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.

My Grandmother’s Intentionality: Languaging and Living

Audre Lorde QuoteMy father’s mother is the only woman who I have ever called my grandmother. She passed away a few years ago but I think of her always and talk to her often in my dreams.  As I get older, I see the intentionality that guided her life in renewed ways.

My grandmother wasn’t someone who you could call talkative.  She said what she meant and meant what she said.  I don’t recall any moment in my life when I ever saw her get upset and say something that she regretted later.  If she called you out your name, then that was your deserved name and unless you made a character change, that was the name that stayed with you.  Words were not things you took lightly and they were not things you could take back.  This is how most black folk I am close to think. Language shapes you and everything around you; it must always be intentional and it always was for my grandmother.  It is such an anomaly as an academic where talk-talk-talking-nonstop is what folk do.  There’s lotsa talking in these spaces— the arrogance and psychoses of always dominating the space by runnin your mouf— but not a whole lot of thinking and listening.  At best, I am usually bored and, at worst, I am often offended.  Strangely enough, I have read scholarship for years that indicates that my grandmother’s working class roots and vocabulary are a detriment to my language skills and yet the intentionality of her ways with words is the only one based in any deeply philosophical thought that I can see and hear for miles around me, despite all this middle class social capital folk have.

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

I don’t have any memory of my grandfather, my grandmother’s husband, because he died when I was very young. My grandmother was in her early 50s and never dated again.  I never even sensed from her, the way I do with many of the women around me as a child and now, that she wished she had a man or was ever interested in a man’s help or nurture.  Male attention was never the center of her life nor did she think it should be central to any other woman’s life.  At 50, after birthing 15 children, she was still very fly, always looking at least 10-15 years younger, tall, slender but very curved, with skin so smooth it looked like she woke up wearing foundation.  Even when she wore the family picnic T-shirt at 70+ years old, she adorned herself with pearls and shoes to match. She was, quite simply, content with who and where she was.  It’s a feeling that I can’t quite describe but one that I just don’t sense from many folks.  Most people I see are always trying to climb higher, become famous/known/seen, get to a more prestigious university (or pretend that the place where they work is Hahvahd), buy more things, have more clout.  There was never a time when I felt my grandmother was looking for something, for someone, for some place else, as if something was missing inside of her.  My father and his 14 siblings have often talked about how she would get mad at them for just staring too long at the Sears catalog which she called a Wish Book, something that she considered very dangerous.  You didn’t worship things outside of yourself that way, especially if it was connected to whiteness.

My grandmother would never have called herself a black feminist or womanist, those are academic labels that wouldn’t have done much for her life.  But when I heard Audre Lorde say things like “Who I am is what fulfills me and what fulfills the vision I have of a world,” I could gather those words into my being because of my grandmother.  Why would I ever be desperate for an alternative role model when I can clearly see and value the blackness from which I already emanate?  For me, my grandmother is one of the most radical black women/black people/intellectuals I know.  She lived her life never wanting to be somewhere else, never wanting to be something else, never wanting to be with someone else, never aspiring to be a social climber and insomuch that those projects/desires are always dictated by whiteness, she lived a life few of us today seem able to even imagine, much less achieve.

“This Woman’s Work”: Sybrina Fulton

Mamie-Sybrina Collage

My Collage of Mamie Till-Bradley, Emmett Till, Sybrina Fulton, and Trayvon Martin

“Trayon Martin is the Emmett Till” of our time… that’s a statement I have continually heard in these past days and I would have to agree.  The corollary is also true here:  Sybrina Fulton is the Mamie Till-Bradley of our time.  In Sybrina Fulton’s talk at the rally at One Police Plaza in New York City this past weekend, I was particularly inspired by these lines:

As I sat in the courtroom, it made me think that they were talking about another man. And it wasn’t. It was a child, who thought as a child, who acted as a child, who behaved as a child. And don’t take my word for it. He had a drink and candy. So, not only—not only do I vow to you to do what I can for Trayvon Martin, I promise you I’m going to work hard for your children, as well, because it’s important. (see 16:43 to 17:20 of the footage shot by Democracy Now).

