When I first heard of you your reputation quite literally preceded you. It was in a cryptic comment from my academic advisor, the arcane and wise Ron Denson. I should take a class with you, he said, “She has really a different kind of pedagogy.” From there, likely I witnessed you unleash precise devastation on interlocutors at CSCRE events — still more a mysterious force, a kind of rumor on the wind, than a person.
But I do remember my first real encounter with you. Freshman year I was endeavoring to understand the shape of US culture by interviewing every sociologist, economist, political scientist, music critic and perceived font of knowledge that I could educe to speak to me. And you, generously, consented to be questioned by someone fumbling toward knowledge. I don’t remember what I asked, but I remember the feeling of having encountered someone so profound that I had to pause for a long time afterward and think about what I did and didn’t know — so started that strange addiction — and I remember also that you said something to me along the lines of, “What kind of role model could I be to you?” Apropos of what I no longer recall, but I took this to mean, how could I possibly look to your example as a model for how to live, so different are our experiences, identities, histories? There was a lot of practical sense in this. How would I even work out how to pattern myself after you? I weighed this sense against my stubborn resistance to guidance and signed up for a class with you.
The thing I carry most from Race and Colonialism was how seriously a question may be pursued. We were intent young people concerned to understand the corruption of our world, and yes we did bring that desire to know more – to name and number the beast. But you held the space open. You would stand almost at the other end of that small seminar room, allowing us students the space to find each other, but it was under your gaze, the authority and scrutiny of it, that made the quest real. We knew when we had been careless, and we tried to internalize the level of care required to think. We understood that the inquiry had meaning, produced for ourselves and with you and indemnified by you. When I was quiet, you took me seriously, and from trembling and doubt, an idea might burst forth.
At least one other person in that room became a companion for life because of the way we saw each other’s searching. I have also set out to find a life in academia because of that room. Even when that course haunts me as a Gatsby-esque unattainable ideal, it stands flickering on the horizon as what might happen in a room between people. I’ve now taught enough classes to see that whatever instances of human chemistry occur in a classroom are true miracles and rarely reproducible, but I do know it could not have happened without you. To create the space and sustain faith — in the US, at this time, with these students — is monumental.
At that time, I certainly deified you. All students I think are apt to see the professors they admire as somehow partaking of the mystical, of the secret knowledge. At times I have the sneaking guilt of someone who has imprisoned another in an image impossible to fulfill or live within. I am sure that you have human faults, but I’ve now met many professors, many intelligent people and at some time or other they have all shown some side or impulse that was compromised or petty, selfish or unreflective. I forgive them, or try to, because we all are human and struggling to be good. However, in all this time you remain to me an ethical and intellectual lodestar of how one should conduct one’s life in a profession that is often degraded and strays from its vocation.
I am so extremely grateful for every moment that you have spent speaking with me or sitting with me as I thought and reached for words. I feel in those moments blessed. You’ve never failed to be there for me whenever I’ve reached out. You’ve offered comfort and consolation to me at times when I was frightened and times when I’ve felt shattered. And you have never done else but taken me seriously. You may not be a role model in the traditional sense of what that word means. How could I follow your path? But nonetheless I work — stubbornly — to connect what I see of your ethic and your critique to my praxis and how I hope to be. Whatever work I do, I want you to know that there is a part of me who is always trying to make you proud.
Comments from March 2021 Symposium
If I were to give this talk a title, I would call it:
“Where are the strong? Who are the trusted?” from Elvis Costello’s classic “What’s so funny about Peace, Love and Understanding”
Because when I think of Asma I think of the strong and the trustworthy.
Because I think I left Ithaca College having experienced some real excellent professors, Asma being among the best. And since then I’ve been wondering if that was an anomaly.
It’s a strange thing learning stuff when you’re 18. I went from a relatively small suburban town that had managed to zone itself off from any hint of culture besides a Starbucks in its lone shopping plaza that shared a fence with my high school.
