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Reflections on Language and Power – Tatyana Kleynat at ARC By Sara Vogel

Language and power are tightly intertwined. That was my takeaway from November 16th’s ARC talk featuring the thoughtful, engaged, and critical scholar Tatyana Kleyn, who is an Associate Professor and Director of Bilingual Education and TESOL in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at the City College of New York.

This message about language and power came through in the substance of Kleyn’s talk and the film she screened about how transborder young people navigate language, family, and school as their families repatriate small towns in Oaxaca, Mexico after years of living in the United States. The power of words was also a theme that resonated in the post-talk conversation, including in ways that revealed some tensions in our ARC community that we would do well to address moving forward.

I’ll unpack that conversation in a bit. But first: the talk.

Tatyana is someone I have had the privilege to work with through the CUNY-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals, a project that brings K-12 teachers, administrators, and professors in bilingual education from across the CUNY campuses together to study and improve education for bilingual kids. As Don mentioned in his opening remarks, Kleyn’s work truly embodies the values and mission of ARC. Her research is interdisciplinary, straddling all of ARC’s clusters. She views phenomena such as immigration and multilingualism through the lens of theories that take into account racial, economic, and linguistic power hierarchies. And she is a public scholar, not content simply to write for narrow audiences of academics. Her films about the experiences of undocumented and transborder youth, as well as curriculum and guides for teachers based on the content of the films, are accessible for free online.

Before showing her film Una Vida, Dos Paìses (One Life, Two Countries), Kleyn asked us to consider the power of film as its own language. She argued persuasively that film can be mobilized as a research method, a medium of dissemination, and as service and activism. At the same time that she celebrated the capacity of the medium to “reprioritize whom we listen to” and to bring research participants’ stories alive for wider audiences, she also described some of the limitations and challenges of this type of scholarship. She has had to build strong relationships with her participants, many of them folks targeted in today’s political climate for their or their family members’ undocumented status. In addition, while she prefers not to use voice-overs in her films so that audiences hear participants “direct from the source,” she acknowledged her and her collaborators’ roles in editing and juxtaposing clips to create cohesive narratives.

The film she screened at ARC introduced us to a group of transborder young people living in Oaxaca, Mexico who call themselves “New Dreamers.” The film captures the complex, mixed emotions that come with “going home” — the feeling of belonging, but also of being “ni de aqui ni de alla” (from neither here nor there). One of the core themes discussed by participants was the role of language in their transitions to life in Mexico. Across contexts in the US and Mexico, languages are used for different purposes and have different statuses attributed to them. While the youth expressed love for the English language, and were often called upon by peers to tutor them in English, they also found themselves lost in classes delivered in Spanish, and felt peers and teachers in Oaxaca sometimes viewed them as stuck-up for their knowledge of English and experiences in the US. In her talk, Kleyn also described how indigenous languages, often regarded as less prestigious in their communities, are a key part of students’ linguistic repertoires, enabling them to communicate especially with older generations.

After Kleyn’s presentation, an audience member asked a question about the young people’s accents. It elicited a strong reaction from some of those present, including one who found it so offensive that he walked out. Rachel Chapman, a fellow ARC student, has provided her take on the question, and her response can be read on our blog here. Kleyn responded by critiquing the premise of the question, arguing that language ideologies about accent are rooted in socially and historically constructed hierarchies that rank speakers based on race, economic status, perceived education, ethnicity, and other markers (see Flores & Rosa, 2015 for more on this).

To me, the strength of ARC is its ability to foster critical conversations about dynamic and complex issues — immigration, inequality, multilingualism, and our digital world — with people at different stages in their academic careers, from different disciplinary, racial, and cultural backgrounds, in order to deepen research and practice in our fields.

Having conversations about complex issues across difference is not easy, however, and this moment at ARC brought those tensions into sharp relief.

Despite a professed desire for open, democratic dialogue, academic communities can reproduce many of the hierarchies they seek to dismantle. As we learned from the student when he returned to the conversation, for people of color, academia can be a violent space. Too often, people of color shoulder the burden and invest much emotional labor into correcting the oppressive dynamics which permeate our institutions. Others (read: white people) need to step up.

At ARC, there are some first steps we can take. There are many incredible organizations such as Border Crossers and the New York Coalition of Radical Educators, among others, which have figured out how to facilitate critical and constructive conversations across difference. I’ve drawn on resources from these organizations as I navigate my role as a white scholar and educator engaged in work with youth of color and their teachers, and have found them exceptionally useful.

