“The price one pays for entering a profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.”~James Baldwin (quoted in Tananarive Due’s African Immortals Series)
I like what this quote from James Baldwin leans towards. The questions remain: what do you do with this intimate knowledge? And what kind of world does that ugly side create?
Sylvia Wynter, Distinguished Professor Emerita of Spanish and Portuguese
Following through on Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter To My Colleagues” means taking very seriously her claim that our very disciplines need to be interrogated for the ways that these fields discursively ignore, legitimate and, therefore, create/sustain the kinds of social hierarchies that inevitably mean racial violence. Though her letter was written in 1992, her claims seem all the more relevant and all the more difficult today. With academics and their work being more and commercialized and commodified (some folk like to call this being a “public/mass intellectual”) where you can become as instant of a celebrity as on cable television/youtube, the kind of deep critique of the academy that Wynter asks for seems all the more elusive. Her frequent quote from Carter G. Woodson seems approprate here: “There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”
I’ll quote Wynter extensively here based on my favorite subsection in her “Open Letter” essay called: “The New Question, From Woodson to Wiesel to Orr: What is Wrong with Our Education?”
Which is of course, where we come in, and the new form of the question- what is wrong with our education? Environmental educator, David Orr, pointed out in a 1990 commencement address, that the blame for the environmental destruction of a planet on which we are losing ‘116 square miles of rain forest or an acre a second,’ and on which at the same time we send up ‘2700 tons of chlorofluorocarbon into the atmosphere’ as well as other behaviours destructive of our ecosystemic life support system, should be placed where it belongs. All of these effects, he argues, are the results of decisions taken not by ignorant and unlearned people. Rather, they were and are decisions taken by the ‘best and brightest’ products of our present system of education; of its highest levels of learning, of universities like ours here at Stanford. Orr then cited in this context a point made by Elie Wiesel to a Global Forum held in Moscow in the Winter of 1989: ‘The designers and perpetrators of the Holocaust,’ Wiesel pointed out, ‘were the heirs of Kant and Goethe.’ Although, ‘in most respects, the Germans were the best educated people on earth, their education did not serve as an adequate barrier to barbarity. What was wrong with their education?’
Oreo. Sell-out. House Negro. Uncle Tom. Aunt Jemima. Incognegro. Miscellaneous. Negro Bed-Wench. Tragic Buck. Coon. Actin White. Talkin White. If a black person says any of these things about another black person, it ain’t a compliment; it is intended as a deep critique of one’s racial mental health and identity. Now, granted, these terms can be used in some of the most problematic and simplistic ways, I admit. Nonetheless, I am drawn to this kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that many black folk use to denigrate anything and anyone perceived as an insult and injury to black people. I have grown up with these terms and, quite honestly, have used them to describe many a folk. For me, this language can mark insiders, outsiders, and racial violence in some important ways.
As strange as it might seem, I think it is this very same language that makes me perplexed about many white feminists at times. When the white men who I work with squash all moral obligation and dialogue in the academy, I have seen far too many self-proclaimed “radical” white feminists in these professional settings act in complete alliance with these most bigoted of white male patriarchs and racist systems. And now, when a white female judge and an almost all-white female jury expects us to understand how and why they sympathized with George Zimmerman/white supremacy and sanctioned white terror under the name of the law, I need a radical feminist agenda that will call out such roles under white womanhood (rather than simply ask folk to remember that black women are as demonized as black men). When a white woman goes on national television, accepts a major book contract (she has since cancelled) to explain her situation as one of the jurors in the case, and cries with the expectation that her pain will be a central organizing system for national sympathy in the murder of a black woman’s child, white womanhood has got to be called out as a fundamental mechanism for maintaining white supremacy: white male patriarchy never acts alone. This kind of calling-out is simply an assumption that I readily make from the kind of everyday linguistic system of accountability and obligation that black language has given me. What black folk/black language seems to get as part of its daily consciousness is that we need some words, tropes, images— some language— for this kinda foul, racist stuff.
Adrienne Rich said it best in “Disloyal to Civilization” when she argued that white women could not form important connections with other women across the planet—the kinds of connections that would advance women’s collective power and overturn patriarchy—if they remained forever loyal to a white supremacist system. This year we’ve seen women like Abigail Fisher try and overturn affirmative action in a Supreme Court case, much like Barbara Grutter before her, even though white women as a group have benefited more than anyone else from affirmative-action programs. And now, another group of women have failed to give Trayvon Martin justice. These instances suggest that white privilege, power and dominance outweigh any notions of gender justice and solidarity.
