#WeAreMizzou: Reimagining Radical Black Politics at the Public PWI University

The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a “circle of certainty” within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them.

  • Paolo Freire

This is the only possible relationship to the American university today. This may be true of universities everywhere. It may have to be true of the university in general. But certainly, this much is true in the United States: it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.

  • Fred Moten

#WeAreMizzou created a ripple effect in Universities across the nation. A sleeping giant rose, a spark was lit, a new age of student activist was born, and predominately white institutions shuttered in the aftermath. However, what became noticeably clear after the direct action protest was that every predominately white institution didn’t function the same, and this became evermore clear in regards to whether or not the institution was private or public. For example, Johns Hopkins University black student activist were able to rapidly receive the Diverse Faculty Initiative which promised to invest $25 million dollars over the next five years in order to better recruit and retain minority faculty. Additionally, Yale University student activist were able to receive $50 million dollars for practically the same thing. These big dollar initiatives are rarely capable of being granted to public universities, even if they are flagship Universities. For example, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill received a sum total of $1 million dollars in order to “diversify students pursuing doctoral degrees in the humanities, social sciences and fine arts,” a total that can easily be seen as a “small grant” in relation to the two former mentioned Universities.

The purpose of bringing this up is to illustrate that the beast of white supremacy and institutional racism manifest itself in a multiplicity of ways, maintains itself in a multiplicity of ways, and reforms, rectifies, and adjust itself in a multiplicity of ways. With that being said, it’s not necessarily true that Johns Hopkins and Yale students have been able to achieve more than the students at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, but that the reforms and adjustments created by white supremacist private institutions, the amount of capital these institutions are willing to give up while still maintaining their place as institutions of white supremacy differ depending upon the socioeconomic and political power of the individual institutions. I will not speak much more about private institutions and the future of black student activism at these institutions, but I will urge these students to think of these initiatives like small reparations, and take seriously Frank Wilderson’s critique of the American reparations movement when he says:

The reparations people present the issue to blacks as though slavery is an essentially historical phenomenon that ended, but the effects of which put blacks at what they call an “unfair disadvantage” to those in other positions who are also chasing the American dream. Through such a move the reparations folks waste a political weapon, they dull the knife, they keep the tiger in the cage, because here is a weapon which could spew forth in untold directions: I’m thinking here of Nat Turner’s greatest night.

In other words, do not waste that political weapon, do not dull the knife – release the tiger, and capture your entire institution sparring no hall, cafeteria, and/or department.

As for black student activist at most public universities the economic realities of low funds from racist donors, or funds primarily from the state and/or federal governments, and the political reality of dense anti-black bureaucratic processes makes achieving even a feat like that of University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill extremely difficult. This fact requires an alternative politic. One that rearranges the notion of the radical, one that understands that radicalism is not speaking truth to white institutions of power, but that radicalism is gaining, building, and sustaining black power and not allowing the institution to assuage the student activist with “fine-dining and meetings” that create the façade of progress at the expense of what is needed, namely, a cultural-social-political-educational revolution. What does this look like? I do not intend to provide the dogma of black activism for I am as new to this as any other, but I only intend to provide an option, a possibility of a future – a future of a radical black politics at the public PWI University.

First, in the words of Sey Elemo, Bilphena Yahwon, and Korey Johnson, three remarkable black feminist/womanist undergraduates at Towson University, “The revolution must always be ratchet.” This remark reflects the alterity of the black student/black student activist at the PWI. To be ratchet is to be Other. The black student is de facto Other at any University, and even more so at the PWI because through the gaze of white supremacy and in the words of Kanye West, “Y’all know that niggas can’t read.” This idea is reflected both by the #StayMadAbby phenomena and Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s remarks on affirmative action, and black student admission into prestigious universities. For the revolution to always be ratchet is for the revolution to always maintain its otherness, to always maintain its unwillingness to be coopted, to always be principally pro-black, unabashedly attached to black culture, black thought, black students, and black people. This concretely means three things: first, that culture is to be taken seriously – hip hop (conscious or trap) is not a black student’s plaything, it is a part of the black student’s social and psychological livelihood. Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are as instrumental to that psychical survival as Migos and Young Thug. Second, that black parties are not spaces where blacks simply go to have fun, black parties are revolutionary spaces of the subaltern where black people go to, in the words of Alice Walker, “possess the secrets of joy.” When those spaces are heavily policed and militarized they mirror the policing practices of the rest of black America and remind black students that their University is nothing more than a microcosm of the macro-manifestation of anti-black structures that plague the rest of America. Third, black sexuality and conversations on black sexuality regardless if the conversation is being had with smiles and giggles, or sincerity and seriousness is a sexuality and a conversation not to be disavowed. Embracing and radicalizing intersectional sexual orientations, practices, and methods of discussions are a part of the ratchet revolution that must take place at the PWI University.

