DBLAC and Student Writing: Turning Individual Pain into Collective Gain
Khirsten L. Scott & Louis M. Maraj
DBLAC (Digital Black Lit and Composition) formed through a coming together in 2015 between the two of us at a moment when we found a space/temporality to share openly our isolating experiences as Black graduate students from very different positionalities. As a Black woman from the US South and a Black im/migrant man from the Caribbean our discussion meant an interplay between distinct versions of Blackness that the white academy stifles through its varied mechanisms. That moment where we engaged in the Black feminist project of dialogue to “define and empower” (Lorde 112) led us to understand Black student writing’s transformative possibilities––how through the violence of the academy, we could see means to build new avenues for Black being. We joined together in a conversation that would prove pivotal in our re/conceptualization of ourselves and the capacities for Black student writing, despite the challenges that we knew all too well. This essay re/imagines that exchange in order to demonstrate the potentials held in re/inventing the university through centering Blackness.
This essay evokes the Black feminist rhetorical practices of dialogue as means of assessing knowledge claims (Hill Collins 260-62), where such dialogue means a “humanizing” encounter that critiques domination and violence (hooks 131). In the Black traditions of call and response and of using storytelling to challenge systemic oppression and imagine better futures, we interweave our narratives that co-founded the organization in February 2017. By re/turning to these stories and crafting them in relation to each other, we mobilize what Houston A. Baker calls a Black “critical memory,” where the past is a contested space that must be constantly re/turned to in order to consider the present (3). Our intent here exhibits the significance of Black student writing, while reflecting on that significance in re/envisioning the university as a space where Black being might be possible beyond the Black pain that usually constitutes it. We position DBLAC and its philosophical, intellectual, and lived goals at the heart of that re/envisioning.
The only question which concerns us here is whether these “educated” persons are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of the oppressor.
—Carter Godwin Woodson
The Mis-Education of the Negro (8)
For the better part of the last decade I denied my academic Blackness. It wasn’t that academia didn’t signal I was not wanted—as a Black man, as an im/migrant, it certainly signaled to me, like the rest of the United States, that I am unwelcome. Early in college, having been in the US only a few years, I ignored suggestions that were made that I’d been pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in this country for access to better health care. Notice that I talk about such a claim in the passive voice, as though it were made by some amorphous, blameless subject. I know what calling out those subjects means. I know academia is a small world.
But the world is often small specifically for the privileged who can make it so. Its smallness does not shield me, and persons like me, from the very real material realities that being a Black man in America means. As I recall elsewhere, while a Graduate Instructor in Texas cops dragged me out of the house where I lived because I’d entered at 9.30pm with dreadlocks. I was cuffed and pushed through the living room and my bedroom. I got slammed on a concrete porch. I was humiliated. There’s no real record of the incident. But I, myself, had asked to be brutalized. I’ve been jumped by a vigilante before. I’ve been asked by immigration officers if I had mangoes in my backpack. My Master’s degree, Teaching Associateship, conference presentations, and teaching experience does not matter. What mattered was my skin. What mattered was my hair. What mattered was I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and Nikes.
Only in the last year or so have I told these stories to my students. They are always surprised. The context of the classroom at a large public historically white institution shields them from reading me as a Black man in the US. And for a long time, I used that same shield to deny that I was read that way. I believed white colleagues and friends when they said things like “you’re not Black, you’re Lou.” But I was contributing, as Woodson contends, to my “own undoing.” By believing that my life mattered more than any other Black man’s because I taught the rhetorical triangle to eighteen-year-olds for 15k a year, I was unmaking myself.
I’ve always wanted success for my mother—my Black mother. My parents didn’t go to college, but when I was eight or ten or so I promised my mother that I would be a doctor someday. I wanted to be like Dr. Eric Williams—first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, liberator of our nation from the British. But I read the Shakespeare and the Chaucer and the British colonized my intellect with their system. Even in graduate school, I believed that somehow studying sixteenth century rhetoric spoke to some part of me. And it did. It spoke to the part of me that didn’t want to confront racism and racists that very much built the structures in which I work.
Needless to say, I can recall countless other examples from the mouths of white academics that have done and continue to do institutional violence to me. A white faculty advisor once insinuated that I was asking to cheat on my candidacy exam when following department protocol to a tee regarding procedure. Another informed me that I have the option to read race in Othello if I’d like. I have failed, on more than one occasion, because they want me to fail, because, as Woodson explains, “the thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in every class he enters and in almost every book he studies” (11). I fail cuz that’s how we do. Even when we rap or play ball, they want to see us fail. They want Kanye to say something stupid so they can count his calling President Bush a racist equally absurd. They want Lebron to lose another finals because what matters is the box score and not the Black kids in Ohio’s under-resourced schools he’s funding through college.
