As I reflect almost daily about where my life will take me, I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about one term: “academic.”
Before I even want to consider or discuss that current thought, I’ve been reminiscing about all the previous visions for what I wanted to do when I grew up. From the earliest memories, the first “career” I thought about pursuing was being an archaeologist. My fascination with Ancient Egypt and discovering the past was enough for me to get drawn to the idea of spending the rest of my life back on the continent. I then began on a journey to want to be a lawyer, briefly an orthopedic surgeon (emphasis on briefly), and then eventually a political theorist. It was that summer I spent at Columbia that really allowed me to begin to gain some sort of insights into what a world of being in this “academy” could be: exciting, rigorous, and filled with people who cared about pushing the world forward.
At this point towards the end of 2017, I had a largely positive understanding of the ways that universities functioned presently. I had no context about labor organizing, the pervasive urban renewal efforts, and the greater function as an arm of the empire that the academy can serve as. It was in the way that I had such a fulfilling, singular experience at one institution that I based my overall opinion of the academy. I went through (and maybe still am in this phase) a part of my life where I wanted to go to law school. It was my way of justifying and explaining how I could directly help people by just freeing folks out of jail and prison. The positions I wished to have, in conjunction with the politics justifying those positions, were not just ahistorical; they would not help the masses I claimed I cared so deeply about.
Even as I’ve developed an abolitionist politic over the past two years, I still felt like there were redemptive aspects of these systems (which shows in many ways I didn’t take to heart abolition as a practice for all institutions). And it took the events of the past year (the pandemic, the uprisings, and forced time inside) for me to return to being interested in maybe working within the academy one day. This time around, I had context. I go to the institution I do, with the disturbing history it has and its racist practices today. I know how universities function. It was the discovery of the work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in their theorization of the undercommons that sort of reinforced some sort of path forward for me. In particular, their two-part interview on Millenials are Killing Capitalism and their essay entitled “the university: last words” really helped illuminate me to a world where I can study and organize and divest.
I think a lot about the ways that I fear what the academy can do. I fear the ways it tempts us to and oftentimes lures folks away from actually seeking to meet the material needs of those in their communities. In many ways, that’s why I’ve appreciated Walter Rodney’s framing of a vision for a “guerrilla intellectual,” where being a “‘revolutionary intellectual’ means nothing if there is no point of reference to the struggle.” A man who was killed for fighting for the liberation of Black people, Rodney was a model of what it meant to be of and for the cause by any means necessary. I learn so much from his approach, his analysis, and the role of what it means to be scholarly, but not of the academy.
If anything, I would be more comfortable defining myself as a scholar, a student of Black studies, more than I ever would feel comfortable one day defining myself as an “academic.” There is nothing about the work I do or the books I read or the writing I do that cannot be done by those who may not go to UC or any school. And that’s crucial to emphasize. Black studies as a discipline can never be fully housed inside in a department, but if I have the opportunity to one day go to grad school, I’ll continue that work there too.
These are just some random ideas I have right now. Don’t know really how or if I will feel the same way in a few weeks, let alone a few months or a year from now. But, I will say that at least for now, I’m feeling just a little more comfortable with where I’m heading. Or perhaps it’s just I’m getting more comfortable with the unknown now that I am enjoying the journey I’m on. Either way, it’s something new and I’ll just have to see where it takes me.
Being Noah Tesfaye #177: Reflections on the Guerrilla Intellectual
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