A brief look back to resistance in South Africa, 1985, on this National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, via the archive of the Black Consciousness Movement at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. #O22 #blacklivesmatter
A brief look back to resistance in South Africa, 1985, on this National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, via the archive of the Black Consciousness Movement at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. #O22 #blacklivesmatter
Last fall I focused the introductory composition class I taught at CUNY's Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and racial profiling at large. The course received the 2014 Diana Colbert Innovative Teaching Prize, awarded annually by the CUNY Graduate Center's Ph.D. Program in English. I post the materials I submitted here in the interest of open access: all of the following, except for my specific words, is free to use. If you've taught a similar class, let me know—perhaps we can build a site for such pedagogic and teaching materials. (Above image: "End Stop and Frisk" by sainthuck, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.)
Black and Latino young men are highly disproportionately stopped-and-frisked by New York City police officers, particularly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. (For representative New York Police Department data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union, see here and here.) Although the stop-and-frisk program has been in place since at least 2002, debate over its propriety and effectiveness reached a peak last summer due to the city's mayoral election, the media attention to now-mayor Bill De Blasio's "mixed-race" family, and a federal court's finding that stop-and-frisk violated both the 4th and 14th Amendments. At the same time, the George Zimmerman trial, which concluded with Trayvon Martin's killer being found not guilty, amplified controversy about racial profiling and state power. So, too, did widely noted cultural representations such as Kanye West's Yeezus album, with songs such as "New Slaves" and "Blood on the Leaves," a re-working of the anti-lynching anthem "Strange Fruit," and Ryan Coogler's film Fruitvale Station, about 22-year-old Oscar Grant, slain by Oakland transit police in 2008.
Given these various cultural texts and discourses concerning racial violence, spanning—at a minimum—the white-supremacist terrorism of the "old South" and the everyday subjugation of black and Latino New Yorkers, it seemed an especially rich conjuncture to focus my English composition class at Lehman College on stop-and-frisk and the longer history of racial profiling in the United States. Indeed, given Lehman's Bronx location, the higher rate of stop-and-frisk in the borough (not to mention lingering grief over local teenager Ramarley Graham, killed by a cop in 2012), and the college's predominantly Latina/o and black students (see Lehman's data here), I knew that many, if not all, of my students would be affected by the program, whether the young men targeted or their family members and friends. I also knew they would have experienced racial profiling in its other forms, whether the school-to-prison pipeline in operation at New York City public schools, the general entrapment of the prison-industrial complex and its attendant political economy, or the surveillance of department-store staff and their collusion with police (as experienced by a CUNY student that fall in a high-profile incident).
My pedagogy centers on connecting with students on their terms in order to facilitate critical thinking and discussion about the links between their individual and collective experiences and larger political, social, and economic problematics at local, national, and global scales. This scrutiny extends to the classroom and university, marked by its ongoing exclusion of racialized students (see, for example, here), and disciplinary methods and knowledges (see, for example, Rod Ferguson's The Reorder of Things), including the very notions of "standard" English and normative academic writing that orient an introductory composition class (see Kevin Brown's "Rhetoric and the Stoning of Rachel Jeantel," the first assigned reading).
Indeed, the Zimmerman trial, for instance, in addition to showing the limits of the criminal-justice system for social justice, also highlighted the ongoing subjection of minoritized English speakers, as Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel was roundly mocked for her testimony. As such, the composition classroom is an ideal space to attend to the verbal dimensions of racial profiling at the same time as its other manifestations.
In this way, the first course readings (see below for full list) addressed the profiling of Jeantel's rhetoric, affect, and appearance in the context of the authors' personal experiences vis-a-vis profiling, thus framing the objectives of the course as a whole: a two-fold dynamic in which the students' own experiences could serve as the initial ground on which to contest hegemonic discourse on race.
