12 Lessons in Micro-Aggressions (for Black History + Women’s History Months). #31DBBBDay2

Calvin Candie: [to Django and Schultz] Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.

Coleandjohnson

J Rosamund Johnson (standing) with Bob Cole. Johnson composed Lift Every Voice and Sing set to the poetry of his brother James Weldon Johnson who among other things was a diplomat, politician and anthropologist.

Lift Every Voice Pictorial

 

 

 

 

 

See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.

I am doing the 31 Days to Build a Better Blog challenge and Day 2 asks that we write a list post. My post title is reminiscent of the narrative titles from the earliest printed books in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a time, I must remark, when enslaved Africans were not allowed to read and write or play drums for fear of the power to communicate.  Now that we’s free, we black folk got lots to say and too many don’t care to hear.

We professors often learn to trade and mediate between worlds which can be a blessing and curse.  But as I see it, communication and writing–having a voice–is essential no matter who you are. Blogging is a mechanism I downplay too often to get my thoughts across even though I have had 3,000, 6,000 and even 12,000 reads on something I’ve written before. I still resist owning my own voice. In 2013, I am putting more of my words out in the blogosphere.

Books tell stories as can list posts. I realized my list could tell my story of microaggressions.  You may ask, what is a micro-aggression?

Sue et al. (2007) describe microaggressions as, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”[2]  These can be both racist and sexist.

My list of 12 Microaggressions adds a bit of irony, not unlike my descriptive narrative subtitle recalling the descriptive titles in the 18th and 19th centuries

12 Lessons in Micro-aggressions: A Guide to the Memories of a Learned Black Womanist Professor Upon Writing A List Post for Black History & Women’s History Months Which Can’t Begin to Scratch the Surface of the Deeper Politics of Racism and Sexism Women and People of Color Encounter Still Today.

12 DON’TS THAT DO MICROAGGRESSIONS

  1. Don’t ever read June Jordan’s “Poem about Police Violence” in a racism course with any white male student who once loved you. His version will be: What if every time  you follow suit, I threaten to file a lawsuit? You think the litigation rate for reverse racism would drop subsequently?
  2. Don’t play a female rapper first in a hip-hop course. Queen Latifah might have said “Ladies first” but women in hip-hop are supposed to only be one of the boys or a bitch at best.
  3. Don’t be surprised when in 1997 you get hate mail addressed “Dear Ms. Afro” after your first semester teaching at the University of Virginia. And there won’t be a check in the mail across the Mason Dixon line.
  4. Don’t sing the Negro National Anthem after the Star Spangled Banner at a joint concert of the choirs from the University of Virginia and Hampton University.  One of your conservative white women students who is majoring in music will complain and even if you can convince her to study the history in her final paper where she learns and even teaches you that James Rosamund Johnson and his brother wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing” BEFORE the Francis Scott Key anthem, she will not let her white privilege be shaken. No older anthems, she will conclude, should be allowed.
  5. Don’t dance in your white colleague’s African Drum and Dance ensemble unless you are ready to deal with the tensions that will rise between you of always being considered the teacher and her resenting that you’ve never been to Africa. Skin color privilege and mental slavery still trumps travel.
  6. Don’t defend your group’s ability to name itself when even a white Jewish colleague with a Ph.D. in public administration lapses in judgment when she asks why you call yourself “African” American. You’ll be asked by other acquaintances on the Air Train. Be prepared. Her rationale will be that her friends from Senegal are Senegalese American?
  7. Don’t hesitate when your music department chair,  a composer of Western art music, asks how much time are you actually teaching music as an ethnomusicologist. Don’t forget to simply answer 100% to battle potential rage or cry in her office later telling her you won’t stay if her lack of support continues.
  8. Don’t dream it won’t happen again that while supporting the 100-member gospel choir from U.Va. as they sing at the predominately white episcopal church across the street from campus that a white church member, seated just in front of you, turns, sees you, and then shares how much she loved your singing. They call us the “frozen chosen” she adds to soften the blow.
  9. Don’t hate when your white date whom you thought might be a real boyfriend asks you to teach him how to dance right after spending the whole afternoon with a dozen of his white friends on Memorial day. Their earlier episide of trauma sharing after the BBQ, going round the table one-by-one to share how burnt they got while tanning that summer while they wait silently for you to go will be penance enough. Just join in the color blind fest and teach him tonight.
  10. Don’t expect to get the $700 for writing a test item for the ACT about Bessie Coleman or the Negro National Anthem coming before the Star Spangled Banner. They will reject your question informing you that any questions that would disturb [white] testers are not allowed.
  11. Don’t get riled up and lose your mentor cool when a liberal white student asks you rather than his black peers why black students don’t apply to live on the Lawn at Thomas Jefferson’s University with no running water, no toilet, and an “outhouse” in the back that comes with your own rocking chair and fireplace too. Roughing it on T.J’s former plantation should be an esteemed part of a public education in our century.
  12. And finally, don’t go Django on ‘em (meaning “off the chain”) when you learn that you can’t visit the ruined slave quarters at Monticello in the winter time. The docent will remind you that the regular patrons would find it uncomfortable cuz’ it’s all about the main house.

