Why Black Pain Is Not “Pastiche”

CW: PTSD, slavery, confinement, police surveillance

I write this now almost a month out from the day my friends and I ended our occupation of Duke’s administrative building, spurred by the gross exploitation of Black and Brown labor on campus, as well as the hit-and-run committed by our Executive Vice President two years ago, which was handled poorly and didn’t give justice to the Black woman worker who was hit. Since then, we have returned to our lives, continued to work on holding Duke accountable for the institutional racist, sexist, cis-sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, misogynistic, and elitist violence it enacts on everyone in the community.

However, even returning to class has been one of the most difficult things I have had to face. No, not because of the classwork, though being physically unable to get to class or even see professors is really limiting. It’s because coming back from something like this, something so monumental, now causes the weirdest interactions with both my classmates and professors.

There is a reason I chose to come to Duke, and despite the many people questioning me, I am proud to be here. As the daughter of parents who didn’t really go the university route in the conventional sense, I am the first of my family to actually be at a place like Duke, and it took an incredulous amount of hard work. I deserve to be here, and I am enjoying most of my experiences.

But my good experiences do not invalidate the bad. In the past semesters, I have encountered extremely anti-black and racists classmates and professors, violent “jokes”, and the realities of being a student who comes from a low-income neighborhood. It’s not a sob story, nor is this specifically unique to me. This is college, and this type of stuff has been going on ever since they decided to “integrate” these institutions.

For my sophomore year, I spent most of the time working on fighting what Duke continues to uphold while praising itself as a place for students to thrive and make a difference for the better. Rallies, doing jail support, making banners, helping out with teach-ins and workshops, going off campus and getting involved with other schools, speaking out about what needs to be changed, and more. These are all acts of resistance, and I appreciate them as such. But it’s the small acts of resistance that I feel are the most important at times.

I made the piece above as my final project for my Short Audio Documentary class, which I took to further myself in my certificate of Policy in Journalism and Media Studies. As a creative person, I find myself dabbling in different mediums of media and love making videos, writing, dancing, playing music, and more. I enjoyed this class for the most part, and this final project is something I’m very proud of. I think the thing that I will remember the most about this piece is not what I said, even though it’s still very powerful and is a testament to what has been happening. What I will remember the most about this project is my interaction with my professor.

Let me first disclaim this story by saying that I don’t consider this professor terrible. I actually found him very helpful and knowledgeable when it comes to audio documentary. But when it comes to race and addressing systemic issues, I don’t really think he has the grasp of having students of color being honest, which may be a deeper critique of journalism studies at colleges and universities.

When I went to office hours to go through a listen of the rough draft of the professor, he told me that the piece was powerful. The word he specifically used was “pastiche”, which I didn’t quite understand. This piece is probably one of the most personal and painful things to put out for a class, and his thoughts were that it imitated a different style.

When we submit a piece for the class, we are required to submit a general description, usually a couple of sentences at most. Since my piece required a lot of background information, we both agreed that the description should be a little longer. Here is what I originally wrote and sent to my professor, with the request that he send me back any edits I might need to make:

In 2014, Duke University’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III committed  a crime  on campus when he hit a black Parking and Transportation Services worker and drove away from the scene. Since then, there has been very little investigation about the altercation, as well as the firing of fellow workers who stood up for Ms. Shelvia Underwood, the attendant who was hit.
Duke has a long history of holding space for worker discrimination, grossly exploiting the labor of the mainly black and brown workers.
In April of 2016, nine students held a sit-in at the Allen administrative building on Duke’s campus to demand not only the reparations for the incident of 2014, but for better workers’ rights for all on campus. In this piece, Jazmynne Williams, one of the occupiers, shares her thoughts from inside the building, along with Franciscus Akins, a current PTS worker, who was in the public space of Able-ville, a tent-community held in solidarity with the protesters, during the occupation.

I was busy yesterday, so I hadn’t had to really check my email, but I assumed I would wake up to some grammatical errors that needed to be changed. Instead, I woke up to this email:

Yes, I need you to adjust the intro. I understand that your piece is from your perspective, but the intro should be more neutral. Some of what you’re saying would be disputed, such as “committed a crime,” and “holding space for worker discrimination.” (Not sure what that last phrase, “holding space for,” means, either. Do you mean “tolerated” or “practiced”?) So if you want to include language like that you need to attribute it as someone’s opinion — i.e., “committed what some consider a crime….” And is reparations the right word, or maybe accountability? 

This email annoyed me in multiple ways:

  1. How do you make real life “more neutral”? How exactly do you make systemic and institutional violence on people of color “neutral”? Please explain, white man.
  2. I refuse to sugar coat that Duke’s Executive Vice President committed the crime of hit and run. Whether it’s considered a class 1 misdemeanor or a class H felony isn’t clear, but per the state laws of North Carolina, no one can dispute that it’s a crime.
  3. I addressed the notion of taking up space in my piece, but I’ll elaborate. Holding space is a terminology used to humanize marginalized bodies by emphasizing that they are, indeed,  tangible bodies, and things that occur to them are tangible and have an actual impact. Also, I refuse to use “practiced” or “tolerated”, especially since both of those are passive and imply that is is not still occurring today.
  4. I’m hella tired of explaining pedagogy of marginalized people to white people. Stop making me do your education labor.
  5. This isn’t an opinion. Just because it’s not your truth doesn’t mean it’s not a truth. Also, please explain to me from which part of my life I need to cite for empirical evidence.
  6. Hell yes, reparations is the correct word, and I refuse to make it sound nice. A black working class woman was hit by our Executive Vice President, a wealthy white man, and as a result, she needed to seek medical care and legal assistance because it limited her work, and because it was a crime that was neglected by the university. Accountability is implied in reparations. Also, what is it with white people not wanting to apply the term “reparations” to black people? Hmmm….

Because this is my grade, I did agree to change some of the language of my description. Let me know what you think.

In 2014, Duke University’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III committed what is considered a crime (by the state of North Carolina) on campus when he hit a black Parking and Transportation Services worker and drove away from the scene. Since then, there has been very little investigation about the altercation, as well as the firing of fellow workers who stood up for Ms. Shelvia Underwood, the attendant who was hit.
Duke has a long history of holding space for worker discrimination, grossly exploiting the labor of the mainly black and brown workers.
In April of 2016, nine students held a sit-in at the Allen administrative building on Duke’s campus to demand not only the reparations for the incident of 2014, but for better workers’ rights for all on campus. In this piece, Jazmynne Williams, one of the occupiers, shares her thoughts from inside the building, along with Franciscus Akins, a current PTS worker, who was in the public space of Able-ville, a tent-community held in solidarity with the protesters, during the occupation.

 

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