I’ll be writing more about this gem from bell hooks’ Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics for a brick and mortar publication. She offers a mindset worth holding tight to, regardless of where you are in your academic career. We get tugged in so many directions, by advice that, in myriad ways, tells us to somehow be different than who and what we are, just so we can become part of institutions that were designed to exclude us.
Don’t do too much service. Publish here not there. Specialize in this but also do this other new thing over here so you can get a job. Blend in but don’t sell out. Fit in but don’t compromise. Always professionalize. Be a role model but transcend whatever subject position makes those around you the most uneasy. And that’s nothing compared to the demands we place on one another. Be Colored like this. Feminist like that. GLBandT in this particular space. Sign up; don’t sell out.
No wonder so many of us are making ourselves sick.
And maybe this advice comes from a good place, but mostly I think it comes from well-meaning folks trying to replicate themselves or validate their own experiences. Worse, it seems to want to make the people change instead of their institutions. It seems to start from the premise that being on the outside, on the margins is always bad.
bell hooks begs to differ:
Marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation; in fact…it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance. It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such, I was not speaking of marginality one wishes to lose—to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center—but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.
Put more lyrically, Lucille Clifton asks in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me”
“what did i see to be except myself?”
The work, of course, is to know who that “self” actually is absent the destructive anxieties that plague all ambitious academics, but particularly academics of color. What I see in hooks’ argument is a call for those of us on the margins to be funambulists, to be tightrope walkers who stay above the trials of marginalization, to work and write from that place and to embrace it.
*hooks is quoted in “Balancing the Passion for Activism with the Demands of Tenure: One Professional’s Story from Three Perspectives.” Few, et al. Feminist Formations 19 (3: 2007) 47-66.