In 2019, I published an article called, “Let the Church Say Amen” as part of a special issue for an academic journal. In that article, I engage three elements of Black Church beliefs and performance to speak on my experience as a Black woman scholar. I’m writing now to continue in that vein because I feel called to testify and to bear witness.
I’ve been advised over and over not to directly address my trauma as a doctoral student in the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge and during my truncated time at the non-profit literacy organization An Open Book Foundation. I understand that advice to be rooted in a desire to protect me from the destruction of my career before it’s begun by hegemonic whiteness that degrades and undermines Black people regularly in a very small field.
After reading Ebony’s blogpost, I was reminded of my own suppressed history of fighting to just exist in the multitude of spaces within academia and publishing where professionals purport to engage youth literature in inclusive ways.
Therefore, it behooves me to testify alongside other Black scholars and workers, who are risking their careers, their financial and physical health and their emotional stability to stand firm in truthful expressions of their trauma. I believe you all.
As always, our bodies are on the line and silence will not protect me or the people that will come after me. These institutions and organizations have perfected ways to heighten self-doubt in Black people working in spaces that were not built to sustain us, decreasing our self-worth, even as they benefit from our ideas and presence.
This is my testimony.
I recently caught up with my very cool godbrother and he shared his excitement about one day traveling the world with his best friend. He really wants to go to England. I asked him when he started thinking about travelling abroad and he said he guesses around three years ago.
“When I left for Cambridge?” I asked.
“I guess,” he said, and I could totally hear his shrug.
I’ve got mentees asking me how I like DC. I know they’re searching for spaces where they can be relatively healthy, happy, and unapologetically Black in a world that is determined to destroy them. They are looking to me to share my experiences, my advice and my connections.
For so many Black people, their ability to move around the world is dependent on educational and/or job opportunities. We’re told to “fly high” and move toward what we’re conditioned to think of as success: formal education at elite universities, high-paying corporate positions, or even low-paying “morally responsive work,” etc. We’re told that when we succeed in these spaces, our communities and hometowns are uplifted because in the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Me is we.”
And so when we follow those paths, where we are hyper-surveilled and where we are set apart as examples of what to do “to win”, I believe that there must be balance. There has to be a reckoning where we seriously consider the costs of setting up success in those terms. Where we seriously consider how we support the folks sent into spaces to burn bright for a moment before their light is wholly extinguished after they have been used all up.
This testimony isn’t exhaustive.
We all know those church folks who go on and on at Wednesday night prayer meeting or other faith gathering and I’m not going to lie, I tend to be verbose.
However, I’m not going to hold you too long. I just hope that this post provides enough access and information to my lived experiences as a Black woman engaged with these programs to show how the performative expressions of Black lives mattering made in statements by the Faculty and An Open Book Foundation clash with their actual treatment of this Black person.
None of what I’m saying is new. But as “just” a doctoral student and debut author, I have been conditioned to believe that these positions make me inherently powerless.
I am not.
I have a voice and choice and I’m here choosing to testify about the following experiences at Cambridge University where:
In the Faculty of Education students pursuing the MPhil or PhD take a research ethics lecture that presents the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as ethically sound, but only up to the year 1947 when penicillin was actively being used to treat syphilis. According to the Cambridge lecturer, that’s the point when the study became unethical.
When I interrupted his lecture to object to his presentation, I was told by that lecturer that he’d never received any objections in his many, many years of teaching the same slides on the same course. That was not true. He knew and the Faculty knows and yet that false information continues to be disseminated to students, many of whom will go on to complete research in developing countries where their only reference for their ethical or unethical behavior is this lecture.
At Cambridge I have been harassed by a Faculty teacher who has used my experiences, sharing them without my permission, to present himself as an advocate who is literate in academic and social justice work pertaining to equity and inclusivity.
After I refused to continue to engage with this faculty member, he then coerced a former staff member to reach out to me to interview me about my experiences so that they could be fed back to him.
At the 24th Biennial Congress of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature in Sweden in August of 2019, he had to be stopped by two senior academics from attending my presentation and continuing a pattern of social intimidation that ran the course of the conference even though he’d been asked repeatedly to stop and had his behavior reported.
