The charge of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color in the United States and Canada (CLPC) is to “encourage dialogue across ethnic and racial boundaries and to promote intercultural perspectives on and comparative analyses of the literatures and languages of ethnic groups historically underrepresented in the United States and Canada.” When MLA Commons launched, then, the CLPC was one of the first committees to see the potential of the platform not only for featuring a plurality of diverse voices but also for making those voices heard throughout and beyond the MLA. In the interview below, we talk to one of the committee’s members, Koritha Mitchell, about how CLPC has been using the Commons to share information and disseminate resources, from advice about mentoring to reflections on the impassioned #Ferguson2MLA action at the 2015 convention.
What is CLPC hoping to achieve with the Commons?
I think CLPC views the Commons as an opportunity to make the committee’s ongoing work come alive. For example, in 1999–2000, members of this committee developed guidelines for good practice to support diversity and inclusion in the profession, and current committee members are working to update the document because the profession still has much to achieve in this area. Over time, we hope to identify best practices with input from other committees and perhaps even a town hall meeting at one of the conventions so that we can invite widespread, in-person participation. We know better than to wait for ideal circumstances, however, so we are using the flexibility of the Commons to achieve our goals. Mentoring is a key area where best practices can do a lot of good, so highlighting mentoring on the blog has been a concrete way of fulfilling our mission.
Our blog posts on mentoring can help many people through their journeys. Especially because some who can benefit may be in interdisciplinary fields, such as ethnic studies or women’s studies, they may not be MLA members, but they are still part of the broad constituency that the committee’s original document aimed to help. Sharing hard-won mentoring insights in an easily accessible way is part of that mission. We continue to solicit these short pieces of advice (generally 500–700 words) from people throughout the profession, not just those on the committee. We were especially pleased when Professor Joycelyn Moody accepted our invitation and chose to focus on mid-career issues. We hadn’t asked her to, but we were thrilled because our other posts had been primarily about graduate school success. This is just another example of how the flexibility of the Commons allows us to make the most of a diversity of voices and perspectives to improve the profession.
Because we were already in the habit of using our Commons site to make our work come alive, as soon as I shared with fellow committee members my experience with #Ferguson2MLA, they suggested that using the site to continue the conversations begun through that solidarity action aligned perfectly with the committee’s commitment not only to diversity but also to inclusion.
You have a lot about mentoring on your Commons site. Could you talk a little about why making that information publicly available is especially important to this committee?
One of the most insidious features of institutional racism and (hetero)sexism is that everyone is encouraged to think that those who are white and male did not need role models in the way that others apparently do, but the truth is that they simply have countless role models because white men are overrepresented, whether they are exceptional at their jobs or not. So when we use the blog to acknowledge the value of role models and mentors, we are actually just trying to provide for those who are underrepresented something that is ubiquitous for those who are overrepresented. There can never be enough sharing of this information because there are so many forces in our environments that can create self-doubt. The more we can get messages out there that you aren’t alone if you’re struggling, the more good we can do, even if our numbers are so small—and they still are—that we could never personally reach every person who needs encouragement and guidance.
There have been some really powerful pieces about #Ferguson2MLA on the site recently, including yours. Can you talk a little more about your decision to speak at the convention and then to write about your participation? How did you feel about the reaction to the piece?
This country has been staging public performances denying Black and Brown citizenship, not only killing Black and Brown people but also demonstrating clearly that the legal system will refuse to do anything about those murders. The message is clear, and it has been really taking a toll on me, so I had no stores of energy or hope. I couldn’t have picked myself up without seeing people of every background committed to publicly rejecting anti-Black messages. Initially, I felt that simply refusing to remain silent was a victory. But once we actually had the solidarity action, I realized that it meant more to me than I thought it would to do this at MLA. I have been a member for seventeen years, and I have not missed a convention for at least a decade because I have always viewed MLA as an important intellectual home. Still, taking that action with so many others made the convention feel even more like my space. Our solidarity action was about acknowledging that business as usual cannot continue to be the destruction of Black and Brown people while everyone acts as if that destruction is inevitable and doesn’t deserve remark. We came together to say that business as usual must change, and that was a life-affirming message that I needed in the midst of so much death and destruction.
But, importantly, my #Ferguson2MLA experience very much resonated with one of my proudest moments as an MLA member: when the association issued a statement (which was shared on social media in addition to other venues) condemning the University of Illinois for its foul treatment of Steven Salaita. The MLA articulated clearly that UIUC’s actions were in violation of the academic freedom we all say we value. Yes, a very proud moment!
What are your plans for CLPC’s site going forward?
We will continue to seek mentoring advice to share and hope that conversation continues to pick up steam. We will also think about how to use the space to help us develop a best practices document that will update the one originally published in 2000. We also hope to use the site to generate conversation around CLPC panels. Last year, I was on a roundtable that shared papers in advance through the Commons, so that the organizers could easily promote the upcoming panel by tweeting about it and sharing it on Facebook. I am planning one of the CLPC panels for the 2016 MLA convention, and I have suggested that the presentations be shared on our site. Moving forward, CLPC can use our online presence to bring more attention to panelists’ work, if they are comfortable with it.
Do you see a correlation between the public humanities and the work of your committee? Are there ways the Commons can help you reach your goals there?
I wouldn’t enjoy the work on the committee if it didn’t align with my commitment to public scholarship. I simply cannot imagine doing work that makes no attempt at outreach. Because I was the first in my family to go to college, I have no problem visualizing audiences that I believe would benefit from my work but who do not have university access. To my mind, there is no reason that one should have to be a college student to know what I, as a scholar, think about the world around us—whether the issue is the killing of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or Aiyana Jones; affirmative action; or the Obamas. I therefore blog, tweet, and appear in the media when I can do so without derailing other responsibilities. At the same time, I do not underestimate the value of access to higher education and the . I understand, however, that the knowledge needed to succeed in various environments may seem like common sense to some, but it is anything but natural and self-evident, so I enjoy demystifying processes, as CLPC is doing with the mentoring blog posts. The Commons helps with all this because, although you have to be an MLA member to comment, you don’t have to be a member to read the posts, so the Commons is a great outreach tool. It’s just a matter of more people getting used to visiting it more regularly, and that’s happening. I’m optimistic.