Duke Take Over of the Administration Building 1967

Duke Take Over of the Administration Building 1967


I have been thinking a lot about revolution.  I have been thinking about what it takes to truly change a people, a place, and a culture. More specifically, as a product of primarily white institutions for my education and having worked at historically black colleges for over 13 years, I am wondering when this battle for black people in the collegiate environment will finally be won. I tell my students at Morehouse that it is difficult to grasp the feeling of walking around campus when no one who is different (read as darker) is understood.  But these students get it.  I forget that many of them are fleeing these “privileged” upbringings, where they were likely the only black person in their class and on their blocks.  I understand that Morehouse for them is a way to save their souls, to take care of their spirits, so that they can be reminded of who they are and who they could be.  Morehouse, like other HBCUs, is a short respite before they are thrust back out into a world that seems hell bent on their annihilation. But even in these black havens we sit and burn and wonder what we can do to make white people finally get it too. But why is it that only now so many campuses around the country are erupting in the face of this unbearable whiteness?

In many ways I think that it is the fault of the my generation, these 70 babies who are the children of the people who fought and marched and integrated schools, who moved our children out the suburbs and said that in some ways our economic achievement meant that we shouldn’t have to fight anymore or not as hard. My parents were literally the first in their families and in their communities to venture out of the nurturing spaces of the black college and black church.  Looking at Missouri and what is happening on their campus reminded me of what my parents went through almost 50 years ago. As the third class of blacks admitted to Duke University and 2 of 12 in their entering class, they understood that to be black on campus meant that in some ways everything about their being there would be a fight.  My father was the first black athlete at Duke, the first black basketball player there and the second in all of the ACC. He knew what it was like to literally be in spaces where blacks were not allowed (They held the annual team banquet at a whites only country club), but he also knew that he couldn’t complain too much because he had to be an example for all black people–so no outward anger and always making sure that whites couldn’t fault him on his academics or appearance.  What is so interesting about the sit in above is that my parents and the rest of the black students at Duke are clear to sit there and study, not chant or sing songs, but study.  The idea about claiming your space through passive resistance meant becoming the model student, not the model revolutionary.


I whole heartedly support #blackmizzou and the the football players protest, which efficiently ousted their college president.  I support any claim for voices to be heard on majority white campuses when so often it seems like blacks are there for purposes of diversity but are not really expected to be seen or heard.  I am just wondering what we can do in order not to have to go through these same protests 50 years in the future.  My parents fought for more black faculty and black studies programs. At Missouri, the main campus with little more than 3% black faculty, the black students had similar demands. They demanded that the ratio of black faculty be upped to 10%.  This demand is not unreasonable given the fact that the faculty should be at this level given how long it has been since the initial increase in black faculty was first asked for. I guess we will continue to march, sit in, and shut things down until things change, but we need to remember not to get complacent even when one school meets these demands.  We have to remain vigilant. This fight is really for all of us.


Thinking about Harriet Tubman and How Black People Have to Be Serious and Funny at the Same Time

“While I Breathe, I Hope”

Dum Spiro Spero is the motto of South Carolina. It is something that I have thought about a lot growing up there. I thought about what breath and hope mean and how it is possible to stand an eternity being ever watchful for something better over the horizon. I have had hope for a long time that my state, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, would be better– more equal, more racially aware, more financially prosperous, more like it looks on the outside. I love my home but it often seemed antagonistic towards me–it abused me. Even walking the streets of beautiful Charleston, I could not help but remember that most of the slaves who entered the U.S. came through this place. I understand what would have made Denmark Vesey want to kill and burn Charleston down to the ground. For many, it is a small thing–removing the confederate flag from the state house grounds, but for me it has reignited hope–hope that we will finally be free and feel that this land is ours. Nikky Finney, also a native daughter, captures my feelings aptly in her poem “A New Day Dawns”:

 It is the pearl blue peep of day. All night the Palmetto sky was seized with the aurora and alchemy of the remarkable. A blazing canopy of newly minted light fluttered in while we slept. We are not free to go on as if nothing happened yesterday, not free to cheer as if all our prayers have finally been answered today. We are free, only, to search the yonder of each other’s faces, as we pass by, tip our hat, hold a door ajar, asking silently who are we now? Blood spilled in battle is two-headed: horror and sweet revelation. Let us put the cannons of our eyes away forever. Our one and only Civil War is done. Let us tilt, rotate, strut on. If we, the living, do not give our future the same honor as the sacred dead – of then and now – we lose everything. The gardenia air feels lighter on this new day, guided now by iridescent fireflies, those atom-like creatures of our hot summer nights, now begging us to team up and search with them for that which brightens every darkness. It will be just us again, alone, beneath the swirling indigo sky of South Carolina, working on the answer to our great day’s question: Who are we now? What new human cosmos can be made of this tempest of tears, this upland of inconsolable jubilation? In all our lifetimes, finally, this towering undulating moment is here.

Nikky Finney

Developing Grit in Our Students

I have been thinking more about what will help students succeed in education and life. I often get introspective around finals time when students come to me desperate for grades, or, rather, desperate for an A. Inevitably around this time as well, students start hustling trying to do any and everything to improve grades if they are failing. I always think that if they showed half of this initiative earlier on then they would not feel as if they have to come and hustle on the back end.

The problem, as I see it, is that these” hustling” students haven’t developed “grit”: the ability to persevere for a long term goal. As much as I am invested and am passionate about the digital humanities, this crisis of instant gratification caused by our rapid technology hasn’t helped these students become better students. I think in many ways it is up to us as educators to develop character first before other sorts of pedagogy. We need to help students know what to do in times of adversity. I have realized for young black men that the best thing that they can do in college is to develop a yoga practice. Yoga, as quiet as it’s kept, is hard. Men often underestimate its challenge and are always surprised when they start shaking in a pose. However, sticking in a pose will help them know that even when they are taken by surprise by a challenge, they can overcome it. I always feel mean when I tell college kids that life is hard. But it is hard. They only need to understand that just because something is hard it doesn’t mean that it is not worth doing. Moreover, it is only by doing what is hard that people will have any sense of accomplishment.

So, for all of my students wondering what to do if their semester didn’t end the way that they wanted it to, remember to keep on pushing and stay strong in the pose.


A Call to Action (Written with Jamila Lyn)

Reading Jimmy Carter’s 2014 book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power makes it clear that the least of what domestic violence is is a domestic issue. In fact what happens in our homes, in our dorm rooms, and in other personal—sometimes hidden— spaces has implications for everyone as human beings. Domestic violence is a global issue. As Carter’s book maintains, “the world’s discrimination against women and girls is the most serious pervasive, and ignored violation of basic human rights.”

Carter begins his analysis of this global human rights issue by talking about what he learned growing up in the racist, and, paradoxically very religious, South. It was here that he saw that racism was created out of a certain “culture of violence,” a culture that was dogmatic, patriarchal, insular, and exploitative. Moreover, this “culture of violence” doesn’t only operate around race but also around gender. On our college campus, this “culture of violence” can be seen in the language, in the music, in the sports, and in the movies and television shows that people love to talk about in personal and class room conversations The question for our students and even for faculty and staff on campus is how can we intervene in the problems of sexual harassment including street harassment or catcalling, date rape, sexual intimidation, and physical abuse when it is a global problem that may be bigger than us?

