As I have said previously, I seek to share myself here in process. Below is a response to the most evocative reading so far this semester: ‘No Mask’ by Grada Kilomba. A friend named this weekend – after I struggled through digesting the class where we discussed the article I react to here – that going ‘back to school’ what I am learning right now is simply how to ‘be’ in academic spaces again. She’s spot on. So, here I am unedited and in process learning to be again in academic spaces while carrying all I’ve learned with me.
When I moved to Berlin, I started a project of posting one picture to Instagram a day for a year – an effort to capture the change of this year and to keep me noticing whatever I am being drawn to. For the first time, I posted about my readings yesterday and quoted from the conclusion of Kilomba’s article:
“Every semester on the first day, I always play a quiz with my students. I start by posing very simple questions such as: Who wrote Black Skin, White Masks? Or ‘Who was May Ayim?’ And conclude with more specific questions. Most of the white students do not know the answers, while the Black students answer successfully one question after the other. Suddenly, those who are usually silent start speaking, while those who always speak do not have a reply. Those whose histories have been hidden, become represented; while those whose history has been represented become speechless.”
I did this because this reading felt important to me. It moved me. It brought up many thoughts, feelings, and visceral memories. And it is so important to me returning to academic spaces to be thinking about the histories and implications of those histories of these institutions we occupy. Of course, I am most intimately familiar and knowledgeable about the U.S. university system and I am continuing to learn about universities here. One of my first observations, first reactions, to the program was simply its whiteness. (Predominantly White Institutions and thus Whiteness still dominates the U.S. system certainly – Historically Black Colleges & Universities are both like Kilomba articulates at the margins and spaces of resistance.) Still the lack of black students of any background was alarming. I wondered then and still do now, why? Program promotion? University admissions processes? How does this program represent the field at large? Are historians still coming in greatest numbers out of the US and Europe? I know so little about University settings or exchanges beyond even these ranges, which in itself is problematic.
Moving back to the quote I pulled out – I think this is so important. To be figuring out — in these historically white, historically & presently continuing to be sites of violence — how to teach and learn differently, to change power dynamics within still very set power dynamics where white academics (at least in the US and Europe) continue to benefit from legacies of racism within academic institutions and society. How are academics pushing back? How are historians? Is this program?
I spent the last 3 years facilitating and running a program for students, predominantly young people of color & from a vast array of different backgrounds, from across New York City that aimed to ‘bring their voices’ into the policy-making process on issues they lived through (specifically related to the criminal justice system). In everything I did as a facilitator, I thought, how can we rethink the ‘usual’ ways of learning. How do I as a (white) facilitator not from here both bring my knowledge and skills and also invite and allow the smart talented young folks I worked with to understand, uncover, and bring their own deep knowledges that so often were not being engaged in their regular school days.
One of my favorite techniques to move control of a dialogue from the facilitator to participants is this: have a reading (it should be evocative), divide the group into pairs for a deep discussion of the text (perhaps a prompt or just talk), then after some time instruct the pairs to come to a word/phrase that came out of the conversation, ask pairs to post on a board, each pair talks about what they wrote on the board/why, from there discuss. This has never failed me – it brings out a variety of voices from the room, and allows the conversation to move where the group is engaged/interested, where it matters to the people in the room. They go from theory to stories, mingle the personal, political, historical, present day.
I’ve gone on a tangent here, but that’s what this text brought up for me: so much. It has me thinking about academia at large, history specifically, my role as a student now considering pursuing a career as a historian. Who, like Kilomba & the example of her class, is doing things differently? Whether historians or other disciplines. What can historians learn from other disciplines? These aren’t new questions. I know this too. I am still asking them because they are important to not just think on but also act on.