A Beautiful Withdrawal: An Interview with Damien M. Sojoyner

The November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Another Life is Possible: Black Fugitivity and Enclosed Places,” by Damien M. Sojoyner, who is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Pablo H. Seward Delaporte conducted with Sojoyner about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda. 

Pablo Seward Delaporte: In your article, you mention that you taught at the school where you conducted research. How, if at all, might the argument of your article change when seen from your position as an educator—a high-school teacher and college professor—rather than as an ethnographer (even as these roles are not fully separable)? I am thinking here of your claim that the disengagement you observed in young Black people in Los Angeles was “not . . . a blanket rebuke of education but . . . an action in opposition to state-mandated education that attempts to disempower Black youth.” Is your critique of education specific to schools in Los Angeles and other segregated cities in the United States today, or is it more generally a critique of, say, the liberal model of education, perhaps including higher education, in the West?  

Damien Sojoyner: In regards to the first part of your question, the framing of my research for the article was driven by two primary audiences. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the young people who were my interlocutors. The second, though, is Black public-school educators. Coming from a family of primary- and secondary-school teachers, I have been privy to informal and professional conversations (such as teacher-training sessions and professional-development workshops) about the state of education for Black students. Again and again, Black educators make the point that what is being forced on Black youth is not education, but a particular type of training to condition Black youth to be subservient and to acquiesce to the demands of the state.

With respect to the second part of your question, my critique can certainly be extended to other parts of the country, insofar as Los Angeles has served as a model city for the expansion of draconian forms of discipline to schools throughout the United States: take the Abolish Chronic Truancy program, or even the DARE program. Across these settings, liberal calls for civic participation actually intensify in the face of adamant refusal(s) to be subjected to state violence. That said, I think it is important to engage with the particularities of place, geography, and community, drawing out how particular forms of state violence have developed and how communities have responded to such violence.

PSD: The target of your article, politically, is liberalism. You argue that it is precisely a rhetoric of liberal beneficence that makes compulsory education so perniciously violent. In the United States today, it would seem that the default liberal position is to defend public education. But can you say more about the predicament of defending public education in a place like Los Angeles? It would seem that doing so is akin to making prisons more humane: a well-meaning but ultimately counterproductive, reform-based strategy that only reproduces violence. 

DS: The analogy you draw to prisons is apropos, given recent legislative developments in California like Proposition 47, which link schools and prisons together in a very misleading way. This ballot initiative does very little to change prisons, even as it functions to create ostensibly safer school grounds (with the hiring of more campus security or other efforts to improve school policing). It declines to listen to the young people who have clearly demonstrated that what is being offered to them is not education.

Rather, what has been offered up are policy reforms, on one hand, and more punitive forms of sanctions, on the other, all targeting the behavior of Black youth as the problem. This, of course, overlooks the violence emanating from the connections among housing, education, criminal justice, and other state structures that work in concert to place Black people in precarious positions of extreme vulnerability.

PSD: Echoing Angela Davis’s (2003) famous question of whether prisons are obsolete, your article dares us to ask whether schools are obsolete. You show just how dramatically police and carceral structures have penetrated schools in Los Angeles and argue that “schools and prisons share a fundamental operating logic: incapacitation.” The logic of incapacitation is precisely why Davis argues that prisons, designed originally for rehabilitation, are obsolete. She also notes that “it requires a great feat of the imagination to envision life beyond the prison” (Davis 2003, 19). What would life beyond schools look like to young Black Angelenos?

DS: I would say that while the version of public education offered to Black Angelenos is obsolete, there are alternatives that are more viable and readily accessible. There are Black independent schools in Los Angeles that have served as a vital throughline for Black communities, as well as networks of Black caretakers who have crafted spaces of momentary educative liberation within the current system. Adding to those alternatives, one of my goals in framing the article and giving primacy to withdrawal was to push the conversation around the figure of the dropout and to think about what education would look like when the act of refusal and withdrawal is placed at the center of future forms of education and organizing. That is, if we really took seriously the insight of Black youth who have made a rational decision to withdraw from school, what would schools look and how would they function? To me there is no one answer to that question, which makes such a withdrawal both beautiful in its possibility and dangerous to the top-down model of education offered by the state.

PSD: Finally, your article is highly sensitive to gender dynamics. You write about Black men and, indeed, the figure of the fugitive is a highly gendered one. Where do genders other than male come into your analysis? During your research for this article, did you work with students who do not identify as male? If so, how did their experiences challenge or reinforce the argument you make in the article? 

DS: While much of the literature (both inside and out of academia) on Black fugitivity is centered on a particular type of masculine subject, history quickly tears that fallacy asunder. Black fugitive thought is indebted to a legacy informed by important Black women thinkers, organizers, and strategists such as Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Claudia Jones. Similarly, Black fugitivity and the politics of refusal are also manifest in daily acts of self-determination by countless Black women domestic workers. 

One of my primary rationales for focusing on young men in this article was to show the work done by the state to associate educational attainment with a particular type of rational, civic-minded Black heteronormative masculine figure who would embody all of the ideals of the U.S. nation-state. Insofar as young Black men depart from this script by withdrawing from school, they are configured as masculine subjects in dire need of reform.  The problem, of course, is that it is not just self-identified Black men who are leaving school. But the retaliation from the state is often much more severe against Black men. There are severe penalties, informal and formal, for transgressing state-imposed gender and sex norms.   

Reference

Davis, Angela Y. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Penguin Random House.