• Marcelo Vieta

Mapping the Undercommons: Fugitivity, Resistance and Unmaking the Academy Beyond COVID-19

Updated: Sep 9

By Neil Price


Themes: Anti-Racism, Social Justice, Education and Learning, Black Lives Matter


A version of this article has appeared in The Conversation Canada


COVID-19 has brought the issues of racism and inequality within higher education into stark relief. In a matter of months, we have witnessed a massive education system, which was designed to contribute to and expand the public good—or what some have termed “the commons”—collide with fundamental questions about its purpose, utility and relevance at a time of global upheaval.

Photo by William Daigneault on Unsplash

What is the role of the university in a catastrophic time like this? Some have argued that the humanities and social sciences have a particularly important role in shaping our responses to the pandemic in this period of late capitalism. Others suggest now is the time to re-think higher education and pivot to a more decentralized, online delivery model that reduces demands on the environment and opens up horizons for transnational collaboration.


What might we glean from all of the ways in which Black people in higher education have managed to survive and persist? And how might understanding these experiences be useful in thinking about how the university can contribute to the post-coronavirus future?

Beyond the debates about the purpose and delivery of post-secondary education, there is also the crucial matter of how we experience the academy during and beyond the pandemic. More concretely, how do we attend to the well-being of those who work and learn within the university?

One way to approach such fundamental questions is to look squarely at the experiences of Black people within the academy. Black people have always had a challenging and uncomfortable relationship with higher education—or with any type of formal education for that matter. In some ways, our experiences working and learning within anti-Black higher education institutions can be characterized as an enduring crisis, one that will most likely outlive our current pandemic.

What might we glean from all of the ways in which Black people in higher education have managed to survive and persist? And how might understanding these experiences be useful in thinking about how the university can contribute to the post-coronavirus future?


The Current COVID-19 Context

Coronavirus has laid bare all sorts of inequalities; higher education is no exception. As a Black college administrator, I have witnessed how the pandemic has wrought pain and havoc in the lives of Black students and colleagues. I’ve observed how Black people have had to attend to home lives shot through with worry and concern for the welfare of loved ones who are employed on the frontlines. I have seen how the constant threat of lay-offs has disproportionately impacted Black and other racialized staff. I have also witnessed how the need to maintain employment has made the continuation of studies near impossible for far too many Black students. These are just some of the unique stressors that Black people experience while moving through the academy, pressures compounded by exposure to high-risk work, inadequate social and health supports, financial woes and an academic culture replete with pandemic-induced guilt and denial of non-Black members of the academy. All of this comes on top of an already tenuous and vexing relationship with the academy, where high push-out/drop-out rates, social isolation and anti-Black hatred are pervasive.


Examples of Black "Care" in the Academy

Black people have known crisis. We have known it uniquely in the academy well before coronavirus. To be Black and active in the academy is to know what it means to survive. We survive mainly by practicing what Christina Sharpe has termed an “ethics of care” (Sharpe, 2016, p.131). Since COVID-19, I have seen examples of how Black people in the academy have tried to actualize “care”. It can be discerned in the countless “check-ins” on the states of well-being; in the spontaneous email threads where support and mental health resources are digitally shared for “us” by “us”; in the meetings after the meeting where what was both said and left unsaid by White colleagues is unpacked, and so on. This ethics of care, though, is not always manifested in action in the literal sense. Often it is more a mental state, a form of readiness for survival, a reflex primed to evade oblivion.

Sharpe puts it this way:

Living as I have argued we do in the wake of slavery, in spaces where we were never meant to survive, or have been punished for surviving and for daring to claim or make spaces of something like freedom, we yet reimagine and transform spaces for practices of an ethics of care (as in repair, maintenance, attention), an ethics of seeing, and of being… . (Sharpe, 2016, p. 130)

For those of us concerned with higher education in the post COVID-19 future, we might imagine ways of embedding an ethics of care in all that we do; we might ponder how our work of teaching and learning may be both problematized and enhanced by such a commitment.

Fugitivity, Resistance and Unmaking in the Academy

What does it mean to be in the university but not of the university? And what might this kind of asymmetrical relationship mean for those of us who learn and work in the university beyond COVID-19? Here I tap into the work of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. In particular, I take up their notion of the “undercommons” as a useful point of entry into reimagining survival as realized through forms of fugitivity and resistance (Harney & Moten, 2004).

Fugitivity is a useful idea. I mostly think of it as a way to conceptualize all of the ways Black people attempt to escape anti-Black prescriptions and forces in the academy, whether they be procedural (harmful policy), mental (internalized racism) or physical (damaging environments/bodily stress). I think of fugitivity as both principle and practice. We might depend on the university for employment or the conferring of a credential, but we don’t have to accept its anti-Black totality. In other words, we don’t have to go along for the sake of getting along. The concept of fugitivity is particularly helpful in thinking about a post-COVID-19 future. How can we simultaneously unchain ourselves from harmful, anti-Black institutional spaces and practices while moving toward a new freedom?

Rather than an anemic hope for reform, I consider fugitivity as an act of resistance, particularly in this moment when harsh inequalities have been so nakedly revealed. I also see fugitivity as a path to unmaking the public university or the “commons”, as some might term it (De Angelis & Harvie, 2014). In refusing to engage with or participate in racial/slavery logics deeply ingrained in the higher education sector, we set a renewed course for re-imagining the foundational role and purpose of the university. I think this goal of “unmaking” the university requires a mapping of the “undercommons”, an illumination of all the ways Black people have tried to push back and survive against anti-Black racism in the university. With this map of experience in hand, we may begin to see a way forward.


Black Economies as a Way Forward

Black people have survived the university partly because of their creative ways of tending to what Caroline Hossein refers to as an “epistemology for Black social solidarity” (Hossein, 2019, p. 211). In my many years teaching and working in higher education, I’ve observed how Black students and professors (myself included) have relied on Black economies to persist in their various endeavours. This has included the pooling of resources, quietly and unceremoniously pointing the way to financial supports (formal and informal), sharing of cultural knowledge and guidance, making connections and introductions for employment, offering encouragement, and trading and purchasing of goods (time, peer tutoring, food, short-term loans, transit fare, child-minding, etc.). In the COVID-19 context, this Black economy has not only been essential to survival in the university, but it has also offered a path to increased activism. Hossein writes: “The Black political economy corrects the fixation on the marginalization of Black people to also move the discourse to one of activism” (Hossein, 2019, p. 219).

As we witness the confluence of global street-based activism in response to police brutality and demands for economic democracy during the coronavirus pandemic, how might we include Black social solidarity as an important lens? Furthermore, how might the university be transformed through deeper understanding of the Black solidarity economy? If we think of the university as a valuable site of contribution to the public good, then we should be more honest about its constitutively anti-Black history and function. We might start this journey to liberation by looking closely at the experiences of Black people in the academy. In doing so, we reveal opportunities to re-shape higher education into something far more radical and transformative.

Resources

DeAngelis, Massimo & David Harvie. (2014). The Commons. In M. Parker, G. Cheney, V. Fournier, & C. Land (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization. London: Routledge (pp. 280-294).


Hossein, Caroline. (2019). A Black Epistemology for the Social and Solidarity Economy: The Black Social Economy. The Review of Black Political Economy, 46(3), 209-229.


Moten, Fred and Stefano Harney (2004). "The University and the Undercommons: Seven Theses." Social Text, vol. 22 no. 2, 2004, p. 101-115. Project MUSE.


Sharpe, Christina. (2016). In the wake: On blackness and being. Duke University Press.