June marked the beginning of my Jesus year, and it has been an interesting month to say the least, which I have found to be variously amusing and disappointing. I know some of y’all have some burning questions, so who am I not to spit to put your eyebrows out? This is long, though. Much longer than the post the University of Memphis put up about my employment. Pull up a chair.
Is #ZandriaRobinson Racist?
Easy. Absolutely not. First, it’s not possible. Last time I checked, I had no systemic power to subjugate white folks or anyone else. I can’t even subjugate my pre-teen, and I totally birth her myself out of my own vaginal cavity area. I can’t even subjugate my toddler and he still shamelessly poops on himself. And even if I had the power to subjugate some other folks, I wouldn’t because that would constitute what the old folks in church call “blocking your blessing.”
Could I be prejudiced? Of course. But anyone who knows me knows my main prejudices are against people who commit comma fraud. People who do not use the serial comma have my constant ire. People who commit the Eighth Deadly Sin of the Comma Splice? To tell you how I feel about them would be impolite. I confess, though, that I have on more than one occasion written “WTF?!?” on a student’s paper after having tolt her or him that comma splices are my pet peeve. This is an indiscriminate prejudice that affects students across race. COMPLETE THOUGHTS ARE NOT SEPARATED BY A FUCKING COMM–oh, forgive me. I digress.
Second, I have more white friends than most white folks have friends of any other race, I have had white people over my house drinking my liquor and eating my dinner (they are alive), and I have adopted several white folk students whom I love and will fight for just as hard as I fight for any of the others. And they know this, and that’s why they be at my door all. the. tahm. Further, I use so much bleach I often have to run out of the house so as not to suffocate, put feta in all kinds of things I shouldn’t, think snow is beautiful, and I even like a good basil mayo on my turkey sandwich.
There. That’s settled.
Did The University of Memphis, a Fourth-Tier Institution That Ain’t Even Verified on Twitter, Fire #ZandriaRobinson?
No, boo boo. But story and confession time.
First: The Story
My mama, who grew up during Jim Crow in the Belt Line of Orange Mound, the nation’s oldest black neighborhood, is a Memphis State University alumna. She finished in 1973 with a journalism degree, five years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by whiteness in downtown Memphis. She did not want me to go to “Tiger High” under any circumstances. In addition to other places out of town, I had a scholarship to Rhodes, but it wasn’t enough to go there without plunging immediately into debt, and plus the campus was polar bear white. And the squirrels there was always acting weird. Animals be knowing. They say to me as they narrow they eyes and stare, “don’t. you. come. here. black. girl.” But not in a racist way. They weren’t racist squirrels. I’on’t think.
But anyway, I had grown up on Memphis’s campus, darting in and out of the rooms of the music building on Main Campus and South Campus since 1985 as a student in the Suzuki Violin Program. I spent a week there every summer in its Suzuki Summer Institute, taking master classes, orchestra, and other lessons from violinists around the country. When Memphis State changed its name to The University of Memphis in 1994, my 12-year-old-self was most offended. “I’m just gone keep saying Memphis State,” I said, embracing what I believed to be the scrappiness of State in the name. Mama replied, “I’m just gone keep on saying Tiger High.”
I matriculated the University in 2000 and got the greatest education there one could ever have received. But this was not because the institution was a great institution; I was aware that it was a jank place in reality and in most folks eyes. Still, I fell in with some dynamic students and faculty there, including more black faculty than most students who attend PWIs ever encounter. I met my daughter’s father there in the library’s computer lab that’s now an Einstein Bros. I spent five years at the University earning a Bachelor of Arts in Literature and African and African American Studies (summa cum laude with University Honors, 30 years after my mama earned hers, and 35 years after King’s assassination) and a Master of Arts in Sociology. Thanks in part to those faculty and student relationships, I made one of the greatest started-from-the-bottom-now-we-here moves in my whole life, matriculating Northwestern University, a top 10 institution, to pursue my PhD.
