Spark: A 4C4Equality Journal

Volume 2: Introduction

Sherri Craig & Karrieann Soto Vega, July 2020


The struggle for Black people is not new, but it certainly takes on a particular shape based on the cultural, social, and political configuration of the time. 1968, 1992, 2015, 2020: What is the difference? What differentiates the 1968 moment to the moment we are in now? A queer, leaderless movement? How has our world changed or not changed during the last 50 years that has challenged the manner in which Black people are able to navigate space and place? 

For some, this year may be the first time that they feel compelled to act in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. And for others, these current revolutionary acts echo previous action in the streets, with a new technological flair. The advent of newer social media platforms, specifically TikTok, SnapChat, and Instagram, has allowed for innovative information sharing and organizing. These developments are indicative of the ways people write and enact advocacy that is specific to the socio-political and technological moment, while engaging in the consistent commitment to Black liberation.

In our initial call for submissions, we wrote:

Our Spark 2020 volume aims to honor and celebrate 50 years of establishing Black Studies as an academic discipline that has made space for advocacy, inclusion, and revolutionary thought. Spark aims to amplify how, historically, establishing and sustaining Black studies has been made possible through activism.

In the process of editing this volume, we have kept this goal in mind as well. We have engaged in what we like to think of as a coalitional editing practice. What this looks like is a multifaceted approach to highlighting the importance of the Black Studies formation moment and its future. We cannot ignore the resonances between the 1968–69 tragic murders of Black leadership and other activists slain by white supremacist forces as a spark to the formation of Black Studies and the current sociopolitical moment in which we came together in the spirit to honor this lineage through this Volume 2 of Spark

In what follows we offer reflections from the special issue editors and a brief synopsis of what the submissions provide.

Standing with Anger to Do the Work—Sherri Reflects

It would have been impossible to guess the direction the U.S. would take when Karrieann and I started drafting the call for this 2020 volume of Spark. Recognizing the 50 year anniversary, 1969 to 2019, of Black Studies’ activist histories and the exciting futures to be found in interdisciplinary expansions of writing, rhetoric, and literacy seemed long overdue in a field that has, at times, struggled with embracing anti-racist and pro-Black ideologies. In the midst of wanting to bring together voices that could celebrate such an important milestone, we saw COVID-19, a virus unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, devastate our neighborhoods, friends, and loved ones. A virus that disproportionately killed not only our elders, the keepers of our histories, but Black and Latinx populations who were most likely to be dwelling in concentrated, impoverished areas with little access to healthcare, testing, and other vital resources. Some of the same epicenters for Black revolution and liberation—San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta—became the focus as the nation’s COVID-19 related death toll reached and surpassed 100,000. In an unprecedented move, PreK–12 schools and universities shuttered their doors, sent students and faculty home, and encouraged everyone to increase our already-over-the-top screen time. Such actions highlighted the glaring equity gaps in our education systems as societal privileges: internet access; home computers; employment with remote/flexible opportunities to home school and supervise children, further combined access and achievement. 

However, the first half of 2020 would offer another wake-up call for the importance and absolute necessity of centering Blackness in our consciousness—the senseless murdering of no less than ten Black people who fell victim to whites in just 60 days. Like many years in the past, again our streets erupted in protest, desperation, and anger. Yes. Anger. It is the fuel needed to fight injustice and hatred. It was time to light the world on fire. And so we did. In masks. With signs. Holding the hands of our children and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles. Washing the faces of our wounded. Supporting the bloodied heads of our friends. All the while aiming our smartphones to record for the world to witness. And across the world they did. London, Paris, Berlin and many more hit the streets in solidarity. For the first time corporations denounced racism and anti-Blackness, making innovative (if not a bit pandering) statements to embrace anti-racism. Nearly every major university and academic organization joined the effort to affirm an anti-racist stance. Indeed, for several weeks there was room for Black Lives Matter. There may be no room for Black Studies departments, programs, [1] or curricula at most of these sites for more than 50 years, but a statement and a promise to take action could apparently go a long way to quell the protests knocking at the door. Perfect.

I wholeheartedly believe that it took the same protest, desperation, and anger for young people across the country to fight for the emergence of Black Studies in 1969 as it has taken for institutions to declare that they are committed to anti-racism in 2020. The difference is action. It is early days yet, but with COVID-19 still wreaking havoc across the country, schools are forced to lend attention to misguided attempts at in-person course instruction and annual budgets, leaving little room for new programming, hiring, and beloved task forces to address the newly declared anti-racist education.

