Home » Toward Our Black Queer Joy[ous] Futures: To Achieve[1] Our Freedom in the Academy

Toward Our Black Queer Joy[ous] Futures: To Achieve[1] Our Freedom in the Academy

by Leslie K. Morrow 

Abstract

My work focuses on educators, specifically Black queer and trans* folx[2] who are often left out of the scholarship and not only do diversity work but are affected by discourses of diversity and professionalism in the academy. I conceptualize the justice worker as someone who is invested in and concerned with the ways structural inequalities shape social relations and the sociopolitical outlook for those relegated to the margins. I make this distinction, exposing the failures of mainstream campus diversity efforts in which educators challenge the role of normativity within the academy and beyond. I developed a technique entitled, “Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood,” which maps and analyzes the multiple, nuanced ways Black queer and trans educators experience institutional diversity. This technique fosters deeper understanding and privileges their self-reflections, allowing them to articulate radically different notions about their lived experiences, embracing Black queer joy in the study and struggle to get free.

Introduction

In her study of inclusion in higher education, Sara Ahmed (2012) (feminist thinker and independent scholar) asks, “what does diversity actually do” (p.1)? I was a frontline diversity worker, having worked in administrative structures and cultures with limited capacity for the work I felt compelled to do. I encountered difficulties when putting into practice what I have learned throughout my coursework, listening to those in need, working with community members, and existing in this world where my values were not in alignment and often unwelcome within those administrative spaces. In response to Ahmed’s question, this article reflects upon my time working within diversity units in higher education with a specific focus on educators, specifically Black queer and trans folx. My focus examines those who are often left out of the scholarship and who not only perform diversity work but are affected by diversity discourse in the academy. Specifically, Black queer joy and Black queer revolutionary selfhood work in tandem to demonstrate the love of being, of existing in a world that does not view us as human (Wynter as cited in Scott, 2017).

Black queer educators within and beyond the academy have called attention to how white supremacy structures organizations that work to devalue Black, queer, and trans bodies. My research is an evolution of a journey toward increased self-awareness and my desire to continue troubling the fixed notions of identity related to race, gender, and sexuality within higher education. I do this by examining the false promise of institutional diversity policies, exposing how these policies negatively shape our ways of being within the academy and beyond. It is this love of self and finding joy that has disruptive potential to the power of harmful institutions, such as the academy, that serves as the basis of my reflection. This article shapes how I think, plan, and reimagine our present, future, and queer interventions within educational research, practice, and freedom-making in higher education.

I fully recognize that many do not believe it is possible to transform these institutions from the inside, that white supremacy and its ties to assimilation where money, promotion, and the promise of power are used as tools of manipulation. Having learned this, how can I still believe that we can achieve freedom within the academy? Because I firmly believe that we cannot allow the struggles our ancestors fought so hard for and died for to be left in vain. No, I do not wish to be a martyr. However, I also firmly believe in the next generation of folx, those who are fighting for reproductive justice, queer and trans rights, abolition, defunding the police, and unionizing for better pay, work conditions, universal healthcare, and so much more to understand the assignment. I struggle with the contradictions, but my research has inspired hope. I hope to work alongside others to call attention to the systems and places that currently harm marginalized populations.

In this search, I contemplate what it means that Black Queer Joy is made in places that do harm to Black Queer Bodies, primarily when the foundation of my work discusses the myriad ways in which Black queer and trans folx encounter violence and erasure within the academy (E. R. Meiners, personal communication, 2022 September). I am inspired by those who employ Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood, a concept I named during my dissertation research: knowing and believing in ourselves to show up and be our unapologetic selves where our very being itself–is resistance. I examine our ways of being and knowing to explore the fluidity of our identities that allow for possibilities rather than a fixed notion of who or what they want us to be, and I explain how often this influences our justice work.

