Anti-intellectualism, Quiet and the Challenge of Our Times

I get to stay at home for the most part today. Only a brief meeting with a journalist at a local coffee shop. Working from home is such a breath of fresh air. I am committing to doing this more during the next academic year. Even when I drive baby to daycare, I will come home and work. There is nothing better than sitting down to write with a cup of steaming, cream-dotted coffee, punctuated by brief bits of house cleaning. Those cleaning breaks are nice places to ruminate on a topic and generate new sentences and new ideas. I am falling in love with intellectual work all over again. I am remembering the feeling of savoring an idea, a turn of phrase, like I did as a young woman at Mills College.

It is so very delicious. Delicious… Yes that is the word. Critical thinking is like biting into a juicy piece of fruit. But it is also lonely in some ways now because I am often surrounded by people locally and in the wider society that have forgotten this, if they ever knew it. I can’t imagine. I try to remember that there are people all over the world biting into thinking. I have to keep them in view- the whip smart women of color on twitter, the black academics getting books published, the queer thinkers writing poems. And i have to believe that along with these more visible manifestations of intellectualism, there are countless people out there doing this work invisibly- writing songs about changing the world on napkins, making up new concepts to describe their experience. There are people imprisoned in cages all over this land who are making art out of the base materials around them. There are women singing new songs as they clean office buildings. Children are dancing along dirt roads on their way to work.

Anti-intellectualism is a commitment to not thinking. Avery Gordon writes:

… anti-intellectualism has almost always been a form of conservatism, with a particularly long and honored tradition in the United States… There are many dimensions to anti-intellectualism and the dismissal of theory is one of them. And like many forms of anti-intellectualism, the dismissal of theory is often underwritten by a genuinely populist mistrust of elites, of the rule of elite knowledge, and of the often disembodied and inaccessible nature of intellectual work and theory in particular. In my view, there is certainly good evidence and a long historical warrant to question and challenge elite knowledge, its institutional authority, and its social and human consequences. However, populism becomes complicit with elitism itself when it cedes the very activity of theorizing, by abandoning it, to those very same elites. To replace elite with popular knowledge, and to replace the social order we have now with a better, more just one, we certainly need a richer, more precise and complex understanding of power and people. Giving over that task to those to whom it cannot be trusted is foolish and tragic.

 

Anti-intellectualism allows us to move through our lives without questioning the given. So often people (particularly liberal folks) make anti-intellectualism into a virtue. As if sacrificing one’s intellectual work for others or working one’s self to scatteredness and sickness is loving. I cannot imagine that this is what my child needs from me. Maybe refusing to think would be okay if the given weren’t tyranny, if the given weren’t black death on a mass scale and children crushed by poverty. It is simply not enough to live one’s life refusing to make a ripple by thinking differently. So many of us just want to have good intentions and let the rest ride it out. It is as if we believe that just being nice, most of the time, is enough. But we have to rise to the challenge of our times. That requires asking what that challenge is over and over again. That requires thinking. It takes a commitment to remaining unsure, growing uncomfortable enough to sit in the discomfort of asking ‘is this the thing to do right now?’ ‘is this the loving thing to say in this moment?’ ‘am i living a reflection of the world i’d rather live in today?’ We can’t just consume our lives like a quarter pounder with cheese meal, hoping that if we are really docile or if we work at a frenzied enough pace that we will be given a free caramel frappe.

broken-watches-dials

Photo credit: Foter.com

And meeting the challenge of our times must also mean demanding the luxury to sit and think sometimes. Yes action is most certainly needed. But we also need to learn to sit with the messiness of our current predicament, never turning away and be in the stillness that loving each other requires. Maybe social justice isn’t always running around to the beat of neoliberal time fighting the machine, maybe justice (a concept which almost always makes a potentially dubious promise in my view) is sitting quietly. In Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, he makes the case that only seeing blackness through a social public lens, or, in other words, for its social and political meaningfulness, through resistance (and thus always engaged with white supremacy) is racist. Our blackness also gets to have an interior that is not about white folks. Our blackness gets to be still sometimes. It gets to be introverted and nerdy and vulnerable. The challenge of our times requires resistance yes (although along with Quashie I think that term is too vague and imprecise), but it also requires a transformation of the pace of our living. It requires stillness and reflection. In the words of Kevin Quashie, “resistance, yes, but other capacities too. Like quiet.”

