Trap Music, Trap Spaces, and Black Holes: From Harriet Jacobs to Fetty Wap and Beyond

On Friday, September 30th, at Wayne State University in Detroit, I gave the following presentation at the 2016 Union for Democratic Communications conference. It’s an excerpt from the third chapter of my dissertation, currently titled Original Gangsters: Genre, Crime, and Settler Democracy, a project in which I analyze the history and present of the gangster genre as a lens through which to better understand the dynamics of global governance, political economy, and social relations.

After chapters that examine case studies set in India and South Africa, my third chapter is centered on the U.S. In this particular excerpt, I situate Fetty Wap’s blockbuster hit, “Trap Queen,” about a domestic relationship framed by the trap house where the two partners live and work, within genealogies of “trap spaces” stemming from Harriet Jacobs’s “loophole of retreat” in Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl and the “burdened individuality” of post-emancipation black life as theorized by Saidiya Hartman. Further, I link this trapped, burdened individuality to the disciplinary pressures faced by university students of color, particularly black students, who are compelled to become “Breadwinner/Investor subjects of the nation-state,” as Sylvia Wynter explains, or, failing that, remain on the outside of this over-represented genre of humanity.

This is a work in progress, so I welcome any and all feedback.

(NB: I’ve posted images with the slides on top, my remarks at the bottom; you can click each image for a closer view.)


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At this point in the presentation I played the first minute or so of the “Trap Queen” video below (beware that when you click play, an ad will start playing…).

Then I returned to my slides as follows.



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Elaborating the South African State-Media-NGO Nexus on Crime: Scraps From the Archive


This summer/winter (the season depending on where you are globally) I was in Johannesburg doing archival research for the South African chapter of my dissertation on the relationship between cultural and media representations of crime and structural processes of criminalization in postcolonial—or settler-colonial—democracies. This research was funded by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY, through its Early Research Initiative (ERI) program for advanced doctoral students. I received an ERI Award for Archival Research in African American and African Diaspora Studies for $4,000, as I did also in 2015, when I pursued exploratory dissertation research at several archives in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Between the two summers/winters, I’ve now completed the bulk of the archival research for my chapter on South Africa, so I’m immensely grateful to ARC for providing such funding: it’s advanced my dissertation in numerous ways, both macro and micro. I wish, however, there were similar funding opportunities, through ARC or another Graduate Center (GC) entity, for research in other regions of the world aside from the Americas and the African continent, not just for my own research interests but for those of the many GC students whose projects don’t take up the aforementioned continents.

(Although, truth be told, there were one-off summer/winter/monsoon research grants provided in the spring of 2014 that were unrestricted as to location, and I received one to do exploratory archival research in Mumbai and Pune for the Indian chapter of my dissertation. It would be great if such opportunities at the GC were regularized.)

I’m addressing funding (and I also received a very welcome top-up grant from the GC’s Lost & Found initiative to explore additional archival collections not directly related to my dissertation) because without the funding I simply couldn’t have done the research. As for that—the research—what follows are several “scraps” (after Brent Edwards) of meaningful information I found throughout my research in Johannesburg this summer, which took place primarily at the Historical Papers archive (pictured above) at the University of the Witwatersrand (also known as Wits). I’m presenting these outtakes today as part of the GC’s now-annual Early Research and Scholarship Conference (which you can follow online via the hashtag #GCArchivalResearch).

Scrap 1: The State’s “No Crime in Schools” Campaign and Non-State Anti-Crime Actors

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The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) is a Johannesburg-based NGO that began as a research institute at Wits in 1989, eventually becoming a stand-alone agency. I started researching CSVR’s collection of 100+ boxes at Wits Historical Papers on my exploratory trip in 2015 because of my abiding research interest in violence and its contested meanings and contexts—and given that CSVR has been in existence throughout the (ongoing) transition from apartheid to post-apartheid, I knew its archive would offer a useful case study for how interpretations of violence and related structures of policing, prisons, and criminal justice at large (or the prison-industrial complex at large) may have changed—or not—over time. And it has indeed proven to be a generative archive for these changes, shifts, and preservations.

CSVR was engaged in a wide variety of initiatives in the five years following the formal end of apartheid in 1994—it was the chief NGO involved in the state’s efforts to reform the police and to develop a National Crime Prevention Strategy, for instance—and the scrap I present here is from CSVR’s work on safer schools, which, in a difference from the ongoing contemporary discussion about safe discursive spaces in higher education, was focused on eradicating crime and physical violence in secondary education.

