Defining Neoliberalism from Black Feminist Ethics

In my first year writing (FYW) classroom this fall, I want to offer students a workable, go-to definition of neoliberalism. I don’t expect students to read political economy or write research papers on that.  This is not the best way to teach and interrogate neoliberalism in FYW. Instead, I want to treat neoliberalism rhetorically.  We are all neoliberal subjects so a writer’s stance on neoliberalism is always evident, whether or not you use the word, whether or not you fully comprehend the meaning, whether or not you are explicitly discussing economic issues. I am not so keen on using what passes as scholarship in my field as an offering to my students either though.

feminism-4I haven’t made any final decisions yet, it’s still all coming together. I tend to get side-tracked when I do syllabus planning. I start taking notes for other projects or I make notes of new realizations.  This moment is no different.  Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought is what I keep thinking about right now– the moment when I first met the text when I was an undergraduate student in the early 1990s.  Every black female scholar/black feminist who knows the book seems to have a chapter, section, or set of sentences that impacts her most.  Or, alternatively, she has a critique of something that doesn’t quite work or doesn’t work for the 21st century.  I can’t say why, but Collins’s ideas about black feminism’s ethic of personal accountability offered a whole new way of thinking when I was an undergraduate: “people are expected to be accountable for their knowledge claims.”  Maybe I was just stank and needed a justificatory system for why I couldn’t stand a whole bunch of the folk around me.  Something just clicked when Collins framed her black female students’ ideas as black feminist consciousness.  For Collins, there was a consistent critique from her black female undergraduate students where their value of an academic was related to that person’s character, that person’s treatment of the people around them, that person’s moral decisions in day-to-day life.  You can’t just mouth the words.  It was not a popular sentiment amongst heterosexual/heterosexist black men on campus who seemed insistent that what they did behind closed doors in their bedrooms had nothing to do with their politics of black life and culture.  I wasn’t tryna hear that.  If you beat the hell outta your wife/girlfriend/jump-off, then your version of black liberation is not one that can liberate me.  I knew that at 20 years old and still have very little patience for the ways men want to discursively neutralize/control the misogyny they actively promote. I am not trying to suggest that there is or should be no help for such abusers, I don’t believe that, but if you think that you are entitled to the violence and deception that you instigate in your bedroom, then you aren’t looking for/capable of help.

Alexis Pauline

Alexis Pauline Gumbs

It is easy enough to see how this black feminist ethic of personal accountability works in relation to sexual abuse and violence against women.  However, that ethic extends to other places too, especially in my own field where the racism that I see scholars inflicting should be treated as criminal.  When a white woman mails to her only black student a book with the N-Bomb in the title after not assigning a single black author in her class (but openly dissing Gilyard’s work and calling Smitherman’s work irrelevant) and then casting that black male student as a predator when he displays his offense, I will never be interested in her  publications on anti-racism.  And I have nothing positive to say about the white people who co-sign her and treat her version of anti-racism as viable to anyone or anything but their own ongoing white privilege.  I think of myself as fair-minded here: I have equal disdain for the people of color around her.  Like I have already said on this blog, my culture gives me special words for such folk of color.  When a non-white male (but phenotypically white) chair of a department sides with racist white students who violently attack the only black female assistant professor who asks her students to talk about racism, I am not interested in anything he ever has to say about diversity, administration, or the teaching of writing.  I won’t implement or listen to the practices of those who find him insightful either.  When a non-white woman (but phenotypically AND culturally white) brutally disrespects a black male scholar in his home and elsewhere but is always bowed down, on her knees, to white men, I do not want to hear a word of what she has to say about political economies, feminism, or decolonization.  I refuse to trust this woman’s colleagues and co-authors who have silently stood by and casually watched such anti-black violence while labeling themselves radical.  I got questions about the white scholars who are so politically comforted by the work of all these anti-black tokens too. I learned from Collins a long time ago as an undergraduate that oppressed people are also often invested in oppressive systems (we like to forget THAT part of intersectionality) which makes it very telling when white racists like these token-kind so much. I am not suggesting that any of these cases represent people who can’t change but in order for that to happen, they need to cop to what they have deliberately and consciously done, instigated, lied about, stolen, and attacked.  When, instead, you are strutting around conferences, colleges, and journals like an arrogant George Zimmerman, full of confidence and non-remorse for having gotten away with the murder of another black person, I have no regard for you, your scholarship, your lifestyle. I am not being hyberbolic here, I am describing very real and VERY recent incidents.  And I do not mean false alarm when I suggest that the scholarship from such actors in my field is akin to George Zimmerman, in his current political state of mind, writing a book about the end of racial profiling.  Black people can’t afford to take THAT seriously if they plan to stay alive.  If we are really going to proclaim “We are Trayvon Martin,” then we have much more than police and Stand Your Ground to challenge.  Concrete experience— rather than the  stand-alone sanctity of the rational, (Western)logical thesis— is a central criterion of meaning, consciousness, and intellectual radicalism. This stance is part of my black feminist consciousness.