How do we push these conversations forward now that #BlackLivesMatter is no longer trending or at the front of consciousness? How do we get the fields of rhetoric, writing, and literacy to remain passionate and engaged with Black Studies when it is no longer fashionable to do so? How many more special issues and sponsored panels will it take to no longer reach for the low hanging fruit of representation? What will it take to understand the whole damn orchard is f**king rotten through and through and so we must raze it to the ground, set the earth on fire, and begin anew? 

At the 2019 Conference on Community Writing, I stated in a panel that we should “burn down the whole ship” of academia broadly and rhetoric, writing, and literacy studies specifically. I’d like to not be so angry. I’d like to never see #BlackintheIvory and #AcademiaSoWhite exist with heartbreaking stories of racism and injustice intermixed with uplifting stories of survival and resilience. Burn it all down.

I stand in solidarity with my fellow Black scholars but also with every shade of beautiful melanin skinned, hardworking, uncompromising, unapologetic student and colleague with enough internal fire to light a torch—it starts with a Spark. This small journal and our excellent contributors is just the edge of exploring activism and the importance of dismantling white supremacy. I hope you enjoy…and become angry with me.

Amplifying: #LasVidasNegrasImportan in Academia También— Karrieann Reflects

As soon as there was conversation amongst the Spark Editorial Board that we should do a special issue on Black Studies to celebrate the 50 years of its establishment as an academic discipline, my body raised my hand. As a Puerto Rican Studies scholar in rhetoric and composition, I know that I would not be here today if it wasn’t for that moment. As the story goes, it was in “1969, in the wake of campus upheaval, the New York City Board of Higher Education conceded to those pressures and encouraged the development of Black and Puerto Rican Studies within the university by giving such programs special funding priority” (Rodríguez, 1990, p. 438). Because I am aware that the struggle for recognition has been horizontal since the establishment of these two interrelated ethnic studies, I felt it necessary to provide editorial labor to curate this issue.

It is also significant to note that the contemporary moment Sherri described above has sparked a reckoning within Latinx communities, including Puerto Ricans, to reiterate that the struggle for Black lives is of utmost importance to progressive political projects. For instance, instead of uniting under a slogan like #LatinxforBlackLives, #LasVidasNegrasImportan (a Spanish translation of Black Lives Matter) manifests an acknowledgment that Black lives are also Latinx. Similar to the rallies in the contiguous United States, in the U.S. territory, activist groups have marched to spread awareness about how Puerto Ricans are implicated and impacted by police brutality and anti-Black racism. And just as unfortunate, in Puerto Rican communities the struggle has been prevalent but largely unheard. 

To amplify how #LasVidasNegrasImportan in academia, I could start with Puerto Rican forefathers of Black Studies, like Arturo Schomburg, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Or with Black Puerto Rican women like Dominga de la Cruz, crucial in nationalist activist efforts, and the Puerto Rican feminist historical repertoire is fortunate to include Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, a prominent lawyer and activist who has been essential in the development of a feminist movement in the archipelago since the 1970s. More recently, scholars have been theorizing and analyzing racial dynamics and their impact on Black Puerto Rican’s everyday life: like Hilda Lloréns’ studies of environmental injustice, Zaire Dinzey-Flores’ attention to urban built environment, and most significant for this journal, Isar Godreau’s Scripts of Blackness. In other words, there has been a consistent voicing of Black scholarship focused on the Puerto Rican archipelago that I strive to amplify in my rhetorical work. But of course, this reflection would not do it justice, so it is my intention to amplify, and to use my labor to amplify Black voices.

Within a United States’ narrative of Black Studies that tends to erase ethnic background in a very necessary rhetorical move towards consubstantiality, Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rican Black identity tend to get lost in the shuffle. It works the other way around, too–where Puerto Ricans of all shades erase, and often ostracize, Black identity. Previously, Karma Chávez and I briefly explored the significance of addressing Latinx rhetoric from an intersectional perspective (2018). There we acknowledge the deadly effects of white supremacy within Puerto Rican and other Latinx communities elsewhere. Today, I continue to assert a commitment to undoing white supremacist rhetoric and practice, and to carry forward a project of liberation that is equitable and uplifting for all Black lives. The pieces included in this special issue certainly contribute to the continual affirmation that #LasVidasNegrasImportan en la academia también.

What You Can See in This Issue

For Spark, Vol. 2, we are proud to present works predominantly written by Black scholars, reviewed by women of color, edited by women of color, and promoted by graduate students.

Positioning Black Studies in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy 

Five authors provide historical and contemporary looks into Black Studies directly through digital media or indirectly through writing classrooms, theory, and literature. 

