Black Achievement in the Face of Diversity

It is our honor and pleasure to present a speech delivered by Professor Jaye Austin Williams to the Black Baacalaureate Commencement Ceremony at University of California, Irvine earlier this year. After a year of black student organizing around the historic demands made by Junglepussy, the BSU Demands Team, and backlash against these students from the University, Dr. Williams delivered this speech to bring the house down. 
By Jaye Austin Williams, M.F.A., Ph.D.

First, I would like to thank all the tireless organizers of this event; among them, Nathalie Gurrier and Tamara Austin.  And I know there are a good many others.  I am so deeply honored to walk amongst this distinguished panel of grand marshals, and to have been invited by the Black Baccalaureate Committee to speak with you all in honor of these beautiful Black graduates on this momentous evening.  It is momentous not because “Black achievement” is unusual or beyond the scope of what Black folks are capable of – quite the contrary! I look out at you all, donning your regalia, and it is quite clear to me that I don’t need to go on about the virtue and import of “BLACK ACHIEVEMENT”.  Seems to me you all already know a whole lotta somethin’ about that!

As the compelling research of Dr. Constance Iloh demonstrates, the numbers of Black people attempting to pursue higher education degrees are off the charts. It is what lurks above, below and in-between these numbers that compels her: that the majority of those desiring a higher education continue to be denied entry by traditional institutions, public and private, driving them toward the booming for-profit education industry. The implications of this are vast, including the obvious –that many Black folks are being egregiously exploited by a number of these operations. But this suggests something far more insidious and not at all news to us assembled here tonight: that the problem isn’t Black folks’ motivation to learn and to achieve.  W.E.B. DuBois exhaustively documented their innumerable attempts to enter “civil” society a little over a century ago, and the unfathomable violence with which those attempts were met. That violence continues a century hence – both acutely, by police force, whether caught on camera or not; and determinedly more nuanced — in the academy and other “civil” spaces — by what I’ll call “progressive force”.

No.  This commencement is momentous because “Black achievement” — in the face of all that would impede, obfuscate, devalue, undermine, quash and otherwise refuse it – must be vigilantly, dutifully archived, indexed and intoned in rich, full-voiced analytics, as much as it is celebrated and heartfelt.  For it is, and should be, our given, because we understand that it is the world’s Achilles heel that we can not only achieve, but also, turn “the master’s tools” – and even the refusal of access to them — around, in our own voices, loud and insistent, without the perpetual reassurance of our joy, gratitude, allegiance, infinite patience and absence of rage (the requisites of “respectability”).  Lauryn Hill, conjuring John Coltrane’s popular signifyin’ on Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”, inserts her own lyrics – in order to politically intervene in a dire condition. She calls the tune “Black Rage,” singing the words (and I excerpt them here):

Black rage is founded on blatant denial,
sweet economics, subsistent survival,
deafening silence and social control,

… Black rage is founded on blocking the truth
[…] Murder and crime
Compromise and distortion
Sacrifice, sacrifice
Who makes this fortune?
Greed, falsely called progress
Such human contortion
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things

So, I find it necessary to start this speech at its end, in a sense: as a “Commencement” speech focusing not on the beginning of your next chapter, graduates; but rather, on precisely where you already are: Black, high-achieving and always-already under the press of whatever banner the present moment is waving. You should be quite proud of this achievement, as we assembled here tonight are of you – but you must also be awake and alert to the “moment” into which you are commencing. And the banner for this present moment is “Diversity,” while its backdrop continues to be the acute, spectacularized violence against Black bodies. It is a moment that – this week — forbids Black teenagers to simply attend a pool party; that does not render as distinct, a Black teenage girl’s head from a cement sidewalk, or presume Black teenage boys the right to defend her from the peril of that violent fusion, without having to face down the barrel of the perpetrating police officer’s gun. It is one in the litany of dishonors that have served as backdrop to our pursuit of higher learning here at UCI, where the banner of “diversity” is displayed so proudly.  It is, in large part, what Audre Lorde was suggesting with her poem, “A Litany for Survival”.

