[News] Black Study, Black Struggle

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  Black Study, Black Struggle | Boston Review

Robin D. G. Kelley March 7, 2016

In the fall of 2015, college campuses were engulfed by fires ignited in 
the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. This is not to say that college 
students had until then been quiet in the face of police violence 
against black Americans. Throughout the previous year, it had often been 
college students who hit the streets, blocked traffic, occupied the 
halls of justice and malls of America, disrupted political campaign 
rallies, and risked arrest to protest the torture and suffocation of 
Eric Garner, the abuse and death of Sandra Bland, the executions of 
Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson, Walter Scott, Tony Robinson, 
Freddie Gray, ad infinitum.

That the fire this time spread from the town to the campus is consistent 
with historical patterns. The campus revolts of the 1960s, for example, 
/followed/ the Harlem and Watts rebellions, the freedom movement in the 
South, and the rise of militant organizations in the cities. But the 
size, speed, intensity, and character of recent student uprisings caught 
much of the country off guard. Protests against campus racism and the 
ethics of universities’ financial entanglements erupted on nearly ninety 
campuses, including Brandeis, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Claremont 
McKenna, Smith, Amherst, UCLA, Oberlin, Tufts, and the University of 
North Carolina, both Chapel Hill and Greensboro. These demonstrations 
were led largely by black students, as well as coalitions made up of 
students of color, queer folks, undocumented immigrants, and allied whites.

What I offer here are a few observations and speculations about the 
movement, its self-conception, and its demands, many of which focus on 
making the university more hospitable for black students. I am not 
opposed to this. Nor am I questioning the courageous students who have 
done more to disrupt university business-as-usual than any movement in 
the last half-century. Instead I want to draw attention to the 
contradictory impulses within the movement: the tension between reform 
and revolution, between desiring to belong and rejecting the university 
as a cog in the neoliberal order. I want to think about what it means 
for black students to seek love from an institution incapable of loving 
them—of loving anyone, perhaps—and to manifest this yearning by framing 
their lives largely through a lens of trauma. And I want to think about 
what it means for black students to choose to follow Stefano Harney and 
Fred Moten’s call to become subversives in the academy, exposing and 
resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its 
endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in 
multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.

It is fair to say that most black students have minimal interest in 
joining the current wave of activism. Many are not politically radical, 
while others feel that they do not yet have the discernment to know if 
they are. Others fear that an activist past may haunt them in the 
future, while the majority is simply trying to get through school and 
join the ranks of professionals. This essay does not attempt to offer 
such students an invitation to activism, although that would be a worthy 
project. Rather, I am interested in speaking to those who are already 
activists, specifically about the ideological fissures in their movement 
and what these might tell us about the character of contemporary black 
movements, the future of the university, and what I believe is a crisis 
of political education. And while crises reveal contradictions, they 
also signal opportunities.

In particular, I challenge student activists to not cleave their 
activism from their intellectual lives or mistakenly believe that 
because the university does not offer them the education they crave, it 
is beyond their reach. There is a long history of black activists 
repurposing university resources to instruct themselves and one 
another—to self-radicalize, in effect. This is not to say that today’s 
student activists should do exactly as was done in the past, but 
historical models may provide valuable insights for those seeking novel 
solutions. Moreover, I encourage student activists to carefully consider 
the language they use to frame their grievances. In particular, I argue 
that while trauma can be an entrance into activism, it is not in itself 
a destination and may even trick activists into adopting the language of 
the neoliberal institutions they are at pains to reject.

• • •

The epicenter of recent student activism, the University of Missouri, 
Columbia, is a two-hour drive from the spot where former Ferguson police 
office Darren Wilson ended Michael Brown’s life. In November the 
activism of a coalition called Concerned Student 1950 (the year “Mizzou” 
admitted its first black student)—coupled with a hunger-striking 
graduate student and a threatened strike by the varsity football 
team—forced the president and chancellor to resign and the university’s 
Board of Curators to acknowledge a long history of campus racism. It was 
a victory for students of color at Mizzou and elsewhere, who have been 
fighting deeply entrenched racism for years. Since President Obama took 
office in 2009, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil 
Rights has received more than a thousand formal complaints of racial 
harassment at colleges and universities.

