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…

Letter to My Former College President and Provost: Why I Left

Dear College President and Provost,

I hope this letter finds you both well.  Since spring 2019 was my last semester, I am writing to share some of my experiences with the hope that my insights might offer you a different perspective of life at the college for BIPOC.  Since my campus interview in 2013 up until my departure, I worked under two presidents, three provosts, three deans, three chairs, and four program directors.  To say that the university was unstable in those six years is obviously an understatement, so I admired the peace that you were trying to instill which, in turn, motivated my decision to reach out to you here.  I am not expecting a response to this letter, but I felt it was imperative that I write it anyway.

My sincere apologies that I could not write this letter sooner as family issues got in the way.  I never had any intention of choking my voice and always planned to offer you an image of the structural oppositions that people who look like me face in the predominantly white and hostile departments and programs that permeate the college.  In my inability to write this sooner, I fear that yet another dominant, racist white narrative at the college has gone unchecked: namely, the willful ignorance surrounding the racial delusions that my departure, as well as that of other folk who look like me, was rooted in the simple desire for better resources and prestige elsewhere.   You must know better than this.

You must know better than this!

For far too long, the conversations about retaining BIPOC faculty at the college have centered on support for tenure.  This logic assumes that tenure and promotion are something difficult for us. I assure you that this has not been the case for me or my peers.  My generation of successful Brown and Black professionals are a mobile generation and the most decorated amongst us do one thing when an institution continually devalues us: we leave.  This is as true for academia as it is for law, medicine, and business, especially for successful Black women, as I am sure you are both well aware given the ready availability of such statistical data.  This is also especially true for people like me who worked for six years at a salary much lower than male counterparts when their comparative CVs did not justify their higher salaries.  While there were no attempts to correct this wrong against my labor and intellect, there were plenty of ploys to get me to do MORE uncompensated work far beyond the scope of what would ever be considered reasonable or equitable.  All of this is just to say that Brown and Black faculty are not out here struggling with tenure and promotion requirements; none of us would have made it into and out of PhD programs, racially exclusive and hostile as they are, if we were struggling with research and writing processes.  Like most places, the college excelled in: 1) the continuum between outright neglect and layered silencing of BIPOC faculty; 2) shrouded guidelines and continual shifts around tenure and promotion requirements; 3) unacknowledged exploitation of uncompensated BIPOC labor towards service and away from scholarship (resulting in a white-racialized structure of who is supported materially and symbolically as a serious researcher/ scholar/ writer), and last, but certainly not least; 4) the chronic mismanagement of hot-mess departments that couldn’t direct somebody through empty traffic much less a university procedure.  When my former colleagues and administrators claim that I left the college because this is just my personality, you must know that this is merely a cover-up for all that is wrong with them.  When top administrators feel emboldened to declare that a Black woman professor is only leaving because that’s her personality (that was said to me), that is a sure sign of the institutional incompetence in retaining them and will require a radical facelift in the colleges’ rogue team of untrained/untheoried leaders who have vacated a research expertise of their work.  I have only ever left a university when I found its racialized exploitation, anti-blackness, organizational incompetence, and misogynoir intolerable.  Any discourse about my departure that deliberately ignores the hostile and inept environments that make a place unbearable for faculty of color like me obfuscates the college’s failure to develop effective recruitment and retention models for BIPOC and promotes the racism that the institution sustains. After teaching at multiple universities in the NJ/NY area, my experiences at your college remain the whitest and the most alienating.  Any explanation for my departure outside of these terms is just another example of routine gaslighting or, to quote Mary J. Blige, some real basic hateration/holleration in this dancerie.  When non-Black faculty and administrators insist that positive, racial change has arrived to campus and yet struggle to recruit and retain Black, tenured faculty, the empirical evidence is simply not on their side.  I share these experiences to contend that a university which does not value we high-achieving Brown and Black scholar-researchers is not a place that can ever critically educate students who look like us either. 

Real basic hateration!

The fact of the matter is this: being a professor at the college meant career and financial sacrifice.  Even the difference in the larger contribution that my previous university made to my retirement funds (though I worked at your college longer) was SIGNIFICANT.  For sure, we do not choose the City University of New York (CUNY) to become rich and famous; we know that the resources and salaries will never be competitive.  And truth be told, with the exception of those who have wealthy spouses and/or family backgrounds (a significant percentage of the faculty, by the way), employment at CUNY cannot financially sustain even basic housing in NYC today.   When I look at all of the professional and financial sacrifices, just to be at a place where I was ignored, disrespected, and marginalized, I have real questions about the institution’s commitment to diversity and equity and why any BIPOC stay. The most strong-willed will leave or, when that is not physically possible, find a way to do the work they are called to do in scholarly communities far away from the campus.  Attrition rates do not even begin to convey what you have really lost.

