These lovelies. How did this powerful and important thing happen? I still can’t believe it.
On June 18, we gathered an insurgent, inquisitive, brave and beautiful group of people of color “connected to colleges, universities, and academic centers” together for an Allied Media Conference Network Gathering—a day dedicated to crafting “new strategies for social justice organizing.” We asked hard questions and faced painful truths. What does dismantling the Ivory Tower mean? What challenges do we face—not only as brought to us by academic institutions in and of themselves, but challenges we face within the communities we come from, the communities we are accountable to (not always the same thing), and individually when we face off against the academy? What is good, bad and ugly about our relationship to the academy and the kind of scholarly, intellectual, activist work we want to do and make in the world? What tools, skills, resources, and metaphysical juju do we need to assemble in order to dismantle the Tower—from within or without.
It became clear, almost immediately, that dismantling the Ivory Tower is a process and part of a broad schema of organizing that occurs on institutional, interpersonal and internal levels at the same time (and I’m borrowing this breakdown quite deliberately from adrienne marie brown of the Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective from the workshop she hosted on Butler and emergent strategy at the NOLA Wildseeds Black Futures Fest in May).
In other words, there was no untangling ourselves from a vicious and often emotionally abusive system of privileges, accolades, and meritorious recognitions without also addressing and questioning what these things (degrees, middle class status, regular employment, professional affiliations, leave/summer time, control of our schedules, health care) meant to ourselves, each other, and our communities. How to dismantle the Ivory Tower when the role we play within our families, particularly as disabled, queer, trans, and cis academics or scholars of color (#sdqtpoc, #qtpoc, and #cis #poc) is often that of having “achieved” something—whether the “something” referred to is a B.A. degree or a salaried position?
It was almost as though the work we needed to do would involve more than organizing against or within our academic positions and relationships to the Tower. It would involve organizing our families and ourselves, deconstructing problematic and at times poisonous fantasies about the state of higher education and the role it does or does not play in social equity and justice. It would involve self care and holistic recovery from our experiences in academe. It would also require us to grapple with our privileges, especially ways we have internalized the everyday-ness of racist heteropatriarchal violence, as well as ways we have been and are being trained to oppress and abuse others—deans and senior faculty versus junior faculty, faculty versus graduate students, faculty and staff versus undergraduates—in a system of psychic scarcity, bodily rupture (even unto our untimely deaths) and diminishing financial resources.
Yet and still…we couldn’t categorize our every interaction with the academy or every aspect of our lives as scholars as negative. We spent time sitting with a quote from E. Patrick Johnson’s essay, “In the Merry Old Land of OZ or For Queer Little Colored Boys Who Considered the Projects when the Academy Got Too Rough.” Johnson writes:
“As a black, gay, southern, feminist, revolutionary, I have to believe that my presence in the academy is bolstered by a legacy of poor, queer, little colored boys who dared to challenge what it means to be a “professor” in spite of tripping on and being hit by the yellow bricks on that stony road. The academy is full of folk who uphold the virtues of the most pernicious forms of sexism, racism, classism and homophobia. And while I’m not so naïve as to think I’ll see the end of this reign of terror in the near future, I am fierce enough to know that the epistemology of the projects, for which I owe my Ph.D. in how to “read” and write, is the only weapon this little colored boy needs to “run on.”” -E. Patrick Johnson
To suggest we took no pleasure from our relationship to the Ivory Tower would be dishonest and unfair. In an exercise called “Good, Bad, Ugly,” we spent time isolating the things we enjoyed: health care, regular income, summers off, control over our time, a diversity of opinions, exposure to new ideas, rigorous and disciplined intellectual production and engagement, excited students and joyful experiences with teaching or being taught, opportunities to attend or host events which reached into the communities we felt accountable to and enriched our own lives, job security (for those with tenure or long-term contracts).
We also recognized ways some of these things weren’t particular to the Ivory Tower. Some were issues of labor and labor organizing. Things like control over time, weekends and summer time off, a living wage, and health care should be parts of everyone’s lives. The #Fightfor15 and the (now Supreme Court approved) Affordable Care Act have shown us this, and adjuncts and graduate students across the country currently fight for access to many of these same things. Universities are also pushing back against these benefits and are using the same union-busting, anti-labor tactics and rhetoric corporations have used for decades—University of Wisconsin being a recent example. The things we found “good” about the academy were and are labor matters. And, in hindsight, it is striking we also often expressed our anger at the indignities we suffered in the academy in terms of “clocks” and “contracts” – all vocabulary that would be familiar to labor organizers and labor historians.
