by Koritha Mitchell, @ProfKori
Motivated by the belief that #BlackLivesMatter, a diverse group of scholar-activists began organizing a solidarity action that would take place during the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver. From the start, I knew about these efforts and knew that the organizers were inviting anyone and everyone to help plan. As a result, the organizers were NOT working with people they knew; they were literally taking every bit of help they could get. Initially, the idea was to replicate the “die-in” actions that have taken place throughout the country, including those that highlight professional affiliations, such as the medical students and professors who did die-ins in their white coats.
This idea felt powerful to me because it would acknowledge what was going on and would not allow for business as usual at #MLA15. Still, I kept my distance from the #Ferguson2MLA organizing efforts out of a combination of emotional exhaustion and keen awareness of the number of tasks already on my list. Who among us isn’t overworked? I had just survived one of my most difficult teaching semesters simply based on course content and its relation to ongoing anti-black violence, and this was a semester during which I traveled six times, had minor surgery, and chaired a committee to identify the best essay published the previous year by a key journal in my field.
Nevertheless, when asked to speak, I didn’t feel that I should decline. I agreed…but I soon wrote to the organizers and said I would not speak. I’m not generally a flake, so I began to ask myself some serious questions about my distance from this event.
I knew it wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable because I am Black but had not originated the idea. I refuse to be seduced by the notion that I should be a superwoman; I don’t try to do everything, so I appreciated that others cared enough to take this kind of initiative. I didn’t need to lead these efforts in order for them to be valid.
So, what was my issue??? Finally, I realized that my stepping back was only the most recent example of my silencing myself. Since August, I had turned down every radio show invitation that had come my way. Though I had been using Facebook and Twitter to speak out, as I dodged deeper involvement with #Ferguson2MLA, I clearly needed to face the truth: My country has long been sending me a clear message about how little it values me and mine, and that message was having its intended effect.
Realizing my pattern of self-censorship, I reached out to the organizers and asked to be reinstated as a planned speaker. When that opportunity remained an option, I immediately knew what I would emphasize. I would say that I couldn’t have faced racism’s impact on me without being empowered by other people’s energy.
As I said at the event on Friday, January 9, 2015, “Violence is a performance of the denial of citizenship. It says, this can be done to you because I don’t have to care about your life and limb. Then, when violence becomes public, and the response is apathy or victim-blaming, the violence—both physical and discursive—becomes a public performance. The message is, this person, these people do not belong. They are not valued by, or valuable to, a collective that matters.”
Because the purpose of violence is to mark who belongs and who does not, violence is best understood as know-your-place aggression. The goal is to tell certain people that they should not feel secure in claiming space, even if they have done all the things that the nation claims to respect, such as work hard and achieve according to accepted rules and standards. Studying violence my entire adult life, there’s no question in my mind: the success of marginalized groups inspires aggression as often as praise. They don’t have to be criminals or do anything wrong to be attacked; their success is more often the “offense” that will make them a target.
In this light, it matters that I began crying while marching a couple months ago in a #BlackLivesMatter event in Columbus, Ohio, as soon as the chant became Whose streets? Our streets. I was struck by how little I felt that American streets are my streets. Everything that is happening is designed to show me that public space is not meant for me and mine.
Feeling this way during the march also underscored how crucial it was that people of all backgrounds were asserting that these are “our streets.” For me, this is a claim not of ownership but of belonging. It’s about asserting that there is a public collective, and I am part of it. That is, I belong in it; I am valued by it; I am valuable to it. At the same time, it also struck me that some in that crowd are affirmed every day in their value to many recognized collectives. To be blunt, most of my white brothers and sisters marching with me are not getting constant messages that public space is not their space. Still, as I participated in that embodied practice of belonging—which is exactly what that march was and what the #Ferguson2MLA solidarity action was—I couldn’t help but notice the energy and empowerment I gained from seeing and hearing and feeling people of all backgrounds prioritize the assertion of an our with their words and actions.
So, coalition helped to embolden me. Yes, we are hit in different ways and with different levels of intensity by the public performances that deny that we all belong, but let’s allow that fact to energize us. When I’ve been in retreat mode, Pranav Jani has been on full-blast; when he needed relief, Laura Goldblatt and Lenora Hanson were ready; when they needed rest, Roopika Risam and Adam Miyashiro were feeling refreshed; when they needed encouragement, Deborah McDowell and Houston Baker got involved. And on and on and on. In other words, our different levels of energy and our varying capacities to keep fighting may indeed result from the disparate impact of all these forms of violence, but we can make that our strength—the glue of a collective not bound by class status, employment status, sexuality, gender expression, race, ability, or nation. Indeed, it seems that this very possibility helped make space for Professor Amber Riaz to address the #Ferguson2MLA crowd as a “Pakistani Muslim mother,” despite the fear she very logically feels for herself and the men and children in her life.
