by Lemah R. Bonnick
The American Studies project cannot “continue without an energetic scholarship that aims to inform a commitment to social justice,” says the author, a Black educator teaching in London. Dr. Anthony Monteiro’s battle for truth in Black scholarship reminds us that every generation must “build upon the magnificent legacy of the history of struggle waged by the African American people.”
Reinstate Dr Anthony Monteiro And Reclaim Our Spirit of Resistance
by Lemah R. Bonnick
“The presupposition that we no longer need African American Studies, is passed off by reference to an Obama post-racial era.”
In 2007, I was invited by Drs. Lewis and Jane Gordon to attend a symposium at Temple University organized by The Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies. There I met Dr. Monteiro whom I believe was Associate Director of the Institute.
Meeting Dr. Monteiro was a very important learning experience for me. I had the pleasure to sit in on some of his classes. They were enlightening. Coming from Britain where Black people have an insignificant presence in the academy, (only 50 out 14, 000 professors are Black) where they are generally excluded from intellectual culture, it was an energizing lesson to be part of a community in which Black scholars and their Black students had a recognizable presence. However, what stands out for me was witnessing the engagement of his students. I saw students whose intellectual curiosity and sociological imagination were being challenged and enlivened by a dynamic African American pedagogy shaped by philosophy, political economy and sociology. His students were not reading extracts from interpreted accounts; they were reading works in the original such as W.E.B Du Bois Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept and Black Reconstruction in America, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Franz Fanon Black Skin White Mask among others. He had constructed a pedagogic space without apology.
“I saw students whose intellectual curiosity and sociological imagination were being challenged and enlivened by a dynamic African American pedagogy.”
I remember comparing this to my classes back in England where we have yet to succeed in being part of the process by which Black students recognize their right to have delivered to them, with integrity and seriousness, the hermeneutics of their specific and relational experiences with the world. Without this pedagogic space, we are still fighting to normalize the idea that Black people have an intellectual tradition from which they can define who they are, what they want to be, and what they must know in order to change the world. Devoid of recognition of a legitimate pedagogic space, they learn to accommodate to the daily symbolic and actual violence that tells them that all they need know is everyone else’s history and knowledge trajectories; but not their own. I am continually reminded of the multiple ways in which higher educational institutions act to reproduce in Black youth self doubt and self-erosion, when first year Black students tell me that they “did not know Black people could be university lecturers and professors.” It is therefore imperative that there are Black faculty members available to correct the distortions of self and society that come when there is an absence of knowledge of the rich intellectual culture of the Black Disapora. The Civil Rights Movement fought heroically against this exclusion, thus transforming academic practices. It is now urgent that those achievements are defended and the radical traditions they flow from be extended.
“It is imperative that there are Black faculty members available to correct the distortions of self and society.”
However, the “structured structures” of symbolic violence at the root of Black refutation in education is not only limited to Black students but also apply to those of us who engage in the struggle over ethical and political struggles for self-definition. Attending Dr. Monteiro’s classes, I saw how he offered his students, not only the epistemological tools for understanding the history, philosophy, sociology, and culture of the African American people; but importantly, these tools were molded by the political clarity of the lessons of struggle. These lessons are the raison d’être of his own life. This message I was able to take away with me, using this valuable experience to deepen my thinking and embolden my own practice.
It was therefore with deep shock that I learnt about the termination of Dr. Monteiro’s contract and the appalling circumstances around its execution. My learning of this came around the same time as the deaths of Stuart Hall and Amiri Baraka. These two intellectual giants represented heroic “exhibits of Negro possibilities,” to use a description of Du Bois in another context. These thinkers applied learning to the Afro-American impulse to freedom and as part of the long march of the Black radical tradition to use knowledge to shape freedom. These were public intellectuals not limited by narrow disciplinary boundaries or the seduction of scholastic privilege. Instead, they used their privilege to articulate trends that required articulation and transform conditions requiring transformation. Their deaths come at a moment of conjunctural crisis, with the poor paying the heavy cost of the aftermath of the neoliberal financial debacle. The vulnerability of the poor to the exposure of this crisis continues unabated by the ideological and economic dismantling of Keynesian welfare state economic principles in favor of unregulated markets, unhinged from state regulation. Countries like America and Britain, lead the industrialized world in all the major indices of inequality. More working people are living below the poverty line and relying on food banks. Further to this, Oxfam warned of the “pernicious impact” on the condition of life in a world where 85 of the richest families own as much as 3.5 billion of the poorest (The Independent Monday 20th January 2014).
“They used their privilege to articulate trends that required articulation and transform conditions requiring transformation.”
Indeed, Stuart Hall coined the term Thatcherism before Margaret Thatcher came to power; seeing in its formation a reconfiguration of classical economic liberalism to a neoliberalism, whose “utopia” is powerfully characterized by Bourdieu (1998) as “unlimited exploitation” accompanied by the dismantling of the post-war welfare state consensus. Writing in Marxism Today in 1979, Hall analyzed the long-term ruptural impact of Thatcherism: “the tendency is hard to deny. It no longer looks like a temporary swing of political fortunes, short-term shift in the balance of forces. It has been well installed – a going concern – since the latter part of the 1960. And, though it has developed through a series of different stages, its dynamic, and momentum appears to be sustained.” We are now living through the ravages of its expansive installation, one that dictates the saturation and subordination of all social relations to the totalitarianism of the capitalist market. In this domination, a neo-racism and the denial of the structural efficacy of class relation tries to camouflage the intensification of the suffering and dispossession of the “wretched of the earth,” with forms of capital accumulation supported by mass unemployment, the criminalization of the poor, mass incarceration sustained by the narrative of the feckless underclass, crippled by its own attitudinal pathologies.
