Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shame On You, Joyce Joyce!

I had just started reading an article by literary scholar Joyce Ann Joyce in a recent issue of the journal Callaloo when I came across her severe critique of my latest book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.

Joyce is probably most famous in some academic circles for having been tapped to replace Molefi Asante as head of African American Studies at Temple University in the late 1990s. Asante wasn't pleased with that selection, and he made his displeasure very public. He even went so far as to claim that she would destroy his Afrocentric project/curriculum. Many scholars dismissed his attacks as sexist bigmanism, but having been subjected to so many vicious attacks during her stint at the helm, Joyce ended up stepping down a little ahead of schedule.

Anyway, that's just a too-short recap of the Joyce-Asante dispute. Here's the passage from her new article that discusses my book:

In his book Professor John Jackson, Jr. makes his contribution to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives. In the chapter “Racial Paranoia’s Canonical Texts,” he uses John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am and many other invaluable historical studies, such as Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro as examples of a long line of conspiracy theories that imbue Black paranoia and that retard healthy relations between Blacks and Whites. Johnson’s use of Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro contains a humorous ironic element. Carter G. Woodson not only details how a Euro-American education influences the thinking—and thus the methodology—of the Black intellectual, but his work and especially his success at forging the institutionalization of Black History Week, which is now Black History Month, precedes and makes the way for the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement, and thus the institutionalization of the first Black Studies Program at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) in 1968. This initial program provoked universities to add Black Studies to their curriculum and to focus on the hiring of Black faculty. Thus were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, Black intellectual history counters Johnson’s paranoia with legal facts (though I am fully aware that some intellectuals no longer believe in the concept of facts). Yet, I hope that we still believe in what we can see. One of the things we can see is the overwhelming number of Blacks, Latinos, and poor Whites in the American prison system. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall’s Race, Law, and American Society presents a documented history of laws that affected Black survival from the early seventeenth century to the twenty-first century. Her detailed summaries of legal and Supreme Court decisions over a four-hundred-year period suggest that Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid.

First of all, a relatively minor point. My name is Jackson, not Johnson. She calls me the latter three times in this paragraph. Three big red flags.

Second, I quote the books/authors she mentions because they are important and canonical . Not because they are somehow responsible for "retard(ing) healthy relations between Blacks and Whites." That isn't even close to the book's argument about social causality vis-a-vis race/racism.

I don't blame Carter G. Woodson or John Williams for "racial paranoia" at all. In fact, I don't even use those two texts in the same way. I invoke one portion of Williams's marketing strategy for The Man Who Cried I Am to illustrate the ingenuous way he tried to increase general interest in his 1967 novel by playing off of urban legends and conspiracy theories. I invoke Woodson, Kunjufu, Diop, Cress-Welsing, and others to demonstrate that African-American skepticism toward White America's espoused commitments to full racial equality has a substantial reading list. Is that really a controversial claim?

Joyce writes that "were it not for what Johnson refers to as paranoia and an obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories, it is quite possible that he would not be securely ensconced behind the walls of the University of Pennsylvania." I am far from arguing that African Americans have an "obsession with unfounded conspiracy theories." And we certainly don't corner the market on such proclivities. I do contend that legitimate racial skepticism pivots on some of the very same terrain as seemingly "unfounded conspiracy theories." And the anthropologist in me wants people to take such theories seriously as "social facts" instead of dismissing them out of hand. That's my point. I must not make it clearly enough.

I deploy "paranoia" quite purposefully, pointedly, and NOT as a way to disparage/ridicule Black skepticism.

My use of "paranoia" is hardly a concession to reactionary dismissals of Black skepticism (as misplaced and dysfunctional). Rather, it is a reclamation of the term as a potentially reasonable response the surreal cultural logic of our contemporary racial moment. Moreover, I want to argue that Blacks who invoke racism to describe anything short of Black people being lynched from trees are already labeled paranoid. Given that context, I maintain that being called "paranoid" for invoking subtler forms of race/racism isn't something to be feared.