While students on various campuses have done everything from addressing 
racial incidents to criticizing university investments, the national 
trend is to push for measures that would make campuses more hospitable 
to students of color: greater diversity, inclusion, safety, and 
affordability. That means more students, faculty, staff, and 
administrators of color; “safe spaces” and mental health support; 
reduced or free tuition; curricular changes; and the renaming of campus 
buildings and monuments after significant nonwhite figures. Similarly 
the Obama administration convened a meeting of administrators, faculty, 
students, and lawyers to promote ways to “foster supportive educational 
environments.” As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it, 
college should be about “finding a home and a community” and ensuring 
that campuses are “welcoming places for learning for every student.”

Indeed, to some extent campus protests articulated the sense of betrayal 
and disappointment that many black students felt upon finding that their 
campuses failed to live up to their PR. Many students had come to the 
university expecting to find a welcoming place, a nurturing faculty, and 
protective administration. If they believed this, it was in no small 
part because university recruiters wanted them to: tours for prospective 
students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on 
metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and 
emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy.

Can we acknowledge students’ pain in a culture that reduces oppression 
to misunderstanding and psychology?

But while the rebellions succeeded in getting the attention of 
administrators and trustees, as well as the national media, students 
endured an awful backlash—including credible death threats—that tested 
the limits of the family metaphor, which to many now seems both 
misguided and disingenuous. Conservatives and liberals alike trivialized 
their activism, dismissing the protesters as oversensitive whiners whose 
demands for speech codes, dress codes, and mandatory anti-racist courses 
threaten the university’s integrity and impede critical thought.

The rancor, however, has obscured fundamental differences /within/ the 
movement. Student’s core demands for greater diversity, inclusion, and 
cultural-competency training converge with their critics’ fundamental 
belief that the university possesses a unique teleology: it is 
/supposed/ to be an enlightened space free of bias and prejudice, but 
the pursuit of this promise is hindered by structural racism and 
patriarchy. Though adherents of this perspective differ in their 
assessments of the extent to which the university falls short of this 
ideal, they agree that it is perfectible.

I do not. The fully racialized social and epistemological architecture 
upon which the modern university is built cannot be radically 
transformed by “simply” adding darker faces, safer spaces, better 
training, and a curriculum that acknowledges historical and contemporary 
oppressions. This is a bit like asking for more black police officers as 
a strategy to curb state violence. We need more faculty of color, but 
integration alone is not enough. Likewise, what is the point of 
providing resources to recruit more students of color without changing 
admissions criteria and procedures? Why do we stay wedded to standard 
“achievement” measures instead of, say, open admissions?

A smaller, more radical contingent of protesters is less sanguine about 
the university’s capacity to change. Rejecting the family metaphor, 
these students understand that universities are not walled off from the 
“real world” but instead are corporate entities in their own right. 
These students are not fighting for a “supportive” educational 
environment, but a /liberated/ one that not only promotes but also 
models social and economic justice. One such student coalition is the 
Black Liberation Collective, which has three demands:

1) that the numbers of black students and faculty reflect the national 
percentage of black folks in the country;

2) that tuition be free for black and indigenous students;

3) that universities divest from prisons and invest in communities.

Likewise the demands from protesters at UNC, Chapel Hill are a model for 
radical global politics. They include ending ties to prisons and sweated 
labor; retraining and disarming campus police; offering free childcare 
for students, staff, and faculty; and paying a minimum wage of $25 per 
hour for workers, with the addendum “that all administrators be 
compensated at the same rate as workers.” Many will say these are not 
winnable demands, but winning is not always the point. Unveiling the 
university’s exploitative practices and its deeply embedded structures 
of racism, sexism, and class inequality can be profound acts of 
demystification on their own.

