World-Historical People

I attended a conference this summer and though many of the researchers and presenters left a lasting and positive impression, there was one graduate student who I still just can’t get out of my head.  I don’t know her name but I found her absolutely entertaining to observe, albeit somewhat horrifying.

I was standing outside of a room, waiting for that session to end, when I overheard this woman talking with other graduate students who she had obviously met at the conference.  She explained a very specific conference strategy: she attended the sessions of the most famous scholars, made sure to sit up in front, ask really smart questions publicly in the session, and then go talk to the individual presenters after the session.  This, according to her, was how you get the “famous people” to notice you, remember you, work with you, and help you forward your career.  I found this conversation absolutely fascinating so I did the inevitable: I watched her… because when someone doesn’t see you, you’d be surprised at just how much you can see of them.  She did not disappoint.  In every feature session, there she was: all up in the front, asking a question with little regard for whether or not it actually contributed something to the conversation, and then there she was on the que waiting to talk to folk afterwards.  I was wildly entertained, I will admit, but I am, at the same time, sympathetic to her cause.  She was only mirroring  the  kind of superficiality that academic culture sustains today, a culture that is telling a young black woman grabbing at a Ph.D. that groupie-stalking is what it takes for her to survive and thrive in the academy, not a serious engagement with ideas and thinking.  While this young woman’s practice might seem, well, a bit CRAZY, what was more astonishing was the actual response from the “famous people.”  They ate it up like famished souls where only this kind of attention could satiate their hunger.

These are the moments when I often think of Professor Wynter, when I am reminded that the work one does is the WORK one does: the way you live out your life is the way that you live out your words on the page too. They are not opposing forces.  What concerns me most about the young woman who I have described is that the reality she describes for being noticed was not a hallucination on her part.  It served her to good effect at the conference and it might also serve her to good effect in her larger career.

Meanwhile, every chance Wynter gets, she reminds her audiences to think past the epistemic boundaries of a given world/social order and reach out past it, as evidenced even in a letter she wrote to the Centre for Caribbean Thought.  Even in only a letter, she talks about what it means to be “world-historical people” who have no choice but confront “the imperative of the effecting of a profound mutation in what is now the globally hegemonic Western European, secular, and thereby naturalized understanding of being human.”  It becomes wildly absurd then to imagine trying to get the attention of famous people at an academic conference in the context of Wynter’s call that we begin to completely upturn the “naturalized, now biologized, globally homogenized, homo oeconomicus understanding of being human” so that we can finally displace its referential system with its “now internet-integrated planet of the middle class suburbia/exurbia/gentrified inner city ‘referent we, on the one hand, and on the other, that of the rapidly urbanizing ‘planet of slums.’ ”

It makes sense to me that Wynter does not call the “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” in this historical moment ONLY the product of white liberalism and racism in the academy.  She loads that crisis with the processes and products of what black scholars themselves have created in the quest to replicate the very models which had ontologically, intellectually, and aesthetically excluded them in the first place, fully incorporating all of its cognitive closures and impediments to radical social change.  That’s more than a notion right there!  I also see Wynter’s points here in the very way that she enacts her scholarly identity.  I am often amazed at how connected I feel to other scholars who deeply engage her work, a connection I had never once even articulated to myself because it just seems so self-evident.  But even this aspect of her scholarly identity points to the alternate space in which she does intellectual work. I am often stunned by how graduate students, for instance, of a specific scholar will go above and beyond to “market” themselves as the heir of that advisor  (i.e., which can quickly become the “auction block” code for which plantation provided the best skills) and/or do their best to patrol who and how their advisor is referenced (making the example of the woman I describe all the more believable).  Scholarship in this mode becomes a kind of white property to be maintained and sustained by measuring its exchange value against other properties.   I no longer think it is a mere coincidence that the folk I know who engage Wynter do not unleash these kind of beasts/pseudo-intellectual pathologies.  In fact, it seems safe to say that Wynter herself would not allow it!

I certainly don’t mean to harshly castigate the young woman who I described at the beginning of this post.  Like I said, I am sympathetic and very concerned for her cause.  At this point in my life and career, I find myself most drawn and interested in those black thinkers and scholars who are really interested in liberation rather than bling, status, and attention.  I think this is why I have become so much more deeply grateful for the model that Sylvia Wynter offers, a model that has lately become a kind of life preserve in this sea I must swim in.

