Breaking Boundaries, Making Connections
A Q&A with activist, writer and professor Cherríe Moraga
by Suzi Steffen
Progressive students should demand that their professors be role models — and push Obama to fulfill the promise of an administration that could meet their goals, says poet, playwright, essayist and professor Cherríe Moraga.
Moraga, who has identified as a Chicana and a butch lesbian, is the author of Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca paso por sus labios and the co-editor of the breakthrough feminist of color anthology This Bridge Called My Back. She speaks at 7:30 pm Wednesday, Nov. 5, in the EMU Ballroom, to kick off the ASUO Women’s Center Women of Color Speakers Series.
Moraga also speaks to a Hispanic literature class, joins students and staff of color for lunch at the Longhouse and talks with junior faculty of color about the importance of mentorship.
EW briefly interviewed Moraga the week before her visit.
Can you tell me about the new version of Loving in the War Years? I read an interview in which the reporter said you added more chapters in the 2000 update in an attempt to appeal to the young people you work with.
Hm, that’s not exactly right. It’s a final chapter. I added another chapter to it with essays that I wrote in the 1990s, and I wrote another foreword to the book, basically trying to contextualize it more currently. In fact, the earlier stuff relates more to young people than the newer essays — the intimacy of the early essays around issues of identity is very apropos to young people because I wrote them while I was young.
This effort was to show a progression of my ideas in the time in between, to frame the book more in terms of my own evolution of ideas in terms of where my politics went from the early 1980s to the turn of the century. [That was especially about] issues of indigenous identity among Chicanos, and there’s also an article called Out of Our Revolutionary Minds, a critique of the corporate academy. I was trying to get young people to require more out of their education, and I was critiquing this many-tiered system in which, depending on where you are in class, that affects the education you get from elementary school on. In the 1990s, there was all of the anti-affirmative action, all of this English-only rhetoric, so I was trying to talk about where, as a movement, we need to be.
What would you say about what’s happened between that re-publication and now in those terms?
I thought this was supposed to be a short interview! [Laughs] What I’ve been saying to everybody — but it’s hard to say this right now because of Obama’s impending election — it’s hard not to have hope, but it’s hard to feel like, OK, you’re attracted to Obama and he’s certainly an alternative to the Bush administration, but what are your issues, what do you want from him?
That sort of rock star phenomenon is great in terms that it got people mobilized, but really and truly, what has happened and what my writings and my lectures have been about, is increasingly trying to get young people to realize this is their hour to require something more, whether within party systems or outside of party systems. I keep returning to this idea that democracy and capitalism are not the same thing.
Some of these notions about what freedom is are so tied to consumerism now. That’s the hardest thing to open up in the minds of young people because you’re really fighting this deluge of media that equates freedom with buying and individualism. That notion that what happens in another part of the world impacts us personally, the general culture of the U.S. tries to negate. The general culture is about really strong, rigid notions of American manifest destiny and rugged individualism, all those values that I take issue with and are why we have genocide at the foundation of this country. Young people aren’t really getting a counter-message, outside of churches.
Yes, I wanted to ask you about where you think the left finds community for those who don’t go to church.
That’s the point. Most of the time when I do speak to young people, I’m always saying, “You guys are the ones with the fresh brains and the good bodies, and it’s this critical time that is being so wasted.” I have two teens, and I realize the seduction of always being occupied by the Internet. What is it you’re reading, what is it you’re following, how is your day taken up? To find a community, decide to work on one simple project you care about. That’s how you get involved with community: You see something that seems unjust, something that doesn’t seem right, and you try to become involved. That action will open the door to more critical thinking, more awareness, more activism.
Students need to require more progressive agendas from their teachers. Teachers can give them analysis and tools that will help them develop democracy in their country and not develop the status quo. And do the teachers practice what they preach, or are they ivory tower folks? It’s this process of becoming more educated and having your consciousness raised and moving out of your comfort zone that requires some kind of engagement in organizations or projects or coalition work, whether it’s about the war or the economy or after school programs.
It really is about getting out of that place where we’re comfortable because the country is based on convincing us that that’s what we want. If a part of your identity is disenfranchised, that might be the aperture for you begin to do some work, but if those identities aren’t what move you, are there sites that need mending or need development? Whatever city or town you live in, there’s plenty of work to get done.
I saw a movie maybe in 1999 or 2000 about the, I’m not sure how to put this, the burden on faculty women of color who have to, and want to, mentor students of color along with trying to get tenure. So how can scholars nurture themselves and each other while trying to deal with a tenure system that’s basically set up for straight white men?
I teach at Stanford, so this is the belly of the beast! I find that as a faculty person, sometimes you have to take an enormous amount of risk to really stand with your students, advocate for your students, particularly students that want to do things that are somewhat outside the standard fare of study.
Some of the most brilliant ones are making connections around things that, the way the structures of departments are lined up, aren’t easily accommodated. And the higher up you are on that food chain, the better advocate you can be. That’s so critical, and sometimes I bemoan the fact that I feel like that’s not happening enough. The academy has become so corporatized, and there’s a lot that’s required of tenure track faculty, junior faculty. There’s so much required of them and so much stress, we can sometimes lose sight of that advocacy for students because that’s not applauded in the university. Even teaching well isn’t applauded in large research institutions; it’s really about your career. So being an advocate for students is kind of in addition to what you have to do, and that’s the issue for women of color, you’re working triple time in terms of what’s expected of you.
But there’s no other reason to be there. Real intellectualism can happen outside of the academy, so if you’re in the academy, you should be there to teach. And they can give you access to resources, but your job is to teach, and unfortunately I feel like that’s an area that’s not very well supported, and it’s particularly hard on women of color grad students. My experience with all of these years of teaching is that there are a lot of disappointments along the way. So mentorship is fundamental. There is no other, better calling at the university than that. I mean, why are we there? We’re there to mentor; we’re there to give models to students, of how you make a conscious, responsive life as a thinker, as an intellectual — but also as a human being. I feel like students are checking out how I live as well as what I’m saying.
So yes, that’s an extra burden for women of color, but for women who have politics attached to race and class and gender, your job is to teach and mentor well. Condoleezza Rice is indicative that a woman of color does not a radical make; I’m prescribing this for women of color who know they’re there not just for thinkers but for people who will make progressive contributions to society. In the university system, we lose ourselves, and the next thing you know, we’re just talking to each other. How do we have a connection to the community at large and other real human beings off that campus?
You’re speaking here the day after the election. Do you have any hope in terms of the election?
Of course I do! When George Bush was elected the first time, there was some little part of me that thought it will get so bad that there will be a progressive response. Instead of that happening in four years, that happened in eight years, but in the meantime, tens of thousands of people died. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m so glad to have the man out of office because singly, he’s responsible for war crimes and for mass murders of people, U.S. and Iraqi, to say nothing of eight years of complete thievery in terms of resources of the rest of us that are not the ruling class in this country. So to have the Republicans out of office, there is hope in that.
But in terms of what Obama will do and if he has enough representation among Dems in Congress that we can avoid filibusters, yes, this is an opportunity for an amazing amount of change. But there’s nothing yet that Obama has done that has indicated that his vision is beyond kind of a moderate Democratic view, except to close the tax loopholes for the rich. What always has worried me in this whole campaign is that he doesn’t talk about the poor, which is like the dirty word, because the poor are associated with race and with those issues.
It’s a mystery; everybody talks about the real man and what he’ll really do. The right is scared, but on the left end of it, we’re fearing that what you see is what you get, that he’s not holding back his real politics. Around inner city issues, social programs for the poor … I’m worried, but I hope, I hope, I hope.