This essay originally appeared on Truthout.com.
My Intersectional Life
Saturday, 21 March 2015 00:00
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Truthout | Op-Ed
I am a New Yorker. Ever since 9-11, I have felt like I have an X on my back. This feeling does not replace the vulnerability I feel as a Black woman in the United States. It increases it. It grows my unease, my dis-ease.
Who is the best contact person to take my child home if the bridges are destroyed or blocked off while I'm on the other side of the East River? What if a subway attack takes place just as I am transferring trains at Grand Central? How do I communicate with my child's school if phone service is disrupted again? What are my son's school's evacuation sites?
I think about these things the way some mothers think about what to make for dinner.
I keep a bag with copies of identifying documents (like birth certificates, licenses, passports), along with clean socks, canned food and a flashlight ready to go. I am not really ready to go. Who would carry the cat if we had to walk to New Jersey or Westchester or out to Laguardia or JFK? I think about things like this.
In addition to my fear of gun violence in the US, of police violence in the US, and of the culture of violence in the US, I am, since 9-11, also afraid of violence from abroad that is directed at the US.
And yet, I know my fears are not greater than, or more important than, any other mother's anywhere in the world. Indeed, when I consider the more than 43 million refugees across the globe or the one student among the 80 savagely attacked in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, the one whose eyeballs were removed and skin sliced away, I think that these victims of state-sponsored terror all have mothers. These women I do not know I pray for. And as I pray, I realize my fears in fact express a kind of privilege, a privilege to fear that which so many other mothers actually experience.
I am not still as I pray for these other mothers. I teach. I advocate. I write. I persist.
I am a New Yorker.
I am a woman. When I first heard that hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls who had been preparing for their April physics exams in Chibok were kidnapped by armed gunmen, I was scrolling through Facebook. I know exactly why I did not hear about this assault on young women through news reports. I know exactly why I did not hear about this abduction until it was nearly June. The reproductive organs of these students made them targets. Their wombs made them prey. Their skin color and their nationality silenced their screams.
No one heard about them outside the Nigerian community until one man adapted a chant he heard from protesting families seeking aid in the children's recovery. Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi changed Bring Back Our Daughters to Bring Back Our Girls, tweeted to his few hundred followers, and word spread.
The multi-hued response to the terror in Nigeria fortifies me. Like the Black Lives Matter direct action protests following the Grand Jury decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, folk have crossed racial lines to advocate.
Online support has not, however, pushed the world into Nigeria itself. Humanitarians from across the globe have not descended upon that region to scour across national borders and recover the missing girls. Instead, the attacks on the people of Nigeria have only intensified, grown, and destroyed more.
As many as 2,000 residents of Baga, Nigeria, were killed January 3, 2015. Satellite images reveal a 4 square kilometer town that was burned to the very ground. Again, I first learned of this latest atrocity through social media. I immediately joined the ranks of people tweeting about Nigeria, and I was relieved when CNN began covering the situation there. More needs to be done, however, and I fear the terror experienced by ordinary folk in West Africa will not compel a multihued, multiethnic humanitarian multitude to direct action until, like Ebola, the terror spreads.
I do not want this terror to spread. I want it eliminated. But until folk in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world begin to connect the dots between their own day-to-day experiences and the experiences of brown girls in West Africa, these young women and the families who love them will remain under siege.
Women are under siege. Every woman everywhere is more vulnerable when 200 girls can simply be snatched from school. But this should not be the reason we seek to liberate these girls. We must liberate them because they are our girls. Our girls.
And this is all why I am not Charlie.
I am a Culture Worker. Despite my grief in the wake of the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I also felt body-shaking rage as violent, racist images of Black and Brown people produced by Charlie Hebdo scrolled on my feeds in the wake of the attacks. Drawn with the supposed intent to dismantle systems of thought that foment resentment, fear and hate, these vile images only supported them.
But they do more than that. Exaggerated Features, stereotypical language, even tails: These cartoons will never help bridge the spaces that divide us. Instead, they dehumanize people like me, and, like the images of Brute Negroes and Sapphire Jezebels that were recycled from the plantation era to dispossess Black men, women and children of their very humanity during the era of mass policing and incarceration of the late 20th and early 21st centuries; these Charlie Hebdo cartoons dehumanize people of African and Middle Eastern descent. Iterations of Black and Brown people as monkeys also prevent white people from fully expressing their own humanity.
