I have been reading and thinking of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen lately. It has been a while since I read those lines. But they keep coming back. May be because it is the hiring season again, and I am anxious.
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
At the end of Rankine’s prose-poem I learned a new term. A new medical term. John Henryism. It is used for people who are “exposed to stresses stemming from racism.” Rankine tells us that this term was coined by Sherman James. James said that the “psychological costs were high.”
So I keep asking, what are these psychological costs of institutional racism that many faculty of color and marginalized faculty experience when they are asked to be, or have to be on hiring committees? Do we/they have any adequate responses to the kinds of negations and erasures that we witness? Or like Rankine, do we confront the perpetrators of such violence directly? Or do we keep saying in our heads loudly, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” as Rankine did, deep within her self.
Instead, we leave these meetings being outraged at the audacity of our white colleagues to assume that a colleague to be is somewhat lesser than the one they have already chosen. You are appalled.
So you ask. You probe. You ask again. You probe again.
“Where is the deficit? You ask.
Did you just raise the bar?” You ask again.
“Well, you see, our top choice has the potential for receiving that enviable prize one day. That letter from their advisor at [some Ivy league] ah, that letter was brilliant! Imagine the name, the fame that this candidate’s dissertation, “The Ode to the Oak Tree” would bring!”
You compose yourself from that imminent rupture you feel coming over you. You breathe deeply and then blurt out:
“Well, I am afraid I am not on the same page with you. That Ivy league still have buildings named after slave owners. Besides, how many more faculty do we need who can contribute to the various oak trees?”
And then you drop the bomb.
“The point is, I am done with oak trees. They have lost their relevance. What we need are fresh and clear voices that will expose our students to The New Jim Crow, The Post 9/11 cultures of racializations, the rewritings of the Vietnam war, the literatures of the Dalits, the refugees, Palestine.”
There is dead silence in the room. You know you have made your colleagues angry. But they do not show it. You give them space. You watch them act very strangely around you the next couple days. You see their quick steps if they see you coming from the other direction. The algebra of avoidance.
And this is where the psychological costs begin to pile up. You realize that one day you were on the other end. You wonder what these same colleagues thought of you, or still may think of you. While you have never thought of yourself as being inferior (as an intellectual, as a writer, as a thinker, as a teacher) –– you are suddenly wondering, if you really are!
You have gone down that path before and you remind yourself that you are tenured. Even full. You fought the last gate-keepers that wanted to keep you on the other side of the fence. But you won.
So once again, you ignore their racist bullshit of needing more books written on oak trees and you make your case. They are unwilling. But they heard you. The oak has lost its relevance.
You just saved yourself from John Henryism. Now you need to begin to think how you can save your new colleague to be from not being infected by the same condition.