Black class relations explicated, Moynihan debunked, slave life explored, prison abolition made conceivable – all this is teachable.
“hooks contends that class is a taboo topic for folks of all classes to discuss.”
In this feature, we ask educators to list books they most enjoy teaching in their communities. Contributors include professors, graduate students, artists, journalists, organizers, activists, and other community leaders. Readers of the Black Agenda Report understand that the university classroom isn’t the only place where learning happens. Submissions therefore include lists of books that are taught at community workshops, mosques, churches, prisons, libraries, the local preschool, or even a weekly book study on one’s front porch. This week’s contributor is Boké Saisi.
Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery by Jennifer Morgan
This text by feminist historian Jennifer Morgan, outlines the particularities of the conditons of enslavement for reproductive bodies and women more broadly. Morgan situates her historical accounts and analysis within various geographic contexts of confinement, from West Africa, the middle passage, and in British colonies in the Carribean and the United States. I have taught this book in a university classroom and thus find it to be a crucial text to teach within an academic institution that produces and circulates otherwise normative forms of knowledge. Popular misconceptions of enslavement and stereotypical mediated depictions of Black peoples in the U.S. often include reductive, inaccurate, problematic and ahistorical information about the myriad violences stemming from, during, and in the afterlife of African chattel slavery. Morgan’s account taught in an anti-Black university setting with an extremely small Black student population provides a counternarrative to many student’s miseducation about chattel slavery and the centrality of reproduction and racialized gender roles to the practice.
“Morgan illustrates the contradiction between high birth mortality rates and the imperative to produce more commodified humans,”
Specifically, Morgan’s text showcases the differential ways in which the commodity and non-human status ascribed to Black peoples by enslavers created distinct and compounding conditions of labor for reproductive bodies--as manual laborers and as producers of new commodified humans. Moreover, the book showcases how this compounded labor role did not mean an increased value of or care for reproductive Black people but rather a twofold process of violence and disposability. For example, Morgan illustrates the contradiction between high birth mortality rates--due to back-breaking labor on top of the complications of pregnancy in the 18th and 19th centuries--on the one hand, and the imperative to produce more commodified humans, on the other. This detail-rich text provides a comprehensive history of chattel slavery in ways that illustrate the continuities of anti-Black racist violence today. I thus teach this text using techniques of close reading--i.e. reading two paragraphs to sit with the details provided--in order to take in the information in smaller, digestible sections.
Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks
In this text, feminist cultural critic bell hooks writes critical essays about the role class plays in contemporary society, particulalrly as it pertains to Black folks within the US context. hooks contends that class is a taboo topic for folks of all classes to discuss and centers the ways in which class differentials function within black communities in the US. Utilizing personal stories from her upbringing in a working class family in the South as her moment of coming into class consciousness, hooks illustrates the structural and institutional ways in which class is constructed and maintained (i.e. discriminatory real estate practices) as well as the interpersonal ways in which class status is regulated.
One of hooks’ chapters, titled “Being Rich,” is of particular use in university classroom settings because it highlights the ways that consolidated wealth is mediated and breaks myths about the naturalization of wealth inequality and the idealization of wealth. This chapter functions as a means of deconstructing wealth and ideologies of the wealthy in ways that situate class inequality squarely in the hands of the wealthy as opposed to the perceived deficits of low-income folks under ideologies of meritocracy. This shift in analytical gaze allows for an alternative view of class relations more broadly and of a sharp critique of racial capitalism and capital accumulation within wealthy Black communities as signals of collective progress.
hooks illustrates the structural and institutional ways in which class is constructed and maintained.
This chapter and book are written in very accessible and colloquial language. I find this useful in classroom settings because the emphasis becomes the content rather than working through more dense material for comprehension. As such, broader conversations around classism within higher education and academia can also be analyzed philosophically. For example, Western educational emphasis on Enlightenment Era scientific “reasoning” situates this text as perhaps being “bias” or lacking academic “rigour” to some students. This thus allows for wider conversations around knowledge production (i.e. whose knowledge gets to count as valid and ‘truthful’) and the structural and historical ways in which that has come to be. In so doing, hooks’ text becomes an avenue to talk about positionality, the ways that we are all implicated in various markers of class, and how higher education in particular can be ripe for institutional critique in regards to the reproduction of class relations.
Aberrations in Black: Towards a Queer of Color Critique by Roderick Ferguson
In Aberrations in Black, gender and sexuality studies scholar Roderick Ferguson provides a critique of institutionalized sociology as a central space of producing narratives of black family pathology and resultant social research and policy. Ferguson argues that canonical scholars of sociology, within the context of the capitalist-necessitated regulation of gender and sexuality, situated non-normative familial structures of Black families in the U.S as evidence of Black “culture” producing economic disadvantage. For instance, in a critique of sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Problem: The Case for National Action,” Ferguson outlines the report’s emphasis on women-led households and other non-normative famililal strutures as a cause of racial equality. In so doing, the author highlights how the heteronormative and capitalistic imperatives to the idealized nuclear family (i.e. the heterosexual, home and land owning family) operates. Ferguson illustrates how patriarchy, heteronormativity, and classism intersect to pathologize Black families, patronize and devalue Black women, obscure economic disinvestment in black communitites central to the US nation-state, and both erase and condemn same-gender and other queer relationships. Ferguson terms this intersectional analysis a ‘queer-of-color critique.’
