Desperate Need for a Black Working Class Consciousness: The Fate of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC)

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

Anyone who knows me knows that I come from a large, working-class black family.  I am opening with that to say this: there IS such a thing as a black working class consciousness.  If you are western/ bourgeois/ academic and you need to call that statement “strategic essentialism” in order to make you feel better about your politics, then go right on ‘head, but, make no mistake about it: a black working class consciousness exists.  It is not some naturally-occurring thing; it is a socially constructed belief system, discourse, and political perspective shaped in conversation and proximity with other black people against the kind of super-exploitative, white-ruled working environments that black people must daily enter to feed and clothe their families, but also fully exit in order to maintain some humanity when they get back home.  I also open with this because it seems to me that a black working class consciousness is more important today than ever.

African American Women Welders during WWII

African American Women Welders (WWII)

I am picking up here from a previous post about the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC, as discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich. Their point is that the PMC’s work today looks a lot like the work that the working class always did— toiling in large structures as nameless cogs in automated systems.  I want to juxtapose this change in the work that the PMC does today alongside the fact that more black college graduate students are joining this PMC than ever before.   Instead of joining the PMC as the autonomous professionals that the decades before witnessed, first-generation black college graduates today will largely work in places where their everyday work life looks a lot like what their working class parents did (whether it be the service industry or a more factory-based industry).  This is the secret that we don’t share with our college students in a college system that is promising more and more students that a college degree will get them the keys to professional status— an economic system that no longer even operates that way.

I am not suggesting that we tell students to stop becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and the host of other professional careers they come to college for.  What I am saying is that students will need the black working class consciousness of their elders even more in this new system that tells them they are NOT exploited workers but treats them as EXACTLY THAT!   This realization is in direct contrast to the ways that we often teach college curricula, especially college writing.  We bamboozle our students with fantastic stories about learning and entering discourse communities, academic professions, and middle class/bourgeois life and work. These are lies.  This is the way faculty, as part of the PMC, as the Ehrenreichs describe it, “rationalize” a dying system and extend current modes of capitalism.

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

Black working class people have always known that they were exploited; that the work that they are allowed to do is not soul-sustaining; that black men do not benefit from patriarchy’s role-making of the male breadwinner; that black women do not get to trade in homemaking/non-job life for female work subordination and privilege; that white men will not come to black women’s rescue as benevolent or non-benevolent patriarchs at work or home (even the oral traditions tell you that!  See Flossie and the Fox!); that the labor one does will not equate to monetary gain; that the labor one does will not be written into the master script as the story of what has sustained and made the nation; that white co-workers, in the same financial straits as you, will more often than not cash in on the “wages of whiteness” to falsely identify with a white elite that hates them just as much; that prisons, projects, and criminally underfunded schools are just where they put you to keep you where you are or place you somewhere when the menial jobs you once did are no longer available.  These are counter-ideological systems that I don’t think we fully situate.  I have in mind here the ways that we talk about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and their focus on poor black folk as knowledgeable, usually in direct defiance of the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; we tend to think these women were making egalitarian, moralistic, feminist choices that re-defined leadership, and, yes, they were, but they were also forwarding and centering a counter-ideological system that the bourgeoisie just can’t give you.  We who do the work of teaching and theorizing college writing are also stuck in this discourse of depoliticized, moralistic choices.  We want to debate what it means, ethically, to ask students to give up “home cultures” and “mother tongues” when they are in the academy.  We want to rest on paternalism and talk about “preparation” of subordinated groups to move ahead in the world (we do not rigorously interrogate that social world, we just embrace ourselves as having the answers to moving forward in it without an admission of our white power as the key.)  Sometimes, we will call it racist to ask students of color to give up the communities in which they have made sense of themselves.  But we seldom explicitly address our current complicity in one of the most egregious systems of racialized capitalism when we tell students they will enter new types of work worlds with their college degrees.  We are, in essence, formulating and formalizing the process where students withdraw from and deny the kind of counter-ideological systems that they already have and can use to take on, see, and critique the system we are in.  We would rather throw our students out into an exploitative world and pretend it will not devour them up in the same way it has always done with workers. In my mind, this is the worst kind of teaching we could provide.

“So Hot It Hurts”

IMG154After more than his fair share of, shall we say, “resistance” (there are better words for it but I’ll leave it there since I am feelin celebratory today… expect more on that later), Dr. Todd Craig, one of my advisees, successfully defended his doctoral dissertation yesterday!