I am reminded of how such black feminist consciousness works as I craft my syllabus, one that will never include scholars like I have described who act solely in the service of white violence.  Some of the most egregious forms of violence against black communities have happened because of and at the hands of university scholars: the well-known instances of the Tuskegee Experiment and the impoverished Henrietta Lacks with her multimillion HeLa Cells should be proof enough.  The scholars in those contexts, however, did not see themselves as doing anything wrong.  They did not see themselves as unethical… it took history to teach us this.  History will remember the scholars who I have described in the same ways where, just like now, people will someday look back and wonder how these folk could do such things and why folk said nothing about it.  I won’t need the distance of history though.  I do not have any hesitation about the kinds of people who will never be introduced to my college students and the kinds of people who will never influence my pedagogy.  I may not know which scholars I am using to discuss neoliberalism yet but I certainly know who I am NOT using.  And I certainly know the people in my field who maintain plantation-style racist violence, despite everyone’s dangerous self-delusions that they are offering black people freedom.  Black Feminist Consciousness means knowing and doing better than that, in the classroom and out.

AfroDigital Women and the Underground eRailroad

Underground_Railroad_MapIn the past few years, I have relied on black women’s youtube channels to move me away from the creamy crack (translation: perm/relaxer) and towards natural hair styles and protection.  Even CNN and Sesame Street have taken stock of the politics of black women’s natural hair.  I became fascinated with what black women do for and with one another on these hair, style, and beauty channels.  I won’t go deeper into these polemics about hair and black women for now (that’s a longer analysis).  I am just using my AfroDigital HairStory here as an introduction to the role of youtube viewing in my life. I am most interested in how black women are creating visual/print/audio/digital communities across multiple topics via youtube and the processes that I use to find these black women.

Most people have been using the personal channel function on youtube for years now, uploading a host of corny and tacky personal videos, crazed-looking rants about nothing, or shrines to themselves and their offspring.  Though I don’t do anything particularly interesting with my youtube channel, I have always been fascinated with the ways that black women use youtube.   Of course, my analyses of the social networking available via youtube isn’t anything new when you look at all of the analyses of the similar media cartels of Facebook and Twitter.   I, however, prefer a more audio-visualized experience and, personally speaking, can’t stand facebook’s appeal to far TOO many as a hook-up spot/strategy (worsened recently with its new dating functions).  As much trouble as fools get themselves into with Facebook thinking they can start real relationships, locate a quickie real quick, or keep the flames burning on old conquests, you would think folk would have learned something by now.  Lesson-learning is not forthcoming for a fool though so I go forth elsewhere.

