On Thursday of 4C14 in Indianapolis, convention participants listened to a featured session talk by Professor Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Black feminist activist for prison abolition. From my early adolescent reading, I remembered Professor Davis’s struggles in prison, when she was accused and later acquitted of a crime that she did not commit. Since that time, she has continued her work on the intersections of feminism, prison abolition, and struggles of people of color. Professor Davis participated in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, and I had been privileged to hear her speak at the New York City Public Library with Toni Morrison, who edited Professor Davis’s Autobiography.
Several weeks later, Professor Davis’s talk at 4C14 remains much on my mind because three key points offer immediate implications for basic writing:
- The unequal access of students of color to major public universities because such students are defined by lack: lack of finances; lack of health insurance (if they or their parents do not have documentation as U.S. citizens); lack of adequate scores on standardized tests.
- The need to imagine what public universities would look like if they truly engaged with larger communities
- The hope to work for the future toward a truly open democracy. Professor Davis offered a history of post-us civil war reconstruction – about the years of Radical Reconstruction that ensued in the former confederacy under the enforcement of federal troops—when Black Americans that had been enslaved had held public office and when free schools were opened to serve the needs of all children who had not had access to schooling before the war—poor white children as well as poor Black children. Under the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877, the federal troops were removed from the south, and Jim Crow laws ensued into the second half of the next century. But that promise of true democracy, democracy that would include everyone, Davis suggested, was what we need to continue to work toward.
The week after I returned from #4C14 in Indianapolis, I caught up with my students’ writing projects. My students caught up with me on the issues that presented blocks to writing. These blocks, generally speaking, result from time constraints. Not time management concerns, but concerns growing out of the longstanding impacts of economic inequality and structural racism. These concerns include not only the everyday micro-aggressions of embodying “difference” on a large university campus, but also lack of access to basic resources that many of us take for granted: health care, preparatory education, housing, gainful employment, U.S. citizenship, and financial capital.
Attempting to find hope can seem an impossible challenge in the difficult roads students often take to our classrooms. For some students, the extrinsic motivation of the putative degree— and the almost illusory specter of post-graduate employment opportunities—will not offer enough external rewards to stay in school. In the continuing aftermath of the great recession, when financial capital remains more unequally distributed than ever, such challenges pose never-ending complications and interruptions to students’ daily attendance. Yet if we cannot foster hope and intrinsic motivation in such difficult conditions, then when exactly should we begin? If we expect someone else to work toward the future, then can we claim surprise and dismay when the future does not suit our deepest dreams? . In her talk that Thursday morning in Indianapolis, Professor Angela Y. Davis’s suggested why this work remains relevant. Finding hope can inspire intrinsic motivation, and the resilience to move forward. Offering these sources of hope—to our students and to our selves—can become the most significant topic that we undertake in any basic writing course.
Many of the students’ writing projects take up these issues, and I look forward to reading the results. I had asked students to take on projects that would allow them to work on what they needed to write about right now—writing projects would help students find intrinsic motivation to stay in school. No one chose to write about popular music or video games. Most students chose to write about conditions that potentially impede their success at school. In trying to take on these difficulties, students take up the challenge of writing about material conditions for audiences that will benefit learning what many writers face on a day-to-day basis in their first year in college. We also try to build hope for the future, which remains equally significant. Indeed, at the end of her talk in Indianapolis, Professor Davis quoted James Baldwin: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”
In the singularly most troubling moments of US history, at the end of Reconstruction, during Professor Davis’s imprisonment and trial, and in recent times since the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have had to demand the impossible to move forward. In learning to voice those demands, we learn again why writing matters. We learn again to breathe in every word as the most significant moment of working toward a future that offers hope to us all.
[Photo Credit: Susan Bernstein at CCCC 2014]