By Carmen Kynard
Is it possible to align with the illegible oppressed/contemporary subaltern, the falling apart abject nonsubject, inside a university English class? ~Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Displacing Suede Patches and Stayin Fly…
In 2013, I moved to a new university with 20 years of teaching fully in tow. I added these words to my syllabus in that fateful fall:
In this class, you will always be expected to connect outside sources to the topics of your writing (these sources could be books, articles, videos, film, music, archives, surveys, lectures, interviews, websites, etc). Writing critically with and from multiple, informed sources is perhaps the single, most common trademark for the kind of writing and thinking that is expected of you in the academy. However, this does NOT mean: that you write about things you don’t care about, that you write as if you sound like an encyclopedia/wikipedia, that you omit your own voice and perspective, that you cannot be creative and energetic, that you must sound like the type of person who might wear wool/plaid jackets with suede patches on the elbows in order to be taken seriously, that you cannot be everything that makes up your multiple selves, that you cannot be Hip Hop/ Soul/ Bomba y Plena/ Soca/ Bachata/ Metal/ Reggae/ EDM/ or Rock-N-Roll, that you cannot have some FUN with it. As Hip Hop teaches us, when in doubt, always stay flyyyy! You do not give up who you are to be an academic writer; on the contrary, you take who you are even MORE seriously.
You woulda thought that I had slapped somebody’s momma with these words given the way that my department chair responded. Less than two months into the school year, I was called into my chair’s office and warned against including this statement on my syllabus. Of particular concern was my crack on the suede-patch-elbow professor because it was “just mean and unprofessional.” What if the professor coming into the room after you actually wears suede patches? How would he feel? I’m not sure what was more ludicrous: asking a black woman this kind of question out loud; expecting black faculty, in dire shortage at this college, to care and keep in the forefront of their minds how the predominantly white professoriate feels; or ignoring the predominantly black and Latinx students at the college to whom the words on the syllabus were directed. She went on to explain how uncomfortable she would feel in my class as a white person, further marking black and brown bodies as an illogical racial location of college students today.
Daily moments like this remind you of the white-policing function of language in the academy. It should come as no surprise that a white administration would respond so swiftly to my attempt at interrupting the reproduction of white language, affect, and power. The bodies of racialized students and faculty in these settings must be managed away from their proclivity to express themselves in alternative means and from alternative cultural and political legacies. Within such colonizing norms, I am expected to teach students to compose themselves by containing and restraining what Janine Young Kim calls racial emotions, namely grief, anger, fear, hatred, and disgust. In the particular instance that I am describing about my syllabus’s racial transgression, I was quite literally asked to ensure that some unnamed suede-patched-elbow white man who enters any classroom after me will not find an emotive student body of color who questions his sanctity and power.
White expectation, however, does not control black expression. So what did I do? I clapped back. My seemingly offensive words are now on every syllabus that I create in even bigger, bolder, brightly-colored letters. Every course website that I design now also bears the stamp of those words accompanied by a short word-video dropped onto a 50cent backbeat. This way, if folk aren’t sure that I mean what I am saying, there should be no confusion now. It’s yo birthday/ We gon’ party like it’s yo birthday… And you know we don’t give a damn it’s not yo birthday! Borrowing from Alexis Pauline Gumbs in her remix of Glissant’s scholarship, pedagogy can work as a counter-poetics where everyday, routine practices in the spaces designed for the purposes of colonization are resisted and challenged.
The Counter-Poetics of Black Stank
Counter-poetics must also speak directly to the local schooling’s specificity of the colonization of brown and black people. For me, this didn’t become clear until 2015, two years after I decided to retain my diss of suede patches on my syllabi, when I asked my first year college students a pointed question at the end of the semester: what was the best piece of writing that you did this school year (in any class) and why do you call that your best? The students’ answers astounded me, particularly the way in which those students most interested in social justice (and I mean social justice as a process and life commitment, not a graded school assignment) answered so fundamentally differently.
Those students who I would call activist and conscious, mostly queer and/or students of color, talked about what they learned about the world and themselves; how they had committed to social justice issues more than ever before; why they saw themselves as people who had creative and/or political agency to change the world, help their families, and/or write in a way that reached and impacted people. Some of them even answered my question as a letter to their mothers explaining their gratitude and respect or as a letter to a younger version of themselves explaining all that they would soon become if they could just survive that current, ugly moment.
But then there were those other students in the “special,” mostly white “advanced” cohort. I was, at best, bored… but mostly disgusted. A large number of them talked about assignments where the teacher changed every word, gave them a new research topic when the teacher did not like the topic they had selected, told them what arguments to make, corrected every single mistake, drew arrows all over their papers showing them where each new paragraph and idea should go. For these students, successful writing was when you got your drafts back from the teacher and there were no more markings on it. No one talked about ideas, content, or dispositions they had learned or developed. No one even talked about writing as a process other than collecting teachers’ corrections and finally receiving an A after correcting (always called “correcting,” NOT revising).
One student in particular, a young Mexican man, floored me. We had talked on numerous occasions about his desire to assimilate into the white space of his cohort— all that he might gain and all that he stood to lose. In this assignment, he admitted that he was once flattered when his previous white male professor congratulated him when, at the end of the semester, the student was finally able to produce “clean and crisp sentences.” Because he was ashamed that he once felt good about himself for this compliment, we talked at length about the racial undertones of a white man telling him that he was a good, “clean” and “crisp” Mexican. I assured the young man that all was not lost, that the first step in warding off internalized colonialism is to recognize it.
