Towards a Black Composition Studies: BLACK AS GRAVITAS (PART I)

Thank you to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal for publishing the earliest version of this reflective essay in their Volume 2 dedicated to Black Studies edited by Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega. I will be building on this essay throughout this year as part of a new project. This year is a crossroads for composition-rhetoric so I am listening and looking closely at those who really step up to the plate or miss the moment as has happened at every past Black Protest moment for this field. In the coming weeks, I am especially working towards framing composition studies as a place that does dynamic, on-the-ground work to transform the what, how, and why of university curriculum and instruction towards radical, anti-racist, intersected, Black feminist, fugitive goals.

I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here.  Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too.  It’s a Black intellectual inheritance.

Black studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance.  None of that truly exists in the academy.  Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions.  We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies.  These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before.  These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper.  The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black studies.

As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy here, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric.  The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations.  Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me.  Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards.  Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death.  Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university.

Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of these students’ Black insurgency which is always visible for me on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. I relay these lessons here as a foundation to realizing a Black Composition Studies. Composition studies in the university today is fraught with a colonial history on so many levels. We are most often housed in English departments that overshadow our labor and intellectual work. We still most often function as the illegitimate stepchildren of literary theory which often imagines itself as the only critical space that only rethinks the world and as the only frontrunner of English studies. With literary studies lost in in its own elitist self-delusions of bourgeois grandeur, composition studies inherits the daily legacy of what English departments actually do: maintain the colonial legacy of the English language. I could write books on the white settler colonial logic that I hear daily in English department to describe teaching (or rather, lecturing), students’ abilities, language variation, writing assignments, etc. Put most simply, composition studies is the space that focuses on language, particularly the teaching of writing while our cousins in communication studies (who left English departments long ago) focus in on speaking. Together, we and our cousins confront the dailyness of communication systems in the western world that have annihilated non-white languages and therefore ways of being that do not conform to whiteness. We and our cousins therefore always sit at the crossroad: automate colonization as an institutional pedagogy and rhetorical apparatus… or overthrow it. Black composition studies goes for the latter and, as such, our close proximity to the non-compliant racial protests of Black students has to always stay central.

These are notecards that I received in the mail last spring as a reading response to the course assignment.

When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember essay reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist.  In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university.  This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education.  Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do here, not as metaphor or cross to bear, but as the purveyor of a radical, literate/language alternative to who and what count here.

Here’s my first story that gets at more of what I mean. My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005.  They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored.  Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes.  White faculty were always: scheduling meetings for discussions on how they feel, scheduling meetings to gauge their collective “temperature,” scheduling meetings to read the agenda out loud, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays).  Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same.  These are not processes that are driven by Black folx or a vision for hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy. None of them meetings and discussions produced change and worked to stall Black freedom more than anything else. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into stuff, talking— yup, still doing all of that, and still accomplishing nothing of value for Black lives.  It’s not an accident. Black composition studies always recognizes the micro and yet overdetermined white supremacist processing of our schools and programs and imagines time, space, and possibility differently.

My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University.  Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on online discussion boards I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me.  I learned about the racism of writing program administration there.  I also learned that I would walk alone in my field because I didn’t know a single professor in my profession who I would have truly called an ally or even friend back then.  It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline.  The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one— and I mean no one— was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it.  Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it.   And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA.  It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA-Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long.  There is actually a whole stain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress student learning.  I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S.  Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either.  WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see. Black composition studies is about a disruptive kind of vision and envisioning for schooling.

My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that was 75% Black and Latinx.  It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite.  They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me.  I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally low percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty.  It was a complete cocoon of whiteness.  Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized.  When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”).  In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it).  There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies.  I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil.  Ridiculous?  Yes.  Harmful?  No.  The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast.  These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here.  At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it. Black composition studies knows that white affect in schools is not neutral, safe, or accidental and so centers alternative embodiments and enfleshments.

And now?  As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee.  The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is).  I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:

It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.

It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.

It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.

It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.

It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.

It will always be contested.

It will always be unwritten.

It will never stop us.