I wasn’t gone from the University long, and even when I left, I returned. While doing fieldwork for my dissertation, I adjunct taught there for the 2007-2008 academic year. I needed the library privileges and they needed somebody to teach some courses in Racial and Ethnic Minorities. To be sure, the library privileges, even though the University only had 157 books, were more valuable than the $1,500 per class I earned. After spending a year at Rhodes on a dissertation fellowship and three years on the tenure track at The University of Mississippi, the prodigal negress came home to The University of Memphis. I finished my book there, served and served and served in varying capacities, earned a competitive grant to combine reproductive justice work and mentoring, started a mentoring program, and just generally gave all of my black girl self like we do to the students at these places, regardless of race, because we want them to win because that is why we got into this thing in the first place.
Thus, not only am I an alumna of the University who graduated with honors, I’m also a legacy alum. I’ve adjunct taught at the University for the change in some administrator’s pocket. I served on search committees as a graduate student and adjunct faculty member because there were no other black people who could serve and rules a black faculty member (whom I had taken on several occasions as an undergraduate and graduate student) had fought to get in place required that there be at least one black person on every committee. I mentored countless students despite the fact that mentoring didn’t count for nothing–not when I was a graduate student, nor adjunct, and certainly not when I was an Assistant Professor. I was the only negress (and the only junior faculty person and non-administrator) on the University’s Quality Enhancement Plan team for SACS reaccreditation, and they begged me to be on that because I am a boss who knows her academic coaching and mentoring literature.
Second: Stop! Usher Time
Despite my fondness for the place, my extended time at the University, particularly in my capacities as undergraduate and graduate student, adjunct, and assistant professor, had left a sour taste in my mouth about the University and the academy more generally. Even though I didn’t understand fully what it meant as a student, the University could not retain black faculty. All I knew was that black faculty were either non-existent or being chewed up across the humanities and social sciences, and Sociology hadn’t had a black faculty person in years. The University was, as most universities are, against “troublemakers,” as one faculty person who I consider to be on the right side of things described them. When I was an adjunct, a faculty person whom I admired, respected, and appreciated deeply was dismissed awfully in a tenure case gone horribly wrong. I didn’t understand how a thing like this could happen (this the confession part; what a silly rabbit I was.). This had me vowing never to return to the University.
But when I had to go back on my never (and yes mama had tolt me to never say never even when I said never about that thing so many times) because my health had been ravaged by the commute to Oxford and an abusive relationship, the University quickly reminded me that it hadn’t changed around issues of diversity and equity, nor on issues that affect Universities in the neo-liberal state in general. Amongst other things, wages were low, salary compression was high, the gender wage gap was atrocious, and we were expected to produce and do more with much less. In short, we were supposed to research like a Research I, teach like a liberal arts college, and serve like Serena. A new administration came in and threatened us with increased teaching loads and a new funding model that would pit departments against one another for resources. MA programs, like the one that made me and so many other good students, were seen as a drain on resources unless students were paying out of pocket. Budgets were cut. One time it was seriously suggested that we give up telephones in our offices and talk to students via Skype to save money. It was Hunger Games: Academic Edition, and I knew that even though I was Negress Everdeen, I had to go.
So I went on the market and also applied for a sabbatical from the University. I even applied to my ex-boo Rhodes, even though I wasn’t entirely a fit for their position, because since we had been hanging out recently, me doing lectures and sitting on panels and such over they house, I thought they’d get excited that I was interested (mama can tell you that I also had said never to them and how she tolt me not to say that.) and offer me something else. But alas I ain’t get not nary a bite on the market. I did get the competitive sabbatical from the University, though. After six years on the tenure track, I had bought myself some time outside of Panem State to write and get some reprieve from the regular ass microaggressions at work. Whew.
But then at the end of March, an interesting thing happened.
