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Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Crackerasssuckafool" and the Quotidian Triumph of Walking onto Campus





This week, my colleague Ricardo Wilson's story "Crackerasssuckafool" went up at stirringlit.com.  It's been the talk of the university. Here's my take on it.

I teach at Washington and Lee University, a predominantly white, private institution in Virginia. I was hired in 2004, along with Professor Asali Solomon, to teach literature and creative writing. We were the first people of color in the long history of the English department.  We told each other, "Some days, just walking onto campus is our biggest accomplishment." She dealt with students writing stories about the mammies that raised them. I dealt with students who mostly thought Indigenous Literature was non-existent, or consisted of petroglyphs and treaties. Asali lit out for more colorful territories after 3 years (I still miss her!), and I hung on as the only person of color for 7 long years, until we hired Wan-Chuan Kao as our brilliant medievalist. Then, two years ago, the department had the chance to hire two more professors of color, Ricardo Wilson and Diego Millan. Wow! Having four people of color in the English department is changing our dynamics, and that’s a good thing. It gets people out of their comfort zone, makes us consider our actions and choices, and definitely provides students with the diversity of perspective so desperately needed.

Necessary tangent: "Student Health 101" is a flyer series put out by, you guessed it, student health. It goes up in bathroom stalls around campus on a regular basis, with advice about how to deal with sex, alcohol, eating disorders, study skills, anxiety -- the kind of stuff students deal with on a regular basis. There's a women's bathroom near my office where I see these flyers. Check out the flyer posted in there this week (above). The topic is “How to feel like you belong here” followed by a quote from an “expert” who says, “If you want to stop feeling like an imposter you need to stop thinking like an imposter.” I’ve almost ripped that flyer down, or graffitied it, a dozen times. To me, that’s the kind of “by your bootstraps/I did it, you can do it” propaganda that women and POC have had to listen to forever. How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when you are either a statistical minority who is ignored or mistreated, or when you are paid less, given less credit, and asked to do ten times as much? How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when those in power treat you like an imposter? In other words, this is a poorly worded flyer, and the ignorance it shows, the privilege it encourages, is one of those microaggressions that drives me, personally, crazy.

I read Ricardo Wilson's story as a fantasy about what a person of color would do in response to a lifetime of these microaggressions (and macro). Sometimes, the line between sanity and despair is thin. Sometimes, on that thin line, creativity is the saving grace that reminds us we aren’t actually crazy; the world around us is crazy. Creativity allows us to be crazy like a fox, rather than just insane.

To give you a full picture, let me add that this week, the W&L board of trustees voted to do three important things: change the name of Robinson Hall (named for the man who "donated" a large group of enslaved people to W&L, which then used their labor, and later sold them literally down the river to Mississippi) to Chavis Hall, after the first black man to receive a degree here; Lee-Jackson House will also undergo a name change, becoming Simpson House, named after brilliant and beloved Professor Pamela Simpson, first woman to receive tenure at W&L, who passed away a few years ago. Finally, the doors in front of the recumbent statue of R.E. Lee in Lee Chapel will now be closed during student body meetings (up until now, students of color have been forced to look at the statue glorifying a man who both owned enslaved black people and went to war to maintain the laws upholding enslavement, throughout those meetings).

People of color and our allies are happy about those changes. But hey. It's 2018. That's a long time to wait for small changes. And longer still for other, more quotidian, changes in faculty, student body, administrative and trustee make-up. And some will not forgive us our fantasies, even though it is the creativity and hope which allows us to survive. Perhaps "fantasy" is the wrong word, after all. Perhaps "dream," with all of its history, connotations, and hope, is a better choice. And we do not ask to be forgiven for dreaming.

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