Flip-Floppers & Tuskegee-Experimenters

flip-flop1Academic Flip-Floppers have always been quite perplexing to me. Perhaps I am just too naive and keep expecting more when I ought to know better by now.  Flip-Floppers are those scholars who tag along with the newest trope, fad, or jargon in the field and then spit it out whenever they can.  Treated like flip flops, ideas become something of mere discardable convenience that don’t require real support or substance.  This is because the new idea isn’t something the Flip-Flopper really agrees with or lives by because word is not bond right here.  The new idea just has to be a trope that can get the Flip-Floppers some attention, accepted conference panels, or publications.   I have in mind right now the folk who I have seen on panels and whose work I have read about code-meshing, when just a few years (or months) prior, they espoused very vociferous public claims about the inevitably (and therefore their embrace) of teaching standardized English, a platform totally incompatible with politics surrounding code-meshing.  I am not saying folk can’t change their mind and get turned around but that’s not what’s going on here.  I usually just get up and leave or stop reading when it comes to Flip-Floppers like this; I can’t waste my time with people who don’t believe in what they are saying, do something different from what they profess, and just want to commercialize and commodify thinking and research.

The Flip-Floppers are the more benign players in the academic, neoliberal hustle though.  The Tuskegee-Experimenters are closely related but in much more dangerous ways.

It’s almost a cliché to now claim one’s scholarship is connected to social justice.  But for the life of me, I often cannot figure out what on earth many people mean by this. When graduate students ask me how to do educational scholarship and social justice, I try very hard to get them to hold on to the here-and-now.  They usually want to talk about the big movements, protest campaigns, and activist groups way OUT THERE that we can join and create (all of which are certainly critical).  But what I also want to focus on are the interventions we can make RIGHT where we are because the barriers and oppressions of the world are always right there in front of you.  You never have to travel far or wide.

tuskegeeHere’s what I mean.  I have never taught a single semester in these last five years where  young black women didn’t come to me to describe the kinds of mean-spirited, violent, racist diatribes thrown at them by faculty and staff on campus.  These are not isolated experiences— but are systematic, systemic, and routine.  And for those who are not accosted outright, they just feel like something ain’t right: when they talk, the room goes silent, like their presence is tolerated but never really desired.  The examples are too countless to name. And so I wonder about these folk who are wondering so much about what kind of activist projects they need to do way OUT THERE somewhere when the oppression they assume they are analytically aware of is right there surrounding them each and every day.  How do you acknowledge, resist, or transform systems you do not see?   This is where the Tuskegee-Experimenters come in.  I am talking about the multitude of people who I see, especially white scholars but more increasingly scholars of color too, who write about students of color, “diversity,” critical theory, anti-colonialism, or anti-racism, but do not notice, much less act on, the everyday violence inflicted on students of color in our institutions.  And by saying Tuskegee-Experimenters, yes, I am invoking “The Tuskegee Study of Syphilis in the Negro Male.”  I do not mean this as a kind of hyperbolic statement but as a kind of historical fact about the ways that research on black bodies has consumed those bodies, in fabulously parasitic and/or deathly fashion, without ever truly helping black folk or even intending to help them.  That tired mantra everyone uses today about one’s publication shedding light on a subject and, therefore, helping communities of color is just that: TIRED.  You can’t solve social injustice if you bask in the privilege of never seeing it.

Remembering Baba Asa Hilliard/Revising Race & Composition Studies

Since the early dawn (and, maybe, well before then), I have been revising an article about assessment that focuses on racially subordinated students of color.  My original version was only partially received (if that) and so I was offered pages of suggestions for revision and re-submission of the piece.  Though many of the suggestions were problematic, the revisions that really moved me rested on me going back to reread what I had learned from Baba Asa as a high school teacher and, for that, I am grateful and newly inspired.  That inspiration was probably what prompted me to write the letter that I did to the editor.

