Black as Gravitas: Reflections of a Black Composition Studies

Reflection by
Carmen Kynard 

I am a professor in the academy today because young Black people burnt off all of somebody’s edges to get me here. Once upon a time, I was out there edge-snatching as a Black college student too. It’s a Black intellectual inheritance. 

Black Studies and an ongoing radical Black presence in the academy are not the result of a conscientious and interested hiring committee, a department’s desire to represent African American content, a university’s commitment to a multiracial university, or a profession’s/professional organization’s vision of radical democratic relevance. None of that truly exists in the academy. Only the adoption of a bourgeois, white, cishetero, masculinist individualism would cause a Black scholar to think that they are here because of the quality of their work or their uncanny skills at navigating white supremacist institutions. We are here because young Black people and their radical allies demanded it in cities and hamlets everywhere, burning it down when they had to. I am certainly talking about current contexts but I am also historicizing this all way back to the activism related to new visions of schooling in post-emancipation, ongoing into the early 1900s with the New Negro Movement. The Black college student protesters of the 1970s are legendary in how they heralded the multiracial diversity that we see at places like the City University Of New York and other universities today with racially/ethnically diverse student bodies. These student protesters were the political heirs to Black students at HBCUs who designed their own practices in the Civil Rights Movement decades before. These 1950s HBCU students can trace themselves back to the major wave of Black student protests at the HBCUs in the 1920s when their colleges’ administration and faculty were mostly white. These historical lessons have been well documented now by many scholars across the K-16 education spectrum, including myself, so I won’t delve deeper. The point is this: If any aspect of what we do is not in alignment with this foundation on Black youth, then it ain’t Black student protest.

As I reflect on the role of Black students in the academy, I interrupt my own alphabetic text with Black undergraduate students’ visual work in my most recent classroom, Introduction to African American Rhetoric. The class was interrupted by the Spring 2020 school shutdown under the Coronavirus resulting in a revised syllabus that I called The Spring 2020 Corona Remix. Many mainstream white students across the college were complaining that they wanted more synchronous access to everything and everyone, despite the fact that their socially marginalized peers were self-proclaiming that they were having issues around income, health, housing, food security, wifi access, and disability and so needed alternative accommodations. Meanwhile, my own Black students were mailing visual projects to my home (an option rather than just digital assignments) that marked the Blackness of an engagement with COVID-19 in ways that will always stay with me. Their work is centered here visually so that I can see them as I reflect forwards. Visual work is always critical for me because Black Visuality is more than multimodality; it is an affective and spiritually redemptive space that continually re-processes the dignity of Black Life in a world that insists upon Black Death. Such student work in my classrooms guides my visions of a Black Composition Studies for an anti-racist university. Every university assignment that I have ever had is the direct result of their Black insurgency which is always visible on the paper, canvas, and screen. Each of my tenure track jobs has given me a valuable lesson about the role of this Black insurrection and white colonization, lessons that form not only my intellectual and political relation to Black Studies and Black youth but also my daily reality. 

When I first began writing about insurgent Black students, I distinctly remember reviewers, especially men, arguing that my ideas of Black college students were romantic and essentialist. In their minds (and ostensibly pedagogies), only they seemed to possess the answers to and practices of a radical protest and scholarly vision in the university. This ongoing imagination of a university without Black students’ presence (or where they are merely the passive receptacles of the “expert” scholars of Black Studies and/or Composition-Rhetoric Studies) is an egregious form of white supremacist education. Black students stay at the center of my presence in the academy and in the theoretical work that I do there.

Here’s more of what I mean. 

My first, tenure track job was at a Colonized State University in 2005. They needed someone who could bridge what they called “developmental” writing, urban schools, the distrust of the surrounding Black community, low enrollments of students of color in the major, and attitudinal Black graduate students who were, at best, bored. Them white folk at that college had been dragged so bad that they had to do something and so they hired me. I learned there that white racist resistance in universities takes the form of really slow or non-moving processes.  White faculty were always: scheduling meetings, reading the bylaws (most often out loud in meetings), revising the bylaws (read out loud all over again), thinking things over, looking into things, talking to you about your ideas and concerns, and planning to get back to you about your questions (which usually resulted in apologies for non-information and/or more unforeseen delays).  Every process took forever and ultimately went nowhere because white supremacy always takes up a whole lot of time, effort, and policy to stand still and stay the same.  These are not processes that are driven by Black faculty or a vision of hiring them; it is Black protest that speeds up time and resets the energy in the academy and elsewhere. All of them folk at the Colonized State University are out here somewhere today, still meeting, revising them same bylaws (and probably still reading them out loud), discussing, thinking, looking into, talking—all of that, and still doing absolutely nothing of value for Black lives. It’s not an accident.