The Cast of Afro City

The Cast of Afro City

When I type terms like black womanism, black women, and black feminism into a youtube search, I am appalled at what comes back at me: 1) black men explaining why black women are undesirable and unlovable in comparison to other races; 2) all kindsa folk across every ethnicity explaining why black women’s criticisms/anger/beef/feelings are unwarranted (it is all black women’s fault, no matter what the issue); 3) black men and women describing the damage that black women’s womanism and/or feminism are causing to children, families, and nation (with some still going as far as Shaharazad Ali who wrote a book way back when telling black men they should slap black women who she likened to rat and dogs). When I type in black girls, I get videos of young black women fighting with a comment system that ranks the fight like it’s off-track-betting. These images are mind-boggling but certainly not surprising given the history we inherit.   I had to do something different to search for places where black women were using youtube to talk to one another in ways that challenge racism, sexism, capitalism, homophobia, and every soul-negating issue that denies our life force.  80% of youtube suggestions of related videos at the right side are irrelevant to me, at best, or downright offensive so I know to only look at what the people who I subscribe to are uploading.  That’s how I found the show, Afro City, which I followed simply because I was drawn to the very look of the women whose aesthetic dimensions are completely different from the mainstream (and where Afrocentricity/femininity does NOT mean the likes of Shaharazad Ali).  Now I go to what my own subscribers have liked (I only have about a dozen right now so this doesn’t take much time) and what they have subscribed to and I can see a deeper, more relevant set of chosen audiovisual texts that are shaping black women’s lives. When I find a video that I like, I obviously go to that channel and see what else is there.  Most times, it’s a dead-end, but every now and then I can find some gems where I am introduced to new playlists and vloggers, youtube shows, see new channels to subscribe to, and see videos worth watching that the channeler has liked.  If you are interested in real intellectual and mental elevation (most people in the digital universe are not) rather than quickie and often banal socializing and the like, then what happens is that you start visiting all of the places that the black women you respect on youtube visit in order to find more black women.   While this kind of search that I describe is all self-evident, obvious, and common, I think it is still worthwhile to notice the process.


This sculpture is the largest memorial to the Underground Railroad in the U.S. It features Harriet Tubman leading a group of escaped slaves, Erastus and Sarah Hussey and the Station Masters for the Southern Michigan Underground Railroad Operation ushering slaves into their basement

The process that I describe speaks to the ways in which black women must always search for alternative discourses for and about themselves using a kind of underground railroad system of connections and next stations. Black women talking to other black women as and about black women are not going to be readily publicized and easily locatable. When you want spaces to hear and SEE black women using visual, audio texts, you need exacting techniques and details to reach new e-railroad stations.

Impact of Lauryn Hill: Beyond Double Standards

“I don’t know any black woman that could go out here and make a sex tape and get a cupcake line, a clothing line, a perfume line, and be touted around on the arm of an athlete like this is my girl, cuz you know when we do that kind of stuff we called Supahead… I’m [not] put on a pedestal like the other women.”  ~Sherri Shepherd

These were the words spoken by Sherri Shepherd on a panel discussing black men and women’s relationships.   I was struck by the relevance and accuracy of the sentiment but also by her ability to push this reality much farther than how we usually like to see and talk about such issues: as “double standards.”   This notion of “double standards” just doesn’t go far enough and stops incredibly short of any real analysis.  I prefer bell hooks’s terminology: “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy”— a totalizing and interlocking system.  Strange as it may seem, there was something, or rather someone, in particular who triggered my memory of Sherri Shepherd’s words and my general disdain for every everyday discourse that names social violence on black women as “double standards”:  that person is Lauryn Hill.

lauryn-hill1Quite frankly, with the exception of my classrooms that enroll large numbers of young black women, most of what I hear black folk— men and women alike— discuss in relation to Lauryn Hill is her mental and emotional collapse after her album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Between the emotional abuse she has obviously endured from her partner, the inability to perform with her original music and hence the bands she deploys, the legal tax issues she faces, and the allegations of mental breakdown and drug use, she gets dissed all around.  And yet, every time I see Bobby Brown or Q-Tip, I suspect the crackpipe is not far away.  In the words of Rick James, cocaine is a helluva drug! I always (secretly, I admit) wonder when Busta Rhymes is going to leave the steroids alone because something just ain’t lookin right (I say the same about L.L. Cool J and Botox).  Wesley Snipes still ain’t figured out what taxes are.  I am also amazed by the way we enshrine Eazy-E without nary a word that the brotha died of AIDS with seven children from six different women. Needless to say, that brotha was clearly into some shit (not unlike the many, many men Supahead so fabulously chronicled for us). The folk who are so curiously silent on these issues are the same fools who diss Lauryn.  Double standards?  Naw.  There’s more than just that going on here.Lauryn+Hill+PNG

Like what I recently said about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill gets love from my students every semester.  I don’t even have to bring her name up— they will do the work.  I am noticing this more now as I close out a semester of teaching black women’s rhetoric.  I see my students’ embrace of Lauryn Hill as a way they combat a system intent on stealing a black woman’s light, a system that they too are up against.

