Black Love Post-Death, Part II

Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker
Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker
I’m interested in [the] ways #BlackLivesMatter demands a radical seeing of each other — intra-black, infrared, diasporic, futuristic, historic, archived and unimaginable. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a call like this before. #BlackLivesMatter is not static, and although slogans never are, #BlackLivesMatter wears its shapeshifter identity like a badge or banner crafted from our Trickster past (a fact participants and panelists at the #FergusonFuture symposium returned to again and again). It is tricky, after all, to care for us, a sleight of hand against Western modernity.

Fast forward. On May 23, 2016, Lester Spence, associate professor of political science at the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, wrote an essay describing the evolution of black studies and the emergence of a “Black studies 3.0.” Black studies, in Spence’s description, developed in two waves. The first (Black Studies 1.0) emerged out of late-sixties political protest. The second wave (Black Studies 2.0) brought with it the institutionalization of black studies as part of the university through the founding of journals, conferring of doctoral degrees in the field of “Black Studies” (and related permutations like “Africana Studies” and “African and African-American Studies”) and support for intensive curricula on black life allowing students at all levels “for the first time in American history…to follow their interests in black subjects as a matter of course.”

Further institutionalization, Spence suggests, came at a cost:

As Black Studies increasingly mimics its traditional counterparts the university itself is undergoing a process of neoliberalisation. Universities public and private are increasingly forced to rely on their endowment, with wealthy donors becoming more and more influential in shaping university agendas. What types of students universities recruit, what types of intellectual projects universities decide to take on, what type faculty the university decides to hire, becomes increasingly connected to donor desires. University faculty are expected to be more and more productive, and are expected to consistently go on the market in order to raise their profile and their salaries. The tenure track itself becomes more and more of a pipe dream, as the number of tenure track jobs decrease while the number of low paying adjunct faculty jobs increase…”
For Spence, “Black Studies 3.0” describes a 2016 evolution of Black Studies. It might otherwise be described as “Black Studies After the University” or “Black Studies After #BlackOnCampus,” or “Black Studies Four Hours and Two Years After Mike Brown.”

Spence writes:

We’re now seeing a wave of black student protest that we haven’t seen since the years right before Black Studies 2.0 took hold. What might Black Studies 3.0 look like? What should it look like?”
Less than a month later, Nathan Connolly, associate professor of history at the Center for Africana Studies, wrote a review of recent work on late 20th century histories of black protest and the prison industrial complex. In it, he described the need for a Black Power method that would draw “black thought from the archive.” This method is necessary as an act of epistemological refashioning “critical to countering dominant white narratives” and requires scholars to grapple with all black lives and develop approaches that would circumvent the silencing power of the archive. To do less risks perpetuating historic erasure:
In spite of the great work by Wald, Rickford, Berger, and others, our struggle with corporate history teeters on the edge of erasing the queer, female, incarcerated, and non-English speaking people from our common history of black nationalism.”
 As a new academic year begins, I feel sensitive to the ways the world has changed and stayed the same in the year since I stopped to reflect on how we love ourselves through horror and disembodiment. At the Center for Africana Studies, we are in the process of revising our bylaws, introducing language and a structure attuned to the many black lives that do matter in this world. And I am invested in that mission, because I am committed to the survival, study, and salvation of black life and I am not interested in a Black or Africana Studies that erases black women or black femmes or our Afrx-diasporic selves across time and space, or even the many kinfolk we make beyond black folk.
A sheet of poster board paper on a light blue wall reads “Edit/Add for Mission Statement: 'Likewise we recognize systems of oppression based on race exist in dialectic and intersection with systems of oppression based on sex, sexuality, gender and gender presentation, class, ability, ethnicity, documentation, and other categories of identity and status. We are committed to dismantling systems of oppression as a whole and to scholarly and civic work that is not monolithic in nature but radical and transformative across all of these axes and more.'”
A sheet of poster board paper with a draft mission statement (Image Credit: Jessica Marie Johnson / August 30, 2016.)

I do not believe in a Black Studies that speaks to the world through the double-speak of a black nationalism that silences women, ignores queer and trans folks of color, and fails to see connections between the divestment of resources from black communities in the United States and the formation of a “Colonial Control Board” over Puerto Rico or the use of dogs and tear gas on protectors (not protestors) in the Dakotas.

Scholars, artists, and activists intervened in Black Studies (1.0?) long before me. They helped make my dream of a community-accountable, intersectional Black Studies methodology into reality. They created Black Women’s Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Afrx-Latinx Studies, Black Queer Diaspora Studies, and more. These interventions trouble Spence’s linear mapping of 1.0, 2.0, 3.0. Instead, we who do Black Studies may be looking more at .75, 1.0, 2.3, 35/8, and fractions we have yet to imagine, yet to even see in our history of ourselves. This is a good thing.

Because I am also fascinated by the extent to which there exists a post-Ferguson, post-#BlackOnCampus university complete with calls for reparations for the descendants of university-owned slaves and roadmaps to/on diversity with invitations to dialogue. It is seductive to imagine that, at least at the university level, we have won something. And it has been a long, hot, and bloody summer. A win would be very welcome, indeed.

The question is: Are these wins seductive enough to undercut student movements? What will happen when those post-Ferguson, post-University, post-#BlackOnCampus scholars who are hired to change minds and lives begin to do the work? Not the work of the university, per se, but the work so many were inducted into when they watched tanks roll into Canfield—the work of making police violence legible as historic and systemic rather than episodic and transient?

Will the post-Ferguson university defend us when we speak back against police violence? What of the junior scholars asked to serve on brand new diversity committees because that is what they were hired for on campuses that have yet to adjust the tenure and promotion requirements to account for the additional time and labor away from research? What of insurgent research that breaches the bounds of the academy, that invokes and evokes Connolly’s call for a Black Power method? Is that work welcome this year, a year after #BlackOnCampus? Will it be welcome in three years? In seven? Are senior scholars, department chairs, and college committees making space in their own conceptions of teaching and research for what we, the post-Mike Brown faculty will be bringing to the table?

Because we are here. And the work is coming.

In March, Robin Kelley wrote:

The fully racialized social and epistemological architecture upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically transformed by ‘simply’ adding darker faces, safer spaces, better training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary oppressions. This is a bit like asking for more black police officers as a strategy to curb state violence.”

In 2015, I wrote: “There is no stopping the zombie apocalypse, it has already happened and it will happen again.”

As university-affiliated scholars, facing a new semester means another opportunity to learn, teach, and live in cities and towns we may not feel safe in and may even be killed in. What questions should we consider as we operate in this space and in the wake of a new term? How do we appreciate a new age—a Black Studies 3.0 or otherwise—that is still post-death?

How do we do so from our various positions within the university–whether as undergraduate and graduate students, as contingent, untenured and tenured faculty, as administrators, or as staff at all levels? This week, my colleagues at AAIHS will reflect on the Movement for Black Lives Platform and Statement of Demands. It is available in full here. Perhaps some of their responses to the platform will shed light on the role we play in making a world where we matter, whether we are of or in the university, whether we are with it or without. Because we are here. We are stepping up to the challenge. And the work is coming.

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follower her on Twitter @jmjafrx.
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Jessica Marie Johnson

Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.

Comments on “Black Love Post-Death, Part II

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    Rich, evocative, and eloquent. Let’s get to work!

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