Rhodes wrote to say, remember when you had applied for that thing? Want to get back in the pool and have a conversation about it? I say, that thing y’all ain’t even call. me. back. for. wit. cho. trife. ass. when. you. know. I. am. all. the. things. and. you. don’t. deserve. me. I. was. just. tryna. help. yo. raggely. ass. out? They say, yes that one. I laughed so hard on the inside my intestines tangled. I got a sabbatical now, plus y’all had a race scandal and some other scandals, ummm, nah, I’m straight.
They convinced me to have the conversation, though, and the possibilities were promising, as I knew they would be. Rhodes has a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity and the liberal arts, great resources, and some of my favorite colleagues are there. Plus, they had been attempting to become the urban intellectual juggernaut that I had always wanted the University of Memphis to be. I went through the process and for the third time in my academic life, on May 7, 2015, I was offered a gig.
But Memphis State. Since 1985. The University of Memphis. Violin lessons. Tiger High. Harris Auditorium. Panem State in which I was Negress Everdeen, the Rockingjay. Legacy alum. The dreamers, the thinkers, and the doers. The grit. The grind. The public school heroes. My departmental colleagues, most of whom were some of the best people you could ever have at a University or anywhere else. New, dynamic black women colleagues across the University. Plans. Beginning the tenure process. Sabbatical. I once wrote in a fellowship application that I wanted to go back and teach at an institution like my alma mater, University of Memphis, full as it was of POC and first-gen-of-all-races scrappers. And I meant that shit. I was living that out. Why should I leave for the upper-class whiteness of Rhodes, despite the strides it was making? Isn’t my mission to serve the grit and grind folks who haven’t had things handed to them? Isn’t that who we do it for? What was a black girl with white world options to do?
Keep it moving because you know over there you will always have an office phone.
Black girls can survive with so little. But it sho is nice sometimes to have more.
I let folks know I had a competitive offer, like okay, whatchu gone do bout it. But I know institutions well. They do not value us for what we are bringing to the table. They cannot. It’s not that they don’t intend to value us. Some individuals really do. But institutional constraints do not allow colleges and universities to value people of color or diversity, especially with powerful racist alumni and donors in their mentions and inboxes. Because we are expendable. They can get another one of us. We are not special. Racist alumni and donors are hard to come by in this market of liberals.
Despite what I expect it to do or what I have grown to know it will always do, I always do right by my alma mater. So I put Rhodes on hold and waited for U. Memphis to come to the negotiating table. Negotiation processes can be long and arduous, and Rhodes was persistent in the way you ought to be persistent when you want to improve your squad and move forward in the 21st century. In a couple weeks we were closer to something that looked like I could be at Rhodes. So, I went on and gave Rhodes a verbal acceptance, pending some other details were appropriately ironed out, on May 22, 2015. I (read: husband and daddy) moved everything but my books out of my U. Memphis office on May 30, 2015, figuring that even if I changed my mind and stayed, I could at least have my desk and other things at home during my sabbatical year. But the moving out did something to me. I walked my signed contract into the Dean’s office at Rhodes on June 2, 2015. Shortly thereafter, I got an e-mail from an administrator at U. Memphis ready to have another conversation.
You should always know what you are leaving on the table. What you are worth to these places. They could surprise you. But they probably won’t. I appreciated the effort and time individual administrators put in to entice me to stay. But at the end of the day, it was the institution that didn’t come to the table. So, I had to fire the institution.
So, If You Ain’t Get Fired, Why Did The University of Memphis Post That Status on the Facebooks and the Twitters?
Because the University of Memphis is “driven by doing,” as its new slogan and branding that somebody paid somebody more than my salary and scholarships for all of the years I was there to develop proclaims. But they left out the rest of the motto: “some coward ass bullshit.” The University of Memphis is driven by doing some coward ass bullshit.
At the beginning of June, I was targeted by some folks who were on a warpath and determined to attack black women in the academy. I was aware of such attacks, and the recent one on my colleague and fellow southerner (she’s from the Upper South; still the South) Saida Grundy had hit particularly close to home. It was my turn, I supposed, and the “controversy” did not gain national traction.