My mother has told me a story in recent years of being called into my primary school because I had behavioral issues. Up to that point—I could have been ten—I had been the kid who would top the class with perfect scores in every subject. The principal told her “I know what kinda chile you have there. He won’ talk to you when he get to be fifteen, sixteen. Tha’s the kinda chile you have.” She tells me this because she wants me to know that they wanted me to fail a long time ago.
In academia, as in most cultures, failure breeds isolation. Community counters isolation, but academia is a frat with better table manners and small talk. At what I’ve heard called the biggest English graduate program in the West in terms of sheer numbers—I can only guess that the number is somewhere between 150 and 200 graduate students and faculty—there are three Black male graduate students and two Black male faculty members. At roughly 2.5%, there can be no community.
Only in the last year have I come to terms with what I need to do to dis-educate myself from my mis-educated position. Much like America at large, academia does not want me to exist, unless I am “perpetuating the regime of the oppressor” (Woodson 8). I refuse. I refuse loudly. I will wear the stereotype of loud, Black, and non-compliant because I will be that to them whether I keep my mouth shut or I scrape my dissatisfaction along their chalkboards. I have abandoned studying whiteness. Investigating the imaginations of white men in the sixteenth century does not develop my communities. My focus is now with Black student writing because that is where my power lies. I commit to classrooms that are Black spheres of learning, even as they continue to operate within the specter of the neoliberal university.
On the first morning of the Digital Media and Composition Institute in May 2016, I sat at the front corner of the meeting room. A freshly dressed older Black woman, M, introduced herself to me, and while she had a quite intimidating vibe, I could sense it was simultaneously nurturing. She soon explained to me that I would be helping her learn how to use the equipment we were using, that she’d grown up the only girl in a family of many brothers, so she’s accustomed to having a man respond when she needed one.
When we finally got the chance to speak openly, M was angry. One of the first statements I remember her clearly making is that academia is racist. I knew I was in the right place. I quickly became close to M, and when Khirsten joined us at the front right corner of the room, we’d become DMAC’s resident Black family. Suddenly, I had a space where I could bounce my deep questions and thoughts around without being mindful of white feelings being compromised. Suddenly, I could talk about how the system tried to unmake me with folks who knew exactly what I was talking about. Suddenly that unmaking made us all stronger.
Khirsten and I found ourselves locked out of studio time on a cold Sunday during the institute. We joked about it making us “Dblack.” But when the one optional panel on race came—a panel featuring three white men and one Black woman—being Dblack felt all too real. We all knew that this kind of thing was par for the course: academia has a history of tokenizing the Black body and its labor, especially the Black woman’s body and its labor—see Audre Lorde’s “Master’s Tools.” We all knew that while DMAC is informative, useful, pedagogically sound, and supportive, it is a white space. And in white spaces marginalization occurs without apology, almost as an afterthought, almost as though it were the opposite of optional. So, while DMAC tiptoed its way around a difficult conversation that allowed time, conveniently, only for two questions as a response, DBLAC formed as a space where that conversation occurred, like our Blacknesses, 24-7.
In 1930, Carter Godwin Woodson knew that America’s institutional investment in whiteness seeped dangerously into education, arguing:
Neither Columbia nor Chicago can give an advanced course in Negro rural education, for their work in education is based primarily upon what they know of the educational needs of whites. Such work for Negroes must be done under the direction of the trail blazers who are building school houses and reconstructing the education program of those in the backwoods. Leaders of this type can supply the foundation upon which a university of realistic education may be established. (29)
And while we now term “backwoods” “inner cities,” they are more than ever visible to large historically white institutions that encourage the worsening of their conditions by gentrifying communities that surround the university’s nexuses––just north on High Street, Columbus. Yet the “leaders” to whom Woodson refers often fall prey to “their own undoing” at the heart of his thesis question. I will admit that I have wasted years of my higher education in the name of that undoing. But from our individual pain, from the narratives we have as Black graduate students, we can find a way to rebuild, we can make collective gain. The work of Carmen Kynard and other scholars involved in race-radical pedagogies remind us that a new century is upon us: one where, in the face of the erasure of Blackness through colorblindness, we must use our classrooms as a means of pushing outward. Let us use DBLAC to bring our narratives together and push outward.
BUT I AM NOT tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all.
