Between the fiat of ends and the ethics of new beginnings, the undercommons abides, and some find comfort in this.
—Stefano Harvey and Fred Moten
For Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013), the undercommons is an unauthorized, subversive, abolitionist nonplace, always operating at risk and in risk. In their provocation to fugitive academics, they ask us to lean into the liminal, even criminal, spaces of the academy, as generative sites of collaboration. However, not all scholarly collaboration happens in the undercommons. As Margot Weiss reminds us, even our community-accountable research is susceptible to co-optation by a neoliberal university that seeks to brand itself as cutting-edge. Activist anthropologists must therefore abandon romantic notions of purity in order to reckon with the political economy of knowledge production in the academy. But what happens when the co-optation we expect from the university instead comes from the so-called community?
In this essay, I cast a critical eye on the reception and circulation of our published work. In my research on the racial politics of progressivism, I work with and in state agencies and NGOs that fancy themselves an intrinsic part of activist movements, with phrases like “social justice,” “equity,” and even “decolonize” emblazoned on walls and in mission statements. However, just as universities can appropriate activist scholarship as a selling point, state-funded institutions compete against one another for funding by marketing themselves as collaborative, community-accountable, and in left-liberal Northern California, even liberatory. And even when our collaborative ethnographic work is explicitly aligned with projects of justice and liberation, our texts can develop lives of their own—appropriated for ends we cannot predict. I now turn to just such an instance.
After the 2014 police killing of teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement crested into a wave of protests and mobilizations across the United States. Dubbed Black Spring in honor of the previous year’s Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and Southwest Asia, young people took the lead in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago. By this time, my fieldwork in San Francisco was over and I was hustling between writing and teaching. One night, Zahra, a research participant and former coworker, called me in livid tears. She was the college counselor at a social-justice high school, just a few years out of college, and one of only three Black faculty on staff. A number of Black students had come to her after Ferguson, and together they planned a direct action at the federal courthouse. Within a week, the momentum swelled and the young people had mobilized a multiracial group of Latinx, Black, Filipinx, and Polynesian peers at schools across the city to attend a youth-led Black Lives Matter protest. As a matter of courtesy, Zahra sent a list of a dozen students who would be out of classes for the morning to the rest of the teaching staff.
In response, she was publicly reprimanded by the school’s principal, Aaron, who sent a lengthy email to the full staff reminding them that all field trips “must be approved by the administrators” and describing staff coordinating protests as “inappropriate” and “illegal.”
Technically, you can take a day off work to attend a protest with students, but remember that we are teachers. If we want to be organizing students, we should go work for Youth Uprising or Neighbors for Justice or ALIANZA (and we can refer students to those organizations!). We need to ask ourselves: Why would we want to participate in a protest with students? Are we afraid that they cannot do it on their own? Are we trying to satisfy our own emotional needs? Do we believe we know better than our students the best way to respond to injustice? These would be examples of what Freire calls false generosity.
Aaron’s thinly veiled critique of Zahra suggests that she is not a good fit for her job—this kind of “organizing” activity is ill-suited for teachers—and more insidiously, that her collaboration with students was as self-serving and patronizing as White Savior Barbie, to which Elizabeth Chin calls our attention. He even turns Paulo Freire’s (1970) theories of liberatory pedagogy against a young Black woman who identifies as an activist educator. His disciplining move reflects the way institutional regimes recruit marginal bodies as putative collaborators for social change, and then presume that paid employment works as a seal between “us” (the staff) and “them” (the served).
I, too, was one of those bodies bound to collaborate, with my research implicated in the school’s disciplinary apparatus. As legitimating proof that Zahra’s support for a youth protest was out of line, Aaron cited a book chapter that I had written two years earlier, which critiqued the school’s co-optation of racialized dissent. In his email to the full staff, Aaron wrote:
As the brilliant Savannah Shange asks in her paper about the rally (which is attached if you want to delve deeper into this), “Was the school’s institutional role just a pressure release valve to protect the ongoing legitimacy of the state, or one of political mobilization to challenge the practices of that very state?”
In a painful lesson about the limits of our intentions as activist scholars, Aaron deployed the ethnographic against itself and used my Black feminist critique as a weapon against a Black woman engaged in principled, on-the-ground struggle.
I am hesitant to recount this incident; it reeks of collaborative treachery. The research collaboration between myself and the institution, the social-justice school’s collaborative relationship with the community it serves, and its supposedly democratic governance structure are each thrown into crisis. Betrayed by my own research, I wonder if this “the point at which methods devour themselves” (Fanon 1967, 12). Aaron’s email becomes an artifact of heartbreak. Like Zahra and a few other staff members of color who became disillusioned with the institution, I fell out of love with the place I had poured hope into. Gaslit by our revolutionary paramour, we don’t work there anymore.
In her opening Provocation, Dána-Ain Davis marked endings as a source of ethical tension, while Fred Moten and Stefano Harney look to endings as an escape from the tyranny of those very ethics. But what lingers on after the end? With Davis, I revisit this moment as a pracademic, one who comes to the what of the work through the how. Zahra’s furious phone call reconstitutes the collaborative bond, a practice of Black feminist solidarity in the face of institutional treachery. She reminds us that collaboration is a practice of heartbreak, one that recalls the promise “I am meant to be here with you.” As anthropologists and activists, the complicities of collaboration teach us to think into the gulf between hope and failure as a generative nonplace to write an otherwise world.
Fanon, Frantz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press. Originally published in 1952.
Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Ramos. New York: Continuum. Originally published in 1968.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions.
Shange, Savannah. 2012. “This Is Not a Protest: Managing Dissent in Racialized San Francisco.” In Black California Dreamin’: The Crises of California’s African-American Communities, edited by Ingrid Banks, Gaye Johnson, George Lipsitz, Ula Taylor, Daniel Widener and Clyde Woods, 91–104. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Center for Black Studies Research.