“Patriarchy, heteronormativity, and classism intersect to pathologize Black families.”
This text is important and constructive to teach in a university classroom because it deconstructs normative sociological understandings of “black life” in ways that allow for a robust critique of the university as a site of knowledge production of the ‘other.’ Moreover, Ferguson’s text illustrates how race, gender, and sexuality are constituted through one another in ways that disrupt heteropatriarchal leanings within black studies and the humanities more broadly. It also showcases how we are all implicated in constructions of race, gender, and sexuality in various ways. This lends to an analysis of one’s positionality as it pertains to the reception of knowledge in academic settings. Aberrations in Black is a useful text to teach using video clips from mediated representations of black people and black families, both at the time of it’s publication as well as contemporarily. For example, we can see how the image of the capitalist, heterosexual, black family, circulated within network comedy series’ in the 1990’s (such as ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ and ‘Family Matters,’ or ‘Black-ish’ currently) are argued as images of racial progress and positive representation. However, this still situates racialized economic inequality as being overcome through participating in the patriarchal, heteronormative, and consumtive nuclear family without critique of how anti-Black racism and heterosexism, for instance, are the backbone of white superemacist capitalism.
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
In prison abolitionist and scholar Angela Davis’ book, the author poses the question ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’ in order to highlight the ways that incarceration is inherently racist, sexist, and classist and thus a producer of violence in Black and other marginalized communities. Davis makes the poignant argument that incarceration does nothing to hinder criminalized activities, makes profits for those investing in human rights abuses, and instead produces harm through sequestering people who illustrate the innate incompatibility of a healthy and equitable society under racial capitalism. Davis maintains that social movements for the abolition of African chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation--both of which are predecessors to mass incarceration--were imagined and realized. Davis thus highlights how prison abolition is in fact a conceivable, achievable, and necessary movement contemporarily.
This is a great text to teach in a university setting because it is written in clear, accessible language, and tackles the flawed philosophical underpinnings of and mainstream ideas that mark incarceration as socially good, ethical, and necessary--and for whomst that would be the case. Moreover, it highlights the centrality of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy in maintaining the prison system in the U.S. Are Prisons Obsolete? also provides an example of how useful and nuanced critiques of social and political institutions can only be made through intersectional analysis. In particular, teaching this text within the context of a feminist, queer, disability, and mad studies lens situates the particulalry anti-Black practice of incarceration as a hinderance to liberatory politics all around. This text works well with critical documentaries about incarceration, such as Ava Duvernay’s 13th, because the film, for example, highlights the historical continuum of containment of Black folks in the US. Additionally, the film can be a means to practice critical thinking skills to ask questions about how the content of Davis’ text can be seen through the film and also what analysis may be missing.
In the Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe
In this text, black studies scholar Christina Sharpe outlines how anti-Blackness and black death are constitutive parts of American citizenship and political formations on both sides of the Atlantic. Sharpe, using metaphors relating to the transAtlantic slave trade such “the ship” and “the hold,” illustrates the constraints of black life and normalization of black death contemporarily. Furthermore, the author calls for and recognizes the “wake work” that has and continues to be done to counter and resist the impulse of anti-Blackness in everyday life. Sharpe showcases how both structural and quotidian resistance to anti-Black racism is a means of practicing liberatory politics, especially within the context of a continuing disregard--and enjoyment--of anti-Black violence, death, and dehumanization. The text uses a non-normative academic writing structure that includes poetry and prose to analyze the centrality of anti-Black violence to, for instance, houselessness, forced displacement and migration, and police brutality.
“Both structural and quotidian resistance to anti-Black racism is a means of practicing liberatory politics.”
This is an important text to teach in a black studies university course, for example, because both the content and structure of the book provides an example of Sharpe’s call for continual resistance to anti-Black violence. For example, Sharpe uses the tactic of redaction (i.e. blacking out the image of a lynched person thus placing the gaze on the white audience around) when using images and accounts of news stories that reproduce the logics of anti-Blackness and normalize black death, such as the framing of black folks murdered by the police as deserving of their death. In this way, the author is refusing to participate in violent discourses while still making arguments that indict the state-sanctioned murder of Black people central to the formation and existence of the US nation-state. Showcasing the practice of redaction in the classroom can function both as a philosophical paradigm shift away from the continued mediation of black trauma in academic texts as well as a practical tool to subvert and disrupt the circulation and normalization of black tragedy, pain, death,and dehumanization in the media. For instance, assignments can include reading contemporary news stories and having students rewrite them in ways that recuperate the humanity of Black peoples and align with Sharpe’s call for everyday resistance to anti-Blackness.
Boké Saisi is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies and Graduate Specialization in Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She previously graduated with an MA in Ethnic Studies from UCSD and an MA in Communication and Culture from York University in Toronto, Canada. Her research interests include Black feminist thought, Indigenous and decolonial feminisms, critical gender studies, mad studies, critical disability studies, carceral studies, media studies, and political economy.
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