—Zora Neale Hurston
“How It Feels to be Colored Me” (215)
I was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to be Colored Me” in the early weeks of Dr. Candace Love Jackson’s critical Black thought seminar Virtue, Freedom, and Justice at Tougaloo College. Unbeknownst to me, Hurston’s recollection of “the very day [she] became colored” would inform my experiences across graduate studies (215). To some, these experiences offer very little by way of distinction to the narrative reminiscences many Black students share on graduate school—traumatic feelings of isolation, discrimination, and pain. For others, those willing to journey through my remembrance of violent racial hauntings, however, the vexatious memories offer space to explore what it means to place graduate student memories in the realm of humanity—to imagine graduate school as a (de) humanizing experience, not just a social one. Yes, that struggle is all too real. This movement through iterations of critical vulnerability centers on my looking back to look forward. In doing so, I offer that graduate student writing acts as a vulnerable space where we can use student humanity and the recollections of their experiences and lived realities as a starting point for a critical examination of how we view the world and the circumstances that inform our reality.
On Being Read/Heard Ghetto: Too Bougie for the Hood, Too Ghetto for the Academy
Far from the liberal space where the free exchange of knowledge was seldom celebrated and certainly not reciprocated, graduate school was nothing like I imagined. I often found myself pondering how I arrived in this space. The meritorious, progress narrative would invite you to read my matriculation from Head Start to public schools to first-generation HBCU graduate as one to be celebrated by the recent decision to pursue a PhD. Conversely, the fuller narrative would reveal my seemingly never-ending struggles to understand how I was too bougie for the hood and too ghetto for the academy.
I remember the very day I became colored. Until my doctoral studies, classrooms invited exploration of radical possibilities. From my mother’s home-based classrooms where my brothers and I were required to analyze a film or novel, as well as memorize and perform poems in response to small infractions, to my decision to attend an HBCU, few learning experiences brought about the danger of safety and wholeness reflected through my doctoral program.
Imagine the following classroom interaction before the start of a graduate seminar with a peer, we’ll call her Lucy, and a Professor, we’ll call her Prof. Woods.
(3:50P) As Lucy prepared for her graduate student-led presentation for this seminar meeting, she removed several office supplies from her medium-sized purse/carryall. The number of travel-sized office supplies impressively reflected her preparedness for any classroom need. In response to this observation, a few of my peers and I began to compliment Lucy’s purse inventory and it’s likening to our memories of our mothers’ purses and their seemingly never-ending capability to house any and every item we might ever need. This beautiful nostalgic pre-seminar exchange invited a range of input from seminar participants recalling purse memories of their mothers and grandmothers that resulted in continuous laughter and chatter.
(3:58P) When Prof. Woods entered the conversation, she commented that Lucy was a real accoutrement. Her delivery of the word, specifically the last syllable, resembled my own reference to my mother as “ma,” so I asked if she’d heard our larger conversation about our purse memories with our mothers. She responded, “No, I was doing French, not ghetto.”
(4:00P) Seminar Begins
In the moments after Prof. Woods’ referenced my presence, embodied and linguistic, as ghetto, I raced through a number of responses back.
Excuse me? . . . nah, she would really think I was ghetto then.
Silence . . . nah, she would think she got me in my place.
Removal . . . nah, don’t want to cause a scene.
This classroom interaction was the first time I’d ever been read and heard as ghetto. Imagine that. A Black girl from Memphis, TN who survived the socio-spatial tensions of busing from the hood to my public college preparatory high school in East Memphis where my peers would refer to me as bougie was now seen as ghetto.
My peers were responding to the systemic separation of home and school realities in the best way they knew how. The 25-minute bus ride from our shared neighborhood space was no comparison to the seven-hours we would spend separated, me in the “Honors Wing” and them in the “Main Building.” They did, in fact, see me as bougie and the school’s design did very little to dissuade that reading. In contrast, Prof. Woods’ response to my Blackness—my Black body in her seminar, my box braids, my US Southern accent, my laughter, my shared memories of home—colored me against the white classroom and graduate school background. In this moment, tensions of belonging loomed as I held the heaviness of Prof. Woods’ public shaming within. The inescapable weight of this exchange initiated a series of violent interactions that took parts of me never to return.
On Being Deemed Incomplete
Filling the voided spaces my graduate schooling created ultimately required seeking a safe harbor from the environment that had caused interminable pain. The desire for such refuge was necessary but came in response to being deemed incomplete and presumed a failure by my department. Beyond the painstaking reading of Black women and their contributions in white spaces as already incomplete, I’d taken the option of receiving an “Incomplete” for the three seminars I was completing that term, including Prof. Woods’. The weightiness of my experiences left unrelenting marks on my mind, body, and spirit.
I needed a break.
Taking a break came at the cost of completing the incomplete work alongside a new semester of graduate seminars.
I was determined . . . to complete the seminar papers.
I’d made a plan to complete the past seminar papers in advance of the current seminar papers. I carved out time for each paper throughout the months of September, October, and November.