One of the ways CSVR pursued this work on safer schools was canvassing various stakeholders across South Africa’s provinces for first-hand accounts, which CSVR then used to write reports and white papers, to contribute directly to state policy, and to produce educational media for students. These media interventions and their afterlives are the main focus of the South African chapter of my dissertation (see Scraps 7-11 below for a bit more on this).

The scrap here is from a report CSVR produced for the South African Department of Education, which at the time was considering a national “No Crime in Schools” campaign. I chose this outtake because it highlights part of the contestation then over how crime should be addressed in secondary schools, in this case whether there should be a role for informal, non-state actors such as Mapogo a Mathamaga, which CSVR describes as “vigilante” (or “gangster,” in a contemporaneous analysis). In contrast, I’d argue groups like Mapogo are a far more complex formation stemming from resistance to apartheid rule of law as well as reformations of safety and security during the ostensibly “lawless” period between the unbanning of the African National Congress in 1990 and Mandela’s election in ’94—a period the next scrap takes up.

Scraps 2 and 3: A Former Self-Defense Unit Member on Crime and Violence

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The period of 1990-94, when the (apartheid) police and military stopped acting and politico-social violence erupted between different African ethnic groups, remains a significant part of South African cultural memory across racialized groups. The recollections and analyses of the former members of the Self-Defense Units (SDUs), formed to protect their communities from violence perpetrated against them by other communities in the absence of any state structure, are fascinating overall and particularly generative for challenging normative conceptions of crime and violence (the men involved are still widely regarded as criminals, a characterization I disagree with). The interviews I researched are part of an oral history Wits Historical Papers produced in the early 2000s; the primary interviewer is a white South African woman who previously worked for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which she helped former SDU members file amnesty applications.

Scraps 4-6: An Alexandra Resident on Serving as a ‘Security Woman’ During Apartheid

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From the Wits Historical Papers’ collection “Institute for Advanced Social Research (University of Witwatersrand), Other interviews—Urban (Females), 1990s.”

Scraps 7-11: Informal Stills of the SABC-CSVR Co-Production East Side

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The six-episode half-hour series East Side was the culmination of CSVR’s educational-media efforts. Co-produced with the education arm of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), it aired on SABC in 1999 and was accompanied by a booklet that was provided to South African high schools. The fictional series, about the integration of a predominantly white Johannesburg high school by students from Soweto, was succeeded by the SABC production Yizo Yizo, which recast many of East Side‘s themes within the setting of a Soweto high school. This significant rescripting by the SABC, known as the “master’s voice” during apartheid, is a central focus of my South African chapter, not least because Yizo Yizo was a ratings blockbuster, thanks in part to viewers’ interest in its gangster characters.

Scrap 12: Coloring the Struggle Against Apartheid

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An outtake from my “Lost & Found”-funded research, from the Colin Purkey collection at Wits Historical Papers. I was pleasantly surprised to find such a fulsomely colorful document produced by the white anti-apartheid group the Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC), a constituent organization of the United Democratic Front. I made this image the wallpaper for my phone, not least as a reminder of my own positionality vis-à-vis struggles against white supremacy and in support of black liberation.

Death of the Die-In (and PSC ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Too)


[Cross-posted at CUNY Struggle.]

On Thursday, March 24th, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) staged its second “civil disobedience” of the academic year, this time a die-in in front of the building that holds Governor Cuomo’s New York City office. Like its “blockade” of the entry to the building that holds CUNY’s central offices last November, the PSC trained participants who volunteered to risk arrest, and the NYPD dispatched those arrested to central booking, where they were released shortly after—the whole action a smooth operation carefully production-managed for maximum positive media exposure and minimum duress for participants. What couldn’t be controlled, of course, was the reaction from observers, inside and outside the PSC, which ranged from adulation for those arrested to revulsion that the PSC once again colluded with cops to enact another fake civil disobedience (or civil disobedience “lite”), at a moment when many rank and filers would like to see the PSC hold a strike: a genuine civil disobedience, given the Taylor Law.