Because people of color are not presented as fully human, the drive to partner, ally and invest creative power in coalition-building is diminished. Because of these kinds of images, love is diminished. The gaps between us widen. Instead of simply helping where help is needed, white people must take great cognitive, emotional and spiritual leaps across those gaps to fully utilize the incredible resources of The West and engage in direct action.
Of course, even when white people are not making those leaps, people of color are already mobilized. Movements to achieve true liberation already exist. But silence disables marginalized peoples. "The West" does not hear us, even when we are neighbors, crying out across the town square. These gaps, these spaces that have not been bridged, enable the terror that strikes tiny communities in Nigeria and tiny offices in France. These gaps enable the same terror that strikes Black children in urban America to strike white children in the suburbs.
These dangerous images that perpetuate lies get into everyone's heads, get into us. Those victims of the Charlie Hebdo offices should be alive. No one should die for images, even vile ones.
But, let's be clear: Whole nations should not be degraded just to get a laugh.
Laughter is a privilege.
I am a Citizen of the World. I am a Black woman, a New Yorker with certain privileges, a writer who also teaches, born and raised in The West. Multiple identities intersect in me. As I consider the many more ways I am apt to self-identify, I feel myself connecting to others with similar and different identities, and I feel more intimately connected to them. This intimacy makes me feel more human. I would like all of us to acknowledge, to deeply feel, this humanity.
This humanity is funky. The feet of this humanity are cracked and brown and bare to the earth. This is not the humanity of Opi-polished toes. This is the humanity of trek and march and pound and pound and pound the earth. This humanity is not airbrushed. This humanity is fresh air.
This is our humanity. If a child cries in Newark or Newtown, deep in Chibok or near the Champs Elysees, this child is crying for us to summon our humanity and protect her. We are all intersectional. Feel the lines of humanity zing through you. Resist images and ideas that fuel distrust and despair. Light the path to recovery.
So many chose to be Charlie; but I am crying out, choose to be our children instead.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
This interview originally ran on Truthout.org.
Talking Black Writers, "Bring Back Our Girls" and All the Buzz About Bridgett M. Davis' New Book
Thursday, 02 October 2014 10:28
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Truthout | Interview
Filmmaker, journalist, professor and author Bridgett M. Davis ranks among the most influential culture workers living in Brooklyn. One of "10 New York Authors to Read Right Now" according to Time Out, Davis crosses cultures with Into The Go-Slow (The Feminist Press, September 2014), a beautiful novel that explores themes of loss and recovery.
Her female protagonist flies from Detroit to Lagos to retrace the last steps of her activist sister, who died under mysterious circumstances, her body crushed somewhere within the profusion of humanity that daily surges through Africa's most populous city. Chris Abani praised Into the Go-Slow as "a beautiful allegory at the heart of a realist novel." But praise for work produced by Davis began long before she even began writing this, her second book.
Director of the 1996 award-winning independent film Naked Acts, Davis caused a stir among the poets, painters, dancers and DJs who populated Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood in its pre-gentrification heyday. She met her future husband, marketing whiz Rob Fields, at East Village landmark Nuyorican Poets Café when he was repping for the Black Rock Coalition and he buzzed all over the borough to build support among artists, thinkers and regular folk. On opening night, 600 people stood in line to see Davis' woman-centered film, and she delivered. Naked Acts was not only the first American film to be written, produced, directed and self-distributed theatrically by a black woman, it also broke box office records for a single-screen, "exclusive" release without name actors, thanks to word-of-mouth and Rob's guerilla-style marketing.
After winning awards from Berlin to Burkina Faso for Naked Acts, Davis earned accolades for her work as a journalism professor at Baruch College. And she and Rob started their family. And she continued to write.
In 2005, Davis published her debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, a finalist for the Hurston / Wright Legacy Award. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to The Washington Post, Essence, O, The Oprah Magazine, Writers Digest and TheRoot.com. But she does more than write.
The term "go-slow" is a Nigerian patois for traffic jams; and so the title speaks to the dichotomy between the stasis of stalled traffic and the kinetic streets of Nigeria
In the tradition of black women writers through the generations, Davis has formed institutions to recognize the work of other ambitious black writers. She is a founding member of ringShout, A Place for Black Literature; Books Editor at Bold as Love Magazine, a site devoted to black culture; and curator for the Brooklyn reading series Sundays @ . . .