I have yet to see anything different here. Black Composition Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy, in my classrooms, and especially in my field.

I am not suggesting that Black Composition Studies is only for Black folx. However, it ain’t for appropriation by folx in my field who continue to do stuff like write a Statement for Black Lives Matter in their departments and programs and not reference a single Black compositionist. Yall ain’t nowhere near ready yet and Black composition studies is here to let you know it. Black composition studies is not exclusive… but it is rigorous in the mechanisms and politics of its inclusions. 

Stay tuned for PART TWO…

FEATURED SCHOLAR: ERIC DARNELL PRITCHARD — “When You Know Better, Do Better”: Honoring Intellectual and Emotional Labor Through Diligent Accountability Practices

Eric Darnell Pritchard is an award-winning writer, cultural critic, and Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Eric’s research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, queerness, sexuality, gender and class with historical and contemporary literacy, literary, and rhetorical practices, as well as fashion, beauty, and popular culture. His first book, Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy (Southern Illinois University Press, November 2016), won three book awards: the inaugural 2017 Outstanding Book Award from the Conference on Community Writing, and the 2018 Advancement of Knowledge Award and the 2018 Lavender Rhetorics Book Award for Excellence in Queer Scholarship, both from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Fashioning Lives was also recognized as honorable mention for the 2018 Winifred Bryan Horner Outstanding Book Award from the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric. He is also editor of “Sartorial Politics, Intersectionality, and Queer Worldmaking,” a special issue of QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking (Vol. 4, Issue 3, Michigan State University Press, 2017). In addition to his book and edited volume, his scholarly writings have also appeared in numerous venues including Harvard Educational Review, The International Journal of Fashion Studies, Literacy in Composition Studies, Visual Anthropology, and Southern Communication Journal. As a public scholar and cultural critic, his articles and reviews have also been published in Public Books, ART FORUM International,, The Funambulist (Clothing Politics Vol. 1 and Vol. 2), and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. Currently, Eric is at work on two new books projects. One project is a historical study of community literacies and queer of color feminist activist organizations and collectives. Another project is a biography of 1980s fashion superstar Patrick Kelly. As a self-described “community-accountable intellectual,” to borrow a phrase from Black feminist alchemist Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Eric’s work and service within the communities he loves and is sustained by has also been honored.

I would say that what this essay is about – the imperative to develop an ethical and dogged practice of honoring the intellectual and emotional labor of people of color in rhetoric and composition and beyond – is a new thing. But that is not the truth. Instead, as Carmen Kynard remarked to me recently in one of our sadly TOO MANY conversations about the exhaustion of having to say the same thing over, and over, and over again: “[y]ou been writing this critique for a LONG TIME because this bullshit is so constant and unrelenting.” As usual, she tells no lies.

Indeed, if I had a nickle for every time someone has complained about the epistemological violence of being a person of color and publishing in rhetoric and composition, in the words of legendary House/Ballroom scene Mother Pepper Labeija in the documentary Paris Is Burning, “I would be rich for coins!” This is the very problem being illuminated and powerfully checked through movements such as #CiteASista and, whose “praxis is the inclusion and validation of the voices and knowledge” of all Black women, which they give specificity to the fact that Black trans women are women and that the knowledges and voices of women beyond the academy are just as valuable.” Indeed, the only thing as regular as scholars of color having our intellectual and emotional labor erased and capitalized on in the field of rhetoric and composition is the regularity with which people either 1) twist themselves into pretzels to deny its occurrence, 2) respond with the usual fragility go to of outrage, tears, or gaslighting to hopefully squash any attempts at accountability, 3) or offer the nominal and passive statement “I am listening,” “I hear you,” “I’m here to learn,” or whatever other performative activist-scholar phrase that gets them much but risks them little. In short, the constant and unrelenting nature of this exhausting practice is like clockwork, as are attempts by those on the margins to create a rupture and diligent practice to honor all of our labor, humanity, and potential for a beautiful collective future through doing the work of truth, justice, and accountability through the praxis of love and ancestor-led intellectual practices. But here I/We go again.

