Surviving Academia: An Interview with Lorgia García Peña Pt. 2

“Graduates of Atlanta Baptist College and Spelman Seminary,” circa 1900 (NYPL)

Today’s post is the second part of the African American Intellectual History Society’s president Hettie V. Williams’ interview with Dr. Lorgia García Peña, author of Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color (Haymarket Books, 2022). García Peña is Professor of Latinx Studies at Tufts University. She is the Co-Founder of Freedom University Georgia, a school that provides college instruction to undocumented students, and the Co-Director of Archives of Justice, a transnational digital archive project that centers the life of people who identify as Black, queer and migrant. Dr. García Peña’s first book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradictions (Duke University Press, 2016), won the 2017 National Women’s Studies Association Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, the 2016 LASA Latino/a Studies Book Award, and the 2016 Isis Duarte Book Prize in Haitian and Dominican Studies.

Hettie V. Williams (HVW): You state that the academy is “killing women of color” and that these women are “getting sick and dying.” How have abusive practices of silence, erasure, and overwork impacted the lives and bodies of women of color in the academy?

Lorgia García Peña (LGP): Barbara Christian

bell hooks

Gloria Anzaldúa

Audre Lorde

June Jordan

Esther Ohito’s “Some of us die” was one of the first pieces I read that made me feel seen in this fear, this terrifying horror, this knowledge that what I did for a living, my profession was in fact killing me. Anecdotally I knew. This is a conversation we often have among women of color in our forties and fifties, and I am so glad we do, I am so glad we can pay it forward and teach our students and mentees to care for the body, to say no, to not let this profession kill them.  Many of us women of color in the academy are suffering from chronic illness, hurting physically or mentally or both.  We see the decay; we can name it and yet, for many of us, we see also no respite. There is so much talk of possibility, of deferred rest: “when the semester is over. In the summer, when I get tenure, after my term as chair is done, when I am on sabbatical, if I get the fellowship…” Deferred rest. We fantasize about it, about a time we think will come later, after tenure, after something, but it doesn’t, it never does.

That rest is so unattainable for women of color in the academy is a clear manifestation of just how the neoliberal practices of the colonizing university are killing us.  We know that unfair labor practices of the neoliberal university means that some of us do most of the work in our departments and universities and that we experience higher demands from our professional community at large. So often we feel like we cannot say no because, if we do, our no has an impact on lives and careers of others. I, for example, am one of handful of senior scholars of Black Latinidad in the United States. The impact of me saying no to a book review, to a tenure case or to a promotion to professor case, is simply much bigger than that of a scholar of let’s say,  American History.  The logic of The One, paired with the precarity created by the neoliberal system of the colonizing university places us, women of color in ethnic studies, emerging and interdisciplinary fields, in impossible situations that compromise our health and our lives. The university knows this and does nothing to fix it. Rather, it very much takes advantage of the commitment that so many of us have to our work, our field, and our students to extract free labor from its most overworked faculty and even from scholars that are not employed by them (as in the constant asks for tenure letters and departmental reviews).

The evilness of a system that puts us in these impossible positions, that takes advantage of ethical commitments and politics of care we carry, is killing us.  I do not have an answer as to how to resolve this impossibility. I can only share how that experience has touched my life leading me to have physical pain and chronic illness;  and how as I sit in virtual rooms (I refuse to go in person) supporting my student, watching them cross a threshold and become  a Doctor, I also feel physically pain, nausea, headaches as I re-live the trauma and the violence I endured for nearly a decade, as I am forced to face the accomplices of my expungement. That is how we are sick and dying.

HVW: Why, as late as 2021, do you think the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures (RLL) at Harvard University had not tenured a Black professor? Do you find this to be a general pattern across language and literature departments in the academy, including beyond elite institutions at the present? Why or why not?

LGP:  It is 2023 now and it is still the case… It would be interesting to take on this question as a research project and do a comparative analysis across the United States. I do not have  an answer to your question which I will paraphrase here as “are  RLL departments more racist than others?” What I can say is that the premise of RLL lends itself to perpetuating colonial logic.  Romance languages and literatures department tend to center literary work as well as language learning of French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, often privileging the literary production that comes from Europe and reproducing the hierarchical colonial structures that exists between  colonizers and colonized in their curricular and hiring practices.

So, I think what RLL departments can do for us is show us a microcosm of everything that is wrong with academia neatly wrapped up into a curriculum and a departmental structure (who is tenured, who is promoted), how the logic of The One operates to reproduce coloniality.  RLL departments I think are also great locations for abolition and change. The fact that students of color, primarily those who are descendants of immigrants from Latin America or Africa fill the courses, looking for answers about their colonial history and longing for knowledge that reflects them, creates a great opportunity for abolition.  It is indeed possible, as I see people like  Yolanda Martinez San Miguel do in her leadership role in RLL at the University of Miami, to center blackness in RLL departments and to bring attention to an Other way of existing and working in this fields. That work of possibility is critical to decolonize the university, but it requires relinquishing privilege and protagonism; following our students, seeing that, for example, this generation of RLL students is more interested in reading Igiaba Scego and Josefina Baez than Cervantes and Dante and that perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

HVW: How does one, as you have done in your life within academia, go about creating “conditions of rebellion and freedom” for students of color in the academy?