When you think of the difficulty Mamie Till-Bradley had in securing her son’s body (Mississippi seemed to block her every move to have his body shipped to her in Chicago), it seems strangely reminiscent of the days Sybrina Fulton had to wait for her son’s body to be named Trayvon Martin, rather than the original John Doe white police proclaimed him to be, unworthy of even an investigation. It is not simply that both mothers lost their sons to white violence, publicly paraded by the courts’ refusal to convict their murderers.  It is the way these women opened up  their grief to the world and to a social analysis of that world.

Mamie Till-Bradley has not often been written into the chronicles of history as radical; it has mostly been black women and black feminists who have done this work and will continue to do this work with Sybrina Fulton’s life also.  Both of these women’s radical, emotional openness is simply chilling for me.   Ironically, we are in an age where everybody thinks they are “radically open” because they can post photos and videos on any and every social networking site of: 1) their children performing liberal rituals of white, nuclear American familyhood such that facebook, google+, and youtube become the new “Leave it to Beaver”; 2) themselves, friends, and family and the neoliberal objects/vacations/outings/performances they have materially acquired as the site of today’s corporate-induced narcissism.  All that “openness” but ain’t none of it like Sybrina Fulton’s! Or Mamie Till-Bradley’s!  An openness that looks American apartheid right in the eye rather than promote its whiteness!  At a time when most people use the “public forum” to simply promote the system we are in, Mamie and Sybrina halted the empty notions of progress, material celebration, and mainstream values that a white world would want to visually represent as Truth.  If there was ever a definition of speaking Truth-to-Power, this is it.

I think about Sybrina Fulton quite often and I cringe at the label that I hear too many often giving to her: strong black woman.  Yes, Sybrina Fulton is strong.  Who would suggest otherwise?   Yes, I understand the sentiment because so many of us hold her close and dear to our hearts and prayers, hoping she will know she is loved and cherished, shaken to our own core by the pain we can only imagine she is enduring.  Yes, we feel the awesomeness of her ability to stand in the face of that pain, brutality, and ugliness. But we need some deeper understandings of this legacy of black women and black mothers who defy all odds to love their children and challenge a world that hates black people.  Violence against black children is violence against black mothers so strength ain’t even the half.

Our current context is one that melds:

Multimedia cartels where most Americans visually circumscribe and incessantly celebrate mainstream, white familyhood, a continual site of historical violence and exclusivity in this country— I am not suggesting this is limited to the U.S., you need only watch the current foolishness surrounding the Royal Baby in England to know the U.S. has never been alone in mobilizing white imperialism to define family/nation;

WITH

A world where black motherhood is demonized and made into public spectacle for a gaze as white as the viewing of Gone with the Wind Tune in any Tuesday or Wednesday to Tyler Perry on OWN; he, of course, has not invented these images but when we promote them ourselves then you KNOW we’s in trouble (last night, Big Momma sang a slave spiritual to her white female boss, further castigated her own black daughter-turned-prostitute, and begged/sobbed for son’s release from prison).

When you place Sybrina Fulton into this kind of context, you begin to see why the label “strength” just won’t do for a black woman like her.  And you begin to see why so many black women will write her body, story, and pain so centrally into the history of black people and black freedom.

Knowing When It’s Time To Leave…

The title of this post might suggest that I am talking about a romantic relationship, but I’m not.  I’m talking about knowing when it’s time to leave an academic job… and, yes, there are similarities to leaving a relationship.  