A small caveat. I do not wish to engage in narratives of resilience, grit, or perseverance. However, all can easily apply because often, these narratives are used by dominant populations to suggest our innate and inevitable ability to endure. After all, we have shown again and again how we can overcome. Nevertheless, this obscures how white supremacy remains intact to perform its intended violence. I borrow from actress and founder of the social media site Black Queer Joy, Dalila Ali Rajah. Rajah says,

Being joyful and being seen as joyful and living happy lives by itself is a revolution. For hundreds of years, cultural oppression and systemic racism has perpetuated the idea that Black joy cannot be long-lasting. If we don’t see images, how can we build up a tolerance for joy?

Rajah curates images and stories from around the world that show the vibrancy of Black, POC, and Queer folx living their best lives. We develop strategies using our deviance, and Black Queer Joy as resistance to the status quo in a society bent on our silence, erasure, and destruction. This article illuminates how Black queer educators expose structural inequities and navigate the paradox created by the university, which claims diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values even as it maintains exclusionary practices that do not serve historically disenfranchised and marginalized communities. Despite the institutional violence, Black queer educators manage the intersections of freedom-making and maintaining joy in laying the foundation for how we get free.

Black Queer ReVoluTion

Inspired by Black lesbian poet and activist Pat Parker, who, in response to a question about what constitutes her idea of revolution, shared these words:

If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, “No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome,’ because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black. Or I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution (Grahn as cited in Pat Parker, 1978, p. 11)

I begin with this context to describe who I am and how I show up to do this work, to disrupt. I quote Pat Parker’s words often because I am still awaiting that revolution, but also, I have learned that I cannot shed who I am or how I show up because my very existence is an act of resistance in a world that seeks to erase and silence me. My work began with a search for others like me who reflect expansive representations of Blackness, sexual, and gender identities as I dream and work toward better worlds for us all, especially those who are multiply oppressed, and to find joy and freedom that we deserve in this world.

Our present realities have been drastically transformed given the coronavirus and ongoing racial injustices, which further exacerbates a racialized plague (s) that negatively impacts QBIPOC communities. What follows serves as a continuing reflection and organizing tool that can be modified and improved, as is often the case when planning. Although the dissertation is now submitted, the work and writing continue. I reflect often on the stories the educators shared, stories that they still live, and how they resisted and found joy. At the beginning of my project, I was unaware of how much Black Queer Joy was and is integral to how we get free. The sharing of their stories and life lessons inspires me as I continue the work toward getting free. Showcasing the lived experiences of my participants in their words is my integration of self-reflexivity and relationality, which allows me to pay attention to how my own identities and life struggles shape the knowledge I produce. I wanted to intentionally and accurately reflect my participants as much as possible, showing who they are – and not some distorted misrepresentation of what the status quo wants them/us to be.

Drawing upon Black Feminist and Queer knowledge traditions and methodologies, Treva Lindsey (2015) writes that at the core of the Black Feminist intellectual tradition is the documenting of our stories and the continued development of our theories, sharpening of theoretical frameworks, and the transforming of our research into practice based on these stories. Here I want to demonstrate that Black feminist knowledge-making provided me the control of our narratives and facilitated a remembering, recovering, and recentering practice (R. N. Brown, personal communication, Fall 2016). Lindsey states further that Black Feminist thinkers “must think and write to survive, live, and thrive” (p. 1). Given the current landscape in which the state continues to target Black and Brown and queer and trans lives and other folx of color, it is ever more important to (re)write ourselves into the past, present, and future narratives that depict real-time and not a whitewashed version.

José Esteban Muñoz (2009), known for his contributions to performance studies, queer theory, and cultural critique. He writes in the introduction to Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity how “we must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” He continues, “we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (p. 1). I pair the words of Pat Parker with José Esteban Muñoz to capture my ongoing search for a future in the here and now, a reminder that I must maintain hope and keep working for better futures. I intentionally center my work on educators, specifically Black queer scholars missing from the scholarship and who do diversity work and are also affected by diversity discourse and professionalism in the academy, which exposes the precarious nature of our lives. Under this rubric imposed by institutions (in this case, colleges, and universities), diversity reflects a commercial value, a marketing brand, claiming to welcome difference but only does so to control that difference.

