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The undercommons is alive and well from UCLA to Brown and beyond, as students and faculty work in community to trouble the constraints of the political, social, gendered, racial, and economic orders. But the undercommons is not wholly separate from the university. Its “undisciplined assembly” is shaped by the resources that the university provides, as well as by the exploitative practices that make those resources available. As we engage in critical knowledge production that is not limited to university- and state-sanctioned curricula, we should not lose sight of the work that must also be done to envision and create a different kind of university. Kelley identifies what he sees as contradictory impulses between reform and revolution. I would suggest, instead, that there is a need for a sustained coalition between self-identified radical and reformist contingents of student activists, and that this is analogous to the complex relationship between the undercommons and the university that it rejects.
What would a merger of reformist and radical elements in the ongoing black and allied student movements look like?
The conventional rigid dichotomy between reform and revolution has been detrimental to progressive and radical movements alike. It has stunted alliances that could engender durable social transformation while meeting people’s needs through concrete action—for example, alliances between students, faculty, and campus workers, who are less likely to have the ear of university administrators. Reform is not a panacea for the problems facing universities. Similarly, radical solutions sought while in the university, no matter how subversive the space from which one speaks, are likely to be only partially effective. Therefore it is necessary and desirable for students to direct their energies toward both reformist and revolutionary kinds of action.
History has shown that many revolutions began with reformist agendas. The multifaceted nature of black struggles in particular requires the exhaustion of all strategies, radical and reformist. The Mississippi Freedom Schools that Kelley highlights as an antecedent to the undercommons were no different. Not only did activists engage in the radical work of cultivating a liberative political consciousness and new social identities in rural black communities, they did so with the goal of cultivating indigenous leadership and enabling disenfranchised black people to participate in—and then transform—American democracy. Reformist activities have also led to the eventual radicalization of many individuals. As one prominent example, decades of reformist work ushered Martin Luther King, Jr., into a radical, vocal criticism of American empire.
What would a merger of reformist and radical elements in the ongoing black and allied student movements look like? It would include a call for reform that does not stifle more radical demands, and which does not consider incremental change in campus culture an end in itself, but rather a step in the long process of transformative struggle. Moreover, it would agree that this struggle is not confined by campus walls or to only faculty and student concerns. At the same time, it would seek a brand of radicalism that does not unequivocally reject incremental change because it falls short of revolution. It would move beyond the public performance of trauma, grief, and outrage—admittedly instrumental to gaining national attention—to now focus attention on students’ generative demands and their relationships to broader struggles against disenfranchisement and exploitation. It would require students to not lose sight of the privileges a college or graduate education affords, even as they fight their marginalization within universities.
Critically, this collaborative effort would prioritize building networks of activism that outlast students’ tenures at their universities. Such networks should facilitate not only issue-based activism, but also the often slow, unglamorous work of training leaders and organizers, and guaranteeing continuity of knowledge about resources and past successes and failures. The durability of these networks would necessitate the inclusion of faculty and staff, whose longer-term stakes in the university make them key players in the creation and retention of movement memory, as well as uniquely capable of anchoring long-term transformation. This repurposing of the university and its resources toward revolutionary aims would not hinge on a specific, unpredictable historical moment of collective effervescence. Rather, it would enable a more sustainable model of activism that is capable of bringing justice and reform in the here and now, without sacrificing the durable goals and liberative potential of the radical imagination.
Amanda Boston is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University, where she studies twentieth-century African American history and politics, and the politics and culture of race in the post-civil rights era. She is writing a dissertation on the specific racial operations of gentrification in Brooklyn, New York, from 1970 to 2010.
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