IMG159This dissertation is an examination of Hip Hop DJ Rhetoric based on Craig’s own life-story alongside more than 9o interviews with foundational Hip Hop deejays whose literacies, rhetorics, and ideologies are, often for the first time, magnificently centered.  To open his dissertation defense, Dr. Craig, of course, spun a set that merged the music, quotations, and samples from all of his first chapter so that we could hear, in yet another fantastic way, what that first dissertation chapter was dropping.

IMG156These deejays— more aptly described by Dr. Craig as “mixologists and turntable technicians, beat-blending specialists, scratch scientists and musical grandmasters”— are theorized as the “21st century new media reader, writer, and literary critic.”  It is the Hip Hop deejay whose tastes decide what gets poppin in the streets as well as how turntables, headphones, mixers, and computer software are now engineered and re-invented.  Yes, yes, yall… and that’s just the first paragraph of the literature review.  That’s all I will reveal for now but when this dissertation drops as a book, let’s just say, I tole you so!  Despite all the naysayers, haters, lynch-mobbers, and supremacists, this thing is real and can’t be stopped!  To quote Dr. Craig, when he quotes Havoc of Mobb Deep: “this is all the way live/and the way that I survive.”

As if fate had finally kissed me on the forehead, one of my undergraduate mentees, Valerie, came back to the university (she already graduated) to tell me, just minutes before this dissertation defense, that she was accepted at all nine medical schools to which she applied… and this, despite, being told by a wanna-be-prominent white male administrator that medical schools no longer accept “unqualified” “black girls” like her.  I’m looking forward to the health research and advocacy that she will do on black people’s behalf and the way she already knows how to keep those fighting embers and inner shine glowing.

There have been few days in my academic career so far that I can chalk up with some positivity.  But, to quote Cube from way back when, I got to say it was a good day.

“I think this anthropology is just another way to call me a nigger.”


“I think this anthropology is just another way to call me a nigger.”  That’s a heavy title for a blog post.  It is the epigraph to the introduction of John Gwaltney’s Drylongso, words spoken by one of Gwaltney’s research participants. Drylongso remains the book I turn to when I see/read/hear mainstream white scholars christening themselves and their research as THE work that critically engages race and the lives of people of color, all while, of course, maintaining their own white privilege in academic institutions (and often perpetuating acts of racial violence rather than fighting against it).  I don’t mean these things in the abstract either, I mean everyday practices that I have witnessed… but those details will be for another post for another time.

What you see with Gwaltney’s methodology and politics are communities of black folk who unwrap oppressive white worlds with wit, political consciousness, and uncanny navigational abilities.  Gwaltney’s book, first published in 1980, chronicles his interviews with more than 40 African Americans, mostly working class, from 12 northeastern black communities in the early 1970s.  Gwaltney’s very methodology and communications are a community endeavor.  As a “blind ethnologist,” Gwaltney was, quite literally, escorted and driven to each interview setting, what he calls “seminars,” where his participants kept and transported his tape recorder, typewriter, and brailler.  Reciprocity is the foundation on which Gwaltney built this study, making sure he was not one of those academics who talked with “paper in hand.”  Like I said, I come back to this study when I encounter white scholars who imagine that they and their white colleagues originate and ground intellectual and social analyses on race.  I am thinking of one of my graduate students who is focusing on Derrick Bell, Cheryl Harris, and Richard Delgado who had to listen to a white male tell her she needs to incorporate the work of (white) scholars in his field who have already addressed the issues of race she examines.  Gwaltney, however, reminds us that these scholars maintain codes of race and white liberalism more than they have ever analyzed it (what Delgado called “imperial scholarship”)… as Gwaltney’s epigraph, a quote from a black factory worker, states:  “I think this… is just another way to call me a nigger.”   

1I am also thinking about Gwaltney in relation to a white scholar whose work on race I have valued, particularly the arguments that have remained undervalued in ways that I have always found perplexing.  I am talking about Catherine Prendergast’s text, Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education.  I won’t go into detail here and spoil what I say in the inaugural issue of Literacy in Composition Studies next month.  I will just say that I have always found it interesting that there has been no real, vociferous debate around one of Prendergast’s most critical contributions, her chapter on Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words, chapter three.  After that chapter, given Prendergast’s racial analyses, some of this stuff we talk about in composition-rhetoric studies should just be a WRAP!