AFTER THOUGHTS

Each of these incidents actually happened in my 15 years as a professor or in my personal life experiences during that period. Some happened at Baruch College-CUNY, most are from University of Virginia which was rich and contradictory space in which I taught both black music studies and hip-hop culture with Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as a backdrop.

But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.–Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately[Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.

The Founders’ Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 28

http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s28.html

The University of Chicago Press

One of the hardest moments of recent years came after a white male student at CUNY threatened to sue me. I had been his advisor and he had deeply admired me before taking a course titled “The Evolution and Expressions of Racism” where I read a poem on police violence by Brooklyn poet June Jordan. I realized I coddled him too much as his advisor — wanting to be liked in a department that tried to sack me after the first semester.

In a ten-page single-spaced paper (that’s term paper length and he was eager to share it with others), he accused me of saying all white people and all white cops should be killed. (June Jordan’s poem never distinguishes between white and black cops on the NYPD.) He went to both my department chairs. I was jointly appointed. He went to the Dean and the president of the college. (Not the first time a student went that high in a complaint about my teaching.) After 6 weeks of it unrequited complaints, we had a mediation. I was mentally shaken afterwards but I pretended to be strong as I ran to catch a taxi to Soho from Midtown and was refused by several empty yellow cabs.

I recall commiserating with a friend about the incident (or complex of incidents) at a conference for global transformation who was also a black woman professor. She shared that my experience was not uncommon in hers — that of having a white male student wheel about and turnabout and jump Jim Crow once racism as an education became part of the picture.

I want to read, play, be surprised and sing; I want to dance, defend, hesitate and dream; I want the freedom to hate, expect, get riled up, and go to those places where conventional black history months don’t go.

Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March should be more of a space for all kinds of dialogue not just some predictable presentation of firsts or facts about women and African Americans.

Fear of Change

It’s sad to me that black cultural confrontations of structural racism often require humor or irony to be digested but I also realize this is true of all taboos of cultural norms. Status quo discourses often seek to replicate themselves through our fear of change. We might be sittin’ in garbage but it’s familiar garbage all the same. And we often cannot see what change might be needed. Something simple, easy to master would do but it feels so monstrous when we encounter problems of race and racism, sexual power and sexism.

Darren Rowse, the author of 31DBBB, created a list of 21 ways to write posts that are guaranteed to grow your blog. It it included:

  1. Write something useful
  2. Write something unique
  3. Write something newsworthy
  4. Write something first
  5. Write something that makes those who read it smarter
  6. Write something controversial
  7. Write something insightful
  8. Write something that taps into a fear people have

I hope my list taps into a few of these ways. Every professor hopes we she/he does makes you a little smarter.  You be the judge and don’t hesitate to let me know whatever your reaction.

 2013: THRIVING AGAIN

I mentioned in a previous post how academia had beat my love of reading out of me and yet late last year I started learning to love reading and writing again. Maybe some of these microaggressions have had me more than I imagined. I am thankful that my desire for both reading and writing has begun to thrive again.

Presently, I am reading Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness–which is a brilliant remix of literature, thought and music. In it Young writes:

“[T]he lost shadow book is the book that blackness writes everyday. The book that memory, time, accident and the more active forms of oppression prevent from being read. […] As African Americans, we have gone over the past century and a half from Reconstruction, to resistance, to recovery–and today, to a real need for reclamation. Forget reparations–we need to rescue aspects of black culture abandoned even by black folks, whether it is the blues or home cookin’ or broader forms of not just survival but triumph” (Kindle Loc 199 ff.).

POSTSCRIPT FEB 8th:My Facebook friend Suzanne Broughel recommended the great Tumblr blog on microaggressions where you can post your own.

See the shorter, tighter version here on the TEDFellows Blog.

2 thoughts on “12 Lessons in Micro-Aggressions (for Black History + Women’s History Months). #31DBBBDay2

  1. I am not sure if my previous comment registered. If it is a duplicate I apologize but I wanted you to know how powerful your blog is. I could feel your pain with each example. I also became more and more angry. Don’t give up the fight and don’t silence your voice. You are not alone in this.

    • Thank you Leslie. I ain’t mad no more. Most of these things happened years ago but it’s interesting to notice them all and imagine the silent impact they have had. Meanwhile, I have had a profound impact on many of the students mentioned even the one who had threatened to sue me. We had a great meeting of the minds later.

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