Count us among the repulsed. Not only is normalizing the structural role of police, a repressive state apparatus, in this stagecraft deeply reactionary, it also elides the myriad ways the police—and the prison-industrial complex for which they serve as the front line—interfere in the lives and livelihoods of CUNY students and workers who are black and brown. Too, this elision amounts to a significant contradiction in the PSC-leadership-led contract campaign’s tirelessly stated assertion that a new, fair contract is good for CUNY students (as some people who got arrested at the die-in offered as well).

Although a kind of realpolitik claim has it that making people comfortable with the police is vital to ensuring their participation in this type of action, and, therefore, such collaboration with the police should be excused, the very notion of making people comfortable with the police inverts the reality that non-voluntary interactions with the police, such as being arrested for an alleged crime, are not comfortable—and they’re not designed to be comfortable (per the police’s repressive role). Further, the police routinely terrorize, harass, arrest, and incapacitate black and brown people as a function of white supremacy, capitalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. CUNY students are not excepted from this experience: whether commuting to class, walking around campus, or participating in student clubs and activism, they face both uniformed and undercover officers, and stop-and-frisk, broken-windows, zero-tolerance, surveillance, and other forms of policing. None of this is comfortable for students, nor for anyone who experiences contact with police.

Indeed, to make people comfortable with the police is exactly what the ruling class wants. Not only does such socialization play into the dominant “bad-apple” theory—that only a small number of police officers kill or brutalize people, when in fact every one of them is trained to repress—but it redirects attention from the masses of people negatively affected by the police to the individual person choosing to be arrested, and to be arrested in a positive context. (Selfies with your arresting officer may be the best example of this celebratory mood.) In sum, if the PSC leadership and those arrested—and those praising those arrested—actually took seriously student issues, as they claim, they wouldn’t be colluding with police in any fashion but, instead, organizing to get cops off CUNY campuses, among numerous other issues and actions that would reduce contact between the police and students, on campus and off, and challenge policing and carcerality overall.

Meanwhile, the specific die-in component of the action raises two points of concern: (1) the significant revision of the political history and contexts that obtain in the die-in as a form, and (2) the implications of personifying an institution as the subject of death rather than the people who are subject to death.

In the first case, the image at the top of this post exemplifies some of the revision: originally a photo of a Black Lives Matter die-in at Emory in December 2014, it was altered to (a) replace the “Black Lives Matter” message on the center placard with “Stop the War on CUNY” and (b) add a second placard with the hashtag “#SaveCUNY.” Although the revised image isn’t an official PSC one—a student organizer made and circulated it—it highlights, as with the normalizing of the police above, a shift in attention from the very real deaths of black people by the state and its accomplices to the metaphorical death of CUNY.

As such, the image—and the die-in itself—erased anti-black state violence as a point of struggle in favor of not just a university, which isn’t subject to violence, but one that, like all institutions of higher education in the U.S., is enmeshed in anti-black state violence (again, via various security apparatuses, but also in various forms of institutional violence, such as the low numbers of black students and faculty at CUNY, particularly at the graduate level). In effect, the PSC’s die-in turned attention away generally from the material realities of black students, faculty, and staff, while the altered image circulated to promote the die-in specifically exploited black people and black struggle for a struggle—to “save CUNY” from “dying”—that isn’t particularly focused on race or racism at all (notwithstanding a few signs at the die-in declaiming that “CUNY is about racial & economic justice“).

Further, insofar as the PSC die-in didn’t reference material but metaphoric death, it suggests that the die-in has reached such a point of institutionalization that it’s no longer a useful form of protest—indeed, that, as a form, it’s become completely depoliticized and, therefore, uncontroversial for a liberal organization like the PSC to stage. It bears remembering that the original die-ins by ACT-UP in the late 1980s occurred in a moment of utter silence from the media and government about the epidemic of AIDS deaths, and that the die-ins were meant to break that silence (consonant with ACT-UP’s slogan, “Silence = Death”). And, importantly, the political funerals that began in 1992 took the die-in a step further, presenting death both materially and symbolically, thus ratcheting up the intensity of the tactic as the struggle demanded it.

