In the few years preceding my acceptance into a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, I had been a Katrina refugee, had a baby, grieved the death of my father and more. I had a thick skin and a lot to say. I couldn’t think of a better time to dedicate myself to my writing. I felt prepared to be critiqued. I was self-aware and detached from taking criticism of my work personally. I had done this as an undergraduate; it was all constructive; I was ready.
A friend of mine from college, already waist-deep in an MFA program in New York, warned me …
“I was fine, till the day this guy said my work was didactic and particularly concerned with victimhood. I cried afterwards. They are going to get you,” she said.
We laughed and I waited for my turn.
It came. A rare poem of mine that features dialect, received the royal treatment from a professor. She decided to take command of the workshop by asking if anyone would like to discuss the dialect. I was aware of the consequences of writing a poem filled with dialect for a majority-white audience. I was prepared for all the most critical things I thought I would hear.
I was ready to listen to people debate whether or not it is acceptable to write something that is hard for white people to understand. I was ready to hear that a person who spoke that way wasn’t someone they imagined would have high-brow ideas or spend time meditating the on the meaning of life. I was even prepared to hear someone say that dialect didn’t belong in poetry.
I was not prepared to hear this:
"I’m going to go out on a limb," the professor began, "and say that I found the dialect phony, and therefore I didn’t believe the rest of the poem. The dialect isn’t even consistent, sometimes this speaker says gon’, sometimes she says gonna’…didn’t buy it."
Phony? In whose expert opinion? This older, white person, from the Midwest was now the authority on South Louisiana Black dialect? I wanted to say this, but workshop decorum prohibited my voice from being heard. That irony was not lost on anyone, as my facial expressions did all the talking for me. This isn’t to say that I did not receive useful constructive criticism from this same professor or my peers…still, those moments occur, and they have resonance within a writer’s psyche.
I am a native New Orleanian writing about the people that pepper these streets—in the city my program is located—yet many of my peers know nothing about my culture. My references are often off-the-mark and obscure in their eyes. I write about black people, mixed people, and their stories are hidden in the binaries that dominate our understandings of race and sexuality.
"Almost like a white person, trying to sound black," chimed in a classmate.
I sat there red-faced, definitely embarrassed, and definitely pissed that workshop had gotten under my skin. Maybe, this wasn’t the place for me. But no sooner had I put that thought into the universe, it threw it right back at me. A classmate put me in the know of a writers group he belonged to. I think he could tell I needed it.
The MelaNated Writers Collective, an alliance of writers of color, was founded by jewel bush in 2010. After attending workshops for writers of color in other places, she was determined to recreate that sense of community, year-round, at home in New Orleans. We are all grateful for that decision of hers to follow her intuition.
T.F. Charlton: With the NSR debacle I’ve been thinking about the over-scrutiny of Black Studies and black scholars (and black people in general). It seems to me that in public and scholarly discourse we’re always on the defense, while by comparison whiteness is under-examined both in the public sphere and in academic circles. What are your thoughts on that?
Tressie McMillan Cottom: To the binary of offense-defense might I also add the third, implicit position: taken-for-grantedness. The idea that there is some knowledge whose superiority is assumed and, thus, is never engaged in playing either defense or offense is particularly interesting to me. In this way, Black Studies shares a similar subordinate position with many other disciplines (liberal arts, Ethnic Studies, language studies, etc.).
Charlton: I’ve also been thinking about who has access to important platforms like CHE and how they use them, who’s visible and has the weight and credibility of established media outlets behind them (like NSR taking her crocodile tears to Fox and WSJ, e.g.).
McMillan Cottom: This is what I really want to explore. It’s what I try to get at in my latest (and last!) post on the whole situation. I will add that I think the current decline of traditional media offers a narrow, but nonetheless present, opportunity tio reconfigure the distribution hierarchy.
Also interesting: the way the framing of the story became about one white woman’s aggrieved feelings. I’m not sure if that is a function of modern media essentially cutting and pasting every previous story and calling it “news” or if it’s the phenomenon bell hooks and others term “white woman victimhood.” It’s likely both. And, again, those with different opinions have no recourse in reshaping the narrative.