Credit-Card-Identity-TheftHere’s what I mean. At my first tenure-track job, I designed a college-credit-bearing course for high school students that would use the history of African American literacies and education within an intensive, rigorous reading and writing curriculum.  The idea was to get students so caught up in what they were learning that I would take that momentum and build in intensive college-readiness reading and writing competencies.  I had an elaborate multimedia, project-based curriculum with tutor trainings fully planned out. The upper level administration offered full support while my lazy chair and disaffected colleagues offered, at best, lip-support and questions on how I would incorporate math (Yes, math, even though I am a literacies and composition researcher; even though no one else was expected to cover materials outside of their expertise).  On one occasion, I was supposed to meet with my chair to go over the project details before my presentation to the vice provost. She straight didn’t show up because her dog was sick and so couldn’t bark and wake her up in time… yes, this is what $160,000-per-year for a chair can look like (and yes, this is the same chair who orchestrated “disciplinary meetings” that I have previously discussed). I canceled the project when the necessary departmental infrastructure was nowhere foreseeable.  At this point, my chair proceeded to tell everyone in the provost’s office and in my department that she had designed the project herself and that I was only the person she CHOSE to execute it so that I could teach a class related to my research— according to her, this was her project and it belonged to the department.  Did this chair have any background, experience, or research related to teaching black youth or studying black histories?  None. Was this someone with a national reputation and body of substantial research? No.  Was this someone who you could even call mentally and psychologically stable? No. Did anyone challenge or question her?  No one.  Needless to say, the project still has not happened and that was my last year at that university.  After having successfully—maybe even masterfully— passed my third-year review, many were stunned that I would leave the university.  They hadn’t originally thought a young woman of color like me would meet the publication requirements with teaching and service expectations for tenure at that caliber of university; when I announced I was leaving, they thought it was a low self-esteem issue, that I didn’t know how tenurable I was in such a tough place.  Now let’s say this was my partner and let’s also say this partner stole my credit cards. The thinking was: hey, we are together, we need to share everything, so her credit cards must also belong to me.  Now imagine that this fool has NO credit whatsoever so is going to just use what I have established and spend frivolously, without even asking me.  You see, it’s real clear here: I need to change the locks, move if I need to, go get my cousins and meet this fool someplace dark, do whatever I need to do: this fool has GOTS to go… using me, stealing from me, without the kind of moral core to know any better, all while telling me that I am stupid because I am black and a woman.  Of course, it doesn’t have to even be this extreme to get up and leave but the point remains: if I stayed in this kind of relationship, it seems obvious that I suffer from self-hatred and need serious counseling.  So then why would I stay at a job that treats me like this?  You don’t stay somewhere where people keep their foot on your neck so you can’t ever fully shine or grow, thief all your stuff when they need it, and are surprised that you are intelligent and accomplished… and will TALK BACK.  Raise up and move on out.

Just like in a relationship, getting out is not easy though.  You gotta plan and prepare.  In the case of academia, it means you need to stay relevant, keep publishing, stay on the grind, and go out on the market which is basically a year-long application-and-interview process.  If you keep complaining about your situation but refuse to do anything about it, then you are your own tragedy.   Like with relationships though, when you get back out there, you take the past with you so the challenge is to transport the lesson, not the old wounds and negativity.  I certainly learned a lot in that first job but not enough to circumvent the poor choices I made next.  I got fooled by an attractive outward shell, saying all the right things, with no real substance inside.  But I did learn something: take good notice of how you are being treated rather than being swayed by the nice words you are told.

whites-only-sign-sojourner-truth-detroit-apartheid-segregationHere’s an example. At a recent interview, I was asked repeatedly if I could teach something other than African American content.  In my eight years as a tenure track professor, the majority of classes I have taught have been broad and in the seven years before that, still broader.  So in 15 years of college teaching, I have, unfortunately, taught very few Africana-centered classes as clearly shown on my CV.  Given these obvious facts, I saw this as a request to de-blacken myself in an incredibly lily-white faculty space. I was also asked questions about whether or not I could accommodate the specificity of their curriculum and yet no classroom that I visited was doing something that I saw as challenging for the 21st century or to my own teaching abilities.  I was questioned about whether or not I would actually do the commute but why would I go to the interview if I weren’t interested?  (I suspect a white male colleague in my field told some of the interviewers these things, but if those interviewers thought this white man could ever know ANYTHING about me or any black woman, then that’s just even more offensive and stupid). I was the first choice candidate and the offer was amazing but in the end, it IS like a relationship: you can’t be with someone who does not see who you are, does not really want YOU, and squashes the fullness of who and what you are/do/think.  They seemed to need someone like me to forward their specific agendas, but they never really wanted me.  Don’t be fooled by people and spaces that seem to be saying the right thing, but not meaning it.