In contrast, the issue at the center of the PSC die-in—CUNY funding, specifically Cuomo’s proposed $485-million cut—had been widely covered in the media and the focus of much state-government activity by the time of the action: there was no silence to break. Moreover, unlike the gay and queer men who took part in the ACT-UP die-ins and political funerals and the Arab, Muslim, and black people who take part in Palestine-solidarity or BLM die-ins respectively, the people who participated in the PSC die-in had no literal relationship to the death they enacted because it was only metaphoric. Instead, like non-black or -brown folks who jump at the chance to participate in die-ins, thus erasing, visually, their highly differential connection to the death being represented, the PSC members who staged the die-in erased the question of material death entirely in service to pure spectacle. As such, the die-in also reinforced that the PSC contract campaign and related initiatives vis-à-vis state funding have been largely designed to engage the media (“#StopStarvingCUNY”) and not, for instance, CUNY students, faculty, staff, and community who might actually be starving because of low wages or unemployment.

Finally, given the lack of death as material referent, and beyond the cultural dominance of metaphor as a form of comparison, why frame CUNY as dying at all? For one thing, as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, said at last May’s Cultural Studies Association conference, also employing metaphor, the university is already dead: it’s not working for most people, a claim that, at CUNY, might be supported by the dismal graduation rates of CUNY undergraduates (a fact buried in recent professor op-eds about the importance of CUNY to reducing inequality) or barriers to access in the first place, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, the disinvestment of public primary and secondary schools, or high-stakes testing. In other words, maybe CUNY’s “death,” already or imminent, is actually a good thing: the end of the fiction of the “CUNY Value,” whether promulgated by the administration or faculty, and a new focus on the needs of would-be CUNY students in order to get their paper and thus have a greater chance to self-determine their lives.

Taking the PSC die-in on its own terms, though, what does it mean to personify an institution and mourn its “death,” backed by the not-insignificant resources of the union, instead of centering and supporting with those resources the people of the institution who are subject to, in CUNY professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s formulation of structural racism, “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Golden Gulag 28)? Relatedly, what does it mean to stage a civil disobedience in which the “penalty”—a tap on the wrist legally—is as symbolic as the action, instead of engaging in the actual civil disobedience of going on strike and breaking the Taylor Law, in which the penalty is significant (lost wages, fines, possibly lost jobs for individuals; fines and other reductions in resources for the union proper)?

The PSC leadership and many of the union’s most ardent champions, on hand at or who participated in the die-in, prefer the empty symbolism, self-interest, and low stakes of the former approaches—the reasons, not incidentally, the contract campaign hasn’t produced any results yet—while many of us uniting under the “CUNY Struggle” banner favor the material meaning, collectivity, and risk-reward ratio of the latter approaches.

Indeed, to use the PSC campaigners’ enthusiasm for death metaphorics, many of us would like to see this current formation of the PSC, and its incredibly narrow and dispiriting strategy, die and a new, genuinely social-justice-oriented one, replace it. Change requires change. Once a form, like the die-in, or a leadership, such as that of the PSC, becomes institutionalized—dead—it should be discarded.

[Image created and circulated by a student organizer to promote the PSC die-in.]
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Beyoncé: From the Black Panthers to Israel? He said they are making a documentary about him The ILWU shut down all bay area ports on October 23, 2010 and took part in a rally near Oakland City Hall My video of their drill team performing at the rally

News circulating today about Beyoncé’s (latest) possible performance in Tel Aviv prompted me to look at what Elaine Brown, longtime Black Panthers member and the group’s chair for three years in the 1970s, and an inspiration for the look of Beyoncé’s dancers in her Super Bowl performance, might have had to say about Palestine. The Panthers, of course, were strong supporters of the Palestinians, particularly in the context of the group’s overall resistance to U.S. and Western imperialism, but I wanted to see if Brown had written anything about this solidarity. I turned to her autobiography A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (1992), cited on Twitter in response to Bey’s half-time show.

Although Brown doesn’t offer her own thoughts on Palestine and the fight of Palestinians against the Israeli state’s occupation and settlement of their land, she does recount the following (fascinating) details about Huey Newton’s revision of the Panthers’ political line on the situation:

He renounced the party’s Eldridge Cleaver-inspired position against the State of Israel. He sent a message to all Arab embassies and to that of Israel stating that the Black Panther Party now recognized both the State of Israel and the right of the Palestinian people to have a homeland.

