Monday, May 11, 2009

Mark Anthony Neal: 'Black Schools Kill Smart Niggers?'

"'Black Schools Kill Smart Niggers?': Reconciling the Romance for Black Institutions in the Post-Soul Era"
by Mark Anthony Neal

*This is the text of comments delivered at the May 1st Symposium HISTORIES & HUMANITIES AT HISTORICALLY BLACK COLLEGES & UNIVERSITIES Embracing the Legacy of John Hope Franklin.

**Originally Published at New Black Man

When I accepted my first tenure track position at Xavier University of Louisiana in the summer of 1996, I was filled with the romance that only nine-years of undergraduate and graduate training at largely white public institutions in Western New York State could produce. Yes, I was happy to leave behind the regional phenomenon known as “lake effect” snow for the warmth and hotness of the “Big Easy,” but more to the point, as the only historically Black and Catholic university in the nation, Xavier offered me my first engagement with an Historically Black College and University (HBCU). As an African-American male from the South Bronx, my first years 12 years of schooling were spent at an all-black Seventh Day Adventist school and a large specialized high school in Brooklyn, NY that defined the concept of urban cosmopolitanism. Yet my experiences in higher education were quite different, spending nearly a decade in classrooms in which I functioned, to borrow a term that Greg Tate once used to describe the career of Jean Michel Basqiuat, as a “flyboy in the buttermilk.” I was devout in my desire not to reproduce that experience, now that I was on the other-side of the desk, so to speak. Armed with a dissertation with enough post-modern jargon to choke the ghost of Baudrillard and still filled with the swagger of the late 1980s renaissance of black cultural nationalism, I “turned south” in hopes of finding my professional purpose. Having never experienced the presence of a black man as a teacher, on any level of formal schooling, I was also endowed with the idea that I needed to be at an HBCU to be on the front lines of saving the next generation of black “boys to men.” It was a heady romance indeed, but also a short lived one.

I was only at Xavier for six weeks when a lunchtime encounter with a very prominent black public intellectual led to the conversation that provides the title for my essay. “Black schools kill smart niggers” was the warning—still remembering the sense of clarity that I sought at the moment I heard the warning—and even before I could utter a word about my commitment to black students, said black public intellectual remarked, “there are black students everywhere that you can teach.” The conversation stayed in the back of my head until months later when my identity politics, in the form of my scholarly interests in black gender and sexual politics, my support of a black woman colleague who was being professionally hazed by the head of my department and as well as my distinct commitment to use “black vernacular” in the classroom made me a target of both my immediate supervisor and the Dean of Faculty. I can remember thinking to myself, as I left Xavier’s campus for the last time after only a year, accepting a position back in New York State, that for the first time in my life I had a firm grasp on the functions of a plantation. To be sure, I’ve experienced plantation life on many a university campus since that initial tenure track position, though places like Duke University, for example, are quite skilled in obscuring that reality. Nevertheless my experience at Xavier raised critical questions for me about the value of historically black colleges and universities, if not historically black institutions in general, particularly in the so-called “Post-Soul” era in which the totems of blackness flow so efficiently through mainstream culture, often to the effect of obliterating their distinctly black sources.

I came of age in the academy at a time, the early 1990s, that was in part defined by the emergence of a contemporary cadre of so-called Black Public Intellectuals; scholars in the humanities and social sciences, many of whom shared an interests in British Cultural Studies and the work of Stuart Hall in particular. To be sure they were not the first black public intellectuals, and more than a few detractors are quick to argue that they are not the most significant, but given the unprecedented access that these scholars had to mainstream media, this was a generation of scholars, arguably, more visible than any previous generation of black academics. For black graduate students, working on contemporary race themes, these figures were simply rock stars—and it was not lost on any of us that they were all affiliated, with rare exception, with well financed elite private institutions. Yet just a generation earlier, many of the scholars who helped establish the first meaningful presence of black intellectuals at predominately White institutions, had significant ties to HBCUs. The presence of prominent black academics and scholars at largely historically white institutions simply confirmed the general “brain drain” that black communities had witnessed since the early 1970s. Whereas a generation earlier the best and the brightest in Black America were exemplars of the rich traditions found at HBCUs, this was not always the case as the 20th century came to a close.

In fact, since the apex of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the early 1970s, there has been little in mainstream culture that affirmed the value of HBCUs—the Tom Joyner Morning Show and Spike Lee notwithstanding; More to the point HBCUs have been under siege. By the early 1990s, HBCUs were clearly devalued in the minds of some as were the careers of those who toiled on their campuses. The sexy view that the television series A Different World held of HBCUs was out-of-sync with institutions who literally had to defend their presence and purpose in the so-called post-Civil Rights era; A Different World spoke more to an historic investment that many African-Americans held out for black institutions. But this devaluation of HBCUs was not simply the product of integration-era politics, post-race fantasies or the rupture of historical memory—some of this devaluation had everything to do with on-the-ground practices that occur in the context of diminishing resources, unaccountable leadership and the egregious exploitation of teaching faculty. For example, when the aforementioned Tom Joyner Morning Show waged a public campaign in support of then Harvard Professor Cornel West, whose scholarly credentials were being questioned by then Harvard President and current Obama economic advisor Lawrence Summer, their bully pulpit might have been better utilized shedding light on the conditions of a good many faculty at HBCUs. At many of these institutions faculty teach 8-10 classes a year, on one-year renewable contracts, for discount salaries, with little time for research all in the name of “service” to the race. I still live with the guilt that my Xavier Dean placed on my head when I announced that I was leaving for a “white” public research institution—a guilt that suggested that I was letting down the race and that somehow I was less of a scholar because I was unwilling to accept the kinds of conditions that generations of black scholars at HBCUs not only survived, but thrived in.

