First published on Medium, January 2019.
The noun ‘Black’ has served three functions in modernity: those of summoning, internalization, and reversal. It first designated not human beings like all others but rather a distinct humanity — one whose very humanity was (and still is) in question. It designated a particular kind of human: those who, because of their physical appearance, their habits and customs, and their ways of being in the world, seemed to represent difference in its raw manifestation — somatic, affective, aesthetic, imaginary. The so-called Blacks appeared subsequently as individuals who, because of the fact of their ontological difference, represented a caricature of the principle of exteriority (as opposed to the principle of inclusion). It therefore became very difficult to imagine that they were once like us, that they were once of us. And precisely because they were not either like us or of us, the only link that could unite us is — paradoxically — the link of separation. Constituting a world apart, the part apart, Blacks cannot become full subjects in the life of our community. Placed apart, put to the side, piece by piece: that is how Blacks came to signify, in their essence and before all speech, the injunction of segregation.” (Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason [tr. L. Dubois], p. 46).
Since the basic details of the incident at the “Future of the Classics” panel on Saturday 5 January have now been laid out in Colleen Flaherty’s reporting for Inside Higher Ed, I will not reiterate them here. The annual meeting was quite the showcase for the enforcement actions of white supremacy. The day before the panel, Djesika Bel Watson and Stefani Echeverría-Fenn, co-founders of The Sportula and recipients of a WCC award at the annual meeting, were racially profiled by hotel security — possibly at the request of other conference-goers who were unsettled by the presence of brown bodies. Readers who want to take action towards rectifying the injustices of the past weekend should begin by supporting Sportula’s mission (with money and amplification); by tweeting at Marriott Hotels to upgrade significantly its bias and inclusion training; and by continuing to hold to the fire the feet of SCS leadership, for whom the installation of an equity team and omsbudperson to monitor and respond to incidents in real time and the centering of systemic racism as a plenary topic at future annual meetings should rise to the very top of the priorities list.
Other crudeliter facta at the meeting have been reported over social media. In what follows I will concentrate on my own experiences of the panel and its aftermath. What will be stored in the vaults of my memory are not just the accusatory words themselves, but the expression on the face of their white-supremacist purveyor as she relieved herself of them; my fellow panelist Sarah Bond’s attempts to intervene critically, and the efforts of Michael Gagarin and others to reclaim the mic; the shocked immobility of those colleagues who could not will themselves to intervene; and the looks on the faces of students of color in the room. Most of all, I will remember the rage: not the impotent rage of Mary Frances Williams, but my rage on realizing that her personal assault would divert attention from the paper I had just delivered on the whites-only neighborhood of journal publication in classics.
White fragility disrupting the practice of grounded and data-backed critical scholarship: what a surprise. Also not surprising: the accusation itself. This wasn’t the first and won’t be the last time that I receive the “you got X because you’re black” treatment; and if I had a dollar for every scholar of color with the same experience, I’d hum Cardi B’s “Money” all the way to a safe-deposit box.
In the minutes after my assailant stormed off in a huff, I allowed myself to hope that, if there were to be any redemption in the indignity of public exposure to racism, it would come in the form of an honest conversation about the whisper campaigns through which such accusations travel behind closed doors or (in recent years) were posted anonymously on Famae Volent. But it was no novelty to see the gears of exculpation whirring once again in the hours after the panel, beginning with well-meaning attempts on the part of friends and colleagues to console me with the news that the perpetrator was/is mentally ill. As far as I’m concerned, glossing her racism as the reflex of a mental health problem not only discloses a baffling and unjustifiable idealization of neuronormativity as racism-free; it also sidesteps responsibility for complicity. To ascribe racism to an individual pathology is to move the conversation away from where it needs to dwell: the collective pathology of a field that lacks the courage to acknowledge its historical and ongoing inability to value scholars from underrepresented groups.
While also well intentioned, compliments for “grace” and “composure” under fire only serve to underscore the domestication of brown bodies, who are expected to practice exemplary virtue in the face of virulent racism. (We would be having a very different conversation, one almost certainly involving law enforcement, if my inner angry Negro had entered the room.) Sharmila Sen gets it exactly right: “The expectation to be poised & eloquent, supply solutions & comfortable, hopeful diversity is the luggage those who aren’t white have to carry in the U.S.”
The IHE article to which I linked above has my face affixed to it but not that of my assailant, yet quotes her and not me — in line with the depressingly standard practice of rendering the victim of racism at once hypervisible and silent, and of spiriting the perpetrator into the semi-anonymity of facelessness but affording her the opportunity to spin. If only the IHE reporter could have given me another day to digest what had happened; alas, the reporter was on deadline, and I was unwilling to have my Sunday colonized by the external imposition of having to narrate my trauma.