But still, a common thread runs through both the more modest and more 
radical critics of universities. Both demand that universities change in 
ways that we cannot expect them to change. The first group asks 
universities to deliver on their promise to be post-racial havens, but 
that will not happen in a surrounding sea of white supremacy. The second 
sees universities as the leading edge in a socially revolutionary fight. 
While I share the transformative aims of the latter, I think that 
universities are not up the task. Certainly universities can and will 
become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students, 
but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation. 
Such a task is ultimately the work of political education and activism. 
By definition it takes place outside the university.

*Fugitive Study*
Black studies was conceived not just outside the university but in 
/opposition/ to a Eurocentric university culture with ties to corporate 
and military power. Having emerged from mass revolt, insurgent black 
studies scholars developed institutional models based in, but largely 
independent of, the academy. In later decades, these institutions 
were—with varying degrees of eagerness—incorporated into the university 
proper in response to pressure to embrace multiculturalism.

In 1969 Vincent Harding, Stephen Henderson, and William Strickland, Jr., 
founded the Institute of the Black World (IBW) at Atlanta University in 
order to mobilize the “collective scholarship” of black intellectuals to 
confront racism and colonialism, here and abroad. A year later black 
students, artists, and activists at the University of Chicago founded 
the Communiversity, offering courses in African history and Marxist 
political economy to community members on Chicago’s South Side. Less 
than two decades later, the United Coalition Against Racism, a student 
organization at the University of Michigan, established the Ella Baker – 
Nelson Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education (BMC). The center was 
never conceived as a safe space for students of color but rather as a 
resource for anti-racist struggles “dedicated to the principle of 
thinking in order to act.” The BMC offered leadership training, 
sponsored cultural and educational events, provided rare anti-racist 
literature, and served as a radical place for study and critical 
engagement open to everyone, especially nonuniversity working-class 
residents.

Universities will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task 
is the work of political education and activism.

In fact, it was during a talk held at IBW that the Guyanese historian 
Walter Rodney, some six years before he was martyred, urged radical 
black scholars to become “guerrilla intellectuals.” By this he meant 
freeing ourselves from the “Babylonian captivity” of bourgeois society, 
moving beyond disciplinary imperatives, and “grounding” with the people 
so as to engage, act, and think collectively in terms of social 
movements. Recently, Rodney’s notion of the guerrilla intellectual has 
been resuscitated and transformed in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s 
/The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study/.

Harney and Moten disavow the very idea that the university is, or can 
ever be, an enlightened place, by which I mean a place that would 
actively seek to disrupt the reproduction of our culture’s classed, 
racialized, nationalized, gendered, moneyed, and militarized 
stratifications. Instead they argue that the university is dedicated to 
professionalization, order, scientific efficiency, counterinsurgency, 
and war—wars on terror, sovereign nations, communism, drugs, and gangs. 
The authors advocate refuge in and sabotage from the undercommons, a 
subaltern, subversive way of being in but not of the university. The 
undercommons is a fugitive network where a commitment to abolition and 
collectivity prevails over a university culture bent on creating 
socially isolated individuals whose academic skepticism and claims of 
objectivity leave the world-as-it-is intact.

Unlike Rodney’s guerrilla intellectuals, Harney and Moten’s guerrillas 
are not preparing to strike, planning to seize power, contesting the 
university (or the state; the difference isn’t always clear)—at least 
not on the terms they have set. To do so would be to recognize the 
university and its legitimacy and to be invested in its regimes of 
professionalization. Instead Harney and Moten argue that the 
university’s power over our lives is illusory. It lulls us into 
believing that politics—to lobby for access to, or control over, such 
institutions—is our only salvation. The book is a clarion call to 
/think/ together, to plan together in undisciplined assembly. When /The 
Undercommons/ hit the Internet—first as a 2008 essay and then as a 2013 
collection of essays—it spread like wildfire among the PhD precariat and 
radical-thinking graduate students. For many young scholars cobbling 
together a life adjuncting, Harney and Moten’s critique of the 
university spoke an essential truth: “It cannot be denied that the 
university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the 
university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions 
one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can.”