This unit, which included Roots' drummer Questlove's viral Facebook post about his experiences being profiled, culminated in the first paper assignment, a descriptive/narrative essay in which students intervened in a particular debate over racial profiling using their lived experience as the primary form of evidence. Subsequent units, each tied to a different type of essay writing, focused on multi-modal comparative analysis of popular music and music videos, expository analyses of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, and various arguments opposing stop-and-frisk specifically and racialized security mechanisms generally. The final paper prompt connected the course's overall discussions to praxis, asking students to make an argument, supported by information from any two course readings, about what aspects of U.S. policing or prisons need to be changed.
Finally, although the oppositional capacity of social media was central to both class discussion and participation (students were required to submit reading responses via Tumblr), I also emphasized social media's citational limits—that is, the ease with which correct attribution can go awry. This risk was the subject of the first class meeting, in which I handed out copies of a Facebook post quoting "bell hooks on the Zimmerman trial" that went viral —except the quote, from hooks’ 2001 book All About Love, does not specifically address the Zimmerman trial but rather white supremacy at large. Once again, though, it was a prime opportunity to discuss both racial profiling and composition practice.
Per Lehman College English department requirements, English Composition I is not predominantly literature-based, but with this second paper assignment, I introduced literary elements in the form of the lyrics to "Strange Fruit," originally performed by Billie Holiday in 1939 and later covered by Nina Simone in the mid-1960s, and the lyrics to "Blood on the Leaves," the 2013 Kanye West track that features Simone singing the lyric "Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees / Blood on the leaves" for its chorus. The paper assignment was to compare and contrast the two songs, which offered the critical challenge of how "Strange Fruit," based on a poem by Bronx school teacher Abel Meeropol and recorded by Holiday in protest against lynching and revived by Simone at the height of the civil-rights struggle, related to the concerns West raises in his song, namely the complex intersections of romantic relationships and consumeristic bourgeois desires. As such, students had to think about both the literary aspects of each song's lyrics as well as the differing, but related, historical contexts—that is, the history of U.S. racial oppression in service to white economic power. This history was further emphasized when West performed "Blood on the Leaves" at the MTV Music Video Awards in silhouette against an image of a tree Steve McQueen photographed while making 12 Years a Slave—a performance that generated fresh attention to the song right at the beginning of the semester.
Preparatory class work for writing the paper included lectures by me on the particulars of lynching under Jim Crow, augmented by multi-modal texts available on the course Tumblr and shown in class; close readings of the lyrics and their contexts (aided especially by the annotations of "Blood on the Leaves" on RapGenius.com); and intensive comparative discussion across several class sessions, which yielded an in-class exercise I designed on the basis of the students' analysis to further hone the possible arguments that could be made (click on the following image for a clear view of the handout).
In the end, although some students remained resistant to seeing any connection between the two songs, everyone was able to see the historical continuum of black pain, on the one hand, and white economic gain, on the other. This lesson effectively set up subsequent class lessons on the continuance of racialized social control in the U.S., including current forms such as stop-and-frisk and mass incarceration. At times it was also entertaining, as all the students had an opinion of West, and they enjoyed discussing pop culture.
Course Readings for Each Unit
Unit 1: the narrative/descriptive essay
Unit 2: the compare/contrast essay
Unit 3: the expository essay
Unit 4: the argument essay
Supplemental readings/texts available on the course Tumblr.
Following are the remarks I prepared for the closing plenary of the MLA Subconference last Thursday, on which I appeared, on behalf of the CUNY Adjunct Project, with Chris Newfield of the University of California–Santa Barbara, Kyle Shafer of Unite Here!, and Jimmy Casas Klausen of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Though I veered from these particular words—I'd quickly handwritten them, in my near illegible script—the views are the same as I expressed in person, as you'll see on the archived livestream (which you should check for the other panelists' remarks and subsequent discussion).
The photo above, by Lee Skallerup Bessette, shows an image, presented by Shafer, of hospitality workers in a vending machine—a specific depiction of how capitalism renders people in general: disposable. If we are to resist precarity, we must resist capitalism and its various deployments, as I try to show.