It is not my intent here to run a discursive style that might sound like I am singing an old Lou Rawls tune: You’re gonna miss my lovin.  Institutions pick up and go along as if we were never there, but they do so at the grave risk of repeating past mistakes and never truly moving forward.  My experiences as woman of color/Black Feminist/first-generation college-goer/working class Hip Hopper/AfroDigital Humanities teacher illuminate more mistakes than successes.  Though my negative experiences have been countless, I will share a few instances here.

More than attrition!

I’ll begin with my last semester at the college as part of the Gender Studies advisory board who attempted to revise the undergraduate major in Gender Studies, particularly those parts that promoted horribly whitewashed and white colonized historical content.  In fact, the history curriculum in Gender Studies was more Western European in its content and racist in its outlook than anything I had witnessed in schools, even going back to when I began teaching in NYC public high schools in 1993.  The response to our curricular revision in Gender Studies was met with such hostility from white faculty and administration that I felt the need to address the issues in a letter to the dean (that letter is attached here… click and read this mess).  After learning of our proposed changes to the Gender Studies curriculum, history faculty secured letters from faculty across CUNY (with the HIS chair praising their efforts) about our work in Gender Studies.  The most prominent CUNY faculty who wrote letters in support of HIS faculty rescinded their support after learning what these HIS classes really entail.  That formerly supportive faculty also informed me that the HIS faculty themselves wrote the prose, merely asking faculty across CUNY to cut and paste their words into an email to the Dean. When they began quoting from these letters, they knew that they were, in fact, merely referencing their own words.  When the advisory committee withdrew the revisions to the curriculum, the HIS department then sent emails to their original letter writers thanking them with the following message: “we accomplished our goal.”  The only thing that they seemed to achieve was a bullying of the faculty who volunteered without any recognition or compensation to run an interdisciplinary program and the maintenance of a recalcitrant white colonized curriculum.   This kind of curriculum, pedagogy, and discourse are quite literally rewarded and protected at the college and it is an embarrassment.

This particular instance with Gender Studies serves as an example and not an exemplar. I arrived exhausted by the battles and racist attacks that I had witnessed and fought at my previous colleges.  Your college only added new dimensions and taught me that I can trust no institution to treat BIPOC well and hence I no longer expect it. That pessimism is, in fact, the only gift that your college gave me.

It was simply routine for faculty of color to describe senior white faculty who had reprimanded them for congregating with other faculty of color in the physical spaces and meetings of the college. I am not sure what shocked me most: 1) that POC faculty obeyed these plantation-styled surveillance regimes; 2) that the university does not face more discrimination law suits, or; 3) that the college has chosen these same white faculty as administrators today.  I mean, really, this is the kind of stuff that made Marvin Gaye write songs like “What’s Going On” because this kind of madness needs its own whole melody.  The outrageous behaviors of hostile faculty against BIPOC went unchecked in all of my encounters, especially in the first semester of my arrival with a dean and chair who remain the most unsupportive of any that I have encountered.  I tape-recorded the discussion of my first classroom observation and, unsurprisingly, the tapes revealed major discrepancies between what was said and what the administrator recorded as evidence of the discussion. I secured a lawyer to review my legal options given the egregiousness of the encounter and the final record.  I only decided to forego pursuing the obvious legal breaches so that I can present and write freely and openly about the events on a national stage.  Since then, I have advised countless Brown and Black faculty to consult their state laws about recorded conversations and their allowance in court rooms, a lesson courtesy of my experiences at your college where a routine classroom observation did not follow basic, ethical employment guidelines.

In my time at the college, I was further accused by a white faculty member of stealing his property.  My mail was opened and damaged on three, separate occasions.  Since these three items included a paycheck, an honorarium, and a contract, it seemed obvious to me that my mail was targeted. On yet other occasions, when I would, for instance, inadvertently leave a text on the photocopy machine in what was then a locked room in the department (that only faculty could access), my papers were shredded with careful attention paid to ripping words and sentences that represented racial critique by BIPOC.  I have actually kept these pieces of paper so that I can show national audiences exactly what macro-aggressions look like for BIPOC. None of these events are particularly surprising or new, but these kinds of routine experiences call into question the college’s market campaigns about “educating for justice” with a predominantly Brown and Black student body in a city with the highest concentrations of Black/Brown populations in the country.  To keep the old skool R&B playlist running here, I’ll go with Keith Sweat on this one: “sumthin, sumthin just ain’t right.”

…Sumthin sumthin just ain’t right!