Human vs. Liberalism

I didn’t know that the little icon next to a web address is called a favicon until mid-August when I set up this website.  I have always noticed these symbols but never thought about how they got there. Needless to say, it took me more than just a few minutes to get the favicon (as pictured here at the left) onto this website.*  Using the Faviconer website was smooth sailing.  But then I had to figure out how to put my favicon.ico file in my theme folder using FTP clients.  I had to learn how to use filezilla before I could even get started.   The reality was that I had no idea what these nouns and phrases even referenced.  I would go to the wordpress help sites and then have to google each sentence to find out what they meant.  Nothing was intuitive.  All alone in my house, I kept working at adding a favicon until I got it, hoping to accumulate yet more proof for my more digitally resistant students that if I can do this, really anyone can.

This story might seem rather silly and irrelevant, but I present my pursuit of a favicon here as a lens into how I think about self-esteem and the refusal to give in.  What might seem even stranger here is that I connect these issues of self-esteem and perseverance to Sylvia Wynter’s work and the grounds on which she has always helped me to challenge the unhealthy, dominant logic of liberalism.

At moments like my favicon creation, I do not label or understand myself as unskilled, bad at something, deficient, or remedial.  I simply did not know how to add a favicon right then, nothing more or less, and I did not attach any meaning to that.  This seems like such a trivial and small thing, but really it isn’t.  I say this because, as a teacher, I can see when students begin to run a script in their heads that they are dumb or slow when they bump up against something unfamiliar or challenging.  What I suppose I got from Professor Wynter is that these moments require more than the usual protocols of self-esteem workshops, confidence boosts, and self-help guides.   You simply need to forego a system of thinking rooted in liberalism that makes you think your success or challenge is about YOU and just go on ’bout your business. No drama, no second-guessing, no frustration.

Lesson #3

When I talk about liberalism, I mean the classical ideas about the individual, equality, democracy, and meritocracy: the idea that if you work hard, the fruits of your labor will shine like a pot of gold; the idea that individuals are the key foundation of everything and so laws and institutions exist solely to cater to the desires and needs of single individuals.  Of course, the history of the collision of liberalism and Western empire is long and complex but a central axis is still: opportunities are everywhere and so it is the individual’s job to decide which opportunities to pursue and how and when.  This means there is never a focus on equality of outcomes, actual social histories of oppression, or perpetrators of inhumanity.  Why would there be?  It’s all about YOU and YOU alone.  This also means that if you are poor, then it is your own fault because you did not pursue the opportunities that everyone has; you are, in sum, cognitively/genetically deficient.  Whatever you don’t have or don’t do well, it is your own fault: you did something wrong, because, after all, life gave you nothing but positive chances to get whatever you wanted and needed.  With this kind of mindset and system of being, it becomes easy to see how someone sitting alone on a computer making mistakes with favicon uploading can simply think they are stupid.  It is what liberalism trains you to feel and think, regardless of whether this represents any reality.  This is the moment that I think many of my students often face: where they doubt themselves. Schooling is,of course, the prime example of where the virus of liberalism can be caught.  Liberalism provides that thought and feeling of inadequacy as central to what school actually achieves.

Lesson #4

Of course, students are not only up against liberalism today, but also neoliberalism.   I use neoliberalism to focus on the uber-glitz of free markets, choice, and efficiency.  So if you ARE good at getting that favicon up there, you are supposed to use that to make money and more money.  This is success and this is a new aim of schooling.   Institutions of higher education are expected to have and market themselves with the ability to turn YOU into a consumable product. I think Professor Wynter has most brilliantly called this the social creation of a species that has been determined solely as homo-economicus. 

At the end of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism are not inevitable ways of being that we must simply resign ourselves to.  They are simply one choice amongst many.  It seems to me, with my favicon generation as just one example, that you can go so much further without liberalism where there is no doubt that as a Human, in the way Professor Wynter means it, communal achievement is already there!