With my emigration from there to Ithaca, the circle of people I knew expanded exponentially from some dozens to hundreds in a few years. It was a time in which intellectual and moral development coincided with, well, development.
Of the books you read in college, the authors could as well be centuries removed even if they are still alive (I learned for instance that Albert Memmi only died last May, but he seemed to exist in a different plane than I did). The World and Its History were entirely abstract.
It was out there.
This abstract world was mediated by professors, who were mythically worldly, which is to say otherworldly, no matter how much of the world they had actually partaken of. But they were also immediate.
And Like some kind of duckling imprinting himself on the first thing I saw outside of my shell, these were the first figures that I could look to as mentors outside of the small world I had known.
To read Frantz Fanon under the gaze and guidance of one of these figures is to re-form one’s amoebic self according to their signs of approval and disapproval. to interpret the mysterious, oracular “yes” and to try to divine what of oneself had just met with approval. And to wonder if that thing that I did just then – could it be duplicated?
The struggle with concepts of racism and colonialism was thus also impossible to distinguish from an interpersonal question and a question of being. How do I be a good white? Was that a moral question? A political question? Or a social concern with the self and the self’s extension into the world.
That was a period in which ego struggled for solutions to the impossible predicament. We were the procreation of generations of colonialism enmeshed in our racism. And I believed that some work of thinking and talking between people could reach into us and change us while also reaching out and distorting enough of the world to begin to change it.
With antiracism now a kind of vogue, at least in publishing, books promise to impart the proper rituals and secret knowledge for self-purification. Every news event is an opportunity to educate oneself. And when it comes to racism, there is no answer, only the endless howl of history. In that gale, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to never stop working on the self. To trap oneself in perfectibility.
I remember that some students were intimidated by Asma. After I left Ithaca, it took me a while to realize my mistake to think that the sweetness that I found in her class was academia’s in general. It’s more likely to me now that it belonged to a few professors like her. I thought naively that people with good ideas would also be in some way good. It’s not so.
I think what might have intimidated some was critique. Critique is often used now as a means of self-arrogation, of summoning up your superiority with your intellect. It’s dismissive.
I think about Asma quite a lot now as a teacher. Because with so many opportunities in the mini-fiefdom for power trips, for manipulating students, for riding over them, for doing harm, how does one think responsibly about the other? How do you care for a student?
Asma stood outside the tempest in a teacup of student navel-gazing and pointed to the actual world and its history. That was the purpose of critique, to point endlessly at the problem – which though it ran through – was not the self!
Beyond the self was a history unmoved by the lamentations of one’s ego. Derrick Bell one of the founders of Critical Race Theory claimed that racism wasn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps racism is not a permanent feature of society. Perhaps it is possible to imagine a future without it. But it is closer to the truth that racism is not going anywhere – than to believe that we can will it away by only changing our selves, or that we/I can think our way out of an intractable problem of centuries.
This kind of negativity, the negativity of critique is necessary to magnetize our thinking beyond the ego’s need to be a hero in order to point beyond the “I.”
And it’s a diagram of all this: a student wading through consciousness while someone made careful perforations in that consciousness that I try to hold in mind. I try to hold in mind the space created in the classroom with Noah, and Ariel, and Ian, and Remmy, and Rachel and Alex and others. I try to hold onto the person who held open that space for some thinking to occur.
I try to think more humbly and often confusedly about what my own contributions to any kind of anti-colonialism might be now.
In preparation for today I started re-reading Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized and was brought up short by the preface. Memmi had completed his second novel, Strangers, which was about trying to find a solution to the colonial problem through a story of a mixed marriage. It [he states] “led me nowhere”
He goes on:
My hopes then rested on the ‘couple,’… But I discovered that the couple is not an isolated entity, a forgotten oasis of light in the middle of the world; on the contrary, the whole world is within the couple. For my unfortunate protagonists, the world was that of colonization. I felt that to understand the failure of their undertaking, that of a mixed marriage in a colony, I first had to understand the colonizer and the colonized, perhaps the entire colonial relationship”
Dear, Asma, critique never ends.