As a discourse community, the culture was further troubling.  I heard, on countless occasions, faculty and administrators describe their desire for administrative work in terms of being able “to get out of the classroom.”  When I arrived, I had left an administrative position with a 1/1 load, then turned down a more competitive offer at a state university campus with a 2/2 load and smaller classes, just so that I could get back into the classroom.  I chose the college for the heavy teaching load and for its students and ended up traveling all over the country to cull and share research-based ideas and theories about 21st century Brown and Black classrooms because there was NO such intellectual exchange at the college. To say that I was disappointed would be a compliment.  It was also incredibly difficult to listen to faculty talk about minimizing their time in Brown and Black classrooms while performing a self-congratulatory righteousness that they were doing the greater good by racking up years of course releases with their “service.”  A very specific language was consistent and repetitive: doing administrative/leadership work meant getting out of teaching and being able to pick up one’s children in time from school (and in each of these instances, the speaker meant an expensive, private or parochial school).  I heard so many public, paternalistic pronouncements about us doing “the best that we can” from faculty who sent their children to elite and/or private schools and colleges (even expending extra endowments to them) that it became nauseating.  What does it mean to celebrate doing “the best with what little we have” for what education scholars call “other people’s children” when you would never call those same things good enough for your own children (or the children in your segregated neighborhood)? I share these re-occurring instances as an indication of the kind of toxicity experienced by a woman of color who had to constantly hear the students of color and people in her communities discussed in this way.

It also became increasingly more intolerable to hear faculty comments about the allegations of sexual misconduct that were investigated in 2018-2019.  I appreciated the Climate Review process but did not feel safe in attending a focus group with faculty given the nature of many of their attitudes. On multiple occasions, faculty initiated conversations with me defending the actions of the male faculty members who were investigated.  Most often, faculty insisted that each of these three men, naming each of them separately as longtime friends/colleagues, had consensual sexual relations with the undergraduate students who filed the complaint. I did not solicit these conversations and yet these were the so-called “facts” presented to me.  I heard very little sympathy for the accusers, but all manner of excuses for the accused. I didn’t know what to say to my faculty peers other than to simply insist: my momma taught me betta than that.  At one point, the lawyer of one of the accused emailed countless faculty, explaining that the accused did research in poor and Black and Brown communities and learned to mimick these people’s lingo and affect for greater street-cred; students, in turn, merely misinterpreted the casual, street vibe.  As someone who comes from these po folk and these very same streets, I can assure you that we do not look and sound anything like what this lawyer suggested and we most certainly were not groomed to commit acts of violence to people under our care as representative of our “street lingo.”  Like I said before, we were taught betta than that. Listening to all this became, in of and of itself, another form of violence.  It should come as no surprise that for someone on the outside of the old-crony gangs that roam the college, and as someone on the outside of the mainstream/ whitestream ideological apparatus that seemingly dominates all space there, the campus climate just became more and more unbearable.

It deeply saddened me to leave the young people at the college who gave me life for six years.  My entire career has been dedicated to the education of Black and Brown youth so it was an honor to do part of that almost 30-year career work at your college. Though it was difficult to leave them, it was more difficult to watch institutional actors refuse to see or match students’ brilliance in ways that are commensurate with a culturally-sustaining and critical education rather than the current colonial, rudimentary-skills-based, vocational training that racism and white settler logics have designed for them.  My only salvation today is in knowing that the communities and ancestral heritages that myself and BIPOC college students represent have sustained far worse and will survive and thrive despite these new colonial regimes. 

My heartfelt wishes for the work ahead of you!

Warmest regards,

Carmen Kynard

p.s. You should know that I plan to go public with this letter (of course, omitting all specific references to the college) in the hopes that my unsilencing helps other BIPOC faculty out there somewhere.  You should also know that when my former colleagues reach out to me to assuage their white guilt or racial complicity, I have no intention of responding to or comforting them. They have done enough damage and will no longer have access to my mind, body, or spirit. I have refrained from using the names of the perpetrators who I have catalogued here because they simply are not important enough (they are merely generally representative and not especially individual in their routine acts of violence), but should you ever want to know who I am referencing: I will be more than happy to spill that tea.

A BLOG NOTE: Part of my desire to write this letter has also been to add to the archive of Black and Brown feminists who have taught at CUNY.  There is increased interest, for instance, in the archives of Black feminists like June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Barbara Christian, and Toni Cade Bambara who started their teaching/writing/activist careers at CUNY.  We learn important things from these archives: 1) that radical Black feminists were treated with disdain and disregard in their time at CUNY, despite the public celebrations performed for them decades later; 2) that radical Black feminists left behind a record such that their critiques and larger visions could never be appropriated without the truth behind their experiences; 3) that radical Black feminists worked with their students, often in isolation, to imagine alternative definitions and processes for a transformative, critical education for Brown and Black youth.  I aspire to follow in their footsteps and also leave behind my own record. I hope that CUNY will someday end up on the right side of history when it comes to a radical Black feminist presence. It didn’t see it in my time there, but I remain hopeful that CUNY’s students might one day experience a culturally-sustaining and critical education.  In the meantime, we can get real about what stands in the way.

Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

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“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.