Monday, March 30, 2009

The Blackademy and its Discontents

First, I would like to thank the good people at Postbourgie for offering me this space to spout out my crazy ideas. Thank you all so much, especially G.D.

I recently was offered a chance to elaborate on my loathing of “the black academic left”, which, I am sure, is a strange position considering the overall tenor of this blog. I was both honored and delighted at the proposition, giving me a chance to crystallize my ideas and also present them to a knowledgeable audience.

I traffic in words, so let me shorten the black academic left to “blackademy”. my use of the phrase “blackademy” is basically a stand-in for well known black leftist intellectuals. I am making sweeping generalizations using a very limited sample-size, so make of that what you will. Perhaps even more damning is that I am coming from a very anti-essentialist/pseudo-post modern position (think Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is my dude). If that sort of stuff is not your bag then you may want to stop reading right here.

Let me begin by stating unequivocally that, while I personally cannot stand the blackademy, this is not because they are some sort of barrier to racial progress or reconciliation. I am not hearkening back to halcyon days when black people and white people had small misunderstandings that they were working through, until Black Studies departments started cropping up in the 1960s and made those Negroes so damn angry and screwed everything up. To quote myself (how arrogant!) in another discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education: “…Breitbart’s belief that Black Studies Departments hold inordinate power over the mythical, singular Black Community is insane. What, there are crowds outside of bookstores in Detroit lining up to buy the latest work by Dyson and do his bidding? Everyone in Baltimore or DC has a well-thumbed copy of Race Matters by West?... Dyson is not sitting in Georgetown coiling his mustache, stroking his cat, and telling a whole lot of black people what to do.” Rather my own position comes from being force-fed to read and deal with many of the stars of the blackademy and not really being able to discuss my disagreements and frustrations with my peers. In the grand scheme of things, I find the prison-industrial complex enraging, nonwhite educational inequalities unacceptable, etc, while Michael Eric Dyson is simply very annoying. Hell I like a lot of the blackademy’s positions on gender and sexuality, so they are not all bad.

I have a lot of salt to throw at these people, including points that would draw much of the Postbourgie readership in a massive argument (my belief in salvaging the idea of colorblind-ness being but one example… and yes, I have read a lot on it, including Bonilla-Silva’s stuff which was good, I just do not agree with it). Instead of throwing a truckload of salt, I am going to split this piece into an attack on these people’s identities and then an attack on their conceptual methods. I think that we all want to live in a meritocratic society that allows everyone both dignity and fulfillment, so it is the means by which the disagreement comes into play.

What a long-ass preamble. In any case, here is the meat: My first complaint of the blackademy is their fixation on scholar/activism. Not content to be ‘mere’ professors stuck in the ivory tower, they straddle both the tower and the… untower (is that a word) in an attempt to stay grounded in ‘the community’ (i.e. the black community). Or so they claim. This is a position that I really do not buy. The last scholar activist was freaking Walter Rodney (who quit his teaching position in Dar es Salaam because of his frustrations with the Nyere government and his desire to give back to the West Indies, who was banned by the Jamaican government for being too radical, AND was assassinated in Guyana). I think his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is dead wrong, but it’s a great text that really had a lot of impact on the field of African History and a lot of people still read. On top of that, he designed the book specifically for lay people, put it on cheap paper from a cheap press for a cheap price back in 72, and you CAN GET IT FREE ON MARXISTS.ORG. I wonder if Brother Neal will let us cop New Black Man on his website for free? Or at least sell it new for less than 20 bucks so as many people as possible can read it? If you are working for an American university, especially an elite university, (Princeton, Georgetown, Duke), which is steeped in government money and owes their rapid expansion to the Cold War, you are a shill. What, they are dismantling White Supremacy 20 middle-class undergrads at a time? There are two avenues by which to change anything; mass-mobilization or state power. While the blackademy may tag along for much larger mass-mobilizations, they will never create, lead, or inspire organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, UNIA, etc (and those are just the famous black ones, outside of Jewish groups, womens groups, etc). Nor will they ever get elected for anything (and before saying that politics or the state are too dirty or mired in racial politics, try stepping foot in the academy). When they discuss Malcom and Martin as some of the only avenues for change, they seem to forget Marshall, and because I deal extensively with states and state history, I find this willful amnesia simply mind-boggling. You either get enough people to change the state, or you join the state and change it yourself. None of the books they have produced will ever have the resonance with Up From Slavery, Souls, the Autobiography, etc. Rather they are trafficking in feelings: making black folk feel good and white folk feel bad, while happily taking their money and living quite comfortably. Sure they give speaking tours, volunteer, etc. but they are not willing to give up their class privilege nor do they aim for actual change, only change on their terms. Let’s just call this ‘Negroes on the Porch’ Syndrome (which I use to address the specific racial dynamics in play, I much prefer Crotchety Old Man on the Porch J ): they talk a lot but every afternoon they are on the same damn porch. In order to either assuage their guilt, inflate their egos, or both they always identify as activists. Give me a Fanny Lou or Carl B. over a 1000 Cornel’s.

