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Diary of a Mad Black Professor: A Critical Race Therapy Moment

I have been told the first step in getting over a problem is admitting that one has a problem. I made it to the first step because I can admit I am angry. No, heck no, I take that back; I am mad.  I know people don’t get mad, only animals get mad. Even my grandmother still tells me, “Only dogs get mad honey.” My response: “Well, I have always wanted to be an Omega, so bow wow wow yippie yo yippie yay.” I am mad at social injustice, mental and physical incivility and violence —   and I don’t consider getting mad at those issues a problem.


The onset of my madness is spurred by seeing or experiencing injustice. I don’t look for things to force me into madness — I have ample chances to stumble upon it daily. I know I am not alone. This time, it was spurred by reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, King questions why people who are victims of violence and injustice are called extremists when they react to something that is extremely unjust. King makes a clarion call for extremism. He says the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists we will be. After reading the letter, I know more people should not only become creative extremists, but that the root of extremism is anger and madness and we all need to become angrier. No, not angry, but mad. Still, one must control the madness in order to affect change. I have been able to get my madness under control through prescriptive therapy — critical race therapy (CRT).


Through years of therapy, I have found that it is normal and human to upset the status quo when it is wrought with injustice and incivility. It is normal and human to be angry — no, mad — because physical, mental and social pain are all caustic. They can debilitate one’s soul and spirit. There are other important complexities to this madness.  For instance, you must realize you will more than likely never recoup from it. Instead, this madness has its ebbs and flows — but it is always there. When you are completely relieved from it, it might imply that you have become complicit in social incivility, and, even more disconcerting, that you may find that you have assimilated into a complex system of oppression — a caustic and pathetic side reaction. There is a cure, however — take action. Don’t sit back on the comfortable couch of complacency and relax in the safe suburbs of the economic benefits of assimilation. 


Critical Race Therapy

So how does one go about negotiating this madness? Madness intervention. For me, it has been through years of a critical form of interventional therapy — critical race therapy — coupled with large doses of creative extremism to reduce the possibility of the onset of an early relapse or, worse yet, living the simple life of a pathetic assimilationist. 


CRT is the sort of therapy that one uses to combat racial battle fatigue, microaggressions, nihilism, paradigmatic shift lag, white supremacy, racial commodification and a host of other race-related illnesses. I think folks stumble upon the cure by accident, but are unfamiliar with the name for the therapy. After all, you cannot find a critical race therapist in the phone book and there are no formal CRT support groups — at least that I know of. Nevertheless, I can point out instances when I have seen critical race therapy working at its best.


Students of color became so mad, not angry, about unjust treatment that had been inflicted at a particular university that they decided they were not going to put up with incivility, inequity and inhumane treatment anymore. They protested. What soon followed was administrative rhetoric that included the language of “extreme.” The university administration tried to explain that the students’ reactions to incivility and injustice were inappropriate. 


“They are taking this to the extremes,” the administrators said. “Why are they so angry?”


The campus became divided. I took a critical race therapeutic moment: I thought, wait a minute, the students were protesting inequity, incivility and inhumane treatment, and they are supposed to just shuffle on by and smile?  They are supposed to wait for the right time to complain about inequity? It was 2006 — perhaps 2020 would be better?


What happened? First, several students reported that the “N word” had been directed at them during class. Second, the students were referred to as low-lifes after requesting financial assistance from the university to purchase things like school books. Third, the same students were denied funding that had been awarded to other groups.


The students decided they would not put up with inequity. Their therapy? Madness. The madness was brought on by acute acts of incivility and extreme injustice — followed by a heavy dose of creative extremism. Prognosis? Good, with lifetime therapy. Significant changes have been made at an institution that suffered from a severe case of traditional structural racism. A lifetime of critical race therapy will assist in healthy recovery from relapses — which are inevitable.


In another example, one of my former students told me he was shut down in class when he suggested that assimilation was rooted in slavery. He sprinkled in some discourse about Willie Lynch. The professor, disturbed and frazzled, replied, “Let’s not be too extreme.” Critical race therapeutic moment: Let’s think about what that means. It means this sort of conversation is making me feel uncomfortable — so I will rename how you react to incivility as extreme. The therapy? Madness and a large dose of fearlessness. My student replied something like this, “In order to make yourself feel comfortable, you had to change my discourse, my framework, my thinking, my history and me to make yourself feel comfortable. I cannot live in such an unauthentic space.”


