In November 2019, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, was asked by students about the university’s commitment to improving diversity. Daniels proudly proclaimed that Purdue would soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America—a leading, I mean a really leading, African American scholar.”1 The president of the Black Student Union, D’Yan Berry, pointed out how the word “creature” didn’t make her think of anything human–at least not until she heard the accompanying qualifier, “African American.”2 In joining the phrases “rarest creatures” and “African American scholar,” Daniels refused to acknowledge the long history of black excellence and black contribution to the academy.
Daniels’s refusal was particularly egregious given that “diversity” has become perhaps the most important buzzword of this late capitalist era, especially in the context of the university. It is hard to come across a university website that does not showcase its commitment to inclusion, equity, and diversity. Photographs of black students and professors regularly grace the home pages of academic institutions in the United States. These images are meant to assure us that the university has surely become an inclusive and democratic space in the post–Brown v. Board era.
Yet these many-hued facades are complicated by the experiences of those who have been marginalized in the academy: scholars of black studies, ethnic studies, women’s studies, and gender and sexuality studies. For we who are black, brown, women, queer, or immigrant; we who occupy contingent positions, and are regularly denied tenure; we who have to justify the rigor, breadth, and relevance of our topics and our methodologies: for us, the marginalization of our lives and contributions speaks to a different reality. Namely that, despite the long history of black scholarly contribution, and despite the trending importance of diversity, the academic space is still the stronghold of capitalist white supremacy that it always has been.
Should we then give up on the possibility of remaking the university into a truly diverse space, one that values diversity as a keyword, not just as a buzzword? What does it mean to do the radical work of anticapitalist antiracism, while at the same time remaining associated with the very institution that continues to reproduce white supremacy through its regulation of minority voices and demands? These questions are taken up by Lavelle Porter’s The Blackademic Life: Academic Fiction, Higher Education, and the Black Intellectual and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study.
Both texts boldly demonstrate the resilience of marginalized academics—particularly black scholars—notwithstanding university attempts to silence and discipline them. In novels by black academics written since the beginning of the Reconstruction era in the United States, Porter discovers an understudied genealogy of literary representation of “blackademic life.” Meanwhile, Harney and Moten theorize the world-building possibilities of the coalitions that academics, marginalized on multiple fronts, can and do form within the neoliberal university.
Despite the two works’ contrasting aims, each provides a valuable analysis of the black radical tradition. Both document the possibilities of subversive practice and radical sociality within the university, despite its efforts to calibrate and neutralize the purpose of diversity and difference.
Lavelle Porter’s The Blackademic Life arrives at an important moment in American history: 52 years since the creation of the first black studies department at San Francisco State College, in 1968. (That said, it is important to remember that black intellectual life within academic spaces began at least a century before then.) Porter’s expansive exploration of the understudied genre of black academic fiction highlights the significance of black intellectual life in the academy, as well as its contributions to higher education, particularly in the humanities.
The Blackademic Life demonstrates how black writers resisted white-supremacist discourse of black inferiority—expressed through racist phrases such as “the overeducated Negro”—and offered deeper explorations of the intersecting vectors of race, sexuality, gender, class, and ability. The book strings together a comprehensive literary history: early writers like W. E. B. Du Bois and Nella Larsen; mid-20th-century authors such as Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and Paule Marshall; and the contemporary voices of Alice Walker, Samuel Delany, and Gil Scott-Heron (known as the godfather of hip-hop, but less so as a writer of academic fiction). Porter also includes media representations of blackademic life. And although W. E. B. Du Bois is practically considered to be the father of black academic novels, Porter thankfully makes visible the important contributions of black women writers and black queer writers.3
“The Blackademic Life” reminds us that the black intellectual not only exists, but also creates and seizes space for herself and her community within the ivory tower.
While white academic novels have generated quite a few academic publications, there is a dearth of scholarship that focuses solely on black academic novels. Such works depict the complex representations of black intellectuals whose labor has been crucial to both building and subverting the ivory tower. Consequently, Porter’s exploration of this literary genre is significant, especially at a time when the university has yet to be decolonized.