The most maddening aspect of Saturday’s episode was in some respects the most predictable. Seeing as no one in that room or in the conference corridors afterwards rallied to the defense of blackness as a cornerstone of my merit, I will now have to repeat an argument that will be familiar to critical race scholars of higher education but that is barely legible to the denizens of #classicssowhite. I should have been hired because I was black: because my Afro-Latinity is the rock-solid foundation upon which the edifice of what I have accomplished and everything I hope to accomplish rests; because my black body’s vulnerability challenges and chastizes the universalizing pretensions of color-blind classics; because my black being-in-the-world makes it possible for me to ask new and different questions within the field, to inhabit new and different approaches to answering them, and to forge alliances with other scholars past and present whose black being-in-the-world has cleared the way for my leap into the breach.
That scholarly merit can, even in the minds and hearts of supporters and well-wishers, be decoupled from the fact of my Afro-Latinity is why the rage will continue to burn brightly. If this discipline is to cherish the minds of scholars of color, it must begin by cherishing their bodies — and all the legacies of racisms past and present that are seared into their flesh. This past weekend, the artificial cleaving of scholarship from racial subjectivity, and of knowledge from racial identity, has been exposed once again as a monstrous lie. We are not minds in vats; all our intellects take shape and evolve within national and global force-fields of race and racecraft. To pretend otherwise is a privileged fantasy, unworthy of its hallucinators and demeaning to those who have it thrust upon them.
One component of this fantasy is that classics itself “is politicized but doesn’t have a politics,” as Professor Mary Beard proposed during her plenary lecture. The discipline may be appropriated to illiberal and authoritarian ends, but (the argument goes) the many instances of its appropriation for progressive projects attest that it is not hardwired politically one way or another. I disagree.
Mindful that my stores of intellectual and personal generosity were mostly depleted by Saturday evening, I feel compelled to end this write-up by commenting briefly on Professor Beard’s plenary remarks, not least because I was quoted near the end. Professor Beard’s contributions to the discipline have been deservedly recognized, as have her many public shortcomings; but I have no interest either in panegyrics or takedowns. I want simply to register my response to the lecture: it bored me to new heights of rage. For all its bien pensant striving to correct “myths” about Classics, the lecture amounted to little more than potted intellectual history with a sprinkle of uplift.
Here were some of the highlights, with thanks to Alicia Matz’s detailed Twitter thread for refreshing my recollections: yes, the discipline rounding into form at the time of the American Philological Association’s foundation in 1869 was purposed to imperializing or hegemonic ends by some, but there were voices of resistance; yes, the APA was not a paragon of inclusion in its early years, but some people of color did break through; yes, some British blokes who went up to Oxbridge to read Classics did enter the Indian Civil Service, but many of them went off to be high school teachers or county parsons, “normal people.” All of this was capped with a rousing peroration that, swelling past the enunciation of a feel-good ideal (“Classics is about all of us and none of us”), ventured a guess as to how our successors will look back upon us in 150 years: they will be grateful to us for the work we did to open up the field; “we haven’t done well enough, but we haven’t done that bad either.”
Had these remarks reached my ears on another weekend, perhaps I would have allowed myself to muse abstractly on the future perfect as a classicizing modality, with the summons to an imagined posterity drawing a veil over the traumas and sufferings of the present. But the ocular proof of the past few days has me angrily focused on naming the trauma and suffering as clearly as possible. There is absolutely nothing recuperative or reparative about adducing isolated moments of contestation as myth-busting historical corrective. Sure, some people of color broke through — but such is the stranglehold of whiteness on Professor Beard’s own attempt at a counterbalancing history that she only quoted one scholar of color in her lecture. What was the price of the ticket for those who broke through? What were the psychological and material costs for those from marginalized racial and ethnic backgrounds who staked a position in the discipline, then and now? Is recovering contestation the same as recovering the voices of the silenced? As for those who studied classics in the late 19th century but who did not go on to careers in imperial governance: has Professor Beard paused to consider that it might well be “normal people” who carry out most effectively the directives of empire in their home communities, by drilling and normalizing those habits of thought and deed through which Classics has been patterned into the fabric of everyday and generational racism? (And “normal people” by whose reckoning, exactly?) The lecture was curiously indifferent to these questions, and to the sources that might be tapped to supply some answers to them.
For Professor Beard, and I gather for more than a few attendees at the lecture, hope (in a future of eventual vindication at the hands of posterity) was the only legitimate affective position. But why not sit with despair and frustration a little longer? Why not invest (say) in an Afro-pessimistic critique that, in recognizing the inescapability of white supremacy in the discipline’s phylogeny and ontogeny, kept all options for reparative intellectual justice — including the demolition of the discipline itself — on the table?
People with the privilege of plenaries need to do better. Or else that privilege will need to be surrendered too.