Black History Against Academic Liberalism
In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin writes, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” “We must,” he continues, “attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” I’ve been rereading Benjamin for a few reasons, and this thesis, thesis Number 8, is the answer I’ve been searching to in response to criticism about an essay, this one right here, I first tried to write in the summer of 2020.
I had been invited by two editors, both senior scholars highly regarded in the field and whose work has shaped my own, to reflect on what it means to think about Black Lives Matter from the vantage point of someone who studies nineteenth-century British literature as the country reacted to the murder of George Floyd. This was to be a collection of “journalistic” reflections, quickly written, 1000 words. I apologetically sent in 1400 and promised to cut the piece down to size. I noted my concerns that the shifts in tone at the end of the piece might be jarring.
The response was mixed. One editor, a person of color with whom I had enjoyed a long conversation about Black Lives Matter via a book chapter I wrote for a collection of essays he was editing, thought the essay was wonderful, needing only minor changes. The other editor, a white man, thought the piece needed more substantive changes. Revision requests rarely bother me, especially at this stage in my career. I enjoy the discussions editors and I have about my work. I actually feel safer after the push and pull that happens during the evolution of a piece.
This felt different. Some of the comments made sense but two did not—that I recalibrate the discussion of being a Black graduate student and that I connect my thinking about my Michael Brown to George Floyd.
I pulled the piece.
In my response I noted that I was confident that the critique of the essay would be helpful should I choose to publish it in some other venue. But I explained that I did not want to publish this piece for that audience. By “that audience,” I meant the predominately white academic community who would read it.
In terms of the professional currency of my profession (I am an associate professor of English with a somewhat unconventional dossier), this essay was not really going to “count” for anything. And the editor of color I worked with most graciously acknowledged that he understood if I didn’t want to work on the piece in that moment. The low stakes of the whole scenario revealed the risks I felt in writing and my concerns about the challenges white scholars in overwhelmingly white fields face if they want to maintain their credibility with their Black colleagues and colleagues of color.
The directions had been clear. The collection of essays was supposed to be about Geroge Floyd. But I had thinking about Michael Brown and wanted another chance to think about how I tried to honor his memory in my essay for Frankenstein in Theory (2021, Bloomsbury). The editor who reached out to me in the summer of 2020 was the person for whom I wrote the essay, and I was relieved to hear from him again. That essay (“‘a daemon whom I had myself created’: Race, Frankenstein, and Monstering”) attempts to offer a more precise term than “Other” to capture the violence that underscores marginalization. “Other” feels evacuated of its initial urgency in much the same way that “diversity” does in institutional rhetoric. Monster made more sense as, a way to highlight how Black people’s bodies bear the violent weight of systems and rhetoric. Monster is a social construct. One is monstered. Language, law, and social practice monster us.
When I received the inviation to contribute to Frankenstein in Theory, my first instinct was to decline. I am trying to write my book on abolitionist literature and material culture. If I’m writing about Mary Shelley I want to write about Valperga, her second, fascinating novel. I also don’t really consider myself a theorist. I wasn’t sure I had anything useful to add to discussions about the novel and race. I think that Elizabeth Young’s Black Frankenstein the Making of an American Metaphor is the definitive study of race and the novel. Between her thorough and thoughtful analysis and the decades of scholars who have written about the novel in various contexts related to race, imperialism, and abolitionist politics, the only thing left to say was a topic I didn’t really want to broach, namely how the race politics in the novel reverberate into the 21st century. I didn’t want to do it because I knew it would bring me back to Michael Brown and the annihilating pain of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. It was a low point in my politically conscious life, and I dreaded an archival return to a particularly intimate pain.
I have cordoned Michael Brown and the other victims of that public spate of police crime from the rest of my work, even as their names tumble out at unexpected moments—Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, John Ezell, Eric Garner. They bubbled up unexpectedly in an art of poetry class, a violent and bloody incantation that I hear in my head to the same rhythm as Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V, a favorite from my undergraduate years. Sandra of Texas, Eric of New York, Michael of Ferguson: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” In a keynote address at St. John’s University in New York, providing an audience context for the summer of Kara Walker’s sugar sculptures in her work A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, they were there again. I listed them again in Edinburgh, this time at the end of a conference paper that showed how contemporary Black artists are repurposing abolitionist tropes as provocations about white liberal consumption of Black pain.