To have critical and constructive conversations across difference, relationship-building and setting community norms are key. I noticed that when I began my time as an ARC student, there wasn’t a space devoted to building this community — perhaps such a space could be useful in the future. Some questions for ARC students and fellows to consider as we build community might include:

  • What are the challenges of coming together as an interdisciplinary community?
  • What norms might help ensure our conversations are both critical and constructive?
  • Who gets to study, publish about, and profit from research on inequality, multilingualism, and immigration? Why? In what ways does our community challenge those trends? In what ways does it reproduce them?
  • How might ARC fellows and students not just share our research, but work together to ensure we are also engaged in making our fields more equitable and just?

In many ways, Tatyana’s work offers us a compelling example of engaged, critical scholarship. She began her talk by discussing her own positionality — her own background and experiences, and how she arrived to her topic. She is transparent about how her own power and privilege shape her teaching and research. She forges strong bonds with her study participants, reciprocating in the communities that provide her with data. And her scholarship and teaching go hand in hand with her social justice activism.

I hope the talk from this week is a catalyst for some soul-searching at ARC. Not only might we strengthen and deepen our own work, but we might continue the hard work of dismantling oppressive structures within academia too.

Citation:

Flores, N., & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149–171. https://doi.org/10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.149

 

By Sara Vogel

PhD Student in Urban Education, CUNY-Graduate Center

Commentary on Tatyana Kleyn’s ”Transborder Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico” by Kahdeidra Monét Martin

According to a recent Pew Research Report, between 2009 and 2014, one million people repatriated from the United States to Mexico. As a qualitative researcher, Dr. Tatyana Kleyn is interested in the stories behind these numbers. In particular, she studies the experiences of children and young adults who undergo these crossings—physical, social, linguistic, and educational. “Transborder youth are crossing many borders,” she said. Indeed, some recurring themes both in her research program and in reactions to her research are the power of language to form community and the need to cross borders in order to understand multiple perspectives. This blog piece begins by exploring the research topics, methodology and general findings of Kleyn’s work, and it ends by discussing the reactions to her lecture and offering practical suggestions for moving forward.

The Research

Kleyn, who is Associate Professor in the Bilingual Education and TESOL programs at the City College of New York, began her study entitled “The Other Side of Deportation Repatriation” as a Fulbright scholar in Mexico from 2014 to 2015.

Through interviews, classroom observations, and collections of art and poetry, Kleyn assembles portraits of transborder youth in elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools in Oaxaca, Mexico. Additionally, she uses documentary film as both a research method and tool for disseminating research findings to larger audiences. She said, “Film is accessible across borders. It does not matter your educational level or what language you speak.” Ethnographic data from her research on transborder youth in Oaxaca is highlighted in the documentary film “Una Vida, Dos Paises: Children and Youth (Back) in Mexico.” The complete film and accompanying unit plans are freely available at www.UnaVidatheFilm.com.

So, what are her findings? First, transborder youth bring their assets of multilingualism and multiculturalism that can be harnessed in the classroom. Differentiating classroom instruction to exploit their English language skills and knowledge of United States cultures can better support everyone in the learning community.

Second, it is important to note that transborder children are multifaceted and have varying degrees of fluency in the languages that they speak. Their linguistic repertoires are formed from the multiple speech communities that they have lived in. For example, one could hear features of U.S. English from the Midwest, Florida, and California; features of Spanish spoken in Latinx communities in Southern California; and Zapoteca, a language indigenous to Mexico. Generally, most of the youth in her study are more fluent and comfortable speaking English than Spanish, and they are least fluent in Zapoteca, which is stigmatized and mostly reserved for speaking with grandparents.

Naming themselves the New DREAMers, transborder youth negotiate their identities using language practices that are rooted in cultural and political hierarchies. Sociolinguists often refer to stigmatized language varieties or specific features of language, what lay people refer to as “accents,” in regards to prestige. We often criticize the less prestigious, stigmatized variety of a language while praising the dominant, higher prestige variety. Furthermore, higher prestige speech patterns that are considered normative or standard; one focuses on the content that their speakers are conveying. On the other hand, lower prestige varieties are considered irregular and substandard. Listeners tend to focus more on phonology and syntax rather than the substance of what the speaker is saying. These New DREAMers may speak varieties of Spanish that are lower prestige because they are different than what is spoken in Oaxaca. Conversely, their fluency in English is an asset that may be perceived as threatening by their teachers. These power dynamics and cultural fissions reflect the politicized nature of language.