By Renée M. Byrd

 

Gordon, Avery. 2004. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing

Quashie, Kevin Everod. 2012. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press

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He is safely here at my table

This weekend, a young black man who was one of our students was killed at a party. A 23 year old white man stabbed him and students are saying that the EMTs and police did not respond promptly. That they had their tasers out and were more concerned with crowd control than helping this young man. He was a CJS major but I didn’t know him. I say that to myself over and over again. I didn’t know him. Photos of him are haunting me despite this. There is so much hope and enthusiasm in them. He has the look of someone who feels strong in his body, like it can move with speed and carry him where he wants to go along with his mind. His smile makes me think he had a clear mind. I think about how young people’s brains can be so fresh, still capable of adapting and changing to analyze new things and take on new perspectives easily. How one can grow so much in even a semester. Who would he have grown into if he had four years of contemplation, new books and new friends? What ideas would he have had? What words would he have found inspiration in if he were in my classroom, at my dinner table, reading this post. What questions would he have asked me that would have pushed back on my thinking, forcing me to rearticulate and thus, rethink my Self?

There is a scramble at the university to support students and host meetings and get things done. I just want to stay at home under the covers. There is a small, artificial glimmer of safety and warm comfort in my home holding my baby. She doesn’t go out in the world yet, except for brief excursions, meticulously supervised and watched over by myself. I still have some measure of control, or seeming control over her safety. It seems that way I guess because I never leave her side, but this too is imagined. It helps me not lose my mind as I try to incorporate this vast and startling love that I’ve found in her. Josiah, the bright, smile-shining faced student who is murdered, had a mother. Her name is Charmaine and she is coming here. The unimaginable terror for her, the way the moments must tick by, while the clock is also stopped in a profound way for her. I keep trying to stop myself from thinking about her. I don’t want to make sense of the senselessness.

As a new mother, I cannot breathe when I think about this pain that can’t have any words. Language is central to who I am as a scholar and yet, this seems beyond language. Writing about it now seems like some solitary, selfish and desperate attempt to feel in control, keep my composure. I don’t want to cry in front of my colleagues. I project onto them accusations that I am silly or incompetent. The residues of too much time in predominately white institutions. Intrusive thoughts that police us.

Maybe this is pain and terror that can only be painted or performed. I see images of black paint smeared on a white canvas. The canvas that resists this difference, this trespassing in its pure space. For POC on the HSU campus, we are that paint, appearing to sully the comfort and vulnerability of white folks, trespassing, claiming a space where there is no space for us, where we are an impossibility. HSU is a place where people of color are continually assaulted with questions about our belonging. No one can ever believe we are legitimate. That we have thoughts in our heads. I am so often Professor Byrd’s TA or her student. Sometimes people have assumed I am entering someone else’s office. I like to imagine that I am having a wild affair with Dr. Byrd, the imaginary scholar who legitimately occupies this office space. Her and I steal away and finger the words of all the latest monographs, rolling them over in our mouths. They are sweet, our secret pleasure. How problematic that this is the only way I can imagine legitimately inhabiting this space, as someone’s illicit lover. Once at a grocery store a white man said that I must be some drug dealers girlfriend. Inhabiting my body, buying $100 worth of food at the co-op was upsetting for him I guess. I couldn’t be a professor, collecting her groceries at 1pm on a Tuesday. I must be having a wild affair with one of these drug dealers up here. Otherwise, I’d be at my 9-5 labor exploitation, or maybe even that would be having too much.

I wonder if Josiah felt that way at HSU. Like a trespasser, a thief, which is precisely what those white folks accused him of. The accusation that people say started this all, that he stole their cell phone. The claims that rendered him murderable.  Did locals look at him, another “thug from southern california” trespassing in the purity of their back-to-the-land dream. I imagine they were so sure they knew his guilt. I like to imagine that he is here in this house with me. I am going to keep him here for a little while, safe with me and my baby. I invite him in and he sits with me at this table. He wants to read one of our books and feel the way the words move in his mouth, how the pages feel in one’s hands as a new idea occurs to us. He is safely here at my table, laughing, tears streaming down his beautiful brown face.

RIP Young Brother.

May our tears help you to cross over to the ancestors’ arms.

Lawson
By Renée M. Byrd 

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