Everything is Everything[3]: How I Got Here

My dissertation research, which inspires this article, was conducted over nineteen months involving a critical collaborative ethnography exploring the lives of ten participants, initially 15. However, some had to withdraw, given pressures and threats to their tenure process and job security, and two struggled with mental health issues. I used pseudonyms to de-identify participants voices throughout this article. Participants self-identified as Black, queer, gender nonbinary, gender nonconforming, or trans, and included graduate students, student- and academic affairs administrators, and faculty members. Grounded in a liberatory paradigm, I engaged in semi-structured interviews in ways that paid attention to the nuances of queer of color identities. This interview style provided participants the opportunity to share their experiences as Black queer and trans educators in various forms, including photos, poetry, and music to assist in telling their stories.

Additionally, I engaged in non-traditional participant observation and autoethnography (Griffin, 2012) and followed up with participants at various stages if I had questions or needed additional information. I situated my analysis alongside my personal experience and skepticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion discourses that served as a branding strategy to attract faculty, staff, and students but often foregoing real promises for social justice and change. Specifically, I sought to explore the justice worker -a distinction that I make in comparison to mainstream campus diversity efforts, which center on cultural celebrations and holidays, and food (not that these are unimportant). However, I wanted to explore the justice worker, who is invested in and concerned with how structural inequities shape social relations and the sociopolitical outlook for those relegated to the margins.

My participants addressed a range of normative assumptions about what it means to exist in precarious locations. They acknowledged their erasure, feelings of alienation and isolation, and how the embodiment of our social identities marks us as problems. Interviews with participants made visible how current campus diversity efforts fail the multiply marginalized and underserved communities, as well as participants who must constantly defend, raise awareness, and generate understanding about those of us who embody nonnormative differences. Part of my reimagining involved developing the concept of Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood, which is a demand for our humanity and the freedom to show up as our complete self, disavowing those who want us to assimilate or wish us dead. Lisa M. Cacho (2012) writes in her book Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected how we engage in our quest for validation by devaluing and constructing the other. Cacho says,

Ascribing (readily recognizable) value to the racially [gendered and sexually] devalued requires recuperating what registers as ‘deviant’ and ‘disreputable’ in order to reinterpret those devalued beliefs, behaviors, and bodies as misrecognized versions of normativity. Value is ascribed through explicitly or implicitly disavowing relationships to the already devalued and disciplined categories of deviance and nonnormativity. (p. 148)

For me to recuperate and reject years of messages that deemed me deviant, I have fought hard to find ways to embrace my nonnormative identities that, as Cacho (2012) writes above, subjects me as other. I transfer her concept of devaluation to the spaces of the academy where our nonnormative identities or status are not necessarily or always criminalized, as she discusses in her book but stigmatized and used to reinforce a binary. Cacho’s concept allows me to understand how vulnerable populations wrestle with imposed expectations and the struggle with an outsider status based upon not fitting or reproducing racial, political, sexual, and gendered norms of what or who makes an educational scholar. Instead, I had to fashion my existence, my very being, despite being in heteronormative and white supremacist institutions that wanted me to assimilate and prevent me from calling attention to the double standard imposed by mainstream diversity efforts.

For instance, former colleagues of mine were asked to brainstorm the climate for Black and Brown women on campus and find ways to improve campus climate and their sense of belonging. I was not included in the discussion, and I only became aware when a colleague mentioned the meeting and asked if I had been contacted. This colleague, who describes herself as a woman of color and social justice advocate dedicated to collective liberation, did not question my absence when seeing the list of names prior to or during the meeting. Instead, her bragging about her inclusion through my exclusion reinforced the lack of an intersectional perspective that could better assess factors contributing to a challenging climate for Black and Brown female-identified students. I sense that this colleague was more content with her inclusion as a person of color rather than challenging a rigid gender and sexual binary in which the language of institutional diversity reinforces normalizing discourses that adhere to fixed categories of identity.