First of all, and again, I want to thank the organizers of this very generative convening. Thank you all for inviting the CUNY Adjunct Project to appear, and thank you for your generously donated labor. And, frankly, it shouldn't be our job, as graduate students, to change the university. We have enough other things to do—research, write, teach, attend conferences on money we don't have—the list goes on—that we don't have time, let alone resources, to solve all the problems facing higher education too. But since the people with available time and resources—tenured faculty and faculty unions, administrators, disciplinary organizations and other academic bodies—apparently have no interest, nor ability, to fix these issues, doing so must be our work as well. And so I thank everyone here in this newly formed collective, and I look forward to continuing this mobilization, in particular in coordinating actions across our various campuses between now and next year's gathering in Vancouver.
I also want to note my regret that Marc Bousquet can't be with us tonight as expected. Not only is he an alumnus of my very program at the CUNY Graduate Center, but his longstanding analyses of academic capitalism, particularly in How the University Works, have provided an important foundation for my own views on the political economy of U.S. higher education. Indeed, I love to quote his remark that the PhD holder is now the "waste product of graduate education," especially at department-wide meetings in which most attendees, professors and students alike, look at me like I'm crazy. But Marc is dead on about the expendability of laborers, who are eliminated, both symbolically and materially, under global capitalism. What is a prison, after all, except the housing of waste—of incapacitated workers deliberately left behind by the structural adjustment that has battered specific U.S. communities since Reagan? What is imperial war, of which the U.S. is the reigning arbiter, except the incapacitating of communities around the world?
Prison and war frame my remarks tonight not just because of their central relationships to U.S. governmentality and capital accumulation but also due to my institutional and geographic locations at the City University of New York, whose students are subjected to the whims of campus security when they're not being terrorized by the NYPD through its racist, violent stop-and-frisk program. Although the police target black and brown men, the costs of stop-and-frisk—and prisons at large—to individuals and neighborhoods are countless. And when youth of color make it to CUNY—that is, if they're not pushed out earlier by the school-to-prison pipeline or the brutal testing regime (both of which line the pockets of corporate executives and investors)—they are now offered a dubious stability in the form of military service, as CUNY has welcomed back ROTC after a 41-year absence—a military that has historically preyed upon the multiracial working class. Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism, safeguarded by the military, and the sturdy hegemony of the American dream continue to make New York City a hub for numerous diasporic communities. Indeed, the diversity of oppressed nationalities in the city led the American Enterprise Institute to recommend CUNY as a recruiting ground.
I was asked to speak tonight on one aspect of precarity, and how to resist it, and as this sketch of issues at CUNY indicates, I want to highlight the critical necessity of intersectional analysis and organizing. In other words, there can be no single-issue activism or research. At CUNY, the myriad intersecting issues—and I only briefly outlined a few—make it impossible to address change without also addressing the full complex of problems that jointly maintain the status quo. And this is the case across higher education, given the university's deep entanglement with processes and histories of colonialism, racialized social control, and oppression.
In practice, what this means for me, as an organizer for the CUNY Adjunct Project, is that I must also organize with and alongside organizers for racial and economic justice broadly, since academic labor, like labor at large, is shaped by structural forces that delimit not just equal opportunity but equal resources as well. It means I must collaborate with and stand beside organizers working to end stop-and-frisk, since that affects the students I teach as contingent faculty and the colleagues I work with inside and outside of class. It means I must work in concert with organizers demanding an end to the militarization of CUNY and its appointment of war-criminal David Petraeus, overseer of death squads and torture in Iraq and drones at the CIA. It means showing up at hearings and rallies for comrades disciplined by City College and turned over to the law on allegations of "almost" inciting a riot for protesting the seizure of the Morales/Shakur Community and Student Center, an autonomous space won by black and Puerto Rican people—students and residents of Harlem working together—in their—our—still-ongoing struggle to decolonize CUNY. It means demanding a parental-leave policy for Graduate Center student workers—currently none exists—so that they don't have to forfeit their teaching fellowships if they want to care for their newborn children. Again, the list goes on.