Stuart Hall and Amiri Baraka, in different ways, are noble representatives of a revolutionary generation of the 1960s, putting their scholarship at the center of these structural asymmetrical relations that are currently being dehistoricized and depoliticized by the hegemony of global capitalism and the global reach of American military power. Amiri Baraka reminded us in his lecture at the University of Virginia (2011) on The Importance of African American History and in his poem Somebody Blew Up America of the brilliance and uncompromising truth of the poetics of radical historiographical consciousness. In doing so, he directs us to the necessity to embrace the courage required to use our knowledge to change the terms of the debate and fight for justice and stand up and fight for what is right. Every generation, he tells us, must remember and build upon the magnificent legacy of the history of struggle waged by the African American people; struggles that have been a consistent progressive force at the vanguard for change to democratize America. Importantly, he cautions against complacency in thinking that emerges from a utopian vision of a post-racial America. Instead, he reminds us that for every gain African Americans have made in the fight for justice, vicious forces of reaction have met them.
“Countries like America and Britain, lead the industrialized world in all the major indices of inequality.”
The current privatization and corporatization of education accompanies successive moves to exclude, invalidate, neutralize, and trivialize the conceptual and epistemological transformations effected by the Black Studies Movement of the 1960s; a moment that scholars today are indebted to for the positions they now occupy. The presupposition that we no longer need African American Studies, is passed off by reference to an Obama post-racial era, suggesting, according to Amiri Baraka, that we can withstand three hundred years of slavery and the trajectory of its continued dehumanizing reconfigurations in different epochs without studying it, talking about it and ultimately overturning it.
Confronting this assault requires solidarity. Dr. Monteiro finds himself in the midst of this assault. Thus, it is therefore a wholly inadequate response to see the termination of Dr. Monteiro, as Dr. Molefi Asante dismissively asserts, as only a matter of an internal, departmental intellectual redirection toward a more afrocentric focus. If afocentricism does not mean an enlarged vision of what the past and the future requires, then afrocentricism is in urgent and critical need of a new sense of fortitude and ideological clarity to tackle the present and future.
Fanon, in On National Culture (in the Wretched of the Earth), while acknowledging the role that a productive relational and dialectical methodology could have in recovering the knowledge of our past culture, and thereby create “psycho-affective equilibrium” (169) in our becoming, this alone, he claimed, was insufficient:
“Perhaps this passionate research and this anger are kept up or at least directed by the secret hope of discovering beyond the misery of today, beyond the self-contempt, the resignation and abjuration, some very beautiful and splendid era whose existence rehabilitates us in both regard to ourselves and in regard to others. (169)
“The colonized man who writes for his people ought to use the past with the intention of opening up the future, as an invitation to action and a basis of hope.” (187)
Fanon’s scholarship revisits the past with the dialectic of transformation in mind. Amiri Baraka, Stuart Hall, like W.E. B. Du Bois and CLR James before them, drew from studies of the past a vision of the future constructed with the redistributive resistive tools of socialism and communism. They did not regard as incompatible the struggles for national liberation and socialism and the need to recover African pre-colonial cultures. As appropriated subjects in the capitalist mode of production and its culture of alienation, displacement, and dispersal, and within the intersections of race, class and gender domination, Africans embodied Marx’s observation “all that is sold melts into air.”
“If afocentricism does not mean an enlarged vision of what the past and the future requires, then afrocentricism is in urgent and critical need of a new sense of fortitude and ideological clarity.”
From this perspective, it is not feasible to think that a sustainable African American Studies project can continue without an energetic scholarship that aims to inform a commitment to social justice. Speaking of hegemony, Stuart Hall in The Neoliberal Revolution (2011), reminds us thus: “No victories are final and permanent. Hegemony has constantly to be worked on.”
Dr. Monteiro, in binding his scholarship to exposing the global assault on human equality and justice, and the narrative which says to the marginalized there is no alternative to their suffering, helps to bring the voice of the community into the academy. In doing so, he seeks to expand the scope of the university as a public space where conceptions of the democratic good, are unbounded by the one percent’s narcissism, racism, class arrogance, misogyny and homophobia.
Finally, the assault on Dr Monteiro reminds me of the analytical vision of W.E.B. Du Bois contained in Whither Now and Why (1973). Du Bois’s synthesis between the anti-democratic powers wielded by corporations in their finacialization of elections, control over education to the detriment of publically funded education, and their attempt to remove those who challenge their domination, is a salutary lesson of our time:
“This impoverishment of truth seekers can only be avoided by eventually making the state bear the burden of education and this is socialism. We must vote for socialism. We began this in the New Deal and then we stopped...Socialism will grow in the United States if we restore the democracy of which we have boasted so long and done so little. Here is where Negroes may and must lead.” (157)
To achieve this, the spirit of resistance must constantly reinvigorate Afro-American life and culture. The struggle for Dr Monteiro’s reinstatement is part of this reinvigoration.