*My favicon is the adinkra symbol for ANANSE NTONTAN (“spider’s web”).  It is a symbol of wisdom, creativity, and the complexities of life and makes its nod to Ananse the spider, a well-known trickster character.

“Beyond Miranda’s Meanings”: My First Two Lessons

As an undergraduate student in her classes, I once witnessed Professor Sylvia Wynter receive notification of an award that she quite forthrightly declined.  This is something that she has done many times in her career, as far as I can tell, if the award and its circle of privilege did not represent the social-intellectual work she was doing or believed in.  As a 21-year old, I simply thought she was FIERCE with an audacity that just awed me!   And while I assumed I knew the weight and integrity of the kinds of decisions she was making, I really had no clue.  It is only now that I am also a professor that I have reached some level of new understanding.

I suppose I think about Professor Wynter and this moment so much now because her ideological stance is so far removed from the decisions that I see most other bourgeois professionals making.  And while this issue of declining an award might seem like a trite issue in comparison to what her scholarship achieves, such a stance seems, indeed, part of how and why she does that scholarship.

Lesson #1

There is the obvious, main lesson that I learned from Professor Wynter: that scholarship and research matter, that the ideas and knowledge we pursue do real work and have material effect in marking out the systems in which we live.  There is a whole continuum where we can imagine new social possibilities or we can impose more limitations.  This rather basic lesson is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.  I think of a graduate student who once asked me for advice on what was the minimal amount of thinking and work she could do in order to receive her doctoral degree.  She insisted that she had no desire to do research or scholarship and that she just needed the degree to get a full-time job at the community college where she was working.  I didn’t have any answer for her and was too stunned, quite honestly, to come up with anything.  I wish I could say this was the first time I had heard something like this from a graduate student.  I found myself, at that very moment, trying to imagine myself and my peers stepping into Professor Wynter’s office as 19-year olds (or any professor) and telling them that we just wanted to do the least amount of work possible, that we had no intention of pursuing research, that we just wanted a job.  Why would we have even taken her classes if that were our only motivations?  I am reminded here of the volume sponsored by the American Anthropological AssociationRacism in the Academy: The New Millennium. One of the volume’s contributors argues that my generation and those who are coming behind me treat becoming a professor like they are just getting another professional certificate or license rather than wanting to do the work of thinking.  It’s a harsh statement that certainly does reflect many of us at this point in the history of the academy (albeit I think the scholar tends to regard his own generation more positively than he should).  Because university teaching confers a greater deal of prestige than, let’s say K-12 teaching, I see many opting for university teaching but without the concomitant focus on research and writing (this is not to suggest that k-12 teachers do not do research and write since I know many k-12 teachers who certainly do and I certainly did also; it’s just that tenure expectations aren’t nested to publication like at universities).   Given the debt that families and young people are incurring for a college education today, it seems there are, in the least, some ethical questions here.   What might it mean for students to sit in classrooms where someone like the graduate student who I just described is responsible for their learning while having not fully committed to her own learning of the content she is disseminating?  I find myself more frequently these days thinking back to my favorite mantra from Professor Wynter’s classes: Nothing is ever simple. There is always an idea behind it.  The value and purpose of relentlessly interrogating ideas, especially those that form a system of oppression for people of African descent, was the first lesson I ever learned from her.

Lesson #2

My 20-year old self understood Professor Wynter’s decline of an award as highly principled, but I did not fully understand the conscious and deliberate decision to forego the prestige-conferral ceremonies of Western education.  Even though these ceremonies are often divorced from liberatory politics and instead only offer social capital and power, those  ceremonies are very enticing for the ways they offer popularity, status, attention, monetary advancement, and upward mobility.  This is not to say that we decline all awards, that is not what Professor Wynter did, only that she always rejected any decision that would mark her as part of what Cedric Robinson has called “the selective breeding of Black intellectuals” where control of Black knowledge production has been as important to capitalism as the control of their cotton-picking production.  (Robinson reminds us, for example, that some of the most well-funded research on Black youth are basically police studies.) Racism significantly impacts who and what constitutes research on Black communities in the academy.  So while I have greatly appreciated (and agreed with) many scholars’ rage at Professor Wynter’s sometimes peripheral status in the uber-chic world of critical theory and its pre-selected critics of color, we need to still make sure that we do not forget the questions we must ask about new modes of commercialization and consumption in the academic metropole that underly popularity.  What I learned early on from Professor Wynter is that a fierce integrity on how you construct your identity as a scholar is deeply connected to its substance.  I see more and more each day how her own work and life represented the “demonic ground” that she so infamously delineated in her masterful piece, “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s ‘Woman,’ ”, a way of thinking that Katherine McKittrick has brilliantly taken up in her book, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle.

