Rewriting the end

We can and should do more to make sure that the content of Yale's several curricula is more equal to the heavy fulness of our history.

Emily Greenwood is a professor of classics and of African American studies at Yale.

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Illustration by Patrick Welsh

Emily Greenwood. View full image

Sometimes mainstream American society wants to talk about race and racism—this is one of those times. Starting on Sunday, May 31, the Yale community began to receive a series of messages, from all the major schools and units of Yale, expressing sincere sadness and expressions of anti-racist solidarity in response to the recent killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. These messages continue to appear in my inbox as I write. I suspect that I am not the only member of Yale’s faculty for whom reading these messages was a dissonant experience. They stirred uncomfortable reminders of occasions on which Yale faculty, staff, students, and alumni who have spoken up and out about racism have been told that we do not speak for the majority. That our interventions are not pertinent, but impertinent.

This pattern of intermittent attention to racism is part of the problem. As a national community we are engaging in the periodic ritual of being surprised by the deadly force of racism, when it has been with us all along. Protests can dramatize an appalling condition for a time, but all of society needs to come together to ensure that this is not just another of those intermittent occasions when we have the stomach to talk and speak openly about the scourge of racism, its logic, and its effects.

In this brief piece I consider what Yale can do qua university to ensure that it plays a full and meaningful part in this process. Yale has done much and is doing much to improve the diversity of its student body and—more modestly—its faculty. And it has done much and is doing much to foster greater inclusion on campus. Yale can also point to the research of its faculty, past and present, who have made seminal contributions to the critical study of race, racism, and the racial imagination, and to Yalies past and present who have been instrumental to the struggle for black emancipation. But as an institution whose very raison d’être is education, Yale now needs to have the courage to fully embrace this knowledge, to act on it, and to speak out unequivocally, not caring who it offends.

The simple fact is that this is not new knowledge. I glance over at my bookshelf and see the spines of the books that still say what they have always said: Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison. I cite these writers from the American canon because they are accessible to all of us: uncommonly brilliant, yes, but not in any way abstruse. These writers bear unmistakable witness to the historical condition of black experience in America and the moral corrosion of racism hard-baked into our Republic. Knowledge of this witness is part of what it means to be an educated human being. More than that: this knowledge can save lives. Jacqueline Goldsby, Professor of English and of African American Studies at Yale, ends her paramount study, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, with a reminder of just what is at stake: “Joining together and describing for us the causes that would otherwise remain beyond our grasp to comprehend, literature imagines the terrible acts and consequences of lynching as racism’s modern life form, to remind us of the lives we could save if only by remembering the many thousands gone before.”

As a university deeply invested in the idea of a liberal arts education, we are responsible for a body and tradition of knowledge that extends across disciplines. But where race is concerned, too often a defensive reaction comes into play. This reaction cordons off scholarship and pedagogy on race and racism as “race-work,” treats it as a devolved, minority interest, and places it in the anteroom of the academy. The scholar Lindon Barrett diagnosed this tendency in the essay “Institutions, Classrooms, Failures: African American Literature and Critical Theory in the Same Small Spaces,” explaining that the tradition of Western liberal arts is enmeshed in “a history in which respected and prized traditions of Western thought disqualify African Americans a priori from the belletristic and philosophical traditions advertised as universal.”

Yale is one of the nation’s leading universities, yet this tradition leaves us ill-equipped to respond with acuity and credibility to recent events. We can and should do more to make sure that the content of Yale’s several curricula is more equal to the heavy fulness of our history, from putting more resources into the study of Native American languages and cultures, to ensuring that knowledge of African American literature, history, and culture are part of every student’s Yale education.

In a famous essay, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” Toni Morrison picked apart the “unspeakability” of race: “For three hundred years black Americans insisted that ‘race’ was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted ‘race’ was the determining factor in human development. When blacks discovered they had shaped or become a culturally formed race, and that it had specific and revered difference, suddenly they were told there is no such thing as ‘race,’ biological or cultural, that matters and that genuinely intellectual exchange cannot accommodate it.” In a similarly famous essay (“Can You be BLACK and Look at This?: Reading the Rodney King Video(s)”), reflecting on the video of Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King as part of a graphic archive of anti-black violence, Elizabeth Alexander ’84 captured the deadly force of this paradox, in which “a history of white-power narratives . . . have attempted to talk black people out of what their bodies know,” making it all the easier to wound and kill these bodies. The killing of Mr. Floyd in a brutal, public scene, at and in the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, is now part of this devastating archive.

In the conclusion to The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, Roderick Ferguson, Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Yale, asks, “Isn’t this the moment to wrest minority difference away from specialization?” Professor Ferguson is not suggesting that departments and programs like African American Studies and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration relinquish their claim to speak with expertise, but rather that they resist a form of institutional containment in which the knowledge and traditions that they represent are treated as in but not of the university, as ornamental but not actionable. Instead, the suggestion is that the really pressing intellectual work is to make this knowledge integral to the way in which the university—all of our universities—works and thinks.

It is with a sense of utter sadness that I write these things—I wish to God it were otherwise. For too long, murderous racial violence, lethal disregard for black life, and systemic racism have plagued our political community. The grievous cycle of national mourning around the spectacle of the black body subjected to torture and death is a cycle that we can and must break. We can rewrite this end. 

1 comment

  • Peter Lownds
    Peter Lownds, 12:31pm July 10 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thank you for your trenchant analysis of "race unspeakability," Professor Greenwood. As a 76-year-old 'white' American I remember the 1940s when it was perilous for mixed race couples to be seen on the street; driving through the American South in the 50s when chain-gangs repaired the highways and apartheid was rife; spending three years in Brazil in the 60s where the blacker you were the worse you were treated and, recently, as a mentor-assessor at a cyber university which enrolled a plethora of black women in its doctoral program in education but graduated very few at great expense to all. I agree with you and professor Ferguson that black studies are more often "ornamental" than "actionable." Toni Morrison says it best: "the proud but calcified language of the academy (...) language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek must be rejected, altered and exposed."

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