I am often asked how I balance activism and academic work. I do not.  My rebellion, my social justice work, my scholarship and teaching are intrinsically linked. I see my scholarly work and my teaching as liberatory practices. My research seeks to contradict the silences and erasures of my history from books and archives.

LGP: My teaching is a hopeful exercise of freedom making. I teach in and for freedom. My scholarship and teaching are my way to confront the aggressors, they are my act of resistance against violence and death. As faculty, particularly as contingent, temporary, and untenured faculty, there is very little that we control within the structure of the university. Voting powers are limited and contracts are fraught. The one space we do have control over is our classroom. For most of us in the United States, when teaching, we have great freedom over what we teach and how we teach it as well as over the day-to-day environment of our classes; something not as common in other parts of the world.

My invitation in the book is to make the classroom a space that allows for teaching and learning for and in freedom. To do so it is important to first make our students feel safe. We do this first and foremost by creating a syllabus that does not reproduce the violence of erasure that academia sustains. I am very intentional about who we read and when. I also think deeply about the assignments.  One I often return to is an assignment in which I ask students to identify the “silences” in my syllabus. What did I miss? Who is not there? Then they are charged with filling in those silences through a communal research project.  I create reading groups that invite students to work together in and out of the classroom and I prioritize communal learning over individual success. I also often create assignments that help us take space within the campus, that move us physically out of the classroom and into the yard or the hallways.

As a teacher of Latinx studies, I often find that the demographics of my courses do not match that of the university. More often than not, the majority of my students are Black, Latinx, first gen, undocumented and queer.  These are also the same students that the university invisibilizes and unbelongs. Taking space with them is an act of freedom making. Beyond the syllabus, I come to the classroom with a lot of sincerity, I share my subject position and my commitment to teaching students who are first generation and of color. I prioritize these students and make it known to all that I am creating space for them to feel welcomed because most other spaces on campus are not that. I also take time to help students think about the university, its structure, and the place they occupy in it.  I am a first gen student. No one in my family before me got a college education. There was so much I did not know, and I always felt out of the loop. I normalize these feelings and experiences in the classroom by not assuming people know but rather by teaching them. Without exception, every semester, someone reaches out thanking me for this praxis. Finally, I trust my students. I know that they are capable of so much good if we just give them the right guidance and provide the safe space to do their work.

HVW: Discuss with us “rebellion as a communal process” in the contemporary academy. What are some constructive ways that we can rebel and make change together while surviving the academy?

LGP: Academia is a difficult place to build community and rebel because the logic of the profession is grounded on individual merits and success; and for faculty and students of color, on the toxic logic of The One.  But to survive academia, to thrive as a human being, we need the opposite of what this profession asks of us; we need a feminist praxis of communal resistance. For me that translates into not participating in the culture of silencing, sharing knowledge and resources, resisting the allure of “The One” and creating spaces for sharing food, knowledge, resources, and care within and outside the walls of the university. Practical examples of this, include sharing your contract with new hires so that they know what kinds of things they can ask, asking journals to share your name and information when reviewing an article to make yourself responsible for your critiques and comments but also to be available to help others grow, refuse to stay quiet in the face of injustice and always without exception, standing up publicly for students, contingent and untenured faculty who are most vulnerable so that they do not have to do so for themselves or alone.

I write in the book about my experiences of building and creating spaces in the academy, I offer specific points of how to rebel in community and how to resist the logic of The One.  A good summary for that argument would be to remember that you—and I—did not get here on our own, by pulling up our bootstrap, that is toxic fiction. We are all here because of who came before us, who paved the way for us to arrive.  As faculty of color, we never walk these university streets alone, that reminder should sustain us as we think, as Robin DG Kelley invites us to do, that resistance is our power and our legacy.  But to survive academia, and I do use the word survive intentionally because I believe that academia is actively trying to kill us,  it is critical that we develop a dual strategy: Yes, we must fight within, we must rebel against the machinery but also, we must create spaces outside that sustain us. The two are necessary and critical for our survival. I often remind  faculty of color when they ask me how they can fight back, that all they have to do is exist within the university, that is enough. There is nothing else you need to do as that takes up so much energy already. But if you feel inclined to fight back, if you have that impetus, then it is important to find allies that will take on fights with you.  What is surprising about building communities of freedom in the academy is that your allies may not come from the places you might expect them to or look the way you thought they would. Being open to creating community with like-minded people regardless of their background is also important.

bell hooks wrote on multiple occasions about community building as salvation. For the project of knowledge making, particularly for those of us who identify as women of color working within anti-colonial frameworks, community, the experience of co-creating, is not only essential, but also the only way to critically rebel against the colonial racial capitalist regime that attempts to pit us against each other through the narrative of exceptionalism. That is, community contradicts the pervasive logic of ‘There can Only One of Us.’

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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.

Comments on “Surviving Academia: An Interview with Lorgia García Peña Pt. 2

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    Thank you for reminding us that we are all mind and body and spirit … I look forward to reading this work as well as yours while chronicling my own journey of health wellness, and scholarship. You continue to create spaces where we can bring our whole selves in full view without fear.

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