And so, I have titled this speech, “Black Achievement in the Face of Diversity,” because of its harmonics – what we hear above, below and in-between the phrase; namely, “Black Face,” “In the Face of Adversity,” “Face Down” and “Facing down,” among other resonances.  Let me break this down…  

Renowned literary theorist Hortense Spillers visited UCI last spring to deliver the School of Humanities’ Koehn Lecture which she entitled, “Some Speculations on Sentiment: Women and Revolutions”. During her visit, several members of the Black Student Union who were residents in the Rosa Parks House hosted Dr. Spillers for an afternoon of conversation and reflection. I had the good fortune of being invited to attend that event. Talk about momentous! One of the fierce young Black women present asked Dr. Spillers how she would describe, in a word, her career thus far.  

It was a profound question, full of all that amazing signifyin’ we do, knowing as we do that no one word can ever describe a vast and dedicated career. It was a question that opened a space for us to collectively appreciate, as Dr. Spillers so thoughtfully pondered and appreciated the question and what was implicit in it: that she was far from done with her trajectory; that, to a large extent, we already knew at least part of the answer; and that despite all the words this accomplished scholar and professor had written and spoken across the years, she had likely been granted little opportunity to voice this one resounding truth: that while her capability to achieve was unassailable, her capacity to do so without suffering the cost of her analyses, was delimited, her brilliance and determination notwithstanding.

After a rich, reflective pause, Dr. Spillers replied, “I would have to describe my career thus far as . . . embattled.” It was a stunning moment; one so full of incalculable love and deep care.  For it was anything but lost on her that she was speaking with a group of young, vibrant people, who were deeply engaged in their preparation to take on the world with their brilliance. Many of them are sitting here tonight, recalling this extraordinary memory along with me.

What each of you graduates has achieved across these years of commitment to your respective disciplines is, among other things, the capability to analyze, synthesize and reflect upon how to forge a semblance of intellectual presence in fields and spaces that, both historically and continually, refuse to recognize the totality of what you bring to them — who exercise the luxury of not believing in the rigor you offer, and/or of not being interested in how or why you labor as hard as you do — and I am talking here about the institutionalized variety of luxury and disinterest; not merely the personal. So, while your statistical presence may enable the attestation of a “diverse” campus community, that presence remains disproportionately low, constituting a relative absence, or absent presence that, when it is counted at all, is often calibrated in direct proportion to its compliance with the status quo; which is to say, toward a politics of respectability that is, in itself, an exclusionary project. Black achievement MUST take into account ALL Black people – those accomplished and celebrated, as well as just regular folks who endure police stop and frisks (and from which, lest we forget, accomplished, celebrated Black folks are not exempt.) and – as this past year ALONE has reminded us – far worse: “every single day of every single week of every single month of every single year” – to quote from the Black Youth Stories Project presented here at UCI recently.  Black achievement is often just managing to survive another day.  

Moreover, Black achievement cannot yet stand on its own. It must still be fused with the clarifiers “despite”, “in spite of” or “in the face of”.  And paradoxically, Black suffering, whether acute or nuanced, occurs in spite of geographical location, educational or income earning level.  We are also conditioned to fuse Black achievement with “respectability,” and “acceptability”.  To be positive. To uplift one another with cultural pride. This is how we succeed, we are often told and tell each other.

Over these past weeks, I have listened to keynote speakers, watched performances, attended celebratory rituals, read articles, watched the news (!) and had numerous conversations – all of which I have been digesting in preparation for speaking with you tonight.  And what keeps troubling my sleep is that cultural pride and practice cannot stand alone; they must be matched with political acuity and engagement. For these are urgent times; times against which the “Orange curtain” can no longer “firewall” us. We must take our education and language to the streets, or out onto Ring Road.  Because we understand that, as poet June Jordan declared, Language is political:

That’s why you and me, my Brother and Sister, that’s why we supposed to choke our natural self into the weird, lying, barbarous, unreal, white speech and writing habits that the schools lay down like holy law.