Angel's One Pager displays handwritten text surrounding a red heart filled with additional text and the image of a Black woman with an afro, a pick, and a raised fist symbol.
Fig. 3: Angel’s one-pager on 16×20 canvas (mailed to my home)

My next tenure track job was at a Colonized Religious University. Before my arrival in 2008, the Black graduate students had showed all the way out, especially on course discussion boards. I see you, Jessica Barros and Todd Craig, then and now. Them white folk didn’t know what to do there either, except to hire me. I learned there about the racism of writing program administration. I also learned that I would walk alone in my field. It was a hard and lonely lesson, at first, but one that I am forever grateful for because it sharpened my lens on whiteness in my discipline. The levels of anti-Blackness that I witnessed at the hands of my fellow writing program administrators (WPAs) were disgusting and no one—and I mean no one—was willing to even notice it, much less talk about it. Anti-Black faculty were rewarded, awarded, buddied up, and promoted to next levels without hesitation. No one in my department—especially not the self-righteous, self-proclaimed-radical literature faculty, the dean’s office, or the provost’s quarters would address any of it.  And no one in the field was even acting like anti-Black racism was part of WPA. It ain’t a coincidence that the WPA Listserv remained so white and so racist for so long. There is actually a whole strain of scholarship that suggests that WPAs are activists because they act in defiance against university systems that oppress all student learning. I read that stuff and can only ask: whatchu talkmbout Willis? I have never witnessed such a WPA when it comes to anti-Black classrooms and the writers of those very same theories are as anti-Black as anyone else in the racist institutions that permeate the U.S. Racist WPA work is not the kind of programming that is relevant to Black youth literacies or the work of Black education; this is not a space that prioritizes the hiring of folk like me either. WPAs are only now getting called out and still today you simply need something labeled an anti-racist grading system or rubric and you too can continue to mete out anti-Blackness with your WPA work. It’s not like any of this is hidden from view or political dispositions, unless, of course, you refuse to see.

Hannah's one pager displays a "Caution" The tea is hot" large text across the top with a blue tea pot and green mug surrounded by handwritten text.
Fig. 4: Hannah’s one-pager on 16×20 canvas (mailed to my home)

My next position was in 2013 at a Colonized City University with a student population that is 75% Black and Latinx. It remains the whitest department I have ever worked in, with an incredibly self-righteously empty rhetoric of diversity and justice, often administered by a supra-white-wealthy elite. They catch the heat, every once in a while, for all that whiteness given the history of Black and Latinx student protest in that system. And so they hired me. I saw colonization most thoroughly there: a predominantly Black and Latinx student population with an abysmally lowest percentage of Black and Latinx tenure-track faculty. It was a complete cocoon of whiteness. Black presence was the pen-ultimate evidence of an awe-inspiring progress for which you were required to feel grateful, no matter how you were treated or marginalized. When you were asked to do something by white administration, you were simply supposed to obey and sacrifice your own well-being because “these communities” needed you (never mind the fact that you and your family are “these communities”). In my first year, the department even held an end-of-semester party to celebrate the retirement of two white women who study long-dead white people in Europe. The faculty came together in corresponding costumes and presented a well-rehearsed flashmob dance (that is what they called it). There I was, in the middle of the city with the largest Black+Latinx population in the country, with the largest Latinx college student population in that area of the country (predominantly Dominican), with non-Black/non-Latinx folk dancing their hearts out in recognition of two white professors while dressed as Old English wenches, royalty, and fairies. I’m not suggesting here that this event was evil. Ridiculous? Yes. Harmful? No. The purpose of the event was certainly playfulness and jest, however, the spirit and politics of the mean-white-sorority-girl ethos from which this event was framed permeated the college. If nothing else, whiteness was quite steadfast. These are not the bodies that centered my universe of being in the academy, not even for casual socializing or humorous encounters; it was the history of an alternative Black student universe that got me here. At Colonized City University, whiteness remained centered (and often ludicrously so) no matter what else was going on around it.

