Ancestors and the Ivory Tower: Reflection on Keynote

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Drs. Charisse Burden-Stelly and Crystal Moten titled “Researching, Teaching, and Embodying the Black Diaspora”

W.E.B. Du Bois, Atlanta University 1909 (UMass Amherst: W.E.B. Du Bois Papers)

The notion that racism is a permanent feature of the United States raises crucial questions about the role and future of Black Studies in higher education in this country. Christopher Tinson’s keynote, “Faces at the Bottom of the Ivory Tower’s Well: Past, Present, and Contested Futures of Black Studies and the Liberal Arts,” riffs off the late Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism to interrogate the field’s precarity, potential, and power in institutions of higher learning in our current time. Dr. Tinson offered that the title of his talk could have been “We Still Captives,” when discussing the built-in inequities of the academic conference circuit in which participants spend, for example, $1000 or more just on travel and accommodation for the meeting, but only about $150 from the participant’s funds goes to the organization hosting it. For the many scholars who have laid foundations for Black Studies, the current monetary emphasis pays less attention to supporting those foundations and more to the means of getting to and staying at meeting locations — airlines and hotels receive the lion’s share as the academic association takes in barely enough to cover its expenses. Furthermore, the formation of new organizations which lack or overlook a clear sense of the history of their predecessors potentially erodes or ignores rather than builds on those foundational groups’ work. This is Tinson’s argument about ancestry.

In the US, where there seems an almost obsessive fascination with ancestry — not to mention the industry it has become, with more apps, websites, DNA tests, television shows, and methods of tracing lineage than most people can begin to comprehend — Tinson argues that Black Studies could do with more attention and attribution to its own ancestors to revisit the predecessors of our current scholarly work, and know better and support the labor of earlier and even current Black intellectual activists and organizations.

And this is the crux. Understanding ancestry prompts us to recognize the problems that have stymied and continue to stymie the field, the work of Black Studies. The major obstacle historically and still in the academy that Tinson defines comes from Roderick Ferguson: “structural whiteness … the modes of power exercised upon the daily lives of minoritized subjects and knowledges.” Tinson sees Black Studies’ potential to disrupt structural whiteness, but asks, “Is Black Studies part of the reordering of things, or has it been reordered, forced into ceilings of representation, imposed definitions, and ideas of inclusive multiculturalism, neoliberal multiculturalism?” In a neoliberal world and in US neoliberal institutions of higher learning, how can “we as Black Studies scholars and intellectuals understand ‘new configurations of power’ that bolsters the academy, which reinforces the political and intellectual desires of the state.” We still, and perhaps even more so than our ancestors, inhabit a world of statistics, stats about course enrollments and publications, not to mention student job placement. In short, we work within a consumerist model of education that relies very much on quantitative data for its power to reward and punish without much attention to the all-important narratives behind the numbers. It frames the ways in which students, parents, administrators, and trustees understand the work we as faculty do. It is a flawed system, to be sure, and one that Black Studies finds itself on the other side of “whiteness[es’]…institutional valence, ‘the combining power of an element,’ [whose] reach is even more expansive and acts as if its presence is benign.” Nevertheless, as Tinson encouragingly reminds us, “And yet, these scholars remain.”

Remembering, acknowledging, and studying these scholars, writers, activist-intellectuals, artists, and their ancestors is crucial if we are to think and act deeply on the difficulty of writing and teaching about the very systems in and of which we are occupants and critics. The privileging of the present is a problem that perhaps every academic field encounters, especially among its undergraduates. The progress narrative or presentism is alive and well, and we would do well to disrupt it. This is not a nostalgic gesture toward anything understood as “the good old days.” It is a move to recognize that there were thinkers, ancestors, and activists who not only preceded but also anticipated that with which we grapple now and largely with limited resources that quell “stability and expansion.”

Looking to ancestors dating back to colonial times and the founding of the republic, with all of its fictions about freedom, demonstrates and emphasizes the centrality of incarceration in the Black activist-intellectual tradition. When we think of Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Eldridge Cleaver, Joanne Little, Marissa Alexander, and sadly the list goes on, we must also think of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “memoirists” who preceded them: Joseph Mountain, Abraham Johnstone, Thomas Powers, Pomp, Celia, and sadly the list goes on … How can Black Studies inspire reparative justice from within its precarious place in the academy and the institutions that operate in the service of the market? Tinson calls on those of us working in the field of Black Studies to “move sincerely and ‘at a furious pace’ towards a radical, just future.” The challenge is steep, and one our ancestors will be watching us navigate.

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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone is an Associate Professor of English and Literature at Smith College. Stone teaches literatures of the African diaspora from the 18th century to the present with a particular focus on the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Stone’s book Black Well‐Being: Health and Selfhood in Antebellum Black Literature (University Press of Florida, 2016) analyzes North American and Caribbean Black writers’ emphasis on medicine, healthcare, and law in emigration writings, slave narratives, and fiction. Her next book project is provisionally titled Black Prison Intellectuals: The Criminal and Enemy in America. Follow her on Twitter @gogostone.

Comments on “Ancestors and the Ivory Tower: Reflection on Keynote

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    Are you familiar with the novel, This Child’s Gonna Live by Sarah E. Wright, originally published 50 years ago? Pioneering in form and content. Ms. Wright was a revolutionary who, though her book was published in nine editions, suffers from a lack of sufficient attention and recognition.

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    Thank you so much for this title–I’ve ordered it and look forward to reading it. Again, many thanks.

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