AfroDigital-Sensitized: Black Sensibility Online

440x296_2200-white-people-dancingGranted, I probably take the public nature of a digital universe too seriously.  I will concede that.  When I see “professionals” in my field uploading videos of themselves where they are dancing to one beat, their small child dancing to another beat, and a black artist’s song playing in the background with an entirely different beat altogether, I think: oh hayell TO THE naw.  If that weren’t bad enough, these folk got the nerve to be singing along, karaoke machine in full display, to the tune of yet another beat, wearing the paraphernalia of their college alma mater.  If I were the president of that college, I would have to pull these folk aside and talk to them.  It’s like an audition for American Idol that has gone very wrong: someone has got to step up and just say naw, baby, this right here ain’t for you; focus on another goal.  Call me an essentialist then… I think this might just be a black thang.  The black folk who I know and who raised me simply would not be out here uploading videos of pre-rehearsed performances (copied from TV) to broadcast for the world where they and their CHILDREN are singing and dancing with NO KINDA RHYTHM, RHYME, or TIME.  You have to be the Jackson Five for that kind of thing!  In what I define as black culture, when you publicly display yourself, you better be ready for sharp critique: think Showtime at the Apollo here— the youtube before youtube.  It ain’t nuthin nice when you need to be told to exit that public stage. Even with those youtube videos that bougsie black folk like to critique forever and a day of black mothers twerking (with their kids mimicking in the background), you have to concede one thing: them. folk. CAN. dance.  I’m not saying all the black folk that I know can sing and dance, just that when they can’t, they KNOW it and so don’t arrogantly display it for the world.  At the end of the day, even in the worst kind of minstrel show, black folk just don’t get the option of public display without an iota of talent or rhythm.  And though we are never credited as such, the black folk who I know and those who raised me have some high standards by which you come to understand yourself.

It ain’t like I don’t have a sense of humor.  I laughed all day long when I saw Jimmy Fallon, Robin Thicke, and the Roots do a rendition of “Blurred Lines” with children’s musical instruments.  Thicke never sounded better and this version of the song is so much better than the already played-out radio version.  The brotha playing the banana might be the new love of my life.  And, interestingly, this New-Skoolhouse rendition makes the song more than a wanna-be Marvin Gaye clone and the new rhyme rewrites some of the song’s problematic gender politics.  You see, even for the sake of humor, black folk don’t give up the seriousness of real rhythm and creativity… and knowing what the hell you are doing and who you are.

When it comes to online spaces, I use a black sensibility to tell me what is wrong and what is right.  I might offend folk with what I am saying but the structural racism that I discuss is not something I haven’t examined/read closely.    But that too is a black sensibility: say what you gotta say and whoever feels a certain way about it, let them go on and feel it.  That ain’t my problem or cross to bear. Mostly, it’s my standard of performance, skill, and appropriateness that I see as AfroDigital-Sensitized.  In just a few weeks, I will be teaching three sections of first year writing (FYW) where students and myself will interrogate digital literacies and digital empire more closely than I ever have before in FYW.  The modules are finally coming together and I am quite clear that I am using an Afro-Digital-Sensibility to craft the units of study, the framing of the course, and the polemics of digital spaces.  This is about more than what African Americans do or consume online; it’s about an ideological framework inside of yet another system we have not designed.  Like I seem to be saying over and over again here, I haven’t ever needed to look further than the wisdom of my people to know how to navigate the world, digital or otherwise.

“You No Got Sense Wiseness”

Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra “Wisdom Knot”

I often talk about the importance of common sense but that term doesn’t work for the kind of fierce Black Common Sense I have in mind.  I like the term I learned from Fela Kuti better: sense wiseness.  Just like Fela Kuti conveys in the song, black academics and professionals, especially graduate students, have very little sense wiseness after all of the studies and travels within the empire.  Wisdom is not the purview of books and Western schools.  Far too many of us see the world outside of academia as incompatible with the work we do inside of academia.  For sure, black masses are not welcomed into academia and that is no coincidence but, also, for sure, you better hold on to the sense wiseness of the black masses or you won’t survive academia.

When I think of sense wiseness, I think of my family members (who do not have college degrees… like Fela Kuti says, education and sense wiseness are often an inverse relationship).  Between sense wiseness and quick wit, couldn’t NObody get over.  My uncle, Uncle Bay, who passed away a few years ago now, was fierce, even when cancer was ravaging his body.  My cousin, his son, tells a story of coming home from school one day really upset because a friend told the whole school my cousin’s secret.  My uncle quickly told my cousin to stop complaining and take full responsibility for his foolishness.  As my uncle told it: if you can’t keep your own secret, why you ’round here expecting somebody else to?  That makes a whole lotta sense to me, sense wiseness, actually.  I still don’t know what this secret was, some 25 years ago now, so apparently my cousin learned this lesson well.  Like in the case of my cousin, sense wiseness also means you listen to people who are telling you the right thing and who know what they are talking about: choose your teachers wisely and ignore fools.  I am often baffled as a teacher in this regard: stunned by how many of my students and colleagues listen to the dumbest people offer the dumbest advice about the discipline, who’s who, what’s what, and end up gettin NOwhere.  And since sense wiseness is not something you can read in a book, some folk will be like them old 7Up commercials: never had it, never will.  Like my Uncle Bay taught my cousin in high school (that my cousin, in turn, taught us): when you trust the wrong folk, something is wrong with YOU, not them, so get yourself right.  Friendship, trust, and the intimacies of your selfhood are not things to be given so freely.