Apparently, though, you can lodge an institutional equity complaint and call for somebody’s firing on Twitter to an unverified Twitter account and actually have it taken seriously, which is what happened at the beginning of June. The President tweeted back to thank folks for bringing the situation to his attention and that he would look into it, but I was not made aware of any such investigation. Despite the fact that I was leaving the institution, I contacted the University the Monday after the weekend of white supremacist foolery to let them know the situation. They were concerned for my safety and sprung into action. But I needed to meet with the Office of Institutional Equity to respond to the allegations. I shouldn’t tweet “I will come for you,” because people who say nigger and on fleek but do not know black vernacular might think you mean physically when what you obviously really mean is in writing. Two black women lawyers interviewed me on Friday, June 12, 2015, and though they asked all the questions white folks would ask, the absurdity of the process was not lost on them. They wrote a report that tepidly affirmed academic freedom, because that’s all institutions can do these days with a #tcot public in their mentions.
Institutions do not question the public’s veracity when the public is angry, white, racist, and tweeting at them to their unverified Twitter accounts. By giving credence to these allegations first, without even speaking to the faculty member, and in my case, two-degree with honors alumna and faculty member, they show us our value. Just like they showed me when they ain’t come immediately and aggressively with the right counter-offer.
So when the shit storm came again, this time after some hurt feelings about a blog post that I thought was rather innocuous about the confederate flag, they really showed their asses. They posted on Facebook an eleven-word status: “Zandria Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.” They sent the same 72-character announcement as a tweet. So many characters to spare. They have since removed their Facebook status. Luckily for them, the Internet is f o r e v e r.
Because their social media is run by toddlers, let me do as I have always done for the University and give it some free labor. Because I want it to win, even though it has shown me over and over that it is committed to playing to lose.
1. Please say the F. And that goes for folks making up hashtags, too. It’s about 10 or 11 other Zandria Robinsons in the country and they are probably right upset. Alternative Status: “Zandria F. Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis.”
2. Don’t let misogynists and racists post on a status and leave it up there for over 24 hours. One person muses that he hopes I have time to twerk between all the death and rape threats. (Oddly enough, I do.) Stop playing with legos and moderate, folks. Learn what your social media policy is and apply. it. Or better yet, close the status for comments. It can be done. But now folks think you are just like the bigots commenting on your status. Because, well, despite the President’s gushy spring 2015 semester-opening message about diversity and blah blah civil society, by encouraging and aiding bigots, y’all are.
3. You might have thought you were clever by satiating a racist white public with a slick half-truth, but you weren’t. “Look! We ain’t no Yankee BU! We didn’t fully desegregate until the late 1960s! We fiyered the Nigger Bitch! See! *Fist Pump*” You were endangering me–a legacy alum, mind you–students of color on campus, and just generally being irresponsible.
My mama say y’all ain’t getting no more $25 annual donations from her.
Here are a few alternative statuses, within the 140-character limit:
- “Zandria F. Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis bc she left for a better institution w more resources #Eats2000Oreos”
- “Negress Everdeen is not the Rockingjay and she has been eliminated in the Hunger Games: Academic Edition.”
- “Zandria F. Robinson is no longer employed by the University of Memphis because we are driven by doing some coward ass bullshit.”
- “Zandria F. Robinson resigned her position for a position at another institution. We are proud of our alum and wish her the best. #GoTigers”
But Zeezus. This Isn’t Really About You or Memphis State, Is It?
As I said in my comments to Inside Higher Ed when they contacted me about the tears of early June, this is not about me. This is about, as others have pointed out, institutions who are all for public scholarship and engagement to raise their profile but who are not for protecting public scholars, and especially black women ones. This is about institutions that don’t do us right regardless of whether or not we are on Twitter being gloriously humorous about the tough topics. This is about institutions caving to publics interested in maintaining an unequal status quo.
