I first met Dr. Asma Barlas at a CSCRE discussion series back in 2013. In fact I specifically remember the event; Ruth Wilson Gilmore was getting ready to give a talk on prison abolition and I was standing in the hallway getting ready to enter. It was the briefest of encounters folded up into the grandeur of Dr. Barlas’ reputation; a reputation that at the time was surrounded by controversy. She was at the center of an impassioned philosophical debate in her department over the direction of ethnic studies, the limitations of a liberalized racial unity, and the shortcomings of recognitional politics. It was within this debate that students like me were swept up and ultimately transformed.
But my first lessons from Asma did not take place in a classroom but rather during talks at her office hours. We talked casually about a range of things and all of those discussions had made an impression on me. I remember one discussion in particular where she had pointed out how the western cartographies of Africa rendered the continent much smaller than it actually was. The notion that western map making revealed how the west desired to read Africa was entirely earth-shaking to me. I didn’t know at the time, but these were my earliest exposures to the essence of Asma’s intellectual interests in hermeneutics. As an undergrad kid from the Bronx, Dr. Barlas was my introduction to hermeneutics before I even knew what it meant. It crops up brilliantly in so much of her work, her interests, and her pedagogy.
In speaking to her pedagogy, her Race & Colonialism course was and is, without question, the most important class I have ever taken. It is not important purely on the basis of its content in the way so many students might recall what they learned in a favorite course taken during their study. Where a fondness is felt for the ease in which a course could animate a student, or the harmony struck in the student from exciting new discoveries, race and colonialism was entirely different. I remember the class, have a fondness for, and give reverence to the ways in which the course was utterly difficult, impossibly conflicting, and in the end, unbelievably rewarding. It has been said that Dr. Barlas’ pedagogy is about teaching through conflict; I find this is not fully the case. What her pedagogy does in the classroom is to create the conditions in which the student confronts themselves. The texts we were assigned became springboards for that confrontation; the hermeneutics turned the mirror back onto the student and it was up to the student to make that confrontation generative.
Something happened to me within that confrontation, the reverberations of which changed my life and are at the foundations of my intellectual and political development. The following semester after that class would intensify and deepen my relationship with activism and organizing. This culminated into a series of student actions that me and other classmates (some from that race and colonial class) participated in. That flash-point of student activism, the kind that was subversive, bold, and unyieldingly anti establishment, inspired the protests that would rock Ithaca College a year later and result in the resignation of Ithaca College president Tom Rochon. Through that whole saga, Asma was not only an ideological inspiration, but also a comrade, a conspirator, and a friend when her colleagues chose to take more conservative postures.
Her Race & Colonialism course was also the impetus behind the anti colonial magazine I developed and ran for a time after graduating from Ithaca. That project allowed me and many others the space to explore anti-colonial politics, decolonization, and third world solidarity free from the constraints of the academy. One of the best gifts Asma had given me was a language and a framework for analyzing the colonial situation, but while focusing less on the question of decolonization. She did this so that we might sit with and properly wrestle with colonialism without seeking an immediate out, or solution. It was through this discomfort of sitting with the colonial situation that propelled me towards decolonization in my own studies. The Decolonizer magazine was at base the instrument I used to investigate this, essentially taking Asmas class and extending it beyond the classroom. The outcome helped me find my own voice and elaborate on my own politics. Decolonization, what it means and what it grew to encapsulate for me was undeniably influenced by Asma’s course and The Decolonizer project.
Through it all Asma has been a towering mentor and a dear friend who has never stopped teaching me. This pedagogy, a pedagogy which for me began outside of the classroom, has always existed outside of the classroom. Our conversations and email correspondence have cumulatively been as foundational for me as what took place in the classroom itself. The debt I owe to her is immense and unquantifiable, although she would never admit it. For her, the work and the courage required to face one’s self is on us. She only devises ways to ask this of the student. I am infinitely lucky she asked this of me.
Comments from March 2021 Symposium
I walked into Asma’s office on finals week having not only been unable to finish my final paper for Race and Colonialism, but after ripping up several attempts, was still struggling on how and where to begin. I remember being greeted by the soft lighting of the room and the music of Baba Maal and a relaxed Asma at her standing desk. And I was getting ready to fail a class that had demanded and exhausted and had taken more out of me than any other class.
I told her I didn’t have my paper. And she turned towards me, not at all surprised, and told me she could see that my struggle to write stemmed from an honest engagement with the course; that whatever I had found in the course had been internalized and maybe had not yet settled with me. She said “I’ll give you an incomplete and will change your grade once you finish the paper”. All my tension began to suside. I sighed a sigh of relief as Asma turned to her computer: “now don’t you love this Baba Maal! Listen.” And there in the soft light of the office we listened to that song and then listened to it again.
