apparently found the answers to challenging our disciplines and universities.  From a life committed to Black Feminist Pedagogy in a neoliberalist university, a decolonial refusal of whiteness and neoliberalism in colleges today is a relentless, exhausting endeavor that is never easy. So I’ll take this week off to keep my own self in check, call out my own mistakes and challenges, and ignore the complicity that folk wanna disguise as political intervention and reflection. If you ain’t real careful, folk out here will have you thinkin veiled misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and/or anti-Blackness can represent you.

So…my trek to campus started like every Monday… at the grocery store.  I have a writing seminar this semester for seniors who are majoring in gender studies.  After I spend the morning working on our class agenda, I stop at the grocery store to pick up food.  I know that the students in my classes are hungry by the time we meet at 3:05pm (and go until 5:45pm).  Most have more classes until late evening. In fact, our wellness center posted on the Gram that 15% of students at CUNY (City University of New York) have reported going hungry sometimes or often. That percentage is higher on my campus. I know what it’s like to have to study and go to school while hungry so the least I can do is TRY to feed my students in both body and mind (when my class size is at 36, I can’t afford this so we are struggling together in those moments).

Before this writing seminar starts, I meet with Kinza who articulates for me the DOPEST reasons why first year writing MUST be politicized via her own history in my class two years ago when she chose to write and design as a Muslim activist and artist.  She is interviewing me for a project and tells me she is inspired by me.  I don’t think she will ever fully understand just how much I am the one who is truly inspired.  I am the teacher I am today because of young women of color like her.  There is another young woman waiting to see me but I don’t get to meet with her because I have to run to class.  As soon as I hit the button on this post, I will need to email her and check in.  I am worried about the things she is going through as a young, poor, Black, queer feminist tryna make it and keep her sense of herself in tact.  I’m not sure how to help her but I’m damn sho gon try.

Yesterday, Rafaelina brought chicken, rice and beans, and plantains for the seminar.  She brought Nellie, who has been sick for quite some time now, some soup.  Rafaelina wanted to ease my burden and the money I am spending on food for the class. I am going to find her a really nice thank you card and put money inside so that she is not coming out of pocket like this.  As the mother of two, she cannot afford this gesture for the class but I am so humbled by her spirit and generosity. She won’t like that I am doing this. The class wants to collect for her and maybe I will let that slide at the end of term.  I just can’t bare to see a single mother spending her little bit on us as long as I have the money in my pocket.  I did promise everyone though that when they are ballers, they can take me out ALL THE DAMN TIME.  Funny thing is: I think they really would.

We spent most of class talking about the activists they follow in relation to the topics of their senior theses which all come down to four areas of study: Black feminist resistance; Black masculinities and sexualities; queer of color critique; and Latinx masculinities and sexualities.  They are paired in what I call accountability partners (I need a better term) so that they are explicitly responsible for someone else in the room and their partners’ writing. The conversations in class are richer than I can even try and transcribe here.  Somehow, someway, we have to center our own stories, push the boundaries of what counts as text, do digital design for counterpublic audiences, engage our own activism, and have some fun with it.   While Broke.  While Hungry.  While Black.  While Brown.  While Queer.  In a university system that invisiblizes the Struggle, at best, until it can pimp out students’ pain to be marketed&pathologized on brochures and videos used to collect white benefactors’ sympathy money. I get nervous every semester wondering if I am cut out for this job.

When I try to explain something about a writing task to the class, Nelly yells out: “what she is sayin yall is don’t be basic!”  Thank you, Nelly, for breaking it down and reminding me to just SAY. IT. LIKE. IT. IS. when I stumble.

By the time I get back to my office, I am exhausted from everything that transpires in class but there are more students to see, in my office and on my train ride home. I get home by 10pm.  Typical Monday.  So much more week to go.

My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.