Reflections on the Crisis at Hand: a Roundtable, Part 2

In part two of our roundtable, we start with a question posed by Efren Lopez: How might we funnel the labor and resources of the university, the museum, or any institution in which we work towards the Black Lives Matter movement, abolition, or insurrection more broadly? And what futures do you envision for these institutions that would make them fertile seedbeds for the sort of garden Bradley Craig describes—something capable of fostering “sustainability, care, and pleasure?”

Part One of this conversation can be found here.

Bradley Craig, Barra Postdoctoral Fellow, McNeil Center for Early American Studies 

Showing up within the academy—to service responsibilities, to the classroom, to the blank page awaiting our words—can be difficult even during the best of times.  Part 1 of the roundtable explored how we as early Americanists have imagined our presence within our fields in the context of social and political upheaval.  As universities and other institutions adapt to an ongoing public health crisis, what it means to show up has shifted altogether.  Many of us who continue to organize for justice within these institutions now face unfamiliar challenges in the digital and “hybrid” landscapes through which we newly labor.  How, then, might we attempt to draw insight from the worldmaking practices of the Maroons, rebels, and insurrectionists we so often look to in early American history as exemplars of social transformation?

We might, as Shavagne Scott so eloquently urged in her contribution to the roundtable, center the lives of Black women, both historically and contemporaneously.  While her post draws our attention to the history of Maroon women, I want to reflect on the tremendous amount I’ve learned from Black women whose lives and labors refuse a stark division between the academy and the world outside of the ivory tower.  My dear friend and colleague Jovonna Jones hosted a series of events beginning in 2019 called The Black Studies Reading Room that created a space for participants from around the Greater Boston area to discuss Black art, literature, and culture.  The BSRR offered a curated experience of study as a social endeavor untethered from the hierarchical and competitive ethos of the academy, akin to the kinds of radical study groups Robin D. G. Kelley described four years ago in the Boston Review.  

As we find ourselves in many cases unable to show up on campus as we once could, we can nevertheless fashion new spaces that allow us to practice care, critique, and collective struggle.  Such spaces, like this very blog, might allow us to bridge our experiences within universities, museums, and other institutions with the other communities that anchor our commitments. 

Shavagne Scott, PhD Candidate, New York University 

Maroon landscapes were places filled with movements hidden by design. These places allowed for the enactment of overt acts that sustained rebellions like guerilla warfare tactics and everyday pleasures like gardening, which Bradley Craig eloquently captured in the previous post. In essence, they were temporally and spatially organized as places of retreat from the practices of colonial states. Universities should function similarly; instead, they operate as “geographies of containment.” Like museums, they are sites in which U.S. colonial and imperial projects often take root. They also support the wanton individualism that Hannah Manshel rightfully sees as a legacy of 1776. The ways in which they are implicated in the worst excesses of capitalism need to be understood by those of us who are invested in their revolutionary capabilities.

Here I would like to echo calls by activists across the globe for universities to sever ties with police forces as a starting point in making them comprehensive sites of resistance. Police presence on campuses further undergirds universities’ complicity in colonial and imperial projects—creating and fostering militarized cultures that signal to Black and Brown students that their experiences and analyses of carceral violence do not matter. Such ties say to Black and Brown students that universities are invested in racism and the profits that accrue from racial inequality. They say to Black and Brown students that our bodies require constant surveillance, just like the bodies of our enslaved ancestors. They further tell us that the emails and letters written by universities in the wake of recent Black deaths by the police state were insincere. To be sure, universities’ relationships with police departments represent just one manifestation of their connections with the carceral project, and further work will need to be done to make universities allies in the Prison Abolition Movement. Abolishing ties with police departments is thus a minor, but nonetheless crucial step in making universities “rival geographies.”

Hannah Manshel, Assistant Professor, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

I’m moved by the way both Shavagne Scott and Bradley Craig wrote about the often quiet, often painful, tentatively liberatory possibilities of marronage, and by Bradley’s bringing together of marronage and cultivation, his invocation of the idea of freedom as the work of care and tending, as to a garden. I find myself wondering if it’s useful to consider marronage as a mode of struggle in the context of academic institutions, or if that risks both romanticizing marronage and underestimating the rapaciousness and indifference of the University writ large. 

A few nights ago, I went on a walk with a colleague. As we walked along the streets of the affluent Mānoa valley, where sidewalks are few, we talked about strategies for putting pressure on an administration that is increasingly blatant in its hostility to the humanities. We walked in the street because right now, on Oʻahu, all public outdoor spaces are closed, purportedly to slow the rapidly increasing spread of COVID, while, infuriatingly, indoor spaces like dine-in restaurants remain open. How do we respond to a university, which is part of a state government, that has such seeming disregard for human life—for the lives of the unhoused people doubly displaced by the closures of the parks and the ensuing ramped up police enforcement; for the lives of people incarcerated in Oʻahu Community Correctional Center, 215 of whom, as of this writing, have tested positive for COVID; and for the lives of students, some of whom are still expected to take and teach classes in person this semester. Do we respond to the administration with numbers, I wonder, attesting to the profitability of the humanities, arguing that we are in fact an asset to their educational corporation? Do we slyly pitch sleek-sounding interdisciplinary collaborations with the oceanographers to maintain funding while remaining committed to decolonial politics? Might those be strategies of hiding, rebelliously, in plain sight? 