Why again? Because, as Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you can do better, then when you know better, do better.” Also, why: because I believe in miracle work, the everyday work of activism that my ancestors, elders, and their descendants across numerous movements for social justice have done in their efforts to create the world we all deserve. This miracle work is what Marianne Williamson, in her book The Law of Divine Compensation: On Work, Money, and Miracles, defines as “a shift in perception from fear to love.” And what I know is that the kind of energy, regardless of intent, that creates a space-time in which we are literally not present to or acknowledging the magnificence of the humans we share life – and in this case an academic field with – is the energy of fear manifested as exclusion, gatekeeping, erasure, and the literal disposal of whole people and what they bring to this world. I reject that with everything I’ve got. I believe that the work that will make the kind of intervention that will last is heart work. As a Black queer femme and feminist “community-accountable” (Alexis Pauline Gumbs) and ancestor-led writer, teacher, scholar, learner, and alchemist, I know, as Williamson has said, that miracle workers “know what changes the heart and if we know what changes a heart, then we know what changes the world.” My intention here is to hopefully change some hearts, including my own. Indeed, there certainly had to be some molecular shifts in my heart, mind, body, and soul to write this post. People who know me well will affirm that while I love people and take seriously creating space and community, I am also very introverted, including in the digital realm. I prefer to mind my business and be about the work I am here to do on the page, in the classroom, and as I engage and collaborate with my kindred. Thus, the energy and cycle that blog posts can send one through is not the context in which I like to engage. Still, writing is my joy. That too has been true my whole life. And while this is not an essay I wanted to write, the exigences that led to it were so egregious I had no choice, my ancestors and my truth will not let me rest.


As a forever student in the school of ancestor-led intellectual practices, what I also know is that my ancestors too have been here before, here being speaking truth to power about the siphoning of the intellectual and emotional labor of women and queers of color without acknowledgement.

In this moment I am present to June Jordan and Audre Lorde’s solidarity in holding accountable the lesbian feminist magazine Chrysalis, as discussed by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her guest essay for GLAAD’s blog “LGBT Black Feminist Legacies in Publishing.” As Gumbs shares, though Lorde served as poetry editor for Chrysalis, she ultimately “quit the publication in frustration with the shady, disrespectful and racist behavior of the otherwise all-white editorial board.” Jordan, an honorary advisory board member, publicly quit Chrysalis’s board, writing to the magazine’s editorship “I hereby resign as Contributing Editor of Chrysalis. I take this action in absolute support of my sister, Audre Lorde.” Jordan concluded the letter daring the editorial board to prove that Lorde and her critiques of them were wrong, saying: “Tell me/show me how your hopelessly academic, pseudo-historical, incestuous and profoundly optional, profoundly trifling, profoundly upper middle class attic white publication can presume to represent our women’s culture.” 

As Gumbs notes, Lorde and Jordan’s actions leave us with many questions to consider for our own self-reflection when we inevitably find ourselves in the same position:

What would it mean today for LGBT writers of color to refuse to be tokenized by publications that do not demonstrate accountability to the communities we love?  What would it mean to refuse to be the next token when our comrades are burnt out by the racism of well-resourced organizations and publications?

What would it look like for us to stand for excellence, transformative inclusivity, and true accountability from our movement publications with passion and audacity?

As they have so many times before, by ancestor helping spirits – in this case Lorde and Jordan – as well as the loving yet hard truth in the questions posed by Gumbs, are what I had/have in mind in this moment. Through the transformative work of Black queer feminist writers and pedagogues like Jordan and Lorde, I know that regardless of what scarcity, careerism, opportunism, and other forms of fear say to me, another way is always possible. And I/We get to choose.

This is a story about a choice I made. A choice I am still making as I write to you. A choice to honor the intellectual and emotional labor of myself and others. A story about a response I received, and a story about my sense of how we move forward collectively in miracle work toward creating the world we all deserve. As always, I trust that the story I am telling and the specificity of experience will make my meaning clear.


