Insider/Outsider: Response to Anti-Blackness Rhetoric
**The following note from Dr. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, MFA program director of UMass Boston, responds to the statements made about the program in our previous published essay "An Open Love Letter to the Black MFA."**
November 19, 2020
A Note from the MFA Director
I write this note from a position of managing multiple responsibilities: to the students, to the program, to my colleagues. I think about all three every day but especially when any members are distressed, traumatized, or unhappy. I—and my colleagues—think every day about what we can do to improve conditions and situations for our students. We do this alongside the reality that we fail all the time, and that many things are beyond our control. There is, of course, no note or information that will please all constituencies here, and this does not come on time. In an ideal world I’d be writing us an essay that speaks more broadly about these issues and concerns, but I want to offer a considered response as the program director, a professor, and mentor.
The experiences written about by the student are real and deserving of a platform. White supremacy, white supremacy in the academy, and anti-Blackness are real. I experience it and students experience it all the time, every day.
The post points to ongoing systemic problems facing students of color, especially Black students in the academy, a place that has been fundamentally anti-Black since its inception. While some of the generalizations of these experiences are true, some of them do not describe this program.
If you read the earlier post and think there is only one Black student in the poetry workshop, that would be wrong. That is not an accurate description of this workshop.
If you read the earlier post and think there are no other students of color at all in the workshop, that would be wrong. That is not an accurate description of this workshop.
If you read the earliest post and think there are no other students of color in this MFA program, that would be wrong. That is not an accurate description of this program.
If you read the earlier post and think my colleagues don’t teach or have never taught living Black writers, including in this workshop, that would also be wrong. That is not an accurate description of my colleague’s pedagogy, practice, writing, and life work. I know my colleagues. I know this colleague.
Unfortunately, one student’s attempt to advocate for students of color has resulted in the erasure of other students of color in the workshop, including another Black student who once again has to reckon with the policing of their own Blackness and Black experiences. That student shouldn’t have to defend their Blackness to anyone—white or Black—and yet here they are. This erasure is traumatic, troubling, and cannot stand: we cannot be erasing the Blackness of people while simultaneously calling out anti-Blackness. The value of the post’s original intent in calling out anti-Blackness, and as a statement of such, remains. At the same time, our opposition to the erasure that took place within that act, is just as complete. While I believe this erasure was not intended, it has done real harm. So too has the characterization of all the students in the workshop: what they write about and share in the classroom was shared without their consent. They are fighting their own fights in this incredibly challenging time, and they feel these challenges and their words have been mischaracterized and ridiculed. There are many truths happening at once and I have invited those students to share those truths—here on this platform, and with me.
To those outlets who chose to share and amplify the original post and the blog series, I hope you continue to follow the situation through its many developments. The conversation does not stop here.
Of course, I am Black. I recently heard someone remark that putting Black people into white structures does not change the structure. To quote Christina Sharpe from In the Wake: On Blackness and Being: “The means and modes of Black subjection may have changed, but the fact and structure of that subjection remain.” That, too, is for another essay.
I don’t want us to forget or dismiss the author’s original intent and throw the baby out with the bathwater. I don’t want us to erase and empty the student’s self-representation in favor of filling it with our own by attempting to litigate the facts of their experience. The post calls for us to make sweeping institutional change—change that is necessary and long overdue—and to grapple with what kinds of reparative action to take. There is no easy answer and we must hold one another accountable.
How did we get here? The trauma experienced by the original post’s author, and the subsequent trauma inflicted on other students and the faculty, belies the nefarious legacy of anti-Blackness, the way Black people “live in subjection and as the subjected” (Sharpe).
Which is to say we get here because we are living in the (transatlantic) wake, we are still in “the precarities of the afterlives of slavery,” in the ship’s hold, where:
“[L]iving in/the wake of slavery is living ‘the afterlife of property’…Put another way, living in the wake means living in and with terror, in that in much of what passes for public discourse about terror we, Black people, become the carriers of terror, terror’s embodiment, and not the primary objects of terror’s multiple enactments” (Sharpe).
The wake is a paradox, it is the slice and disturbance in the water after a boat passes, it is the recoil of a gun, it is the vigil for the dead, it is a call to awareness, to being “woke”, a call to consciousness. “In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present” (Sharpe). Our work is to embed this consciousness within practice, into clearly articulated programmatic interventions.
Where do we go from here? I do not know. I cannot undo and won’t pretend away the harm that has been experienced by any and all of the students, or to the reputation of our faculty and our program. We must collectively engage in anti-racist practices and processes of restorative justice, one where we as educators reinvest in education as the liberatory practice that drew us to this work in the first place. We are writers and we are called to more radical imaginations and healing, and we must try harder.
But what is at stake takes more than trying harder, it takes trying for and with each other to transform and repair. It takes looking inside at who we are, the spaces we occupy, looking at how we have been hurt, and asking if we have the interest in a better world. I have alluded to further posts in this series, because this (this post) is not “it” from me or us, it is one point in this ongoing moment. My meetings with students and colleagues will continue as long as there is energy to have them. It is necessary—not trouble-making—to continue naming white supremacy and anti-Blackness in all its forms.
Dr. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
Director, MFA in Creative Writing @ UMass Boston
Associate Professor, English Department