#Ferguson2MLA: Had to Be There

Originally published in the Summer 2015 MLA Newsletter

If you were at the MLA convention in Vancouver on 9 January, you participated in one of the most transformative uses of energy and space imaginable. I’ve attended annual meetings for nearly four decades, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m talking about the Ferguson to MLA (#Ferguson2MLA) action, planned by a small group of members and carried out by hundreds. The organizers let me know about their plan, and my colleagues in the convention office worked with the Vancouver Convention Centre staff to make sure the event went smoothly.

Several members of the MLA Committee on the Literatures of People of Color of the United States and Canada took an organizing role before, during, and after the 9 January action. Members of the committee and their invited guests have been using MLA Commons to reflect on the experience, and I want their words to be read as widely as possible by all MLA members. So I turn my column over to Koritha Mitchell, Amber Riaz, and Pranav Jani.


Motivated by the belief that #BlackLivesMatter, a diverse group of scholar-activists began organizing a solidarity action that would take place during the 2015 MLA convention in Vancouver. Since August, I had turned down every radio show invitation that had come my way. Though I had been using Facebook and Twitter to speak out, I realized that my stepping back from speaking at #Ferguson2MLA was only the most recent example of my silencing myself. I needed to face the truth: My country has long been sending me a clear message about how little it values me and mine, and that message was having its intended effect. Realizing my pattern of self-censorship, I reached out to the organizers and asked to be reinstated as a planned speaker.

Because the purpose of violence is to mark who belongs and who does not, violence is best understood as know-your-place aggression. The goal is to tell certain people that they should not feel secure in claiming space, even if they have done all the things that the nation claims to respect, such as work hard and achieve according to accepted rules and standards. Studying violence my entire adult life, there’s no question in my mind: the success of marginalized groups inspires aggression as often as praise. They don’t have to be criminals or do anything wrong to be attacked; their success is more often the “offense” that will make them a target.

In this light, it matters that I began crying while marching a couple months ago in a #BlackLivesMatter event in Columbus, Ohio, as soon as the chant became Whose streets? Our streets! For me, this is a claim not of ownership but of belonging, and I was struck by how little I felt that American streets are my streets. Still, I couldn’t help but notice the energy and empowerment I gained from seeing and hearing and feeling people of all backgrounds prioritize the assertion of an our with their words and actions. Whoever we are and wherever we are, we can choose to insist, Whose space? Our space!


When I decided to speak up at the #Ferguson2MLA gathering, I was motivated by Koritha Mitchell’s assertion that we, as academics of color, belong to the academy, not only because we are exceptional—given how much harder we have had to work to “prove” ourselves—but also because we earned the right to be there by following their rules. We worked hard, and it is because we worked hard that we get to assume positions of authority. It wasn’t enough, however, to simply speak up. What was more important for me was walking up to center stage, claiming the space and then proclaiming my identity, to show that I can occupy the space because I belong in this organization as an equal, not a marginalized identity. This is what #AllBlack-LivesMatter means to me: it is a movement that seeks to lay claim to spaces that have been denied to Black bodies.

I have been told by students that I do not have the right to teach English writing to them. The fact that students felt emboldened enough to tell me (to my face) that I did not belong in my authoritative role is telling in itself. It is a symptom of state machinery that is predicated on principles of racism and violence. This violence must be rigorously questioned.

I write today as an academic who has spent most of her career working on, writing about, state-sponsored violence against “minorities” and “marginalized” people. I am writing because I wholeheartedly believe that the voices and actions of instigators of violence, and perpetrators of that violence (regardless of nationality or religion), should be drowned out by the voices of those who believe that violence is unacceptable. When the state sponsors violence, it tells a segment of its population that they don’t belong, as Mitchell has pointed out. Violence, in all its myriad forms, must end. All Black voices must be heard.

Mitchell’s reframing of the discourse as one about reclamation of space and of citizenship spoke to me at an emotional level. Having been told in numerous ways that I did not belong, I found power and energy in the collective reclamation of space. As a Pakistani Muslim mother, I choose to insist: I belong!


The energy of the #Ferguson2MLA action came from the conviction, among the nearly two hundred gathered there, that we would not be silent while atrocities were going on, when a movement was going on. And that we would challenge “business as usual.”

As I was inviting people in, I was asked by an African American colleague, “Why is it that all of a sudden South Asians are interested in Black people?” The comment smarted a bit. But I said, “Well, I understand why you might say that. We have anti-Black racism in our own community. We sometimes think we’re white. We sometimes swallow the ‘model minority’ myth ourselves.”

But I also said, “I’m a socialist of color. There’s nowhere else for me to be. I identify because of my racial and ethnic identity, but I can’t be reduced to that. What’s in my head matters as much as who I am. And that means, right now, saying yes, #BlackLivesMatter.”

I’m coming to you from Ohio, the state where twenty-two-year-old John Crawford was gunned down in a Walmart department store for holding a fake gun. Where twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down for holding a toy gun in a public park. Ohio is alive with struggle today, with young, Black activists taking the lead.

More activity means more questions. What is solidarity? How do we build it? Solidarity is hard, but it’s a responsibility. Imagine if only Black people were outraged today, and no one else showed up to #BlackLivesMatter events? That itself would be an outrage. Solidarity is grounded in firm convictions: I have your back. I am here in alliance with you to create a space for your voice and your suffering. And my liberation is tied in with yours.

Their side wants to divide and conquer. Our side needs to unite and pull together.

We need to examine tendencies within the movement and academia that use theories of difference not just to ask critical questions about unity, which is necessary, but to make unity impossible. Because if the movement is right, if scholars are right, that this is not just about police incompetence or a few bad apples but that this is systemic and institutional, then it’s going to take all of us to defeat white supremacy and anti-Black racism.

I am so grateful to the association’s members for organizing this event, for making sure that it happened at the convention, where it was front and center, visible, and audible. The event was moving, and I was briefly overcome. In a way, you had to be there, in Vancouver, to experience #Ferguson2MLA. Yet through conversations on MLA Commons and elsewhere, MLA members are continuing the work started in Ferguson and taken to Vancouver.


Phillip B. Williams

I am very grate for Koritha Mitchell, Amber Riaz, and Pranav Jani for sharing their convictions. As a creative writer, I live a life the straddles the academy and the community in such a way that I feel exposed to criticisms of both from either side. One particular criticism is that of failed expectations from the academy to secure safe spaces for oppressed populations. The assumption is that the academy is a liberal space, meaning it is located ideologically among the people, not above or at a distance. What has been proven nationwide is the fear that our institutions of education have become (or reverted back to) microcosms of the macro, small shards from a mirror that reflects every violence perpetuated against marginalized communities. So, I am very grateful to know that within the power structure that is the collective of institutions of education these conversations re: #Ferguson and #Blacklivematter occur, especially when so many of us rely on these spaces for security in many intersecting levels.

Please keep up the good work!

Phillip B. Williams

Also, huge thank you to executive director, Rosemary G. Feal, for gathering these thoughts in a single space for those of us who do not have access to MLA. This is really important work you are doing in this space.

Koritha Mitchell

Thank you for supporting to these efforts—in public, not just behind closed doors or in personal messages. It is not everyday that a huge organization like the MLA takes official steps to support the most marginalized of its membership. You did just that by helping communication with the security company about the solidarity action, joining the march, and now this. As a 17-year member who has attended the conference at least 10 years in a row, I have long seen MLA as an intellectual home. I didn’t think that could change for the better, but this has done the trick. After all, an intellectual home for me must be one that actually acknowledges that different experiences are flowing people’s way according to whether they belong to a privileged demographic or not. I’ve come to conclude that if an organization can’t deal with that truth with integrity, then it’s not really all that intellectual. I guess that’s as close to articulating my gratitude as I can get right now. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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