Black Lives Matter Syllabus Project, Pedagogy

The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, Week 23: April Petillo on Being an Arrivant in the Classroom

The editors of Anthropoliteia are happy to continue an ongoing series The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus Project, which will mobilize anthropological work as a pedagogical exercise addressing the confluence of race, policing and justice. You can see a growing bibliography of resources via our Mendeley feed.  In this entry,  April Petillo discusses stream of conscious Blackness, colonial unknowing, and academic realness.


Image: Charles White’s “Awaken from the Unknowing” (1961).

I have been thinking about Blackness.

My university community has been shaken by the politics of race and ethnicity that have been the subject of news and commentary issues over the past two years.  In this regard, we are like any other small PWI in a small town—the spots where Midwestern sensibilities concerning “polite conversation” and fears about saying the wrong thing collide with a recognition that conversations about race and anti-blackness are far from over.  Located 20 minutes from a military base and a few hours from Ferguson, MO, this university was also —and still is—grappling with militancy, patriotism and values of service as they relate to the systemic injustices seemingly embedded in the fabric of the Midwestern landscape these days.  In these spaces, and among a sea of white faces, frustrated students of color figuring out how to “get woke” often ask, “Why do you talk about history?  What’s happening to us in the streets is not about history.  It’s about the here and now.”  Nearly every time, I pause.  I’ve yet to find a quick, simple response.  The street militarism demonstrated on the likes of my students has everything to do with our cultural—and yes, historical— understanding of blackness.  So, there isn’t a simple and easy answer.  It is about history…and it isn’t… as easy as that.

So, I have been thinking about Blackness.  A lot.

Not Blackness as in ethnorace and embodied heritages connected to diasporas forced, coerced and voluntary.  Rather, I’ve been contemplating Blackness as it was broadly conceived by Fanon.  I have pondered the shape of it and how it is conceived, à la Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter. Blackness as the colonial Other, as embedded in the consciousness of Black joy and resurgence, as Black power and politics, as Black righteous indignation and elevated grief.  I have been thinking about the embodiment of a process of becoming and unbecoming, physically representing a critical questioning of a colonialist, imperialist, settler order.  Sitting in the parlor of Blackness waiting for the answer, I have bided my time by flipping this idea of Arrivant status over and over, to see where and how Blackness functions within it.

See, it is required that I think about Blackness a lot, even as these academic walls demand an objectivity that they will not let me actually use.

I am a Black woman in front of the classroom talking about race and ethnicity each and every day.  My training is anchored in Indigenous Studies and, among other things, my work often looks at the intersections of Indigenous and African experience.  Regardless of what community’s story lies at the center of the day’s lesson plan, I am very aware that my Blackness impacts how the information is received.  When I discuss race or ethnicity broadly, I know that the assumption is that I am speaking about Black people and Black experience disconnected from the experiences of other communities of color and/or difference.

I’ve been out as an Arrivant engaging in Indigenous and Ethnic studies scholarship for some time now.

My more advanced undergraduate students and I discuss this idea of arrival and Arrivant in a colonial, imperialist context.  We professional academics often think of students as unable to process these ideas or not ready for this kind of conversation.  However, if they are asking why history matters in their current cultural climate and political landscape, then aren’t they ready to consider that this lack of awareness may be part of what keeps them stuck in a climate and landscape hostile to them? As students of color and/or students navigating some difference deemed as Other, how can they be self-aware if they are never to consider the impact of Colonial Unknowing[1] on their everyday?

Regardless of how our bodies have been politicized, while in the classroom together, we ponder what it might mean to examine, contemplate, make and remake ourselves regardless of the labels that have been crafted for us to wear, like imposed, permanent garments. We try to stretch our thinking beyond the boundaries structured for us as politicized bodies. We step into an awareness that Blackness is also wrapped up in how we relate (and are taught to relate) to one another. From the relational reality of race, I can’t help but land on this concept of Arrivant.

As I explain my embrace of Arrivant status, we connect Tiffany L. King’s Black Discourses on Conquest[2] and settler colonialism as we trace the ongoing structuring and historic anchoring of our ethnoracial relations.  We maneuver through the profound historical disassociation that dismembers us from what Ann Stoler describes as unspeakable, unintelligible colonial pasts.[3] As if on a tour, we pinpoint the places where our contemporary experiences reinforce a false reality simultaneously locating colonialism everywhere and nowhere, thus re-inscribing the resulting colonial displacement into the now.

By the time we get to the idea of arrival and Arrivants, the hope is that we are all ready to see Blackness anew rather than return to now tired tropes about inability to see color.  From my vantage point, in this moment the air seems to stop moving for students of color in this class. We breathe in new tactics of survival, new ways to live in this world, and new points of departure from whence we find ourselves (Jodi A. Byrd,[4] à la Kamau Brathwaite[5]).   I can see them take in the connections that, until this moment, felt abstract.   Attuned to the expansive and ongoing acts of conquest in everyday life, that silent intake of extra air means everything.  It is a recognition of, as King puts it, Columbus as enslaver as well as genocidal murderer.  At that moment, I think I can see more Arrivants recognizing themselves.

That’s likely because I have been thinking about Blackness.  A lot. Even more so of late.  I have been hoping that more of us work to understand that this—right now—is both about our histories and how they are relationally connected, but not at all about what we are usually expecting to learn or see.

[1] Manu Vimalassery and Juliana Hu Pegues and Alyosha Goldstein. “Introduction: On Colonial Unknowing.” Theory & Event 19, no. 4 (2016) (accessed March 4, 2017).

[2] Tiffany L. King. “New World Grammars: The ‘Unthought’ Black Discourses of Conquest.” Theory & Event 19, no. 4 (2016) (accessed March 4, 2017).

[3] Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France,” Public Culture 23, no. 1 (Winter 2011): 121–156.

[4] Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xix.

[5] Edward Kamau Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy—Rights of Passage / Islands / Masks (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).


April D. J. Petillo is an Assistant Professor of American Ethnic Studies, with a Native American/Indigenous Studies Emphasis, at Kansas State University.  Her transdisciplinary, intersectional work examines the connections between contemporary targeted violences and exploitation, colonial and conquest logics, precarity, community defined justice and the law.  April works most often with communities of color and difference around issues of gender, sex, sexuality and where these axes of identity intersect with law and policy.  Future scholarship is steeped in transformative and auto-ethnographic explorations of identity and Arrivant/Indigenous coalition building in hostile political landscapes.


One thought on “The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, Week 23: April Petillo on Being an Arrivant in the Classroom

  1. Pingback: The Anthropoliteia #BlackLivesMatter Syllabus, Week 26: Sameena Mulla on Missing Black Girls and Women | Anthropoliteia

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