She manages all this while managing her busy family of four. And she is a friend, my friend.
I was thrilled to talk with her exclusively for Truthout.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen: I want to start by saying how excited I am about this book! I have seen the narrative develop over the years in our writers group, where you shared your work-in-progress with me and other women writers. In what way(s) did an all-female writing group support you as Into the Go-Slow started to come together?
Bridgett M. Davis: Having a women's writing group to support me through process has been absolutely vital. Especially in the early, tentative years, I knew you and the other women in the group would immediately value the story, see its relevance and its big themes without relegating it to the category of "women's fiction." And yet, as women, you each were able to connect with the female characters' struggles and ambitions in ways men simply couldn't. Plus, the all-female group members understood my struggle to balance life demands and writing - all of that nurturing kept me buoyed, sustained me through the years.
So, I have to ask, why the change from the original working title, Lagos, to the one the novel has now, Into the Go-Slow? What is it about this title that worked for you?
In all my creative work, I always give the project a working title, a place holder that speaks to the literal content of the work. But eventually, as the story's themes become more resonant, and I see what the work is ultimately saying, I try to find a title that speaks to that. I did that with my film, Naked Acts, as well as with Shifting Through Neutral.
With Into The Go-Slow, the term "go-slow" is a Nigerian patois for traffic jams; and so the title speaks to the dichotomy between the stasis of stalled traffic and the kinetic streets of Nigeria - where traffic may not be moving, but life is happening around it, with horns blowing, and scooters weaving in and out, with people selling goods at car windows. I wanted to convey Angie's "stalled" life juxtaposed against her brave plunge into a metaphorical kinetic space.
Of course, the new title does in some ways reference the title of your debut novel, Shifting Through Neutral, which was published by Amistad in 2004. Both books examine themes of mobility and access to fresh new spaces for your black female protagonists. Why do you think these themes resonate so deeply with you?
Believe it or not, I hadn't even seen the parallel between the two titles until someone pointed it out to me. I also hadn't consciously made vehicles and traffic so prevalent a presence in both books. But what can I say? I'm from the Motor City. So much of my coming of age in Detroit was around car culture - going every year to the big Auto Show, passing by car dealerships dotted all over town, hearing relatives talk about work in the auto plants. I got my first car at 17 - a Pontiac Sunbird, and it's the first memory I have of unadulterated joy. And later, that car was the site of some pain.
Cars have always represented both freedom and potential danger to me, and I see those as the two key sides of human experience. And so, it makes sense to me to use them as metaphors for how we "drive" through life.
Detroit figures as prominently as Lagos in your novel, so that both cities become characters in the narrative. With its current water crisis and status as the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, Detroit circa 2014 isn't too different from the Lagos of the 1980s. What do the problems we associate with these two different cities say about the shared condition of black people around the world?
I always saw similarities between Lagos and Detroit, and now that comparison is more acute. Isn't it ironic that I wrote about Nigerians' being shut off from access to water, only to see Detroiters suffering from a similar fate today? Both are places where black people live in a kind of isolation, ostracized and even penalized by an unforgiving power structure that finds them expendable. Africans have faced this condition since colonization, and of course black folks in this country have faced it since our ancestors were brought here. Britain abandoned Nigeria to its own devices after independence, and chaos ensued. White Detroiters abandoned the city to get away from black residents - no other reason - and chaos ensued. Same exploitative story, different locale.
You examine many provocative themes in your work, and we readers are lucky indeed that the book publishing industry has made Into the Go-Slow available to us. Let's talk about availability and access a bit. What has been different about the publishing process this second time around? In what way or ways has the books publishing industry changed in the past 10 years?
The biggest change of course is e-books. Ten years ago, the idea of reading a book on a screen would've sounded like science fiction. That, coupled with the role of social media, has changed the way books are promoted and how they're purchased and read. That has, obviously, reverberating consequences. So, 10 years ago, we hoped for good reviews in the major media, I created a website; my publisher sent me to a few cities and I signed books at indie bookstores and the chain stores, and hoped for the best. There was no Facebook or YouTube or Twitter or online media. There were gatekeepers and long-lead press and wishful thinking.
If I were to curate a panel of black women writers today, I'd focus on how we might capitalize on the fact that the most likely person to read a book in any format is a college-educated black woman.