Who Matters? /The Methods

Who gets counted, who gets to speak for and on behalf of “diversity,” and whose experiences matter within the corporate university. I began finding my voice by listening and working with students, colleagues, and community members as I put my learning into practice to challenge exclusions of myself and other vulnerable populations. Anna Julia Cooper and Frances Beal (Taylor, 2017) understood the unique position Black women encountered concerning their multiple and specific oppressions. Furthermore, it was members of the Combahee River Collective (1974), a Black queer and revolutionary feminist group, who took up those observations by analyzing “the roots of Black women’s oppression under capitalism and arguing for the reorganization of society based on the collective needs of the most oppressed” (Taylor, 2017, p. 5). Many of us, through our nonnormativity, faced exclusion, extramural discipline, and punishment, which I often internalized, causing me to lack confidence in myself and to believe I was the problem. The instance I reference above is the basis of Sara Ahmed’s (2009) work, where the arrival and appearance of difference are enough to signal a commitment to the diversity statements yet lacks commitment to action and social change.

The focus on the educators in my study and their freedom work highlights their strategies to create necessary and sustainable social change on campus and in the broader community. They employed various perspectives to understand the full range of experiences and then developed strategies to create access to resources and support for their vision to bring about change in increasingly bureaucratic spaces that adds to a heavy workload. This workload leaves many trying to manage their communities’ health and self-care. We are defined for whom they want us to be, creating new boundaries and borders designed to regulate us. Participants within my study boldly reflect a generational shift, much like the Black Civil Rights movement in the sixties in which they demanded an end to racialized subjugation, discrimination, and segregation. They refuse to abandon salient aspects of their lives to conform to the office and work environments that enforce assimilation. Embracing their Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood and Black Queer Joy, they pay tribute to our ancestors and embrace our deviancy, which fuels our work for our liberation. We embrace innovative teaching, research, and continued activism that sees and treat us with humanity and allows us to live and dream/work toward better futures for all.

I share the insights of a few of my participants in what follows. First, I explain Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood (BQRS), which maps and analyzes the multiple, nuanced ways Black queer, gender nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and trans educators – who are often left out of the scholarship – experience “institutional diversity work,” how they do their work, and how they are negatively affected by diversity discourses in the academy. BQRS is founded upon the premise to know and remember a concept by Ruth Nicole Brown (2009) used in her study on Black girlhood, particularly SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives, Hear Our Truths), a collective for Black girls to create, to express, and make space. Her research and work with SOLHOT documents, analyzes, and interrogates Black girls’ lived experience and explores the gender and racialized power dynamics, particularly as it relates to Black girlhood. I borrow from Brown because she understands that when Black girls reflect on their own lives and, in this case, the lives of the study participants, they articulate radically different ideas about their lived experiences than what is often portrayed in the media and presented as “facts” that uphold institutional norms and the status quo.

This methodology, alongside their Black Queer Joy, describes participants’ meaning-making, understanding, and navigating within the neoliberal university, spaces in which they defied policing of their bodies, grappled with constraints upon their labor as well as the abuse of their labor, and faced constant disciplining when pursuing justice for all. The following examples relate to identity, but that is not the endpoint. Participants discussed their discomfort with labels and how identity was imposed upon them, believing that these terms compressed their understanding of who they are, reducing them to one-dimensional beings. This project critiques single-identity and single-issue frameworks and instead explores how participants understand and experience what can be toxic spaces. Ultimately, I address the ways in which these institutions appear to place value on diversity but merely expose the invisible identity politics of those in the majority who wish to sustain the status quo and thus undermine efforts to secure justice for all. My participants spanned various institutional settings from large research-intensive universities, public and private institutions, land-grant, private liberal arts, ivy league, and historically Black colleges and universities. Institutional locations are situated on both coasts, within the Midwest, South, and Southwest, respectively.

