Forum Final Response
March 7, 2016
With Responses From
Mar 7, 2016
8 Min read time
I offer warm thanks for these thoughtful responses. Each advances this important conversation, though I worry that some of my central arguments were misunderstood. I do not chastise students for being insufficiently “radical,” or instruct them on how to protest. I open the piece acknowledging the central role of black college students in mass movements against police violence prior to last fall’s wave of campus protests. I certainly do not question their courage or commitment; as I write, I greatly admire their disruption of university business-as-usual. I also express support for policies intended to make the university more hospitable for black students.
Instead, I want to point to contradictory tendencies within and between these movements and suggest that university culture itself often constrains the horizon of possibility. I want to understand the two extremes of, on the one hand, demanding a more inclusive corporate university without attending to the university’s exploitative relationships; and on the other hand, totally disavowing a university corporate culture of professionalization and belonging. When Moten and Harney speak of being in but not of the university, they are not glossing Christian otherworldliness—although Michael Dyson and Charlene Carruthers are right to note that they echo such language—but rather counseling a rejection of the neoliberal culture that governs university life. And it certainly does not foreclose struggle—on the contrary.
I take issue with activists who believe that the real struggle is merely in ‘shutting shit down’ rather than reading deeply, widely, critically.
The principal model I propose is not 1970s movements but Moten and Harney’s undercommons. I invoke earlier formations simply to make a point about the importance of study for social movements and the importance of social movements for study. There is much I could criticize about 1970s radical movements and why they collapsed, as Derrick White, Martha Biondi, and others have done, but that was not the point. Instead, my focus was on the ways that recent campus movements have formulated some of the most expansive, most visionary agendas we had ever seen (for example, at UNC, Chapel Hill).
Nor am I dismissing trauma, as Christopher Lebron and Carruthers seem to believe. Nowhere do I even imply that we should not act on our trauma or that we can, as Carruthers interprets, “separate our pain from our resistance.” As I write, trauma is not only endemic to black life, but also no other generation before this one has been so exposed to relentless violence. I emphasize, “Trauma is real; it is no joke. Mental health services and counseling are urgently needed.” What I caution against is instead the consequences of framing all grievances in the “language of personal trauma.” One can acknowledge trauma, address it, fight for resources that attend to PTSD and other mental health issues, yet still reject the imposition of victimhood and, likewise, the belief that one’s being is necessarily overdetermined by structural violence. And trust me, I see the impact of trauma on my students, not to mention my own nephew, a Yale student who was active in the protests last fall. I don’t think the answer is to be “hard.” Students have demonstrated, and Carruthers acknowledges, that part of the answer is to love one another, to struggle together and not in isolation. While love is a response to trauma, they are not the same thing. Naomi Wallace makes this distinction: “Love is agency. Trauma is not agency. Love is a creative, revolutionary force. Trauma is a condition that needs tending and recognition.”
Love as a creative, revolutionary force cannot be reduced to only tending to trauma. It is also about building movement communities and finding belonging in them. And, as Shana Redmond’s brilliant exegesis on the role of art in resistance reminds us, expressive culture—which can unite and galvanize protesters and allies—is central to producing a beautiful culture of opposition, a participatory space of struggle in which to conduct the critical intellectual work we all ought to be doing.
The resistance to engaging challenging, uncomfortable ideas is partly what planted the seeds for this essay. What I failed to make clear in the essay, however, is that my concerns about the language of personal trauma do not come from youth resisting the police state in the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, or St. Louis, but rather grow out of experiences with students who have refused to read certain texts because of potential triggers or because they found them unbearably oppressive. I complied because, in many instances, the fears were genuine. But then I learned during a visit to a small liberal arts college that some of the black students did not want to read Frantz Fanon or watch films such as Sankofa for similar reasons. This creep is deeply worrisome; it limits access to the world of ideas and contracts the range of tools available to would-be activists.
• • •
Derecka Purnell’s and Randall Kennedy’s responses are best read together, not only because they both come from Harvard Law School, but because they represent a critical fault line dividing black students from university administrations. Purnell grasps and re-articulates my main points with more eloquence and clarity than I could. Indeed, my essay owes a great deal to our conversation at HLS and what she taught me about the students’ battles there. She seizes upon the fundamental dichotomy created by being in but not of the university: her life as an activist and thinker resists the enclosure of the university, even as she appreciates and wrestles with the tools the university has to offer. She also reminds us that these battles over the university are occurring on a global scale that, right now, stretches from South Africa to India, from Chile to Brazil.