I took the suggestions offered to me by one reviewer and incorporated those that matched my politics and, well, discarded all of the rest, offering the editor an explanation for why.  I am indebted to Jaime Mejía for challenging me to articulate to editors how and why my political perspectives diverge before I simply write white folk off and then go and submit my work to journals that have an anti-racism platform.   Jaime seems to believe in my voice and ideas and wants me to inject that everywhere.  Regardless of what happens with this journal, I do feel good about following Jaime’s advice and stating my piece/peace.  As stank as this might be, I am going to share that letter to the editor openly here (without, of course, naming the journal— I ain’t that stank) and list the Hilliard texts that have carried me through the morning and afternoon today.

Hilliard, Asa G. (1990). Back to Binet: The case against the use of IQ tests in the schools. Contemporary Education. 61, 4, 184-9.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1995). Either a paradigm shift or no mental measurement: The Non-science and non-sense of the bell curve. Psych Discourse. 76, 10, 620.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1984). IQ testing as the emperor’s new clothes: a Critique of bias in mental testing,” in C. Reynolds, ed. Perspectives on Bias in Mental Testing. New York: Plenum.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1989). Kemetic (Egyptian) historical revision: Implications for cross cultural evaluation and research in education.” Evaluation Practice 10, 2, 7-23.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1988). Misunderstanding and testing intelligence,” in John Goodlad and Pamela Keating, eds. Access to Knowledge. New York: The College Board, 145-157.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1998). The Standards movement: Quality control or decoy? Rethinking Schools: An Urban Educational Journal Online, 12, 4.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1987). Testing African American students.” Special Issue of the Negro Education Review. 38, 2 and 3 (Republished 1995, by Chicago: Third World Press.)
Hilliard, Asa G. (1975). The Strengths and weaknesses of cognitive tests for young children.” in J. D Andrews, ed. One Child Indivisible. Washington: DC: National Foundation for the Education of Young Children.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1994). What Good is this thing called intelligence and why bother to measure it? Journal of Black Psychology, 20, 4, 430-444.

So here is my letter….hopefully, this letter will make sense though the article that it references is not part of this post.  In writing this letter, like I said, I really see what it means to have behind the-scenes conversations that force in our perspectives.  Here is my first attempt at doing so (I removed the list at the end of the revision letter that details the line changes I made):

Dear _____ (name removed),

Thank you for this thoughtful review.  It was very helpful in re-framing my thinking.  Some of the points I agreed with, some of them I found quite divergent of my own politics and experiences with race, education and language (and most radical educators of color, for that matter).  I thought I would re-submit my revised text, though it may not be what you are looking for, before I submitted the piece elsewhere.  Here are my responses:

I certainly believe the issues of Black English and code-meshing are absolutely critical and central to my own work.  However, those issues are not the focus of this text.  I removed many sentences from my text that deploy Black English such as: …they ain’t kids no more; …the principal and her cronies were not down; I removed the words fool-ass and fool-ass mess (though this is arguably not a central feature of Black English; instead, I refer to the individual in question as a white woman to make my claims of racism sharper and less politically polite than simply calling her a fool since she was more than just that).  I left a few Black English phrases in my text like: “those ain’t my people or my allies.”  I want the weight of belonging to an alternative teaching tradition than what white, bourgeois culture offers to carry the moment and so I allow my language to do that in the hopes that there will be readers outside of the white bourgeoisie who will also connect to me and that tradition.  I include this point in a footnote.

More to the point maybe is that a few sentences that minimally deploy Black English can’t really qualify this as a text that fully deploys the code-meshing that Young and Canagarajah are theorizing or the practices of translingualism or cross-language relations that Horner and Lu advocate.  While these theories as they relate to assessment are vital, my essay certainly cannot be the standard for that kind of writing— it’s just not good enough to be that kind of writing.  I am concerned here because if my writing seems to enact code-meshing, then we have so far to go in dismantling Anglo-English linguistic imperialism that the horizon is nowhere in sight.  I am also really clear here that a real understanding of what “Black English” is (terminology which no one hardly even uses anymore) is critically missing from this reviewer’s discussion.  I also find it a bit colonial to ask for a rationale for using my “code-meshing” as if any one register can carry the narratives of people of color— THAT’S MY POINT. If I have to say it, this is not the audience who should be teaching people of color in the 21st century! PERIOD!  This seems to privilege white readers— who do we assume needs this meta-overview of one’s language use? Are your white or standard authors required to offer a meta-narrative of their language use?  I certainly haven’t noticed this in your journal.