Part of the obscurity around Prendergast’s challenge to Heath’s work comes from the fact that few compositionists really know educational histories of race, connect that history to their current work, or know the history of race across a K-16 spectrum.  Heath just gets relegated to the K-12 scrapheap, seen as work that is intellectually beneath composition rhetoric. On the flip side, educational scholars in k-12 realms do not respect composition studies as work with rigorous methodologies, social science lenses, or publication standards.  Mix into that cauldron, a legion of white composition scholars who write about race in the most liberalist and anti-critical ways and you got one helluva eclipse-stew on Prendergast’s chapter three.  If we knew any better, we would know that Heath’s Ways with Words helped launch the disciplinary norms we deploy to talk about multiple languages and students of color in post-Brown schools that see large numbers of students of color today.  And if we knew any better, we would see that those disciplinary norms have, at their root, a very conscious and deliberate erasure of analyses of race.

chain gang

This photo depicts a chain gang near Asheville, NC in 1915 (see NC Office of Archives and History in Raleigh, NC). Following Reconstruction into the 1950s, chain gangs were used to re-organize slave labor: black men like those pictured here essentially built and maintained the public roads and highways of the South. It was only when road building was more mechanized that this system of neo-slavery subsided.

My focus on Gwaltney here is not coincidental. He conducted his study at almost the exact time Heath did hers— publication dates are also very close to one another.   As a refresher, Heath’s linguistic ethnography broke new ground in how it documented the literacy practices of a working class black community and a working class white community in 1960s/1970s South Carolina; both communities, according to Heath, had the same conflicts with the middle-class schools, thus, positioning these social clashes with school as a cultural clash.   But all of this clashing in school together was the result of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, which Heath’s book leaves unaddressed, precisely the thing that Prendergast takes up.  This notion of a culture clash also, non-coincidentally, does very little to take up the  histories of structural racism that impede white communities’ ability to respect communities of color who, left at the bottom, do not need to be seen, heard, or taken seriously.  Prendergast reminds you that Heath quoted people like a white working class male who said he only went to college when the town’s mill (where he worked) began hiring blacks because “when the niggers (pause), uh, the blacks, you know, started comin’ in, I knew that wasn’t for me.  I wasn’t ever gonna work for no nigger….”  Obviously, his clash ain’t with the white middle class folk… and it don’t sound like his clash is about “culture” either.  So here we have a canon on the cultural and social meanings of literacy that precludes a real conversation about race, all while acting like it is having just that kind of conversation… nuthin like talkin outta both sides of your mouth.

And so, now, to my last point.  I must admit that I almost fell outta my chair when I read Prendergast’s dissection of Heath’sWays with Words. Prendergast goes to the library that has archived Heath’s notes from her study and reads that stuff (hard-core right there!). Of course, she finds a gem: a letter Heath wrote to a colleague/respondent dated September 13, 1975 about a conversation with a black father who wasn’t too impressed with the research that Heath was doing. According to Heath’s notes/letter, the man told her: “I’ve heard my wife say you study me and other people, and I want to know how you do it and why… I also want to know why you care so much about my wife and kids… there is this black-white thing.  I am what I am and you are what you are.”  Heath decided that those last lines were about the “am-ness” of two human beings and that this was a conversation about gender.  Now see, I like to read these lines aloud to black folk, especially those who call themselves ordinary— drylongso— black folk. I have never found one who shares Heath’s interpretation or who regards such “researchers” as smart people (but I’ll keep looking for the naysayers.)  Here is where I insert Gwaltney back again.  I hear this man telling Heath EXACTLY what Gwaltney’s participants openly discussed and critiqued about academics and their research on Race and Black Folk:  “I think this… is just another way to call me a nigger.”   I am with Prendergast on this one: we HAVE to take these omissions seriously.  Despite self-celebratory claims suggesting otherwise, it looks like many of us have offered up pedagogical and language theories inside of and into a racial vacuum.

Public & Private Writing on New Plantations


See 2008 South Carolina State Museum Exhibit

My graduate advisor, Suzanne Carothers, is one of the most thoughtful pedagogues that I know, someone who thinks about the education of pre-school and elementary black children in strikingly alternative and radical ways.  In a recent conversation, she reminded me that black children’s role on slave plantations was to take care of white children close in age group.  Until that conversation, I had not thought of the wide-ranging ramifications of this.  It immediately triggered the countless histories and narratives I have read of African American adults explaining how they learned to read and write in slavery via the required chores they had to perform as children: carry  white children’s books for them to school; stand outside the schoolroom and wait for white children to finish school and carry their things home; stand in attention while white children learned or played, eagerly awaiting a command from them.  We know from the archives that black children used these moments to eavesdrop on school lessons, learn the alphabet, and trick white kids in disseminating the information white children had learned.   We have not talked enough though about what this relationship between white children and black children as learners meant for the epistemological construction of plantation life.  What is most interesting to me is the way in which Carothers marks this relationship as central to classrooms today: black children are still always expected to teach and help white children understand race or African American lives.  In my teaching context, I am talking about those moments in the college classroom where the issue of race or black history comes up and all the white people in the classroom turn to look at the one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room.  Or, there is the moment where a certain theory or issue comes up that is so obviously racialized, but it is up to that one (or two or three) black student(s) in the room to point it out, not the teacher’s role, and the room (or digital interface), of course, just goes dead silent. This seems like a story every black college graduate I know can tell and you can read about this kind of psychic warfare in countless educational accounts of black students’ experiences in schools.  I don’t think, however, we are often inclined to call and link these experiences of black students to slavery in the way Carothers has for me: these kind of moments in classrooms are simply the vestige of a plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance. That kind of framework pushes me to think about race and classrooms in a whole different way and question how, when, and where white children are made dominant.