Purnell understands that temporarily “shutting down” the law school in order to make changes is not the same as ending it. I believe that Randall Kennedy understands this, too, although the distinction is not evident in his response. Kennedy lumps me in with “progressive dissenters” who irresponsibly make universities their “enemies.” Here, the arrow flies far from the target. Quite the contrary, I have no plans to leave my job; I work hard to recruit and retain students. And as I counseled Purnell, we have to stay and defend this space, sharpen our tools, and use what power we have. But I have also seen the damage universities can do to the lives of the working-class people they employ; to the people and environments around the world affected by their investments, including in military-related research and development; and to the students who are policed and indebted and struggle to find meaning in classes that present narrow Western patriarchal ideas as “cosmopolitan values.” To be in the university and not of it is not to abandon it, but to generate new knowledge and take intellectual work seriously as we try to change what we can.
I am not sure how Kennedy can construe my essay, particularly its last section, as evidence that I “sneer at intellectuality” or am contemptuous of intellectual work as “highfalutin nonsense.” I clearly make an urgent plea for the importance of critical study. I take issue with those activists who believe that the real struggle is merely in “shutting shit down” rather than reading deeply, widely, critically. This is why I think we can do better than embrace another round of liberal multiculturalism or limit our learning to the classroom. This is why I invoke the study group and independent black think tanks like the Institute of the Black World and the Communiversity. The students creating the undercommons now are, in fact, more committed to serious intellectual work than are many of their classroom instructors because they are attempting to work horizontally, not just across the faculty/student divide, but the university/aggrieved community divide. They are not afraid to read anything, to change their minds, to challenge their own assumptions. They do not turn a blind eye to the university’s entanglements in reproducing complex problems, nor do they believe they have a monopoly on knowledge; they seek to learn from the incarcerated, the homeless, and organizers in communities under siege.
Bady speaks eloquently about the precarity of both students and teachers in this neoliberal era of restructuring. These current struggles arose in part as a response to soaring student debt—currently more than one trillion dollars and counting—and the economic disenfranchisement of adjunct instructors. Students and marginalized faculty have been struggling together to fight these conditions, and most of my tenured and tenure-track colleagues have done very little to support them—and even fewer have supported black student protests. My essay does not pit faculty against students, nor does it assume that all students and all faculty share any kind of position. My observations are inspired by, and emerge out of my unwavering public support for, the current wave of student protests. I am not interested in criticizing students but rather in exposing specious university claims and the ways in which those claims can constrain student demands. I appreciate Dyson’s kind acknowledgment of this and thank him also for his other gracious words.
Finally, I take to heart Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s and Barbara Ransby’s caution against dismissing student demands as reformist and leaping over reality to revolutionary utopia. Taylor is absolutely right to point out the immense value of symbolic changes like killing monuments to slaveholders and racists (though no respondent was willing to defend cultural-competency training and highly paid administrators to oversee diversity). I think all of us would agree with Ransby’s prescient call for “non-reformist” reforms, for sustaining the fight to transform universities, not as refuges but as social institutions embedded in the broad public life. She correctly cautions against romanticizing the search for radical alternatives in disengagement. I could not agree more with her call for “a radical recalibration of what universities owe” to society as a whole, and that requires rejecting the myth of meritocracy, the false division between the university and the world, and the idea that intellectuals only reside in the university. Her response should stand as a manifesto for the undercommons rather than an alternative. Indeed, Ransby—along with Purnell, Taylor, Lebron, Redmond, and Carruthers—offers a corrective to my own nagging pessimism that the university can’t be transformed, reminding me that it must be transformed since it comprises a critical part of the world we are trying to change. On this point, I fully concede.
Editors’ Note: Answer Robin Kelley's call for a rebirth of political education by organizing a reading group around our Radical Political Action Reading List, compiled by forum contributor Derecka Purnell and Harvard Law School student activists.
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March 07, 2016
8 Min read time