I am one of four phenotypically white, cisgender men on this panel tonight, an observation I make not to criticize but to think through critically. Indeed, this room is primarily white, and as such mirrors the prevailing whiteness of the academy, and marks how much work needs to be done to rectify the racial injustices of higher education. But we—and I mean those of us who are white, with all our racial privilege—need to be part of that work. Similar to how we want tenured faculty to use their privilege, and resources, to help us contingent faculty end the two-tier system of academic labor and concomitant exploitation—one of the many themes of this conference—those of us with the capital granted to us by white privilege must spend it—all of it—for the sake of racial justice. That is to say, we must work against our privilege, to undo it, akin to how my mentors at the Revolutionary Students Coordinating Committee, or RSCC—the rhyme with SNCC is deliberate—urge "class suicide" of the bourgeoisie, petit and grande. Only when whiteness is eliminated, and the capital it has accumulated by dispossession is returned, will there be an end to precarity.
In other words, we must fully reckon with the settler colonialism and chattel slavery on which the U.S. was founded and which destroyed communities—of people, of thought, of practice—all over the world. These paired legacies are alive at CUNY, as they are everywhere. As such, I believe we must reclaim the notion of contingency so that it names radical possibility as much as it does material vulnerability. The contingency I imagine would allow us to choose the labor we want to do, be with the people with whom we want to be, govern ourselves in the ways we want to be governed, travel to where we want to travel, and take care of one another in the manner in which we want to be taken care of. Legacies of such collective determination are also alive, even if they're often demoted to "cultural differences" by the dominant communities of the global metropole.
At the same time, we must also remember that the institutions that discipline us are precarious, as yesterday's presentation on private-bond-funded, tuition-backed campus construction showed. But when a protest can increase interest rates—and attendant debt-service payments that can run into the millions—it gives universities even more reason to crack down on dissent, as we have seen happen this last semester at CUNY, which is now codifying such repression.
Again, we must contend with militarization, and the capitalism it protects—and the communities harmed by both. To counter this violence, in the present and historically, we need to organize across divides and resist the colonial logic of separation. Only then will we be resisting precarity too.
(Cross-posted to the CUNY Adjunct Project website.)
And then my phone ran out of juice as we walked down the above block, which I happen to live on. (Would that I could've gone up and gotten a fresh phone.) The march continued east on 12th Street, north on 1st Avenue, west on 23rd Street, north on 6th Avenue, west on 33rd Street, and north on 7th one block to 34th Street, where we were stopped. I peeled off at that point but the march continued west on 33rd and then, from what I heard, to Times Square. No justice, no peace.
"You can't preserve everything," Florent Morellet, pioneering meat-market restaurateur, said Thursday night at a Historic Districts Council screening of the 2009 documentary about the rise and fall of his eponymous French diner. The stories of Morellet, his restaurant (which closed in '08), and the meat market have been well told over the years, but the Frenchman's rebirth as a quasi-anti-preservationist could be fresh narrative terrain: Now a member of the community board that serves the neighborhood, Soho, in which he lives, Morellet professed to have lost interest in the meatpacking district, having turned his attention instead to high-rises, urban density, and sustainability.
"It's not about the buildings, it's about the people," he ramblingly opined after the screening at the Tribeca Film Center. "That's what we as preservationists have to think about. High rise is the future, that's what's sustainable. We have to start leveling the suburbs and bringing them to the city, to the core, where there's transit. Apartment buildings of 100 stories! Going against that is immoral, because it's green."
Not exactly the talking points of New York's historic-preservation community, whose latest success is getting a distinctly low-rise section of the East Village landmarked, but that's part of Morellet's charm: he's unpredictable.