In February 18, 2019, I was invited by the journal Literacy in Composition Studies (LiCS) to join their editorial board. The invitation was warm in stating “We are familiar with your work and would be honored if you would serve on our editorial board. Your scholarship represents the kind of intellectual commitments we would like to see in the pages of our journal, and we trust your judgment to take the journal in exciting directions in the future.” Having previously published in the journal, and having read, cited, taught, and shared other work published in its pages, I would ordinarily have received such an invitation with great joy and happily accepted. Unfortunately, the context for my receiving this email was different.

Just one week prior to receiving this invitation, LiCS began to circulate this call (click here) for papers for a special issue on “Queer and Trans Embodied Literacies.” The special issue was to be guest edited by Zarah Catherine Notter-Moeggenberg with Brenda Glascott, managing editor of LiCS. While I began to read the call with great excitement and interest, it was not long before my reading the CFP, for many reasons, turned to an all too familiar experience of disappointment and exhaustion as a Black queer femme and Black queer feminist studies scholar in rhetoric and composition.

As I wrote on February 21, 2019 in an email to the LiCS editorial management team, as well as the two guest editors of the special issue, “the planned special issue had not referenced race, women of color feminisms, queer of color theory, or the lives of queer people of color in ways that were meaningful and vested with the criticality we have brought to queer theory and trans studies from their inception in composition and rhetoric and in the interdisciplines of Queer and Trans Studies writ large.” I also noted that reading this CFP was the second time in just that same week that such an occurrence had transpired. Indeed, the very same week another rhetoric and composition journal had published a queer theory special issue with its own forms of erasure and exclusion of work by queer people of color in the field.

Having, at this point, been in the field as a Black queer femme and a Black queer feminist theorist and pedagogue since 2004 and been witness to and pushed back on such actions; having suffered any number of epistemological and interactional violences from queer theorists and critical race theory scholars alike; having seen this same stuff two times in the same week after having written a whole book and numerous essays that talk about this very violence, my spirit couldn’t look the other way. So, I did the only thing I know how to do, I wrote the aforementioned email, which I link for you to read in its entirety. But to briefly summarize the email’s most salient points, I discussed how race was only mentioned twice in the entire CFP and the bookended violence of fetishizing of Black queer death on the one hand and the complete erasure of queer of color scholarship in rhetoric and composition on the other. I noted that in a special issue focusing on queer and trans embodiment, the CFP did not demonstrate an understanding of race and embodiment, and excluded research by women of color feminists – many of them queer and trans women of color – who had contributed so much to understandings of embodiment long before the existence of sexuality studies, queer studies, trans studies, or critical race theory. Indeed, in the whole original CFP not one queer of color or feminist of color scholar was cited.

Given the epistemological violence of the original CFP, I asked that LiCS retract this CFP and reissue a revised one that explains why it was being reissued, arguing “that there is a real opportunity for LiCS to be a thought leader here and not simply contribute yet another collection of queer studies work that makes queer, trans, non-binary, and two-spirit people of color, and analyses of race and ethnicity, a spoke in a wheel that turns only between erasure and tokenization. Rather, LiCS can move the conversation forward in ways that really should have happened 23 years ago. Let me be clear: my request is not and does not have to be punitive. Rather, this can be an example to the field of a future for the field, and for queer and trans theorists in particular, about how we can act ethically, with humility, and productively when mistakes are made.”

As for the journal itself, I provided quantitative evidence that it too needed to address the fact that since its 2012 inaugural issue “only 1 in 5 articles published in LiCS were authored by visible people of color (that is 13 articles of the 64 published in the journal since its beginning),” only one book authored/edited by a scholar of color was reviewed in its pages, and that with regards to queer and trans theory, the only books reviewed in the journal were written by white authors “despite the fact that recent books by scholars of color who work on and engage queer and trans people of color and two-spirit literacies and rhetorics and women of color feminisms have been visible award-winning works and were not included. (Note that I do not mention my own work). Finally, and most egregiously, I had to note that if I were to accept their invitation I would be the only Black person on the board, and thus also be replacing the previous only Black person on their board. As such, I noted, “[u]nfortunately, this means that unless the plan for LiCS is to take concrete steps to rectify these exclusionary practices, I cannot accept this invitation at this time.” To conclude I acknowledged then, as I do now, that “I can imagine that hearing or reading these words are difficult. I can only ask that they be received with the intent by which they are offered, which is with the sincerest hope that LiCS and the field does change, because we can change. All that is required is a desire and consistent effort to do so, and to go through the difficult but necessary growing pains to create the field and world we all deserve.”