Ricco, an administrator, discusses how campus culture has always told them that they do not belong, using humor to deflect anti-Blackness and heterosexism in campus meetings and other campus encounters. They say the goal is to silence, stifle, and shut them down, having paid the price for what they give voice to and their visual insubordination. Another participant, Lissa, says,

I think there is something to be said about the lack of visibility of others that represent like myself in academia that can be a little emotionally stifling. That isolation… because I’ve got to go to such great lengths to find folx that I have similarities with and that I can identify with, and that I can be in social spaces.

She says not having others who presented like her or shared similar beliefs increased feelings of alienation. She said that reality made her numb because she is accustomed to her outsider status but acknowledged a desire to be in community with others who share similar beliefs due to the disrespect she encountered. Participants were unsure if the disrespect they received derived from their race, gender, sexuality, or gender presentation but were made fully aware of their otherness. So, more than merely claiming to welcome folx from different life experiences to list them by name is needed to understand how they experience the climate amid the discourse of diversity.

Voss still carries an experience from a previous position where they misjudged the organizational culture. For that position, they were heavily recruited and told they would have unlimited creative license, but after a few months, their contributions were routinely challenged and dismissed. Like other participants, Voss admitted discomfort in acknowledging the discrimination they faced and addressing the incidents out of fear of retaliation. They discussed the creation of a work display, and they were intentional about including an array of folx of color. However, their supervisor criticized the display, saying there were too many folx of color and not enough white people. According to Voss, several white folx were included alongside the presence of Black, Brown, and Native folx. Immediately following that exchange, Voss witnessed a notable change in the demeanor of their direct supervisor and some colleagues. They were treated differently than other folx in the same department, with the treatment growing more harmful over time. “I just think that sometimes people are just used to having whiteness centered,” says Voss. Voss lived where they could gain affirmation, but the work climate proved too harmful to their mental health. Voss left a job they initially loved because of ongoing racial and trans discrimination and hoped to be more mindful of organizational culture moving forward.

Another participant shared that unwritten rules are learned by proximity to organizational culture and usually through punishment. They share how they are already deemed unprofessional given the dominant culture and its insistence on normative race, gender, class, and heterosexuality. MJ says,

I am not a man. I am not straight. I am not white. I am not middle or upper middle class. I do not fit the boxes. And like, what are you telling me I have to be in order to be successful in this field?

Participants shared how they grappled with mixed messages they received while being deeply introspective when considering what and where the next job would be. Many of the educators who participated in my research study have formulated their political consciousness and identity in this moment of Black Lives Matter, DREAMers, and Say Her Name. Their narratives are shaped by the discourse on BIPOC, queer, and trans activism of this time, drawing upon their intersectional analyses to challenge the multiple oppressions and inequities that shape their lives, the vulnerable student populations they work with, and that of their communities within their respective institutions who want to restrict their justice work.

Despite their professed promotion of diversity, higher education institutions often create conditions that prevent or attempt to prevent these Black queer educators from bringing their whole selves into academic spaces. For many, that meant doing gender that allowed participants to express their genuine selves, which included being passed over for promotions or talked about behind closed doors. Unfortunately, cursory approaches to diversity, including celebrations, food, and university statements, seem to value diversity and inclusion but often silence and tokenize underrepresented and underserved students, staff, and faculty (A.D. Dixson, personal communication, September 2016). These statements do nothing to engage in a more profound examination nor help campus constituents better navigate the world around them. Participants were aware of a code of ethics meant to contain those who oppose the status quo. The personal and professional costs left them questioning whether or how they stay in the academy. Many were concerned about upward mobility and if it would be an option for them due to their social justice beliefs. Participants cite the use of these statements, which often do not name the problem directly or engage in substantive action to address the conditions faced by historically disenfranchised populations.