He's also, again, ahead of the trend. "There should be high rises on the avenues of the East Village," he said—and along the northern reaches of Third Avenue, there already are.
*Or, Why I Like BLDG BLOK
Last night I participated in the inaugural public event of BLDG BLOK, a start-up housed at the DUMBO NYU-Poly incubator that's using mapping and other digital tools to rediscover urban history. My task was to respond creatively to a history of Tompkins Square by writer Francis Morrone; I had five minutes, or about 1200 words. Following is what I wrote and read.
When I think of Tompkins Square, I think of rats. Two summers ago, the square—or park, or gathering place, or historical site, or whatever you deem the most appropriate description of the space for your needs—was infested with rats, as local parents complained to media; their burrows—the rats’ burrows, that is, not the parents’ burrows, which are a different kind of burrow—ran adjacent to the playground on the square’s west side. At night you could see the rats scrambling over the mulch, or venturing across the Avenue A sidewalk to pick through garbage. Rats are shy animals—they disappear if you get too close. But they need humans to survive.
During the rat infestation—I understand it’s lessened now—I happened to live, just for a short time, on Seventh Street between A and B, which is the south side of Tompkins Square. Accordingly, I had many opportunities to observe the rats. I was interested in photographing them, I guess to capture them, to hold them in time for longer than a moment—that is, permanently. In one photograph I took, there were 22 pairs of rat eyes glinting in the dark. Stopped in the image, they seemed to look at me with the same mix of curiosity and fear with which I gazed at them.
Rats are as much a part of New York City history—of any city’s history—as they are a part of my history in New York. Twelve years ago, shortly after I moved to this metropolis, I hit a rat with my foot as I crossed Broadway on Fourth Street. I didn’t see the rat—I just felt a soft, semi-squishy thud. Immediately a high-pitched screech overcame the corner; I looked down and saw a furry oblong scurry away zig-zag-like. Passersby glared at me as I stood there, stunned, as if I’d been hit by a car—an unexpectedly traumatic collision. But I might as well have collided with history itself.
Rats, as we know, are ancient animals—so ancient that the zoological designation “Old World rats” for the black and brown rodents we live with in cities doesn’t refer to the pre-modern era but to the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-modern era: specifically, the Pleistocene epoch, which began more than two million years ago and ended eleven-thousand-and-seven-hundred years ago. At some point during this enormous span of time—scientists aren’t sure when—the rats that now commingle with us and our refuse in Tompkins Square originated in the forests and scrublands of Asia. Our rats, of course, aren’t a million years old (obviously)—their average life span is only a year. But their bodies carry within them a history of the world, both spatial and temporal. They’re living documents of human civilization. Don’t believe me? Ask the next rat you see. He’ll tell you if he could.
Like rats, architecture carries within it a spatial-temporal history of the world, only you can’t stop a building—a design—in its tracks with your foot. As eminent architectural writer Francis Morrone reminds us in his chronological history, the area that’s now Tompkins Square was once a swampy mass filled with birds of the snipe variety; Manhatten men of a certain stripe hunted them. The snipe hunt later became synonymous with the wild-goose chase, a madcap search for an ostensibly real but actually fictional object. Indeed, that meaning is so prevalent today that to use “snipe hunting” to refer to a kind of bird hunting would be archaic. And yet this seemingly outmoded definition is embedded in the phrase; it can’t be separated out. Etymologies are not linear but coextensive—meanings are ever present.
When I think about architecture, I often find myself thinking of Orhan Pamuk’s incredible novel Snow, in which the provenance and style of buildings are as important as any other theme. After years of living in exile in Germany, the novel’s protagonist, a poet, returns to Turkey for his mother’s funeral. Subsequently, he’s offered a reporting assignment that takes him to the eastern city of Kars, a remote outpost of have’s and have-not’s—mostly have-not’s. His first stop in town is the Snow Palace Hotel, an “elegant Baltic building…two stories high, with long narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard and an arch that led out to the street. The arch was 110 years old and high enough for horse-drawn carriages to pass through with ease.” When the poet-reporter walks under the arch, he feels “a shiver of excitement.”
