Value of Self-Reflection/Self-Honesty: No Greyhounds Here!

It’s been a rough few weeks moving to a different job, meeting new people, learning a new cultural system (otherwise called a college or university), figuring out where things are, setting my codes for the phone, printer, scanner/copy machine.  My new colleague, Sara, has been wonderful—we started this year together and we have pretty much vowed that this will be a place we really like because we are just too damn old to be doing all this re-locating and starting all over again.  Despite the fatigue, I am quite happy, value my new colleagues, and just love the students who I get to teach.

fyw course

Please look for this image in the right-hand column for a link to the website.

The very first assignment for the semester was pretty low-key: write me a letter with comments about the website, syllabus, and general feelings.  For my 101 class, I asked students to do a “Mic Check”, an assignment inspired by Tribe Called Quest’s “Buggin Out”. For my 201 students, I asked students to connect their work in the previous semester of 101 to the new course in 201, an assignment inspired by Erykah Badu’s “& On.”  These assignments were created as eTexts on the course website with the music playing in the background.  I was so pleasantly surprised at how self-reflective and brutally honest my students were.  They were critical of the things they believe they do well in their writing and writing processes AND what they need to work on.  It was a wonderful reminder just how much of a vital skill this is, one that not many folk have.  It was an important reminder to me to fuse this kind of thing into the semester all along because, like I just said, it is a skill not many possess.

italian-greyhound-pairMaybe this is an academic/professor thing but I am often perplexed by self-aggrandizing and conceited college faculty.  I remember when I first started on the tenure track and was surrounded by folk who thought their scholarship was the most impressive and deepest thing ever.  It was perplexing because these folk weren’t the least bit interesting to me, much less offering some kind of new Kuhnian shift to the world.  It was like these folk had no sense of themselves, what they did well and what they didn’t do well.  It became very dangerous because you could end up working on a project/committee with someone who claimed an expertise on the subject at hand, only to find out they didn’t know/do jack! The folk who I actually thought were brilliant scholars and teachers NEVER spoke of themselves, name-dropped their famous advisors, patted themselves on the back for the comp exams they took 10+ years ago, quoted from their unpublished/old dissertations, or sent emails/tweets announcing the brilliance of their newest publications/talks!  They were somewhere writing, organizing, working with students, and actually BEING brilliant, not talkin about themselves.  The lack of self-awareness could even extend beyond scholarship. I remember once talking with a colleague who had spent hours shopping, picking an outfit, doing her hair and make-up, and getting ready for a campus event because she needed/wanted to aesthetically compete with one of the women in the program.  Here’s the thing: the woman who was the mark is a former model with a wardrobe/collection of labels rivaling Michelle Obama’s… and also one of the nicest people around (I knew her outside of the campus from common friends).  She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen and yet she doesn’t think of herself this way nor is she the type to compete with women for men’s attention.  Now here’s the real twisted part.  The woman who saw HERSELF in competition is a dead-ringer for an Italian Greyhound dog.  Yes, I know I am being triflin’ and mean, but I just gotta call it like I see it.  DEAAAAAD-RINGER!  ItalianGreyhoundI realize that people love greyhound dogs and I mean them no offense; greyhounds do seem quite unique but you gotta admit they are some scraggly, weird-looking things. The point remains: if you look like a greyhound dog on your best day, what makes you think you are a shining star next to one of the most beautiful women in the world?  Really, how does someone anoint themselves as Miss Universe when in actuality they could be racing around a dog-track chasing a fake rabbit?  Maybe these folk just need some black friends because ain’t no way I could even walk out the door so falsely convinced of my superflyness without my peoples setting me straight real fast (my family talks about you BAD to your face for much LESS than the examples I have offered). Just this summer, I tried to purchase some $8.99 finger nail polish and the 19-year-old black male sales clerk assured me  that it made no sense to spend THAT much money for a color that had NO chance of looking good on my toes. I put it back and saved myself that 10 dollars.  When black folk offer constructive feedback, they really CONSTRUCT!  My toes can’t even make it out the stores in my neighborhood without some real honesty.  Academics don’t choose their profession because of their good looks so this kind of vanity is a REAL strange and misplaced thing anyway. If you think this greyhound-dog-woman had an inaccurate sense of something as irrelevant and materialistic as physical beauty, well, honeychile, you need only imagine how delusional and impressed she was with something serious like her scholarship.  If women get away with these levels of fantasy, conceit, and delusion, imagine what men in such patriarchal structures do.  In fact, at every “third-tier” university where I worked/interviewed, male administrators stayed proclaiming the university’s similarity to the University of Illinois.  I have been to UI campuses: there are NO similarities. The last time I saw such grand delusions of grandeur was when I lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles for a summer in my 20s.  This is why self-reflection is important: if you are convinced you are the BOMB, then you don’t ever look deeply at yourself, at what you are doing, at who you are, and why you are making the decisions you are making.  You just walk around proclaiming to be one thing when you are another altogether and stay STUCK on stupid forever.

