Archive for the ‘professors’ Category

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010) was an American professor and historian, best known for his book “A People’s History of the United States” (1980). It is not a story of presidents and generals but instead “a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people’s movements of resistance.” He was to the left of Mao and proud of it.

He did not just teach history, he took part in it, like marching at Selma and hiding the Pentagon Papers. He was brave, doing what was right even though it meant that Spelman fired him and the Boston police beat him.

He grew up in the poor parts of Brooklyn. When the Second World War came he joined the Air Force to fight the good war against Hitler and fascism. He bombed towns in France and Germany. From his plane, six miles up in the sky, he could not hear the screams or see the blood.

TheThere is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.He came home and went to university on the G.I. Bill. There he read John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” (1946) and began to think about the people he killed, many of them children. He began to see that America was an empire no different from all the other empires in history.

In 1956 he became a history professor at Spelman College. He found himself teaching American history to black women from books that said little about blacks. He began to question the way American history was taught.

Then came the civil rights movement, the fight for equal rights for blacks. He joined SNCC and the sit-ins. He urged his students to protest too. Spelman fired him. Writer Alice Walker, one of his students, puts it this way:

Well, he was thrown out because he loved us, and he showed that love by just being with us. He loved his students. He didn’t see why we should be second-class citizens. He didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to eat where we wanted to and sleep where we wanted to and be with the people we wanted to be with. And so, he was with us. He didn’t stay back, you know, in his tower there at the school. And so, he was a subversive in that situation.

In 1964 he went to Boston University where he taught till he retired in 1988. There he took part in the protests against the Vietnam War and became friends with Noam Chomsky.

In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg gave him one of his copies of the Pentagon Papers, which held the government’s secrets about the Vietnam War. The big secret was that it knew the war was hopeless but lied to the people about it. Zinn found out that the war was not about freedom and democracy but about tin, rubber and oil. America in the 1960s, it turned out, was no different than Japan in the 1940s.

In 1980 he came out with “A People’s History of the United States”. The first printing was only 4,000 copies, but in 2003 the millionth copy was sold! The latest, and now last, revision comes out in July 2010.

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Homi K. BhabhaHomi K. Bhabha (1949- ) is a Harvard professor and one of the top postcolonialist thinkers. He wrote “Nation and Narration” (1990) and “The Location of Culture” (1994). Harvard was happy to get him, but some think he is just so much hot air.

Some of his buzzwords: hybridity, negotiation, ambivalence, in-betweenness, liminal space.

He says that what drives white people to take over the world and spread their way of doing things is not power or even wanting to get rich, but their screwed-up way of looking at the world.

Instead of seeing the world as a huge coat of many colours, they see it in terms of good/bad opposites, putting themselves always at the “good” end and everyone else who is different at the “bad” end: East/West, civilized/savage, First World/Third World, Western liberalism/Islamic fundamentalism and on and on. It leads to save-the-world thinking.

But the world is not like that. For one thing it puts everything that is not Western into one box, as if it were all the same. The world is more than just the West and the Rest, as Bhabha knows from his own life.

Bhabha was born a Parsi in Bombay in the shade of the Fire Temple. The Parsis came to India  from Persia long ago. They are the Persians who would not or could not believe in Islam. They still follow their own religion, Zoroastrianism, but that is all they have left from the old country. Otherwise they have lost their Persianness and become Indians.

Bhabha studied at the University of Bombay and then went to England to study at Oxford. He studied the works of French post-structuralist thinkers like Derrida, Lacan and Foucault. He is also a follower of Edward Said, a giant in postcolonialist thought.

Bhabha is Parsi yet Indian yet Western. The clean either-or lines of Western thinking do not help him to understand himself, his own coat of many colours. And yet even if he tried to become completely Western, say, it would still be a Indian/Parsi sort of Western, a hybrid. But even “Western” is itself a creation of many such hybridizations from the past.

Bhabha is famous for his bad writing. This piece won him a bad writing prize:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

As one professor put it, “One could finally argue that there is no there there, beyond the neologisms and latinate buzzwords.”

One student came up to him and said, “I’ve been reading your book and I really like it, but it frightens me. Did you have to study to become like that or was your brain always that way?” Probably a bit of both, he says.

– Abagond, 2009.

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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hooksGloria Watkins (1952- ), better known by her pen name of bell hooks (all lower case), is an American professor, a leading black feminist writer and thinker. She wanted to be a poet but made her name as a feminist by showing how white and racist feminism is.

Her catchphrase is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”: not only is American society built by and for rich white men, built on divisions of race, class and sex, but the losers – blacks, women and the poor – are brainwashed into accepting it through education, television, music and film.

That is why she likes to talk about Madonna and hip hop: they both started out speaking truth to power but then sold out, singing the white man’s song, the old song of women as sex objects and black men as violent brutes. That is what those rap videos are about. Spike Lee, meanwhile, did not sell out but then wound up getting sidelined.

She says America is not so much racist as white supremacist. Racism is about how people think and feel, it is something that comes from living in a white supremacist society, that is, a society built to favour whites over others.

Blacks living in such a society are brainwashed, they have colonized minds. They learn to look down on themselves, to hate themselves. They buy into the “black is ugly” message they hear all the time. They suffer from internalized racism.

The road to freedom is education. That is why she teaches. An education, that is, based on reading books, asking hard questions and thinking for oneself, education that tears apart the lies, that decolonizes your mind. A free society can be built on nothing less.

She grew up in the American South in Jim Crow days, on the black side of a small town in Kentucky. Until she went to high school she lived in a world of home and school that was largely the creation of black women. Her school was black, even her teachers were black. It was the old black Southern world that “offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people.”

Then she won a scholarship to Stanford University and found herself thrust into an all-white world.

Even though Stanford was a world of learning and ideas and books, none of the books spoke about what being a black woman in a white world meant – the self-hatred, the injustices, the racism and the sexism both. She looked and looked for a book that would speak to her, for her, but found none. So at age 19 she started writing the book herself in between her studies and her work. In time it became “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” (1981).

She expected her ideas to judged, weighed  and even found wanting, but she did not expect them to be crushed under a landslide of angry words. Many white feminists hated the book, but many black women loved it. In any case it made her name.

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