My second complaint, and final one for the purposes of this essay, comes from the blackademy’s mania for fixed group identity. Race is a social construct (no big surprise) but its effects are all too real (which is again no big surprise). Intellectually I am firmly against ideas that reify race, though when it comes to practical realities I can overlook them (affirmative action, for example). Still, nothing makes me cringe more than when I hear appeals to the royal “We” as black folk, asian folk, whatever folk. I have a small background in 18th and 19th century European intellectual history and the use of language in terms of appealing to racial solidarity, of a singular cultural block, is exactly the same. We invented this, we did that, they stole it, etc. I feel like I am reading Stirner or something. I do not want to imply that the lived experiences of racism will magically go away if we do not see race, but I find the lack of nuance in terms of identity frightening, as well as the total inability to see the end-game of raising racial consciousness. You cannot just turn off racial solidarity, just ask white people. While the blackademy understands issues of class and sex, I actually think they trip up when they discuss race. While they might pay lip-service to its complexities, in practice they both reify and celebrate it.

Of course, ending racism would stop such a need for perpetuating notions of race, which I see as a symptom of the disease of residual (or even current) White Supremecy. Yet once again I do not think the blackademy is committed to ending racism so much as getting rich while others do it for them. If racism is bigotry + (state) power, a variant of the standard definitions I come across, and the blackademy is neither changing bigot’s hearts and minds nor employing the tools of the state, then they are effectively useless. And I loathe them for it.


  1. enjoyed your diatribe!

    word to walter rodney --

  2. Haha thanks! Rodney was my dude, and nice string of pics on your site!

  3. Just curious,but what do you think the flaws of Rodney's work are?

  4. Just the standard argument against dependency (Lack of agency assigned to its 'victims', a dubious idea of development) as well as a pretty myopic view of African history. The linking of slavery to colonialism is also pretty suspect. In his defense, this was a pretty short book written to mobilize radicals and it was not designed to be the definitive book on capitalism and Africa to be reviewed by academics. I was never his intended audience.

  5. It's elastic_spam again: I dunno,I'd personally agree with him about colonialism and slavery in that once the british settlers got control of the native americans, they decided make money by employing Africans. Unless I am misinterpreting you, if so,I apologize.

  6. I was all up on Dependency and Rodney and G Frank when I was an undergrad. After I read more stuff and thought out some of the theoretical underpinnings, I dropped it. I order to really argue against this stuff you gotta be pretty well-versed in the complexities of New World and Old World history, because Dependency is basically Marxist World History (and pretty decent at that). Also, I would read Capitalism and Slavery by Williams, which goes great with Rodney. In terms of the stuff against Rodney, thats a whole lotta reading that is only really worth it if you are really interested (as in throwing your life away to study) African history.

  7. okay, I was just curious.I was poking around a far left blog lately and it got a mention/

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  9. (sorry, int'l internet isht messed up my first post)

    hot stuff..

    Does "academy" (or "activism" come to think of it) in the way you use it include teaching and relationships with students?

    I'm thinking that given your point about joining the state, does academia have a role to play..

    And what about at non-elite institutions? wondering whether the blackademy as you define/demolish it here naming folks who are at happens elsewhere..

    thanks for a provocative rant for sure

  10. Rip, sorry for the late reply. The academy can be a great instrument for social progress. However, if we let professors 'count' as activists for being good teachers then we let in a lot of people who would not normally be considered activists. That is all well and good, but because the blackademy wants to show it is committed to social responsibility and they are about as socially responsible as econ professors, they lose some of their moral high-ground (which they never want to renounce). Cornel West's piece about black intellectuals is basically a retread of Cruse's thing about Negro intellectuals.

