In Defense of Public Writing


Image: American director Thomas H. Ince using a giant megaphone (Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, 1922)

November 12, 2014

In Defense of Public Writing

David J. Leonard

Hello, my name is David, and I am a scholar who writes for the public. Sometimes I even blog. I offer that mea culpa because, all too often, I am judged for not segregating my work behind the velvet rope of scholarship. I am not alone, as plenty of scholars are refusing to stay in the lane of the ivory tower, taking their talents to the pages of newspapers, websites, and television.

But that still raises eyebrows. I once heard an administrator refer to public writing as a pathology of sorts, akin to video-game addiction. To him, public writing was all about immediate gratification and ego rather than a scholarly advancement of knowledge. It was a sign of weakness, evidence of inadequacy as a scholar, proof that today’s public intellectuals were not realprofessors.

In that view, still held by many, a “peer reviewed” journal article read by 12 people is of great value while a piece written for a website, and read by more than 100,000, is a distraction from legitimate work. I have been told on several occasions that the work of writing for online publication (whether via a blog or for respected outlets like Huffington Post) is “easy” and a “waste of time.” Unlike scholarship, which is about knowledge production and intellectual debate, public writing is said to be about personal gain and pleasure resulting from public fanfare.

To still others, public writing is a form of community service: Some people give blood to the Red Cross, others donate their time at local shelters, and others donate their words to public spaces. Each of those activities is advancing public good, yet none are required or necessary components of academic life.

But instead of being unnecessary or antithetical to academic work, I would argue that public writing is — at its core — what we do as teachers, intellectuals, and scholars. It’s another form of teaching, a public pedagogy that engages “students” outside the classroom, and inside, too.

When I started out in the era of chalkboards and typewriters, I often found it difficult to bridge the gap between course materials and current events. In those moments where course themes and theories connected with public discourse or popular culture, I was often frustrated by the absence of readings that could anchor a classroom conversation. Now I can find such materials in the work of countless scholars and intellectuals. The examples are endless: Jelani Cobb’s writing about police brutality and racism, Salamishah Tillet’s work on partner violence and rape culture, Stacey Patton’s discussions of child abuse, Mark Anthony Neal’s public scholarship on all things popular culture, and Khalil Gibran Muhammad continued discussion of the “violence card.” They, along with Jeff Chang, Brittney Cooper, James Peterson, Imani Perry, and so many others are advancing discourses inside and outside of academia. With historical examples in hand, and an analytical framework seeped in a lifetime of scholarly research, their public writings advance classroom conversation with depth and specificity. The prospect of waiting several years until a journal article is published to discuss some current event in class is unsatisfying.

Public writing is also work that bridges theories, methods, and knowledge that is often locked behind pay walls, or stuck inside books that cost as much as a new pair of Air Jordans. Essays written for a general audience often help to place scholarly research, and break down boundaries between the two. Unable to write dozens of pages on a topic, scholars writing for a mainstream publication unmask what is important in their research and how it matters.

Public writing is also a means to engage other scholars, especially those outside the academy. Professors do not have a monopoly on knowledge production; look no further than Ta-Nehisi Coates, an American writer for The Atlantic whose work on culture and politics is as “scholarly” and intellectually rich as that of any academic. Others, like Gary Younge, Jamilah Lemieux, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Dave Zirin are the forefront of important scholarly debates even if they are not taking place inside the Ivory Tower.

As an assistant professor, I regularly wrote for, a site dedicated to cultural commentary and reviews. I wrote on politics, sports, video games, and race. That experience enhanced my skills as a writer, and forced me to think about what mattered in my argument and how to write across discipline and method. Thanks to those essays I also developed professional relationships and friendships with several scholars. Writing a review of the videogame, “NBA Ballers,” prompted an email from one of my intellectual heroes, who, to this day remains one of my most trusted mentors. Several opportunities, not to mention significant intellectual growth, came about because of those relationships.

The writing I do in places like Vitae and Gawker advances the work that I’ve produced in journals or within books. It allows me to get feedback from a range of readers and to expand the reach of my ideas. A tweet becomes a Facebook status, and that becomes a piece for an online venue, which may become a journal article, or a book chapter.

I write in a myriad of spaces for a variety of reasons but in the end I write because I have something to say. I write because I hope the work resonates with people I know and people I don’t. I write because it is an expression of my worldview, my work, and my identities. I write because that is what we scholars do: We think, we share, we learn, and we grow. Public writing and scholarly writing do not stand in binary opposition to one another nor are they mutually exclusive.

