Towards a Black Composition Studies: BLACK AS GRAVITAS (PART I)

Thank you to Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal for publishing the earliest version of this reflective essay in their Volume 2 dedicated to Black Studies edited by Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega. I will be building on this essay throughout this year as part of a new project. This year is a crossroads for composition-rhetoric so I am listening and looking closely at those who really step up to the plate or miss the moment as has happened at every past Black Protest moment for this field. In the coming weeks, I am especially working towards framing composition studies as a place that does dynamic, on-the-ground work to transform the what, how, and why of university curriculum and instruction towards radical, anti-racist, intersected, Black feminist, fugitive goals.

I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here.  Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too.  It’s a Black intellectual inheritance.

Black studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance.  None of that truly exists in the academy.  Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions.  We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies.  These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before.  These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper.  The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black studies.

As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy here, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric.  The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations.  Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me.  Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards.  Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death.  Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university.

Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of these students’ Black insurgency which is always visible for me on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. I relay these lessons here as a foundation to realizing a Black Composition Studies. Composition studies in the university today is fraught with a colonial history on so many levels. We are most often housed in English departments that overshadow our labor and intellectual work. We still most often function as the illegitimate stepchildren of literary theory which often imagines itself as the only critical space that only rethinks the world and as the only frontrunner of English studies. With literary studies lost in in its own elitist self-delusions of bourgeois grandeur, composition studies inherits the daily legacy of what English departments actually do: maintain the colonial legacy of the English language. I could write books on the white settler colonial logic that I hear daily in English department to describe teaching (or rather, lecturing), students’ abilities, language variation, writing assignments, etc. Put most simply, composition studies is the space that focuses on language, particularly the teaching of writing while our cousins in communication studies (who left English departments long ago) focus in on speaking. Together, we and our cousins confront the dailyness of communication systems in the western world that have annihilated non-white languages and therefore ways of being that do not conform to whiteness. We and our cousins therefore always sit at the crossroad: automate colonization as an institutional pedagogy and rhetorical apparatus… or overthrow it. Black composition studies goes for the latter and, as such, our close proximity to the non-compliant racial protests of Black students has to always stay central.

These are notecards that I received in the mail last spring as a reading response to the course assignment.

When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember essay reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist.  In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university.  This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education.  Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do here, not as metaphor or cross to bear, but as the purveyor of a radical, literate/language alternative to who and what count here.

Here’s my first story that gets at more of what I mean. My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005.  They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored.  Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes.  White faculty were always: scheduling meetings for discussions on how they feel, scheduling meetings to gauge their collective “temperature,” scheduling meetings to read the agenda out loud, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays).  Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same.  These are not processes that are driven by Black folx or a vision for hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy. None of them meetings and discussions produced change and worked to stall Black freedom more than anything else. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into stuff, talking— yup, still doing all of that, and still accomplishing nothing of value for Black lives.  It’s not an accident. Black composition studies always recognizes the micro and yet overdetermined white supremacist processing of our schools and programs and imagines time, space, and possibility differently.

My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University.  Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on online discussion boards I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me.  I learned about the racism of writing program administration there.  I also learned that I would walk alone in my field because I didn’t know a single professor in my profession who I would have truly called an ally or even friend back then.  It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline.  The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one— and I mean no one— was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it.  Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it.   And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA.  It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA-Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long.  There is actually a whole stain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress student learning.  I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S.  Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either.  WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see. Black composition studies is about a disruptive kind of vision and envisioning for schooling.

My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that was 75% Black and Latinx.  It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite.  They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me.  I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally low percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty.  It was a complete cocoon of whiteness.  Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized.  When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”).  In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it).  There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies.  I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil.  Ridiculous?  Yes.  Harmful?  No.  The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast.  These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here.  At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it. Black composition studies knows that white affect in schools is not neutral, safe, or accidental and so centers alternative embodiments and enfleshments.

And now?  As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee.  The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is).  I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:

It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.

It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.

It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.

It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.

It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.

It will always be contested.

It will always be unwritten.

It will never stop us.