Charlton: My sense is that scholars need to go more on the offensive in making a positive case for general audiences about the value of black audiences (and alternatively, questioning the privileged positions of “neutrality” and “objectivity” that white scholarship and “traditional,” usually disproportionately white departments get) rather than always having to answer the question of its legitimacy, which is a debate on white-centering terms. I think this ties in to the conversations you’ve had since this all blew up about creating independent media platforms for marginalized scholars and disciplines.
McMillan Cottom: I would agree. But going back to the issue of taken-for-grantedness, I’d also add that Black Studies scholars and scholars who value the scholarship of the discipline need to be present. There are things people have a harder (albeit not impossible) time saying about you when you are in the room. So let me go there: I continue to be saddened by the reticence of some black (Studies) scholars on this issue. Perhaps they’re long tired of this argument, but I think there’s still room to engage, to be in the room for these conversations.
—I’m glad T.F. Charlton and Tressie McMillan Cottom dialogued about the implications around CHE-Naomi Schafer Riley’s attacking Black Studies doctoral candidates Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, La TaSha B. Levy, and Ruth Hays on the R today. Check it out!
Without Black Studies, what would we know of black protest of Jim Crow, slave revolts (and white suppression of records of these revolts), or the medical exploitation of black and brown bodies? Who would chronicle not just the struggle, but the achievements, creativity, and joys of black lives and experiences? Do naysayers really imagine white scholarship, on its own, has given an honest account on these topics? Or are such accounts simply irrelevant to them?
If anything is intellectually fraudulent, it’s scholarship that, consciously and not, excludes POC scholars or ignores race and ethnicity as categories of analysis. We all, white people included, need Ethnic Studies. Both academic scholarship and our understanding of the world are better, more honest, more robust with them than otherwise.
None of this is to say that black studies is perfect. Like many academic disciplines, it can be deeply bound to “traditional” approaches that marginalize scholarship from or about women, queer, and/or trans people. But it’s also the case that substantive critiques of Black Studies by scholars who take race and racism seriously (i.e., not Sowell and Steele) already exist. That critics are wholly ignorant of both the contributions and critiques of Black Studies is an example of what Spelman anthropologist Erica L. Williams describes as the “emotional labor” PoC scholars “must perform … beyond our job descriptions” and not just in the humanities. The considerable stresses of educating and producing scholarship are compounded by the suspicion and racial hostility PoC scholars routinely face.
PoCs are constantly expected to be emotional midwives to white people. Attempts to claim space or identity for ourselves—without deference to whiteness—are inevitably met with suspicion, anger, fear, and guilt (witness white anger over the President’s racial self-identification). We’re expected to have a conversation on race and racism that centers and assuages white emotions, to speak about race in terms and frameworks that are neither by, for, or ultimately about us. What little space we’re afforded in mainstream media is taken up with 101-level education, demands that we justify our existence, and prove the merit of our perspectives and accomplishments beyond the shadow of a doubt. White critics and, occasionally, other people of color, often feel a casual entitlement to pass judgment on PoC narratives of our own experiences, and on our scholarship, without putting in the effort to learn about or engage with either.
In other words, “I’m a frequently-published white lady. I can say whatever I want about black scholarship because nobody is actually going to read that bullshit, and lots of people will read what I write and never think to question it because I’m a frequently-published white lady!”
This woman is fucking vile, and the Chronicle is SPECTACULARLY failing at accountability for giving her a platform.
The bolded covers the more-than-likely logic behind Naomi Riley’s comment.
And, is it me or am I’m the only one getting Satoshi Kanazawa flashbacks regarding this situation?
When Naomi Schaefer Riley published “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” she did not just deride an entire field of academic study. She also viciously, personally attacked the five black studies doctoral students spotlighted in a previous CHE article.
By giving Schaefer Riley a platform in the preeminent academic news publication, The Chronicle elevated her attacks to legitimate scholarly critique. Worse, they did so without allowing a space for the scholars to respond or defend themselves.
No one deserves that but junior scholars, in particular, do not deserve to be publicly attacked in The Chronicle for simply existing.
If you agree that Schaefer Riley’s form of engagement has no place in an academic space please sign, share, and share again.