Coonin’ in Academe: Shuckin & Jivin to Carve Out Space

Let me start by saying I in no way believe we exist in a post-racial society. I’ve been a part of race my whole life. From the streets of NE Washington DC, to the red clay roads of North Carolina, to the Ivy covered buildings of my undergraduate institution, and now in the halls of a private liberal arts college charging over 50k a year.  I see race. I live it. And most of all I feel it, even though I rarely hear it. In fact, the silence surrounding issues of race is frightening to me. I would much rather know you think I’m worthless openly, than wonder what you believe secretly as you smile in my face.

I’ve been called a nigger twice in the past two years. I was called a spook in 2007 while walking in NYC wearing a sweatshirt stating the name of my Ivy League alma matter. I was told in 12th grade I wasn’t smart enough to go to a ‘good school’. During college, a light skinned African American female told me I didn’t like her because I was jealous of her fair skin and fine hair. In fact, she called me a dark skinned, nappy headed, hoe.

No, we are not in a post-racial anything. We are in the eye of the storm. I just wonder who will crumble first.

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I recently began to read a new text entitled Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. It is a collection of essays written by female scholars spanning many racial, economic, and sexual demographics. I suspect I will be commenting more on this text as I read more essays, but today, I was struck by an essay entitled “Facing Down the Spooks” by Angela Mae Kupenda.

The title caught my attention because of the interaction I had with the middle aged White woman in NYC, but the essay is not about Blacks as ‘spooks’. No, it’s about the ghosts that haunt the halls of academe. To borrow Kupenda’s words, these are ‘the ghosts of Jim Crow; the goblin of slavery-like, white, presumed superiority; and ghouls of sexism, racism, and classism…’(pg. 20). Yes, these words resonated with me. And I would add another: the ghost of Zip Coon, meant to shuck and jive for students of privilege who sometimes think I am here for their entertainment.

Nah, I aint ‘bout to coon for nobody.

But in reading Presumed Incompetent, I am forced to revisit issues of selling out, giving in, or coonin’ in the hopes of connecting with students and engendering collegial buy-in. I recently had a 2.5hr conversation with a graduating sociology major about her own feelings of hesitance as an outsider into issues of poverty and marginalization. She professes to be from a wealthy, White family with whom she often has frustrating and disturbing conversations about welfare reform, immigration, and taxes. She speaks passionately about changing the system, but recognizes her own limitations as a 22 year old White, upper middle class, Christian, woman in conversations with demographics whose narratives are divergent from hers. She asked me: how do you deal with it? Do you ever feel guilty?

And in that moment I knew 2 things: 1) she views me as she views herself: an educated person who has reaped the benefits of familial privilege and power; 2) as an outsider seeking to help ‘them’.

I am passing.

I let her know that in fact, I am ‘them’. I do not come from wealth or privilege. My education was never guaranteed; I and my parents worked hard for it. Most of all, I continue to work hard for it (and pay for it). I assured her that I do not feel guilty for attending a predominately White institution (PWI) instead of an historically Black college or university (HBCU). I do not carry any burdens of owing anyone for my success except my family. I do not feel a responsibility to give back. No, no, no. What I have is the position—and its consequent power and privilege—to help others get their own.

And I don’t feel guilty about occupying that space in society. I feel proud. So proud that I wear business clothes in the classroom while my White colleagues wear jeans and sneakers. I feel comfortable in my position. So comfortable that I laugh and joke with my students and coworkers during lulls in academic work. I feel knowledgeable. So knowledgeable that I have no problem proving my ‘rightness’ in the face of their whiteness.

Yes, students and colleagues challenge me. They question the veracity of my statements, the credibility of my degrees, the presence of my dark skinned, tipped in natural hair, body in their classroom. They want to know if I’m married, have any kids, and even if I own my home. Yes, they are nosy. Like many of the authors in the text write, they want insight into the Black female world whose existence you never imagined intersecting with your own.

THEY, not I, are haunted by the ghosts of times past. They, not I, conjure visions of Mammy and Sapphire when I walk in a room. They, not I, are worried about spooks creeping up on them.

And in this keep-race-quiet society, I loudly tell them “Sophia home now. Sophia home. Things is gonna be changing ‘round here”.

minstrel

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