Now? Because people can find out about you and buy your book via their smart phones, the traditional approaches aren't enough (unless you're already a best-selling author). Book tours and events still matter, because as human beings we want that face-to-face experience with the author, but it's the online sites and social media that truly amplify your book. The New York Times Book Review can still do wonders, but in fact there are also several key online review sites that can do wondrous things for your book. I don't know how well publishers have made the switch, to become nimble enough to penetrate that social-media space in a way that's truly impactful.
And so, it's left up to the author to do that.
The biggest missed opportunity I think is that publishers didn't align themselves financially and philosophically with brick-and-mortar bookstores to ensure their survival, so as to offset Amazon's dominance.
How has publishing for a smaller, woman-centered publishing company, The Feminist Press, been? Has the political component of this nonprofit impacted your personal experience as a writer in some way?
I really am in a love affair with Feminist Press right now. The fact that its mission is to publish literary work with a feminist thrust by diverse women across the globe means that my profile matches their agenda! FP is a small press that publishes very few books a year, so each one is an all-hands-on-deck labor of love by the entire staff. They're invested in my book and know it intimately, so they share in a very personal way in its success. The whole staff showed up to my book party - from the publisher to the interns!
In 2006, you and I shared a panel at New York's McNally Jackson Bookstore with author Martha Southgate, who published Third Girl From the Left that same year. We focused our discussion on the experiences we were having as black women writers in particular and talked about everything from street lit to cover art to honoring the tradition of black women writers in the United States. What would be the important topics for a group of black women writers to discuss today? Have things changed for contemporary women writers of African descent, or have things pretty much stayed the same?
Great question! Eight years since that panel, I think there's a lot to feel good about: Just think of the women writers we've featured at ringShout events in recent years whose books were published by established presses and received acclaim: Tayari Jones, Emily Raboteau, Catherine McKinley, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Sheri Booker and Danielle Evans; Dolen Perkins-Valdez' book, WENCH, was a New York Times bestseller, and Attica Locke's mystery novel did very well. This year, Tiphanie Yanique is enjoying a wonderful, well-deserved reception for her new book.
The black community is far too familiar with loss - the premature, tragic and violent kind.
So the issues that seemed so resonant back then - street lit usurping popular and literary work, cynical covers on our books - seem less resonant. If I were to curate a panel of black women writers today, I'd focus on how we might capitalize on the fact that the most likely person to read a book in any format is a college-educated black woman.
What can we do with that power? What should we do? Seems to me we need structures in place similar to what Ava Duverney has done with AFFRM, which provides a distribution and viewing network for indie films by black directors.
Both Shifting Through Neutral and Into the Go-Slow are set in Detroit, though your latest novel takes the reader to Ikeja, Surulere and Kano - all communities in and around Lagos. Your female protagonist, Angie, makes a reverse migration. What pulled you over the Atlantic, back to the West Coast of Africa, both as a student in the 1980s and as an author today, and why did you decide to take your main character there, too?
I initially went to West Africa on a fellowship awarded after graduation. I'd taken a Contemporary West African Lit course in college and was so riveted by the writers I read that I knew when I had the chance I'd choose to travel to the Continent. Later, I got to see a few more African countries as a filmmaker. Looking back, I harbored a desire to write my own Africa novel for all those years. But from the start I was interested both in capturing African life the way I'd seen it portrayed in literature by African authors AND through the eyes of an expat. So, this novel allowed me to do both.
In your book, Angie's sister is a true activist. Her work as a journalist in Nigeria allows her to research several injustices that directly affect Nigerian women and children, including the sale of tainted formula to pregnant and nursing mothers. What was the overall situation for Nigerian women and children in the mid-1980s, when Into the Go-Slow was set?
That particular storyline comes directly from real life. I was studying African media women as part of my fellowship when I traveled to Nigeria in the '80s and became friends with a woman journalist who wrote about that issue. Overall, Nigerian women were just starting to amplify "women's issues" and broaden the definition of what that meant in the '80s. Their concerns and voices were just starting to be heard in progressive media. Of course, these fearless women had been fighting on behalf of their sisters for many years. And there were all the issues you'd imagine: high infant mortality, high maternal death rates, harsh living and working conditions, disease, poor access to water. But there were some great strides too by women, like the first female publisher of a daily newspaper, Doyan Abiola, and more women entering the work force doing "traditional men's jobs."