The white female judge and jury in this case did not experience their own motherhood in sisterhood to the mother of Trayvon Martin, Sybrina Fulton; their motherhood set its gaze only on Zimmerman and property. And the white female judge and jury in this case did not experience the words of a young black woman, Rachel Jeantel, as representative of Knowledge and Truth either. Hobson’s claim that there is no cross-racial gender solidarity in the context of white dominance seems worth heeding.
Close-up from the Lynching of Rubin Stacy, 1935
I am NOT talking here to people who support Zimmerman and the verdict. I know that I am not part of that “sanctified universe of obligation” and have no expectation that dialogue will be possible— American lynch law has never required that the ones swinging from trees be heard and recognized. That ain’t who I think of as my audience, nor where I mark the possibility of a radical humanity and a radical feminism. White femininity in this moment is being (re)scripted in the most dangerous ways and shows itself as, once again, integral to the “sanctified universe of obligation” where white women and families mark themselves as needing protection from black people, especially young black men. This is why I gravitate towards Sylvia Wynter’s re-mix of Helen Fein’s work: you need to look to the decades and centuries preceding a group’s annihilation to see and understand how the dominant group has perpetrated a regime that marks some groups as “pariahs outside the sanctified social order.” It’s a conceptualization that protects us from the claims that we are simplifying history by saying racism today is the same as years before. No, today is not like the lynching of Rubin Stacy as so brilliantly described by Justin Hill at the Black Youth Project. Stacy left Georgia to go to Florida where was murdered on July 19, 1935 in Fort Lauderdale for allegedly trying to harm a white woman (who later reported that he only came to her door begging for food). Apparently, Stacy had walked too closely and too comfortably up to white homes and needed to be killed for it. In the foreground of this now famous lynching photo, you can even see a young white girl, smiling, camera-ready for her special Kodak moment. No, we can’t say that Sanford, Florida is the “exact same” as 1935 Fort Lauderdale, Florida but we CAN say that the “universe of sanctified obligation” created and sustained the murder of Trayvon and the acquittal of his murderer by a white female judge and jury today whose political lenses have, at least partly, manifested from the gaze of that smiling, little girl.
I also go back here to Wynter’s essay, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” where she takes Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, and shows how Miranda, as a white woman/the only woman in the New World/Island is a “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and, therefore, the “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.” What Wynter calls the “situational frame of reference of both Western-European and Euroamerican women writers” has seldom countered this “regime of truth” that must be implicated in the ongoing murder of Trayvon Martin in the courts of the United States. As always, Wynter argues that contending with our present social reality requires a re-writing of the entire episteme and it should be obvious that race AND gender can never be disentangled from this work.
What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now?….. Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will make this system fall….. Take a stand, not a picture….. Out of the shops, into the streets….. Zimmerman walked, why can’t we?….. Who’s streets? Our Streets?……We are Trayvon!Trayvon! Trayvon! Trayvon!
For the thousands who I walked and rallied in solidarity with almost all of yesterday, these were the chants that carried our feet, mouths, and hearts. I was not surprised by the verdict but the state of mourning mixed with outrage fueled my desire to find kinship at the rallies all over New York yesterday. There had been a few times when I caught myself during the trial feeling assured that Zimmerman’s verdict would be guilty. I had to quickly remind myself that U.S. courts have always co-signed and maintained Black genocide. Given the recent history of Florida, I was more surprised that the Miami Heat took the championship than I was with an almost all-white female jury acquitting Zimmerman. With Wisconsin as the seeming first post-verdict incident, it looks like we will see more dark days ahead. As Raymond Santana of the Central Park Five reminded crowds yesterday, there is a historical context here.
Protesters in Times Square
When I was an undergraduate student, Sylvia Wynter— taking her cue from the Africana theorist, St. Clair Drake— called such protests, rallies, and petitions the “street tasks.” She was referencing the 60s and, later, the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles after the acquittal of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. She commended every move and decision black communities and college students made in those moments and also impressed upon us that there was a flip side to the coin that St. Clair Drake was always emphasizing: the intellectual tasks. The closest to what they meant is what we might call today blending the micro and the macro. However, Drake and Wynter are talking about more: they are talking about the ways that social action must ignite an “epistemological break” from the categories that govern our current social systems, not merely an amendment or addition to existing policies and programs. And that break has to be epistemological— the way that a social order knows itself and thinks about/institutes the world.
There are deep intellectual tasks ahead of us. I noticed yesterday that many young college students seemed to insist upon a colorblind rhetoric, North American-ness (and therefore hegemony), and middle class politeness/etiquette: this is not about race; I am not Black/Arab/Latino because I am ____-American; stay in school; let’s all pull up our pants and be good fathers; this is not a Black-White thing. And yet we have Zimmerman who was never even handcuffed when the police came; no one went door-to-door to ask who this slain young black boy was so Trayvon Martin was John Doe for many days, even though he was killed six houses away from home; the defense attorney opened with a knock-knock joke; and common sense defied any notion of self-defense (I was stunned by all the references to concrete when every photo shows Trayvon dead on the grass.) You could go on and on here. The resistance to name race and interrogate whiteness and white supremacy by so many young people has been stultifying. In the words of Sylvia Wynter: what is wrong with their education?