Storytelling has a long history in Black Studies and writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies. Ja’La Wourman and Shingi Mavima use this tradition to examine the history of print media and the future of digital media in Our Story Had to be Told! A Look at the Intersection of the Black Campus Movement and Black Digital Media. They challenge the historic desire for a eurocentric appeal by outlining the many instances of the Black Aesthetic in design and multimodality. 

Similar to Wourman and Mavima, in #BlackStudy the Past to Find Hope in the Future,” Stephanie Jones focuses on the use of hashtags as “intersectional praxis” with the potential to build Black Feminist Afrofutures. She highlights the tensions between #BlackLivesMatter and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain as an analogy to the ways in which Black Studies scholarship has been ignored, rejected, or tokenized in rhetoric and composition, and blends self-reflection of her engagement with such hashtags and her experiences in a predominantly white academia.

Elizabeth Baddour and Houda Hamdi take readers into the past to consider the early days of Black Studies and the scholars who helped influence Black Studies in the humanities. Baddour revisits the work of Juanita Williamson, an early linguist from LeMoyne-Owen College who supported Black English use but opposed the Students’ Right to Their Own Language resolution, a complex and nuanced view for the 1970s. Juanita Williamson and the HBCU Influence in Writing Instructionreminds us that activism can happen for one person, one career at a time.

One person and one career can indeed change everything as we are reminded by one such incomparable scholar who carries immeasurable impact, Toni Morrison. In “Black Hybridity and the Return to the Rural South in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Hamdi uses the theory of Black hybridity to explore Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977). Du Bois, Gates, and Gilroy frame this piece that demands a recognition of Black duality, hybridity, and waymaking within Morrison’s artistry. Location, place, and personhood become a foundation for understanding the emergency and longevity of Black Studies in our institutions and world. 

Considering Black Studies in Work and Life 

Two early career scholars and two established scholars who offer a balance of perspectives and approaches to Black Studies, from textual reflections to audio and visual responses, that have defined their careers, both emergent and iconic. 

Talisha Haltiwanger Morrison guides readers through her research journey to include Black Studies as a necessary and unavoidable inclusion in her writing center studies work. As Haltiwanger Morrison explains, writing studies scholarship has long been centered on white bodies and her research and interests attempt to include more Black voices and experiences. She ends Black Studies & Writing Center Potentialitieswith a reminder to us all not to engage in anti-racist, pro-Black, Black Studies intersectional work as a career move or to meet current trends. Instead, do so because it calls to you, because it is you; it is unavoidable. 

In Intersectionality of Black Studies, Queerness, Sexuality, Gender, and Class Eric Darnell Pritchard provides an audio response to interview questions we prepared as co-editors of this special issue. Pritchard’s responses demonstrate a Black feminist orientation, attending to intersectional manifestations of multiple isms (like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia) that affect Black people and communities, which he sees as essential to the scholarship, service, and world building that Black Studies has done for academia in his experience, and ultimately what he sees as a future wherein academia moves beyond the pendulum of tokenization and exploitation.  

Brandon Erby’s “The Changing Same of American Racism: African American Rhetoric and the Rejection of Normalcy” takes a reflective approach and provides important context for the issue in general. As Erby explains, we had originally planned to record his submission through an interview that would happen in the College Composition and Communication Conference scheduled to happen in March of 2019. In his written reflection he updates his original intention of underscoring the “changing same” of American racism.

Carmen Kynard’s reflection, “Black as Gravitas: Reflections of a Black Composition Studies,” connects Black Studies and Black presence in Composition Studies to Black student protest throughout the twentieth century. Using examples from her students’ work, Kynard grounds her reflection on Black Visuality and insurgency based on her experiences in contending with white supremacy in the U.S. academy. She ultimately provides a series of abolitionist perspectives for Black Composition Studies.

A Note on Production

The issue was originally scheduled for release in March 2020, then the world was turned on its head. We are aware that Spark Vol. 2 is delayed, but throughout the process we have been guided by an ethic of care over production demands. We acknowledge the emotional, intellectual, and physical labor of the many people involved in making this volume happen. We sincerely thank them.

Endnote

[1] Or Africana Studies, African Diaspora Studies, African American Studies departments and programs return

References

Rodriguez, Clara. E. (1990). Puerto Rican Studies. American Quarterly, 42(3), 437–455.

Soto Vega, Karrieann, & Chávez, Karma. R. (2018). Latinx rhetoric and intersectionality in racial rhetorical criticism. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 15(4), 319–325.

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