    Most of my stuff was aimed at the superstars.

    Thanks for posting, and I like your blog!

  11. Like others who have commented, I too feel you on the Walter Rodney front. And while both he and Eric Williams (and Appiah, and Gilroy, and lord almighty, I could go on) are overly focused on the English-speaking world (most of us taken in chains ended up in Portuguese- or Spanish-speaking places), there is a certain undeniable power to his work.

    It's fair to argue that they don't come like that any more, but I don't think it's for the reasons you posit. Part of it is the fact that the educational system is more and more driven towards homogeneity (and I speak as an academic). Academics are produced, and they are produced in particular molds. Sadly enough, all-too-many Blackfolk buy in to occupying one of a very limited number of archetypical roles that we are allowed to occupy, and don't challenge that too much. Of course, the Black bourgeoisie has always been irrelevant (at best), and perhaps part of what we see now is that they have become redundant, too.

    Where I'm having a more difficult time following you is on the identity part. How can you possibly argue for any attempt to resuscitate color-blindness? I'll be straight, here: Appiah disgusts me on a number of levels (you can find an ill-reasoned rant against him on my blog). I find him smug, and I find his experience as part of an elite so useless to illuminating anything important about Blackness...Well, I can't believe he has the nerve to talk about identity. Those who position themselves as anti-essentialist seem to me to often be those with the privilege to opt out of the kinds of communities of solidarity that certain strains of essentialism generate. Give me Biko over Gilroy any day, I say!

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  13. Clearly we are coming from radically different political standpoints, and I'm astounded that you express any kind of uncertainty as to whether or not those differences derive from the real and important differences in our identities. When you grow up desperately poor and Black in an urban ghetto in the United States of America, it would be the worst kind of foolishness to believe in the fluidity of identity (in the kind of sense that folks like Appiah advocate). My identity is not fluid, shifting, and multiple. Though when I am in Brixton, or Kingston, or Luanda, or San Juan, I find myself quite at home in many important ways, that comes from the commonality of Black experience under slavery and colonialism, not from sort of trans-local intellectual culture forged by people who would have considered themselves generous to let me in the servant's entrance.

    Calling identity false consciousness reeks of condescension. Let me tell you: what happened on 1 January 1804 matters. It matters to me and it should matter to you, if your ancestors are anything to you. And 1 January 1804 was not the result of some sort of misguided consciousness of the thousands of (mostly African born) revolutionaries who defeated Napoleon's army. Identity is real, it matters, and, well...

    Much as I talk about in issues of romance on my blog, I think that the Black relationship with socialist movements most closely approximates an abusive relationship. Y'all are the Ikes to our Tinas. Blacks fought and died in unmatched numbers in BOTH Cuban Revolutions, and you can't tell me that there is anything close to an end to white supremacy in Cuba. Hell, let me tell you about Cubans I know who showed up to fight in Angola believing that UNITA was not an enemy force, but rather a super-cunning group of monkeys...

    Given the fact that you are NOT Black, I'm struggling to comprehend how you think that your "acceptance" of Black Liberation is at all an issue. No, seriously. What is this about for you? Also, why do our struggles always get to do the heavy symbolic lifting for more "universal" struggles that are ultimately unconcerned with our welfare as Blacks? And why not take on some of the many, many skeletons in your own closet? We could talk about the notions of "improving the race" and, gods help us all, mestizaje for the next 100,000 years, and still have plenty to say on that. If you think this is taking too personal an approach, if you don't like my tone...please remember that identity politics are not an academic issue for me.

    They cannot be.

    I do not have that luxury.

    And yet, I do not view my identity as a burden (or as a meal ticket) -- I view it as a link to the power of my ancestors, as a definition of my responsibilities in this world. Equality is a value predicated upon the depressing notion of the individual as the essential unit of humanity, and I do not accept that value structure. There are ways to think about the world that do not derive from Europe and her bastard children.

    As a final couple of points: I'm sorry if this seems excessively shrill, but your response really does come across as incredibly condescending. Why do you sound so surprised that I am literate and knowledgeable? I mean, seriously, giving someone "props" (and how do you come by using that word, if your background is what you say it is, by the way?) for knowing important intellectuals? Wow.

    Also, New World to whom?