Nigeria has been prominent in the minds of Americans this summer because of the April 2014 kidnapping of about 300 schoolgirls by Boko Haram and the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign to raise awareness about their plight. Help us understand what is going on in the country today. What is the situation for Nigerian women and children now? How is it possible that hundreds of girls, girls who were studying to take their exams in physics, could be just - taken? How is it possible that five months later these girls have not been recovered? Can you give us some insight based on your personal connection to Nigeria?
I have not been to Nigeria since the '80s, so I can't speak to the current climate in the country that created an environment for such a horrendous act. I see Boko Haram's acts as more so part of a larger, frightening trend of attacks on women and girls in the name of religious extremism - whether it's Afghanistan or India, Pakistan or Nigeria. What does sadly feel indicative of Nigeria is President Goodluck Jonathan's woefully inadequate and shameful response to the kidnapping. He is unfortunately part of a long line of despots and incompetent leaders running Nigeria since its brief flirtation with democracy in the '80s.
Though your novel was written long before the Boko Haram kidnapping that sparked the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Into the Go-Slow does examine themes of loss and recovery. Angie goes looking for the true tale of her sister's adventures in Nigeria. Along with the level of ambitious, elegant prose you've achieved, and other elements that render your work literary, this theme of loss and recovery really does place your work in the tradition of talented black women writers. Why does this desire, this quest for the recovery of the black female narrative, still resonate today?
The black community is far too familiar with loss - the premature, tragic and violent kind. And who bears the brunt of that loss more so than the community's mothers and aunties and sisters? Black women understand loss. So I'm not surprised that so many black women writers explore the theme of loss in their work; nor is it surprising that recovery is equally resonant in our work. Writing allows us to make sense of the senseless, to give order to what seems like the universe's randomness, the world's cruelties; the writing itself is a healing act, its own kind of recovery. I like the idea of writing as reclamation - getting back some of what we lost.
One other important aspect of your novel is the way you center the sacrifices of countless, nameless revolutionaries who were active toward the end of the 20th century in the post-civil rights / post-black power period of the anti-apartheid '80s. Angie's sister literally gives everything she has to the global struggle to free black people. A pan-African womanist, Angie's sister is certainly no anomaly. Why did you choose to shed light on the women and men who travel the globe, crossing borders, seeking to free black people?
My own sister was tangentially involved in nationalist politics; I wanted to explore the way she chose an unorthodox life, how she rejected a system that had rejected her, and how it ultimately cost her. That led me to think of all the nameless foot soldiers that gave their lives to the struggle. I wanted to acknowledge them and acknowledge that collective post-traumatic stress syndrome so many suffered from in the wake of the Movement; I wanted to honor their sacrifice.
While Angie's sister is a political activist, she is also a young woman, seeking as much to fulfill her own desire for romance and a personal purpose as she is seeking to liberate The People. Angie cannot fully come into her own as a woman until she can bear witness to her sister's experiences. Do you think we all need our sisters, and our sistahs, in order to come of age as black women?
The bond between sisters, and between sistahs, is a unique relationship - something rare and unto itself. And I feel it's too seldom represented in literature. Sisterhood - blood or otherwise - can be a passionate experience, even as it can be fraught with complications and misunderstandings, and hurt feelings. But it's so fundamental to who we are as black women, that who would we be without them? That was the fundamental question I wanted to explore in this novel: Who are you when the person you've defined yourself against is gone?
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
EISA NEFERTARI ULEN
This interview originally appeared on Truthout.org.
Dr. Anthony Monteiro and the Struggle for the Soul of African-American Studies at Temple
Tuesday, 15 April 2014 12:59
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Truthout | Interview
Few Americans outside the Black community can identify our leaders. Mainstream middle Americans can identify our stars, people like Cornel West, Angela Davis, Cory Booker, and Melissa Harris?Perry. Their media exposure ensures they figure prominently in the national discourse ? a good thing for the whole country. However, a significant and influential core of intellectual leadership works for the liberation of dispossessed people, but does so under the cacophony of sound forming the dominant media cloud. Some of the thinkers who form this intelligentsia are conservative; some are moderates - and others work in the Black Radical Tradition that is decidedly left of center. Because they work in this age of media saturation, where journalists too often seek celebrity opinion over rigorous intellectual discourse, this great diversity of talent is too often vulnerable to the power of the institutions that employ them. The tradition of challenging those institutions, of working to improve them and benefit whole communities, is becoming a quaint, mid-20th century notion. Black activist professors are not just eased out of the academy; they are chopped down. When these trees fall in the forest just outside the doors of the ivory tower - and no one tweets about it - they hardly make sound. One Black leader with the ax aimed at his knees is Dr. Anthony Monteiro ? but this tree still stands tall, and is already making some noise.