Tamia's One Pager shows artificial yellow daisies sprouting from handwritten text in a garden.
Fig. 5: Tamia’s one-pager on 16×20 canvas (mailed to my home)

And now? As of 2019, I am at a Colonized Southern University where I see all of my previous colonial experiences cross-pollinating. Young Black women, both undergraduate and graduate, have been slicing and dicing white power everywhere they go on this campus. The penultimate expression is a lawsuit today that names all the names, insists on a court trial, and will make history in ways the campus does not foresee. The Black graduate women in the lawsuit are from my department and so, yup, they hired me (before the lawsuit, that is, and also before the numerous and seemingly unending cuts to the budget of my particular line). I don’t know exactly what is to come here, but I can certainly guess. I only know that I have learned the following rules about whiteness in the academy:

    1. It will always put Black lives, urgency, and compensation on extended pause.
    2. It will always be awarded, tenured, promoted, praised, compensated, elevated.
    3. It will always present itself as right, just, and progressing forward (and sometimes even call itself critical and allied) for which Black folk are supposed to show gratefulness and awe.
    4. It will always remain steadfast in how it centers itself everywhere all the time.
    5. It will always ignore the deep damage and social deaths it causes.
    6. It will always be contested.
    7. It will always be unwritten.
    8. It will never stop us.

Black Studies gives me this lens and critique but it also gives me the audacity to speak, fight back, and imagine an alternative way of thinking, being, and acting in the academy and especially in composition studies.

I have been vocal about each of these colonized university spaces. Many, including BIPOC in my discipline, are shocked and sometimes even offended. Even as suspicious as I am, even I would have to admit that the Colonized State University and Colonized Religious University have begun to have important conversations around the issues I have named. (The white folk dancing at the Colonized City University are another matter altogether as the Amy Cooper-esque politics in power there still publicly insists that I am the problem and not them.) Nothing moves forward if you simply co-sign white racism and violence with silence (or ambiguity). That’s the bare minimum of a Black Studies presence on a campus, in a theory, within a professional organization, or for an academic discipline. Perhaps, if more of us remembered Black studenting as part of our own studenting, we would ask ourselves different questions. Some of us might start like this: As a non-Black person, what specific political actions in relation to Black Lives have I pursued? How is that part of my beingness in the academy right now if I am now staff, faculty, or administrator? Am I continuing my own critical, anti-racist legacy or do I need to find a new one? How will I do so that does not burden BIPOC? For those of us who have been through undergraduate and graduate education, what are the political concessions we made to do so? For Black folk especially, when and where did you sit on your criticism, voice, anger, and political action in graduate school? If you did that for survival, how might you now interrupt some automated tendencies that you may have to quell and domesticate current Black students’ rage, especially Black graduate students who are often targeted most directly? For non-Black folk especially, when and where are the spaces and times you were allowed to ignore Black pain as a student in the academy? If you are faculty or administrator now and you ignored Black pain as a student, how are you addressing your own inherent white violence while you are now in the seat of power in classrooms and/or programs? For those of us who were active in Black protest as students on campus and in classrooms, refusing to back down from racist white professors, how have we taken care of our own bodies and hearts that have carried us through each time the academy tried to tear us down? What are our self-teaching processes when we see a new generation come thru? How are we making sure that we let them find and design their own way rather than directing and overseeing them (you know, like the worst ways folk teach and act in the academy) or using them to forward our own political agendas? We all have contributed to some part of the racial legacy of Black studenting in the academy. It’s just that some of us stay on the wrong side of it.