In our English 102 Class: Re-imagining Black Masculinity: Ending Sexual Violence our goal is to make an actual difference in the larger struggle by engaging service learning. What we have discovered is there is no way to pick up Carter’s call to action without first changing the way that we speak and write about women, even if it is only here on the local level. Producing students who are global leaders begins with helping them understand how they access language and culture in their daily lives. We want the students to be better writers certainly, but our hope is that they also become better human beings. So it is a success in that class for us if students can look at the culture that surrounds them critically. It is a success if they think twice about calling a woman anything other than her name. It is a success if they don’t assume that they have a right to someone’s time and attention and can catalog her body parts (Zora Neale Hurston calls this “talking up under someone’s clothes”) if she happens to be walking down the street. And, of course, it is a success if not one person hits or punches or rapes someone to assert what they mistakingly think of as manhood. Finally, we hope to instill in our students that they have a personal responsibility to fight for the human rights of “everyone” despite ways that the culture tells them differently.

Our role as a college in this fight for human rights must be a very personal one. Domestic violence doesn’t just hurt domestically, it hurts us globally. Our president, John Wilson, was very clear in September when he said that Morehouse Men do not engage in violence against women and children and that they need to model this behavior to others in the outside world. The real impact of this work will come when men from all parts of the world understand the importance of protecting and standing up for all women.


Why All African Americans Should Celebrate Native American Heritage This Month

Africans in this country have had a very complicated relationship to Native Americans. Historically allies and kindred spirits who fought against the same system of European Colonization, African Americans have at times also been as guilty of being agents of that same colonization and oppression. A little known historical fact is that Hampton University set out to also educate both Native Americans and African Americans during Reconstruction–by educate, I mean that they primarily sought to assimilate African and Native Americans into White America.


African Americans have also sought to damage First Nation People in other ways by misusing their representations. Witness Pharrell Williams recently donning a Native headdress on a cover of Elle UK.


It seems that black people are willing to commodify sacred symbols when it sells and are ok with calling people Redskins if we are fans (imagine if the teams was called the Washington Darkies!), but want to talk about the importance of maintaining our own culture and heritage.

Here is a video response from Native Americans about the use of the term Redskins.

You need to only do a little more research to realize that Native American Heritage Month is also a celebration of us. Quite literally this month celebrates the Seminole, Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek, and others who are literally comprised of African people, but it also celebrates the spirit of rebellion that speaks to what the experience has been in North America for non-Europeans. Also I cannot conceive of a world where it should be okay to deny and misunderstand any group of people. November is all of our month to say thank you to our foremothers and fathers who have shown us the way.

Thanks for all the information for this blog post from here,here, and here.


What I learned From White Girls: Black Women on the “Bougie”/”Ratchet” Continuum

In the video I posted about a year ago and in the blog post http://verysmartbrothas.com/shit-bougie-black-girls-say/ this idea that middle class black women feel the need to distinguish themselves from other black women who are ghetto or “ratchet” is made plain. The very smart brothers joke that the way you know that someone is definitely not “ratchet” is that they insist that they are “ratchet.” This suggests that anytime someone knows that a performance is occurring around race, it automatically renders that representation suspect. Issa Rae in her Awkward Black Girl and her Ratchetpiece Theatre explores the notion of black performance of gendered and raced stereotypes comedically. Rae suggests in her collapse of high and low art that perhaps the line between”bougieness” and “ratchetness” is so thin as to not exist. It is easy in this way to challenge what makes some black women “ghetto” or “ratchet” and what makes others “bougie” or firmly placed in the middle class. However, the idea that there is such a polarity, any sort of binary, is a fiction. In fact, more telling is why we consider “bougieness” an insult in the first place.


More Poems for Michael Brown: June Jordan’s “Poem About Police Violence”

The world needs our poets. I think of what Jordan, Cortez, and Maya Angelou would be saying if they were alive. However in looking at “Poem About About Police Violence” written by Jordan in 1974, perhaps they already said it all.

Poem about Police Violence

Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently?