I have yet to see anything different here. Black Composition Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy, in my classrooms, and especially in my field.

I am not suggesting that Black Composition Studies is only for Black folx. However, it ain’t for appropriation by folx in my field who continue to do stuff like write a Statement for Black Lives Matter in their departments and programs and not reference a single Black compositionist. Yall ain’t nowhere near ready yet and Black composition studies is here to let you know it. Black composition studies is not exclusive… but it is rigorous in the mechanisms and politics of its inclusions. 

Stay tuned for PART TWO…

On Graduate Admissions and Whiteness: A Love Letter to Black/ Brown/ Queer Graduate Students Out There Everywhere

Dear Black/ Brown/ Queer graduate students,

I see you. That seems like such a small, trite acknowledgment in the face of the institutional oppression that you must confront. Nevertheless, I needed to say that today. After spending the last week reading almost 295 applications from candidates hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in English, I am appalled and disgusted by what happens on graduate admissions committees. My indignation has always been there but this week, it got newly recharged.

If nothing else, I just want to affirm today that for every moment you feel like you are alone, like the other supposedly Black/ Latinx/ Queer folk around you are merely white-passing or race-miscellaneous, like your racial/gender/sexual perspectives are not taken seriously, like white language/ discourse gets treated as intelligent even when it is utterly meaningless, like the mostly white faculty prefer white-passing performers who have no real connection to communities of color, like the cards have been stacked against you, KNOW. THAT. YOU. ARE. RIGHT. Know this deep in your core and never doubt it, no matter how many white folk and white-passers act as if you are paranoid. As Black/ Brown/ Queer folk, we are not always behind the closed doors where racist processes, justifications, and policies are designed, but we feel their slight each and every single day. Trust what you feel. You ain’t crazy.

I got to see it all firsthand this week. For one assignment on this particular admissions committee where I served, a group of us professors had to select three candidates to recommend for special funding from the university’s program for underrepresented groups. Notice that I said UNDER-REPRESENTED. For those of us who understand race and higher/graduate education, we know that these funding programs are a minuscule attempt to get more underrepresented groups into mostly all-white graduate programs but are necessary nonetheless. Of our 295 applications, 34 applicants qualified for this special review. Our committee read the 34 applications and scored them in order to whittle down these 34 apps to a smaller list of nine. When the scores got tallied up to determine the Divine Nine, I got mad. Once I tell you how it looked, you’ll see more of the ways that racism and whiteness in admissions are really working against us:

  1. Of the six Latinx candidates chosen for the Divine Nine, four were White Latinx folk who study whiteness and/or Europe. In fact, only one of these White Latinx candidates even had a Spanish surname and it looks like this person’s family is directly from Europe— Spain. This was the largest racial category in the Divine Nine, but not in the pool of 34. These four candidates pass completely for white… in name, content, epidermis, and family history. There was even a comment from the committee that we should not be guessing folks’s identities and identifications. But here’s facts: White Latinx with an Anglo surname is NOT under-represented no matter how you identify. Latinidad here is overwhelmingly accepted, but only in its complete embodied devotion to whiteness.
  2. Only one of the Divine Nine self-identified as Queer, though three others expressed an interest in Queer Theory (mostly the White/Latinx candidates). While more of the Divine Nine may also be Queer, it seems likely that the program will imagine itself representing Queer Theory without Queer bodies of color. Queer theory, as named by the white-passers in the Divine Nine, is just a new, chic (white) thing to know, not a way that life can be lived and re-imagined.
  3. Of the three Black/Non-Latinx candidates, two of the three identified as multiracial. One of the multiracial candidates marked Indigenous, Asian, and Black on the application but wrote a statement identifying solely as Chinese+Black. The other marked Black on the application but wrote a statement identifying as Indigenous, Black, and Anglo.  Black was just a box that you check off and then move away from, one row over from Rachel Dolezal. You can consume it, mix it, and use it up in any way that you like, kinda like a plantation owner. Neither Indigenous-Mixed candidate talked about themselves as an enrolled member of any First Nation; neither described lineal descent; neither connected to a reservation or Indigenous language community.  While I am not suggesting that Indigenous people have to prove their membership or adhere to white-settler blood tests, I am also not willing to co-sign institutional processes where Indigeneity is another box to check so that we can reproduce the likes of another Andrea Smith (click here for more of what that means). No one on the committee even mentioned the problematic way that Indigeneity was mobilized. It wasn’t even noticeable.
  4. Of the Black/Latinx comp-rhet candidates (my field) in the pool of 34, none were chosen to be part of the Divine Nine. Unsurprisingly, NONE of these comp-rhet candidates was white-passing or apologetic about their research interests in Black/Latinx communities. This also means that the department has single-handedly promoted a system where white doctoral students will teach and write about non-white students in comp-rhet studies.

