Black Language Matters: Black Languaging/ Black Mentoring of Young Black Faculty

I saw a job ad recently for an assistant professor and lecturer in my field.  I shook my head as I read it, feeling sorry for the early career scholar who might read that ad and not understand the coded meanings.  The ad asks for someone to help design/run a (failing) program, publish in the field, work closely with the entire department, AND make a strong commitment to the college. No, those are NOT reasonable requests.  It’s all just code for: we gon exploit the hell outta you and question your integrity and commitment if/when you refuse to let us get over on you and use you up til there is nuthin left.  And I am crystal clear here too: if the new hire is Black, that person will get exploited even more with these kind of community service expectations since it is not imaginable that Black college faculty are— first and foremost— critical scholars and researchers.  Because I know the context of this college, I know three things about this job: 1) the salary and package do not match the administrative requirements and are not commiserate with national norms; 2) there is no mentoring, available role model, or support for research and scholarship in the department that you’re expected to get so close to (publication is STILL the only thing that matters for tenure/promotion); 3) the organization and infrastructure of the college are so unstable with such constant shifts and changes in leadership that it is strange to expect NEW faculty to be the ones to bring longevity and consistency.  I am able to read and understand these signs in that job ad because of the kind of mentoring I had in graduate school.

Mentoring of young Black faculty (and graduate students) who work at colleges across the country usually hinges on teaching young Black professors the rules of college life as it pertains to tenure and promotion.  You can find all kinds of empirical research on the best strategies for mentoring young Black faculty so that they secure that golden fleece in the end.  This research is also really clear about the importance of Black mentors for these early career professionals. But there’s always been something missing from these discussions for me.  It’s not just about teaching young Black faculty the rules of the academy.  It’s about centering Black thought and Black life in people’s lives at the academy.  That’s where Black Language comes in for me.

When I have become obsessed with yet another dysfunctional episode at the colleges where I have worked, the words of my graduate mentor, Suzanne Carothers, always ring in my head: do not confuse the WORK with the JOB.  Those words have kept me sane and grounded …and those words have helped me move onwards and higher when the limited horizons of other folk have attempted to confine me. I locate this mantra— and its many offshoots— squarely within Black culture.  I see this as a kind of cultural memory and hence language for a social group who has had to continually invent dignity and identities that run against the menial “jobs” and “positions” they have been relegated to.  It ain’t difficult to feel good about your job when the people who look like you/live with you are the ones always chosen as the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, et al (I include college administrators in these titles given the corporate nature of higher education today).  It takes more imagination and humanity to carve out a communal sense of worth when your labor exists solely in terms of some kind of subservience to whiteness: slave, domestic, factory worker, janitor… you name it.  In my own family, the J.O.B. did not dictate the limits of one’s worth, no matter how little you were paid.  As we usedta say in the 90s: It’s a Black Thing… Plain and Simple.

My mentor’s reminder to never confuse the WORK with the job gives me a framework for surviving hostile environments based on the cultural memory and history of my own people.  That’s so much more than simply telling me the rules of publication for tenure.  Suzanne’s mentoring and example have helped me shift the political, linguistic, and aesthetic center of gravity in my own self-actualization in spaces that work directly opposite of that.  For so many of my colleagues, the work that they do is confined to the physical building that houses their job.  For Suzanne, the WORK is always much bigger and much more meaningful than that. That’s why I could never support a job ad like the one I described in my opening.  If you don’t know the difference between the WORK you have chosen to do/that has chosen you and the JOB that employs you at this one moment in time, you will fall for any ole kind of okey doke that exploits you rather than transforms/challenges/ understands the world around you.  Black language teaches us to do/think/be better than that.

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.

Writing New Futures

Recently, Dr. Suzanne Carothers, my advisor for my doctoral dissertation, asked me some key questions to think and write about as I re-imagine and re-direct this phase of my life in academia.  I thought the questions were particularly poignant and critical and so I share them here.  I imagine myself often returning to these answers and re-addressing these same questions as I way to keep myself in check and move forward with what I say I want to be and do.  I thank Dr. Carothers, the most exquisite writing teacher I have ever had, for always prodding and always teaching me!