The party’s position, as his message outlined, was that the Arab-Israeli dispute could be settled quickly if Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or some other territory controlled by the Palestinians’ rich brothers—who had been claiming since 1948 to be pressing to help them reclaim Palestine—simply gave a piece of territory inside their vast borders to the Palestinians and made them a new homeland. The wrong that had been done by the Stern Gang in collusion with the British gang and the U.S. gang in uprooting the Palestinians’ was a fait accompli. The resultant State of Israel had to be reckoned with, therefore. Life, like revolution, [Huey] said, looked forward, not backward.

His message contained the most daring conclusion. Ultimately, he exhorted, there was a revolutionary way to settle the conflict. He called upon Arabs and Israelis alike to recognize that the problems between them had to do with something larger than the territory of Israel or Palestine, larger than Judaism or Islam. It had to do with the theft and hoarding of the resources of the region—specifically the oil—by what he lambasted as a conspiracy of certain governments of the region with the U.S. He urged them to lay down their arms against each other, rise up united, and overthrow the reactionary Zionist government in Israel and the reactionary Arab sheikdoms and kingdoms and create peace in the land of plenty.

Huey found a certain private delight in taking that position, no matter how befuddled his troops became over it or that it tainted our nominal alliance with the PLO—and notwithstanding the damage it did to Eldridge. Several nights before he proclaimed the party’s new Middle East position, he told me about his father.

Huey’s father, Walter, was half white, or half Jewish actually: the product of a black woman and a Southern Jew named Simon. The question of whether or not Walter Newton’s mother was forcible raped, working in the house of Simon, was a technicality lost to history as far as Huey was concerned. What disturbed him was the damage that had been done to his father, whose self-hatred and hatred of whites was that of the son of a presumed rapist—despite his mother’s subsequent marriage to a black man named Newton, who gave him his name.

Somewhere in the outer regions of Huey’s thinking, he saw a connection between the bitterness of Walter Newton and the bitterness of Arabs and of Jews, and that of black people in general. It was, to him, a useless response to the sting of the past. They had all looked back so long, he declared, the present was obliterated and the future eclipsed. The relief of change was only for those who could create the future. There was, therefore, something poetically proper, healing, even, he thought, for the black son of the bastard son of a Jew to take that position. (254-255)

For more details on Newton’s highly nuanced position on Palestine, see Matthew Quest’s “The Black Panther Party and Palestine Solidarity” (2003), and for more info on the Black Panthers’ overall relationship to Palestine, see Alex Lubin’s new study Geographies of Liberation: The Making of an Afro-Arab Political Imaginary. And for a recent interview with former Panther Dhoruba Bin Wahad on these political links in light of current circumstances, including the collaboration between U.S. police (whose anti-black violence Beyoncé takes up in the video for “Formation,” the song she performed at the Super Bowl) and the Israeli security apparatus, check out this post by Davey D.

[Photo: “Elaine Brown at Oscar Grant rally in Oakland October 23, 2010 19” by Steve Rhodes by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.]
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On the MLA and Academic Boycott

Young students and tank

This evening I gave the following remarks in the second of two special convention sessions on the boycott of Israeli academic institutions held by the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee as part of the association’s process of considering a resolution on boycott that could come at next year’s convention. The four speakers in each session, two pro-boycott and two anti-boycott, were limited to seven minutes each, after which questions were posed to the speakers from the audience. I will refrain from characterizing the arguments of the anti-boycott side in my session but to mention that I was asked if I agreed “Muslims are terrorists.” I said no, they’re not—to say they are is Islamophobic. And that was the tip of the iceberg of the anti side’s rhetoric…

I first want to acknowledge that we’re on unceded Indigenous people’s land here in Austin.

This past summer I was in South Africa doing research for my dissertation on criminalization, cultural representations of crime, and colonial and postcolonial social relations. While there, I met with organizers of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, BDS for short, including current students and recent graduates of the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand, and the University of Pretoria as well as members of Jewish Voices for a Just Peace, the South African analog to the U.S.-based Jewish Voice for Peace. I want to emphasize these two organizations at the outset of my remarks, since one of the popular criticisms of BDS, including the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, is that somehow it’s anti-Semitic, despite the countless Jewish-identified groups and people who are engaged in the effort.