It’s important to note that at Cambridge, though their Centre for the Study of Children’s Literature presents disingenuous and superficial support for inclusion initiatives on their Twitter page, those initiatives are not supported or prioritised on the private Facebook group where they laud outrageous racism.
One incident with regards to the FB group occurred in October of 2018 where I asked for more consideration in developing conversations around the work of a Black scholar whose new academic text was being pulled out to be discussed in a severely under nuanced format.
The conversation turned into a thread of other students at the Centre expressing disappointment in my “dangerous” intellectual “gatekeeping” that “scared them” — and resulted in me being dropped as a doctoral student by my former supervisor.
At the time I was undergoing therapy with a university counselor to address the plans I’d outlined to take my life early in the term. So, when a meeting was called to address “concerns” in the Centre after the FB incident, I originally declined to attend, noting that I have never left an encounter with other students that wasn’t traumatic and my ideation was resurfacing with the very wrong thought process that I am more valuable to my family and friends dead.
However, I was advised that if I didn’t attend, then perhaps the meeting shouldn’t occur since I was the one who raised the concerns. This narrative has continually played out in conversations I’ve had all over the university by the way. It’s the idea that if no one brings a problem up then it doesn’t exist. So when explosive incidents occur the responsive is always reactionary and underdeveloped, requiring students and faculty of color to do more labor in order to just barely be OK.
So, the narrative played out and I went to the meeting.
It was a mess. None of the current all-White Centre staff that presents themselves as learned in issues of social justice or diversity and inclusion were present to help mediate the conversation. The meeting ended up airing more grievances of academic hazing and prejudicial behavior by older cohorts of students in the program. Nothing has been done to redress those grievances, and the Centre is still as I said in the meeting, a racist space. Also, as I said at that meeting, I’m not bringing forward anything that hasn’t been there always, I am not the Centre’s social problem. Their lack of accountability and superficial attention to actions items that are never realized are a part of their issue.
I left campus and returned to the US to try to stay alive.
In 2014, I wrote a short story called Rise Up! that eventually after many drafts became Hands Up! You can learn more about my motivations for writing that story here. I tweeted about my inspiration for the book in order to reflect on the continued threat of police brutalizing and murdering Black people in the US and to submit my support for protestors activating over the last week.
After the release of our book, I completed two programs with An Open Book Foundation in DC. After the death of my grandmother, still mourning but needing distance from my hometown along with a supplemental source of income, I sent out feelers in Boston and DC looking for part-time work. I was asked to apply for a part-time position at An Open Book by one of the co-founders. I applied, interviewed and was offered the job.
I expressed my excitement to Ellen Oh who then took me out for lunch and offered up her experiences with AOB’s other co-founder whom I’d just met at my interview. Ellen shared with me that at a luncheon where she’d requested accountability for a WNDB donation to AOB the woman had become irate, left the restaurant and returned with a check written in the amount of the donation which she preceded to throw in Ellen’s face.
Hoping that the co-founder I’d worked with previously would provide a buffer, Ellen advised me to tell her that I’d been told about the abusive behavior directed at Ellen and to take the job only if she could affirm that nothing like that would ever happen to me while working at AOB.
I talked to the co-founder and she confirmed Ellen’s account before assuring me that the other co-founder would never be allowed to take abusive action against me. I then accepted the job. I was later advised by Ellen that she’d received more information that lead to her rethinking her assessment that anyone at the organization was a capable interrupter of abusive behavior. Ellen wasn’t sure I should take the job.
Against her advice, I moved forward with taking the job and had the following experiences:
I was the butt of a joke comparing Black children to animals
I was told that my suggestion that we introduce ourselves with pronouns was based on “an agenda” out of sync with their mission, which is to get books in front of kids, period
I asked repeatedly from my first month at the organization to my final month to have a diversity audit completed at the organization along with cultural competency training because of the racist conversations that were commonplace in the office
I was told that I was hired to be “the diversity” at the organization
I was yelled at for asking for help in resolving a calendar mix-up that was arranged by someone else
Then demanded over and over that I talk through that distressing incident with the perpetrator without HR personnel or a mediator present
I had my hours reduced when I brought the incident forward to the personnel manager at the organization, even though I’d repeatedly asked for mediated conversations to redress what happened
I eventually had my wages retroactively and illegally docked which led me to seek legal advice and submit a demand letter for payment of my stolen wages
I was suspended and then terminated when I brought my concerns to the Board after months of discussing these same issues with the co-founder to no avail.