Maybe it’s because they are students and they are getting a grade.  Maybe it’s the concrete goal of getting an A in the class and making a life for one self via a college degree. Or maybe it’s because they are working class people trying to survive in a place like New York City at a public university and so are not cocooned in the kind of privilege, elitism, and stupidity that defines mediocrity and sub-mediocrity as the hallmark of greatness.  I don’t know.  I just know that my students get it.  There are no greyhounds here.

August Beginnings & Back-to-School Bling

afroAs a little girl, I cut my mother’s hair once…when she was sleeping.  Not much, just a little trim, but not really having a conception of time, I imagine that I thought it would grow back right away.  Needless to say, that experiment was not appreciated so I turned my attention to my next, unsuspecting victim: my father.  At the time, my father had a very large afro.  If I said I would grease his scalp, he would pretty much let me do what I wanted with his hair.  While he was watching the game or something on television, I would grease his scalp and then braid his whole head of hair in tiny braids, put colorful barrettes on each end, then dress up my dolls and do their hair to match.  That could take the better half of an afternoon or evening (it was a slow graduation from two-strand twisting to three-strand braiding).  My father is also a pretty chill person (and pretty funny) so if he needed to go outside for something, he would go out, just like that, with a head full of barrettes— take out the trash, help the elderly couple down the street, go to the co’ner sto’, you name it.  I would often be by his side, excited for everyone to see my creation.  And I was always very encouraged by my audience who told me to keep doing that to my father’s hair because he was lookin realllll good; it never once occurred to me that them folks was teasing.  My father once took his license photo like that after I agreed to tone down some of the barrettes; it was just too time-consuming to undo all of the braids and pick out his afro.  Let me tell you, that license picture got a whole lot of views, it was like the 1970s version of going viral.  Again, I assumed it was my hairdressing talent that was so intriguing.  I smile when I think about it: all of these people who made sure to never squash who I was. I remember it as a community that always found humor and celebration in the everyday.  Though my father was haunted by the many demons that squashed the fullness of working-class/working-poor black men who had just come home from the army in the 70s, I always remember my father as a comrade in my aesthetic creations and I took full advantage of it.

Imagine this Jacket... with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over!

Imagine this Jacket… with sequin&rhinestone roller skate emblems all over! And pants to match!  Wowzers!

A close replica of my roller skates... just add more handmade pom poms!

A close replica of my roller skates… just add more homemade pom poms!

Every August, my father scraped together his money, took me back-to-school shopping, and pretty much let me run through Montgomery Ward and get whatever I wanted.  It was a dream come true.  Sometimes I could spend $50; in a really good fiscal year, it was $75.  My parents were divorced and not communicating with one another which, to my delight, meant that my mother could not interfere with my choices.  When you shop with my mother, it’s all about practicality (since this could very well be the only time in the year when we bought new clothes.)  For my mother, it’s all about: how long will it last, can it be let out when you grow more, what else does it match, is it comfortable, how do you wash it, can you wear it on a gym day, can you wear it when it gets cold out…. all that ol’ mundane stuff.  My father did not talk that way; he did not think he really knew what kind of clothes little girls wore so I took the opportunity to educate him myself.  On one occasion, that meant a very shiny, blue jacket with pants to match, covered in sequin-and-sparkle-speckled roller skates with tassels for buttons.  It was F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S and ON SALE!  Score!  My mother, on the other hand, was furious.  You can’t wear that to school… and… blah, blah, blah.  If I had been allowed, I would have worn that joint EVERYday.  To top it all off, this outfit matched my roller skates AND the pom poms on the toe!!!!  I mean, really, what more could you ask for?

Every August, like my teacher-colleagues everywhere, I turn my attention to back-to-school, no longer as a student but as a teacher. It’s all about syllabi, projects, and classroom assignments now.  When you walk into Staples these days, you just know who the teachers are and if you look at the supplies in their hands, baskets, or carts, you can tell which grades they teach too.  This August, I am remembering rituals at this time of new beginnings.  I am excited for the new classes I will teach, my new train/subway/commute route, my new colleagues, and all the new students who will walk through my classroom doors.  My collection of children’s books, many of which are oversized, fit on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in my new office. I have 6 feet of leftover space for new books or other collectibles (or transfers from home shelves teeming over) and a big comfortable chair.  I even found out that the modular shelving system comes with extra shelves when I need them (space like this a real rarity in New York City).  For me, this is all just F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S!  Another score!

In the past years, August would hit and it would just feel like doomsday: “the cotton is ready to be picked” is what I would OFTEN say….and I meant it too!  But this year, I get to savor the rituals, the excitement, and the newness in the air.  As a little girl, I marked all of that with a little bling.  Inspired by the adults from my childhood, I am re-realizing that new beginnings and the everyday should, indeed, be celebrated.