At my meeting with BDS organizers in Johannesburg, I was asked why I participate in Palestinian solidarity and why I myself am engaged in BDS efforts, both at the City University of New York and at the MLA. It was, and is, a good question. I answered then and I say now that I’m committed to BDS and the boycott of Israeli academic institutions because Palestinians, in the midst of the unceasing occupation and colonial settlement of their land by the Israeli state, have asked the world to help them break this siege through the methods of BDS. Although opponents of these methods continue to try to dismiss this fact—that the force of this collective Palestinian call has no force at all—it is indeed a fact: as much a fact as the South African call for BDS throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that played a central role in ending apartheid there.

This is how global-solidarity movements work: a community asks the world to support them in their struggle for self-determination, and the world, ideally, responds. And this is why, for instance, Palestinians under occupation and facing continual inroads by Israeli settlers, have responded to Black Lives Matter organizers here in the U.S. with robust displays of support. Indeed, the links between the black liberation movement in the States and the Palestinian liberation movement in occupied Palestine go back decades, as do links between the Palestinian struggle and many other struggles for self-determination the world over.

This is another reason I support academic boycott: as both a student and beneficiary of settler colonialism in the U.S. and its related structures of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism, and one who’s tracing these operations globally in my dissertation research, I consider it my ethical obligation to not just oppose settler colonialism—whether here in North America by the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments or in Palestine by the state of Israel—but to work to dismantle it as well.

And that’s what we can do, as MLA members, by endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions: contribute to the dialogue within Israel and internationally on ending the occupation and colonial settlement of Palestine. Indeed, as much as BDS is an intervention against the Israeli state’s unjust policies concerning Palestine and Palestinians, it’s also an intervention against the support of those policies by governments and institutions around the world. So while BDS, in one way, is meant to spur Israelis to oppose their own government’s policies in response to growing global pressure to do so, in another way BDS is meant to spur non-Israelis to oppose our own respective governments’ support of those same policies.

This dialogue must necessarily extend to Israeli academic institutions, which, like our own academic institutions, have manifold connections to the state, including specific links to the occupation and settlement of Palestine, well-documented by independent sources. But in the remainder of my remarks I want to address the educational situation in Palestine.

So much of the debate in the U.S. over the boycott of Israeli academic institutions revolves around the academic freedom of U.S.- and Israeli-based academics, even though an institutional boycott would not constrain their academic freedom. Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face severe restrictions on both their freedom and their academics as a direct result of occupation and settlement.

These restrictions were brought home for me when I met with students visiting from Birzeit University in the West Bank last academic year as part of the Right to Education tour, another example of dialogue. The students spoke of their difficulties in even getting to class because of the routine obstacles posed by the Israeli-security apparatus, apartheid segregation, and settler violence—that is, when classes weren’t cancelled outright because schools were shut down for Israeli military operations in the area or to quell academic resistance. Indeed, in a fresh-from-the-headlines example, sections of the West Bank city of Hebron have been closed since November by the Israeli military and residents have had to file for “special permits to cross through the 18 military checkpoints in the city center.” Can you imagine what that must be like?

As one of the organizers who helped bring the Birzeit students to the States, Kristian Davis Bailey, has written, “everyone must consider academic freedom in its fuller context. Education is a fundamental human right….We must protect it at all levels. So even when the academy or political elite do not agree with the methods of BDS, they have been presented with facts and with a call from a suffering people to do something. The question is no longer whether or when to act, but how will we respond now?” (Against Apartheid: The Case for Boycotting Israeli Universities 157-158)

I hope, as educators and MLA members, we can all take heart and answer the call Palestinians have made to us by endorsing academic boycott—and sooner, rather than later. Thank you.

[Photo: “Israel Palestine” by Rusty Stewart via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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The NYPD and CUNY Inequality: Two Urgent Notes on the Arrests

Stop & Frisk

Two things that everyone who shared or read news of the arrests outside of CUNY Central last night urgently needs to know:

1) The union pre-arranged the arrests with the NYPD. Those who agreed to be arrested were brought down the street, given a desk ticket, and released. Never mind that the union president claims the arrests were in part on behalf of the students of CUNY, who are routinely terrorized, harassed, and spied on by the NYPD—the union actively worked with the NYPD to stage their spectacle, and egregiously appropriated a civil-rights genealogy, and “racial justice,” in their public rhetoric about it.

2) The demand of “CUNY Needs a Raise”—that is, the equal-percentage across-the-board wage increases that the union is bargaining for—will maintain and even increase the pay disparity between adjunct faculty and full-time faculty absent any other measure (such as a minimum starting salary of $7K). The union, as it has consistently done, contract after contract, is actually fostering inequality with this demand—no help from CUNY management or the state even needed.