It is only a few instances of mainly vocabulary that can be called “Black English” in my text. Because the few markers that I did use were so noticeable as to warrant such attention (a page-long discussion by the reviewer), I have removed those vocabulary words for the sake of clarity.   I, however, did not remove my subject-driven racial analyses as a person of color in a white university system that has had little success in retaining racially subjugated communities— students or teachers. This means that many readers might regard my narrative style as an African Americanized one but that is not an argument anyone should make since it could not possibly result in anything other than claims of essentialism: there is no one, quintessential African American style, quite obviously.   I also did not belabor the opening narrative more than a few, added paragraphs for clarity— readers will simply need to do some extra work here and not expect to be spoon-fed simply because I use narrative in spaces that do not value it as an academic form.

For my own part, in terms of research on code-meshing, I simply don’t have a dog in that race. Because I am referencing work that I did in the early 90s as part of a progressive school reform movement, it obviously wasn’t theories related to code-meshing that shaped what we did in those CES schools (this should be clear in the ways that I included discussions about Baba Asa Hilliard).  In terms of my “blended/bended” writing style, I root that in my work as a black feminist teacher and researcher— also work I have done since I first read Patricia Hill Collins in the 90s.  I think it is up to the scholars who focus on work in code-meshing to show how what they are doing is new in terms of critical literacy, anti-racist pedagogy, and culturally valid assessment.  Like I said, I don’t have a dog in that race (I haven’t needed to) and the work that I have been doing isn’t rooted in code-meshing paradigms.  All of this really points to my larger argument: namely that we have no real or progressive connection to educators of color who have offered dynamic classrooms to students of color for decades now without needing the rather esoteric conversations that mostly white compositionists imagine to be central. Frankly, I found the revision requests related to code-meshing to be incredibly reductive and wholly problematic in ways that will require me to write a whole other article.

I was inspired by the reviewer’s reminder that I see assessment as a practice that can maintain literacy as white property.  I think this is brilliant.  However, I did not explicitly examine that here because of space restraints (I never used those words).  To fully engage that concept means that I would have to go back to early canonical works in CRT (critical race theory), particularly Cheryl Harris’s work, otherwise I would run the risk of merely co-opting CRT tropes.  I didn’t want to do that and couldn’t find a way or space to incorporate whiteness as property here.  That kind of work merely makes CRT a commodity vs. the theoretical force and social justice foundation that it is. You simply cannot reference whiteness as property outside of or without CRT.  This should actually be standard policy for this journal and all others!

Based on the reviewers’ request to address literacy as a white property and issues of code-meshing, I did, however, insert what I think is critical information about Nateca’s expression “well, if you was listenin” to the white woman in the audience who questioned all of the students’ competence. I treat Nateca’s language as African American rhetoric, however, a crucial issue for what really interests me with writing assessment— the erasure of ethnic rhetorical competency.  Here is what I said about Nateca:

I offer this narrative about Nateca because it shows how this assessment landscape offered the possibility for African American rhetoric (signifyin, tonal semantics, directness, call-and-response, verbal markers of African American Language) to critique and shift the political discourse of that space while simultaneously garnering the very animated support of a large, working class community of color (this room was filled with at least 70 bodies).  In sum, Nateca shifted the gaze of assessment from white to black.

That should clarify my point as succinctly as I can make it.


And with that… I submitted the letter, uploaded the new, revised essay, and decided upon a next journal where I will submit this piece once the editor makes her final decision (I assume she will not budge from the reviewer’s suggestions and I will, indeed, look elsewhere for a publication venue)!