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…

“The Snowy Day” in Brooklyn 50 Years Later… Visual Emancipations Continued

Though I do not like cold weather or shoveling, spooning away the snow so that I could open up my iron gate and shoveling out my stoop and sidewalk to get myself out of the house today was, I confess, a little fun.  This is the first, real snow in Brooklyn this year and it seems to have brought calm and quiet (there are no power outages or serious emergencies nearby).  No one is driving, honking, walking, working, hustling, or hammering at the factories across the way.  So there’s really nothing to do but stay indoors or go out and play in the snow.   Of all things, snow like this makes me think about one of the cutest, little black boys I know.  His name is Peter and you can see him in Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (there is an online version at this link).  This Snowy Day today comes exactly 50 years after this children’s book was first awarded the Caldecott with Keats using his own hometown of Brooklyn as the inspiration for the book’s setting.

The book is about a child’s experience of wonderment after waking up from a night’s sleep to a world blanketed in snow.  What made this book such a landmark was that this child is black!  In 1962, a children’s book with a black male child as the subject was unheard of.  In fact, most people never even realized that Ezra Jack Keats was white, a Jewish artist who grew up poor in New York feeling the results of invisibility and ethnic hostility himself.SnowyDay

As Jerry Pinkney, award-winning African American illustrator of children’s books, reminds us (himself inspired by Keats’s depiction of Peter), in 1962, a children’s book about a little black boy would never have been published by a black author and illustrator. Keats faced some deserved criticism for never explicitly referencing the race and culture of the child in his written text.  We don’t really see or know much about Peter’s neighborhood, his family, or his (cultural) context.  What is striking though is that the book still upturned the children’s literary world anyway with just one thing: the visual rhetoric of a little, black boy who simply plays and smiles and looks out the window and wonders.  Keats himself was inspired to create the book after seeing a photo essay of a little boy in 1940 in Life magazine who he thought deserved to be the center of a really innocent child’s tale about joyfully playing.  Keats may not have understood cultural context, but he certainly saw the aesthetic beauty in black children. 41mVs1m7wPL._SL500_AA300_I myself have the book in three, different iterations and I even have the doll that was made a few years ago.  What Keats missed in cultural context, he captured in visual rhetoric by creating the cutest, little black boy in a red snowsuit who is absolutely mesmerized by seeing his footprints in the snow, finding a stick to shake snow off of a tree, feeling snow plop on his head after he shakes the tree, and making snow angels.  Yes, absolutely adorable!

I don’t think enough of us realize that the children’s literature that we have today that features (non-Sambo-typed) children and stories related to people of African descent was a result of Black Freedom Struggles related to the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements.  Before that, only white children counted as children/human in this literary world (not that this isn’t still the case given the fascination with Harry Potter, fairy tales, and the likes). The context of these Black Freedom Struggles explains not only why we have Black Children’s Literature now but also why so many prominent African American writers and visual artists, people who you would normally think would focus their attention only on adults and the world of art galleries, have always been involved with children’s literature.  I have always been mesmerized that artists like Tom Feelings turned their aesthetic gaze toward depicting beautiful and powerful images of black children rather than only toward the fine arts world.  The work of presenting an alternative, aesthetic and ideological world to black children will always be deeply political under structured inequalities.  We need only think back to how nervous Hoover and COINTELPRO became by the Breakfast Program for children that the Black Panther Party ran— this was what Hoover saw as most dangerous, as dangerous as guns.  This is worth noting, especially for those of us who think the images, contexts, and experiences that we serve up to black children can ever be racially neutralized.

Honey-I-Love-and-Other-Love-Poems-9780808567431While Keats introduced me to the cutest little black boy ever, it was the Dillons, as illustrators, and Eloise Greenfield, as writer, that gave me little black girls so that I could better see myself and the little girls I played with.  That book is Honey, I Love published in 1978.  In Rudine Sim Bishop’s interview, Greenfield tells Bishop, a noted historian and scholar of African American children’s literature:

I liked that phrase, “Honey, let me tell you.” It was a phrase that was used a lot by African American people, but it had not reached the point where it had become stereotyped. So I wanted to use that, and that’s where the title came from. And I wanted to write about things that children love, about childhoods where there may or may not be much money, but there’s so much fun.

I have owned many copies of this book in my day— all replicas of the original, small pocket version, pictured above, that I would stuff in my purse when I was trying to imitate the grown-up ladies, stuffing it, also of course with nothing but small toys and candies (I also, however, have the equally stunning later 1995 version illustrated by Jan Spivey Gilchrist).  greenfield 2These little girls with hair/afros that come alive and dance all over the page as much as their arms and legs are absolutely stunning. Honey, I Love, just like The Snowy Day, offers us counter-hegemonic and revolutionary visual images of black children; but where Honey diverges is that we get a Black Story, a Black Girl story, a series of poems no less, to go along with the visual emancipation of what Greenfield calls “sweet little gingerbread girls” (see the poem, Keepsake).  In the book, you can find one of these little, black girls trying on her momma’s clothes and learning to stuff things in a pocketbook too; while yet another is dancing to Earth Wind and Fire and The Jackson Five!