In every major social protest led by black college students, those students were always connected to radicalism outside of their campuses. It should go without saying that Black college students have always witnessed brutal murders of and threats to their peers:
SNYC, Southern Negro Youth Congress, was established in response to the Scottsboro Case and always raised money for civil rights activism, such as the case of a 16-year old African American girl sentenced to years of hard labor for allegedly stealing 6 ears of corn from a field.
When Barbara Johns led her high school peers in the protest that led the way for the only student-initiated case to be incorporated into Brown v Ed, she had to be immediately sent to another state to live after all of the death threats made against her.
Ibram Rogers reminds us that 12 black college students lost their lives in peaceful protest in the Black Campus Movement.
It seems historically safe to say that black college students have taken radical politics off-campus and made that radicalism come alive. So maybe young people’s lack of analyses today simply reflects we grown folk and the radical intellectual activity that we have allowed to be displaced by media cartels and allied commercial academic/celebrities. Indeed, what is wrong with their education? Where have WE gone wrong?
One of My Favorite Posters from Yesterday’s Rallies in NYC
I have been fascinated by the way the Zimmerman family has been welcomed and embraced by the White Conservative Right. The early insistence by conservative whites that we recognize Zimmerman as a person of color has all but faded. In fact, on my way to the rallies, one of the triggers that sent me out into the streets, was finding myself terrified. In my newly-gentrified neighborhood of Brooklyn, white men started waving American flags on their cars and homes— as far as they were concerned, all things were right with America again. And here we have young people of color insisting on colorblindness because Zimmerman has a Latina mother. The critique of whiteness seems nowhere to be found: maybe we can’t call this man white but we can surely call him a white supremacist and his choice in this regard has been no accident (I said white supremacist, NOT racist). For all of the pollyanna-ish talk about mixed-race children complicating today’s racial categorization models, no one seems willing to recognize that the race issues that murdered Trayvon Martin are as old as the white founding of this country. Now more than ever, I wonder what mixed-race children are embracing when they say they embrace their “white side.” It seems pretty clear for the Zimmerman children. I am not talking here about representing individual white parents; I am taking about social and historical forces of racism that no one gets exempt from and that some groups deliberately choose to benefit from.
What has struck me most about this case is the implicit and explicit invitation made to white-skinned ethnic people: embrace white supremacy and you too can be white…. come one, come all. We seem to forget that it was the courts that have decided who/what is white and who/what is not. Do we need the reminder that Armenians were legally classified as Asian until they became white in 1909? Did we forget that Syrians were legally white in 1909 and 1910, then non-white in 1913, and then back to white again in 1915? From the perspective of a race-based historical continuum, the courts anointed Zimmerman this past weekend also, a man who cannot even really phenotypically pass for white. This is hardly a man with blue eyes, pale skin, red/blond hair (it seems that even Homer Plessy, the octoroon who chose to be the lead plaintiff in the 1896 case of Plessy v Ferguson, looked whiter than Zimmerman) who will still need a few more generations of miscegenation to reproduce pale-featured children. But, when Zimmerman murdered Trayvon, he got anointed as white. If we know that race is not biological, then we need to take seriously the ways the courts, as just one institution, have socially constructed race and racism. Every time someone from the Zimmerman family even makes a public statement, they speak solely within the terms of white supremacy; it is almost as if I am seeing and hearing Bull Connor in 1950s Alabama. And yet I hear NO rallying cry from the media about family values and questions of how these Zimmerman children were raised— no one asks how or why a Latina mother and white father raised children to hate and murder young black men in the streets without remorse. Black and Latin@ parents never get this kind of pass if their child commits a crime or even acts a fool in public, but, gee whiz, something seems so different with the Zimmermans.
To go back to Wynter’s words in my previous post, when we construct the optimal human to be white, of Euroamerican culture and descent, North American, middle class, college-educated and suburban, Trayvon Martins must fall out of “the sanctified universe of obligation.” This is why my favorite slogan in the rallies that I have witnessed is: WE ARE TRAYVON. That’s a powerful statement if we really mean it, truly the intellectual task here. To take on THAT statement means an ideological position. It means choosing to fall outside of and think outside of our current “sanctified universe of obligation” which will require more than protest rallies, petitions, delusions of color-blindness, and the fear of naming whiteness.