Her posthumous collection of poems is entitled, “…Some of Us Did not Die”. There is a profoundly political wish here. Out on those streets and around Ring Road, we are forced to declare that our lives matter.  What of that?  By which I don’t mean: Why do they matter?  It is our given that they matter to US.  Why do we have to continually declare and insist upon this to everybody else? This question is part of a necessary political critique. Audre Lorde understood this deeply and directly when she attested that it is because “we were never meant to survive”. She knew the predicament she shared with Dr. Spillers and June Jordan and so many, many other Black women, Black men, and Black gender-fluid folks – was real, and implored us to understand, unflinchingly, “the difference between poetry and rhetoric,” recognizing herself as a “sister outsider,” as a result of a keen, close reading of the world.  Lorde called for “a chorale of voices” in order to politically mobilize in response to this predicament.  For she knew, that the demand for gender equality that burst forth from within the zeitgeist of the feminist movement writ large, was but a complication to her blackness.

Well, that chorale of voices assembled in full force this academic year, comprised by an amazing group of Black women, and the Black men who dared to support and work alongside them — queer and straight – they labored under the signifyin’ call sign “JunglePussy,” brazenly facing down the unfounded yet formidable phobias of so many.  These young Black women and men made an ethical and necessary noise unto the administration, demanding the signifiers of presence that enable other student populations to feel integrated into campus life; and demanding the recognition of the nuanced, micro-violences sustained and suffered by Black students in the academy writ large, and certainly here at UCI.  Jungle Pussy is: Khaalidah Sidney, Cheryl Flores, Sandra Johnson, alumna Kala Lacy, Damiyr Davis, Chris Jones, and last but truly not least, Mia Ogundipe-Tillman.  These young people dared to do what the political, underground movements so often galvanized and led by Black women, straight and queer, were doing not just in the 1960s and 1970s, but waaaaay before, under cover, and without the cloak or buttress of “civil” respectability or cultural belonging.  These young people, standing in the foreground of what has been a horrendous, terrifying and enraging backdrop-of-a-year across this country, dared to politicize The Black Student Union, and to declare that whether the world recognizes that Black lives matter or not, UCI will put into place institutional mechanisms that at least perform as if they do.  These students did this while enduring stigmatizing, maligning, cruel, ignorant homophobic whisper campaigns; being quarantined as “thankfully not representative of the majority,” while they worked tirelessly and thanklessly on behalf of that majority that would deride them for their political savvy and courage.  In the face of all that, they created a political moment where none existed; only the acute (out)bursts around the country, in response to yet more murders and/or attempted murders.

At the African American Studies end-of-year celebration, Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard (one of our distinguished grand marshals tonight) paid a most eloquent tribute to the courage of these young Black women and men for expressing “their righteous rage… and exhaustion with bad faith.”

One thing is for sure: it ain’t never easy for Black folks.  But it is far easier to tread the trodden, compliant path to success than it is to dare to make demands that are all too often mis-categorized as the problem rather than as a reasonable response to a constellation of persistent, determined, structured modes of erasure.  Jungle Pussy and The Black Student Union stand as evidence not of what is possible, but what is necessary in the face of the violences exacted under the guises of “diversity” and “civility”.

And what is necessary, graduates all, as you travel along your trajectories, is to be mindful of not merely the moral, but the ethical questions about the projects for which your intellectual achievements are deployed. In George C. Wolfe’s satiric play, The Colored Museum, the character, Miss Roj, a Black, queer Snap Queen held captive in a self-medicating abyss called “The Bottomless Pit,” looks around and declares, “If this place is the answer, we’re asking all the wrong questions.”  How does the field into which I am entering define “progress”? On whose backs and on or from whose land is that progress being made?  Who stands to profit?  Who suffers to lose?  Is it enough to say, as Mari Evans interrogates with her poem “Status Symbol”: “I have arrived! I am the New Negro!”? Has that success been imperceptibly soldered to someone else’s injury?  To a corporate entity’s disproportionate wealth? Does an institution – public or private – own my achievements?  Have its values become mine?  Does it own me?