Employed by Philadelphia's Temple University as a full time, non-tenured Associate Professor in the African American Studies Department since Fall 2003, Dr. Monteiro is an expert in WEB DuBois and organizer of Temple's DuBois Lectures and Symposiums. This year, Monteiro's contract was not renewed, a move Monteiro claims was a retaliatory act spurred by his outspoken criticism of Dr. Teresa Soufas, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple. What might be viewed as a simple matter of HR has generated a tremendous response from the intellectual community and from residents of North Philadelphia, where Temple is located.
A Call for the Reinstatement of Monteiro has garnered signatures from Monteiro's colleagues all around the country, including intellectual superstars Mark Lamont Hill, Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Vijay Prashad, as well as Angela Davis and Cornell West. The Justice for Anthony Monteiro Facebook page has almost 1,200 likes, and several articles and blog posts have been written about Monteiro's contract.
In the following exclusive interview with Truthout, Monteiro tells his version of the events that led to his ouster. He also examines the Black Radical Tradition, what he calls "a new McCarthyism" in the academy, and "the rise of a new student vanguard."
Eisa Ulen for Truthout: How did you discover you had been terminated? Who told you, where were you when you were told, and what did you feel as you heard of your termination?
Dr. Anthony Monteiro: I received a letter from Dean Teresa Soufas in January 2014. I was partially surprised, although I knew it was possible that could occur, given my role in opposing her attempt to take over our department and to impose upon our department her choice for chair of the department. She has stood out as an administrator who uses threat, bullying, retaliation and revenge against those who stand up to her. I knew I might be targeted. I thought, however, that she might recognize that to fire me would be looked upon by students, the Black community and professors from around the nation as unjust and people would mobilize to oppose it. I thought that, given the struggle we waged in the spring of 2013, that would make her think twice about firing me.
What struggle are you referring to?
Our department was put in receivership in 2012 after Dean Soufas had rejected the faculty's choice for chairperson (Kariamu Welsh). The temporary chair appointed by the dean was about to end her one year tenure, and we had to choose a permanent chairperson. At this time, graduate and undergraduate students called for demonstrations to "Save Black Studies." These demonstrations were joined by activists from the African American community of Philadelphia.
Please briefly describe the fight to make Asante Chair.
The fight in 2013 was a fight to prevent the dean from imposing upon our department her choice for chair - which was not the majority of faculty's choice. It took a united front of students and the Black community of Philadelphia to prevent the dean from overriding our choice as she had done in 2012 with Dr. Kariamu Welsh. In the course of these demonstrations, our faculty set up a nominating process and myself and Asante were nominated to become permanent chair of the department. The dean chose Asante. The fight was for the right of the faculty and students in our department to make our own choice. Thus to save African American Studies.
How do you define the Black Radical Tradition? Where do you think Dr Molefi Asante falls in this tradition?
It is that tradition, which I believe is the majority tradition among Black intellectuals, which goes back to the anti-slavery struggle. Its 20th century form has multiple directions. I believe W.E.B Du Bois is the father of the modern Black Radical Tradition, but it includes Baldwin, King, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, and Amiri Baraka. It is that tradition which is critical and either leans to socialism and communism, or openly embraces it, like Du Bois and Angela Davis, or like Cornel West and King are anti-neo-liberal capitalism from a democratic socialist stance. Socialism and the critique of race, class and gender and capitalism and imperialist war are central to it. I place myself firmly in this tradition. I teach it; I write about it and practice it. I would not put Asante in the Black Radical Tradition. On the central and strategic issues that define this tradition, he is either ambiguous, or in opposition. For instance, on issues of gender and sexual equality, he is on the conservative side, using what he believes to be African tradition to oppose sexual equality and what radicals call women's liberation. He, unlike Baraka and others, does not understand social class and its relationship to culture and Cultural Revolution. He opposes the struggle for socialism. His work shows no evidence of critiquing or even mildly critiquing neo-liberal capitalism. He has recently raised as a reason for his opposing my reinstatement and his uniting with the dean and other right wing forces in the Temple Administration, that I'm a socialist and a Marxist. However, when it came to the fight to make him chair, my ideology was not an issue.