I’m sure we have all learned enough theory by now to say that we can appreciate that the Divine Nine show the complexity of race, ethnicity, and identity.  However, the ideologies and practices of white-passing and/or mixed-race-passing (itself an approximation to white-passing) are real simple here. This white-passingness did not represent the entirety (or quality) of the 34 applicants. All in all, only one Black-Mixed-With-Black person was allowed entry into the final pool; only one Aztlan Latinx candidate was allowed passage; and Queer (male) AfroLatinidad was allowed expression only once. Always remember this: this is a carefully CONSTRUCTED false reality.  These nine candidates may not even, in fact, get accepted and more of the 34 may score higher into the program’s ranks given the organization of admissions. However, none of that changes the ideologies that produced these white-passers as the highest scorers. This is who reads your application. This is why you didn’t get accepted and if/when you did, you end up just feeling like you entered a hostile realm.

In many ways, English/Humanities programs, at least where I am currently employed, are worse with this particular kind of whiteness. Historically, English (and the rest of the Humanities though not to the same extent) have sustained the imperial gaze on English as a language system. All you need is white discourse, white skin, and the ability to quote Lacan or Derrida and you will be rendered as someone who is intelligent and, oddly, as someone who possesses the keys to understanding oppression in all forms of life. You see this person in almost every class. Don’t get it twisted: they ain’t sayin nuthin. In the zeal to distance themselves from the Brown and Black young people who are the majority in my urban context, whiteness gets performed and embraced in more extreme ways so as to ward off any association with the Black and Brown youth masses that surround us. When the staff/faculty talk about the lack of “diversity,” they will, of course, site their high standards of excellence. It’s all a bit ironic though. This white classical core can barely fill its classes, offer its students viable employment opportunities, or sustain itself in the academy and yet it is the site of Brownness and Blackness that is scapegoated as the location of low standards and problems. Don’t get that twisted either: it’s a blatant lie.

There are some things to learn from this mess.  Just like I had a list of grievances, I have a list of actions to take.

First, we need to remember that every time we join a program, department, or school as a Black/Brown person, we increase the diversity numbers.  This looks good for everyone except us. Many places will use large numbers of Asian students and faculty as proxy for Black and Brown folk, but they do have to disaggregate those numbers behind closed doors based on a single vocabulary word: UNDER-REPRESENTED. Every time you apply to a graduate program, you increase the diversity of the UNDER-REPRESENTED applicant pool. You are being counted and represented as progress.  Don’t waste your time applying to a school that only chooses white-passers. Stop making them look good while they do you bad.  And please note that the data I provided in my four bullets above represents a PUBLIC university in the USA’s largest Brown and Black metropolis. They don’t do no better than the most, private elite schools so you can’t believe these places that claim they are progressive and down for the people either. They still ain’t down for YOU. In a similar vein, colleges will be given diversity credits for interviewing you as a Black or Brown faculty candidate down the line even though they have no intention of hiring the likes of you.  Many of them need to keep a revolving door of Black and Brown faculty interviewees, not because they want to INCREASE diversity, but because the BEST Brown and Black faculty keep leaving the school. It’s a ponzi scheme using your Brown and Black body for exchange purposes. Stop making them look good while they do you bad. Do the due diligence and find out what is going on behind the scenes with folk of color. Some schools do not even deserve to count our bodies in their application tally.  Be vocal about that. Choose a different school. Stop helping them by applying to them. They ain’t lettin you in no way.