The Reactions

After hearing about the project and viewing the 30 minute documentary on immigration, language, race, and class, audience members undoubtedly were feeling a mass of emotions. Personally, I was thrilled. I was impressed by Dr. Kleyn’s integration of mixed methods qualitative research and multimedia to magnify underrepresented voices. Her scholarship provides a model for me in several ways. As an Urban Education Ph.D. student who has been studying sociolinguistics since my freshman year of college in 1999, one could say that I have a close relationship with these topics. I’ve had time to mull them over, clarify questions, process strong emotions, and formulate my positions. But, this is not the norm.

Scholars from other academic disciplines and thematic clusters were processing their thoughts in the moment, perhaps unaware of the potential volatility in the atmosphere. The very first comment expressed in the discussion period was an anecdote about teaching multilingual children and a separate comment that drew attention to the fact that although youth had lived in the United States for several years, they still spoke English with a “Spanish accent.”

I am not sure where the comment was leading, or if there were a follow-up question planned after the anecdote and comment. However, I noticed that several audience members appeared to be uncomfortable and perplexed. What I heard in the comment was a lack of awareness about linguistic repertoires and the role of speech communities in shaping our linguistic repertoires. At the same time, I heard an ideological assumption of linguistic purity in the United States that is false and has been used as an instrument of racism in education, housing, and employment. It is this last piece that triggered some audience members, including my colleague who stated, “I’m sorry, but that is a racist statement!” He made other comments about being tired of racism at the Graduate Center before hurriedly leaving the room.

What happened? It was a charged context. We all hear and process information according to our own individual experiences and social positions. Bodies matter. Words matter. In recent months, my colleague and other Ph.D. students have experienced blatantly racist remarks such as being called ‘the N-word’ and ‘oriental’ in classes devoted to the scholarly study of language, power, and culture. They also have been subjected to sexist remarks in the same classes, and the individual rights of the offending parties—who are White—were prioritized over the rights of students of color and women.

Despite news articles to the contrary, I can attest that professors at the Graduate Center do in fact support the views of “conservative” and “right wing” students. They do in fact support academic dissent, even when it appears that comments teeter on racial and sexual harassment. And in this context, we students seek refuge in the lectures held at the Advanced Resource Collaborative with its stated commitment to promoting equity and critical, interdisciplinary dialogue. This work will not happen by itself. We must be intentional about forging community across boundaries of academic title, race, ethnicity, class, gender, linguistic background, and religion.

If a graduate student becomes enraged, do not question his intelligence or maturity. As Audre Lorde told us in “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” there is a place for eros in the academy. There is a place for rage as a defensive mechanism against the protracted, systematic oppression of our psyches. The academy is not neutral. There is a place for passion that can be transformative in our relationships, but reflexivity is key. What triggered our strong reactions to certain comments or actions? What are our “non-negotiables” as scholars? What experiences and teachings inform the values that we bring with us? Is it possible to understand someone else’s values and perspective? Can we apologize for our offenses and forgive others for offending us? Let’s assume the best of each other and receive each other with patience and compassion. Those are the first steps to navigating these often dangerous crossings of memory, of lived experience, and of perspective. As an ARC community, this is the work that we are uniquely called to do in these times, and to the extent that we are successful, the reverberations of our efforts are manifold.

 

Written by Kahdeidra Monét Martin, M.S.Ed.

Ph.D. Student in Urban Education

The Graduate Center, CUNY

Mellon Humanities Alliance Graduate Fellow

 

Uncovering the Literature and History of US Slave Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp: An Archival Study at the University of Virginia

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction?

Sean Gerrity

English Ph.D. Program
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Presented at the First Graduate Center Archival Research Conference
September 6, 2014

In the broadest sense, my proposed dissertation will examine representations of maroon slaves and maroon communities in antebellum United States fiction. By maroons I mean slaves who escaped their bondage and secluded themselves in the dense, inhospitable, and oftentimes nearly impenetrable swamps and forests of the southern United States, often for many years at a time or permanently. Instead of movements into free states, I am interested in lateral and southerly movements within slaveholding territory to places of relative autonomy where escaped slaves established lives for themselves within the juridical reach of the chattel slavery system but outside of its immediate terror, control, and white domination.