It took me a year to finish that paper; I finished it right before graduation. And, as it turned out, that paper was the telling of what happened in that race and colonialism class as I experienced it.
Asma wanted me to read the paper here in its entirety but I felt that a full reading here without context might be too cryptic. It is the reason why I get shy when she says to me that I should get the essay published. I really wrote the paper for Asma’s viewing alone. Yet the full picture of how Race and Colonialism affected me, the sheer strength of Asma’s contribution, her pedagogy, and her camaraderie, would be incomplete if I did not take the opportunity to tell the story surrounding the essay.* This rumination, which Asma had correctly predicted would take its time to settle, manifested itself in unpredictable ways. To tell this story means telling many stories about the class, what was going on outside of the class, before the class, and after the class, stories which I hope will form a mosaic around what the course truly was.
So, once upon a time in Ithaca, I had walked into a screening of a film called Concerning Violence, which was a film that took excerpts from Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth to narrate real footage of colonialism in Africa. The film itself was a really difficult watch. It unflinchingly depicted Black Africans and their fight to resist while under the boot of European settlers. Afterwards there was a discussion facilitated by one white anthropology professor who treated the film as a mere artifact belonging to a bygone era, its contents inconsequential, as if colonialism wasn’t happening as we were speaking on occupied Native American territory. I had an exchange with this professor in which he continued to talk over me until I yelled at him and left the theater.
I came home that night and wrote the first part of my essay, which was a dialogue sequence based on that exchange. And my point in starting off with an anecdote which happened to me a year after taking Asma’s course was not only to drive home the point that colonialism, settler colonialism, neocolonialism, were very much in continuation and replicated on the interpersonal level, but also to depict how I had change as a student. Because before the class I was not the student who yelled at inept, racist, white anthropology professors. I had been in some senses unleashed, transformed by the encounter with race and colonialism. By the time I was writing the essay I was aware of this transformation, which consequently became a big theme of the writing.
On the question of form, I decided to make the essay itself anecdotal. It worked out to be a braided narrative, a collection of anecdotes and snapshots of scenes that happened or might have happened in the class as I remembered them, metered by excerpts from the texts we read, and an explanation of the existential crisis I went through as a student. What playing with form allowed me to do was to make my commentary through poetics. This resulted in me writing sentences like:
“The classroom was a mouth full of teeth, a den of butcher knives, its furthest corners lined with the most jaded parts of the human condition. The nastiest parts of ourselves were tied behind pick-up trucks and dragged out of us into the open.”
*The writing was dramatized because I wanted the language to capture the vile, unsettling, discomfort of the colonial drama, which precisely mirrored Asma’s masterful technique of capturing that discomfort in her pedagogy. And as a result, the language was also dramatic because that is how I experienced the discomfort of her pedagogy as a student in the midst of my own subjectivity.
My discomfort with the discomfort of the classroom was the source of my push back, resentment, and ultimately, my robust engagement with the course. It is what eventually united me with certain students in the class and made me bitter enemies of others. Every class was a heated argument subsumed in this atmosphere of unresolved tension, fueled in part from the texts we were reading, our mistrust of each other, Asma’s teaching style, and a larger debate occurring outside the classroom about the manner in which ethnic studies was being taught.
I first heard of the controversy during a CSCRE discussion series event in 2013 where Asma questioned the politics of unity among those who considered themselves a part of the ALANA community. ALANA was an institutional catch-all that referred tonon-white students, faculty, and staff. As a small aside, I find it interesting to note that after graduating from Ithaca College in 2015, I have never come in contact with the term ALANA again, or have ever met anyone outside of the institution who has identified as ALANA or used its terminology. Asma’s critique was that the basis of unity in which ALANA was predicated was not only superficial and theoretically poor, but also US-centric and lacking a basic critique of western imperialism. I would like to add here that it also constituted a politics of convenience shaped by the artificial conditions of academia that facilitated vague race-based alliances that were institutionally specific to cope with institutional racism, without ever needing for those alliances to be principled or transcend the academy to vie for authentic third-world liberation.
These questions around unity brought up other questions about whether real unity could be possible without a sincere engagement with capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and cisheteropatriarchy. Ethnic studies had long moved away from its militant, internationalist, and revolutionary roots in the student movements of the 60s, and toward a representational politic that has recalibrated racial struggle to be primarily a struggle for recognition which has territorialized popular understandings of racial difference and identity. This lent itself to the emergence of an identity politics removed from its revolutionary and third world feminist oirgins from which the Combahee River Collective first theorized it in 1977.