Several prominent Black intellectuals, including Cornell West and Angela Davis, have signed a letter of support for you that asks for your reinstatement at Temple. Why do you think these leaders have advocated on your behalf? Where would you place West and Davis in the Black Radical Tradition?
Clearly Davis and West are firmly in the Black Radical Tradition. I believe I received wide support from academics and intellectuals because they know of my work as a professor, scholar, and activist. They know of my work going back decades in the fight for black freedom, in opposition to war and social and economic injustice. They know that I have fought for the freedom of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience like Mumia Abu Jamal and Nelson Mandela. They also know that something dangerous, like a new McCarthyism, is underway in many parts of the academy. They see this unjust and retaliatory firing of me as part of a dangerous trend. And because I was willing to stand up and fight and call for change, they see this as important to a fight back to save the American university, its racial, gender and ideological diversity.
What do you mean when you say "a new McCarthyism"? How does this new McCarthyism present in contemporary academic life?
By the New McCarthyism, I mean a witch hunt against intellectuals and academics who are identified with progressive, social justice, anti-racism and anti-war causes and activities. Scholars who shape their work in such ways that critique the 1% and neo-liberal capitalist policies are the targets of increasingly conservative and right wing administrators and are the targets of harassment, bullying ? and, in my case, a retaliatory firing. Within African American Studies, attacks upon the Black radical tradition and figures such as W.E.B Du Bois, Claudia Jones, Amiri Baraka, and the radical understanding of Martin Luther King's and Malcolm X's legacies in the name of afrocentrism and traditional African cultural values. This has gone hand and hand with misogynistic, patriarchal, and homophobic stances, again in the name of traditional African values. Socialism and communism are spoken of as anti-African.
The area of North Philadelphia where Temple is located has become increasingly gentrified, and displacement of Black residents has been an inevitable result of that gentrification. What influence, if any, do you think this experience in the community outside Temple University has had on your experience in the community inside Temple? In what ways has your experience been similar to the experiences of displaced African Americans who, prior to gentrification, had called North Philadelphia home through the generations?
I am a resident of North Philadelphia. My maternal grandparents came from South Carolina to the area around Temple. I have always lived in North Philadelphia and have been most of my life a neighbor to Temple. I received my PhD in sociology from Temple. I fought for Black Studies at Temple. Today Temple is moving to gentrify much of North Central Philadelphia and is displacing traditional and long-time residents. Temple sits astride the two poorest zip codes in Philadelphia, which are among the poorest zip codes in the nation. But rather than an attitude of community and good neighborliness, Temple has ruthlessly moved to take from rather than give something to the poor and has refused to use its enormous resources to help the community. It has become a neoliberal behemoth, looking from its tall buildings and offices down upon extreme poverty. I stand with and have stood with the poor. I have called for a new direction at Temple. I have attempted to open the classrooms and lecture halls to the Black and poor communities of Philadelphia. I started a Saturday Free School called Philosophy and Black Liberation, which brings together students and the community to think about issues of freedom and justice. As the economic crisis, called the Great Recession, took hold, I attempted to change my pedagogy, to reach out in new ways to the community, to bring the university and the community closer together, to make the university an ally of the poor, especially children and young people. I knew that this crisis would last for some time. I sought to infuse into my teaching issues of poverty and the nature of neo-liberal capitalism. In other words, I have attempted over the last five years to step up the advocacy and humane dimensions of my pedagogy and to broaden it to include the poor of Philadelphia.
Many North Philadelphia residents, activists, and other members of the community have rallied to support you. Why do you think local residents feel such a sense of urgency with regard to the movement to support your reinstatement? Why do you think local residents feel personally invested in what one could say is essentially a staff change at the local university?
I think the community sees me as part of it. Many people know of my stances for justice. I have a long history of struggle alongside the poor of Philadelphia. I am viewed as an organic and activist intellectual. I have not and do not use my status as a professor or my degrees to separate me from my people. I think ordinary people see in me as an ally and an outspoken opponent of racial, class and gender injustice. On these issues, I do not retreat.
Let's talk about the African American Studies Department at Temple. What do you identify as the top issues or major concerns that need to be addressed to improve the department? What structural, institutional, cultural, pedagogical, and/or personnel changes would you like to see?