My student shared other readings in which the class might explore.  The prognosis was not good. You see, critical race therapy does not always work for folks who can handle only small doses of extremism at a time. However, this should not be the student’s job. In fact, this should only be dosed out by professionals. The professor needed more professional help from a critical White educator. My student gave the professor a referral. The critical White educator was the department chairperson. The results? The student left the class. The professor sent a letter to the department chair explaining how belligerent and aggressive the student had been in her classroom. The department chair asked the professor to join in critical discussions about race. The professor refused. There will be no more race talks in that space. Still a sick space and still mad.


Time for Raised Fists


As I continued to read King’s letter, I began to speak to the text much like I do when I am watching a good movie in the old neighborhood. We are all directing the film from our seats. King talks about complacency of the racially marginal and the good liberal who both tell you about a good time to ask for freedom. So I think back to the many instances when I have heard that it is not the “right time” or when I have seen other folks who are active in the academic business and are not angry about their own mistreatment or how others are treated. Instead they are relaxing and basking in the economics of modern-day academic and administrative servitude and bondage. After all, it can pay well.


I think about how some faculty are asked to perform in particular ways. Junior faculty often become terrified to speak up when senior scholars are in the room. Speak when spoken to and please don’t speak up when you or others are uncomfortable with discourse that is uncivil, unjust or inequitable. One of my favorite academic clichés is to question whether someone is a team player — when all the while what is really occurring is that you might be taking offense and becoming defensive to the offensive. How offensive! 


Publish in the right place and please choose the right topics in which to conduct YOUR research. One of my students even told me he hesitated to do work on people of color because his writings and research would not be viewed as scholarly. You know, we, implying people of color, might get too involved in the field. Critical race therapy moment: Hey, guess where we came from? We came from the fields — from Africa, by boat, to the fields, and scholarly according to whom? While I cannot deny hearing En Vogue singing in the background, “Free your mind,” I was also reminded of the eloquent prose of Harriet Tubman: “I’d have freed more slaves, if they had known they were slaves.” Tubman was perhaps one of the earliest critical race therapists. Her therapy involved sheer madness — followed by a significant dose of extremism whether you were ready or not.


I am mad because people of color specifically and others have been unable to

use our historical roots to levy positions in academia. As an African-American, I know I was born into a collective identity and we should be able to easily parlay that identity into academia. The Black Greeks and many other organizations have been successful at moving beyond the colonization and silencing of who they are as people of color. Their therapy? Madness. They made it as organizations through a collective identity and they did it at the turn of the century. For some odd reason, the folks in the academy have been unable to make this same leap. Instead, work is co-opted, commidified, squelched and deemed as nonacademic unless the voice and style and sometimes the writer is changed in order to be more palatable in particular spaces.


I am trying to imagine what the Black Greeks would have looked and sounded like if they had not taken the initiative to organize around a set of principles and a collective conceptual framework. They might be waltzing the marble instead of stomping the yard. They might be singing opera instead of skeeweeing, oohoohing or barking. They might be wearing black patent leather instead of gold boots. Instead, they made an effort to be creative extremists.


I am making a clarion call for more creative extremism in the academy. Let’s rethink what writing powerful prose might mean and how it might count. Let’s rethink what counts as scholarship.  Let’s rethink how working in inner-city schools might count. And what should a classroom sound and look like? What should the classroom experience compel students to do?


Last critical therapy moment: How do we move beyond the status quo and deconstruct and reconstruct it? Madness. Think about it as the rejection of who you are, of who you might be as a writer, thinker, scholar or teacher. Back in the day, in my neighborhood, we called that “playing the dozens.” Here I would call it playing the academic dozen. Back in the day, in my neighborhood, our response was to hold up our fist and shout explicatives. We should be doing the same thing today — fists up and shouting. Deconstruct this or color this epistemology! 


Dr. Robin L. Hughes teaches courses in Higher Education Student Affairs at the Indiana University School of Education at Indianapolis.


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