Faces at the Bottom of Ivory Tower’s Well: Forum 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”

Student in Black Studies Class, Chicago 1973 (National Archives)

Before I begin, I want to call the names of recent ancestors whose work in many ways has guided us here today: Dr. James Cone, Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Professor Lerone Bennett, Dr. Sterling Stuckey, Dr. Cedric Robinson, the late Professor Derrick Bell, and at the time of this writing, the legendary Toni Morrison. In each their own way, these giants of intellect shaped the discipline of Black Studies. In part inspired by their example, this forum concerns the State(s) of Black Study, the active process of knowledge production by and about the Black world. What I hope to engage here are some of the contours that have led us to this moment and to point to some of the persistent challenges we face as we attempt to carry on a tradition begun decades ago. The task before me, before us, is a rather large one.

In 1932, a group of Martinican expatriates studying and working in France led by Etienne Léro, offered up an unflinching critique of the burgeoning Black middle class there. Their manifesto sought distinction from and disruption of the status quo, stating, “We are against all those who attempt, consciously or not, by their smiles, work, exactitude, propriety, speech, writings, actions and their very persons, to pretend that everything can continue as it is … . We are moving with sincerity and at a furious pace … . We are opposed to all the corpses: administrative, governmental, parliamentary, industrial, commercial and all the others … And it is only by gritting our teeth that we are able to endure the abominable system of constraints and restrictions, the extermination of love and the limitation of the dream, generally known by the name of western civilization …”1 While couched in terms, ideas, and surrealist poetics more familiar to the interwar years of early 20th-century radicalism, these dramatic assertions resonate in our day. What can current scholars of the Black world learn from such a visceral and unapologetic description of conditions that limit possibility?

This discussion is an exploration into the ideological entanglements and conditions in the academy that work to delimit the full institutional expression of Black Studies. This is a space where some scholars are shut out, and indeed repressed, while others are able to manipulate existing capitalist-academic structures to great success. That is personal success while Black Studies suffers. I want to explore how Black desires for institutional security evaporate as part of neoliberalism’s white restoration project. It seeks to intervene on a conversation about individual successes that don’t challenge the racial restructuring of whiteness as authority, and how Black desires continue to remain marginal to the interests, desires, and intellectual tastes of white intellectual validation systems. What we are engaging here concerns Black Studies’ lessons in captivity and its possible fugitivity — thus, the faces at the bottom of Ivory Tower’s well, to paraphrase Professor Derrick Bell’s well-known collection of speculative essays published over two decades ago.

In particular, focus is the critique of the roles of the academy in protecting and projecting what scholar Roderick Ferguson calls “structural whiteness,” which appeared in a short, poignant article in the American Quarterly called “The Distributions of Whiteness” in winter, 2014. It is also in conversation with his theoretical work on the subject in his book The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Difference (2012), as well as, We Demand: The University and Student Protest (2017). To my mind, these important works inspire the question: 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?

My thinking reconsiders Black Studies’ role in disruption of structural whiteness. It is to invite us to think (again!) about what we think we’re doing in, to, and on behalf of the academy. I am concerned with how Black Studies accounts for shifts in American political economy, particularly that shaped by advanced and unsteady and often unpredictable global market forces conveniently known as neoliberalism. The question we might ask is both a historical and theoretical one: How did the architects and pioneers of Black study understand and interrogate what Ferguson calls “the modes of power exercised upon the daily lives of minoritized subjects and knowledges …”?2 While historical investigation leads the way, we have to also ask how we as Black Studies scholars and intellectuals understand “new configurations of power” that bolster the academy, reinforcing the political and intellectual desires of the state.

While the university is asking itself how can it get more dollars, Black Studies asks the uncomfortable question of redistribution and reparation. It takes seriously questions of land theft, reparative justice, critical history, and thus serves as a persistent threat to the virtuous, conforming imperative of the modern academy. Moreover, Black Studies represents a simultaneously democratic and reparative force that is not only concerned with the reproduction of knowledge but the reproduction of justice. This assertive element stands against the pro-state anti-intellectualism that seeks to erase if not minimize traditions of Black thought. In many ways, the academy erodes democracy in the name of democracy, inclusion, and prosperous futures.

