race traitors and haters
with white supremacists rearing their ugly heads once again, and race receding into the background of anti-arab government policy, it is more than time to bring race back into the public conversation.
last weekend's conference at NYU attempted to do so, at least from within an academic framework (though, from a refreshingly activist perspective). the conference was filled with provocative papers and generally permeated by a commitment to making race and (musically-mediated) processes of racialization explicit in our work. i was happy just to be able to build with greg tate, juan flores, phil bohlman, deborah wong, vijay iyer, and a host of engaged grad students. i was especially happy that something tangible seemed to come out of the proceedings. for her keynote speech, deb wong gave a galvanizing talk about the way that manifestos work, tracing them from marx through the futurists and dadaists and black-powerists and queerists and ending up at talib kweli's manifesto, before offering up her own manifesto about 'work on race.' admirably, and in the spirit of collective manifestos, deb turned the keynote into a workshop, encouraging the attendees to co-edit and co-author the manifesto along with her. we struggled to revise it together for a while, but such a thing is a difficult task. apparently, the document will continue to be collectively revised at the conference website, but i want to share deb's "second draft" here because i think it proposes a number of important stances/interventions and is in little need of further editing, if you ask me:
Draft #2: A Manifesto for Work on Race
--> consider the potential and the limits of who 'we' are
--> continually recreate race because race isn't going anywhere
--> focus not on race but rather on racialization
--> reconfigure the damage and danger of race
--> establish temporary autonomous zones that continually sabotage race
--> not make race into the new avant-garde
--> not treat race as self-evident or as a trendy 'drop-in'
--> have a keen historical consciousness and always address now, even when seemingly focused on then
--> expand and redefine our audience
--> stay ahead of and trouble emergent technologies of race
--> define newly re-recialized public spheres
--> offer strategies as well as testimony
--> police representation...
--> ... but always do more than just that!
--> acknowledge our critical ancestries
* critical effort is coalition work; no idea is a deus ex machina
* our work is only as good as the structures of which it is part
* besides, knowledgeable citation is the best weapon against false consciousness
--> question accepted (racialized) knowledge
--> be performative
so, yeah, lots of gems in there. lots to think about. and lots to keep in the foreground when thinking about strategies for talking about race--regardless of one's discipline or medium.
my own talk went pretty well. finishing with a patois-infused rap, unsurprisingly, raised some eyebrows and some ire. despite the spirit of the conference, i anticipated some resistance to this kind of performative strategy, and though i was careful to contextualize my rap as an intentionally provocative and self-reflective statement, it was clear that not everyone appreciated the approach. really, it was just a single attendee who seemed to object, and his objection was revealing. first, he made sure to tell me that he was born in kingston (read: has more cred), though he hadn't lived there for 20 years. next, he called some aspects of my lyrics 'facile'--which, for those outside of high academia, is the trendiest pejorative in academic discourse these days. by using that term to object to my rap, it was clear that he missed the point. song lyrics (at least mine) are meant to be suggestive and provocative, not to lay out a clear argument, and i defended myself by telling the chap he should give me more credit for being self-consciously playful with the tropes that i employ in "boston jerk." c'mon, dude--i'm not naive. at any rate, once i let the attack slide off my back, and once i received affirmation from a number of students and profs, i rested assured that my performance was an effective one. and i made sure to throw a verbal elbow, saying, "respek, bredren," as i bid my interlocuter farewell.
my academic bredren's criticism reminds me of the negative review in last week's times of adam mansbach's new book, angry black white boy. incidentally, i started reading adam's book on the train to new york, and i found myself flying through it, really enjoying the fine story-telling, the hip-hop infused language, the boston-based and ivy-league-dissing humor, and the sophistication with which adam takes on some very complex issues. (and who can resist a len bias conspiracy theory?) adam provided his own explication of the book's critical thrust with yesterday's op-ed about white history month. essentially, what adam's book does is the same thing the NYU conference was trying to do: make whiteness explicit, call it out as the racializing norm against which everything else is defined and through which power is tacitly and insidiously exercised. the times reviewer seems oblivious to the point of such politics, never mind to the language of hip-hop or the formal strategies of classic race novels (to which adam's book consistently makes reference). the book is not perfect, but few are. it will, however, give readers--especially those who resemble the protagonist--a lot to think about. personally, i have to applaud adam for writing such a brave novel: as a clearly semi-autobiographical fantasy (though again, which novels are not?), angry black white boy pimps where other writers fear to tread. that it slaps itself silly in the process is a bold move and a critical intervention that, one hopes, will inspire a new generation of race traitors, haters be damned.