When the protests in Ferguson included property and Obama called men and women I had been praying for thugs, breaking my heart for the last time it broke me. One result was that my already strained relationship to the profession shifted dramatically. I felt pain in the way that Elaine Scarry thinks about it in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World: “How is it that one person can be in the presences of another person in pain and not know it? … How is it that one person can be in the presence of another person and not know it—not know it to the point where he himself inflicts it, and goes on inflicting it?” Pain gave way to a profound disinterest in insuring the comfort of white academics around me. The battlefield they fought on wasn’t mine, and I was as genuinely baffled about their goals as I was put off by their tactics.
Writing about Michael Brown for this audience would mean bringing the hurt and rage of Ferguson to an academic bower where too many people might read it, take out a bit of it, and proclaim they were decolonizing the syllabus/classroom/profession/academy. More than anything, I was afraid I would be as disrespectful as Kenneth Goldsmith was when he mined Brown’s autopsy for a performance piece. I sent my essay to the Black women I trust to tell me uncomfortable truths, but the writing of it feels different than anything else I’ve written. It felt both too soon and too late to think theoretically about the way Michael Brown is described in court documents, newspapers, and magazines. I tried to avoid them, but the words of the report are part of my speech. Even still I had to read them again, this time not as a Black citizen fatigued and wounded by all those names but as a critic and scholar. It was gruesome work, and it put me in an uneasy archival relationship to a past that isn’t behind us (and may well never be) with more questions than I could answer.
As a doctoral student my experiences in the archive felt quirky and genteelly subversive. Reading conduct manuals in the Bodelian’s Duke Humfrey’s Libray and then treating myself to tea at the Grand Café was just how I had imagined graduate school would go. It has been fun to laugh at physician Thomas Beddoes’s claim that novel reading would make England a more effeminate nation. Later, as my research interests shifted, reading the casual recounting of violence against enslaved women and men left me wrung out and on edge. In 1817 Dr. John Williamson published his diaries under the title Medical and Miscellaneous Observations Related to the West India Islands—a clinical account of his notable experiences treating a range of maladies from a white child who stuck a bean up his nose to children whose accidents are much less amusing:
A girl about twelve years of age, at Ellis’s Caymans estate, by some act of carelessness, had one of her hands carried half way up the arm within the mill-rollers. The bones were crumbled to pieces; considerable haemorrhagy (hemorrhaging) ensued … On my arrival, it was found that immediate amputation was necessary; and, with such assistance as the overseer and carpenter could give me, got the operation over, with candle-light, more to my satisfaction than could have been expected at that time of night, and with such assistance.
I remember sitting in the medical library in Philadelphia quietly taking notes feeling nauseous and dizzy at the description. And this is not even the most violent entry.
I did the work because it seemed a moment to step up when so I often I brush aside invitations that feel intellectually exploitative—those earnest, last-minute requests to show up and be Romantically, professionally Black, usually for a pedagogy roundtable. I don’t mean to imply that I felt I was the only one who could offer this reading, but it felt like both my duty and my honor to pay respect to Michael Brown from my place within critical discourse even if rereading the records surrounding Michael Brown’s murder—the coroner’s report, media accounts, his killer’s testimony—resurfaced the same feelings of helpless rage.
To read what I’ve come to think of as a contemporary archive of a violence often left me shaken. It wasn’t just the memory of Michael Brown but the sure knowledge that it was an archive that I would need to re-member repeatedly. I would find myself helplessly trying to process the specters of violence. My education hadn’t prepared me to see the archive it reflects. In this moment, as I watch the world accept the process of what other Black lives mean, it is terrible but necessary work of an archive of violence that links over centuries. And I have added new names to my litany that sit painfully on my tongue, familiar in my mouth as household words: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery of Georgia.