Contrast this with black student protesters who appeal to the university 
to “repair a broken community,” to make students “feel safe, accepted, 
supported and like they belong,” and to remedy their sense of alienation 
through “intense ‘inclusion and belonging’ training for all levels of 
students, staff, faculty, and administration.” Why black students might 
seek belonging and inclusion over refuge is understandable, given their 
expressed sense of alienation and isolation, combined with the 
university’s liberal use of the family metaphor. It also explains why 
students are asking the university to implement curriculum 
changes—namely, the creation of cultural-competency courses, more 
diverse course reading lists, and classes dedicated to the study of 
race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. They not only acknowledge 
the university’s magisterium in all things academic, but they also 
desperately wish to change the campus culture, to make this bounded 
world less hostile and less racist.

But granting the university so much authority over our reading choices, 
and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power, comes 
at a cost. Students not only come to see the curriculum as an oppressor 
that delimits their interrogation of the world, but they also come to 
see racism largely in personal terms.

*The Personal Is Not Always Political*
Second only to a desire for increased diversity, better mental health 
services were a chief priority for student protesters. Activists framed 
their concerns and grievances in the language of /personal/ trauma. We 
shouldn’t be surprised. While /every/ generation of black Americans has 
experienced unrelenting violence, this is the first one compelled 
to/witness /virtually all of it, to endure the snuffing out of black 
lives in real time, looped over and over again, until the next murder 
knocks it off the news. We are also talking about a generation that has 
lived through two of the longest wars in U.S. history, raised on a 
culture of spectacle where horrific acts of violence are readily 
available on their smartphones. What Henry Giroux insightfully 
identifies as an addiction does nothing to inure or desensitize young 
people to violence. On the contrary, it anchors violence in their 
collective consciousness, produces fear and paranoia—wrapped elegantly 
in thrill—and shrouds the many ways capitalism, militarism, and racism 
are killing black and brown people.

So one can easily see why the language of trauma might appeal to black 
students. Trauma is real; it is no joke. Mental health services and 
counseling are urgently needed. But reading black experience through 
trauma can easily slip into thinking of ourselves as victims and objects 
rather than agents, subjected to centuries of gratuitous violence that 
have structured and overdetermined our very being. In the argot of our 
day, “bodies”—vulnerable and threatening bodies—increasingly stand in 
for actual people with names, experiences, dreams, and desires. I 
suspect that the popularity of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s /Between the World and 
Me/ (2015), especially among black college students, rests on his 
singular emphasis on fear, trauma, and the black body. He writes:

    In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is
    heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of
    labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body
    against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be
    casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains
    blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be
    rape so regular as to be industrial. . . . The spirit and soul are
    the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why
    they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did
    not steal away on gospel wings.

Coates implies that the person /is /the brain, and the brain just 
another organ to be crushed with the rest of the body’s parts. Earlier 
in the book, he makes the startling declaration that enslaved people 
“knew nothing but chains.” I do not deny the violence Coates so 
eloquently describes here, and I am sympathetic to his atheistic 
skepticism. But what sustained enslaved African people was a /memory of 
freedom/, dreams of seizing it, and conspiracies to enact it—fugitive 
planning, if you will. If we reduce the enslaved to mere fungible 
bodies, we cannot possibly understand /how/ they created families, 
communities, sociality; how they fled and loved and worshiped and 
defended themselves; how they created the world’s first social democracy.

Trauma is real. But reading black experience through trauma can lead to 
thinking of ourselves as victims rather than agents.

Moreover, to identify anti-black violence as heritage may be true in a 
general sense, but it obscures the dialectic that produced and 
reproduced the violence of a regime dependent on black /life/ for its 
profitability. It was, after all, the resisting black body that needed 
“correction.” Violence was used not only to break bodies but to 
discipline /people/ who refused enslavement. And the impulse to resist 
is neither involuntary nor solitary. It is a choice made in community, 
made possible by community, and informed by memory, tradition, and 
witness. If Africans were entirely compliant and docile, there would 
have been no need for vast expenditures on corrections, security, and 
violence. Resistance is our heritage.