The founding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities more than a century ago was predicated on the desire of white power brokers to create a buffer class—a cadre of professional blacks and skilled workers that would serve as gatekeepers for the black masses. It goes without saying that part of that project was to distance those gatekeepers from a shared and productive blackness with the black masses—an articulation of a blackness whose full complexity might prove useful for progressive social movement. Yet, quite the opposite occurred as some HBCUs, became hot beds for political activism and the development of progressive race politics. Yet one never gets past the founding expectations of these institutions, where the expectations were that HBCUs would serve the purpose of regulating, policing or even incarcerating blackness. This is a point that Houston Baker, Jr. makes in his devilishly facetious tome Turning South Again: Re-thinking Modernism/Re-Reading Booker T, where he brings into focus, Booker T. Washington’s decision to establish Tuskegee University on a plantation. “Taking into account the abject, brutal, stultifying relationship of black-majority plantation arrangements of southern life,” Baker writes, “it seems a terrible augury against black modernism that Booker T. Washington chose an “abandoned” white plantation landscape as the site for his Tuskegee uplift project. More to the point Baker adds, “And Washington did not simply situate his black educational enterprise physically on a plantation. He also instituted and argued for an essentially black peasant southern plantation economics, manners, handicrafts, and habits of mind for the black majority.” (81) While Washington and Tuskegee are simply one iteration of HBCU politics in the early 20th century, Baker’s comments highlight the kinds of tensions between the maintenance of historically specific performances of blackness and those performances of blackness resist the very kinds of regulation that institutions were encouraged to reproduce.

As we think of HBCUs as sites of regulation, it is not difficult, to also think of them as sites of surveillance—a space to monitor blackness. While HBCUs figure less in the eyes of a so-called white power structure in the 21st century, they are still critical to the reproduction of a “not too blackly public” to appropriate Baker’s phrase—that not only denies the full complexity of lives at HBCUs, but also the complexities of private and public blackness. The censure of Spike Lee during the making of his 1988 film School Daze and of the producers of BET’s college reality show College Hill are but two examples of a regulatory project that occurs in support of a sanitized view of black institutions, be they churches, HBCUs, sororities and fraternities or the sexual politics of Black America. It is in this latter category that I have been able to collaborate with colleagues at HBCUs, notably the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, currently under the leadership of Beverly Guy-Sheftall, on issues related to sexual violence, masculinity and black popular culture. Currently, the Women’s Research and Resource Center is the only standing Women’s Studies unit at an HBCU. I was initially drawn to this collaborative work in the aftermath of rap star Nelly’s misogynistic video for the song “Tip Drill” which featured a male rapper swipe a credit card through a black woman’s buttocks. Students in Guy-Sheftall’s feminist theory class helped organize a protest against Nelly, who was scheduled to visit Spelman’s campus. That a significant number of Spelman and Morehouse students participate formally and informally in the “strip club” culture that coalesces in the city of Atlanta, only heightens the roles that HBCUs play in producing new and counter narratives about black bodies and sexuality. Indeed the Spelman/Nelly controversy has ushered in a vigorous discussion about gender and sexuality among the hip-hop generation.

These conversations occur as the Hip-Hop Generation questions the “politics of respectability” that has defined so many black institutions and the conservative gender and sexual politics that are reproduced within the context of that “respectability.” For example three years ago when there were allegations of rape against men at Morehouse College by Spelman students, members of Spelman’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance issued a public statement criticizing the sense of “complacency” associated with sexual violence against the women at Spelman and black women in general and later organized a protest on Morehouse’s campus. The protest engendered its own criticism, particularly within Black institutions that still value patriarchy and the "stability" it supposedly produces, thus Black women (and a few men) are often admonished for publicly criticizing and holding Black men accountable for behavior that is clearly detrimental to those very institutions. Members of the Morehouse College student senate, for example, introduced a bill condemning the protest, arguing that said protest "created a hostile environment" and "encouraged bad press and character defamation to Morehouse College and its student body." The senate also castigated the FMLA for apparently not asking their permission for the protest. In the final section of the bill, the Morehouse College student senate requested "a public apology from the Advisor(s) to FMLA and student leadership of FMLA and all other organizers of the demonstration for its unruly nature". In many ways the reaction of some Morehouse men, to the Spelman FMLA protest, has to do with the willingness of those women to challenge the social contract between them.

Again these are the singular politics of two institutions that have a complex and often difficult shared history, but highlight how HBCUs continue to be at the center of public debates about “blackness.” It is also important to realize that this project of policing and regulation is not simply generational in nature as witnessed by the recent commentary from students leaders at HBCU like Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central about the practice of “sagging” and dressing down among HBCU students. This sensitivity towards sartorial choices, as if there aren’t faculty at historically white institutions who would love to ban the wearing of flip-flops to class, speaks to the extent that the very plantation culture that Baker tethered to Booker T. Washington’s project of uplift, is rife with the belief that what has to be regulated and policed is a deviance thought normative to some black bodies. The sagging concerns among student leaders were later echoed by Morehouse College President Robert Franklin, Jr., who recently challenged the practice “cross-dressing” among a few Morehouse students. As many question the relevancy of black institutions like HBCUs in the in the so-called “post-race” era, black institutions might contribute to their own irrelevancy, if they continue to march out-of-step with the broad-based progressive politics that so many Hip-Hop generation Americans are desiring to achieve.


Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of Black Popular Culture in the Department of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books including the recent New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity and is currently completing Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities for New York University Press.

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