“The Academic Agenda,” a satirical story by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington for #NoMorePresidents

How much did you learn in school? There are hours when the subjectivity of days and nights overwhelms you. To the point that your mind runs smack dab against the Scylla and the Charybdis of the past. The past? And what the hell is it? And when the hell was it?

You might sit up all night, up until an uncommonly late hour reflecting on the in’s and out’s of success, careers, and losses. They’re heady subjects enough—and you haven’t broached the subject of the preposterous subjectivity of any polite conversation on the politics behind education. No wonder very, very few conversations on the goddamn politics behind anything remain polite. Lots of sore points surrounding haste, waste, socialization, and compliance. Crueler still may be remembering that the years of cramming for study were supposed to be the highpoints of bodily energy, new adventures, and leisured bacchanalia. Time to turn the clock back, and the names of your old schools begin dropping from the ceiling like tasseled banners.

Anderson Street Elementary School. George Washington Jr. High. Martin Luther King Academy. Then the list breaks off. You’re not so enthusiastic to remember—much less name—the culminating institution, the last in the list, the mythic Rubicon that graduated students from ABC’s to algebraic XY2 to Studies of Contemporary Dialogic Methodology to the B.A. degree. The school daze (ha ha) swirls, like breathlessness after a marijuana hit. B.A stands for Bachelor of Artifice. Every degree you never obtained stands for bullshit. That’s how you size it up.

It’s clearer, looking back. You’re not so stupid to yearn for a simpler time. There was never a simpler time. There was never an uncompromised place. You actually like believing you have achieved a modicum of personal clarity. Ha. Remember? Remembering this face, or that face that you wanted to punch? Hierarchies stood in the way then; time buffers the face from the kick in the teeth today. It’s clearer that only negative feelings by and large become tips you give to friends, while positive feelings become advice you give to children.

And you still can’t find an answer regardless whether you compare the World Book Encyclopedias twenty years ago to the online Encyclopedia Britannica today. Education: what the hell is it? And how often are you learning what you think you’re learning? Or really learning to pick at the scabs?

The blood begins oozing from the blisters. You apply the disinfectant. The academic agenda is the curiosity to pick at the very thinnest scab layers. Then the commonsense (supposedly) to rely on the brand name medicinal solutions. They say having a B.A. degree is utilitarian and useful, like the rubbing alcohol in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink. It works! But the past is not medicinal.

Stop second guessing. Don’t kick yourself in the butt too often. Because if you beat your head against the wall repeatedly, repeatedly, the sustained trauma will make you stupider than you feel today. You feel a pull sometimes. It feels like a gravitational pull away from the manifold computer screens. It feels like a journey away from bright lights, big city, back to the country, lakes, and meadows. It leads you back to handwritten notes and type written essays, written twenty years ago, when you were climbing, or stumbling up the humble academic ladder.

Humble? The Eurocentric and snotty-assed academic ladder. Those old school papers …

You don’t want to re-read them. You’re more interested in the handwriting. You notice how the clear, legible handwriting has given away to nervous, squiggly lines, like a tremor worsening in the hands. Is this what you’re afraid of? Is the past what you’re afraid of? You’ve been tempted to consign your past term papers to the proverbial bonfires. There aren’t midnight bonfires. No hearths. It’s the computer screen blazoning. Right at the instant. Night crept inside the room, until the Dell Inspiron 1545 on the table reproduces a hearth fire. The screen light blazes—effectively blazes in the nocturnal room. And casts wall shadows. And you feel drawn to it, just like a philosophical thinker is drawn to the contemplative red and blue lances, and pyres. You stare into bonfires to appreciate that everything blazes, rises, and then falls back into itself.

Everything will fall back into itself in ashes and embers.

There is nothing much to expect in the meanwhile other than smoke, crackling, and ambiguity. The fire glow is temptingly unresponsive. The risk is sociological. The silence is self-critical. Then you realize that the past is waiting to interview you.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

We’re providing this questionnaire to our former Black American/African American self-exiled and in limbo students who mysteriously abandoned this “humble” “vigilant” “Euro-centric” “snotty-assed” educational program without fulfilling the requirements towards a BA/MA/PHD/AAA (so on) degree. Please understand that while we don’t use phrases like “flunking out” the primary goal is not to invite you back to school. Our programming is oriented towards nubile generations “fresh faces” “new blood” “kids” (faces that under the bright sunlight still have fewer wrinkles than Lady Gaga.)

But we are curious why you left the program.

The troubles we have taken to reach out to you through this questionnaire are indices of our concern, yet ongoing levels of ignorance. We are concerned by the high attrition rates of Black/Hispanic students which reached a height in the decades between the late 60’s and the mid-90’s (covering the period when you were enrolled) because while they’ve balanced a bit since those rates remain incongruously high. We would like some insight into the crisis. But while we invite respondents to “drop science” MAKE NOTE.

The orientation of our work and leadership biases us to believe that given the limited financial aid packages which we have with the best intentions provided to minority students—plus—given the counseling programs in place for minority students, the responsibility lies with YOU.