Reading Porter’s book feels like a necessary reeducation in American history, black history and politics, and, most importantly, black literature and culture. What stands out to me most is Porter’s candid examination of what it means to thrive while simultaneously bearing the burden of representing one’s race and being accused of inauthenticity. “Does she really represent the ‘authentic’ black experience, since she is an exception?” This is a question that white supremacy seems to always hurl at black intellectuals, because blackness and education fail to coexist in the white imagination. Porter illustrates this paradox in the chapter “The New Negro, 1919–1954”:
Black intellectuals, whether inside or outside academia, are often illegible. There is a kind of survivor’s guilt at the success of becoming a working intellectual in whatever capacity, something seen as a luxury among a people who are largely economically depressed. There’s also the sense of being stuck in a narrative of exceptionality, of being exceptional to the rule, and there’s a paradox in that exceptionality, that one is expected to be a representative of the group while also being marked an inauthentic member of that group because of one’s exceptional status. So what the black academic novel represents is a recorded history of blackademic lives, of intellectuals who have grappled with this and related questions in their work and created expressions of what it means to live as black intellectuals under a white-supremacist society in which black education is both precious and precarious.
In spite of white supremacy’s efforts to eradicate the possibility of the black intellectual in all her complexity, The Blackademic Life reminds us that, in fact, this intellectual not only exists, but also creates and seizes space for herself and her community within the ivory tower.
Thus, blackademic life is a long history of survival in a space that is committed to the denial of black excellence. This survival is achieved, to use José Esteban Muñoz’s term, by means of “disidentification.” In his book of the same title, Muñoz demonstrates how marginalized performers and artists negotiate the dominant culture by neither identifying with the dominant ideology, nor rejecting it.4 Instead, they adopt a “disidentificatory strategy”: “A third mode of dealing with dominant ideology, one that neither opts to assimilate within such a structure nor strictly opposes it; rather, disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology … a strategy that tries to transform a cultural logic from within, always laboring to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valuing the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance.” In other words, this practice allows marginalized artists and performers to scramble and reconstruct the encoded message of a dominant discourse or sign they are called to identify with. In the process they dismantle the sign’s exclusionary machinations by recruiting it for the purposes of empowering marginalized identities. Disidentification thus helps to transform the master’s tools by recoding them with new purposes and new meanings.
Porter’s scholarship helps us understand the disidentificatory strategy that black academics adopt in order to not only survive and resist, but also to make significant contributions to higher education, black literature, and movements for social justice. Within the academic space, black intellectuals, as Porter demonstrates, exhaust the meaning of the white-supremacist stereotype of the “overeducated Negro.” They do so first by being in the very space they are not supposed to be in, and then by transforming the cultural logic of academia through their refusal to reproduce the racist and capitalist logic of the university.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons similarly mobilizes the possibilities of subverting the racial and capitalist logic that structures the university. What happens, they ask, when those whose labors are considered to be trivial within the university escape its design to professionalize and regulate minoritarian desires? And what happens when those same marginalized scholars form collectives within and beyond the university, as well as behind its back?
For Harney and Moten, both the prison and the university exist on the same spectrum of racial capitalism: “The slogan on the Left, then, ‘universities, not jails,’ marks a choice that may not be possible. In other words, perhaps more universities promote more jails.” Reforming or repairing the university is not the kind of futurity they champion, since reformation will not dismantle the status quo that maintains prisons and universities.
Instead, they focus on the reinvigorating possibilities of the “undercommons”: a coalition of subversive intellectuals, whose labor is crucial to yet unwelcome in the university. The subversive intellectual understands that the university is a place of refuge, not enlightenment. Consequently, “She disappears into the underground, the downlow lowdown maroon community of the university, into the undercommons of enlightenment, where the work gets done, where the work gets subverted, where the revolution is still black, still strong.”
The subversive intellectual seizes her place in the university, but refuses to be defined by it. Unrecognized, devalued, and deemed unprofessional, she dares to develop a “criminal” relationship to the university.
