‘On Quitting’ and ‘On Tenure’
When I returned to the U.S. from Kenya in December 2011, I could feel the poison re-entering my system: my skin changed again, as the hard Baltimore water scrubbed off the softer Nairobi water, and, with it, whatever healing Nairobi had effected. I returned to James MacArthur and Christopher Dorner, to the disposability and killability of black men; I returned to “jokes” about nine-year-old girls; to a panel discussion on Django Unchained hosted by film scholars at my university that did not, in the initial panel composition, include any single black scholar; I returned to a post-racial U.S., which meant that racist jokes could circulate with impunity; I returned to a world that Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois would have found too familiar, and mourned.
At a required end-of-year meeting with my then department chair, I confessed that I was exhausted. I was tired of the banal and uncomprehending racism of white students who spoke of blacks as “they” and “them” and complained about “their broken English” and “bad dialect”; I was tired of a system that served black students badly, promising an education that it failed to deliver, condemning them to repeat classes, to drop out, to believe they were stupid; I was tired of colleagues who marveled when I produced an intelligible sentence; I was tired of attending conference panels where blackness was dismissed as “simple,” “reactive,” “irrelevant,” “done”; I was tired of being invited to be “post-black” as the token African, so not “tainted” by the afterlife of slavery; I was tired of performing a psychic labor that left me too exhausted to do anything except go home, crawl into bed, try to recover, and prepare for the next series of assaults.
From Keguro Macharia’s excellent and moving essay in The New Inquiry, which (along with this one yesterday at the Chronicle and host of others like this recently) prompted a Twitter conversation about my growing frustration with exclusively negative discourse around the academy (specifically with respect to tenure). Adam wrote today that the ontological structure of the academy is grading, but I’d like to suggest instead it’s something closer to academic freedom as guaranteed by the tenure system; what makes the academy (semi-)unique is the (always partial, always dreadfully incomplete) suspension of the usual operation of capitalist waged labor. And what’s killing the academy today is not the proliferation or evacuation of graders but the destruction of tenure.