(September 30) Seminar Paper One: Submitted.
(October 31) Seminar Paper Two: Submitted.
(Thanksgiving Break) I’m hospitalized because the weight has become unbearable.
It goes without saying that my body needed to heal to some wholeness post-medical surgery. My grandmother traveled to my apartment to care for me during the weeks after the medical surgery. My peers shared visits and words of support during this time. These warm interactions filled the spaces that the surgery left open, but the aforementioned voids remained.
In an attempt to exercise critical vulnerability, I reached out to the third professor, we’ll call him Prof. Brown, on the December seventh deadline he’d set for completion of the Incomplete seminar paper.
In response to my sharing of my efforts to complete two of three incomplete seminar papers and my request for an extension to the term’s end due to recovery time from my recent surgery, Prof. Brown shared that he’d already filed paperwork to reflect my failing of his seminar.
I was speechless.
One semester before I was scheduled to complete graduate coursework, I was marked a failure. To add insult to injury, a lapsing incomplete automatically becomes an F until the Instructor of Record requests a change, which is the click of a few buttons. Prof. Brown’s decision to file the paperwork colored me incomplete and incapable of completing graduate coursework. To use his words, his syllabus policies provided ample time to complete the incomplete paper. Instead of fighting Prof. Brown’s decision to feed the socializing aspects of graduate school rather than the humanizing ones, I actively pursued alternatives to replace the seminar. Further, I was certain that I would be presumed incompetent with an F on my transcript, so I sought options that would not further delay my progress in the program.
On Being Black at DMAC: Collective Pain for Collective Gain
DMAC, Digital Media and Composition, was that alternative. The intensive ten-day study and application of digital composition pedagogy and praxis at Ohio State University would replace Prof. B’s seminar.
Initially, I was concerned that DMAC would not be a generative experience for me. The Institute’s Summer 2016 dates felt incredibly close to the drama from my home institution.
I was tired.
But, I refocused my energy.
I was determined . . . to make the most of the time.
Across the nine DMAC meetings, the six Black participants spanning first- to third-year PhDs to teaching faculty of varied ranks often navigated to shared corners of the common meeting room, social spaces, and lab/workshop spaces. This movement established hush harbor interactions where we were free to discuss the experiences at our home institutions, specifically those that led us to DMAC. Such was the case with my introduction to Lou. As we shared our painful narratives, we found community.
In the final days of the Institute, Lou and I planned to attend the scheduled weekend lab hours to ensure the completion of our final projects. We arrived at the meeting space to a locked door and proceeded to contact the OSU graduate student facilitating the lab by tweeting (one of the preferred method of communications for the Institute) that we wanted to attend the lab hours but were locked out. We joked about this being a clear example of what happens when you’re Black at DMAC . . . DBLACK. For an hour or so, we created an iPhone Note titled: DBLACK . . . Being Black at DMAC. The note was filled with untweetable tweets about our DMAC experience. From the events that brought us there to the inconveniently scheduled panel on race and digital media or even the repeated disconnection from the cultural references used in the Institute’s presentations and interactions, our imagined Twitter thread was a compilation of our effort to imagine collective pain for collective gain. Again, it was hush harbor spaces, the private, unpublished tweets, that provided safety in our exclusion. Looking back over the DBLACK Twitter thread, I realized that our humor was a relieving balm in the time of pain.
DBLAC’s origin story moves from the isolation of the academy to the communal network of scholars with potentials to transform how we think about Black life in relation to writing, literacy, and language, the university, and notions of institutional “diversity.” Ever important to this founding are our graduate student experiences with writing and rememory. As we revisit and reclaim the repressed racial hauntings shared in the above narratives we penned as graduate students, we are reminded of the healing we’ve experienced on our Sankofa journey. This looking back to look and move forward is the foundation of our reinvention of the university via graduate student writing and the radical reimagining of support for Black graduate students.
Baker, Houston A. “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere.” The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book, edited by The Black Public Sphere Collective, U of Chicago P, 1996, pp. 3–33.
Dance, Daryl Cumber. Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women’s Humor. Norton, 1998.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd edition, Routledge, 2000.
hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press, 1989.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” World Tomorrow, 11 May 1928, pp. 215-216.
Johnson, Lamar L. “The Racial Hauntings of One Black Male Professor and the Disturbance of the Self (ves): Self-Actualization and Racial Storytelling as Pedagogical Practices.” Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 49, no. 4, 2017: pp. 476-502.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing P, 1984, pp. 110-13.
Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. SUNY P, 2013.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. Knopf, 1987.
Woodson, Carter Godwin. The Mis-Education of the Negro. Africa World Press, 1990.