I did receive an immediate and gracious response on February 21, 2019 from two members of the six members of the journal’s editorial management team. One editor, Holly Middleton, wrote:

That same day Brenda Glascott, LiCS’s managing editor and also an original editor of the special issue, wrote to me: 

To which, on February 22, 2019, I responded:

And then on February 25, 2019, Zarah C. Moeggenberg, the other guest editor of the original special issue proposal, wrote to me:

I never heard back from the journal again following this last correspondence.


If you are attentive to the scholarly developments in rhetoric and composition you may know then that LiCS did retract the CFP, removing “embodied” from the title and reissued a CFP for a special issue on “Queer and Trans* Literacies.” The reissued CFP notes that two additional scholars Wilfredo Flores and Collin Craig – both people of color – will guest co-edit the issue with Zarah C. Moeggenberg, one of the two original guest editors of the special issue. I, for one, am excited about the publication of the issue and the possibilities for how it will prompt prospective contributors to author work that could make interventions that take queer and trans research in literacies, rhetoric, and composition in meaningful and long overdue directions. However, given all the details I’ve shared thus far you might surmise that there is a “But,” and you would be correct.  

One concern about the new CFP, which dovetails back to the larger overlooking of the intellectual and emotional labor of scholars of color, is the lack of a direct link between queer and trans literacies and women of color feminisms. Indeed, at the conclusion of the reissued CFP the coeditors ask “How might we consider citational practices as a form of queer/feminist literacy? As queer literacy practices and histories and rhetorics are bound to privilege, to which working class queer literacies may our field more readily attend? What queer and trans* literacies have we overlooked, silenced, and erased?” They also express a desire for the special issue to “elevate the queer literacy practices we have overlooked, silenced, erased, and colonized…we call upon other LGBTQ+ scholars and accomplices to challenge what we know about queer literacy.” Given this reference to and call for self-reflexive citational practices, and attentiveness to amplify what has been silenced, the lack of citation of Black feminist women scholars in literacy, composition, and rhetoric who, as I noted in my letter to LiCS, are (along with other women of color feminists) owed a debt by queer and trans theory, is unacceptable. While the work of Karma Chavez and Sarah Ahmed are cited, no Black women or women of color in the field who have published work on queer literacies and composition, are cited. For example, the work of Samantha Blackmon, Carmen Kynard, Gwendolyn Pough, and Adela Licona receive no recognition. Given that intersectionality and work at the intersections of sexuality and race owes much to the contributions of women of color feminists in literacy studies, this oversight is especially egregious. In fact, while the CFP correctly states, as I say in my email to LiCS “[w]e see this special issue as an opportunity to ask the questions our field has needed to ask for more than 20 years,” the CFP does not acknowledge that many of these questions – at least those that center race/ethnicity in their analysis – were in fact introduced more than 24 years ago by Harriet Malinowitz in her book Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discopurse Communities, the first book on lesbian and gay literacy, composition, and rhetoric. Malinowitz’s work is not cited in the CFP. As I note in my book, while gay and lesbian students of color were central to the argument and analysis of Textual Orientations, unfortunately, queer literacy, composition, and rhetoric research did not pursue Malinowitz’s important lead and include or center queer and trans people of color.