The responsibility for student attrition rests with YOU, whether YOUR immaturity, YOUR apathy, or YOUR financial irresponsibility.

We do not play “blame games.” But a large motivation for compiling this interactive questionnaire has been the nagging suspicion—rumors perniciously or vaguely overheard at academic lectures and conferences—that the majority of self-exiled students assert the blame lies WITH US.
This questionnaire is interactive.
Please attempt to fill in this questionnaire with sober, patient, and legible essay-answers.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

Black and Hispanic students began entering our program in small numbers decades before prejudice reduction workshops or “sensitivity training” or African American studies programs were prevalent on campuses. This must have contributed to the problems.
So, we have to ask … (P.S. The questions were drawn from other black male students’ complaints, so we already have an inkling of the answers). During the course of your college career which lasted however long (before self-exile) did you feel put upon and confused by the numerous comments fetishizing black beauty/performance prowess? Did you feel stereotyped by remarks on a line in between envy, jealousy, or resentment? Including? Check which answers apply.

(a) “Can you teach me how to walk, talk, or sing ‘Black’?” Or “Why don’t you walk, talk, or sing ‘Black’? “

(b) (Contrary to the above remarks, yet often spoken by the very same persons) “Just because you’re Black, what makes you think you can walk, talk, or sing the blues better than I can?”

(c) “Is it REALLY true what Mick Jagger says in a certain song lyric describing the sexual proclivities of Black women?”

(d) Why don’t you wear Dreadlocks?

(e) Do Black Americans really have huge—ahem, ahem, wink, nod, nudge. Is it the apples, or the oranges? Which is larger, hey, your IQ or your penis size?

(f) Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. I think it’s really hip for white people to start calling black people by the N-word, because the white people who taught me to say it weren’t mean people like the KKK. They were really cool hip and liberal white people like Patti Smith!!!

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

Wow. We expect responders to check yes to one answer above. We see that you have checked yes’s to all five! Your five “yes’s” make us particularly interested in your responses to follow-up inquiries. What kinds of correctives, apologies, or retractions could have made amends for this barrage of racial stigmatizing remarks?

(a) A personal apology and individual apologies from the culprits—whether three, four, five, or hundreds, or the bulk of the white population at the school?

(b) A public apology, en masse, say a publicly staged white-face event?

(c) A party in your honor where you get to choose the music, the dances, the décor, and after hyping a “Black” event, play nothing but Bing Crosby music.

(d) An increase in cultural sensitivity. Including “safe spaces” where only Black students will be allowed to enter? Or spaces whites can’t enter without permission? Let’s top “cultural sensitivity” with a policy requiring white students who have committed social infractions to clean the toilets for a day? (Note: We picked this particular penalty at random.) Please note other possible penalties.

(e) Additional minority scholarship money for schooling. Extra money for books. Benjamin Franklin’s. Big G’s. A new car. Bling Bling.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

Thank you. We are processing your responses with considerable interest. We feel we are already making progress understanding why you experienced exceptional difficulties. In the years since you “told higher education to go to hell” (as you put it in your essay/responses) the numbers of sensitivity training programs have multiplied. Yet at this institution we continue to receive the same number of reports over racial stereotyping and insensitivity. We wonder if you would you have been more or less offended by the kinds of disputes over “reverse racism” affirmative action and revisionary history which Black students inform us have become characteristic today?
Check which remarks/ questions trigger you:

(a) “Hey. As a white person who ‘knows’ black history, I can assure you that slavery had NOTHING to do with racism.”

(b) “Hey. As a white person who ‘knows’ black history, I can assure you that the Civil War had NOTHING to do with slavery.”

(c) “Hey. As a white person who ‘knows’ black history, I can assure you that slavery and racism have NOTHING to do with white privilege.”

(d) “I know that slavery, racism, the racial wealth gap, and the prison industrial complex have all worked together in America. And having studied all about it I am deeply concerned by the dialectic, the historical precedents, and the legacy of reverse discrimination.”

(e) Gangsta rap is what creates most of the problems. Nowadays gangsta rappers can say N-word, N-word, N-word, and a white person can’t publicly say it. That’s the new Jim Crow.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

Please remain calm. We note that your essay responses have been growing lengthier and more vitriolic. Reading, however, we wonder whether you have considered the proverbial “path of least resistance.” We have found that Black students who have enjoyed the most productive careers at white institutions often adopted habits and attitudes conforming to the prevailing stereotypes, modeling words, clothes and hairstyles after popular icons.
(If you’re very much like somebody that’s popular then you’re immediately less an object of interrogation.)
We have hesitantly, albeit seriously considered recommending “posing” AKA “the path of least resistance” to obnoxious white stigmatizing.
Poses popular in between the late 1960’s and the present year 2019 include:

(a) Non-violent. Ministerial. Forbearing. AKA Martin Luther King.

(b) Fiery. Sexy. Funky. Political. Big Afro. AKA Huey Newton.