Do you see what I’m getting at?  The renowned collection of James Baldwin’s essays is called The Price of the Ticket for a reason: the critique he amassed across his activist lifetime was a sobering one for him, because he dared to stay hopeful across a great many years, that the nightmare of Jim Crow would stop haunting; that Black folks wouldn’t be charged with running the longest race in world history: the Hope Marathon.  He recognized that both achievement and political outcry on its behalf come at a price for Black people.  And that wasn’t just then, a dot on some time line long ago when he was writing.  It is right now.  It is always-already.  

And so, beautiful Black graduates, your rigor, vast formidability and the vital achievement they comprise will tend to be embattled more often than they are not if and when you question and critique as you go.  And you must always question and critique as you go.  Such “adversity” should both pique you and be your ignition switch.  The noun “adversity” refers to the challenges one may face in life.  The adjective from which it stems, “adverse” brings more directly into view the dynamic root of both: namely, “opposition”.  When one’s life is constituted by continual opposition – or, more specifically, by being framed or viewed as one whose very presence denotes opposition — a state of being embattled, rather than merely being, becomes far more real.  And this is why so many of us choose respectability over “political activism,” “resistance” and critique.  I understand this.

But these young people, some of them graduating today, some next year, have taught me to demand “mo’ better” of myself, and of us all.  And so, I dare to speak on behalf of us all when I say we are behind you, for and with you, and if we are lucky enough to have truly learned anything at all from this year and what these young people galvanized, we will make it our business to muster and sustain the courage and daring to get loud when we must – whether it is on the page, on the stage, in the classroom, at the podium, around Ring Road or in the streets, we will do the necessary work to be able to count ourselves among you. I thank you, and I congratulate you all!

Jaye Austin Williams is Asst. Professor of Theatre Arts at Cal State Long Beach. She was Chancellor’s ADVANCE Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California, Irvine. She holds a Ph.D. in Drama and Theatre from the joint doctoral program at UC Irvine and San Diego. Prior to entering the academy, she worked in the professional theatre as an acclaimed director, playwright and actor. You can view more information on her illustrious career at her website: http://jayeaustinwilliams.com/