And resistance is our healing. Through collective struggle, we alter our 
circumstances; contain, escape, or possibly eviscerate the /source/ of 
trauma; recover our bodies; reclaim and redeem our dead; and make 
ourselves whole. It is difficult to see this in a world where words such 
as /trauma/, /PTSD/, /micro-aggression/, and /triggers/ have virtually 
replaced /oppression/,/repression/,//and/subjugation/. Naomi Wallace, a 
brilliant playwright whose work explores trauma in the context of race, 
sexuality, class, war, and empire, muses:

    Mainstream America is less threatened by the ‘trauma’ theory because
    it doesn’t place economic justice at its core and takes the focus
    out of the realm of justice and into psychology; out of the streets,
    communities, into the singular experience (even if experienced in
    common) of the individual.

Similarly, George Lipsitz observes that emphasizing “interiority,” 
personal pain, and feeling elevates “the cultivation of sympathy over 
the creation of social justice.” This is partly why demands for 
reparations to address historical and ongoing racism are so antithetical 
to modern liberalism.

Managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is 
why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than 
implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault. 
Buildings will be renamed and safe spaces for people of color will be 
created out of a sliver of university real estate, but proposals to 
eliminate tuition and forgive student debt for the descendants of the 
dispossessed and the enslaved will be derided as absurd. This is also 
why diversity and cultural-competency training are the most popular 
strategies for addressing campus racism. As if racism were a 
manifestation of our “incompetent” handling of “difference.” If we 
cannot love the other, we can at least learn to hear, respect, 
understand, and “tolerate” her. Cultural competency also means reckoning 
with white privilege, coming to terms with unconscious bias and the 
myriad ways white folks benefit from current racial arrangements. 
Powerful as this might be, the solution to racism still is shifted to 
the realm of self-help and human resources, resting on self-improvement 
or the hiring of a consultant or trainer to help us reach our goal.

Cultural-competency training, greater diversity, and demands for 
multicultural curricula represent both a resistance to and manifestation 
of our current “postracial” moment. In /Are We All Postracial Yet?/ 
(2015), David Theo Goldberg correctly sees postracialism as a neoliberal 
revision of multicultural discourse, whose proposed remedies to address 
racism would in fact resuscitate late-century multiculturalism. But why 
hold on to the policies and promises of multiculturalism and diversity, 
especially since they have done nothing to dislodge white supremacy? 
Indeed I want to suggest that the triumph of multiculturalism marked a 
defeat for a radical anti-racist vision. True, multiculturalism emerged 
in response to struggles waged by the Black Freedom movement and other 
oppressed groups in the 1960s and ’70s. But the programmatic adoption of 
diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism vampirized the energy of a 
radical movement that began by demanding the /complete/ /transformation/ 
of the social order and the eradication of all forms of racial, gender, 
sexual, and//class hierarchy.

The point of liberal multiculturalism was not to address the historical 
legacies of racism, dispossession, and injustice but rather to bring 
some people into the fold of a “society no longer seen as racially 
unjust.” What did it bring us? Black elected officials and black CEOs 
who helped manage the greatest transfer of wealth to the rich and 
oversee the continued erosion of the welfare state; the displacement, 
deportation, and deterioration of black and brown communities; mass 
incarceration; and planetary war. We talk about breaking glass ceilings 
in corporate America while building more jail cells for the rest. The 
triumph of liberal multiculturalism also meant a shift from a radical 
anti-capitalist critique to a politics of recognition. This means, for 
example, that we now embrace the right of same-sex couples to marry so 
long as they do not challenge the institution itself, which is still 
modeled upon the exchanging of property; likewise we accept the right of 
people of color, women, and queer people to serve in the military, 
killing and torturing around the world.

At the same time, contemporary calls for cultural competence and 
tolerance reflect neoliberal logic by emphasizing individual 
responsibility and suffering, shifting race from the public sphere to 
the psyche. The postracial, Goldberg writes, “renders individuals solely 
accountable for their own actions and expressions, not for their 
group’s.” Tolerance in its multicultural guise, as Wendy Brown taught 
us, is the liberal answer to managing difference but with no 
corresponding transformation in the conditions that, in the first place, 
marked certain bodies as suspicious, deviant, abject, or illegible. 
Tolerance, therefore, depoliticizes genuine struggles for justice and power:

    Depoliticization involves construing inequality, subordination,
    marginalization, and social conflict, which all require political
    analysis and political solutions, as personal and individual, on the
    one hand, or as natural, religious, or cultural on the other.
    Tolerance works along both vectors of depoliticization—it
    personalizes and it naturalizes or culturalizes—and sometimes it
    intertwines them.

