Praxis: Statement after the Ferguson Grand Jury Verdict

 

This week, as the national conversation about systemic racial violence continues, we think about what it means for our institution and for our work.

At his 2005 keynote address at the IWCA/NCPTW conference, Victor Villanueva earned a standing ovation for his call for increased attention to race in the writing center. Within weeks, however, as Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan report in Writing Centers and the New Racismthe conversation was reduced to silence. 

Racism, write Greenfield and Rowan, is shaped by silence. As Villanueva remarked, "if we no longer speak of 'racism,' racism gets ignored." There are many appropriate responses to the events in Ferguson and Staten Island, but silence, we think, is not one of them.

For our fourth installment in Axis, then, we invite our readers to join us in thinking, and talking, about race in the writing center. In doing so, we feel fortunate to draw on a long history of advocates for racial equality in writing education: from Greenfield, Rowan, and Villanueva to Nancy Barron and Nancy Grimm, Frankie Condon, the contributors to Praxis 10.1 Diversity in the Writing Center, and the contributors to the IWCA/NCPTW 2014 panel on disability and white privilege: Alba Newmann Holmes, Rebecca Babcock, Sharifa Daniels, and Doria Daniels - to name just a few.

We offer below three points of access that we have found useful in responding to the events at Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere in our own classrooms, our own scholarship, and our own writing center.

Teaching with Ferguson:  

As Jeffrey McCune remarked, the  events in Ferguson compel us to move "out of [our] theoretical silos and into a space of activism, both in terms of getting physically involved and in shifting how distant [our] work may be from the assault on black bodies in the every day." For those of us who teach literature or rhetoric, this can be an opportunity, and an imperative. The analytic skills that we teach in the classroom are directly applicable to the discourse around Ferguson. The texts that we teach can give us access to new ways of thinking about, or resisting, the Ferguson narrative.
 
In addition to #FergusonSyllabus, we have been inspired by the following resources:

The Root: Do's and Don'ts for Teaching About Ferguson
The Atlantic: How to Teach Kids About What's Happening in Ferguson (With links)

 Complicity with Ferguson, Solidarity with Ferguson:  

In discussing his theory of racialized interpellation, Franz Fanon uses the figure of a white person hailing a Black person walking down the street with a racist epithet and argues that, like Althusser's police officer whose call forms the subject, society's call to individual identity through citizenship forms persons through their relation to state ideology. For Black individuals, being interpolated into the state is to be recognized as an always guilty, always objectified subject under the terms of white colonial culture.

We are reminded by the recent verdict and by the lengthy media aporia that preceded it of the ways in which speech, reporting, and writing can either form a chorus of dissenting voices or further cement individual imbrication in narratives that misrecognize both our relation to each other and to a state that, in some situations, seems not to hail all in the same way, or for the same purposes. As we continue to question ourselves and our involvement with the narratives surrounding the events in Ferguson, we also question the narratives we create and which create us that may make another Ferguson either more or less imminent.

We are grateful for Maaze Mengiste's reflections on black violence in the literature classroom
and for Ta-Nehisi Coate's writings about the historical conditions that support racial violence.

Allies after Ferguson

With these events, we feel called on to be allies to all of our students, even as we struggle with the uncomfortable awareness that to them, we may seem more allied with structures that serve institutions than the students for which those institutions exist. We recognize that the writing center is a place of privilege, and that its demographics, its pedagogies, and its epistemologies have been shaped by histories and social structures that are not neutral. We seek ways of working through and around this problematic.

We respect Kiese Laymon's writing about academic complicity.

If we have not done this already, today is a day to look closely at our pedagogy and at our practice. Concluding this post, we find ourselves with more questions than answers. How can we ensure that our classrooms, our writing centers, and our scholarship are places where #blacklivesmatter?

[note: the image accompanying this photo is of the Ferguson Public Library, which has become a symbol for community support during social unrest. The picture came from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was taken by J-B Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com.]