Tell me three of your accomplishments that you are most proud of since finishing your dissertation. Given all you have done and do, why do these three stand out for you?

(1) I am proud that I have chosen to always be a critical educator, that I have not seen such work as simply the necessary evil of being a scholar, writer, researcher, and academic, though this has certainly been the message I have been given after graduate school.

(2) I have also never backed down from working at colleges where the students are predominantly working class and of-color.  I refuse to use the bodies of people of color as a marketing tool to promote diversity, the prevailing (and sometimes only) acknowledgement of people of color that I have seen at such institutions.  This means that I have never had (and, thus, am willing to forego) teaching assistants, research assistants, start-up research funds, significant financial rewards/promotion, publishing/professional opportunities, sabbaticals, time, updated technology (at those few places where I have had a current computer, it didn’t work for very long), and other resources that come from prestigious and/or well-endowed research universities.  It’s not that I think these material things compromise people’s work (nothing is ever that simple).  However, these are the privileged spaces that new faculty like me are supposed to mark as coveted where I can, for instance, write about working class black folk but never actually see them in any of my classes. That’s not the route I have chosen. I like this path and I am proud that being on path and being on purpose are how I have chosen to navigate my life thus far.

(3) I am most proud of finishing my book (what was once my dissertation). I don’t so much mean the final product. I am just proud of hanging in there, never backing down from or giving up on my ideas despite the disagreements I had to face.  It would have been quite easy to give up on the book and publishing altogether given the resistance that I face from many circles— especially this notion that things are so much better, a sentiment that I have heard from black scholars too, or that I must make myself more palatable (i.e., marketable and auction-block-able) to wider audiences.  I wonder who these fools are talking about— certainly not the black masses where every measure of structural racism tells us that we are living a Neo-Jim-Crow? I like that publishing means that I have more fully realized my ancestral legacy: the one where we know we have to always keep on pushin.


When you think about the teaching and learning environments you create, what makes them work?  What’s central to that dynamic for you? And, how do you know when you have achieved it?

I think classrooms are meant to bring the content of what students are learning and reading full circle.  I think here about the class I will teach in spring 2013: African American women’s rhetoric.  Here, for instance, we will read Ida B. Wells and ask ourselves how she affected the world for all of us by her ways with words.  As the teacher, I ask myself: what does it mean to bring Ida B. Wells alive in this classroom?  What would an Ida-B-Wells-pedagogy look like and do?  It would mean not just talking about her but talking with her!   I want students to fight, and fight hard, come hell or high water, for what is right, notice the racial subjugation of the people around them, and fight for those lives as if it were their own life they were fighting for.  This means I am looking for students to talk about more than just the content of Ida B. Wells’s life and work.  I look for students to engage their own intellectual and political purposes, in their own time and place.  Essentially, I hope they can achieve what Fanon suggested: “each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”  I may not be able to ensure the fulfillment part but I can certainly move students in the direction of discovery, that’s what teaching Ida B. Wells would have to do.


Finish these thoughts:

Scholarship for me is  . . .   and 

My scholarship matters because  . . .

Scholarship for me is slipping through the cracks, digging deep down, and unearthing the voices and visions that can sustain us.

My scholarship matters because the world we live in requires a level of thinking and creativity that moves beyond what we are used to.  Scholarship can do that work if we treat it as something more than static words, bling, and status.


What is it you want to do in and beyond the academy?

Both in and out of the academy, if I could achieve my heart’s desire, I would want to be like Parliament and “make my funk the P-Funk… I want my funk uncut.” I like the way they named their collective and their music (Parliament Funk as P-Funk) but also that P-Funk meant that they were intentionally examining and exploring Funk at its highest levels of expression and possibility, as a thing/thought of its own kind and genius.  Though I may not have the right words to explain that here, that’s what I would want writing, teaching, and envisioning myself as a black woman to feel like.  They weren’t claiming to invent funk but they were claiming that they could insert their own version and vision and encourage the world to do the same.  I can’t imagine a better way of being one’s self in and beyond the academy.


What four adjectives would you use to describe yourself?

…principled, creative, unapologetically black-centric, and always evolving!