As an undergraduate student in her classes, I once witnessed Professor Sylvia Wynter receive notification of an award that she quite forthrightly declined. This is something that she has done many times in her career, as far as I can tell, if the award and its circle of privilege did not represent the social-intellectual work she was doing or believed in. As a 21-year old, I simply thought she was FIERCE with an audacity that just awed me! And while I assumed I knew the weight and integrity of the kinds of decisions she was making, I really had no clue. It is only now that I am also a professor that I have reached some level of new understanding.
I suppose I think about Professor Wynter and this moment so much now because her ideological stance is so far removed from the decisions that I see most other bourgeois professionals making. And while this issue of declining an award might seem like a trite issue in comparison to what her scholarship achieves, such a stance seems, indeed, part of how and why she does that scholarship.
There is the obvious, main lesson that I learned from Professor Wynter: that scholarship and research matter, that the ideas and knowledge we pursue do real work and have material effect in marking out the systems in which we live. There is a whole continuum where we can imagine new social possibilities or we can impose more limitations. This rather basic lesson is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. I think of a graduate student who once asked me for advice on what was the minimal amount of thinking and work she could do in order to receive her doctoral degree. She insisted that she had no desire to do research or scholarship and that she just needed the degree to get a full-time job at the community college where she was working. I didn’t have any answer for her and was too stunned, quite honestly, to come up with anything. I wish I could say this was the first time I had heard something like this from a graduate student. I found myself, at that very moment, trying to imagine myself and my peers stepping into Professor Wynter’s office as 19-year olds (or any professor) and telling them that we just wanted to do the least amount of work possible, that we had no intention of pursuing research, that we just wanted a job. Why would we have even taken her classes if that were our only motivations? I am reminded here of the volume sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, Racism in the Academy: The New Millennium. One of the volume’s contributors argues that my generation and those who are coming behind me treat becoming a professor like they are just getting another professional certificate or license rather than wanting to do the work of thinking. It’s a harsh statement that certainly does reflect many of us at this point in the history of the academy (albeit I think the scholar tends to regard his own generation more positively than he should). Because university teaching confers a greater deal of prestige than, let’s say K-12 teaching, I see many opting for university teaching but without the concomitant focus on research and writing (this is not to suggest that k-12 teachers do not do research and write since I know many k-12 teachers who certainly do and I certainly did also; it’s just that tenure expectations aren’t nested to publication like at universities). Given the debt that families and young people are incurring for a college education today, it seems there are, in the least, some ethical questions here. What might it mean for students to sit in classrooms where someone like the graduate student who I just described is responsible for their learning while having not fully committed to her own learning of the content she is disseminating? I find myself more frequently these days thinking back to my favorite mantra from Professor Wynter’s classes: Nothing is ever simple. There is always an idea behind it. The value and purpose of relentlessly interrogating ideas, especially those that form a system of oppression for people of African descent, was the first lesson I ever learned from her.
My 20-year old self understood Professor Wynter’s decline of an award as highly principled, but I did not fully understand the conscious and deliberate decision to forego the prestige-conferral ceremonies of Western education. Even though these ceremonies are often divorced from liberatory politics and instead only offer social capital and power, those ceremonies are very enticing for the ways they offer popularity, status, attention, monetary advancement, and upward mobility. This is not to say that we decline all awards, that is not what Professor Wynter did, only that she always rejected any decision that would mark her as part of what Cedric Robinson has called “the selective breeding of Black intellectuals” where control of Black knowledge production has been as important to capitalism as the control of their cotton-picking production. (Robinson reminds us, for example, that some of the most well-funded research on Black youth are basically police studies.) Racism significantly impacts who and what constitutes research on Black communities in the academy. So while I have greatly appreciated (and agreed with) many scholars’ rage at Professor Wynter’s sometimes peripheral status in the uber-chic world of critical theory and its pre-selected critics of color, we need to still make sure that we do not forget the questions we must ask about new modes of commercialization and consumption in the academic metropole that underly popularity. What I learned early on from Professor Wynter is that a fierce integrity on how you construct your identity as a scholar is deeply connected to its substance. I see more and more each day how her own work and life represented the “demonic ground” that she so infamously delineated in her masterful piece, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’ ”, a way of thinking that Katherine McKittrick has brilliantly taken up in her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle.
In “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” originally published in Carole Boyce Davies’s and Elaine Savory Fido’s Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Wynter introduces the notion of “Demonic Grounds” based on theories of math and physics where a system that is in place is called demonic when it does not have an already determined or knowable outcome. This means that the methodologies and assumptions that are traditionally used to construct meaning and understanding will not work and trans-disciplinarity is required.* She uses this notion of “demonic grounds” to represent the “absent presence” of Black women using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a system of thinking. Instead of focusing on Caliban’s mother, as Aime Cesaire did, Wynter focuses on Caliban’s female peer, “the woman of his kind” — a woman who is so “outside of the bounds of Prospero’s world of reason that she cannot even be imagined, and so appears nowhere in the play.” The demonic ground is, thus, a space not imagined and thereby, radical, in that it can re-position the governing, fixed codes of the social order which are presented as the only option rather than merely one option amongst many. Social transformation imagined from the demonic ground, as Wynter argues it, ushers in a new “human discourse” that goes “beyond the ‘master discourse’ of our governing ‘privileged text’, and its sub/versions.” Wynter is, of course, exploding the role of black women in traditional constructions of feminist theory and its applicability outside of whiteness. I now also see the ramification of her embrace of “demonic grounds” in terms of what it means to be a scholar who questions the ways that knowledge and power are maintained in the academy without getting caught up in it and, ultimately, lost in the academic sauce.
On those days when I look more like an attention-and-prestige-seeking charlatan acquiring status by chasing (usually white and male) networking gimmicks, then I too am caught up in the struggle to represent the kind of intellectual life that Professor Wynter has achieved. But on those days that I am really being and living an alternate definition of researcher/writer/teacher/scholar than the mainstream corporatization of knowledge that the academy privileges, that’s when I am simply representing what Professor Wynter taught us.
*Trans-disciplinarity here is different from inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary in that it calls into question the very nature of our disciplines as they maintain the logic of existing social crises, and thereby, replicate them.