As someone who studies, thinks and write about literacies and composition studies, these books— or, rather, these AfroVisual manifestoes— offer me an important reminder: radical texts do not simply offer us new, powerful ways to read and write and do language.  They also help us SEE.  After all my shoveling and playing in the snow today, this is what I will be thinking about.

Post-Surveillance, Literacies, and Digital Empire

A colleague told me about a student who missed class due to a claimed family illness or something like that.  While the student was, supposedly, sick and out of town, he was, in fact, in town and tweeting about being drunk and the fun he was having.  A student who I never met, but heard a lot about, once posted crazy rantings about the violence he would inflict on campus on Facebook, as a joke, only to find campus security at his door the next day.  Now, in general, I tend to see such young people as hopelessly clueless and want, desperately, to ask them: have you lost your d#%& mind?   But I also know of a graduate student who got fired from a student services job because she posted compromising photos of herself and her co-workers on facebook.  That wasn’t an 18-year old, who we can somewhat dismiss for youthful foolishness; that was a graduate student somewhere in her late twenties.  I could tell countless stories like this and have heard countless other stories from other folk.  There is a kind of general discourse that this generation simply does not erect barriers to their private and public identities the way someone in my generation might— a post-civil rights baby, born in the early 70s, who grew up in the 80s.  But the issues of private-vs-public as a generational marker and difference between myself and the foolishness I have described is too simple.  I think there is more going on here and I think it has to do with my generation and those before me understanding, living in, or living immediately after what was a pretty explicit, surveillance culture.  Clearly, young people’s digital presence is surveilled given how easily and quickly all of these folks got caught doing this mess.  However, few seem to expect that surveillance will exist.

Image.ashxI get why privileged/elite/white youth might not think they are being surveilled.  If you have been taught (even if only implicitly so) that you are at the center of the world and given a material reality to support that view, then why would you feel like you are not in complete control?  But for racially, subordinated groups, what accounts for this lack of insight?  This is where the embodied and inherited awareness of an explicit surveillance culture becomes a generational marker for me.  When I was in college in 1991, Clay Carson, as just one example, had just published Malcolm X: The FBI File. At that time, there simply had not been a great deal of “serious” biographical and historical research on Malcolm, to quote from Carson.   In 1978, when I was seven years old, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) made documents like Malcolm’s FBI file (file 100-399321) accessible, available even at many university research libraries.  In 1987, the FBI also released the New York office file on Malcolm (file 105-8999) based on 1964 surveillance of Malcolm’s home phone.   The point is: when Carson’s book was released, the energy on campus was palpable because the things we had really only heard rumors of in our communities were now collected in one book.  I have owned many copies of the book since undergrad, but have never been able to keep it on a shelf given the many borrowings and non-returns.  The book is as much a part of my youth as the Autobiography.

ty4f97d632I learned of things like the FBI having files on Malcolm and every RADICAL from rap lyrics, everyday discourses of the people around me, and PBS’s 1987 broadcast of Eyes on the Prize.  No one ever told me any of these things in school.  I also knew what COINTELPRO was before anyone ever mentioned it in a college classroom. I knew that this was one helluva operation given the way it manifested the brutal murder of Fred Hampton in his bed, while his pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (Akua Njeri) was right there watching.  Even wikipedia has photos of the bloody bed and of Hampton’s body being dragged out.

tumblr_lf6xfzMGFp1qc0pg7o1_1280I could also see very clearly the black male students on campus, my friends, being followed by campus security and never traveling alone at night.  Meanwhile, white male students would openly and defiantly do all manner of mischief with impunity.  You do not need to tell me, now or before, that institutions patrol your body and your politics. So how have so many young people of color missed this point?  How and why are young people from racially subordinated groups so confident that they are free online (or anywhere)?  Where would such young people get such a notion when we STILL do not have the privilege that can afford the opportunity to go all over town, making a fool out of ourselves (like the white male students who I have described)?  I don’t mean to denigrate young people here or even suggest they aren’t informed.  Anyone would have been hard-pressed to label me as conscious when I was 18 or 19 years old.  In fact, I am more critical of teachers/scholars who want to act like we can teach technological/digital tools neutrally outside of interrogations of current and historical patterns of structural racism.  I only mean to suggest that many in this generation of college students have witnessed Black Freedom Struggles as commodified resistance given the changes in the organization of capital, media, and knowledge.  They have not always experienced a lived history and everyday discourse of institutional surveillance and its violence.  Many have certainly witnessed the patrolling/policing of their public spaces (i.e., via the NYPD for Walking While Black, Driving While Black, etc).  malcolm-x-with-rifle-e1332775977757But not enough understand that private spaces and social networks offer exactly the same kind of thing under structured racism and oppression, not in the way that generations before them did where every other dorm-room on my campus seemed to carry the same visual reminder that we were always being watched: the infamous poster of Malcolm looking out his window with a rifle in hand.

More importantly, I think that it is lethally dangerous for young people of color to imagine that they will be free in a digital empire.  They can fight for and take their freedom (or, as Malcolm might say: swing up on some freedom), as Black people always have, but it will not be freely given. This will mean, in part, taking back the discourse on and dissemination of knowledge about Black Freedom Struggles so that it can be a practice… a literacy skills-set… and an ideology… rather than merely another object of academic analysis or a rhyming gimmick/jingle for McDonald’s or BET.  Fighting for freedom in digital empire can, in the least, start there.