In “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings,” originally published in Carole Boyce Davies’s and Elaine Savory Fido’s Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, Wynter introduces the notion of “Demonic Grounds” based on theories of math and physics where a system that is in place is called demonic when it does not have an already determined or knowable outcome. This means that the methodologies and assumptions that are traditionally used to construct meaning and understanding will not work and trans-disciplinarity is required.*  She uses this notion of “demonic grounds” to represent the “absent presence” of Black women using Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a system of thinking. Instead of focusing on Caliban’s mother, as Aime Cesaire did, Wynter focuses on Caliban’s female peer, “the woman of his kind” — a woman who is so “outside of the bounds of Prospero’s world of reason that she cannot even be imagined, and so appears nowhere in the play.”  The demonic ground is, thus, a space not imagined and thereby, radical, in that it can re-position the governing, fixed codes of the social order which are presented as the only option rather than merely one option amongst many. Social transformation imagined from the demonic ground, as Wynter argues it, ushers in a new “human discourse” that goes “beyond the ‘master discourse’ of our governing ‘privileged text’, and its sub/versions.”  Wynter is, of course, exploding the role of black women in traditional constructions of feminist theory and its applicability outside of whiteness.  I now also see the ramification of her embrace of “demonic grounds” in terms of what it means to be a scholar who questions the ways that knowledge and power are maintained in the academy without getting caught up in it and, ultimately, lost in the academic sauce.

On those days when I look more like an attention-and-prestige-seeking charlatan acquiring status by chasing (usually white and male) networking gimmicks, then I too am caught up in the struggle to represent the kind of intellectual life that Professor Wynter has achieved.  But on those days that I am really being and living an alternate definition of researcher/writer/teacher/scholar than the mainstream corporatization of knowledge that the academy privileges,  that’s when I am simply representing what Professor Wynter taught us.


*Trans-disciplinarity here is different from inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary in that it calls into question the very nature of our disciplines as they maintain the logic of existing social crises, and thereby, replicate them.

Defining Intellectual Purposes

Education… Liberation… The Black Radical Tradition.  

These are all heavy ideas for me and in the context of socially stratified societies, these three processes are not necessarily easy to merge, especially in institutions like schools that often maintain oppression.  I imagine myself working here, in this space, to unravel what Education and Liberation IN and FOR and AS the Black Radical Tradition might mean, look like, and do.   This means that this blog will always be a work in progress, a place where I am trying to work out ideas and find that seemingly always fleeting piece of intellectual-political peace.

I will start with myself as a student at that moment where academic scholarship as intellectual work began to have a special, distinct meaning: as an undergraduate student in Sylvia Wynter’s classes. There was, of course, her formidable intellect and body of theory and scholarship.  I will always be reading and learning from her work.  I will always consider myself her student, still trying to grasp the concepts and ways of (re)viewing the world that she offers.  These days, as a college professor, it is also her identity as scholar and professor that impacts me, an identity more rare today in the academy than it was 20 years ago when I first met her.

I don’t intend my posts to be an ode or shrine to her where I describe how much she and her mentoring did for me— that is not intellectual work.  Instead, I want to re-immerse myself in her critical theories. C.L.R. James called Professor Wynter the most formidable intellectual the Caribbean had ever seen and she has never disappointed his assessment.  Talking about her work in terms of a personalized or individual impact would only be the kind of bourgeois intellectual project that she has always challenged in her work and life. Instead, I want to continue using Professor Wynter’s ideas to figure things out, analyze the social world in which we live, and understand more deeply the destructive corporate, liberal-to-neoliberal systems that academics put in place. That is where I will start my blogging… and see where it takes me.