. . . I lose consciousness of ugly bestial rapid
and repetitive affront as when they tell me
18 cops in order to subdue one man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle
(don’t you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue
and scuffle my oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again

People been having accidents all over the globe
so long like that I reckon that the only
suitable insurance is a gun
I’m saying war is not to understand or rerun
war is to be fought and won

sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
blots it out/the bestial but
not too often

tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then we kill a cop
everytime they kill a black man
then we kill a cop
you think the accident rate would lower subsequently

– June Jordan –

Jayne Cortez and the Response to Violence

There It Is

And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is

-Jayne Cortez, from Firespitters

With apologies to the great poet Jayne Cortez (who died late last year). I edited her poem “Give me the Red on the Black of the Bullet” with the name of Trayvon Martin (and details of his case) in the place of Claude Reece Jr. Cortez’ poem, written in the 1970s, was dedicated to Reece Jr., a 14 year-old victim of police violence. Had Cortez lived, being the political fire spitter that she was, I am sure that she would have written a poem honoring Trayvon.


(For Trayvon Martin)

Bring back the life 

Of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone

I want the 17 years of Trayvon Martin

Shot on the 26th day of February

Shot in his chest

Shot by a “wanna be” police officer

Shot for being black

Give me the black on the red of the bullet

I want to make a tornado

To make an earthquake

To make a fleet of stilts

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called dangerous weapon

Called resisting arrest

Called nigger threat

I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make hooks and studs

For warrior masks

Give me the bullet with the odor

And the smoke and the skin and

The hair of Trayvon Martin

I want to make power

To make power

For the blackness of Trayvon Martin

The blackness called pent-up frustration

Called unidentified negro

Called nigger revolutionary

I want the life of the blackness of Trayvon Martin

I want the bullet from his chest

To make a protective staff for startled children

To make a Benin bronze

To make an explosion of thunder

To make a cyclone

I want the bullet to bring back the blood

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice

I want to make justice for

The blackness of Trayvon Martin

Bring back the bullet with the blood of the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin

I want to make justice

I want to make justice for the blackness

Of Trayvon Martin.

Expressions of Rage: Meditations on the Killing of Michael Brown

What do you do when you have rage? What do you do as an academic, who calls herself a cultural critic, but in some ways has so much emotion invested in what is happening around you that you do not know how to intellectualize a response?  I applaud poets like Claude Mckay who wrote his poem “If We Must Die” as a response to the race riots of 1919. He is angry and thoughtful at the same time:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs

Making their mock at our accursèd lot.

If we must die, O let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!


In fact Brittney Cooper in her stunning essay “In Defense of Black Rage” at Salon.com reminds us of Mckay’s words while also making an intellectual case for the emotion of rage.  A key takeaway from her essay is

But we are the dispossessed. We cannot count on the law to protect us. We cannot count on police not to shoot us down in cold blood. We cannot count on politics to be a productive outlet for our rage. We cannot count on prayer to soothe our raging, ragged souls.

and, also 

Every week we are having what my friend Dr. Regina Bradley called #anotherhashtagmemorial. Every week. We are weak. We are tired. Of being punching bags and shooting targets for the police. We are tired of well-meaning white citizens and respectable black ones foreclosing all outlets for rage. We are tired of these people telling us what isn’t the answer.


The answer isn’t looting, no. The answer isn’t rioting, no. But the answer also isn’t preaching to black people about “black-on-black” crime without full acknowledgment that most crime is intraracial. The answer is not having a higher standard for the people than for the police. The answer is not demanding that black people get mad about and solve the problem of crime in Chicago before we get mad about the slaughter of a teen boy just outside St. Louis.


We can be, and have been, and are mad about both. Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream. This kind of social mendacity about the way that racism traumatizes black people individually and collectively is a festering sore, an undiagnosed cancer, a raging infection threatening to overtake every organ in our body politic.

I am reminded of Elizabeth’s Alexander’s question, “Can you be Black and look at this?” that becomes the title of her essay in the collection Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.  This question, though she asks this of viewing the Rodney King videos, in particular, becomes the question we all must ask ourselves when confronted with any sort of racial violence. Not only can we be black and look at the killing of Michael Brown, but can we be black without in someways participating in the killing, without also becoming victims of sorts?  It seems that in this case we are both witness and participant. In the end we aren’t just looking.  

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