  14. Ok, turns out I'm not done ranting:

    About the "Latino" identity? I'm neither the first nor the most eloquent to point out the essential lie that is that moniker. Grouping the children of the slavemasters/encomienda owners in with the children of the slaves, both Black and Native, because they now all speak the colonial language? Just wow. I love how all of the Miami Cubans are so invested in using that label to scam affirmative action benefits that seem to go to ANYONE BUT Black people (white women, white folks who speak Spanish, etc.). These differences are very important throughout Latin America, and acting like they become less important in the context of secondary Diaspora to the U.S. makes little sense, to me.

    My most favorite bomba (Afro-Puerto Rican music) song of all time is a southern cuembe (from Mayaguez). This is the song that rips my soul out of my body every time I hear it. In addition to just digging on the cuembe rhythm, the lyrics (chorus: Miserere, Congo Miserere, Donde esta mi Congo la rei?) slay me. This "broken Spanish" is a result of the song coming from Haitians, who then transform the "Congo" identity politically...

    To me, * this * is Latino. Not some Castillian-claiming b.s.

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  16. Look. I told you in an earlier comment that I am an academic. I wasn't playing. That's how I make my ends. You know, being a scholar. So it is within that context that the fact that you seem so surprised that I am literate is baffling, to say the least. It also seems to point to something deeper, and whether that is nothing more than the typical arrogance that academia seems to produce (at least for those of us that don't have that tempered by our racial and socio-economic identities), or whether it is more specific to you, I don't know. But it doesn't come across well, I promise...

    Also, what's with the "big man" view of history? Views of the Haitian Revolution do not come down to a Dessalines/L'Ouverture duality, surely you can recognize that. But popular views, memories, and mobilizations of the meaning of the Revolution, or of Bwa Kayman for that matter, focus on political, intellectual, and cultural concerns that do not even register on the terrain you are mapping. Think about it. If you *must* have this view legitimated by a scholar whom you would respect, you can check out Trouillot or even (gods help us all) Thornton on this.

    Where the hell do you get off using the term "house negro"? Seriously. You are not Black, and growing up in Nigeria and Ghana does not entitle you to freely tread over such problematic ground with no acknowledgment whatsoever of your political position in regards to Blackness. I call serious bullshit on that.

    The only response to "we all share common ancestors" is the slave ship. There's a big difference between being on the deck and being below the deck, I promise. And the constructedness of history? Does not make it any less real.

    I could go on about Marti and Maceo both, but suffice it to say that saying "we are all Cubans" may be a brilliant strategy for recruiting cannon fodder (want to talk about false consciousness?), but it doesn't do much in *either* post-Revolutionary period to address the deep-seated inequities in Cuban society. Are things much better today than in the 1950s? Without a doubt. Does the fact that Cuba's tourism economy still pray on hypersexualized depictions of Black and mulatta women point to some deep, deep problems that ain't white in Havana trying to talk about? Absolutely.

    The idea of a "New World" is problematic not only for the obvious reasons you site, but because it also leaves out, you know, the history of the Atlantic islands and, well, basically everything that was going on the in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries elsewhere (Moorish expansion into West Africa post-Iberian expulsion, etc.). It's Eurocentirc, and it's teleological, and I don't really see it's utility.

    Shared experiences? Well, the folks who worked with the American imperialists in, say, the DR, or who continue to in my own beloved Borinquen speak Spanish just as well as the folks who have suffered at their hands. The Miami Cubans speak the same Spanish as the Revolutionaries. And the Yoruba example...Wow. I'm sure you've read Matory's scholarship on Yoruba identity, the Diaspora, and elitism, right? The standardized Yoruba language is in fact a product of the Saro Diaspora, as I'm sure you must know, and comparing experiences of those who were sold and those who did the selling again rings tremendously problematic to me. What is covered up by Yoruba (Cultural) Nationalism? A lot of blood, at the very least.

    No arguments here on the racism of Spaniards. White folks are white folks, even when they speak Spanish. But you do get the same thing from their criollo descendants in the Americas...How many Argentines, for example, like to talk smack about Dominicans not speaking "proper Spanish"? Sigh...

    "New World Africanisms"? Whoa, seriously? Are we living in the time of Melville Herskovits?

    If you go to Segunda Quimbamba's Myspace, you can hear Cartagena and his folks doing Miserere ( Of course, bomba is *not* meant to be listened to like that, you need to be there to really get that. And I don't say that to sound like a pretentious bastard, I say that because it is true. Go to a bombazo. Also, I'm biased...While I love and have mad respect for Segunda Quimbamba, I like how my group does this song better, not the least because when Hector from Welfare Poets sings leads, and breaks it down, it's pure fire.

