Creating the Spaces Where I Belong: Phenomenology of an African Canadian Professor

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Guest blog by Tamari Kitossa, Associate Professor, Sociology, Brock University

This essay is a modified contribution to the forthcoming collection The Nuances of Blackness in the Canadian Academy, edited by Awad Ibrahim, Tamari Kitossa, Malinda Smith and Handel K. Wright. I wish to express my appreciation to Anita Jack-Davies, Carl James, Delores Mullings and Awad Ibrahim for commentary on various stages of this paper. Errors and omissions are mine.


           Phenomenologically the lifeworld of an African Canadian professor is fraught with ambivalence, contradiction, risks and paradox. They are a minority both in the academy and within their communities. In the former there is considerable pressure to be the face of representational inclusivity and are expected to perform a range of emotional labours (Norris 2019), quite aside from standard instructional and scholastic expectations. In the latter there are intensive expectations that their scholastic and service work must be instrumentally directed toward a unitary Black community. Based on my experience these opposing tendencies position Black professors between a rock, that of academia’s (White) codes and modes, and a hard place, that of expectations and demands of recompense to a reified Black community. To effectively, healthfully and sanely live and make a living between, in and within these sometimes conflicting lifeworlds, the Black professor must identify the relations to which they will contribute and those they will resist. To do so, the first order of business rests on the ancient Khemetan (i.e., Egyptian) philosophy of ‘know thyself,’ which Socrates, at least according to Plato, reframed more aggressively as ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’  I assert then that the challenge for African Canadian academics is to develop analytical capacity and exercise critical reflexivity toward building relations of liberation within, between and outside the academy.

            True, there is a growing body of scholarship, op-eds and blogs that expose and explore anti-blackness among gender inequality, homophobia and racism more generally in academia (Nelson 2011; A. Henry 2017; F. Henry and Tator 2009; Kitossa 2016; Smith 2018; Stewart 2004). But alongside laying siege to the moats and parapets of policies and practices in the university which defend specified relations bound by authority and power, I think it is important to share stories that centre reflexivity within the struggle to expand the domain of liberation within the university. To this end, a part of my scholarship aims to add to scholarship from the likes of Anthony Stewart (2014) and Annette Henry (2019) which aim to offer practical considerations for African Canadian academicians at varying stages of their career.

            My aim in this brief reflection is to critically account for my experience in the academy and my effort to navigate contexts, relationships and situations that are imperiling, while seeking to identify persons and relationships that enable me to contribute to an organizational culture of accountability, equity, inclusivity and transparency. But weighing heavily on me is another struggle besides resisting anti-blackness in academia: and it is to identify and transcend the politics of racial debt-peonage, essentialist Black solidarity and the animosity, anti-intellectualism and instrumentalism which variously positions Black academics as ‘leaders,’ and ‘servants’ when not the collective ‘property’ of a reified ‘Black community.’ All of this in my experience has led to instances, almost as a disciplining technique, where non-academic intellectuals believe is their right to claim the energy, time and obedience of Black academics. The way I’ve found out of the boxes and demands imposed by academia and elite guardians of conscience in the so-called Black community, is to go deeper into both worlds. In doing so, my tendency is to draw on the epistemic and political philosophies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, Alvin Gouldner, Karl Marx and Kwame Nkrumah as guides in the struggle for defining my existence.

Fanon’s ‘certain uncertainty’ and Gramsci’s reflexivity: Sketch of a Black professor’s ontology

            As a starting point, if we accept Fanon’s (1967, 85) proposition that “a given society is racist or it is not,” then we can accept his citing of French philosopher Karl Jaspers’s contentions that “comprehension in depth of a single instance will often enable us, phenomenologically, to apply this understanding in general to innumerable cases,” so that “what is important in phenomenology is less the study of a large number of instances than the intuitive and deep understanding of a few individual cases” (1968, 168–169). In the contemporary parlance of Black feminist thought, we might call this “standpoint.”

            I cannot and do not, therefore, speak for others, but I assert in the same breath that my experiences are not exclusive to me alone. Whether we are female, male, queer, straight, trans, light- or dark-skinned, immigrant or Canadian-born, etc., we are all marked by what Du Bois called, in reference to the condemnation of Jack Johnson, this “unforgivable blackness” (1914, 181). Anticipated by Du Bois, Fanon (1968) also asserts the “fact of blackness” as a white cultural psychosis that manifests in ‘a historico-racial schema’ projected onto the world by the ontological gaze of whiteness. In it, because of blackness in the White cultural imaginary, the African’s “…body impedes the closing of the postural schema of the white man [and woman] – at the point the [African] makes [their] entry into the phenomenal world of the white man [and woman]” (160). A priori, marked with meaning independent of their actual personality, the African descended person is a source of neurosis, manifested in the White imaginary as a phobogenic object – a thing to be feared as much as desired, precisely because White ontology depends on it (Fanon 1969; 1968).            

            A regime of violence is the result, one in which the African descended person is imagined as the blameworthy cause of the effect. As I will demonstrate, this is a violence that is not only epistemic and symbolic. Because of the fantasies and fragility of whiteness, I am asserting that African descended professors are objects of psychic and spiritual — when not criminal — violence (Christian, 2017; Griffin, Pifer, Humphrey and Hazelwood 2011; Grundy 2017; Johnson and Bryan, 2017; Samuel and Wane, 2012). In my case, I routinely endure violent commentary interspersed with supportive comments on student experience surveys, tolerate with good humour being told that students are intimidated by me because I am “so smart.” But I was shaken to learn that because White students felt aggrieved after I gave a lecture on neoliberalism and whiteness in response to a 2014 campus Halloween blackface incident, one alarmed student took seriously his peers utterance they wanted to kill me.