Other things we enjoy about our work came from the pleasure we took in our craft: Fulfilling intellectual experiences, being part of engaged communities of thinkers, open-minded learning, exposure to new experiences, opportunities to fail and support for diverse experiments, and opportunities to leverage massive financial and human resources on behalf of our communities and the world. These certainly appear to be Ivory Tower singularities, characteristic of the “life of the mind,” but in fact need not be. I’ve written elsewhere and often about coming to my feminism through the kitchen table–both my own and the work of radical womyn of color scholars from This Bridge Called my Back to millennial remixes by present-day black feminist and qtpoc radical media makers. To repeat: There is no history of late 20th and 21st century feminism (or activism in general) without qtpoc digital and radical media.
For a rich intellectual live to exist, they don’t need to be tied to coercive and stressful processes of evaluation, debt, and a culture of condescension which, even when it tries not to, cherry picks and tokenizes “diverse” bodies and knowledges for its own purposes. We don’t need to be trained to replicate these processes on other people and bodies, so that we invoke our privilege and oppress others even as we are being oppressed ourselves. But we do deserve to be compensated and support and safe in our work. Period.
These are the tensions I’m left sorting out, particularly in the wake of Zandria Robinson’s recent manifesto (as a senior scholar described it) on her experience at the University of Memphis and the response from “a committed group of black cultural and thought workers” calling out racism and heteropatriarchal violence by the academia and media in general:
“While we welcome conversations about the range of expression teachers can and should offer on their pages, we will not do so in a vacuum. We cannot talk about the responsibilities of teachers and professors until we first scrutinize and hold accountable the policies, practices, and projects of the neoliberal university and its appendages in publishing, media, and government…“We say to any person, publication, organization, institution trying to violently undermine the work of loving, curious geniuses like Zandria Robinson, we see you. We know your labors intimately, as we write and live it everyday. We will not accept these aggressions in silence; we instead will rally our collective energies of exposure and critique, coalition and mobilization, in order to protect our minds and bodies and work toward the ideals that animate our collective visions for justice.”
And this is where “all organizing is science fiction” and our dismantling must move into the speculative.
I dream of an intellectual community where we are provided the resources we need, where we teach students who long to be there and who we learn from in turn, where all students have time and support they need to learn and grow at their own pace, where faculty and staff have time and support for their writing, where research is subsidized, where diverse knowledges (“infinite literacies”) appear in varied forms (written, oral, spiritual, embodied/physical, visual, digital, and forms we have yet to imagine or categorize or understand) and are appreciated, learned, taught, and passed down and between generations. Children, in this world, and families of all forms are welcome. Accessibility and ability is centered and polymorphous. Transmisogyny is non-existent and policing boundaries or hierarchies is a fantasy. Knowledge and knowledge creation is sacred and valued by all of society, but evaluation systems do not run people of color into ragged shadows of themselves.
To me, there is nothing insurgent about this vision. All of the above is why I am attracted to “the life of the mind” and the study of black people and black life—I wanted to read, write, debate, and grow in a community committed to ethical and rigorous work on people of African descent.
So already, I’m asking myself, “Hmm. As a network of community accountable “academics,” can we need to dig deeper?” Is it utopian, after all, to imagine that a life of the mind that does not invest in or require hierarchy but is a life where skill is recognized, compensated, and given social value? And what of our geographies? What if the Ivory Tower wasn’t a campus? What if it didn’t create Town-Gown divides (often by gentrifying poor and poc neighborhoods), or add campus police presence to already over-policed cities and towns, or class wasn’t held in overheated classrooms with nailed down chairs? What if the Tower was actually a circle and a ring shout, or holding court in a grassy field or on the corner or in a kitchen, or a collectively owned house with many rooms and a wheelchair ramp, or an online community with branches on the moon?
What would happen if we didn’t shame ourselves into dreaming impossible dreams or let fear of divestment wound us into sticking with the status quo? What are we willing to give up and how hard are we willing to fight to create the world we want to live in?
Before the workshop began, Van led us in a moment of silence for the victims of the Charleston Massacre: Rev. Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; Tywanza Sanders; Myra Thompson; Ethel Lee Lance; Susie Jackson; Daniel L. Simmons; Depayne Middleton Doctor. Nine.
This world is not sustainable. The Ivory Tower is not the answer and it is not immune. We have so much work to do. And ours is part of a long insurgency; this challenge has a history.
Thank you each and everyone of you who participated, the fieerrrrrrrccceeeeee co-organizing squad (Van, Moya, and Kai), the AMC for giving us space, funding, and logistical support, and everyone who is following #dismantlingacademia #dismantlingivorytower on social media (Facebook, Tumblr). Dismantling the Ivory Tower is impossible without you and your support.
There is so much more to come…