    And maybe this is a key difference...When I said this stuff could not be academic for me, I meant that in many ways. Not only that issues of race, and identity, and so on, do not end for me when I close my books, or even when I close my door or close my eyes, but also most of the ideas for my scholarship come out of lived experiences. I didn't read about bomba somewhere, I am a bomba dancer, and my experiences as a dancer lead me to certain kinds of questions. You could argue, as a much-loved friend of mine does, that such a grounding and predispose me to particular kinds of anachronistic analysis, but I think you can safeguard against that.

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  18. Amadou Diallo, I'm certain, would have loved to have been given the choice of a non-lethal identity before he was shot 41 times by New York City's finest. Abner Louima, I'm sure, was protected from being raped with a toilet plunger by the same because, you know, he speaks French and Kreyol and isn't like the rest of us Negroes. Because, you know, when they close their eyes...

    Oh. Wait. Black people don't get that choice.

    When I close my eyes, I see myself as a Catalonian princess. Too bad when I open them, I am still being followed around the damn store by a security guard, or being denied housing, or educational opportunities, or health care, because I am STILL FREAKING BLACK.

    Black folks who were born in and live in France are still scum and foreigners. But you spent some sort of cushy childhood in Ghana, and that entitles you to speak with authority on what, exactly? Because quite frankly it doesn't matter whether or not you want the burden of Ghanaian-ness, you will never have it. You will be protected forever and always by your identity. And you can laugh at people like myself or Haile Gerima as much as you'd like to ("Oh, hahahaha," you would say to your friends, "They think they are down, but the Ghanaians call them obroni just the same!"), and I'm no fool calling myself a Ghanaian, or Nigerian, or anything else (P.S. if your comment was a dig at Matory...He is no drive-by scholar. He's deeply immersed in the practice of Ifa, he has deep roots in communities in both Nigeria and Brazil, his wife is Yoruba, etc.). I am Black.

    And you know what else that means? In addition to all of the structural burdens I've gone on and on and ON about, it also means that academia views me as useless. See, white folks like YOURSELF are inherently entitled to produce knowledge. And Africans (the elite mofos who come here) are inherently entitled to talk about "experience." But since I am neither, I have no place, right? Because Black folks can't really produce knowledge, and I'm not really African, so...

    You can't know how infuriating that is, and what's worse, you don't care. And you benefit from it. And you can sing your babies to sleep with Twi lullabyes, in the most real Kumasi accent, but you are still benefiting the whole time.

    I "know my field" because I have to be at least four times more qualified than you to even be allowed to peak under the door. We won't talk about how qualified I have to be to open it. I've never had the luxury of laziness.

    I really can't respond to any more of this fuckery, quite frankly. I know how these things turn out. You will turn this inevitably into an amusing anecdote to relate to your like-minded friends, you may very well thief ideas from me, and I will merely be left with my raised blood pressure.

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  20. jeez. gotta say, i guess you asked for it, W. write a diatribe, expect diatribes in return.

    i'd give you 'props' for admirably acquitting yourself in the back-and-forth above, but given my immutably non-black (if whitened) background and my imaginatively on-the-deck ancestry (my foreparents were not on slave ships at all, really), i suppose i prolly can't.

  21. Haha, true enough don. I did ask for it :).

    Props or no, rest assured that you had ancestors who were either screwing or getting screwed by others. It is just a matter of how far back we want to (or are even able to) look and who we want to claim. Given enough time, the wheels of history spare no one.

  22. I suspect my ancestors were among the screwers and the screwed, as history is wont to do.

    Also, I probably should be careful about using a word like 'acquit,' which I think is maybe from the French. I have, far as I know, no ancestral ties to France. Then again, I got plenty "Latin" blood in my lines, so maybe that's enough.

  23. you should read Appiah more carefully Winslow. You listen to and understand people with a *different* perspective, but only as far as you need to in order to formulate your argument against them. you dont really listen and understand though.

  24. Winslow, why did you remove all your posts to M?

  25. Yes, I did. Because I handled it badly, and also I am paranoid about future employment possibilities. Maybe its because I have been living in China. Or maybe its because the United States government does spy on its citizens. So I took the cowards way out. After (if)? I successfully gain employment, I will put them up again.