Though the connections I am drawing here between an academic job and a relationship are intended to be comical, I do believe that the things you are willing to put up with at home match up real nice-and-neat to the kind of foolishness you are willing to put up with at work. I am reminded of a partner who I was with for three years.  After the last and final break-up, this fool was ready to change to be with me again and wanted to get married.   Then this fool went and made me a playlist to show regret and included music only by artists like Usher.  Now I think Usher is talented but if you want to get a sista like me to even consider taking you back, you gon need to do better than that: Gladys Knight’s “Neither One of Us”… Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes “The Love I Lost”.  There was no Dells, no Delfonics, no Stylistics, no O’Jays, no Teddy Pendergrass, no Luther… …I could go on forever here.  Just imagine excluding something like the Chi-Lites “Have You Seen Her” below:

More than thirty years after the original recording, these brothers still sound good and, if that were not enough, be out here rocking mustard-yellow, three-quarter-length suits with matching church shoes, vest, hat, tie, and silk scarf.  Now this is MUSIC!  “Have YOU Seen Her”?  Well let me tell you, that fool I was with for three years didn’t SEE ME!  Today, this knucklehead claims confusion: why couldn’t we just be friends?  After sopping up all of my time, attention, and support, giving very little of that in return, why would I need this fool’s friendship?  It’s not that different from the experience at that interview. On the surface, it all looked good but I knew that there could be no room for me at a job that: 1) keeps talking ONLY about the people they already have or have had, ideas and decisions that are all opposite to who I am and what I bring to the table, and; 2) requests that I change, mute, and de-blacken who I am, all while benefitting from my unique gifts and talents.  I declined the job and trusted that something better would come.

16976869-a-cartoon-man-cries-many-tearsPut most simply, there comes a time when you need to just get up and leave a bad situation whether that is a relationship or a university position and you gotta be ready to leave it all behind.  After the abuse and neglect, don’t expect apologies or acknowledgement from these folk, that’s not who they are.  If they had valued you, were interested in doin you right, you wouldn’t have raised on up out of there in the first place.  Cull a lesson from my past mistakes: I left my first job very angry. I had every intention of taking a photo of my naked behind and mailing it to everyone in the department with a  detailed description of what they could kiss. A friend, however, explained that this could qualify as some kind of punishable crime so the photos were never mailed.  Banned from that possibility, I never really healed and landed at a second job that I grew to hate even more.  This time though, I am getting my own closure otherwise I will miss new opportunities in front of me. If you don’t know what I am talking about, just go to youtube and read the comments section on love songs (I visit these uploads often to get music that is not mainstream) and you will see grownass people begging for the return of their babymommas/babydaddies/ex-lovers (with Maury Povitch-styled paternity issues in full tow). After getting dropped on their heads (and wallets), these stupid fools be out here publicly professing a never-ending, undying love…online youtube-dedicating or posting various renditions of “Don’t Leave Me” or “Lost Love” about an ex-partner’s “Dark side” who, in fact, was nothing but an affront to all humankind anyway (“you are my heart, my soul, my inspiration… I will miss the passion… you were the one… my guiding light” ). Why would anyone say these things to their predator/oppressor?  The same goes for the new job: you can’t hang on to old abuses as something that was ever real or ever about you or ever about real intellectual work or social change.

origins by carmen kynardThere are serious issues related to race and gender in these stories I am telling here and I will certainly be unpacking all that as I start thinking about a new category on this website: Black Women in the Academy.  Today, though, I was inspired by Crunkadelic’s words at the Crunk Feminist Collective.  There is a different kind of charge and commitment to naming names and isms in this new era of the post-Zimmerman-verdict. Here is Crunkadelic on that:

This is a time for fighting, agitation, mobilization, and organizing for systemic change—yes. Absolutely. But this is also a time for reflection, reading, soft beds, self-care, and saying “no!” to time wasters and soul crushers. This is also a time for laughing, lovemaking, singing, crying, wailing, dancing, and holding on to each other tight. This is a time for potlucks, cookouts, BBQs, picnics, cocktails, karaoke, concerts, house parties, blue lights in the basement, slow jams, and dutty wines. You feel me?