In addition, queer of color and decolonial feminists outside the field who make intersectional work possible within all fields, including literacy, composition, and rhetoric, such as Barbara Smith, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Cathy Cohen, Sharon Patricia Holland, Eve Tuck, E. Patrick Johnson, Mae G. Henderson, C. Riley Snorton, Jax Cuevas, Kai Green, Sandra K. Soto, among others are also omitted. Importantly, and consequently, the activist roots of the queer and trans literacies the special issue seeks to embrace and illuminate are completely untethered from the critical genealogy in the citation practices of the CFP. As such, ancestor activists like Lorde, Jordan, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Anzaldúa, Grace Lee Boggs, some of whom worked outside the academy and others who worked inside and outside the academy, are not given any credit for what they have done to make our expressions of queer and trans* literacies and scholarship on that work even possible. The same is true for contemporary activists such as CeCe McDonald, Reina Gossett, Che Gossett, Yolo Akili, Adrienne Marie Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Alok Vaid-Menon, whose activist literacies evidence and inspire so much life to contemporary queer and transgender studies scholarship, pedagogy, and cultural activism.

Relatedly, I must note also that while both the initial and reissued CFP for the LiCS special issue centers trans* literacies, some key work on trans* literacies is not cited. For example, the many publications of KJ Rawson on the topic of transgender and queer literacies, rhetoric, and composition is not mentioned. There are a few other scholars in rhetoric and composition who have published transgender literacy, rhetoric, and composition research, especially those working on literacy pedagogy, and those too are not included for some reason.

A separate though related point I wish to make about the recognition of the intellectual and emotional labor is about the ways some practices of citational politics enable, albeit perhaps unintentionally, a practice of rhetorical tokenism that leads to a lack of recognition of the fullness of people’s contributions. For instance, when people talk about addressing the politics of citation, sometimes the response to that is to insert a name where you can. And while this is preferable to complete non-acknowledgement, listing a name does not amount to citing people’s work in a meaningful and substantive way that disrupts problematic citation practices. This requires a deep engagement with a person’s work, otherwise it is rhetorical tokenism that is superficial and doesn’t do the work, though it may in fact allow a scholar to feel they have done their due diligence. In the reissued CFP, for example, G Patterson is mentioned for their scholarship that addresses “the university’s neoliberal diversity agenda.” However, G Patterson has consistently produced scholarship that has discussed needing a constant intersectional analysis of trans and non-binary identity that constantly needs to be in conversation with an analysis and deconstruction of other forms of inequality such as racism, not just cisnormativity. Acknowledging that work and depth is important because that’s where the cutting edge is and that is what should be animating a call, not contributing work that has already been offered. We are more than a hamster on the wheel. The function of a CFP is to engage deeply with the work and say where does it take us now. Even if the citation is parenthetical or signposted in notes as for further reading, this is a practice that can maneuver well with the conventions of citation in a genre that leave us time to do little more than cite a name and work.

I confess that, as with citational erasure, I am especially sensitive to rhetorical tokenism because of personal experiences. In recent years, and also in the reissued CFP from LiCS, I have seen my own work uncredited or not properly recognized for the totality of its contributions. For example, in the reissued CFP the concept of “literacy normativity” that I introduce in my book Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, is cited, however, at no point is my work connected to any of the CFP’s discussions about Black queer literacies, composition, and rhetoric, which is all anything I have ever published has ever been about. The takeaway, to an uninformed reader, would be that the only work cited on the topic of Black queer literacy, rhetoric, and composition is all that has been published, which would not be true given my work and the work of others beyond the scholar cited. Similarly, I have seen similar such citations of my work in other publications where it is cited as literacy and “intersectionality,” which is not incorrect, but when untethered from the intervention it has made through its labor to make space for Black queer literacies, composition, and rhetoric research, it potentially undermines those interventions I have labored long and consistently to make. As I say multiple times in my book, while my work is an example of Black LGBTQ literacies, I never intended nor could it say all the things about Black queer literacies that we still need to have said. I also say my work would not exist if not for the important interventions made by my intellectual ancestors, elders, and peers. To signpost this for my readers, I write amply about the people and scholarship who made my path clear, and in the conclusion, I note where folks in the future could go and should go for future projects because there is still so much left to do. Also, in an interview about my work in 4Cs for Equality’s Zine “Writing for Change,” I am clear to name the work of multiple scholars in rhetoric and composition and also literacy education who are researching and writing on Black queer literacies, composition, and rhetoric. Why is this important? Because labor – emotional and intellectual – must be honored. As David Glisch-Sánchez, my partner and a specialist in the field of the sociology of emotions, Latinx Studies, and Queer Studies has taught me, one of the most inhumane scholarly practices is to ignore and minimize what someone’s intellectual work and full presence in the space-time we share with them has done, is doing, or can do.