I suppose I haven’t answered the important and beautiful question we’ve been asked, about creating spaces to tend and cultivate and, ideally, to thrive. I hope that it isn’t because rage and despair have stunted my political imagination. That rage is necessary, I hope, instead, it’s because that care and cultivation is best described and lived, and that for me, being invited on an evening walk with a new colleague, in a new neighborhood, riven as it is with the violence and contradictions of the settler state, was a small but meaningful moment in which that care was extended to me. The best answer I have, then, is to fight strategically at the institutional level, but also to practice the kinds of care and generosity with my students and community, that my mentors and colleagues have practiced with me. 

Janine Yorimoto Boldt, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, American Philosophical Society

Museums are in crisis. Some may never reopen. There have been massive layoffs – particularly of frontline and education staff. Unsurprisingly, layoffs reflect larger systemic issues and disproportionately affect BIPOC, already in the minority of the museum workforce. People are calling out racism and inequality in museums and demanding change on social media accounts, in open letters, in union campaigns, and through new programs. For just a handful, check out ChangeTheMuseum, #ForTheCulture, Death to Museums, and Dismantle NOMA. These initiatives have a lot of support from museum professionals across the country, especially early career scholars. But more museum leadership and senior staff need to commit to actionable change, too. As the pandemic revealed with heartbreaking clarity, the traditional way of doing things at museums is unsustainable. If there was ever a time for museums to commit to change, it is at this moment of insurrection. But can museums with their imperial and colonial histories be sites of abolition and insurrection? Can they truly foster care when the museum itself was built to center objects? Can museums foster pleasure for all when they were intended for white pleasure? Can institutions dependent on the dispossession of non-white peoples and their cultures survive systemic change? 

In the future I envision for museums, people come first, not objects. Museums consider themselves a kind of community center. They say goodbye to their (overwhelmingly elite white) board members, donors, and volunteers that do not value diversity, equity, and inclusion (dare I say abolition?). They cultivate new ones with truly diverse backgrounds that reflect the communities they serve. Perhaps they eliminate boards altogether. Museums hire more BIPOC and then actually listen to them, are transparent in hiring practices, and pay fair salaries at all levels. Museums prioritize historically underserved communities in their exhibitions, interpretations, and programming. Yes, this future leads to displeasure for some, but it will foster growth and long-term care for their communities. 

Efren M. Lopez, PhD Candidate, UCLA

The amazing work I read from the other panel members inspired me to be better and flooded me with ideas. I first thought about the relationship between archival history, praxis, and our current moment. Shavagne Scott, describing Black women, states that “The exploitation of their reproductive and social labor during slavery and today has rendered them inheritors and producers of racial and sexualized dispossession. Above all, their very centrality to these processes means that they have a history of understanding and responding to systems of oppression.” This struck me as a crucial illustration of a historical continuum that reinforced how archives often safekeep tactics and strategies. This furthermore reminded me of the importance of exploring the archive with an eye towards these practices. Indeed, many Black women’s narratives that contemplate freedom simultaneously mark and catalogue complex practices of evasion, maneuver, and confrontation that persist and reverberate in the present. Here I’m thinking of, among others, Harriet Jacobs, and for a fictional example, Mammy Judy’s understudied subversions in Martin Delany’s novel Blake.  

This made me think more broadly about Early American Studies and its capacity to inform movements. What could be at stake here in our particular situation as academics? In the academy, insofar as we may seek to funnel resources towards insurrection, we might also continue to learn from these histories of confrontation. Because despite the multiplicity of potential insurrectionary practices (in and out of the classroom, archive, or museum), the possibility remains that diverting those resources to disrupt colonial capital relations will trigger repressive state responses of brute violence or withheld critical resources. 

There are current examples that we should anticipate and resist the University’s counter-strategies. Take the historic Wildcat Strike at UC Santa Cruz. Though most know that the University reinstated most of the students, they also enacted a two-year suspension on graduate student Carlos Cruz. Notably, Cruz is the only graduate student facing suspension for his participation in the strike, and moreover there is evidence he was subject to surveillance. The suspension seeks to steal Cruz’s livelihood. We who study narratives must recognize that this narrative is as much about Carlos as it is about the reinstated students. This repression is part and parcel of how white supremacist institutions assert remainders of their suppressive protocols even in the wake of other concessions. They are currently refusing to reinstate Carlos Cruz. And as we know, the policing system still refuses to arrest the murderers of Breonna Taylor.

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