Yeah, I’m feelin you.  We got some fighting to do… and getting our minds, hearts, and bodies right and IN THE RIGHT PLACE is a good, first step.

No, You Can’t Touch My Hair: For Karina

Early this morning, I talked with one of my former students, Karina Ozuna, who was deeply disturbed.  She is trying to make sense of the current public art exhibit going on in Union Square in New York City called “You Can Touch My Hair.”

colonialdiscourse3As you can probably tell, places like twitter are all abuzz.  Like Karina, I understand the desire for a much needed dialogue about black hair but acting like these dialogues can just happen any ol’ where and any ol’ how and outside of discussions of particular sociohistorical experiences and political realities is problematic.  Those of us in NYC know that Union Square gets marked as a hip spot given the characters the park attracts, its radical history, the statue of Gandhi, and the close proximity to places like the New School and New York University.  However, you gotta also know that the rents in that area run at about $2500.00 per month for a small studio.  Yes, I said a studio apartment: one small bathroom, one small closet, and an open space (maybe 15X30 feet) that will include your kitchen.  What might it mean to be a black woman, standing in THAT space, holding a sign asking for folk to come feel on you?  While folk take pictures. This sounds like the neo-racial (usually misnamed post-racial) version of an auction block during slavery… mixed with the infamously racist exhibits at the 1893 World Fair (which celebrated Colored People’s Day by giving all African Americans a free watermelon)… mixed with the 19th century exhibits of and experiments on Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as Venus Hottentot (as depicted in the drawing above).  You really can’t deny the similarities here. Even the designer of the public art exhibit references her inspiration from a white female friend who likened her desire and curiosity to touch black hair with wanting to touch snake skin and rabbit fur.  I love Karina’s response to all of this:

I am assuming that she probably wants to start a dialogue on black hair, and it is usually the job of the oppressed or the objectified to educate the oppressor (paraphrasing Audre Lorde), but why should I have to educate people on my hair, or let people touch it at that? Why must my hair be viewed as “the other” or not the norm?  Why is it so hard to understand that our hair does not grow straight? It is curly, kinky and nappy. My hair grows up, not down, and that is not weird, odd, or abnormal; it is nature, it is an act of God.  This exhibit feels too much like a petting zoo for me, and I’m tired of us getting treated like animals.

I’m with Karina on this one.  I’m not interested in honoring white curiosity and I wonder about the black women who are: the all-consuming fascination with and desire for white attention and approval. I am certainly up for the challenge to interrogate white curiosity of my body but I’m not talking about the kind of interrogation where I trick myself out.  I think this exhibit might confuse too many folk into thinking they can just run up on black folk and cop a feel because, let me tell you this: if someone touches my hair who isn’t my partner, cousin/family, or sista-hairdresser, their fingers gon be mine! To her credit, I think the creator of the exhibit, Antonia Opiah at unruly.com, is willing to welcome such discussions, despite her totally ahistorical and apolitical dismissal of black people who consider the public spectacle of white people running their fingers through black hair an issue of an assumed ownership of black bodies (her response to that interpretation is that such an interpretation is: “extreme and likely written out of the anger and shock of their encounters.”)  What inspires me so much about Karina and her peers is that they do not seem to be missing the 200 years of history that situates this new World Fair happening in Union Square.

I am reminded again of Karla Holloway’s work.  Holloway keeps warning us that there can be no expectation of privacy for black female bodies in our current moment.  We are witnessing an almost automated public spectacle-making of black bodies with media cartels that offer us daily consumption of the likes of Flava Flav, Real Housewives, or Tyler Perry’s newest television shows.  It makes me very nervous when black women choose to forego noticing this reality Holloway describes and, instead, work to promote it. To Karina and all of her sisters and brothers in spirit: keep holding up that righteous indignation.  I am feelin’ you.