I wish also to return to the last correspondence I received from LiCS, as a way to highlight a concluding important way we must be attentive to the intellectual and emotional labor others perform and the responsibility we all have to acknowledge that work. Recall that in the message from Glascott, on behalf of the LiCS editorial management team, I was told that LiCS planned to come back to me about their plans to move forward. As I said, they have not. Instead, Moeggenberg circulated the new CFP on Twitter with the following message:

In the tweet Moeggenberg assigns the reason for the CFP being retracted and revised to the mentorship she and the other two coeditors received from the LiCS editorial team. To be clear, I do not doubt they received feedback and guidance from the LiCS editorial management team on the initial and the second/reissued CFP. But, what is clear from the email record is that the only reason any effort was made to even consider, and ultimately retract the CFP, and revise it, was because of my initial letter and feedback. This tweet erases my intellectual and emotional labor, and also the goodwill I demonstrated (for which Middleton, Glascott, and Moeggenberg thanked me) when I chose to go to them directly as a courtesy to offer a shared opportunity to do better. Even though I find there are problems with the second CFP, despite the improvements, I never believed that my feedback had to be acknowledged. But, when Moeggenberg chose to give all credit to the editorial team, and once they chose to do so and thank someone publicly (which is their right) ethically they should also acknowledge all the sources of feedback received. As such, given their decision to go semi-public, I do have an expectation that I be acknowledged and I think it would be fair for anyone else to have the same expectation. The nature of my comments did not have to be noted given the substance of my contribution, but it would have been appropriate to acknowledge all sources of feedback. Instead, not only was my feedback not acknowledged, surprisingly, I didn’t know they were even reissuing the CFP until I saw it online. It was also forwarded to me by colleagues who were asked by the special issue editors to submit their work and circulate the CFP to others.  What this teaches us is that in order to truly form coalitions and be community-accountable, people need to be impeccable with their word, to quote a tenet of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements. I would have shared this directly with the LiCS editorial team or the special issue editors if LiCS came back as they said they would.

Finally, in addition, note that the reissued CFP mentions that the initial CFP was retracted, however no explanation was provided. In the absence of this key information, the fullness of what we could all stand to learn from LiCS choosing to do better is lost. The reissued CFP seeks to claim space for doing the work of addressing their initial error, but does not say what was wrong in the first place. I would argue that the proverbial “teachable moment,” one that was dependent on truth and reconciliation, is lost in the partial truth and partial mention of the CFP. As my colleague Rasha Diab often said when we were graduate students, “you cannot have justice without claims to injustice.” The reissued CFP tries to have justice, but silences the claim to injustice that animated it in the first place.


Practices of benefiting from, yet not acknowledging, the intellectual and emotional labor of people happens with far too much ubiquity, and especially happens consistently to scholars of color, women, and queer and trans scholars who do so much mentoring and emotional labor behind the scenes that is either not acknowledged or ignored, and it has to stop.

I speak the truth of the faculty of color who have graduate and undergraduate students attend office hours to “pick your brain” for the scholarship they should be reading to do a thesis/dissertation project in your research area, only to then choose your white, male, cisgender, and/or heterosexual colleagues to make up their committee to your omission.

I speak the truth of the graduate students of color in seminars across the country, who do the emotional and intellectual labor in their classrooms to teach their peers and their teachers, and then have to make do with the little energy left to put a balm to heal the spiritual, physical, and psychological wounds they have to face just to obtain a graduate school education.

I speak the truth of the scholars of color who work on race/ethnicity who have been asked by journals to review work submitted for publication in your area of expertise, only to have your own work gate kept out of those same journals or not even have your work cited in the publications sometimes by editors, sometimes by reviewers who were clearly chosen just to make sure you were not published in that venue.