But how can we embrace our students and acknowledge their pain while 
remaining wary of a culture that reduces structural oppression to 
misunderstanding and psychology?

*Love, Study, Struggle*
Taped inside the top drawer of my desk is a small scrap of paper with 
three words scrawled across it: “Love, Study, Struggle.” It serves as a 
daily reminder of what I am supposed to be doing. Black study and 
resistance must begin with love. James Baldwin understood love-as-agency 
probably better than anyone. For him it meant to love ourselves as black 
/people/; it meant making love the motivation for making revolution; it 
meant envisioning a society where everyone is embraced, where there is 
no oppression, where every life is valued—even those who may once have 
been our oppressors. It /did not/ mean seeking white people’s love and 
acceptance or seeking belonging in the world created by our oppressor. 
In /The Fire Next Time/ (1963), he is unequivocal: “I do not know many 
Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be 
loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the 
head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.” 
But here is the catch: if we are committed to genuine freedom, we have 
no choice but to love all. To love all is to fight relentlessly to end 
exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who 
think they hate us. This was Baldwin’s point—perhaps his most 
misunderstood and reviled point.

To love this way requires relentless struggle, deep study, and critique. 
Limiting our ambit to suffering, resistance, and achievement is not 
enough. We must go to the root—the historical, political, social, 
cultural, ideological, material, economic root—of oppression in order to 
understand its negation, the prospect of our liberation. Going to the 
root illuminates what is hidden from us, largely because most structures 
of oppression and all of their various entanglements are simply not 
visible and not felt. For example, if we argue that state violence is 
merely a manifestation of anti-blackness because that is what we /see 
and feel/, we are left with no theory of the state and have no way of 
understanding racialized police violence in places such as Atlanta and 
Detroit, where most cops are black, unless we turn to some metaphysical 
explanation.

For my generation, the formal classroom was never the space for deep 
critique precisely because it was not a place of love. The classroom 
was—and still is—a performative space, where faculty and students 
compete with each other. Through study groups, we created our own 
intellectual communities held together by principle and love, though the 
specters of sectarianism, ego, and just-plain childishness blurred our 
vision and threatened our camaraderie. Still, the political study group 
was our lifeblood—both on and off campus. We lived by Karl Marx’s pithy 
1844 statement:

    But if the designing of the future and the proclamation of
    ready-made solutions for all time is not our affair, then we realize
    all the more clearly what we have to accomplish in the present—I am
    speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in
    two senses: The criticism must not be afraid of its own conclusions,
    nor of conflict with the powers that be.

Study groups introduced me to C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, Walter 
Rodney, Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, 
Vladimir Lenin, Chancellor Williams, George E. M. James, Shulamith 
Firestone, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Turé, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci, 
Chinweizu Ibekwe, Amílcar Cabral, and others. These texts were our 
sources of social critique and weapons in our class war on the bourgeois 
canon. As self-styled activist-intellectuals, it never occurred to us to 
/refuse/ to read a text simply because it validated the racism, sexism, 
free-market ideology, and bourgeois liberalism against which we railed. 
Nothing was off limits. On the contrary, delving into these works only 
sharpened our critical faculties.

Love and study cannot exist without struggle, and struggle cannot occur 
solely inside the refuge we call the university. Being grounded in the 
world we wish to make is fundamental. As I argued in /Freedom Dreams/ 
nearly fifteen years ago, “Social movements generate new knowledge, new 
theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a 
concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved 
populations confronting systems of oppression.” Ironically I wrote these 
words with my students in mind, many of whom were involved in campus 
struggles, feeling a bit rudderless but believing that the only way to 
make themselves into authentic activists was to leave the books and 
radical theories at home or in their dorms. The undercommons offers 
students a valuable model of study that takes for granted the 
indivisibility of thought and struggle, not unlike its antecedent, the 
Mississippi Freedom Schools.