I am confident today that my students have a substantial, new body of knowledge on black women’s history, that they even know some rhetorical theory as well as black feminist thought.  But what I am most impressed with is the way they fight for black women’s lives: they fight to let. black. women. live.  That’s what I see them doing with Lauryn Hill against an “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that intends to obliterate her.  I stand with my students on this one: much love to you, Lauryn! 

Blueswomen: Discourse & Situation

Bessie+Smith+Bessie_Smith2I just finished loading Unit Three of my course on Black Women’s Rhetoric, a unit that uses Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as a launching point for naming and defining blueswomen as rhetoricians.  I have a sense that what I will be asking students to do with black women’s music, lyrics, and performances might seem a bit strange to them, at first.  The task might be easier in relation to Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, but I suspect it will feel stranger when we begin to look at contemporary artists who I think operate in the same tradition.  The main task will be for students to listen to and feel the contemporary songs they may already know but in a way where they can understand that there is an urgency underneath what might be regarded as mere romance, especially when we witness the live performances.   That is what we are trying to claim for rhetorical analysis.

A black feminist theorist prompted me to really start thinking this way.  Here I am talking about Hortense Spillers and this quote:

What is it like in the interstitial spaces where you fall between everyone who has a name, a category, a sponsor, an agenda, a spokesperson, people looking out for them— but you don’t have anybody.  That’s your situation.  But I am like the white elephant in the room. Though you can’t talk about the era of sound in the U.S. without talking about blues and black women.  You can’t talk about the era of slavery in the Americas without talking about black women, or black men without black women and how that changes the community— there is not a subject that you can speak about in the modern world where you will not have to talk about African women and new world African women.  But no one wants to address them…  I mean we really are invisible people.  And I just kind of went nuts.  And I am saying, I am here now, and I am doing it now, and you are not going to ignore me… ‘whatcha gonna do?’ [italics, mine]

For me, Spillers gets at what it feels like to be a black female academic/professor with some real soul-crushing and soul-reviving insights.  She really hits this nail on the head and drives it all the way through for me.  Her words make a difference for someone like me who is coming behind her and reading her; she helps me read my situation as a black female academic and understand exactly where I am.  “But you don’t have anybody.”   She ain’t never lied on that right there!  When I think back on the colleges where I have worked and many intellectual spaces where I do my work, there has been no one who has been down for me— no sponsor or spokesperson in my corner anydamnwhere!  And outside of my closest sister-friends, this is, just as Spillers says, my “situation.”

Now Spiller’s points might not seem like they would ever have anything to do with contemporary musicians and what my students and myself are talking about in unit three of this semester. Nonetheless, it IS related.  When I first, as an example, heard Goapele‘s “Tears on My Pillow” on her latest album, I felt like I was hearing and witnessing Spillers’s words and message all over again.  It’s that part where Goapele says that the tears she has shed were all in vain, no one ever really cared because she was all on her own, she had to just move forward from there. Goapele is obviously talking about a romantic relationship gone awry here.  Though Goapele’s individual romance/relationship may not carry the political urgency of the issues Spillers describes, Goapele’s song DOES certainly carry the weight and feeling of the world that Spillers delineates.  In this case, “I was crying in vain” resonates its pain, social implications, and impact from within that same lens that Spillers describes so damn well: “But you don’t have anybody.”   The issue of which women’s tears do and do not matter is also not neutral here.  I have in mind Karen Dace’s essay, “What Do I Do With All of Your Tears,” that describes the privileged treatment that white women receive, oftentimes at Dace’s own expense, each time they cry publicly in professional settings.  It is a kind of caring and centering that Dace, as a black female professor/administrator, knows better than to expect; to no one’s surprise, I have also witnessed the parting of the seas (especially by white men) every time a white woman cries at every white institution where I have worked.  So, yeah, Goapele has it right: her tears will do nothing but land straight on her own pillow.

My students are young and may not extrapolate such meaning from a song like “Tears on My Pillow.” But they have seen this thing I am talking about with their mothers, their aunties, their godmothers, their grandmothers. What I hope is for us to see that this is a unique and serious social and political location from which to understand black women’s discursive productions, even when they are talking about the relationships that they desire and/or must leave.

Radical Feminists of Color & Composition Studies: Contradiction in Terms?