Moreover, in trying to disavow that whiteness is a thing, the worst of white folks have shown that whiteness is, in fact, a very real thing. They have also shown that they are not ready to grapple with the implications of that, the flesh, as it were. At the beginning of my Zeezus year, I was made a spectacle, another black woman brought out to bear the sins of whiteness without any of the wages or privileges. I wasn’t the first, and I won’t be the last. But no. This is not about me or Tiger High.
Because also my Zeezus year thus far has been marked by the death of beautiful Kalief Browder. I loved a black boy–the one I met at the University of Memphis, the one who named our daughter–who had also taken himself before white supremacy could take any more of him. The next week, in the summer program I was teaching in, a new black boy came, a funny, helpful, nerd kid. His name was the same, spelled K-H-A-L-I-F. After he told me his name, I looked in his round brown face and at his lunchbox and said it back to him slowly. Khalif. Then I excused myself and went to the bathroom and wailed so loud I couldn’t hear myself and neither could no one else.
It has been marked by McKinney. A 14-year-old black girl, a girl two years older than my own daughter, was assaulted by a white police officer because she dared respond to racism and dared to be out of place, which is to say not in the place that whiteness put her and told her to stay. Shortly after that on June 14, 2015, my daughter and her friend were at a birthday party for another one of their friends at a local establishment when they were questioned by a security guard, who said they needed to leave. Children have to be out by 9 PM, he says, unless they are with an adult because the place turns into a bar. They were with an adult, of course, but black girls are adults, don’t you know, and also trifling parents or pimps or whoever just drop them off at places unattended. No one looked for the adult or asked the adult anything. I knew the party was over at 9 PM, and I was already preparing to head there, though I didn’t know the other details. When my daughter called and relayed this news to her father, I rushed over there with no muhfugging bra on and McKinney and the image of the black girl in the bathing suit in my head. I snatched them children up and left, because if I had let what was in me come out, I would have been in jail, beaten, or shot. Thankfully, the black mama who was there supervising said something. They have since put some new rules on their website.
And it has been marked by the murders of nine southern black men and women–Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Honorable Reverend Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons Senior, Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson–while they prayed in a church. My daughter asked me, “racial inequality won’t ever end, will it?”
Some universities, with a great deal of labor from faculty and faculty of color in particular, have taken this #BlackLivesMatter moment as an opportunity to lead rather than cower. To have the real tough and critical conversations. To bring research to bear on things happening in the public sphere. To reckon with their histories. To serve the communities in which they exist. To look towards the future. But, contrary to ideas about the liberal university, that place been dead since Reagan. Thus, these colleges and universities are the exception. It just so happens that some universities are still driven by doing some coward ass bullshit.
In 1889, Ida B. Wells, a Memphis journalist and a founder of American sociology, lost her friend Thomas Moss, and two other employees at Peoples Grocery, Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell, to a white mob. They had been attacked, and they had tried to defend themselves. In trying to defend themselves, they had gotten out of place, and they had been murdered for it. Then when Ida Wells wrote in her paper The Free Speech and Headlight of Memphis that black folks should go west, as Moss’s dying words had reportedly implored black folks to do, white folks got upset. They followed her incessantly, she was watched everywhere she went, and she was threatened. When in 1892 she suggested that white women might be actually having consensual relationships with black men and that the justifications giving for lynching, based on her research, were fallacious, her paper was burned down and a bounty was put on her head.
We do this for Ida and all the ones that have come before us who have written the truth and compelled the nation, against some terrible odds, to reckon with itself. We are still doing it, and we must continue to do it. The fact that any of the statements of people of color–even the cherry-picked, decontextualized ones–are seen as controversial is a testament to the fact that we have not, even after all these years, had the conversations that need to be had or read the things that need to be read. Or perhaps the worst of white folks simply haven’t listened. But we’ll get there. As long as some other folks–and institutions–step up and be brave, too.