Public Writing/Public Teaching: A Year & Counting

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

A year ago now, I created this website.  I wanted a space to do the online work of my classrooms off the grid of a university’s corporate vibe— a space that would offer a more sonic and visually dynamic course organization.  For the most part, that is still the primary goal.  Blogging became the way to think through things and the public nature of this practice has meant that I actually do it, consistently, even if no one will read it.  Blogging feels like the teaching journals I once kept, back when I could actually write on paper.  I like the steady stream of short pieces rather than the longer, extended writing that I often do for publication.  It keeps me writing in the in-between time.  These are very simple practices in terms of the kind of work that happens in online spaces today but that’s where I am for now.

Other things happened though that I didn’t anticipate.  I began to articulate a very particular position on public writing and multimedia spaces where all that I know about the Black Radical Tradition and all that I disdain about neoliberalism began to converge.  That has been the single-most benefit to my thinking in the 21st century, a place where everything is digital and everything is commodified: from the continued hyper-spectacle-making of black bodies TO the new century versions of the socially networked Leave-It-To-Beaver family/nation.  Any conversation about digital spaces that does not include these levels of analysis is anti-political.

I use the term, “public,” very loosely though when I reference this site. I never even bothered to open the comments section because I don’t foresee anyone wanting to comment.  Couple that with spam and the many trolls who piss me off and the commenting feature becomes more irrelevant.  Only very recently, I finally did the necessary work to put the “follow” button on this site.  Like I said, “public” is a really generous adjective of this website: I ain’t the academic version of Tyler Perry’s Madea and we don’t live in a READING CULTURE, not even for academics, so I ain’t never been fooled into thinking any large group of people is really interested in me or my work.  It’s just me and my closest girlfriends really up in this.troll spray

What I did not anticipate, however, is that my students would visit me here at this site, like graduate students of color who KNOW they are not included in the intellectual organization of their programs given their experiences, interests, mouths, and proclivity against being white folks’s tokens and lackeys.  Those kind of folk in the academy are few and far in between… but the ONLY ONES who really matter to me!  White graduate students are also here with me, ones who want to actually think about racism rather than perform some kind of touchy-feel guilt or intellectual chic (those kind always go back to not noticing and, thereby, maintaining racism at the institutions that anoint them with degrees and tenure).  These students have been a pleasant surprise… I am honored that they are interested and are with me here.  Truly honored.  They make up the kind of academy worth being in.

WeCatertoWhiteTradeOnlyP260My international colleagues also embolden me.  I can see what countries visit each day and I can guess by the hits on a specific post who might be visiting that post.  What international comrades remind me, those who visit here and email me about my articles, is that internationalism is NOT the whiteness that white scholars in my field construct.   I have been told by editors, time and time again, that people outside of the U.S. will not understand my language and references.  It becomes clear from these people that blackness is to be consumed globally but not politicized; no one questions whether people outside the U.S. know Miles Davis or contemporary black musicians… but now, all of a sudden, no one understands our language and cultural references.  Black is International, no matter how much white scholars in my field would suggest otherwise and keep us out.

The "Touch My Hair Exhibit," was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

The “Touch My Hair Exhibit,” was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

I must say though that my undergraduate students have surprised me most.  I never imagined they would find this website interesting and would tune in so often to this blog, students who cut across the last 15 years of my college teaching.  They have changed the way that I think and the way that I write. I feel bolder now in what I say and how I will say it.  These students have always been more interested in social equality, social action, black feminisms, and radical thought than my colleagues.  I am reminded of a white-skinned Latina in my class recently who told me about a professor who proclaimed his shock at her heritage by saying out loud, “wow, I didn’t know you are a wetback.”  That departmental klansman didn’t even get a slap on the wrist but this young woman sure had one helluva critique of all the white men at that college who co-sign such violence.  We sat and talked for hours at a local coffee shop where we caught one another miscalculating the weight of the system we were in.  My former student was surprised that the departmental klansman actually copped to calling her a wetback when confronted; I assured her promptly— why wouldn’t he?  It’s his world right here, he knows he can do what he wants.  On the other hand, I was surprised that no minimal action was taken against him.  The student caught ME that time: why would he be punished?  This campus is his world, not ours.  Like I said, we talked for hours about our experiences, things I have NEVER discussed with a colleague in that space. Meanwhile, many colleagues in my field are too busy stroking their egos for being accepted at elite, privileged institutions and organizations that do not enroll or register many folk of color to even really notice what is happening to such racially subordinated masses in higher education; others just think the example I gave is an individual act of meanness, not the systemic racism they benefit from.  Buncha dumb-asses.

In this next year, I plan to write with undergraduate students even more clearly in mind.  If I write with the student in mind who I just described, my content and rhetoric will carry a whole different kind of momentum and weight in what Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has so brilliantly called “THE IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE” at the Feminist Wire.

As for more mundane goals, I also plan to vary some of my vocabulary here.  I tend to over-rely on the word, fool— I think this is a good word and keeps me from cussin too much but it can become redundant.  I have decided to take it Old Skool, maybe even borrow from Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and diversify my vocabulary: old buzzard and jive turkey come immediately to mind. The terms, Klansmen and Grand Wizard (KKK terms), will become vital new additions and I already know who these terms fit best.  It’s gonna be a good year!

What Freedom Has Looked Like

I’m not someone who tweets so maybe I just don’t get it.  Maybe. When I see what happens there (and yes, I do call twitter a social place/location), I am sometimes stunned.  But then again, these are the kinds of discourses that have always happened behind closed doors anyway.

Ad from Oregon PBS

Ad from Oregon PBS about History of Sex Education Classes

Let’s take, for instance, a woman who has semi-regularly tweeted photos of public sexual innuendos like signposts with the word, HUMP, on them.  It’s almost sophomoric, like in junior high sex education classes when the teacher shows photos of male and female genitalia and everyone starts laughing.  Except this ain’t a kid, this is a grown, professional woman who marks herself as a feminist.  Certainly, feminist consciousness demands that women’s bodies not be circumscribed and defined by Puritan notions of sex and sexuality and instead empowers women’s bodies from alternative spaces of consciousness and politics.  I get that.  Really, I do.  But this ain’t that so let me cut to the chase: I just can’t see myself, as a black female professor, lasting too long if I tweet out sophomoric sexual discourses for fun, with photos, and so willingly offer up a sexualization of my body in public spaces as a hobby for my pastime.  I can tell you that it wouldn’t go well for me professionally and black male professors certainly wouldn’t be out here calling me their sister-in-arms as the second coming of the Angela Davis/Black Power Mixtape. It just doesn’t go down like that.  Not for black women.  For those of us who consider ourselves real students of black women’s histories and black feminisms, we know that we live under very different scripts for race and gender. This twitter example that I am describing is not hypothetical; it represents the very real activities of a non-black female “professor” (in quotation marks since the person engages no intellectual/scholarly pursuits). Now what on earth would ever embolden a professional/professor to initiate such public, sexual invitations and expect relative impunity with no negative result?  That answer comes quite easily for me: the sense of freedom that comes with white entitlement… and, well, all of us ain’t entitled that way; all of us ain’t free.

Some might view my perspectives as conspiratorial or over-the-top but if you are a black woman, you better wake up fast because you don’t have the luxury of such dismissals.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers criticize black applicants for their lack of a far-reaching scholarly identity in their digital footprint though these white folk themselves ain’t got nothing nowhere about themselves and their scholarship.  You’ll see exactly what I am talking about when you witness white co-workers scrutinize a black woman’s resume, comparing it to items that can be googled— this for a black woman who has dozens upon dozens of lectures and accolades online, too many to count.  Meanwhile, the ridiculous onslaught of online tributes to vampires created by the non-black-female applicant goes unmentioned and unnoticed.  You just can’t make this stuff up.  Like I said, if you are a black woman, you would be stupid to think you can ignore this because non-black folk dismiss you as paranoid… while, of course, they never hire anyone who looks like you.  Don’t you be THAT kind of fool.

Eunique Johnson's “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

Eunique Jones’s “I am Trayvon Martin” Photo Campaign

About ten years ago, I taught an intensive summer, 3-hour college writing course in the evenings and we had class on July 3.  All of my students in that course were of African descent; most expected me to cancel class since the 4th was the next day.   They kept asking over and over: but what will we do in class on that day? to which I answered: the same damn thing our ancestors had to do— WORK and FIGHT BACK!  You ain’t free.  Now, some of my students thought that was hilarious and appropriate; others were mad as hell at me and either way, I didn’t give a damn.  We had class and we spent the time reading and discussing “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass alongside current events of the moment.  If I were teaching that same class today, I would do the same thing.  And I would add to that assignment the footage from the current trial proceedings related to George Zimmerman’s vicious murder of Trayvon Martin.  And I would add to that  William Lamar IV’s piece at the Huffington Post on why he will reflect on the 4th of July, but not celebrate.

I am reminded every day of the ways that I am not free, even in the seemingly mundane ways that other women not-of-Afrikan-descent are so casually emboldened to do things that I could just never get away with and maintain a positive social reputation, job, and respect.  I don’t mean to be the grim reaper for my students and disempower them with stories of racism.  But empowerment comes from seeing the world as it is so that you can intervene in it, not from creating fantasies, delusions, and false belief systems. The good thing about all that is there is a tradition for the 4th of July, going all the way back to Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, leading the way.