We of course did identify as ALANA students, and some of us identified as “Center” students, which for the most part meant students who had taken multiple courses in the CSCRE. Many of us attended the CSCRE discussion series events religiously, and many including myself, who ended up in Asma’s Race and Colonialism class the following semester were present at that 2013 CSCRE discussion series event where Asma made her critiques of ALANA. What Asma said at that event was enough to spark the curiosity that led me and others to register for her Race and Colonialism class the following semester.
To return to the writing, the way I wrote the easy was non-linear. I started with the exchange that happened a year after the class and then backtracked to what was happening in the course. Looking back on it, I don’t think that this was on purpose although I’m sure it could be read as a decolonial subversion from Eurocentric approaches to time. I am happy with it being read that way, but for me it was simply the best way to tell the story at that moment. However, while the narrative wasnt linear, it did for the most part move based on the order we read each text in Asma’s class. The first text we read in the class was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrade, and it’s the only text that reappears multiple times throughout the braided essay, with different sections devoted to Heart of Darkness, specifically focusing the character of Kurtz. In fact, Kurtz haunts the essay, not unlike the ghost of King Leopold in the Congo, which interestingly enough is the same place in Africa that the fictional Kurtz is terrorizing. As I had wrote in this section of the paper titled “On Kurtz”:
“Kurtz was with us. We did not want to admit it, but there he was, walking on all fours. He was always closer than you’d think. The Kurtz in the room; he was very much needed. Kurtz did this or Kurtz did that. Kurtz is in love or Kurtz could at least love. We hated Kurtz! We spat at the very idea of him! We slammed the floor in lamentation: that bastard! Damn him!
Yet, some of us didn’t notice the rows of sticks mounted with the dismembered heads, which kept looking into our windows.”
It was important for Kurtz to haunt the essay and for the stench of him to linger, because Kurtz did in fact haunt our class. The topic of Kurtz constantly came up in class discussions throughout the entirety of the course. Kurtz represented for us this quintessence of evil, a figure that became colonialism incarnate, which made him a useful instrument for us in investigating the figure of the colonizer. More importantly, Kurtz became a useful tool for us in investigating ourselves and our relationship to colonization. In a section of the paper entitled “Kurtz in Love” I had written a dialogue based on a conversation that actually happened which read:
“I think that Kurtz loved her” C—– announced at last. He folded his brown hands and smiled hesitantly. “I think there was something there, some kind of connection.” C—– looked around the class for approval.
“You cannot love a thing!” snapped R—– as she raised her fist “she is clearly a thing to him. This is a relationship of power.”
“Well also, not all love is the kind you see in Disney movies,” Y—- said as she raised her voice urgently. “Some love can be toxic.”
“Well, maybe she loved Kurtz then,” C—– continued. “I just think that there is something there, some kind of connection, you know? I thought Kurtz was heartless, but still…”
“Is it possible to love someone while still dominating them?” I asked. I turned my head toward R—– in agreement.
“I think that the colonized really loves the colonizer,” K—— spoke abruptly, his words were the texture of sandpaper.
When that classmate of ours suggested that the colonized really loves the colonizer, it was unbearable particularly for me. Yet, our fixation on Kurtz demonstrated that this was at least in part true, not literally, but on the discursive level. We liked talking about Kurtz for the same reasons we liked talking about white people in general, and what white people have done to us. It is not that these things should not be talked about, but more about the manner in which we talk about them in ethnic studies, which begs whiteness to recognize our injury as colonized people and offer us restitution. We were comfortable talking about white people because it made us eligible for victimhood and placed the onus on white people to change instead of taking responsibility for our own liberation and our own self-determination as Malcom X would say, by any means necessary. As ALANA students, most of us in the class were unwilling or afraid to take this responsibility, but it is our responsibility to liberate ourselves from oppression and white people cannot do it for us.
Assata Shakur said it best when she said:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains”
This was also spelled out in a quote from Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was the last book we read in the class and was the same quote I used in a section of the essay entitled “Only the Oppressed”:
“It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradictions in which they are caught”
I see Asma’s struggle with the people of color in our class as essentially, her struggle to get us to take responsibility, not for the conditions of colonialism, but for our role in finding a way out of it. This manifested itself in her being, or at least us perceiving her as being, particularly harder on the students of color. Asma would pose a question, circle around the classroom, and call on us at random. Everyone in the class participated, but most of the white students I can’t seem to remember, their contributions were limited, and the classroom discussions were dominated by people of color. We would battle it out each class session while many of the white students watched on like scared puppies. Asma did not coddle us or tend to our wounds and did not let us escape the contradictions we were trapped in. She did not protect us from the content we were reading nor the ideas in the texts.