Explaining the Underwhelming Reaction When Black Women’s Nude Pics Are Stolen

Posted: Sept. 8 2014 10:38 AM
Originally Published at The Root


Jill Scott performing in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 11, 2011ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The following is a sampling of headlines about the recent theft and illegal release of alleged nude photos of celebrities:

In them, and the hundreds of headlines like them, a theme emerges: white female victimhood. It’s in the choice of subjects, the words themselves and photos that accompany the various online reports. Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton are presented as the faces and bodies of these types of violations.

The flip side of these headlines and the less obvious theme is this: that black women are undeserving of protection; that when their privacy is criminally violated, it isn’t such a scandal. After all, Lawrence and Upton aren’t the only ones who have been violated in this way. Jill Scott andRihanna have, too.

If you didn’t know, that’s because the “leaks” and “hacks” related to black female victims were scarcely covered in comparison with those of their white counterparts.  A Google News search for celebrities’ names combined with “leaked,” while an informal measure, further confirms the spotlight on white female victims. Lawrence and Upton have, by far, the most results (22,700,000 and 126,000, respectively); Rihanna and Scott trail behind with 39,100 and 8,760, respectively.

There’s a disparity not just in the amount of news but in the amount of analysis and outrage when the victims are black. As the Washington Post’s Justin Moyer put it in his analysis of the leaks of recent weeks (Lawrence, Upton and Scott), “White feminists ignore Jill Scott.”

Continue reading at The Root

NewBlackMan (in Exile): Social Media Saved My Life

Social Media Saved My Life

by David Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Q: What happened after hackers shut down Twitter for a day? A: Twitterers were relegated to communicating the old fashioned way, through Facebook!

Q: Why is Facebook a great site for loners? A: Because it’s the only place where they can talk to a wall and not be considered a loser!

Q: Why is Facebook like a refrigerator? A: Because every few minutes you keep opening and closing it to see if there’s anything good in it! (Source)

It has become almost commonplace to mock social media. Whether describing it as a distraction, as a waste of time, or a world that is otherwise detached from reality, there is almost a cottage industry at scoffing at social media. Steve Tobak is indicative of this line of thinking:

Instead of living our lives, we’re watching our timelines on a two-dimensional display. Instead of doing, we’re content to observe events and post milestones on Facebook (FB). We’re becoming a society of watchers.

Sure, I know you’re all intelligent adults who understand there’s a world of difference between watching and doing. But that doesn’t change the reality that the vast majority of you are doing way too much observing and a whole lot less doing than you used to.

What’s the impact of our crazy obsession with gadgets and social media? It turns each of you a little more into a poor, lazy, lifeless drone every day.

Irrespective of these jokes and the constant disparagement of social media as the demise of “civilization,” social media saved me.

A couple years ago, I often wondered about my career in academia. Many nights (and early mornings) I contemplated other jobs, pining for anything, something other than my current existence. I lamented going to graduate school, I lamented the academic culture, and I even fantasized about a world where I could have traded my Ph.D. for something else. If it hadn’t been for student loan debt, financial obligations, my family, and my colleagues, I would have packed my books and bounced. While partly a fantasy, and partly the result of the intoxicating belief that the job is always enjoyable on the other side, I genuinely considered leaving academia. I thought long and hard about turning in my Ph.D. so I could become an ex-academic.

Between budget cuts, campus politics, disengaged students, societal disrespect for education and the stresses of life, I found myself continually asking, “does this matter;” I found myself hating the job. Maybe it wasn’t even the job but faced with tragedies, when witnessing so much pain and suffering, none of it seemed to matter. Whereas I spent so much of my life with freedom dreams, I found myself confronting nightmares.

This wasn’t just about hatin’ the job since a job “ain’t nothing but work,” but suddenly loathing everything that meant so much to me: reading, teaching and writing. I wanted out. I wanted to do something; really anything else. And that is why it hurt so much. I was slowly beginning to hate myself. For so long, I had seen myself, my identity, and my very existence in relationship to being a teacher, a scholar, a writer, and commentator—working to dream the world anew. In a sense, I hated myself because my identity was wrapped up in the “work.” Since it has never been just a job for me, my growing frustration and anxiety about the “job” was very personal. As a writer, teacher, scholar, and person committed to fostering conversations about equality and justice I felt as if I was betraying myself, betraying those who sacrificed so much for me, and otherwise taking advantage of my privileges by not using them in the pursuit of justice. I was being selfish. With these feelings and emotions, I couldn’t imagine another year, much less a lifetime on the academic grind.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Social Media Saved My Life.

NewBlackMan (in Exile): Playing Dead: The Trayvoning Meme & the Mocking of Black Death

Playing Dead:

The Trayvoning Meme & the Mocking of Black Death

by Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

The more things change, the more they stay the same. While new media and social networking is “transforming” our society, in certain ways, bringing people closer together, if only seemingly so, its “newness” seems only relative to its potential as a new frontier in which to deploy and recycle the same old narratives and tropes, to continue a history of injustices that define the American experience. As the technologies of communication appear new, the technologies of oppression are anything but. However, as we see with “Trayvoning,” the trend that has White youth posting pictures of themselves as if they were part of the Trayvon crime scene, the marriage of communication innovation with racist stagnation does constitute something new, though not improved, in the history of the system of racism in the United States.

“’Trayvoning’ is when you get a hoodie, Skittles and Arizona iced tea, and pose like you’ve been shot in the chest.” The Facebook page instructs participants in go through the following steps:

1. Get hoodie

2. Get skittles

3. Get Arizona

4. Wear hoodie

5. Go to Florida

6. Get shot 🙂

Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African American male who was unarmed and got shot by a raciest [sic] Mexican American.

During Step 7, participants are instructed to post their pictures on the Internet, which has led to widespread circulation of these disgusting and dehumanizing images.

In response to reports about “Trayvoning,” Jasiri X asked on Twitter: “Trayvoning? Really? Why is our pain, suffering & death, always mocked for laughs?” This question gets to the heart of not only the efforts to recreate and disseminate representations of the Trayvon case, but it is also a means to communicate pleasure in the murder of Trayvon. “Trayvoning” recasts and performs injustice by turning someone’s pain and suffering into a spectacle of white pleasure that further denies the humanity of black people. This is reflected not just in “Trayvoning” but with the Orlando businessman who has sought to capitalize by selling Trayvon shooting targets, the media that continues to criminalize and blame Trayvon, and those who have disparaged, mocked (see here for picture of someone who donned blackface), and made light of a dead young man.

The disregard for Black life, and the disparagement of Black death is nothing new; the pleasure and joy garnered from Black suffering and dreams deferred has been central to White supremacy throughout United States history. Evident in minstrel shows, the history of lynching, and jokes about racial profiling or the war on drugs, whites have always found joy in the violence experienced by African Americans.

The history of American public discourse is one marred with both the erasure of black and suffering, and efforts to find happiness and pleasure in the suffering of the OTHER. We saw this during Hurricane Katrina where the sight of African Americans wading through water in search of food or medicine, or stranded families clinging to life on roof tops elicited reactions of shock and horror as well as pleasure and joy at the knowledge that could never happen to White America. Dylan Rodriguez describes Katrina as a “scene of white popular enjoyment, wherein the purging/drowning of black people provided an opportunity for white Americana to revel in its entitlement to remain relatively indifferent to this nearby theater of breathtaking devastation.”

Such joy isn’t simply an outgrowth of the denied humanity of Black people or the refusal to witness and see Black pain, but it is also a celebration of, or at least the solidification of, White humanity, White power, and the protective armor that whiteness provides each and every day. This is the story of race in America, from lynchings to Katrina, from slavery to Trayvon Martin.

But the examples of racialized disregard that have surrounded Trayvon Martin’s death, most recently exemplified in the commodification and “meme-ification” of the tragedy by various White people. This marks a startling new mechanization of racism wherein there has been a complete evacuation of humanity…on both sides, that of people of color and other marginalized groups, the dehumanization of which is, sadly, no longer surprising, but also that of dominant groups who willfully participate in acts of oppression like “Trayvoning” whose humanity becomes increasingly and insidiously taken over by consumption and performance. The joy historically, as well as contemporaneously, taken by many Whites in the violence against and suffering of African Americans has become nearly indistinguishable from the joy of consuming.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan (in Exile): Playing Dead: The Trayvoning Meme & the Mocking of Black Death.

[OPINION] Is KONY 2012 for Real? – News & Views – EBONY

Is KONY 2012 for Real?

David J. Leonard

With close to 30 million viewers on YouTube, multiple days trending on twitter, domination of Facebook newsfeeds, and captivation of the national (global) imagination the “Stop Kony 2012” campaign is a lesson in the potential and pitfalls of new media activism.

Others have already offered valuable critiques concerning factual problems presented in the video, the economic practices of “Invisible Children,” the erasure of Ugandan voices, and the overall simplicity of its presented story, one that paints it as a struggle between good and evil. It is a story straight from Hollywood, with (White) Western heroes and a disgusting enemy in the form of Kony whose defeat will purportedly lead to harmony and peace irrespective of persistent poverty, AIDS, and a myriad of other problems.

Yet, what is striking here is not simply the recycling of “White saviors” and the pathologizing of Africans as either helpless/invisible victims or evil murders, but how new media fosters apolitical consumption. The “Stop Kony” viral video is an example of an emergent strain of social justice activism rampant in the United States and throughout the Western world. Described as click-through activism (“clicktivism”), cyber activism, and essentially based on apathy, limited knowledge and overall disengagement with social/political issues, the Kony campaign is a telling example of the ways new media technology can undermine struggles for justice. Urban Dictionary, usually not a source of theoretical insights, nails it in its definition of “Facebook activism”:

The illusion of dedication to a cause through no-commitment awareness groups. Specifically in reference to Facebook groups centered around political issues.

Dave: Man, this genocide in Darfur is terrible. I sure wish I could make a difference.

Jenna: Well, I made a Facebook group about it. We have almost one million members!

Dave: That’s great! Are you all going to donate money to refugees or something?

Jenna: No, but now those murderers will really know how sad we are!

Dave: Sounds like you’re really into your Facebook activism!

With Kony, although part of its agenda clearly is getting people to donate to the Invisible Children organization or to buy their “tool kit” (for 30 dollars), the video frames the issue as one of awareness where global pressure will lead to justice. In other words, merely “sharing” the video on Facebook, via Twitter or tumblr, will bring about change. Chris Csikzentmihalyi, co-director of the Center of Future Media at MIT, compares “click-through activism” to “dispensations that Catholic Church used to give.” Whether posting the video online, donating to the organization, or raising funds or awareness, participation in the Kony campaign becomes absolution for a history of wrongdoing and even any potential complicity in the problems facing the world. That is since people are “doing good,” by demanding justice, by raising awareness about Kony, war crimes, or any number of issues, they are absolved from responsibility; they are absolved from taking action in the real world.

Continue reading @ [OPINION] Is KONY 2012 for Real? – News & Views – EBONY.

NewBlackMan: Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

by David C. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing war on terror, the United States has increasingly relied on national narratives that offer certainty, comfort, and security. In catchphrases and sound bites, pundits and politicians remind Americans of the importance of protecting the homeland, the role of all Americans in safeguarding national space and American democratic values, the need to guard against the enemies of freedom and civilization, and the promise of spreading democracy throughout the world. As countless bodies fell, injured and dying, shattering families and communities over here and over there, multinational corporations have profited on an increased militarism, diminishing natural resources, and public panics. Within this climate, many in the United States have sought refuge in comforting narratives of good versus evil, civilization versus savagery. The power and cultural importance of these narratives has been evident with the murder of Trayvon Martin and in the spectacle of Kony 2012.

Prior to the start of the 2012 All Star game (I previously wrote that it was at halftime but based on timeline that appears to be incorrect), Trayvon Martin, a 17-year African American, decided to walk to the local store to get some candy and drinks. Tragically, it appears that he died because he was walking while black in a gated predominantly white community in Florida. Shortly after calling 911 to report a “suspicious” person within his community, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, confronted Martin, who was armed with skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea. What happened next is unclear, yet what is without much doubt is that Zimmerman shot Martin dead with a Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic gun. Identified as a “threat” Martin fell victim at the hands of a gun.

In a world where African Americans, particularly black male youth, are consistently represented as threats, to the security, peace, culture, calm, and order, how can “threat” be seen outside of the context of race? In a world where racial profiling is routine and where explicit and implicit bias has created the criminalblackman, is it even possible to think about the confrontation and ultimate death of Martin outside of the paradigm of a criminalized of black body? The 911 call, the confrontation, and the ultimate death fits a larger pattern whereupon blackness is consistently imagined as threat, as danger, and as EVIL; as a cultural and social pariah blackness needs to be controlled, discipline, and ultimately punished. According to Michelle Alexander, “Just as African Americans in the North were stigmatized by the Jim Crow system even if they were not subject to its formal control. Black men today are stigmatized by mass incarceration and the social construction of the ‘criminalblackman’ whether they have ever been to prison or not” (p. 194). In a review of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Max Kanter describes the specter of criminalization as follows:

This is evidenced in part by dominant media and cultural narratives, institutionalized (and legalized) racial profiling, and police efforts to build mass databases of “suspected criminals” which contain information almost exclusively on racial minorities who have often done nothing criminal at all aside from having been born to black and brown parents. In addition to the numerous studies showing that most white Americans see crime in racial (nonwhite) terms, studies conducted by Princeton University also reveal that white felons fresh out of prison are more likely to get hired for jobs than equally qualified black men with no criminal record. African American men without criminal records are more ostracized and widely perceived as being more criminal than white men who have actually been convicted of felony crimes. That is how deeply black people have been stigmatized as criminals and social pariahs in our society.

This is the context that we need to understand what happened to Trayvon Martin not only on the fateful evening, but also in terms of police response and that of the media and general public.

The death of a child under suspicious circumstances would have thought to have led to Zimmerman’s arrest, yet no charges have levied against him to date. It represents another reminder of whose life really matters. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told the Huffington Post that the police basically saw Zimmerman as a good guy giving them reason not to arrest him at this point:

They respected [Zimmerman’s] background, that he studied criminal justice for four years and that he was squeaky clean.” He continued: “My question to them was, did they run my child’s background check? They said yes. I asked them what they came up with, and they said nothing. So I asked if Zimmerman had a clean record, did that give him the right to shoot and kill an unarmed kid?”

While Trayvon Martin is not trending on twitter nor eliciting 500,000 views on YouTube, much less 70 million, Kony 2012 has captured the national (global) imagination. With millions of views on YouTube and Vimeo, with ample donations directed toward the film’s producer – Invisible Children – and a national conversation about Joseph Kony and his crimes against humanity, Kony 2012 has elicited an outpouring from all corners of society.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin.

NewBlackMan: Black Sambo 2.0? New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations


Black Sambo 2.0?

New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

New media technology is changing the landscape of television. At one level, the emergence of web-based television, along with platforms like YouTube, provides a space for historically ignored themes and silenced voices within popular culture. I previously wrote about the potential during a discussion of The LeBrons, which “highlights how new media technologies provide modern black athletes (among others) tools to define their own image and message, partially apart from those ‘restrictive script,’ yet bound by the dominant discourse and accepted images.”

Reflecting on this cultural and technological shift, Aymar Christen Jean argues that the golden age of black television has ended. He notes further that the potential afforded by new media technologies are significant in challenging the white hegemony of American television culture: “In this early stage, the writing and production values are uneven. But when you throw in social-networking possibilities online, the emergence of original Web programming can only be good news for black art and expression.” Writing about the brilliant and rightly celebrated The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, Britni Danielle highlights the transformative potential residing in Web 2.0. “It’s official, the best shows featuring Black people are not on BET, TVOne, NBC, or any other TV channel. The best shows featuring interesting Black characters are on the web,” writes Danielle. “In times like these, when TV shows and films featuring interesting Black characters are missing from most mainstream outlets, it’s nice to see that many (and I do mean many) are taking matters into their own hands and making their own way.”

While clear, from The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, The New 20s, The LeBrons, Kindred, and Road to the Alter, that the web is emerging as the promise land for the production of black-themed shows and the dissemination of counter-narratives and representations, the frontier of new media technology is also littered with dehumanizing shows as well.

The advance of new media technology, whether on YouTube, I-Tunes, or the totality of the Internet provides a space for the dissemination of racist shows of yesterday, narratives, stereotypes, and episodes that artists fought long and hard to remove from public consumption. William Van De Burg, in New Day in Babylon, documents the ways in which organizations, like the National Black Media Coalition and Black Citizens for Fair Media, fought the continued dissemination of racist imagery. They, along with Asian Americans for Fair Media and others, worked hard to counter those racial images that represented “an explosive psychological force that warps human relationships and wreaks havoc on one’s personal dignity” (Wei, 1993; 51). While movements of the 1960s and 1970s were successful in challenging the presence of dehumanizing representations within network television, the advance of new media has proven to given life to many shows of past generations.

On YouTube, you can find a number of cartoons from the mid-20th century, some of which are explicitly labeled as racist (or banned/censored) cartoons, while others lack specific marking. These cartoons bring into wide circulation the otherwise put into the grave racist televisual moments of yesteryear. For example, on YouTube, “Southern Fried Rabbit” where bugs sings, “I wish I was in Dixie,” also depicts the South as a beautiful oasis in juxtaposition to the barren wasteland of the North. In this episode, Bugs Bunny is presented in blackface, ultimately impersonating a happy slave. At one level, this particular episode is keeping “past” images and narratives alive (the happy slave is clear in circulation as evidence by “pledge”); at another level, it facilitates a space where commentators can rehash and deploy their own racial narratives and ideologies. Claims about permissibility of racist images back then, that it was just entertainment, and simply kid’s stuff are commonplace on YouTube. Likewise, in this episode and in countless others found on YouTube, the history of blackface, of imagining and depicting blackness through dehumanizing imagery is evident.

Continue reading at NewBlackMan: Black Sambo 2.0? New Media Technology and the Persistence of Racist Representations.