Second, in the words of Baby Joker in a screenplay written by record producer, actor, filmmaker, and rapper, Ice Cube, No more locked doors!” What this mean is that there needs to be a deconstruction of white bureaucratic ideals of privacy, logistics, and fictitious appearances of progressivism for the sake of public relations. In a world of what Bonilla-Silva calls, “Racism without racist” the task of black student activist is to publicize and criticize every event, every act of racism, every meeting with institutional power-holders, and to open the space up to accountability. Accountability both politically and psycho-politically, a remark I will come back to later. Nevertheless, the purpose of this principle is to radicalize the process of change. Change does not occur over coffee, tea, and shirts and ties; change comes through revolutionizing even the process of bringing about that change. It comes from creating alternatives to the current, and breaking down contemporary conceptions of the possible. This means taking seriously the idea that “the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” The master’s process of change is not ours. Thus we must open the doors.

Third, the radical politic must be driven by radical love. Black radical love is the relationship between two persons, one of whom is black, who embark on the ontological quest to be radically political, radically anti-racist, and radically anti-oppressive to one another; all the while additionally, being radically subversive to any one or any institution that dehumanizes. The position of radical love is pluralistic in that it denies the unified whole in favor of loving the multiple layers of personhood that make up the black identity. These layers include race (in this specific case, black) class, gender, and sexual orientation, etc. Emphasizing this love makes this love more than a social love or a kind of simple social bonding. Black radical love is a black radical political theory. For a black person to love themselves is a radical step forward, not only individually, but socially and politically. The same logic must be applied to black radical love for each other. Therefore, we have to assess blackness through the lens of black particularity, black feminism, black anti-capitalist exploitation, black sexual politics, black anti-elitism, and black anti-hierarchicalism. This provides a complete denunciation and critical analyzes of white supremacy: how it functions, what caused it, and how we cannot only destroy it, but more importantly transcend it. Solidarity, for black persons, must be a pluralist solidarity.

Fourth, transforming what is typically known as radical activism to what we call, “Radical Therapy.” This means shedding the idea of an activist since the activist is primarily focused on transformation of the political. The radical therapist is primarily focused on the psycho-political. Second-wave feminist constructed the feminist mantra that, “the personal is political.” The radical therapist’s mantra is that, “the political is psychological.” In Robin Kelly’s excellent article “Black Study, Black Struggle” he quotes Naomi Wallace in order to critique this idea. She says:

Mainstream America is less threatened by the ‘trauma’ theory because it doesn’t place economic justice at its core and takes the focus out of the realm of justice and into psychology; out of the streets, communities, into the singular experience (even if experienced in common) of the individual.

However, I tend to disagree with the supposed separation of the psychological and its potential for an economic-political-racial critique of institutions. Psychological trauma invoked by oppression, repression, and subjugation can result in a psycho-political analysis, like that of the work of Frantz Fanon, where structures of domination are psycho-politically analyzed and deconstructed for the sake of structural political, economic, and racial transformation. This means the black radical therapist is dedicated to black mental health and devoted to transforming the psychological effects of the structural political situation that is damaging to the totality of black personhood, which includes psychological health. The radicalism is sparked by the openness of the process, the virtue of community building of the process, and the trust and faith in the rest of the persons who become radical therapist in the process. In Robin Kelly’s own words:

[R]esistance is our healing. Through collective struggle, we alter our circumstances; contain, escape, or possibly eviscerate the source of trauma; recover our bodies; reclaim and redeem our dead; and make ourselves whole.

Radical therapy is group therapy, radical therapy is community-creating therapy; radical therapy is family-making process; radical therapy is subversive, political, and transformative.

Five, we must be practitioners of a world that doesn’t exist. This means creating the world we want now. Being the black professors we want now, being the black administrators we want now, being the black counselors we want now, being the black occupiers we want now. We have to teach each other by creating our own Black Studies syllabus; we have to create policies with each other that continue to create and recreate the demands of black students across all intersections of gender, sexualities, and religions; we have to be dedicated to creating self-care and counseling spaces with each other that are radical destroyers of depression and radical annihilators of suicidal thoughts that emerge from white supremacy; we have to begin to occupy and create the University we want now or the destroy the University we are in now by being living, breathing examples of what is means to be unapologetically black at all times. This means in the words of Fred Moten, we have to “steal the University,” now, and bring it back to our people. We have to “steal the University” and bring it back to the people who attend this University, people who attend other-local, regional, national Universities, people in high-school, people in middle-school, people in the suburbs, people in rural localities, and people in the hood. We have to create the world of the demands within ourselves and build the power within ourselves until the University does not only concede to those demands, but concretely devotes itself to creating and being a radical space against economic, political, and racial exploitation.

So in conclusion, I suggest we operate on five principles.

  • Sustain a ratchet revolution.
  • Deconstruct bureaucratic ideals
  • Operate on the principle of radical love
  • Become radical therapist before radical activist
  • Imagine and Build the World We Want Now

College is not about becoming what you want to be in the aftermath of graduation, it’s about being what you will be today and destroying every oppressive structure that stands in our way.

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