Slave Children on Board the “Daphne”

I would like to hold myself accountable to offering black students something different from this “plantation economy of knowledge and learning in the context of white dominance.”   What this means concretely, for instance, right now is that in the first three weeks of my current class, my students do print-based writing (there is an informal writing assignment due each class) that they can email or hand in to ONLY me.  They are not posting their stuff online anywhere for the class or the world to read.  I need to see, hear, encounter their racial ideologies first and take them on.  I need to see who and what I am working with first.  I especially need to see the work we will need to do as a classroom before we can educate people outside of our classroom.  It is a seeming contradiction that so much, if not ALL, of my class depends on digital spaces; yet my students are not writing in the same open, digital spaces that contains the class materials (not yet).   To put it most simply: NO STUDENT in my class will be waxing on online with anti-black comments.  I am thinking here about my first semester teaching graduate classes where white male graduate students wrote quite freely in their weekly seminar papers about how lazy black people are and how slutty black women are.  I deal with that quite readily and willingly on my own, and pretty regularly (and have been able to count on white faculty not noticing or caring).  In my second year as an assistant professor, I encountered a white male student who had text-messaged sexually vile statements to the women of color in one of his classes where students were required to put their numbers on a class-distributed phone list.  When I reported his behavior, it was clear to me that I alone— the only untenured member of the department of the time— had to work with the women to file a complaint and would have to deal with the student alone in my own class in a way that would make sure he didn’t pass my class and, therefore, lose his position in the program— a program that certified teachers to work in urban high schools.  Like I said, I KNOW I am alone on all of this but I am also very clear: such students will not unleash racial violence and distribute their texts online in digitized classroom-discussion boards or in public online spaces as part of the work that happens in my class.  Not. On. My. Watch.  From my perspective, teachers need to be held accountable for such digital texts when white men such as the ones I described go online with this stuff. It is not the job of black students in the class to challenge them, to help them, to push them, all of which, as Carothers helped me to see, is a kind of ongoing plantation logic and relationship system.   Despite the liberalism that would say everyone is speaking their own minds, it is not a democracy when black people are being dehumanized.  I am not talking about the alternative liberal universe either where we don’t talk about race at all (hence, no one noticing the ideas of white male students I am talking about except me).  What I am talking about here is a kind of AfroDigital consciousness that works against these public spaces when the violence of racism is fully alive in classrooms.  No teacher’s classroom and no teacher’s assignment are ever innocent!

My class this semester always enrolls a large number of black female students, probably more than any other class on the campus (I learned yesterday that mine is the only class about black women).  I will not expose them to students who espouse anti-black/anti-black-woman diatribes on class digital, discussion boards. I know the damage that does given how many students of color come to me to talk about exactly such experiences in their other classes (I won’t even tell you how many white students have dropped my classes, no matter the subject, after the first day seeing me and seeing my syllabus).  Black women get enough of this kind of hostility elsewhere; they don’t need more of it in my classroom too.  As we move through the semester, I strategically choose when and where students will go public with their writing—whether with the class or with the wider digital universe.  I think this is especially relevant given a kind of liberalist mantra in my field about the general goodness of all, real audiences when students write digital texts.  I ain’t tryna hear that.  I experience writing and audience in very different ways.

I want to see teachers (and in my field, this means mostly white teachers) held accountable for the epistemological violence their students inflict on black bodies.  I am not suggesting that it is the fault of teachers when their students espouse racism but when they do that espousing within a public assignment that is teacher-required, then teachers need to be held accountable.   In fact, I think it is a crucial aspect of an AfroDigital pedagogy to further this kind of accountability.  It ain’t democratic to let students say and do racism; but we can surely ensure democracy by checking them and their teachers on it.  An AfroDigital pedagogy  does not comfort and take care of white children on our newest plantations in ways that maintain racialized hierarchies.  It must achieve the opposite.