The second action is gon require that white graduate students get called out on their racism.  The fact of the matter is that there were equally qualified Brown and Black candidates who never got chosen simply because they did not perform whiteness in the way that white applicants do. White graduate students (and their faculty/staff cronies) need to stop assuming that they wrote better essays, got better test scores, had better letters of reference, or had better anything.  They only had whiteness. There is nothing wrong with the “pipeline” either. The only crisis in the pipeline is that white folk clog the drains: as the folk who get chosen and as the folk who do the choosing. There is always a pool of qualified folk of color in the cohort who are rejected for white benefit.  White graduate students (and later, as college faculty) need to be called out for writing about and/or teaching people of color when they went to all-white research programs where their whiteness was deliberately over-represented and over-privileged. The white folk who resist and fight back can expect backlash.  Tell them that they must welcome that and see it as a sign that they are doing something RIGHT. It is nuthin in comparison to what folk of color go through everyday.  White gate-keepers will make life difficult for resistant white faculty and graduate students too (and even some folk of color will respond in ignorant, coonish ways). Like I said, it ain’t gon be easy for allied white folk to speak back because racist white faculty and their compatriots of color silence everyone.  Don’t let them.

Lastly but not leastly: we have to REFUSE.  We need to re-imagine resistance, especially as faculty of color, which you will someday become. Not a single one of the Black and Latinx candidates who I liked best in the 295 scored high or even made it through the admissions committee. A seat at the table didn’t mean a damn thing for me. The dinner had already been served; the entrees had already been overcooked. In my context, I am an appointed member of this graduate program, not a central member so I receive my salary from elsewhere. This means that I have the luxury of happily never returning to this program and facing no consequence for my decision. Even without that luxury, I would be done though. I’m just not here for the mammy labor. Overwork my abilities but deny my humanity at the same time? Nah, not me. There is no reason to continue to go back to the committees, policies, and programs that refuse to listen like many of my accommodating colleagues have done for so long… and all to no avail since nothing has changed.  We have to say no and let the white walls that we didn’t build crumble to the ground from their own collapsing integrity.

To all the Black/ Brown/ Queer graduate students (and applicants) out there everywhere, I say all of this NOT from a place of discouragement, but from a love that insists on what the academy and its graduate training will not give you: TRUTH.

How Institutional Racism Trained Me to Be a Doomsday Prepper

I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe.  I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.

Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment.  I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though.  There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment.  Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses.  The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”?  The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus.   As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman.  As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens.  Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that.  They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population.  Doomsday was always here.

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¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling is…

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 8.27.07 PMI began experimenting with digital storytelling (DS) in my classrooms last spring and continued with it this spring.  For my purposes in my own classrooms, DS is a short video (4-6 minutes) that showcases a powerful story in your life (I used Cynthia Davidson’s assignment as my initial model). I am not as interested in students’ final products as I am in their processes though.  They upload their final videos to their ePortfolios but they have many webpages along with the video (about the music, the story, their images, their process, etc).   Here are some of the questions that I also ask my students to reflect on:

  1. When we combine ALL of these elements— sound, images, video, and words— what does this achieve for rhetors?  For digital rhetorics?  
  2. What makes your work part of 21st century storytelling?
  3. Your first year of college has coincided with some of most charged political events of the 21st century (bookended by the kidnapping/murder of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico to mass uprisings in Baltimore).  Local media— largely through social media/digital outlets— insist that national news coverage got it all wrong and inserted its own voice.  In many ways, you have all entered that same kind of social justice advocacy with your own digital projects. Think back on this digital project.  Does it too make an intervention?  How and why (or why not)?

For my ¡Adelante! students (a Leadership program for Latino students who I follow for two semesters in my first year writing courses), however, I asked an additional question… a rather simple one, but one that I thought most critical:

What is ¡Adelante! Digital Storytelling (ADS)?

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