            But if epistemic and actual violence is what Black professors encounter in the university, is ‘community’ any less dangerous? Here, I am referring to (a) animosity and disparagement and professional jealousy among some African Canadian academicians, and (b) the ambivalence, anti-intellectualism and resentment of a reified “Black community” toward any Black academics deemed to be uselessly “taking up space” in, and retreating to, their “cave of solitude” in the “Ivory Tower.” Following a path well-worn by E. Franklin Frazier (1962), Harold Cruse (1967), and many others, Black intellectuals are perceived to suffer from the twin crises of deformed identity and racial irresponsibility. Which is to say they do not know who they are, in part because they are too self-interested and suffer from Stockholm Syndrome which makes them toadies to the ‘White man’ and his institutions. I am sympathetic but do not subscribe to this condemnatory, messianic and prescriptive view of the role of African descended academicians. In different contexts, degrees and tone, it is espoused by contemporary scholars such as Houston Baker Jr. (2008) and Eddie Glaude Jr. (2003) in the U.S. and, in Canada, by George Dei (2019). I agree with these scholars that it is right to advocate and undertake a scholar-activist role for and within Black communities. But it is in my estimation an unacceptable and ineluctably elitist orientation, if not doctrine, to suggest that Black academics who do not measure up to the performance criteria established by elite moral guardians of blackness have abdicated their civic, moral and racial responsibilities to Black people.

            The demand for instrumentalism and subservience was confirmed when I started a half-cycle sabbatical in January 2014. I received a call to my home from my Dean requesting to meet with me to discuss and present the claims of a Black church group in St. Catharines insisting that I be fired. At issue was that I reviewed the draft of an article by a Fulbright MA researcher specializing in the Underground Railroad. She described in the piece visiting the closed church and finding the bust of Harriet Tubman smeared with feces. Church officials took exception to the article and wrote an eight-page rebuke of the student to the director of the Fulbright Scholarship Board, demanding that her funding be revoked and that she be recalled to the U.S. I wrote a letter in defence of the student to the director of Fulbright Canada, asserting that the student’s right of academic freedom is in the public interest and ought not to be conditional upon the pleasure of any one audience. My doing so drew the ire of the church clerk, who wrote a four-page letter to the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences demanding that I be fired for “conflict of interest” and that I submit a letter of apology. For good measure, the letter was cc’d to 11 officials and offices in Canada and the U.S., including the Black Congressional Caucus. While the complaint was vexatious and stood little chance of depriving me of employment, its calculus was simply to be an irritant, interfere with my career and to assert the authority wielded by proprietary non-academic intellectuals Carl James (2019) calls “cultural curators” (2019).

            That experience revealed also what I think many do not want to address in African Canadian communities: that there are some ‘cultural curators’ who have an aggrandizing proprietary and totalitarian disposition — neither of which is helpful or useful. While on the other side of the ledger as noted by Cornel West, there are many in Black communities with a healthy “distrust and suspicion... [of] the usual arrogant and haughty disposition of intellectuals toward ordinary folk, but, more importantly, from the widespread refusal of black intellectuals to remain, in some visible way, organically linked with African American cultural life” (West 1993–1994, 60–61). From Gramsci’s writings, there ought to be healthy skepticism about intellectuals. Time and again, it has been proven that as a class intellectuals cannot really be trusted not to be complicit with power; or, when like Lenin they did grab the reigns of state they differed little from the bourgeoisie. This is not to say that the romantic construction of the hard-pressed, ‘salt of the earth’, toiling masses is not itself contradicted by their own complicity with power. In extremis, was not Pol Pot a ‘salt of the earth’ who slaughtered every intellectual he could find? There are many in this anti-intellectual culture of ours who may not want to murder academicians, but there are gate-keepers and self-styled leaders of the Black community who would be content to see Black academicians root around as pigs and die like hogs. Back to my point, whether in general Black academics are “arrogant and haughty,” this is a claim that is dubious at best or at the least is a stereotype masquerading as evidence. Who after all, prior to becoming a Marxist, was more haughty and moralistic than the (deservedly sainted and much-loved) W. E. B. Du Bois? Whatever the case may be, this scenario gives me at least pause for thinking about how to understand and think about the condition of Black professors in relation to Black communities.

From ‘zones’ to ‘relations’: making space for one’s own belonging

            The task of writing this paper lead me to think that Kwame Nkrumah's (1969) strategic understanding of revolutionary warfare has application to the academic setting. Whereas Nkrumah worked from the aspiration of a revolutionary Africa drawing on the specificity of a material “topography” and relational “balance of forces,” these metaphors must be substituted with different meanings. There is no doubt that the Western academy is patterned on the medievalism of the cloister and feudal social relations (one only has to contemplate the meaning of maces and ermine collared robes at graduation to see this inheritance). There is no doubt also that the contemporary university is vital for the reproduction of social order and the undertaking of corporate and state-sponsored research and development that sustains capitalism and state apparatuses of symbolic and actual violence. We cannot escape the fact that many Canadian universities are colonial in curriculum as well as being sited on unceded indigenous Canadian territories (Dei 2016). The tenured and the tenure track professor and the ensemble of relations that constitute the university must be liberated from sustaining a socially repressive and ecologically insane social order. Thus rather than as specified by Nkrumah of counter colonial struggles that there are zones that liberated, under enemy control, or contested, I suggest a discursive transformation and displacement in favour of relationships that are liberated, contested, and enemy. As I contend with the ambivalances, contradications and paradoxes of being a professor, I feel that I lose none of my blackness by struggling against enemy relations, persuading contested relations toward the arc of justice and expanding the zone of liberated relations.


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