africaStories of Uncle Bay’s sense wiseness abound in my family. Uncle Bay was a manager at the factory where my father worked when I was a small child (until the factory closed and moved overseas).  On one occasion, my father was apparently SHOWIN OUT (and let me attest to the fact that Pops can be good at THAT!) because his paycheck wasn’t accurate and significantly slighted.  When my father’s anger didn’t seem as if it could be “contained,” my uncle was called for assistance.  Uncle Bay, however, did not oblige and did not intervene: “if you want him to stop actin out, just pay the man.  Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I know very few black folk like Uncle Bay.   Catering to white comfort, fearing white power, or being mesmerized by/chasing whiteness were never part of the game for him.  Uncle Bay did not try to placate my father or ask him to forego his righteous indignation and he did not try and explain/domesticate my father’s behavior to his white bosses who knew they were in the wrong.  “Just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I think of Uncle Bay’s example in the context of my profession often. Time and time and time again (click here for an example), I have witnessed white men want/tell my black graduate students to tone down their anger and verbal forthrightness against the racism they have experienced as students and young faculty.  And yet NO single one of these white men has ever taken a stand against or spoken out against the racism these students encounter; they only want to make sure they can squash black students’ voices and keep the status quo exactly as it is.  Sense wiseness can keep you from being fooled into maintaining this kind of white dominance that works by silencing black folk and ignoring the wrong done to them.  Uncle Bay will always be my model in these instances.

There is a similar story about my Uncle Mac.  Apparently, one of the workers got caught doing something, no one really remembers, but everyone does remember that he accused Uncle Mac of ratting him out and being an Uncle Tom.  Now you have to understand that Uncle Mac is probably the quietest in my family but that quietness doesn’t mean he is going to tolerate disrespect… so Uncle Mac held the man at knifepoint and let him know what would happen the next time he came at him like that.   The man ran straight to Uncle Bay who, by that time, was a manager at this new factory where Uncle Mac worked.  Uncle Bay just told the man: Well, he didn’t cut you, did you?  You look alright.   Now some of the more bougsie types might cringe at the knife in this story, but I don’t have that issue.  The man got what he had coming: don’t dish out something you can’t take in return.  You don’t get sympathy and coddling when you choose to be stupid. Uncle Bay taught me that and he taught me that you don’t take the side of someone who is WRONG and disrespects your people, that’s not where you put your allegiance and you let them always know it too.  This goes for black folk who want to do wrong and then come at you sideways disrespectfully too— this is that real equal opportunity right here.  Sense wiseness doesn’t let you forsake real allies and loyalties.


Yes, I am using sense wiseness as a racial concept here.  If you have been told by every form of media that the darkness of your smooth skin, the thickness of your kinky curls, the fullness of your perfect lips, and the soul-stirring curves of your hips/thighs/backside are ALL WRONG, you need some hardcore sense wiseness to know these are lies and to see the beauty that everyone denies.  You need sense wiseness to know the truth behind a jury and judge of white women who say an unarmed black boy is a danger and should be killed.  You need sense wiseness to know that no, there’s nothing wrong with you when you see the white graduate students and faculty around you get support, nurture, and get-out-of-jail free-passes that you don’t. You need sense wiseness to know that your people are not unhuman, unlovable, unpretty even when the world suggests otherwise.   Every group does not have to cultivate sense wiseness like this; sense wiseness is what you need to counter dominance and power so those who represent that are not part of this counter-system.   Sense wiseness is what lets you question the dogma of a world that denigrates you and tries to control your thinking and action.  Certainly not all black people have it… and surviving this world won’t be easy for them.

My family taught me who to trust and who not to trust, who is real and who is domesticated. I know a white supremacist when I see one and I know someone who is acting in the service of white supremacy. I know what it means to be loyal and I know who my allegiances are reserved for.  I call all that sense wiseness and I am grateful for it.

Happy Juneteenth! We Own This Day!

JUNETEENTH_feature2-300x259We all know about the barbecues, parades, and festivities that commemorate Juneteenth.  But Juneteenth was more than just that. Juneteenth was and is also a day of political recharge and intellectual commitment to black life, learning, and dialogue.

African Americans even created what we now call the Juneteenth Queen to reclaim and rechristen the “Goddess of Liberty” that crowns American political structures as a BLACK WOMAN. Today and in the coming days (Juneteenth was known to spread across more than one day), I am curious to see how we sustain knowledge of this history and move its legacy forward, on and offline.  Happy Juneteenth to all!

Remembering Sojourner Truth: Reading Men and Nations

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996)
In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the school year before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head  is a sho-nuff RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.   That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.   These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color. I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much, but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogynoir and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black men colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking women students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with women students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.   I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we understand this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (toxic masculinity).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black women that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read .  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their prior knowledge which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black women cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations seriously.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.