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Where We at Tho?: Searching for Black Lives in Black Lives Matter Scholarship

 

 

I did not want to write about the Black Lives Matter movement. If I could not be on the ground, putting my own Black body on the line, I did not want to talk about it in the academy. I admit upfront that this is my bias. The U.S. school system and the academy in particular were not designed with Black bodies in mind. They were not designed with Black minds, Black hearts, or certainly Black spirits in mind, and in 2018, Eurocentric ways of knowing and being serve as gatekeepers for access to and release from these institutions.

 

Gloria Ladson-Billings states that the Euro-American epistemological stance focusing on the individual is hegemonic, while alternative epistemologies that center relationships are liberating (Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 257). Rather than its common definition as a "way of knowing," Ladson-Billings asserts that epistemology is a system of knowing. Systems have integrated, embedded logics that are applied in varied contexts (2000, p. 257). She uses the theories of "alterity" and critical race theory as rubrics for considering the scholarship of racial and ethnic "others." The dominant epistemology in colleges and universities is rooted in Eurocentric values. Among these are favoring individual choice over collective responsibility.

 

Scholars from indigenous and African-descended traditions are often confronted with discourses that denounce their community ways of being as deficient and deviant. One prime example is in the treatment of African diasporic religious traditions. Although freedom of religion is a hallmark of the Constitution, Eurocentric Judeo-Christian Hegemony is pervasive throughout U.S. society, including schools. In such a context, how does one promote the value of Black lives? How does one engage in scholarship on the Black Lives Matter movement and its attending social concerns?

 

A survey of special journal issues on the Black Lives Matter movement reveal inconsistencies in how journal editors manage or seemingly ignore epistemological violence. I set out to critically examine racialized discourse in the TRAUE Special Issue on Black Lives Matter published in the Spring of 2017. As a current Ph.D. in Urban Education, I engage in this critique from the perspective of celebrating the inclusive aspects of the journal solicitation process and also suggesting ways to recenter the experiences of actual Black lives in the program in efforts to explicitly counter epistemological violence in the academy.

 

Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education (TRAUE) is an on-line, open-access, peer-reviewed education journal of the Graduate Center, CUNY. In reviewing the issue, I considered several questions generated by Ladson-Billings’ work. First, how can a Black Lives Matter journal special issue avoid "objectifying the subjectivities of the researched by assuming authority, and by not questioning their own privileged positions" (Villenas (1996) in Ladson-Billings, 2000, p. 267)? Next, to the extent that they have not, how have journal editors and authors reinscribed liberalism in their work? Finally, what does "collective effort" look like in the process, and is it sufficiently aligned with critical race theory?

 

In one regard, it is evident that the special issue editors instituted several strategies to share authority among community members and produce a collective effort. In “A Letter From the Editors,” they explicitly state:

 

To honor the mission of bringing a critical diversity to the issue, it was crucial to consider the way our call for pieces and our engagement with contributors allowed for flexibility, fluidity and openness. We sought to elicit the voices of people who think deeply about how Black lives matter in education. While we had aimed to include contributors from CUNY and beyond, most of our contributors are affiliated with our institution. Nevertheless, the diversity of genres and perspectives capture voices of educators, students, scholars and artists (https://blmtraue.commons.gc.cuny.edu/sample-page/).

 

They have included work from different factions of the education community, with the exception of parents and other family members. In addition, the contributions push boundaries of genre by including poetry, personal reflection, more critical scholarship, and playlists. Yet, I am concerned about conflating the terms “people of color” and “Black,” which is a form of reinscribing a generalizing liberal framework. While intersectional lenses are essential to critical race theorizing and the BLM movement, anti-blackness is an important ontological trope in U.S. culture that warrants its own attention. People of color often hold anti-black sentiments and willingly profit from their proximity to whiteness. Furthermore, Black people themselves frequently internalize and perpetuate racist doctrine. Engaging in academic work about BLM does not replace the heart work needed to battle institutional racism.

 

These are complicated relationships. It would have had a powerful impact if each of the editors submitted personal narratives that expressed their embodied experiences with anti-blackness, racism, and white privilege. Yes, it would have been out of the norm for a journal, but we have models of elder scholars who are pushing these boundaries now. They are doing this “shadow work” of challenging disciplinary etiquette in the name of self-healing and in the name of justice. What do we have to lose in digging deeper and “going there”? Whatever the potential loss, it could never be more valuable than the actual lives that are smothered by white supremacy.  

                                                                         

A second consideration and critique focuses on the submission process. While I was not in a mental space to contribute a written piece during the solicitation period—incidentally, I was mourning the Black life of my own mother who had passed the Sunday before classes started—I yearned to be a part of the process in some way, and it was jarring to feel that I was too late, or that I had missed the boat to declare the importance of my community. What happens when the daily micro and macro-aggressions of living in a Black body, in a Black family, in a Black community, does not leave room for performing Blackness and performing activism in academic spaces? What are the metrics to capture this labor?

 

My colleagues at the Urban Education program at the Graduate Center are some of the most socially conscious, politically active, and critical scholars whom I have known. They inspire me with their commitments to academic rigor and activism. And in true Graduate Center fashion, I am not satisfied. Yes, I am one of those leftist intellectuals who believes in our capacity to constantly improve social conditions and eradicate inequities.

 

In retrospect, it seems that the angst I experienced during this time, that some of my Black classmates also shared, was that there were too many disconnects between theory and praxis when it came to honoring Black lives.  We yearned for, we needed, something much more. We needed first and foremost a space for community building and healing, with documentation as a byproduct, not the central intent. We needed space to uplift ourselves, without any static or the confinements of any gaze other than our own intersectional experiences.

 

For starters, why not have a specific piece that highlighted the experience of Black people within the Urban Education Program? Although I was not ready to translate my lived experience into a form befitting an academic journal, I would have been willing to participate in a poll or interview regarding my experiences as a Black female educator who is also a parent of a Black child and wife of a Black man, both of whom are immigrants.

 

Everyone would benefit from hearing the voices of Black faculty members and students in the Urban Education program and throughout the Graduate Center. I am not suggesting that such a project should be the focus of a Black Lives Matter special issue journal, but I am suggesting that it be a starting point. Centering the lived experiences of Black people in academia, obtaining our own testimonios of living in these times, is a sure method of countering epistemological violence, even with the best of intentions. I attended the launch party for the issue release, which was thoughtfully organized as a space for open discussion and reflection from all in attendance, including the editors and contributors. There was engaging music, artistic expression, and authentic community building among all who were present. It was a beautiful experience. I wonder how the community would have responded to a differentiated approach of both affinity gatherings and inclusive celebrations. And what kind of institutional support would have been provided? For journal editors who are seeking to do a BLM special issue, it is worth conceiving of ways to push the boundaries of scholarship and praxis as far as possible, until, eventually, they collapse.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Racialized discourses and ethnic epistemologies. Handbook of qualitative research, 2, 257-277.

 

"A Letter from the Editors." Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education. (https://blmtraue.commons.gc.cuny.edu/sample-page/).

 

Image Credit:

 

http://pluspng.com/png-42566.html

 

 

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