[1] Nathalie Gurrier, class of 2016, was on the planning committee for 2015 Black Baccalaureate; and Tamara Austin, M.S.W., is Counselor for Senior Student Affairs Gender Education and Student Life & Leadership
[2] The 2015 Grand Marshals were: Alicia R. Cornish, Executive Director of Student Housing; Dr. Douglas M. Haynes, Assoc. Vice Provost of Equity and Diversity, Head of the ADVANCE Program and Professor of History; Dr. Marcelle Holmes, Asst. Vice Chancellor of Wellness, Health & Counseling; Dr. Thomas A. Parham, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs; Dr. Gregory Washington, Dean, School of Engineering; Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, Assoc. Professor, African American Studies; and Professor Sheron Wray, Asst. Professor of Dance.
[3] Dr. Iloh will be joining UC Irvine in fall 2016 as an Assistant Professor and Chancellor’s ADVANCE Postdoctoral Fellow in Education.
DuBois, W.E.B., Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1999.
Lorde, Audre, “The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press, 1984.
Hill, Lauren, “Black Rage” [Excerpted lyrics], c. 2012.
[7]  I am referring here to an incident in McKinney, Texas in early June 2015, that was caught on a bystander’s cell phone video camera, in which police officer David Eric Casebolt slammed the head of a Black teenage girl into the pavement outside a neighborhood pool party. When several boys attempted to come to her aid, Casebolt aimed his gun at them. Casebolt subsequently resigned, but the aftermath of the case has yet to unfold.
Lorde, Audre, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn, W.W. Norton, 1978.
[9] Dr. Spillers delivered this lecture in the School of Humanities, Spring 2014. It encompassed the intersection of the United States and France around “the making of Haiti” in the eighteenth century, and how sentiment and intimacy might be thought in relation to this intersection.
[10] Nonetheless, I am mindful of the increased attention being paid to the notion of microagressions – the symptoms of hatred and ignorance that manifest in both institutions and in the quotidian, between individuals.  And I would offer that there is a devastating variation on this theme, the “microantagonism” that is more particular to the world’s violent relation to Blacks. See Sharon Holland’s analysis in her essay, “The Last Word on Racism: New Directions for a Critical Race Theory,” Southern Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 104, No. 3, 2005; and Frank Wilderson’s book, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, 2008.
[11] According to the most recent student enrollment statistics, compiled and reported by the UC Irvine Office of Institutional Research (Report IIA07 Enrollment [Breakdown] by Ethnicity, dated May 18, 2015), the total number of enrolled students during the 2014-2015 was 29,180.5, of which 753 were Black (non-Hispanic); roughly 3.8 percent of the total enrollment.  Of the reported 753 Black students, 99.3 were graduate students, and 653.7 were undergraduates.  This ratio, placed in concert with Dr. Constance Iloh’s research into for-profit Black enrollment promises to pique a troubling set of questions about the disparity between the non-corporate public and private education’s narrative around the (alleged) all-inclusiveness of its diversity project, and the desire of Blacks across the United States to gain higher education.
[12] In July of 2009, renowned Harvard professor, scholar and genealogical consultant, Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates was placed under arrest after trying, with the assistance of his driver, to open the jammed front door to his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The Cambridge Police had received calls reporting an attempted robbery in the neighborhood.  The charges were dropped several days later, but the incident sparked a “moment” described by many as a “national debate” addressing the issue of “racial profiling”.
[13] The Black Youth Stories Project was conceived by Ross Jackson, a recent graduate of the MFA Stage Management Program at UC Irvine. The Project gathered biographical stories from youth in Orange and Los Angeles Counties, and cast three actors: two MFA graduate actors and one undergraduate actor who was also one of the writers, to perform the text.  Using a spare set and multimedia scheme, the monologues brought into relief the meditations on the complexity of race and how young Black people experience and suffer it.
[14] The Online Urban Dictionary defines the “Orange Curtain” as being “used by people in Los Angeles, when referring to travelling within Orange County [and suggesting] that people [who live] in Orange County know nothing about what’s going on in Los Angeles or even the world, and only are concerned with local affairs.
[15] Ring Road constitutes the UCI campus’s main peripheral artery.  It separates the buildings on the outer periphery and those that immediately encircle Aldrich Park, which is at the center of the campus. The campus’s design is (unofficially) notable for its circularity and the way in which it thereby undermines public mass gatherings. This is believed to be one of the key design components: namely, to deter protests, rallies and uprisings. Given the country’s contentious climate around the Vietnam War when President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated the campus in June of 1964, not to mention the mounting tensions in nearby Los Angeles in response to the rise in cases of police brutality against Blacks, and to the overall racialized housing segregation practices in the greater Los Angeles area, I would tend to agree with these theorizations.
[16] Jordan, June, “White English/Black English: The Politics of Translation”, 1972, in Civil Wars: Observations from te Front Lines of America, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
[17] —, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays, Basic/Civitas Books, A Member of the Perseus Book Group, 2002.
[18] Lorde, Audre, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn, W.W. Norton, 1995.
[19]  —, Need: A Chorale for Black Woman Voices, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Freedom Organizing Series #6, 1991.
[20] In January of 2015, the Black Student Union submitted a series of demands to the UCI Chancellor, Howard Gillman in address of the conditions for Black students on the UC Irvine campus. Here is a link to a useful recap and update of the situation, published in the campus newspaper at the end of the 2014-2015 academic year: http://www.newuniversity.org/2015/06/news/a-last-word-with-a-member-of-the-bsu-demands-team/
[21] Dr. Willoughby-Herard is Associate Professor of African American Studies at UC Irvine.
[22] Wolfe, George C., The Colored Museum, Grove Press, 1985.
[23] Evans, Mari, “Status Symbol,” in I am a Black Woman, William Morrow & Co., 1971.
[24] Baldwin, James, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, St. Martin’s Press, 1985.


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