Instead of “CUNY needs a raise,” we should be calling for pay equity for adjunct faculty, the majority of the faculty (59%) and the ones on the front lines of introductory classes filled with working-class students of color that CUNY is systematically trying to exclude.

[Photo: “Stop & Frisk” by carnagenyc via CC BY-NC 2.0.]
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South Africa, July 9-August 19

I’ll be in South Africa doing dissertation research July 9-August 19. My basic itinerary and research sites follow, in case you’d like to connect with me there or know of folks with whom I can connect. Interested in discussing all aspects of South Africa, in particular its manifold relationships, historical and contemporary, to the U.S. and India, including vis-à-vis film, TV, and music cultures.

July 9-16: Johannesburg/Pretoria (National Film, Video, and Sound Archive, Bailey’s African History Archive)

July 17-19: Durban (Durban International Film Festival)

July 20-25: Johannesburg/Pretoria (as above + the University of Witwatersrand library)

July 26-August 8: Cape Town (Centre for Popular Memory/University of Cape Town library)

August 9-19: Johannesburg/Pretoria (as above)

The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details: Academic Conferences

An analysis by the MLA Subconference collective (of which I’m a member) of the recent Cultural Studies Association conference—on the theme of “Another University is Possible”—and of academic conferences in general, including the MLA Subconference. To read the full post and see the budget of our convening this past January, click here.

The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details, or, the theory and praxis of academic conferences

The academic conference is a microcosm of academia as a whole and contains all of the latter’s contradictions. Primary among these is the contradiction between theory and praxis. Theoretically, the academic conference is committed to the free pursuit of knowledge; practically, knowledge itself is traversed by the power relations of our capitalist, settler-colonialist, hetero-patriarchal society. Theoretically, the impulse behind the academic conference is egalitarian; practically, it conceals myriad classed, raced, gendered and other hierarchies. Theoretically, the academic conference is open and accessible; practically, it poses significant barriers to access (financial and otherwise) which disproportionately affect graduate students, contingent faculty, and other members of what we hesitate to call the academic precariat. These barriers have by now been amply demonstrated.

As organizers of the MLA Subconference, our engagement with these contradictions has primarily played out in relation to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, as well as in our attempts to construct an autonomous shadow conference oriented towards transformative praxis. More recently, we have experienced similar contradictions in relation to the Cultural Studies Association (CSA). With the theme of “Another University is Possible,” the latter’s 2015 convention aimed to foster “an insurgent intellectual space for imagining, enacting, and mapping new forms of knowledge production and scholarly communication and community.” At the same time, barriers to access have increased: last year, for instance, the CSA provided travel grants to all graduate students who requested them, but this year they provided grants to less than half of applicants. (Email with CSA president, Dec. 15, 2014, and chair of the travel-grant committee, May 18, 2015, respectively.)

In noting this disparity, our intention is not to “call out” the CSA. It is rather to call on all of us—graduate students, contingent and tenured faculty, conference organizers and attendees—to consider how we can more profoundly join our intellectual commitments to our political practices, even or especially where these may not appear political at first sight. We have no doubt that the CSA genuinely seeks “new forms” of scholarly community, yet decisions about allocation of resources can inadvertently reproduce the same old, hierarchical forms we are all theoretically committed to overcoming. Academic organizations frequently lament the ongoing corporatization of higher education while positing these processes as outside of their control. But it is precisely our collective and individual decisions about matters such as budgeting that either challenge or reproduce such processes. We thus insist that the practical politics of conference organizing do not emerge in the choice of annual themes, plenary sessions or keynote speakers, but rather in more seemingly mundane choices as to venue, structure, cost, and financing. It is the relation—or rather, diremption—between these two which needs to be demystified.

One way to do this is for academic organizations to begin publicizing and rendering transparent their conference budgets. Accordingly, we here offer our budget for the 2015 MLA Subconference, “Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle.”

To continue reading, click here.

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Lying On the Line: Michael Slager and Darren Wilson

Further to my last post about Darren Wilson’s deceitful grand-jury testimony, in which he claimed that Mike Brown seized his gun, Michael Slager, the South Carolina police officer who executed Walter Scott, also claimed that his victim got control of his weapon–until a witness’s video showed no such thing.