I once received a very curious letter of recommendation when I chaired a search committee for a writing program.  The letter was written by a prominent white female scholar in my field, often praised and respected for her progressive feminist scholarship and perspectives on race, class, gender, sexuality, oppression, et al.  The letter was written for one of her white male graduate students.  This particular composition-rhetoric scholar took it upon herself to offer a lens into the caliber of his teaching (his dissertation involved literary theory so the scholar had not, in fact, seen any of his scholarship, only his teaching, as she was the teacher of record for his required teaching practicum in the Ph.D. program).  The letter was pretty much the standard, praise-full candidate letter but then she switched it up: she began comparing this man’s teaching to the “great Hollywood movies on teaching” (yes, this is an exact quote that I have never been able to get out of my head) like Freedom Writers.  She compared his ability to get students excited by traditional lectures to what Michelle Pfifer’s character does in the “great movie,” Dangerous Minds.  And she described these movies and this man’s teaching with deep awe and admiration.  Now everybody who I know/read who sees themselves connected to critical literacy/radical pedagogy has criticized these movies for their depiction of white women as the saviors of the savage, natives in the urban schools of the big, bad, dark, ghetto jungles.  Everybody…. I…. Know.  And yet, somehow, this woman, someone considered a progressive feminist rhetorician, missed the whole damn message.  I mean, really?   Even  Mad Tv gets this:

Now I don’t mean to suggest that the field has only produced and/or rewarded the kind of white feminist scholar who I have described.  She is not the stand-in for all, for sure, thank goodness.  Nonetheless, I still got some questions.

This memory was triggered for me this week while I was attending the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA).  As it so happens, I was really drawn this year to black and Latina women who talked about the paths they have taken as scholars/activists/intellectuals/feminists.  I was also really drawn by these women because they had once been connected to my own field, a field which none of these women remain linked with, a field in which I get letters like the one I described above from someone widely respected as a “feminist.”

My ears first perked up when Beverly Guy-Sheftall began to describe that she started her career the same way I had: teaching remedial English/writing classes, in her case, at Spelman.  Though I was not at an HBCU like Guy-Sheftall, my experience at an urban college with classrooms 100% black and Latino/a, more than 25 years later from Guy-Sheftall’s start, was no different than what she described: an unyielding white, male, racist, patriarchal curriculum and structure.  She went on to describe how she and students organized the takeover and kidnapping of trustees until they agreed to elect, for the first time ever, a black woman as president of Spelman; she told this story alongside tales of Toni Cade Bambara teaching black women’s literature courses in her home, non-credit-bearing, because the university would not allow Bambara to teach such courses.

Later in the conference, I was stunned even further to hear that both Ruth Zambrana and Bonnie Thornton Dill had worked as open admissions administrators at the City University of New York (CUNY). For all that I have read and heard about open admissions and “remedial education” at CUNY, I have never heard the names of the black and Latina women who made those spaces livable for the first large wave of black and Latino/a students to get college degrees in New York at universities that never really wanted them there.  Never!  And yet, here they were right here, telling their stories.  I had not known any of these histories of Guy-Sheftall, Zambrana, or Thornton, but more strikingly, it reminded me of something I DID already know: that the field of composition had written the history of open admissions, “remedial”/basic writing of the 1970s without a SINGLE utterance of the work of black and Latina women/radical feminists of color.  And these women were, of course, there all along, women who, as far as I am concerned, did not get taken along and/or did not want to be as the field moved “forward.”

At the conference, I had a conversation with a woman who I had never met who said that she feels more energized and politically engaged at NWSA, given her focus on issues of social oppression and repression, than she does at the major composition conference that we both attend.  I agreed with her and, in fact, told a good friend today the same thing, inspiring me to write this post, after I described to him the solidarity I felt at NWSA.  Like I already said, what seems most relevant for me now is that none of these women whose stories I have chronicled here stayed connected to the field.  I can’t say for sure at this juncture whether or not my fate will be the same.

It was Guy-Sheftall who really took my breath away at the conference.  At the close of her presentation, she described herself as someone who, if she were to die tomorrow, has done exactly the kind of work she wanted to do and lived exactly the kind of life she wanted to live: one that was never dictated by the name of the school she taught at, her salary, or her reputation, but by the work she could do within the terms of her own self-definition as a radical black feminist.  She challenged the audience of mostly women of color in that room to see to it that they did the same.  I was so inspired by that statement that I gave it its own category here… I intend to live my life, both on and off campus, in the same way.