We resented that because we were under the impression that ethnic studies courses were supposed to be empowering for people of color, and perhaps elsewhere this was true and appropriate. Perhaps a decolonization course would have been more empowering but there is nothing that should ever be empowering about colonialism. Asma was so committed to us coming to grips with the reality of colonialism that she even refrained from mentioning decolonization; not once did she mention it throughout the entirety of course. This was purposeful because for her, decolonization would have only been another escape out of confronting the colonial situation. She did not mention it because it was our responsibility to make that jump to decolonization on our own. She provided all of the conditions, and gave us all the analytical tools we needed to make that jump. As I wrote in the essay:
“She did not apologize for failing to protect the students of color in the classroom. The class was not for students to walk away feeling good about themselves. The class was about being uncomfortable. Because it is the discomfort of the colonized that translates into action.”
And action was all that was on my mind after taking the course. The following summer of 2014, while struggling with false starts and crumbled up versions of the paper I would eventually write, I reread the texts that we read in class, and learned everything that I could about colonialism, and eventually, decolonization. I was making the jump. Sometime later after college while I was still in Ithaca I would start a magazine called The Decolonizer. A project very dear to my heart, its pages contained news, poetry, and personal account, from an anti-colonial lens. The writing style I used in The Decolonizer was actually heavily influenced by the Race and Colonialism paper, especially in terms of form, tone, and theme, in some sense that paper was the precursor to The Decolonizer. From an internationalist standpoint, decolonization became the analytical throughline that connected together struggles against imperialism and colonialism from all over the world. The project would not have been possible without Asma’s course and her critiques.
Interestingly enough, the question of unity posed by Asma in 2013, about whether authentic cross-racial solidarity was possible, became at least in part answerable and demonstrated during the season of student protests in the Fall of 2014. It was around Thanksgiving break when the colonial courts in America failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Micheal Brown. As the Ferguson Uprising commenced it activated a new generation of activists. Solidarity actions were happening across the country, and in Ithaca, I had found myself swept up by the energy, marching and blocking streets all over downtown Ithaca. These were some of the first mass protests I had attended, and when class finally started up after break, we as a student body were invigorated by the activity and the urgency of the political situation. A group of us had begun having dinners together, discussing the campus climate and strategizing. These dinners were not unlike the dinners that Asma would host at her home after finals week, where she would invite her students to commune around mimosas and chutney. That group who began meeting would eventually be called “The Collective” and many of the students who were in that group, myself included, had taken Asma’s Race and Colonialism class a semester before.
As a student organizing group, The Collective was engaged in activities no different than any other group organizing at the time. Yet, what might have made us unique was our analysis of colonialism, which we owed to Asma’s course, and which we used to draw connections not just with on-campus racism and racial unrest nationally, but also with international struggles and the occupation of Indigenous lands here in the United States. We used this to bring attention to the history of colonization in Ithaca, the Sullivan Scorched Earth campaigns of 1779 which had evacuated the Indigenous Cayuga from the local area, and directly implicated Ithaca College in the continuation of this history. This led to our demand for an Native American Studies program when we marched onto Peggy Ryan Williams Center to confront president Tom Rochon towards the end of the Fall semester, 2014. We then hosted a series of educational events on colonialism and Ithaca’s local history. This underlined that true unity made the analytical connections to piece together our varied struggles and histories to mount a shared critique of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and cisheteropatriarchy.
Without a doubt, this legacy of student activity was the precursor for the POC@IC movement in 2015, which took the work that we did further, and rose to national attention. The robust student movement led to the resignation of president Tom Rochon. I was lucky enough to still be in Ithaca to witness POC@IC, and lend my help and support to the movement as an alumni.
For her part, Asma was there to support us every step of the way, and was a true comrade in both student movements. After the march onto PRW, she invited the collective to dinner at her home, where we discussed the student protest movement extensively. When POC@IC began we were in constant correspondence about the movement. In fact she was one of the first people I heard from when Rochon announced his resignation. But it was the undercurrents of that Race and Colonialism class which was her greatest expression of camaraderie and inadvertently influenced the course of events that made student movement possible for us. We were finally beginning to take responsibility.
Fanon says that decolonization fundamentally alters being. Asma’s Race and Colonialism class fundamentally altered me, and perhaps, even fundamentally altered Ithaca College history. I am immensely grateful to her and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak.