This year, I was grateful for the Black and Indigenous women in Canada who let us know at every turn that freedom ain’t up here. You can follow the drinking gourd, Underground Railroad, North Star, Black Moses and then wade in the water all you want: Black folk still ain’t free in Canada. Kim TallBear’s plenary talk was the highlight for me.
One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you. Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out. That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking. Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.
Gentrification takes on new meanings when you live in Brooklyn/New York. The all-encompassing, rapid, commercial take-over is astounding. I moved into my Brooklyn home in 1998 after living in an apartment for five years. I was a public high school teacher with a savings account from the Municipal Bank, got a home loan through FHA, and moved into what we called back then, an “FHA neighborhood.” My down payment on my house cost less than the broker’s fee+lease agreement for most Brooklyn apartments back then. “FHA” meant that I got a fixer-upper in a neighborhood where I was once robbed by a crackhead— or rather, accosted, since the crackhead didn’t get anything off of me (as quiet as it’s kept in this world that treats crackheads like scary monsters, they are actually physically weak so, in other words, it doesn’t take too much to whup one’s ass which is exactly what I did). The crackheads that weren’t jacking wallets and purses were hookin on the street corner. Those days are long, long gone now though. A new 14-story high-rise dots every five blocks on the avenues. A typical 2-bedroom apartment (maybe 800 square feet) will run you $3500.00 right now. Needless to say, ain’t no crackheads in these parts today!
Both Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin would have turned 19 years old this month. That these two births are how I will always remember February is very telling for what Black Histories and Black Todays mean.
The verdict against Michael Dunn, the white man who murdered Jordan Davis for playing music too loud, does not ring with justice for me. My heart was lifted when I saw and heard Jordan Davis’s parents respond to the verdict and the sense of closure they now feel; I want to make sure that I don’t dismiss or disrespect what these parents are feeling right now. At the end of the day, however, no matter how long Michael Dunn stays in jail, the right of a while male to kill black boys was upheld in the courts all over again.
Let’s be clear here: the jury found Dunn guilty of four charges, including three of attempted second-degree murder (the shots he fired and missed). But they couldn’t reach a verdict on the actual first-degree murder of Jordan. I don’t know how to understand such confusion. This verdict, along with Zimmerman’s acquittal, makes me read American justice like this: if you try to shoot black boys and miss, you will be incarcerated; but if you aim at a black boy and kill him good, you go free because you will have defended yourself successfully.
I can’t help but think back to how confused so many people were by the 2012 creation of one of my favorite cartoonists, Lalo Alcaraz, after Trayvon’s murder. In the cartoon, a black mother fears for the life of her son even though he is simply going out for snacks. If anyone thought that was extreme, I encourage them to simply remember that Trayvon and Jordan should have been celebrating their 19th birthdays this month. American white supremacy has ensured that never happened.
I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised. There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated. I wasn’t surprised by that, however. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either. I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.
Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content. I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work. My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color. And since these editors were selected“democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.
This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model? Let me break it down. I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus. Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university. Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT! So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities. That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach. In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American. If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school. 25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT. 97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.
At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation. Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession. It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities. Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac! And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience. If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to think of this example.
Angela Davis spoke last night in Oakland, California at an event organized by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project that is part of the Northeastern University School of Law. That speech offered important reminders of what is at stake when we look back fifty years ago to September 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Denise McNair, age 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old.
I appreciated Davis’s focus on both historical context and contemporary ramifications when she reminds us that:
racist terrorism has not ended and has fundamentally shaped the history of United States;
Robert Chambliss, the man convicted of the church bombing, had terrorized and bombed so many black homes and gatherings for so many years that he was more affectionately known by whites as “Dynamite Bob” in Birmingham (also better known as Bombingham);
the most salient sound of Angela Davis’s childhood in Birmingham was the sound of bombings, so much so that her neighborhood was called Dynamite Hill;
less than two weeks before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the lead civil rights attorney in Birmingham lost his home to a bombing;
on the day of the 16th Street Church bombing, two other black youth were also killed by whites— Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware;
bombings in Birmingham continued well after the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted and everyone knew who was responsible, including the FBI, which simply looked the other way;
Chambliss was only charged with the possession of dynamite, not for actually bombing anything, and J. Edgar Hoover refused to release any information about the evidence gathered from the church bombing (so there was no trial);
the Children’s Crusade was immediately activated in response to the church bombing where children as young as nine or ten years old were jailed and tortured for the future of racial equality and justice in the United States;
Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, helped ensure that violence in Birmingham was the norm where he would routinely promise and deliver bloodshed against black citizens;
Black people were forced to arm themselves in Birmingham for protection (guns were fired in the air but never shot) but those Black communities never retaliated by bombing white communities and today constitute perhaps our best model for what it means to respond peacefully, but defensively, in the face of extreme violence;
Black people had, in fact, been arming themselves since the 1877 Compromise where President Hayes withdrew all federal troops from the south as part of his bid for presidency (the model mentioned in #10 has been in long effect) and have always known that they must fend for themselves by themselves.
Despite the facts of the eleven issues listed above, we have never acknowledged the terrorism that was the norm in places like Birmingham, Alabama. Racist violence has been part and parcel of our local and national governments. Davis reminds us that the murder of these 4 Little Girls is a complex history, one that is rarely acknowledged in our commemoration ceremonies, but one that is intimately connected to ongoing violence under our ongoing racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia: from Trayvon Martin… to Oscar Grant… to the numerous stories of racist violence that I have told here about the universities where I have taught.
Davis’s speech affirmed the history and perspectives that I think are most valuable. How we tell the history of this moment can be as violent as the actual history if we do not grasp the full context of how and why Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were so brutally killed. The fact of the matter is that for many, many years, it was only black communities who actually remembered and cared about these 4 Little Girls’ names and legacy. How we remember and care about them today is no less critical. The privilege of who tells history and how it is told is most often decided within the terms of white property. But as people who as, Davis remind us, have always had to fend for ourselves, we should be able to remember and care about our own stories and children differently.