Black Bodies, White Classrooms

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Pegs in holes, pieces and puzzles, the jagged yet perfect placement of bricks in a wall. To ‘fit’ is to meld into imperceptibly, as if the space that preceded you knew your contours and your spirit before you arrived. 

Thus, when Dr George Yancy in his essay “White Crisis and the Value of Losing One’s Way” (2014) personifies the classroom as a hostile terrain for the Black educator, as a space that fails to claim her as ‘desirable’, a space that spits white territoriality at her lesson plans and security badge, a space that shouts with heavy-breathed pitch-forked impoliteness that she is not ‘“fit” to be in that space’, there is little mistaking what he means. The Black body, he holds, is an aberration to western academic consciousness; it just does not fit. 

In the first part of this essay, which acts as the Introduction to the Yancy-edited collection “Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms”, Yancy laments the difficulties that Black scholars, particularly those in higher education, face just by existing in a space.

The problem is historical and cultural; it is not merely a function of the space-time iteration of the educator; it is a feature of all space and all time: ‘We walk into classrooms where our bodies are always already marked’.

Yancy depicts the debilitating effects of this toxic mix of predestination and underestimation: ‘White racist normative assumptions truncate who we are and what we are deemed “capable” of teaching…we are seen as “inferior”, as intellectually “inadequate”’. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Black scholar knows what they think of her, and she is truncated against her will. Even if she does not truncate herself, she is truncated; it is something that happens to her. This is because intellectual value requires consensus. If the others refuse to tag you into the game, then you will never play. 

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They meet our bodies first, Yancy warns; our corrupted bodies are the prefixes to our corrupted thoughts. “Black” is the prefix to all our movements: our nationalisms, literature, and hair are prefixed and pre-fixed. Our theories are, therefore, mere extrapolations of our misshapen and blackened bodies. The Black body is ‘stressed, noticed, even deemed oxymoronic’, and it always comes first. The result is a tragedy – what the Black scholar knows about herself is relegated and confiscated by white gazes that ‘return us to ourselves in ways that render us foreign to our self-understanding’.

In the African tradition, some deities are primordial; from their consciousness, material is infused with life to create humanity. However, these deities themselves have no bodies, only consciousness. In Yoruba Ifá, Olodumare makes the earth, but, depending on the tradition, it is a lesser deity, a primordial deity such as Obatala, Oduduwa or Oshun, that makes bodies and gives them minds. Therefore, there is nowhere in Black consciousness where the Black body precedes its mind. This is an inhumanity of white consciousness; it is one of its root dichotomisations. The Black body precedes its mind in the western world only because the mind is believed to be an afterthought in the Black man; it is not supposed to exist, many suppose it does not exist. The laws were passed, the sermons were written, and the missionaries briefed of this fact. What one sees that looks like thought and reason is no more a manifestation of intelligence than a parrot’s mimicry is of conversation. The Black bodies are all savage. The white body, of course, does not exist; it is never discussed or critiqued and never, ever, ever precedes anything. “White” ideas come from the sky, or God, or very often they just seem to exist, and no one knows how they came to be. In discussing Western ideals, Ali Abdi deems them ‘hegemonic constructs that somehow become absolved of any definitional or analytical investigations’. That is to say, what is white is universal, objective and neutral; what is Black is a negation of all three. 

African History Project - Apeike Umolu

“A sadist may suggest that the body is put under pressure to force the ideas it harbours out into the open because we all know the Black scholar never really says what he thinks”

– Apeike UMOLU

There is thus inherent illegitimacy to the Black scholar; she is ‘somehow “out of place”. Those who man the borderlands, the gatekeepers of institutions, the academics, they make a wilful mistake. They confuse the physical body with the mind. Before the Black scholar’s ideas can come out, before they form, they are delegitimised. Imagine committing a crime before you are born. This is the plight of the Black scholar and each of her, yet to be conceived, intellectual offerings; all metaphysical, transcendental outlaws: ‘we are seen as criminals who have somehow invaded the “sanctity” of white spaces, spaces where we are (must be) watched with suspicion’.

Yancy does not mince his words; he names his truncators, the white academics who create a space that is ‘unwelcoming, a space that is hermeneutically hostile to our self-understanding as experts in our various academic fields’. For Yancy, is it a lethal concoction of denial and reduction. ‘Pseudo-scholars’ is what he feels labelled as; peddler of ‘subjects that are specific to an identity politics gone awry’ is what he feels reduced to. All of this speaks to a pathology of western truth in which white bodies are “familiar”, “safe”, and “true”, and the opposite holds for Black bodies. But this is not a remote state of affairs – with Fanonian zeal, Yancy embraces dichotomy and declares the mutual exclusivity of the white and the Black scholar: ‘it is the white bodies that inhabit those white spaces that constitute the conditions in terms of which academic bodies of color are deemed problematic’. Racialisation, he intimates, is a function of white consciousness; it is a conscious, predatory and highly successful endeavour.

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As previously said, it is a wilful mistake to mistake the will of the body with that of the mind. What sets in is a violent ‘white territoriality’ that believes the hostility it introduces into the space can transcend into hostility in the mind. A sadist may suggest that the body is put under pressure to force the ideas it harbours out into the open because we all know the Black scholar never really says what he thinks, or he does not say all that he believes, or he never really believes all that he says. He is a professional and amplified imprint of the Black civilian; in simply trying to keep his mind alive, he hides it intellectually.

For Yancy, the determination of the other side is religious and political: ‘It is as if one has entered a neighborhood governed and controlled by a white covenant that bespeaks your desired absence’. What he is saying is that the hostility is both institutional and constitutional; it is historical and contemporary; it is found in the inanimate and the living parts of the systems. It is all-pervasive. The scholar’s Black skin means the ‘social skin of the classroom does not call out to [her] with dialectical smoothness’. She is a dislocation in the sentence, a brick out of place, a piece puzzling the system, or as Sarah Ahmed says, she is a ‘blockage’.

Thus, for Yancy, the classroom is a difficult place for Black people. Whether student or teacher, the classroom is a hostile terrain for Black bodies and minds.