I would be hard-pressed in some corners to convince some folk that wanting students of color to produce “clean and crisp” writing is a racist artifact of historical neuroses around racism and white purity. Hard-pressed, yes, but Ima do it anyway. The explicit discourses of nineteenth-century ideals of white purity produced a white identity, status system, aesthetic disposition, and social dominance and though these discourses are out of fashion today, this history has produced a living heritage. Early U.S. discursive practices around cleanliness were associated solely with civility and whiteness and anything outside of that was considered polluted, impure, and immoral. Whiteness, purity, and cleanliness have an undeniable linguistic genealogy in the United States (as well as a material reality given the money that the producers of Ivory soap made) undergirding what Dana Berthold calls “the formation of a dominant subjectivity which…is coded white” (p. 13). If my analyses of a white male professor’s inclination to insist upon “clean sentences” in his writing classes seems a bit far-fetched, I remind you that ideas around whiteness, bodies of color, and cleanliness have always been illogical. One need only remember the psychoses of Jim Crow rules where separate silverware, bathrooms, and door entries were quite violently maintained for black domestics in white homes as a way to maintain white purity. This circulation of notions of white purity in racist systems veered long, long ago beyond the realm of the far and the fetched.
My students’ experiences with “clean and crisp” college writing politics compelled me to think more deeply about the ways in which blackness and black language can offer a counter-poetics that does not attempt to subdue, remove, and alienate physical embodiment, especially for brown and black bodies. In fact, one of the greatest compliments that you can receive in African American culture— especially for artists likes cooks and musicians— is to be someone who can put some stank on it! If we really listen and hear what this expression means, then we can arrive at some alternatives to the aesthetics of whiteness and racial purity that schools teach and promote.
When I tell students to put some stank on their writing, I am explicitly using a racialized code to counter teaching practices related to writing that are all about following the rules, delivering a nice, tidy, clean product to a teacher, and composing a white self that has rid itself of racial emotion. I have in mind here a very specific argument that Hortense Spillers makes about black culture. In Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan’s interview with Spillers in 2007, “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers argues that in black culture a narrative of antagonism is inscribed in its memory. The epistemological antagonism of Black language in the utterance of “puttin some stank on it” offers a kind of risk-taking and ground-breaking where an audience can engage the fullness of a black/brown energy, body, and emotion in motion.
I do not just verbally repeat this mantra in my classes though. It is also now policy, loaded onto every course website. The instrumental of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” plays in the background; for those students who recognize the song, they will get that I am asking them to lay aside the baggage of what school has taught them.
This is not to say that everyone will like or respect my students’ writings or my own writing pedagogy. That is not the goal, especially if liking and respecting what we do means the kind of performance for white comfort that my chair was asking of my syllabus. I tell my students that when they write, they need not accept the request that they act like Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben typa domestic servants who tidy up and cater to everyone’s comfort and house rules. The politics of why, what and how we write— and who we write for— are never racially neutralized of the history of white dominance.
Blackness As Pedagogical Transformation
In his essay describing Afro-pessimism as a critical frame for examining the structural condition of slavery and racism and their personal, subjective, and embodied realities, Jared Sexton argues that “in a global semantic field structured by anti-black solidarity, it stands to reason that the potential energy of a black, or blackened position holds out a singularly transformative possibility[…].” If we take Sexton’s arguments here seriously about a blackened position as a transformative possibility, then we can understand that black language also bears socially altering possibilities. In fact, I would argue that expressions such as “put some stank on it” and the ways in which it circulates across black communicative spheres offer just one concrete example of how black language transforms experience: in this case, one simple utterance ruptures an entire genealogy of white purity and aesthetics and articulates an entirely different effect and affect. If we situate black language as something beyond the general grist of research articles (for mostly white academic audiences) that explain divergences from (whitestream) dominant linguistic norms, then we see black language in terms of its own epistemological system. This is not merely an invitation for students to speak and write in their own languages in our classrooms, but a renewed and radicalized social possibility for why.
Below is a video that one of Professor Kynard’s classes articulating their polices of composing using the same method:
For more information about this video designed by Latinx undergraduate students during a class session, please click here.
Carmen Kynard is associate professor of English at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She has led numerous professional projects on race, language, and literacy and has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her first book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the 2015 James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions” Her personal website can be found at: http://carmenkynard.org).
Berthold, Dana. “Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity, and Hygiene.” Ethics and the Environment, vol. 15, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-26.
Gumbs, Pauline Alexis. “Nobody Mean More: Black Feminist Pedagogy and Solidarity.” The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, University of Minnesota Press, 2014, pp. 237-259.
Kim, Janine Young. “Racial Emotions and the Feeling of Equality.” University of Colorado Law Review, vol 87, 2016, pp. 437-500.
Sexton, Jared. “Afro-Pessimism: The Unclear Word.” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge. http://www.rhizomes.net/issue29/sexton.html [https://oi.org/10.20415/rhiz/029.e02]
Spillers, Hortense, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley and Jennifer L. Morgan. “‘Whatcha Gonna Do?’: Revisiting “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 1/2, 2007, pp. 299-309.