The novel takes place in the 1990s. A hundred-and-ten years before then—in the 1880s—Kars belonged to the Russian empire, and Turkey, as a nation, didn’t yet exist. At the beginning of that same decade, Tompkins Square had become a public park—“one of the most attractive spots in the city,” as the New-York Tribune hailed it. Within 60 years, however, the park was no longer attractive: as the New York Times noted—and these references are Morrone’s, by the way—neglect was visible everywhere, the playground vandalized.
Kars—you may have sensed I was going here—suffered a similar degradation: “elegant Baltic buildings” turn out to be a rarity in the city as rendered by Pamuk in Snow. Instead, as the novel’s poet-reporter walks through the snow, he finds “decrepit Russian buildings with stovepipes sticking out of every window,” a “thousand-year-old Armenian church towering over the wood depots and the electric generators,” and “a five-hundred-year-old stone bridge,” where a “pack of dogs bark[ed] at every passerby.” The forlorn scenes force our man to wonder if Kars is “a place that the whole world had forgotten, as if it were snowing at the end of the world.”
I read this moment, fictional or not, as the end of history—the end of a progressive chronology of the world that relegates the past to the past—forgotten. In contrast to a chronological view of history, I propose a kairological perspective, in which the past is never forgotten but always insistently here. In this regard, I follow the great Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who declares: “Against the empty, continuous, quantified, infinite time of vulgar historicism must be set the full, broken, indivisible and perfect time of concrete human experience; instead of the chronological time of pseudo-history, the [k]airological time of authentic history; in place of the total social process of a dialectic lost in time, the interruption and immediacy of dialectic at a standstill.”
Architecture can interrupt this dialectic of putative progress, as can rats. So can, perhaps ironically, the digital—or digitality, or technology, or invention, or whatever you want to call it—which makes visible simultaneous—kairological—historical experiences. This is what BLDG BLOK does, and this is why I like it.
Moving west to east, the second building of the East 10th Street Historic District, number 295 (above), is part of the same set of houses that includes 293 and ends with 299. All built in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, they're attributed to the architect Joseph Trench. As before, this building incorporates Queen-Anne-style alterations, such as the cornice; the main entrance was also moved to the basement.
Previously: The East 10th Historic District—Photos
The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously this past January to elevate the north side of East 10th Street between Avenues A and B to the status of historic district. The district contains 26 buildings, most of which were built in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, following the opening of Tompkins Square Park, which the buildings face, in 1834. A few of the buildings went up around the turn of the twentieth century, including the McKim, Mead, & White-designed public library at 331 East 10th.
These buildings, though not the library, have been altered greatly since their construction, and as such they're fascinating historical assemblages. I live near the block, and since I'm addicted to Instagram, I thought I'd photograph and post each of the 26 structures. Above is building one, on the northwest corner of the block: 293 East 10th. Originally built (circa 1846) in a Greek Revival/Italianate style, it was later updated with a Queen Anne-style cornice. (This information, and all subsequent information about these buildings, comes from the East 10th Street Historic District "designation report," prepared for the preservation commission.) Other alterations—they are numerous, as you can glean from the image—include moving the main entrance to the basement and removing the window lintels. The current occupant of the storefront is the Horus Cafe and hookah lounge, which has a sidewalk cafe.
Among the people living in my building in 1940: stenographers, investigators (one for "N.Y.C. Social"), lawyers, waitresses, a hatmaker and a dressmaker, a hospital dietitian, and a "photographers" salesman. Though they mostly hailed from New York, quite a few were born in Russia, Austria, Poland, Germany, and Denmark, as well as New Jersey and Maine. Just a snapshot of what you can find on the 1940 Census site, which has been bombarded with more than 37 million "hits"—so cute, the Archives!—since nine a.m. Monday.