Reflections on Charleston, White Supremacy, Misogyny

Photo from

Photo from

Last night, a white twenty-one-year old named Dylann Roof opened fire on worshipers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The details of the incident are still in the process of being verified and released to the public, but we know this: nine people were murdered because they were Black. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was told by one of the survivors that Roof informed his victims: “I have to do it… You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Dylann Roof, I have white skin but I am not your woman. It sickens me to my core than if I were in that church when you injured and murdered my African American brothers and sisters you might have decided to spare my life as a result of your viciously twisted view of who should live and who should die. You would not take me for a member of the human family to which the nine souls you killed also belong.

Dylann Roof, I hate that you said you killed for my sake. I hate that in your mind you are my protector. I hate the misogyny at the heart of your wretched white supremacist beliefs, for it is the same seed of hatred from which the poisonous roots of organized bigotry sprang forth.

Many people have and will and continue to refuse to acknowledge this shooting as a hate crime. They might say it’s the actions of a person who is mentally ill and attribute the evidence of Roof’s white supremacist views as nothing more than an expression of being “crazy.” Such a dismissal would be acceptable if such murders were the first of their kind—and nothing could be further from the truth.

I do not pray and I am not a Christian. But I offer my words as a way of witnessing that I do not stand and will never stand in solidarity with respect to my skin color insofar as the social privileges its affords are made possible by the suffering of others. The tragedy of Dylann Roof does not only belong to Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., DePayne Middleton, Susie Jackson, and their loved ones. It is the tragedy of all of us who mourn, and especially of those who believe in the legitimacy of white supremacy, which is another way of saying the tragedy of believing that being white exists.

In times of such perennial violence, I often turn to the words of James Baldwin to hold me up. The following excerpt is taken from his 1984 essay, “On ‘Being White’ and Other Lies…”:

“America became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie. White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.

This moral erosion has made it quite impossible for those who think of themselves as white in this country to have any moral authority at all—privately, or publicly. The multitudinous bulk of them sit, stunned, before their TV sets, swallowing garbage that they know to be garbage, and—in a profound and unconscious effort to justify this torpor that disguises a profound and bitter panic pay a vast amount of attention to athletics: even though they know that the football player (the Son of the Republic, their sons!) is merely another aspect of the money-making scheme. They are either relieved or embittered by the presence of the Black boy on the team. I do not know if they remember how long and hard they fought to keep him off it. I know that they do not dare have any notion of the price Black people (mothers and fathers) paid and pay. They do not want to know the meaning, or face the shame, of what they compelled—out of what they took as the necessity of being white—Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson or Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) to pay I know that they, themselves, would not have liked to pay it.”

In sadness, hope, anger, but never despair.




Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: If it’s not teaching, then what’s next?

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

The last two posts have focused on how to pursue teaching after you’ve obtained the M.A. For this post, I want to offer some insights on thinking about other possibilities for meaningful work that pays the bills. The most important thing to know is that the process of finding that work won’t begin and conclude in one sitting. It’s not unlike writing your thesis. You probably had days when the words were flowing, when you had clarity in your analysis, and when your advisor said “Great work! Keep going.” And then you probably had days when writing a single paragraph was agony, when your thoughts were muddy, when your advisor diplomatically said, “I’m not sure what you were trying to say here….”

The good news is that you can apply exactly the same toolbox to writing your thesis to finding work. Here’s how:

  • Research jobs based on your existing interests: When you picked the text or texts to write about for your thesis, you embraced your curiosity and desire to contribute something valuable; the same impulses will help narrow your search for work that engages you. What’s important to you? What makes you feel motivated to act? Here’s a tip: it doesn’t have to be explicitly related to English, literature, teaching, or anything that seems an obvious “fit” to an English major. Just observe your interests and see where they take you.
  • Stop researching and reflect on your findings: The internet is your friend until it’s your enemy. There comes a point when you must cease looking for information and turn your attention to the information you gathered in order to make sense of it. What kind of patterns have emerged in your research? What connections emerge?
  • Organize your findings: In the same way you created a record of your research for your thesis in the form of an annotated bibliography, organize your research based on the themes, topics, patterns, and connections you’ve observed. Don’t judge what you’ve found. Instead, let it unfold. Your tendencies toward criticism are useful, but sometimes you need to set them aside to see the bigger picture.
  • Share your findings with someone who’s smarter than you and get feedback: When I say “smarter than you” I’m not talking about IQ or degrees. I’m talking about someone who has a job that you admire and who’s achieved what you seek: finding meaningful work. This person (or people!) has perspective that will help you to see what’s working in your approach and what you can further do to get where you want to go.

I hope this helps! Remember to be patient with the process AND to celebrate your successes at every step.




Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: Getting the Interview


Literal Landscape, 2011 Stanford Kay

Literal Landscape, 2011
Stanford Kay

Picture this: you’ve applied for a teaching job, you’ve sent emails to follow up, and still haven’t been invited for an interview. What’s a person to do? Here are some thoughts on best practices for getting your timing right for receiving that coveted call to show up in the flesh:

Keep in mind the cycle of academic year when you contact employers. As a student, you remember what’s it’s like to be busy at certain peak times in the semesters. When departments staff courses they  abide the same cycle you did as a student.  Here’s example of what the staffing timeline looks like for the Fall and Spring semesters:

Fall: first round of staffing decisions are made March-April before classes start in late August/September; second round is made in June-July.

Spring: first round of staffing decisions are made October-November before classes start in mid-January; second round is made in December. Staffing in the Spring is usually slim pickings, though, so you’re more likely to get a teaching job starting in the Fall.

Make sure to email the person who does the hiring. If you apply through a job posting then it’s likely your materials will go to the Human Resources department, who then forwards them to the person doing the hiring. This can take a while and it’s possible your materials will get lost in the shuffle. What’s more, the HR person isn’t often likely to feel the same kind of urgency to follow up with applicants because he or she is not a member of the academic department where you will be working.  It’s always better to directly write the department chair and/or director of writing. These email addresses can be hard to track down because college and university websites are designed for the audiences of prospective students, not job seekers. You will want to search for the academic departments and look at faculty and staff titles to determine who’s the department chair and who’s directing the writing program.

Don’t take it personally if you get ignored. The truth is that employers, who are often overextended department chairs and writing program directors, often have a long list of responsibilities and hiring new instructors is one of their many jobs.  Many departments do not have protocol in place to contact applicants just to acknowledge that an application was received. It can take weeks or months for them to write people back.  What’s more, job postings are sometimes out-of-date or even perfunctory. In other words, the department has a candidate on the inside (i.e., someone moving up through the ranks or someone in the network of existing employees) who is slated take on the position. Why even post the job opening, you ask? Legally they have to do so. This happens a lot, especially in academia.

“Ok,” you say.  “What about when you do all of the above and still get nothing?”  Then it’s time to try something new. We’ll talk about that in the next post.