I speak the truth of those people who, like I, have the undeniable receipts in hand that when it comes to scholars of color the field has engaged in this practice of not acknowledging our intellectual and emotional labor for decades, and rather than tell the truth and do the work, what we see are them ushering graduate students and junior faculty of color onto the same red carpet of tokenism that they used to exhaust their mentors, elders, and ancestors in the field on endless committees, task forces, and performances of doing the work that are nothing more than a cloaking device so that they can remain unaccountable and leave you with no energy to serve your actual purpose.

I speak the truth of the women and femme colleagues who get asked to do the administrative work that makes the wheels turn at our institutions and in the field every single day, and not only are they never recognized, but their work is in fact also used against them in the processes of tenure, promotion, and award.  

I speak the truth of those who speak truth to power and have people say they appreciate your feedback and are listening, only to show through their actions they resent that you told the truth while simultaneously benefiting from your labor.

I speak the truth of the Black feminists in the field who have seen “intersectionality” leveraged on whole panels and plenary sessions at conferences without one Black feminist included in the discussion, as if “intersectionality” is not Black feminist intellectual and emotional labor.

I speak the truth of the queer of color scholars in the field who have seen their white queer scholar peers either ignore queer of color and two-spirit critique altogether or nominally cite the work of queer of color scholars outside the field so as to check the citational politics box, as they simultaneously offer no recognition of the intellectual and emotional labor of the very scholars who work alongside them in rhetoric and composition.

I speak the truth of disability studies scholars and people with disabilities, who have witnessed professional organizations and institutions use their work and activism to pat themselves on the back to claim they are doing the work to address ableism, while simultaneously holding inaccessible conferences and offering no challenge to the ableist policies and practices all around them.

I speak the truth of the activist scholar-teachers – faculty and graduate students alike – who have devoted countless hours to national service for professional organizations, with the enticement that their labor will change things, and yet somehow the intractable status quo preserves itself and their labor is exploited.

I speak these truths because, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, I am and will always be optimistic about the human potential – and the field’s potential – to do and be better.

Less anyone believe that my comments here are exclusive to my experience with LiCS or its editors, I want to be unequivocal in saying that my point here is an indictment of and call for all to do better. There are a number of stories from myself and others about their own exhaustion with the ways that other journals such as College English, CCC, Composition Studies, Rhetoric Review, and Rhetoric Society Quarterly, as well as professional organizations including CCCC, NCTE, RSA, and NCA have engaged in the violence of ignoring or minimizing the intellectual and emotional labor of those maligned on the basis of identity and difference. Also, let me state unequivocally that I have no interest in gatekeeping. I suffered the wounds of that practice so much in my experiences as a graduate student and junior-scholar in the field, and what I know that the people who tried to silence me and my work chose not to know, is that there is nothing to gain from gatekeeping other people and it also will always be unsuccessful. The work – the miracle – will always be born, gatekeeping be damned. It will profit the gatekeeper nothing but the bad karma they clearly are choosing. I want more people to publish in queer and trans* literacies, composition, and rhetoric, and in critical race and ethnic literacies, composition, and rhetoric. We need more people to do that work. And I am grateful to LiCS and to the special issue editors for the reality that they will be giving someone an opportunity to publish in those areas who I and my students will learn from. Still, what I know is that it is possible for that work to be done without doing harm to one another, and my spirit cannot accept less.

As people read this, I hope that we will individually (at first) and collectively finally get down to the business of assessing and evaluating how we have contributed to this toxic and harmful dynamic, regardless of intention. Practices like this sow the seeds of resentment, fear, anger, and in its most extreme form, despair. Whether conscious or not doing these things are a way of saying to people that they do not matter, and that is by definition a toxic and harmful practice.

I trust that deep down the vast majority of people do want to honor the humanity and labor of those around them but we must also contend with the reality that we are rarely taught to do just that, and in some cases, we are encouraged through norms, institutional structures, and ego to do the opposite. Still, we can learn and choose to better. It is my hope that something I have written here will find your heart, and find also my own, and that we will at last do and be better, together, infinitely shifting from fear to love as we create the world and field we all deserve.

Please note that all comments at this site are closely moderated and vetted by Carmen Kynard.

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.