Joyce ends her criticism of my book by referencing Gloria J. Browne-Marshall's Race, Law, and American Society and arguing that "Blacks have substantial reason to be paranoid." Again, that is one major summary of my book's very point, especially in a politically correct environment wherein racial wolves (formerly dressed in white sheets) know that they have to pass themselves off as sheep to be taken seriously in the public sphere. (Obama's election may signal the beginning of the end of "political correctness" in its current form as a function of the re-politicization of "whiteness" as a "marked" category in newly urgent need of defense against threats like "reverse discrimination." Indeed, much of the Sotomayor hearing seemed to frame the conversation about contemporary race relations in just those terms.)

Joyce maintains that my book contributes "to the devaluation of racial issues in the quality of Black lives." Devaluation in what sense? I'm not taking racial issues seriously by taking even the most cynical and skeptical ones seriously? Maybe she (or others) can accuse me of placing too much value on racial issue, but too little?

Joyce doesn't even disagree with my argument: that there is a powerful (and historically grounded) reason for Black paranoia/skepticism today. So, why is she misreading my book? Or reading it so ungenerously? Or maybe not reading it at all and just assuming my endgame based on the book's title?

One answer, I'd argue, is that some Black academics have already gone post-racial.

Post-raciality could never really be about completely eliminating race. That's a fantasy. Instead, it tends to mean finding ways to evoke race when helpful, using it for protective cover as necessary and disqualifying any opponent's equivalent gesture. It means, for some people, claiming not to see racism almost anywhere except when it is purportedly "reverse racism" to be spied. It is a convenient and self-serving form of racial reasoning, and there's an equally self-serving organizing principle around race/racism at work in certain sections of the academy. And some Black academics have their own variation on that theme.

I don't know Joyce Ann Joyce. I've never met her. And that might be the beginning of the problem.

Some Black academics seem to think that a racially inflected nepotism/cronyism is equivalent to progressive racial politics writ large. The Black folks they know and love are family, fictive kin. Supporting their own social network is supposed to mean supporting "the race." Anyone else can go to hell--Yellow, Brown, White, or Black.

Joyce doesn't know me, but she assumes that she's seen my kind before.

Maybe she thinks that I am a reactionary Black neo-con who lines his pockets by dismissing Black angst and struggle. Or maybe she just maligns my book (after an insultingly cursory glance) because she doesn't actually know me. I hope her sense of racial community (her investment in the "quality of black lives") doesn't simply begin and end with her own social capital. That would be a form of post-racialism masquerading as a racial agenda. If so, shame on you, Joyce Joyce.

Shame on me, perhaps, for calling out an "elder" in public, but I wanted to correct what I consider a blatant (and unjustifiable) misinterpretation of my work.

Joyce knows the danger of such wholesale dismissals. She is also someone who should care enough about the book's topic/theme to read it carefully, even if she would still ultimately disagree with its actual arguments.


Dumi said...

That's just sloppy, really sad to see that type of criticism, at the level it's pitched at it's not critique.

Lester Spence said...

Thanks for this. (and hat tip to my man heath for dropping it on me.) At the very least this says something about the

But I've a question--why begin the post with the Asante-Joyce conflict?

Was in Philly this weekend celebrating a friend's tenure. Next time I'm around I'll remember you are in town. If you get a minute, email me. I had a problematic encounter in Philly you might be able to help me understand. Best to the family.

Lester Spence said...

(about the journal.)

John L. Jackson, Jr. said...

Dumi and Spence, Thanks for taking the time to read my response and post a comment. I appreciate it.

Spence, what was the philly encounter? You gonna blog about it? And I began the post with the Asante-Joyce thing for no good reason except that I was upset and feeling unfairly attacked. Since she was attacked during the Temple affair, I wanted to offer it up as an mild irony.

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...


yeah, Joyce and Asante are both Afrocentric, if i recall Joye's work correctly. I imagine that their clash was more personality, but i can't recall the details and i am too lazy to refresh my memory. All that to say that I can imagine an afrocentric reader latching on to your use of "paranoia" as a slight against black folks sans a careful consideration of your actual arguments. kzs

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