According to initial news reports, Slager and the North Charleston police department claimed that Scott and Slager struggled over Slager’s Taser until Scott not only obtained the Taser but tried to use it on Slager, which forced Slager to retaliate:

Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.

The video of this purported struggle, of course, shows no struggle—just Scott running away and posing zero threat to Slager.

Similarly, Wilson too claimed there was a struggle between him and Brown—and note how the term “struggle” normalizes a profoundly asymmetric differential of power and violence—and that Brown also got control of the cop’s weapon. Unsurprisingly, this was a matter of protracted attention during Wilson’s testimony at the grand jury (pages 20/214 to 23/217):

He immediately grabs my gun and says ‘you are too much of a pussy to shoot me.’ The way he grabbed me, do you have a picture? …

My gun was basically pointed this way. I’m in my car, he’s here, it is pointed this way, but he grabs it with his right hand, not his left, he grabs it with his right one and he twists it and then he digs it down into my hip. [indicating]

Then, in the moments it takes to project several photos of Wilson’s gun, the questioning attorney goes back to Wilson’s claim that Brown was “striking you in the face through the car door,” and that Wilson “needed to pull out your weapon,” setting up Wilson to say his life was in danger (“why did you feel that way,” the attorney asks. “I don’t want to put words in your mouth.”):

I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse….I’ve already taken two to the face…the third one could be fatal if he hit me right.

In response, the attorney consolidates the possibility of fatality to an absolute: “You thought he could hit you and it would be a fatal injury?” (emphasis mine).

Reading these short passages, the degree of orchestration involved in Wilson’s testimony is clear: the assertion that Brown grabbed his gun, the re-enactment of Brown grabbing his gun, the visual documentation of the gun, the attorney’s corroboration of the fatal threat Brown posed. If this extravagant scene wouldn’t be out of place in a Law and Order episode, that’s because it’s just as fictional. And the fiction is only underscored by Slager’s—and his police department’s—similar, if abbreviated, account of his life threatened by Scott, when in fact it wasn’t.

Indeed, we should resist the naturalized fact that police officers “put their lives on the line” when in the “line of duty”—a dubious moral assertion that nonetheless seems to be the single greatest rationale for their never-justified violence. Slager’s plain lie demonstrates anew that police will say anything to save themselves from culpability—a safety their victims don’t have, from culpability or death.

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White Racial Fantasy, Darren Wilson, and #Ferguson

Reading Darren Wilson’s grand-jury testimony, it’s abundantly clear he lied through his teeth, was not pressed on his contradictions, and, as many others have noted, conjured a (deeply genealogized) white fantasy-spectacle of black criminalization and death, first in Wilson’s fantasy that he was going to be killed by a black man, then in his fantasy of killing a black man, which he succeeded in doing (and which he seemed to enjoy, especially now that he’s gotten off without charge, as expected). But Wilson’s likening of Mike Brown to Hulk Hogan, and himself to his five-year-old self, is perhaps the most telling part of this complex fantasy play:

And he said, ‘hey man, hold these.’ And at that point I tried to hold his right arm because it was like this at my car. This is my car window. I tried to hold his right arm and use my left hand to get out to have some type of control and not be trapped in my car any more. And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.

Holding onto a what?

Hulk Hogan, that’s just how big he felt and how small I felt just from grasping his arm. (212)

Wilson, as we know, was a 6’4″ armed police officer in a police car he could’ve driven away at any moment. Brown was a teenager Wilson wanted to fuck with by ordering him to get out of the middle of the road. That Brown ended up dead, murdered, by Wilson has everything to do with the unaccountable power of the police to kill—and to kill black bodies specifically—as much as with the ongoing psychic economies of whiteness that render blackness by turns fearful and disposable, and pleasurable, too. A five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan, only Wilson was the hulk and Brown just a kid, his death, and the resistance in Ferguson‬, turned into entertainment by TV news, the biggest perpetrator of the white fantasy-spectacle of black criminalization and death there is.

We need to abolish policing and prisons and the criminal-“justice” system, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, but we also need to abolish the structures of settler colonialism and enslavement, and their intertwined fantasies of domination. Education is important in this regard, but education otherwise. White U.S. subjects need to work against our racialized socialization at every moment, in every way.

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