Decolonizing Black intellectualism: How society’s ideas around knowledge leave some Black people behind
You can’t tell me that “Bitch Betta Have My Money” ain’t a Black feminist anthem and “pay me what you owe me” ain’t a call for reparations.
“She don’t even like us. She only help us because of this.” My coworker pointed at her forearm with an ardent finger, calling attention to the mahogany of her skin. A deep, dark, gorgeous color.
The white woman she spoke of was a member of the church that housed the after-school program we worked for. We saw her a few times a week as she came to take care of business around the church building. She was rude to us the majority of the time. When she wasn’t aggressive, she was passive aggressive.
The help that she offered us and the majority Black children and non-Black children of color that we served was reluctant at best. If ever anything went missing or was broken, we and the children were immediately blamed. We could see the disdain for us inscribed on her face, even when she smiled and complimented my hair, which, of course, she liked to touch without asking.
If I were to gripe to my coworker about the white woman’s white guilt, white women’s dog whistle aggression, white saviorism, white Christianity’s hypocrisy and complicity in white supremacy, the dehumanization of Blackness, white colonization of Black bodies and their perceived ownership of Black people, the lack of innocence granted to Black children due in part to white ascendant ideals of personhood and citizenship, and its connection with the preschool-to-prison pipeline and state-sanctioned violences, our conversation would not have been productive for either of us.
Based on previous discussions with my coworker, I knew that she was unfamiliar with the terms that I have been exposed to during my time as a student in higher education and of the conversations in which I have been immersed throughout Black feminist and social justice spaces in both the virtual and material world. Nevertheless, she knew intimately of these concepts, because the concepts are centuries old.
“She don’t even like us. She only help us because of this” captured perfectly and succinctly our experience with this Miss Millie ass white woman. This “I’ve always been good to you people! I’ve always gone out of my way for coloreds!” ass white woman.
After sixty-two years of existing in her Black body, my coworker knew what she felt in her bones about this white woman was valid. Her years of experience were written in her skin, evidenced by the dark brown color she now emphasized—her unmistakable Blackness.
Black people are constantly gaslighted. Our experiences with anti-Blackness and various white supremacist violences are never truly seen as valid, at least not until they have been “proven” by sociological studies. Even then, others continually insist that what we know to be true about our lives and how they play out in this anti-Black world is wrong.
But we, as Black intellectuals and Blackademics, are sometimes guilty of gaslighting, too. This is nothing short of elitism on our parts.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have access to higher education often look down upon or feel disconnected from those who have lower levels of education in conversations around social justice, oppression, and Black liberation—and much of this divide has to do with differences in the respective vocabulary that we use to describe what the world under white supremacy looks like to us.
We have been guilty of trivializing their experiences or even ignoring their voices, thinking ourselves worlds apart when we are really all under the same boot.
I challenge us all to decolonize the way that we view knowledge production as only being valid when it can be expressed through the language of the academic institution—itself a tool of the continued white supremacist colonial project.
I challenge us all to see the inherent value in how Black folks of all socioeconomic classes and education levels conceptualize and cope with the anti-Blackness that we all experience.
To assume that Black people living their Black ass lives who have never heard of the likes of bell hooks, Assata Shakur, or Patricia Hill Collins don’t have an understanding of the oppression that they experience daily is a disservice and an insult.
They don’t need folks like Michelle Alexander to tell them that the prison industrial complex exists or about its connections to chattel slavery and Jim Crow. They need no PhD to assess the devastation of their neighborhoods and families as crack cocaine flooded the streets in the 1980s, or how countless soldiers returning from Vietnam lost their battle against heroin addiction, or how the public reaction to both differed drastically from reaction to the current opioid epidemic taking hold of white America.
Those who know first or second hand the pain of forced sterilization and racist birth control tactics need not read the scholarship of Dorothy Roberts to understand the kinship between eugenics and the pro-choice movement. The residents of cities like Flint and Detroit don’t need to read articles about environmental racism and its connections with reproductive violence and the prison pipeline. The folks who know about Black Sites in Chicago don’t need to read essays about Elf on the Shelf and panopticon theory to understand the growing police surveillance state in the U.S. They don’t need lofty theory to understand their own dehumanization, criminalization, and immobility.
They see how these things impact their own lives every single day, and their inability or lack of desire to use five-dollar words to articulate their oppression does not make them any less apt to testify about it.
I’m talking about the Black folks who likely never read James Baldwin or Toni Morrison. Got all their social justice language from talks around the dinner table, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X speeches, or soulful Nina Simone records. Learned all they know about economics from “If I eat, all my niggas eat.” Saw sexual liberation through the lyrics of Khia, Lil Kim, and Kelis.
You can’t tell me that “If you’re a fly gal, get your nails done/Get a pedicure, get your hair did” ain’t the same kind of self-care that Audre Lorde wrote about. You can’t tell me that City High’s “What Would You Do?” is not a part of the same conversation that Angela Davis sets forth in Women, Race and Class. You can’t tell me that “Bitch Betta Have My Money” ain’t a Black feminist anthem and that “pay me what you owe me” ain’t a call for reparations.
Academia and its language can be useful, but it will never get us free. It will never be enough to capture the anti-Blackness and white supremacist violences that all Black people know to be destructive, mortifying, and excruciating. It’s not enough to tell of our despondency and pessimism, or of our resilience and joy.
Decolonizing the way we think of “legitimate” knowledge production will open up space for the life experiences and language of Black folks like my coworker to be enough “evidence” for our oppression. And, even better, it will allow us to recognize the space they already rightfully take up, but we, at many turns, have refused to acknowledge.