Ferguson hones in on this theme by highlighting the ways in which terms such as inclusion and democracy are imbued with liberal anti-redistribution structures that intend on withholding power rather than redistributing it. I agree that whiteness seeks nothing more than self-reference. But I depart with Ferguson on the question of its failure of redistribution. It’s not that whiteness fails to redistribute. It is perhaps more accurate to state that defying gravity, whiteness redistributes upwards not downwards. (In fact, it redistributes up and regulates down; something or someone must be beneath its bootheel.) To his point, it regulates and underwrites, thereby girding the states’ need for ideological (and material) order through “Man”-ing the technologies of knowledge and authority, and “Other”-ing everyone else. Redistribution down and across is what is centuries overdue; the shrinking budgets of Black studies departments, the fragile nature of HBCU’s, economic dismemberment of Black communities, and the violence of debt are prominent examples of the logic of anti-redistribution and are reflective of the academy’s ideological apparatus that cannot conceive of reparative justice. Understanding redistribution in this way opens us up to his argument that “Liberal forms of whiteness use innocence, redemption, and cultural sensitivity as ideological covers to expand anti-redistribution practices,” which is another way of saying that acquisition, accumulation, and control, i.e. power, is central to structural whiteness.3

Ferguson’s call for re-evaluation of purpose and presence is therefore timely. Within this call arises a need to disaggregate whiteness in order to understand its institutional valence, defined as “the combining power of an element.”4 Yet, its reach is even more expansive and acts as if its presence is benign. As Ferguson rightly notes, “indeed, whether in the guise of white supremacy or racial liberalism, whiteness has always managed to preserve it repulsion for redistributing opportunities and outcomes.”5 Whiteness is able to occupy such descriptors as liberal, innocent, helpless yet remain aggressive and defensive — worthless but somehow not dead, and still all knowing. The fact that liberal arts colleges and universities in the US protect and project whiteness should not come as a surprise. However, identifying how Black Studies achieves its reparative function within the very spaces that have historically extinguished such efforts continues to confound. The evolution of Black Studies in the American academy clearly demonstrates not only the anti-redistributive but also the undemocratic function of liberal education.

All told, we have inherited a bevy of contradictions: unprecedented achievement in the academy, a white academy that prides itself on exceptionalism, meritocratic exclusion, and the reproduction of power. This is appended to the real estate expansion of many of these institutions at the expense of surrounding local communities. Black study, of necessity, reveals the underbelly of capitalist education and its persistent remaking. Its scholars remain entangled, discontented citizens of the academy. This is a political struggle precisely because the majority of these scholars and the academic units they represent are being kept from key resources that enable stability and expansion. And yet, these scholars remain.

Black Studies scholars embrace this work knowing that their obligation is to teach students not just how to think critically about the world they inhabit, but rather the material world(s) that must be created. The work of social interrogation is crucial to knowing what must be struggled for. As a site of struggle, Black study is forced to unthink the modern university and deftly identify areas within it that can be reshaped. But it must do so while avoiding the traps that justify the paralyzing practices, the disciplining motives, and the liberalized wet cement that quickly incapacitates possibility. Black Studies scholars can either adhere to historic institutional logics through which whiteness coheres, or find individual and collective ways to struggle against these forces by first understanding their historic role and function. There may not be a return to a radical past. If that’s the case, the only option is to move sincerely and “at a furious pace” towards a radical, just future.

  1. Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley, eds., Black, Brown, and Beige: Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014), 36-38.
  2. Roderick Ferguson, Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 4.
  3.  Roderick Ferguson, “The Distributions of Whiteness,” American Quarterly, Vol. 66, Number 4, (December 2014), 1105.
  4. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, online, accessed May 19, 2019.
  5. Ferguson, “The Distributions of Whiteness,” 1106.
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Christopher Tinson

Christopher Tinson is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History and Director of the African American Studies Program at Saint Louis University. His interdisciplinary research and teaching focuses on the histories of Africana radical traditions, Ethnic Studies, critical media studies, incarceration, and community-based education. His first book is entitled, Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s (UNC Press, 2017). Follow him on Twitter @Dahktin.