The Mississippi Freedom Schools, initially launched by the Student 
Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer, 
were intended to create “an educational experience for students which 
will make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to 
perceive more clearly its realities and to find alternatives, and 
ultimately, new directions for action.” The curriculum included 
traditional subjects that publicly funded black schools did not offer, 
but they were never designed to be simply /better/ versions of the 
traditional liberal education model. Rather, students examined power 
along the axes of race and class. Students and teachers worked together 
to reveal how ruling whites profited from Jim Crow, and they included in 
their analysis the precarious position of poor whites. Rural black kids 
of all ages learned to distinguish between “Material Things and Soul 
Things,” developing a trenchant critique of materialism. The freedom 
schools challenged the myth that the civil rights movement was just 
about claiming a place in mainstream society. They didn’t want equal 
opportunity in a burning house; they wanted to build a new house.

Perhaps one of the best historical models of radical, collective, 
grounded intellectual work was launched by black feminists Patricia 
Robinson, Patricia Haden, and Donna Middleton, working with community 
residents of Mt. Vernon, New York, many of whom were unemployed, 
low-wage workers, welfare mothers, and children. Together, they 
organized and read as a community—from elders to children. They saw 
education as a vehicle for collective transformation and an incubator of 
knowledge, not a path to upward mobility and material wealth. Influenced 
by Frantz Fanon, they interrogated and critiqued racism, sexism, 
slavery, and capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which racism produced a 
kind of psychosis among poor black people. Their study and activism 
culminated in a collectively written, independently published book 
called /Lessons from the Damned/ (1973). It is a remarkable book, with 
essays by adults as well as children—some as young as twelve, who 
developed trenchant criticisms of public school teachers and the 
education system.

Although they acknowledged the unavoidability of addressing trauma, they 
understood that one’s activism could not stop there. In a section titled 
“The Revolt of Poor Black Women,” the authors insisted that a genuine 
revolution requires the overthrow of capitalism, the elimination of male 
supremacy, and the transformation of self. Revolution, they argued, is 
supposed to usher in a brand new beginning; it is driven by the power of 
freed imagination, not the dead weight of the past. As Robinson, Haden, 
and Middleton wrote, “All revolutionaries, regardless of sex, are the 
smashers of myths and the destroyers of illusion. They have always died 
and lived again to build new myths. They dare to dream of a utopia, a 
new kind of synthesis and equilibrium.”

At UCLA, where I teach, these same insights are taking a new form. A 
group of graduate students launched their version of the undercommons in 
January 2016. Based on the Freedom School model, UCLA’s undercommons 
holds weekly outdoor meetings featuring activists from groups such as 
Black Lives Matter, Critical Resistance, and the L.A. Poverty 
Department. Faculty and students lead discussions. These events have 
drawn as many as 150 students, and the community continues to grow. The 
primary organizers—Thabisile Griffin, Marques Vestal, Olufemi O. Taiwo, 
Sa Whitley, and Shamell Bell—are all doctoral students who see the 
university as a site of contestation, a place of refuge, and a space for 
collective work. Their vision is radical and radically ambitious: they 
are abolitionists committed to dismantling prisons and redirecting their 
funding to education and the repair of inequality. Their ultimate goal 
is to create in the present a future that overthrows the logic of 
neoliberalism.

These students are demonstrating how we might remake the world. They are 
ruthless in their criticism and fearless in the face of the powers that 
be. They model what it means to think through crisis, to fight for the 
eradication of oppression in all its forms, whether it directly affects 
us or not. They are /in/ the university but not /of/ the university. 
They work to understand and advance the movements in the streets, 
seeking to eliminate racism and state violence, preserve black life, 
defend the rights of the marginalized (from undocumented immigrants to 
transfolk), and challenge the current order that has brought us so much 
misery. And they do this work not without criticism and self-criticism, 
not by pandering to popular trends or powerful people, a cult of 
celebrity or Twitter, and not by telling lies, claiming easy answers, or 
avoiding the ideas that challenge us all.

-- 
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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