One participant was very vocal and wished to highlight the absence of social currency to challenge the structures that seek to restrain them, marking the punishment and retaliation they encountered more discernible. Despite this, most participants expressed love for their work amid worries about the kinds of retaliation they may face while also figuring out strategies to combat burnout and better manage their mental, emotional, and physical health. Angela names the primary issue she often faces when she addresses campus challenges involving racism, which involves the recentering of whiteness. Angela expressed her discomfort at work and in the surrounding community, made to believe that her calling attention to racism is radical, biased, uninformed, and an attack against departmental team unity. Angela is adamant that she will not allow the culture of white supremacy and mainstream diversity to shape the language she uses by downplaying and whitewashing the conditions she experiences alongside her Black, Brown, and Native students.

As a result, participants have contemplated the impact on their career trajectory because their overall goal of working towards justice and freedom is too important not to name the issues, even if it sparks discomfort or threatens their job. Moving beyond academia or dreams of starting their own schools and organizations are just a few of the options educators mentioned in creating spaces that affirm queer thriving, freedom-, and worldmaking. Participants talked with intention about how their values define who they are and drive their justice work, explicitly saying they must be clear about what dynamics they saw to be accountable to themselves and others. This is yet another component of Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood in creating possibilities that the university itself will not do or does not encourage. Although many struggles remain, participants rejected imposed conformity by exposing the hidden diversity agenda wishing to share their knowledge to benefit social change for all.

Black Queer Joy

I want to reiterate that I centered Black queer, gender nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and trans educators because these educators often experience diversity discourse as masking the injustices of the institution, perpetuating historical violences, stalling their justice work, and creating new challenges for the world we live in including campus environments. Many of us, through our nonnormativity, in which identity politics are weaponized and used to discipline participants, struggle to be our genuine selves, to exist beyond someone’s checkbox, and are often denied the ability to define our existence and experiences for ourselves. Participants noted constant surveillance of their Black queer bodies and the quotidian forms of violence and harm that take place in institutions of higher learning. Another participant, Jada, shared that she had to fully go for the life that she wanted for herself while teaching in the academy, a space she did not originally envision for herself. Like many of us, she realized that “she was failed by a system that did not allow for more people that looked like her to be there.” She wanted to be the person that disrupts historical inaccuracies, to care for, to invest, and to see her students the way in which they want to be seen.

I was interested in the complexity of my participants’ lives and how they navigate being in the academy, even as we manage our complicity for how and why we stay. I place the justice work of participants in my study against the growing business model of education, the move towards empiricism and the sciences, the interrelationship to corporate interests, and the factory-style disciplining of education. Everyday racism and incidents involving gender and sexuality are not addressed well, directly, or at all, although this is not an exhaustive list. While many existing studies of diversity in higher education focus on students, my research focused on educators, specifically those who do “diversity work.” That is, the effects of the corporatization of the university are layered and felt differently when hired to do diversity work, not being allowed to do such work, and being surveilled for looking like the folx the institution is purportedly interested in welcoming. Our Black queer resistance is not the problem but serves as an innovative solution toward the violence experienced in academia and beyond through intersectional and critical justice work in thinking through strategies to resolve issues today and for our future. I put forth Black Queer Revolutionary Selfhood alongside Black Queer Joy to encourage critical thinking and analysis on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and is fundamentally grounded in the politics of identity.

However, my examples do not rely on incorrect assumptions of identity politics or narrow definitions that avoid nuance. I honor identity politics as the backdrop by relying on the Combahee River Collective—who coined the term which “focused on their own [identities] and believed that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity” (Taylor, 2017, p. 4). Angela spoke at length about the importance of her identity within her life, sharing,

I look at identity not just as being Black, a woman, a gay woman, or whatever. It is also forms my core values, which include integrity and seeking equity for all. All of these things are my identity. And it is how I move through the world and navigate the world. And it is also how I choose the way I interact with other people and the things I decide to take on. Like the unapologetically Black piece…The unapologetically Black piece, for me, is that if I see something, then I have to say something about it.