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction? How do these representations challenge critically entrenched notions of the means for slave freedom as they are articulated by the canonization of the slave narrative and its coupling of literacy with liberty? How do representations of marronage offer alternative ways of imagining the experience of enslavement and the routes to and means of slave freedom and autonomy in antebellum African American writing and writing about enslaved African Americans? By pursuing these questions I aim to complicate the North/South, free/unfree binaristic geographical axis through which enslaved and emancipated black subjectivities have predominantly been imagined in US literary and cultural studies.

I arrived at the archives of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia looking for literary and historical sources related to marronage in Virginia. In particular, I was interested in the Great Dismal Swamp region, estimated to have consisted of over one million acres spanning southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina before human activities like logging, shingle making, and canal building interrupted the ecosystem. A critical consensus exists suggesting that the Great Dismal Swamp was probably home to the highest concentration of maroons at any given time between the colonial and antebellum periods. But the structure of the archive reproduces nineteenth-century strategies for denying the existence of maroons in the United States. By this I mean that the search terms “maroon” and “marronage” will only yield results for twentieth-century secondary sources on maroons because Southerners deliberately avoided these terms when referring to the fugitive inhabitants of the swamps and forests around them. Maroon was a word already associated with militant runaway slave communities in places like Jamaica, Suriname, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and Southerners had no interest in drawing a parallel between these radically disruptive fugitives and the ones in their midst. Maroons were also ignored by Northern abolitionists, who preferred for a variety of reasons the compellingness and marketability of the slave narrative’s trajectory from descriptions of the brutality of slavery in the South to the advantages of freedom in the North. Thus, maroons only become legible in the archive when we learn to see through the semantic dissembling and deliberate ignorance that have obscured them from view.

This has meant first identifying search terms that will produce archival sources related to what we now call—and should properly be called—US maroons. Working backward from texts like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Martin Delany’s Blake, and antebellum periodical pieces by David Hunter Strother and Frederick Law Olmstead, among others, which deploy the vocabulary used by Southerners to obliquely describe maroons and their activities, I was able to assemble a preliminary list of such terms. Some examples are: bandit, banditti, truant, fugitive, runaway, outlier, depredations, skulking, and lurking, often in a Boolean search combination with swamp, forest, or “obscure places.” These searches began to produce results, though of course further vetting was needed since words like fugitive and runaway, in particular, were primarily used to refer to runaways in the conventional sense as opposed to maroons as I am defining them.

Some permutation of these terms, the specifics of which I cannot now recall, led me to a text I’d like to elaborate a bit on today, an 1856 play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, published the same year. Entitled Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, A Drama in Four Acts, the work was authored by H.J. Conway, Esq. exclusively for the stage at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan. The printed version of the play was released by New York based John W. Amerman Printers in 1856, and this was the original text I read. A bizarre marriage of an already strange and somewhat episodic, disjointed 600+ page novel featuring a heroically portrayed maroon insurrectionist; the rowdy, mass cultural appeal of Barnum’s entertainment industry; the blackface minstrelsy tradition that had been booming in New York since the 1840s; and the success of stage adaptations of Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this play’s existence was and remains rather mind boggling to me. It’s hard to imagine just how the crowd on the play’s opening night would have reacted to the titular character Dred clutching the mutilated body of a fellow bondsman who had been killed by slave hunters and proclaiming in unison with his maroon compatriots:

A Brother’s blood! A Brother’s blood,
By cruel white men slain!
Aloud to Heaven it sends a cry,
Shall it cry in vain?
    No, no, we swear, [Elevating their rifles]
    No, no, we swear,
Just vengeance we decree;
Blood for blood shall be our cry,
We swear on bended knee. [Thunder claps]

A low comedy part was written for some-time Barnum star General Tom Thumb, the “world-renowned and celebrated man in miniature,” whose likeness adorns the cover of the play. Nevertheless, the play is militantly antislavery and we are meant to sympathize with Dred’s plight in a an over the top, melodramatic death scene in which he calls for ruthless vengeance against slave masters and complicit Northerners who acquiesce to the South’s demands. The next stage of my research on the play will focus on its critical and popular reception, and it will be an integral part of my dissertation chapter that uses Dred as its set piece to initiate an exploration of the novel’s cultural work and its impact on the attitudes of the reading public and theater-going populations’ toward maroons and their experiences as a facet of US slavery. Maroons existed as a kind of open secret in Southern society, but citizens’ knowledge of them is harder to assess in the North. For me, this almost entirely forgotten and understudied play will serve as a generative start toward beginning to investigate these questions moving forward.