(c) Druggy. Inspirational. Sexy. Dreadlocks. Semi-political. AKA Bob Marley.

(d) Fiery. Sexy. Fashionable. Transgressive. But non-political. Lots of hair styles. AKA Prince.

(e) Transformative. Blissed. Non-violent. Post-racial. AKA Tiger Woods.

(f) Transformative. Blissed. PostPostPostPostPostPostPostPost -post-racial. AKA Rachel Dolezal.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

We see …

We’re aptly at the very least learning what doesn’t “float your boat.”

We hope you will not seriously act on your threat to leave this questionnaire unfinished, or chunk the pages that you printed into “the metaphorical fireplace.”
We want to reassure you that we are dutifully reading every last word of your responses, and taking special interest in the stories you recounted per regards “having security called on me my very first day on your fucking campus” and other hostile race-based incidents which to all appearances instilled resentment. We see that you have written:
I didn’t get asked dumb racial shit about my ‘sun tan,’ or my penis size, once, or twice, but several times per week.
Regarding our proposition that Black students might try “posing” to achieve success, popularity, and peer-group conformity. You answered with the following:
Why don’t you just hand out guitars, harmonicas, and drums to all the nonconformist Black kids at your goddamn student orientations?

We see that you resent our efforts to take racial difference into account. So should we not take racial differences into account? Even while they are clearly the sources of student anxiety? We admit that this type of reasoning does make us feel like this questionnaire is ash and ember. But is the stoking resentment ours, or yours?

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

Defending our university several members of our board have raised the question—if this institution was so bad—what has your life been like since your self-exile? Do you face racial stigmatizing today in your chosen career path? Have you met with great success? Is the stigma necessarily worse than at college, work, or any professional environment? We assert that many compromising situations train students to handle “the white world” in post-collegiate society.
Please describe how you see your role in society as a self-exiled student in a racist nation?

(a) a super-hero

(b) a saboteur

(c) an artist

(d) a leader of a great social movement to at last eradicate racial prejudice and stigmatizing from the world?

(e) an independent philosopher, low-income, semi-employable, believing his self-respect and his “independent” perspective is worth its weight in gold?

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

We are primarily left perturbed and confused by your answers.

The general tone lacks much willingness to help correct the flaws in our current system and ameliorate the crisis in the educational system.
This is unfortunately what stands out to us. There is not much positive, corrective, or hopeful for us to construe from these answers. Answers like:
The hardest part of being a student was the expectation that I was fucking supposed to have to pay for the bs. Pay money to YOU.
I go to school on a scholarship that doesn’t cover my books, and I still have to bust my butt and work a job so that I can suffer and have debt and I am paying you so that smart ass and flippant white kids who have no idea or background with racism can insult me.
We cannot make positive corrections based on commentary such as this. We cannot provide unlimited economic assistance to our minority students which would in turn insult our white students. And we cannot provide unlimited economic assistance to our poor students which will disillusion our middle class and wealthy students. This typifies how your responses put us in between a rock and a hard place.
For example this—this!—is your final response to our many specific questions concerning the answer to racial stigmatizing:

The problem with this test is the problem with white people in general. It wants to separate the matter into one thing; it’s everything. It’s everything from the big dick jokes to the security guard who hassles you at your own school to the sports coaches who want to recruit you at first sight to the political science teacher who sees a black student and wants to instill some post-racial agenda on you. And you can begin (or end) all the cultural sensitivity programs you want and have the same results because whites by the very nature of white privilege and privileged identity will always construe the lessons in some way that’s self-serving.

 

_____________                 ****       ________________   *** __________________

 

 

We may have wasted your time. We should have concluded fairly early on when reading your initial answers that this interactive interview would probably be of little benefit to you, or us. 

There was one small part of your diatribe (before your responses degenerated into a diatribe) that briefly gave us hope. This was where you described “the past” in the image of a hearth, a kind of fire that metaphorically allows meditation alongside mediation, and renewal, by philosophically contemplating the fires and embers. We appreciated the use of words like “philosophy” and “possibilities.”
We understood or misunderstood you to mean that gazing into the computer screen while responding to the document was peering into a scholastic hearth. We believe academic training is a positive in the 21st century. These answers imply a radical skepticism that leaves us no place to go. We believe that a proposition that leaves us no place to go other than a radical restructuring threatens our mission.
We believe in education. We believe in personal responsibility. We believe in self-actualization. We admit there is an irony here. We believe in our mission—and we have to believe in it—much, much more than we believe in you.

 

 

***

Presently residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a poet, cultural critic, essayist, and newspaper columnist, whose writing has appeared in Pedestal, Boston Review, Drum Voices, Yellow Medicine Review, Drunken Boat, Swimming with Elephants, Turtle Island Quarterly, and other places. His work often addresses African American issues, culture, and politics. His poetry collection, Life’s Prisoners, received the 2017 Turtle Island Quarterly chapbook award. He has also appeared in the anthologies MFA vs NYC (Faber & Faber, 2014) and Santa Fe Noir (Akashic Books, 2020).

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. But our merch.

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