I attempt to make identity politics useful for people who experience real consequences due to their marginalized identities and identifications and resist the ways in which identity politics is weaponized against us, continuing to find ways to leverage our voices to increase access, gain equity, to not lose ourselves, and be unapologetic about who we are.

How might we reimagine these institutions in the pursuit of freedom? bell hooks (1994) reminds us that:

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom (hooks, p. 270).

I quote bell hooks at length to honor her memory and the significance of her contributions that we will continue to learn from as we work toward education as the practice of freedom. This quote serves as my inspiration and belief in studying higher education spaces not only as sites of struggle and harm, but also as sites of justice and freedom-making. Doing so fosters hope and inspiration toward strategies to combat injustices around the world, which has been drastically transformed given a global pandemic, ongoing racial/ethnic injustices, unnecessary wars, climate change, and an increase in white nationalist domestic terrorism. We fully understand the toxicity and the desire to cling to a culture that sustains the status quo out of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, all the -isms and greed. We work to change these institutions, as bell hooks suggests above, because knowing and rejecting institutional expectations while utilizing institutional resources to expose disparities suffered by all, particularly the most marginalized within our communities, is the practice of freedom.

Participants are mindful of a world that seeks to control differences, how they must navigate respectability politics, and how they develop strategies to work within their respective institutions. Because their differences have been weaponized against us, many shut down or perform to stay under the radar, which often leads to discipline. They are deemed—defensive, not a team player, moody, angry, and disrespectful. Moreover, while talk on campuses has increased around self-care and mental health needs, it is only in the context of improving worker productivity and not for an overall concern about their well-being (Nicolazzo, 2022). All of my participants shared the importance of coming into this work to be the person they needed and to empower others to demand what they need, even in environments that would prefer we fall in line or leave altogether because they never imagined people like us would ever gain access to them.

Lastly, I return to the words of Pat Parker (1990). I still await the revolution, but I view revolution as a verb. This action allows me/us to bring our whole selves, our Black Queer Joy, into disrupting and holding the university accountable. How we remain in higher education and what sustains us in these spaces is that we seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where our stories, ideas, and imagination come alive. This project affirms my love of self and my community. I want to call up those of us who are erased, made to feel invisible, made to feel unworthy because we do not “look” the part, and made to seem as if our contributions are not somehow worthy or intellectual enough because I/we believe in dismantling systems that uphold white supremacy. Those at the margins are constantly challenged to think about how we see ourselves, forced to consider and reconsider the essence of who we are. I see you. I write this in dialogue with you all, queering what is already queer—to be Black queer folx within the spaces of the academy and society overall. The enormous amount of pride in breaking away from such expectations not meant for us is everything. It is our power. It is our survival. It is being human and the space to be our whole selves; it is how we will get free (Scott, 2017).

Notes on Contributor: 

Leslie K Morrow received her doctoral degree in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Currently, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dean’s Diversity Postdoctoral Program in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University. Leslie engages in on- and off-campus coalitional work to address, among other things, problems specific to the experiences of historically marginalized, excluded, disenfranchised, and under-resourced groups, especially Black queer and trans folx. She is committed to the study of study of how we get free through Black Queer Joy and freedom-making in higher education.

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[1]Retrieved from http://blackqueerjoy.com/index.html

[2] The term folx “is a gender inclusive term used to describe all people including transgender, genderqueer, and genderfluid people. (Martin, 2018, p.4)

[3] Newton, J. & Hill, L. (1998). Everything is everything [Recorded by L. Hill]. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill [CD]. New York, NY, Ruffhouse & Columbia Records.

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