I was thrown under the bus by other staff members who privately derided one co-founder’s behavior and the other co-founder’s inaction but never spoke up, even when the board completed an investigation into my claims, though they never included me in the investigation.
There’s always more.
And although I find it hard to balance expectations of egregiousness, there are somethings I can’t tell or try to relive just yet.
Again, this is just meant to illustrate that beneath the performative actions of many within the nonprofit sector and academia, there is racism, particularly antiblack racism, that is mediated by Good White People.
When it comes to conversations specifically around loyalty, as referenced by Ebony, I think it’s important to point toward the narrative of Good White People. As a student and independent scholar, I’ve been transient since 2012 and because of that transience, I’ve had Good White People give me temporary shelter. I’ve had Good White People financially support my programming, like our conference REIYL. I’ve had Good White People check-in on me and give me jobs to help supplement my stipend.
I’ve been pushed toward Good White People by mentors convinced of their allyship only to have it turn out that those Good White People are and always have been broadly exploitative of Black people and women in particular. Inherent to the idea of loyalty to Good White People is the expectation that only proximity to whiteness will ensure our success so we continue to believe and trust in the same Good White People that stay silent even with the knowledge of the distress that I and many other endure in our work.
Where are those Good White People now?
I’ll keep working toward liberation alongside members of my community. But I will repeat now as I did in a tweet earlier this week, I have given mind and body to keep going and my spirit is weary with fighting. I feel corrupted and empty because I’ve been struggling the whole time I’ve been engaged in chasing this work in youth literature. I’ve only been in this world for eight years!
But I’m going to stand up and fight anyhow.
I’m not going to be silent about the serious harm that is being done to Black people in myriad spaces—whether it’s the police, or academic institutions, or nonprofits. I will not affirm with my silence these organizations that pretend to welcome Black people into their spaces only to push them closer and closer to physical, emotional, and spiritual death.
Not when those same organizations publicly proclaim their understanding and compassion, even as they ensure that Black students remain isolated and underserved at their institutions.
Not when they continue to harass and exploit the faculty members who do condemn racism until they have to leave to seek healing and wholeness elsewhere.
Not when as a non-profit, they treat as fungible the mostly Black and Latinx communities they “serve” concurrently deriding the students because of perceived intrinsic “behavioral issues” in casual workroom chatter.
Not when they dismiss and diminish concerns passed from Black librarian, to Black author, to Black employee, to uncaring and disengaged White co-founders.
Even with this in mind, I know Black folks are going to continue to push toward these spaces, seeking to undo hegemonic power structures by tumbling the institutions from the inside. Since this is the case, I absolutely have to “tell the truth to shame the devil.”
In her book On Spiritual Strivings: Transforming An African American Women’s Academic Life Cynthia B. Dillard insists that, “there is value in the telling, in invading those secret silent moments often unspoken in order to be understood as both participating in and responsible to one another.” DC labour activist Kim Diehl asserts, “We have strength in being public”.
So, I am telling. I am breaking out of whisper networks and making my private pain public.
I wasn’t in these spaces alone, so I hope that other people will stand and share the incidents that they’ve witnessed.
I hope that others will share their experiences if they are comfortable doing so.
I know that it’s scary. It hurts to relive the trauma. Maybe you just want to write everything down super-fast. Or maybe you want to take a minute or ninety to just cry and cry and cry. Maybe you want to be out fighting alongside your kin. Maybe you want to apologize to the Black student who came up after you and wasn’t warned. You didn’t warn them.
If I could speak to you now, I would tell you to concentrate on one tragedy at a time. Watch who responds to this and how. I know you want to be home. To be held. To be alone. To vibrate higher. I know you want to be safe.
All I have to offer is small haven in our truth. The opportunity to share energy and space with each other. I’ll celebrate with you, and I’ll grieve with you. I offer my presence behind you always, no matter where I am and no matter what I’m doing. It’ll also be enough just to have these words unfortunately resonate with you and let you know I feel you.
Because our Black lives matter in our homes, and communities, and in our schools. They matter, in so-called elite spaces and they matter in what the world thinks are super humble spaces too.
But, if you call, I will respond as best I can.
B. J. McDaniel