Whoever we are and wherever we are, we can choose to insist, Whose space? Our space!
Did you participate in #Ferguson2MLA or did you simply hear about it??? Either way, what did it mean to you to know that this event happened? Please respond with your own “What #Ferguson2MLA Means to Me” in the comments section below. And/or feel free to respond with a 500- to 750-word post of your own. (You can email it to Koritha Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org) Let’s keep the microphone-less open mic going!
I was in a closed meeting when the chants of From Ferguson to MLA! Black Lives Matter! began from up high in the East Vancouver Convention Centre. Many of us came running out of the room, and we found ourselves among dozens of others as the hundreds descending the escalators, chanting loudly. We joined in. We clapped. We paid our respects. It was more moving than I had imagined, and before I returned to my meeting, I paused to weep. I was proud of the association’s members for organizing this event, for making sure that it happened at the convention.
Rosemary G. Feal
Executive Director, MLA
Wow!!! Thank you for all the support and for sharing this. #grateful
I was trapped in an interviewing room all day, but I’m so glad to have had first-hand accounts, tweets, FB posts, blog posts, and pics about the event! Thank you for your post, Koritha, and yes please keep the reflections, discussion, and action plans going! 😀
Thanks so much for the support! Yes, I’m glad others are sharing.
What a powerful statement: “My country has long been sending me a clear message about how little it values me and mine, and that message was having its intended effect.” Thank you for expressing it. I echo my colleagues–please keep the discussion going! Many thanks, Koritha.
I’m so glad it resonates! Sometimes we just need to help each other find the words. Thank you for the support.
Thanks for this expanded version of your talk from that day, which was really moving. I found the event powerful, and I remain in awe of black academics who are willing to allow the rest of us to share your personal and academic stories and work, despite how often the system of privilege (from which I benefit) tries to shut you down. The speakers were absolutely on point, personal and political and all about the issues around which the event had been organized. I was disturbed when (it seemed to me) some speakers tried to hijack the event into their own agendas.
Thank you for your kind words about my remarks at the event. And I’m glad that all planned speakers offered remarks that resonated with you. I didn’t feel there was any attempt to “hijack the event,” and I’m glad that your believing there might have been didn’t drown out the overall message. Most of all, thank you for participating in this example of a collective assertion of belonging. #grateful
Thank you for this, Koritha! I am teaching a course on Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN this semester, and I plan to share your comments here on space and belonging with my students. Many of my black students told me they are in the course to better understand their own position in the US. I know that your comments, coupled with those from Ellison, will be powerful there.
Excellent! Always happy to offer something that can be useful in many ways and for several audiences!
Thanks to the organizers at #Ferguson2MLA whose work brought fire to MLA 2015. Koritha, remember that Frederick Douglass was reluctant to give his first speech at the 1841 abolitionist meeting in Nantucket, writing, “it was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering.” Well, we all know what happened after that. May we all keep speaking; may we all keep the fires of this movement burning hot. #BlackLivesMatter
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Owing to the presence of those committed to social justice–friends and strangers alike–and to the solemnity of the event, #Ferguson2MLA meant (and looked like) the hopeful beginnings of a concerted movement to redefine the violent constraints and circumscriptions historically associated with “know your place” so that “know your place” might someday denote safety, stewardship, belonging, and our righteous claims and uncontested access to civic rights in the here if not the now.
I am immensely grateful for your voice, Koritha.
I’m grateful, too, that it’s the possibility for the compound of peace and justice that sustains it.
Keep hope–i.e., you voice–alive!
WOW! –> “so that ‘know your place’ might someday denote safety, stewardship, belonging, and our righteous claims and uncontested access to civic rights in the here if not the now.”
You write, “I was struck by how little I felt that American streets are my streets. Everything that is happening is designed to show me that public space is not meant for me and mine.”
This is so poignant, and not only relevant in that particular circumstance, but in the every day lives of minorities in higher education (especially graduate students and faculty). No one wants to address the elephants of activism and “real life” within the walls of the Ivory Tower. Too often do we disparage these in favor of a more civil and so-called intellectualism. We should all feel a spirit of collective responsibility and ownership as we walk and pave the streets, not just of America, but of academia at large. #Ferguson2MLA seems to be an important step in realizing this truth. Thank you for your courage and your voice.
Thanks for writing this up! You were absolutely fabulous–your first-person, self-reflective talk on getting past the internalized alienation (“this is not my place”) was truly inspirational. Am committed to working with you and others to make sure this spirit does not end here, but continues to grow and expand within the MLA and without. The MLA has a great legacy in this regard–it is up to us to bring it back to life, on this issue, and many more.
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