Scholarly Insurgency, part 2

Ever since I came back from “Fugitive Futures: Grad Students of Color Un-Settling the University,” scholarly insurgency has been at the forefront of my mind along with a parade of seemingly never-ending questions. What does scholarly insurgency mean? What does it look like? How do we define it? Can we define it? What can we do to achieve it?

I’ve had more than one conversation with a friend in law school who is also interested in trying to parse together a working definition for the term. I went back to Roopika Risam’s #InsurgentAcademics thread and tried to find a common ground between all of the scholars she spotlighted during Black History Month. I found myself dancing around the term, never quite coming close enough to touch, trying to advance a theory, only to backtrack minutes later.

My friend pushed me on my explanation of insurgency in the Academy, asking me for specifics. Did it mean making space for invisibilized populations within the Academy? Did it mean redefining the canon? Did it mean tearing down the institutions already in place and building anew? My answers were yes, yes, and yes. It was making space, busting up the canon and institution building, but that’s not all– nor is it enough.

Then, I started to question where does insurgency happen? Can it happen within the Ivory Tower? Can change happen within the (constraining) parameters that this institution has already laid out? One of the questions that came up during “Fugitive Futures” was can such a conference be truly insurgent and still take place in a University, with University money and marketing tied up in it?

I realized that my answer varied– it depended on how many hoops I had to jump through that day; how many talented, and dare I say insurgent, scholars I saw leaving the Academy for lack of tenure track opportunities; how much red tape stood between me and my lofty goals. And one thing is for certain: anyone working within a system to change it needs to be mindful that this is not the only way to see change. It is dangerous to believe that only educators, only lawyers, or only community organizers can affect change. Scholarly insurgency needs to happen across disciplines, across communities, in a collective effort. When Angela Davis said, “Individual activity…is not revolutionary work” in her autobiography (162), I felt that. I believe that.

The first time I ever felt the impact of truly collective work was my fourth year at UVA when I was the stage manager for the Black Monologues. We were making “art for social change,” as my friend Taylor Lamb would say. I remember our first writing workshops for the show. A bunch of us sat in a dimly lit room in Clemons, writing for a predetermined period of time then taking turns to read out what we’d written. That was the first time I felt it. That was the first time I realized my words had impact, but I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it had I not been surrounded by people who loved me exactly as I was and believed my words deserved to live in the world. It was the first time I let my words free. I gave them to Micah, who gave them to Madison and B, who shared them with the hundreds of people that came to see Black Monologues over the course of five nights worth of shows. I remember the ecstasy of finishing our first show, the thrill of seeing the line for entry snake around the entire theater and back, the responsiveness of the audience. It filled me up because in those moments, I knew our collective words were imprinting on the souls of everyone who came to see the show.

I tell this story because Black Monologues was every AAS class I’d ever had come alive.

Art is theory in practice.

It was all I needed to know I could write for the rest of my life.

That was scholarly insurgency. Our writings and performance were informed by the classes we’d taken, the books we’d read, the experiences we’d had, the dreams we dreamed. These were discoveries meant to be shared with the world, not just a small community of scholars sitting in a classroom together. I had discovered the academic impact of making art, and I was never letting go.

It had been insurgent to talk so openly about Black Love in the space in which we challenged the administration. To talk about queerness where we also talked about class, from those who got those green Cavalier Laundry bags to those whose parents came from nothing to give you everything. It was about Ghana as much as it was about Georgia, laughter and tears, police brutality and hair days. We stormed the Helms theater to tell the administration that we were there to “wreak havoc.”

And we did.

What we did came out of necessity. Black students needed a voice. They needed a space. They needed to be seen. We did what we felt was right and people responded.

That’s why now, as I write this blog, 3 years in, I’m doing it out of what I feel is necessity. I want to give Black women in graduate school a space where they can feel seen. I did what I felt was right and I have gotten positive feedback about it.

I’m not saying academics can’t change the world– I think we can, but we’ve got to get creative in how we go about it. The most insurgent groups I’ve ever been part of have been outside of the mainstream Academy. It’s been with art, it’s been in digital spaces, it been where you can define freedom for yourself. While I’m terribly proud of all my scholarship, this blog is my most insurgent scholarly work. It’s where I have built community. It’s where I come home to. It’s been where I have defined myself as a person and a scholar, rather than be defined.

My contribution to scholarly insurgency is writing and living my truth.

NOTE: For a good definition of academic insurgency, check out Roopika Risam’s website.