Temple's African American Studies Department is and has been in crisis for many years. This seems to be the case for many departments around the nation. Temple's crisis is mainly caused by successive administrations that have treated it with contempt and have not understood the strategic value to the liberal arts of the black intellectual, literary, music, artistic traditions to developing the liberal arts. Also because the neo-liberal turn in higher education is in such profound opposition to the traditions of black intellectual thought and practices, many administrators are uncomfortable with it. It has been for some time and is the case today that many administrators and board of trustee members want to "solve" their problems with African American Studies by folding it into one of the white disciplines. This was the meaning of Dean Soufas' attempt to place a white scholar at the head of our department, a scholar who was a dual appointment in history and AFAM Studies. We are also in an ideological crisis. In the case of AFAM Studies at Temple, we are faced with Molefi Asante's idea that there should be one and only one theoretical and ideological position in the department and that should be his version of afrocentricism. He therefore sees a person like myself as an obstacle. It is this ideological and theoretical arrogance and narrow mindedness that led him to join with a dean that even he defined as a racist in my firing and his cheap and dishonest attempts to hide his role by making the whole affair appear as merely a bureaucratic and administrative issue of a year to year contract. However, he - for ideological and other reasons that I can't explain - chose the path of turning on me, participating in my firing. The great irony is that I was the one who had fought hardest over two years to maintain the integrity and autonomy of the department. People see this and have begun questioning his integrity and even the veracity and genuineness of his version of afrocentrism. I have called over the course of this struggle for the university to reinvest in AFAM Studies at Temple. This means a multi-year commitment. Such a commitment I have tied to the university turning away from the ruthlessness of its economic and gentrification policies towards the Black and Brown communities to which it is neighbors.
What are you most proud of in the department? What are the things happening in African American Studies at Temple that are dynamic, important, and that you want to get back to the business of doing?
I am proud that we have AFAM Studies, that ours is the first to give a PhD in the nation. I am really proud of our students, undergrad and grad students. I think, however, we're in crisis. Our faculty is lacking; the faculty lacks enthusiasm and courage. They are cowed and intimidated, afraid of Asante and the dean. They have only superficial links to the community and fail to speak out against social and racial injustice.
What does your experience at Temple say about the state of Black Studies around the country?
Like the university in general (and for that matter, the society) neo-liberal capitalism has thrown AFAM Studies into crisis. A crisis of funding, a crisis of ideology, a crisis of theory and practice in an atmosphere of intimidation, bullying and attack upon Blacks and the Black intellectual traditions, especially the radical tradition. We need courageous voices to oppose this. Our struggle at Temple is part of raising voices of opposition and decency; voices for justice and against poverty and white supremacy.
What can readers interested in supporting you do?
Many things. Visit our Facebook page, "Justice for Dr. Anthony Monteiro," and keep up with current developments in this struggle. Contact us through our Facebook page. Send letters to President Neil Theobald at Temple calling for him to reverse Dean Soufas' action in firing me. Set up university and community discussions and town hall meetings about the struggle at Temple and how similar struggles need to be supported in your community and at your university. If you are an academic or scholar, sign the [petition] of academics calling for my reinstatement. It can be found at EMAJonline. Finally I think people support me by initiating their own local struggles to make universities accountable to their communities, employees, faculties and students.
Is there anything else that Truthout readers should know that I neglected to ask? Any recent events or updates regarding your position at Temple?
We have assembled an impressive coalition calling for my reinstatement. In many ways, it looks like what coalition building in this period should be like. We have students, faculty, the local labor movement, community organizations and activists, faith based organizations, and churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues, the grass roots activists, and advocates against homelessness and hunger. This coalition has significance that goes far beyond my reinstatement and me. It is a fighting coalition. Very important are the student activists, fifty of whom sat in at a recent Board of Trustees meeting forcing the President and the Chairman of the Board to meet with us and hear our demands. I like to think of these student activists and radicals as on the one side the children of Occupy and on the other, the children of Trayvon. A spirit of cross-racial unity is emerging. For me of all the lessons thus far of this movement and the one that has great future importance is the rise of a generation of student activists linked to the community and the labor movement and committed to anti-white supremacy and with a critique of neoliberal capitalism and American empire and war. This generation can sway the future and we are seeing the rise of a new student vanguard.
This article is a Truthout original.