Chelsea's one pager is a handdrawn image of a peace sign, a guitar, and a mic with an afro breaking chains with "Black queendom" written across the top.
Fig. 6: Chelsea’s one-pager on 16×20 canvas (mailed to my home)

I will repeat, again, that my entry into university spaces has happened on the backs of young Black people. It would be an erasure of and betrayal to them to act as if my arrival was predicated on my own talent or the goodwill of my colleagues. I work hard to make sure that I don’t erase or betray and when I do worry, it’s only about whether I have gone far enough in truly rupturing white practices. Many non-Black faculty at each of these tenure-track positions that I have described insist that it was their own consciousness and strategies for change that brought me to their campus. The truth though is that these folk were at their wit’s end on what to do with their angry Black students and the larger public reminders from Black communities that they are as stunningly racist today as they were in the past. No one will ever credit Black resistance this way because whiteness always attempts to take credit for moral convictions it has not achieved. I am clear, however, that I am here because of a sustained Black Challenge by Black college students and communities. It hit real different too when you locate your Black presence and pedagogies in young Black people’s revolts. You get more loose with the tongue in your discipline’s ongoing silences, more irreverently confident in the departments that have never really wanted you, less prone to low self-esteem in systems that doubt you, and a whole lot less likely to want to be centered/recognized in white supremacist/academic values. More folk should try it because I swear it’s good for the mind, body, and soul.

Black Studies—Blackness, Black youth protest, and the Black Challenge to the western academy and knowledge—is the most fundamental intellectual project in western thought as we know it. I learned this quite literally sitting at the feet of Sylvia Wynter who reminded us that we are unraveling an entire episteme, not simply a policy or institution. If I spend the rest of my academic career achieving her realizations in and with Black studies, I will have done my work here. I was an undergraduate student when I met her and so this is what I have understood from her since then:

Black changes everything.

In entertainment/popular culture and sports, this has been obvious. I do not mean this in the bourgeois sense of Black exceptionalism but in the sense of the way that Black changes the whole game: from the style of the uniform, to the way audiences participate, to the range of new participants, to the new skills and uses that are deployed and centralized as the new practices, to the force of the critique of the theories presented as all-encompassing. Think about academia here. Think Black Feminist Thought. Think Black Queer Theory. Think Black Trans Studies. Think Black Digital Humanities. Black Pain. Black Struggle. Black Diaspora. Black Love. Black. Black. Black. Black.

Black is not an adjective or identity marker but a whole force field that shifts the gravitas.

Today I align myself with another particular gravitas: BLACK… COMPOSITION… STUDIES. 

As a compositionist, I should be in the perfect field to get at and rupture all these anti-Black compositions of the academy. As it ends up, this discipline trades in pennies with a white academic marketplace so instead, I reach for a Black Composition Studies: 

  • a radical disposition and praxis that attends to racial processing and composing in, within, and against the academy and schooling as its very own kind of literacy and education project
  • a vision of Black studenting in the academy—undergraduate and graduate—that locates the histories of Black protest’s profound, radical interventions and future inventiveness
  •  a commitment to research and pedagogy that works in tandem with Black activism—in content, FORM, and style—and disrupts what education is for, who is at center, what it looks/sounds/feels like, and what it does   
  • a conviction and audacity in knowing that Black will turn this field all the way around until it sets itself right.

In many ways, this is the work of abolition, but not the newfound kind that is popular everywhere—buyable and consumable—where Black folks can put their ideas/consultations up for sell on academic auction blocks. My experiences in the academy so far have shown me that racist WPA/administrative workers and theories, racial discursive stalling, and everyday white domination in universities must be abolished, not merely reformed. As a Black Studies Compositionist, directing my attentions and vision towards a radical, alternative and futuristic purpose of literacy and education is the only option. This is:

"The end" handwritten in a stylized font.

for now . . .

Author Bio

Carmen Kynard is the Lillian Radford Chair in Rhetoric and Composition and Professor of English at Texas Christian University. She interrogates race, Black feminisms, AfroDigital/African American cultures and languages, and the politics of schooling with an emphasis on composition and literacies studies. Carmen has published in Harvard Educational Review, Changing English, College Composition and Communication, College English, Computers and Composition, Reading Research Quarterly, Literacy and Composition Studies and more. Her first book, Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacy Studies won the James Britton Award and makes Black Freedom a 21st century literacy movement. Her current projects focus on young Black women in college, Black Feminist/Afrofuturist digital vernaculars, and AfroDigital Humanities learning. Carmen traces her research and teaching at her website, “Education, Liberation, and Black Radical Traditions” (