Harney and Moten describe this criminal impulse—or, I would say, this disidentificatory impulse—as the opposite of professionalization. It is an impulse “to steal from professions, from the university, with neither apologies nor malice, to steal the enlightenment for others, to steal oneself with a certain blue music, a certain tragic optimism, to steal away with mass intellectuality.”
In other words, the subversive intellectual is not interested in competitive individualism. She understands that knowledge is produced by and with the community that is shunned by the academy. She is that adjunct professor who shows up out of love for teaching and study, even though the university profits from her precarity. Within the university, this debt-bound intellectual has no room of her own. She disidentifies with the hierarchical logic of her institution. She forms coalitions with her debt-bound students and her contingent peers in the rooms they share together, within and outside the university.
The undercommons is therefore a coalition whose goal is not to save the dispossessed. Instead, the coalition emerges out of a “recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us.” Dispossession, or “brokenness of being,” as Jack Halberstam writes in an introduction to the book, is the glue that binds together the undercommons.
The literary representations of black intellectual life that Porter analyzes shed light on Harney and Moten’s theorization of the radical potential of the undercommons. As Porter demonstrates, black academics who are women, queer, or both survive and “get the work done” by disidentifying with the hierarchies that structure the university.
In Samuel Delany’s novel The Mad Man, John Marr, a black gay graduate student who hails from a working-class background, embarks on the ambitious project of writing a dissertation about an understudied queer Korean American philosopher, Timothy Hasler. John not only researches Hasler but also chooses to embrace his “nasty sex life,” much to his tenured advisor’s repulsion. John wishes to experience that which he studies, instead of separating “the sexual practice from the thinking.”5 In John’s defiance of his professor’s homophobia and the academy’s dismissal of queer life and nonnormative desires, we see an instance of the work getting done. Porter’s reading of the novel makes clear how black queer academics like Samuel Delany and his protagonist have made departments of queer studies possible, despite the heteronormative logic of the university.
Porter, Harney, and Moten remind us that, even if the custodians of the corporate university tout our presence as a sign of racial progress while simultaneously marking us as a sign of disorder, we are always the ones who get the work done. Our labor is crucial for paving a future in which we might just succeed in, as Moten unabashedly declares in an interview with Stevphen Shukaitis, in the book’s last chapter, “tear[ing] this shit down completely and build[ing] something new.”
It is a utopian speculation, but the horizon of possibility that these works trace will keep on inspiring us to congregate in the dingy forgotten rooms of black studies, ethnic studies, gender and queer studies departments, and outside the walls of the academy. In those rooms and spaces we steal from the university, we will conspire tirelessly to divest the university from wars, prisons, racial capitalism, and settler colonialism. The promise of a diverse university and a just world is too precious to give up on.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.
- Dave Bangert, “Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, after Calling Black Scholar ‘Rarest Creature,’ Says He’s ‘Misunderstood,’” Lafayette Journal and Courier, November 23, 2019. ↩
- The president’s comment generated a social media backlash that the administration sought to placate by pointing out that it was a mistake. Instead of an apology, Daniels explained that it was merely a “figure of speech” that students of literature should understand. Sean Murley, “Daniels: Leading African American Scholar ‘One of the Rarest Creatures in America,’” The Exponent, November 21, 2019. ↩
- For instance, in the chapter “Integration and Nationalism, 1954–1980,” Porter deftly reminds us that “Paule Marshall’s depiction of the colonial relations of the British Caribbean in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People … [is an example of] one of the most important interventions that the black academic novel makes against the conventions of the genre … [namely] to situate academic institutions and academic knowledge production in the context of racial capitalism instead of depicting the campus as a cloistered world unto itself.” ↩
- José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 1999). ↩
- Porter quotes this phrase from Samuel Delany’s The Mad Man. In the chapter “Culture Wars and Capitalism, 1980–Present,” Porter argues that Delany challenges the separation that exists between “the academic life” and “an erotic experience of the world,” through an “extensive use of scatological imagery in a story about philosophical concepts and research” The subversive intellectual, and the undercommons in which she finds her place, is mindful of this connection between academic work and the cultural life of community. ↩