In some ways, this time feels different. Statues have been deplinthed #BlackLivesMatter moved to #AbolishPolice. We have gone from “racially charged” in headlines to the more efficient and precise “racist.” In The New Yorker Elizabeth Alexander has offered a heartbreaking moniker calling this “The Trayvon Martin Generation.” It breaks me. But alongside the pornographic images of Black death, a young Black woman sings a bop in perfect harmony with a young white man that I already know by heart:
Black neighborhoods are overpoliced so of course they have higher rates of crime
And white perpetrators are undercharged so of course they have lower rates of crime
And all those stupid stats you keep using are operating off a small sample size
So shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up
It’s the perfect combination of poetry and data in a medium (Tik-Tok) that requires brevity. I’m touched by their unity and hope it can withstand what Claudia Rankine refers to in Citizen as their “historical selves.” And even as I wrestle with what I know will come next, names announced so quickly I literally cannot keep up, it’s a moment that gave me a moment to exhale as I await the next wave.
The moment to exhale marked the end of the summer 2020 essay that I decided to pull. One reason I pulled it was because I could. It wouldn’t add much to my CV, and I thought at some point it might find another home. A younger version of me might have worried about whether or not I was afraid of “rigorous peer review.” I’m not. Would I offend a senior and more influential senior colleague? Perhaps.
My work, especially my refereed work, is critiqued all the time. I value the engagement with my peers. My work is better for the process of iron sharpening iron, to get a bit Biblical about it for a minute. But this was different. Michael Brown is about George Floyd. This moment might feel different to white academics, but to me it’s a flashpoint, one where more white people than usual spent a bit of time being more upset about Black death than usual. I write that as someone raised in the shelter of an Air Force community, mostly overseas. I was so naïve that I remember breaking down because I thought the men who beat Rodney King would be punished.
I pulled the piece because white academics don’t have the credibility to make me rethink my experience with Black pain. Perhaps I’m on a slippery slope. I worry about that. I work in a world dominated by white people, and they can’t all be wrong, and I wonder what I might lose if I start pulling things simply because I can. At the same time, every time I see some aggrieved white academic waving their rigour at a scholar of color I wonder if they realize their precarity of their authority. This is not, as too many assume, because of the encroachment of new modes of critical inquiry. Here is the problem. Too many of us have seen white academics protect mediocrity and jigger the scales on behalf of their friends in order to secure the currency the academy requires—articles, books, volumes. I want to tell them that the problem isn’t always their critique but the credibility they’ve squandered by standing silent in too many spaces where their colleagues of color have been left on their own, where their work has been dismissed merely for exisiting. They should understand that critique that does not emerge from the sense of shared struggle lacks credibility. This is not the same, let me be clear, as requiring an uncritical fealty to orthodoxy. It is, however, about a process that begins with shared values even where intellectuals might disagree.
I cried for a few minutes when I pulled this piece. The original essay for Frankenstein in Theory had been late. There was an incident at school that required me to stop my own work to write a report detailing a history of microagression. Writing the report made other work impossible, so in addition to welcoming the opportunity to focus on what it means to be a Black woman writing in the midst of another summer of violence and protest, writing this second essay, getting it done on time, and feeling it satisfied a scholar I admire was important to me.
The collection turned out fine. It reflects a diversity of voices and experiences. The pieces that made it in are smart and astute. And soon after I pulled my submission, I received an invitation to edit a forum about race and nineteenth-century studies for a journal There will be a series of dialogues to accompany it, and I’ll begin it by thinking about the idea of the archive and how it functions in different hands, in various contexts.
I have very little faith in the arc of the moral universe. Seventy-four million people voted to keep an avowed racist in office. But I do have hope in the work of scholars, activists collectives who seem able to find work for all of us to do in this struggle. It has actually been a relief to know this essay could sit and wait for the right time or simply be work that I could keep close as I continue learning what I have to offer the work that BlackLivesMatter needs us to do, not as academic exercises or theoretical performances but in the service of material abolition.