You Can Keep the Minstrel Show: Response to Eric Kalderman’s “How a Fight Over a Black Lives Matter Statement Transformed an Academic Association,”

[This is the letter I sent to the editors of the Chronicle of Higher Ed in response to Eric Kalderman’s “How a Fight Over a Black Lives Matter Statement Transformed an Academic Association.”]

After reading Eric Kalderman’s “How a Fight Over a Black Lives Matter Statement Transformed an Academic Association,” I’m compelled to clarify a few points about what happened with the Puerto Rican Studies Association, and my exchange with some of the five scholars whom Dr. Yarimar Bonilla unfortunately referred to as the #PRSA5 in a recent tweet

Mr. Kalderman misinterpreted and ignored quite a few points from our long conversation and material made available to him by other parties involved. Worse still, he vilified and racialized me in his reporting.

For starters I did not “attack” five women. I directed an email to Dr. Marisol Lebrón, Aurora Santiago, and Sarah Molinari and stated that my suggestion to craft a Black Lives Matter statement on behalf of the organization had been ignored and later appropriated by them. Dr. Joanna Camacho and Lisa Jahn responded in solidarity in subsequent emails, but the majority of the exchange was between Marisol and me. Sarah and Aurora would chime in to support Marisol and launch unsupported accusations.

Mr. Kalderman’s choice of words further imply that they are junior scholar and that I hold a relative position of power/authority over them. That is simply not true. Marisol is a tenure track associate professor with one book monograph and an edited volume with Yarimar Bonilla out. He also failed to mention that I’m also untenured faculty and that I don’t hold or ever held any power over any of the scholars involved. I’m older than them but that is because I took a different route and went to college as an adult after having all kinds of jobs and serving in the U.S. Army (which many in Puerto Rican Studies hold against me). It is a known fact that in Puerto Rican Studies, people with my background, trajectory, and area of research are often ignored to the point that Puerto Rican senior scholars advised me to remove my military experience from my CV if I wanted to have any chance at a job interview.  

Moreover, he ignores that Marisol, Sarah and Aurora are godparented (apadrinadas) by some of the most influential senior Puerto Rican scholars. Also, Kalderman’s choice of the word “attack” gives the reader the impression that there are victims and victimizers. He proceeds to present them as “Scholars in Distress” (a new version of the racist and imperialist “Damsels in Distress” imagery) throughout the rest of the article. Ironically, this is a common archetype: non-white males abusing women in need of a white savior. But back to the matter, academic exchanges should not be subjected to discourses of victimization.

When Kalderman writes: “The women who were the subjects of Franqui-Rivera’s outburst” he is both villainizing me and racializing me as a non-white uncivilized brute unable of emotional restrain. It is quite frustrating having to explain that sending a series of email denouncing a trajectory of being ignored, having ideas appropriated; and using the association to promote one’s work and career is not an outburst. But I’m not surprised. That, sadly, is not only part of my research and academic production – but also part of my experience in the United States and higher education as an archipelago-born Puerto Rican man who served in the U.S. military and had a non-traditional path to an academic career.

His word choices are intentional and read more like an opinion piece co-written with Marisol than an actual journalistic article. Indeed, he does not even place quotes around her statements leading the reader to believe these are solid facts, not her perspective.

Moreover, Kalderman dramatizes and takes out of context an email in which I wrote “that is in your head” making me the poster child of aloof misogyny, racism and homo-queer-trans-phobia.  

“Then things got uglier. Franqui-Rivera compared an email sent by one of the five women to President Trump’s divisive tweets, and told the women that the sexism and misogyny they alleged was “all in their head,” he said.”

When I wrote that, I was asking for evidence for my supposedly misogynistic behavior. After several exchanges in which the tired “it is not my burden to show you” was thrown around- I used the expression to highlight their inability to actually identify racist, anti-Black, anti-trans and ignorant comments in our exchanges.

Kalderman’s editing makes it look like I was denying the existence of sexism or misogyny in the organization or as a systemic global issue. For that matter, I have been a feminist since before I came upon feminist theory while teaching at Rutgers University almost 20 years ago- and I teach both my son and daughter to be feminists and reject patriarchy because I have always understood feminism as a sine qua non for a fair society. You can actually revise all my social media and academic production and try to find any evidence proving me a liar.

Mr. Kalderman repeatedly decontextualizes the exchanges. He writes that I called the five scholars “a clique of abusers and cyber bullies” on a Facebook post. He fails to mention that my post was in response to a Facebook post in which Marisol publicly called out Puerto Ricanist academics and grad students in a Facebook post by claiming that she could not believe that they had not unfriended me from Facebook. That was an open act of intimidation, policing, and cyber bullying. Quite a few junior scholars sent me screen shots uncertain about what to do. That is why I responded calling out her cyber bullying. That also shows the power that Marisol has always had and how she can count on her followers to uncritically follow her every word.

Kalderman’s inclusion of Dr. Yolanda Martínez San Miguel’s false assertions is beyond the pale. Not only she is one of the most senior Puerto Rican scholars, and basically royalty in Puerto Rico, she is also an academic bully. At a PRSA 2012 meeting in Albany, her partner publicly insulted and verbally assaulted me in the middle of a plenary. My crime? He didn’t like my research so he yelled at me that I was a petty-yankee, that I knew nothing, that I had no business writing Puerto Rican history, that I was fucking ignorant and stupid, etc… while Yolanda smiled. From that point onwards she has told both senior and emerging scholars not to associate with me because I’m a “petty Yankee”- perhaps the worst insult and the ultimate blacklisting for a Puertoricanist. Yet she is portrayed in the article as another victim when nothing could be farther from the truth. Moreover, Mr. Kelderman received emails showing that at no moment she was discouraged from running for VP.

Mr. Kelderman makes reference to Yarimar Bonilla: 

Bonilla said Venator-Santiago’s comments “shows why so many people have felt that the organization had no space for them.”

“Although my work has been vetted by countless peer reviewers, editorial boards, tenure committees, and grant-and-fellowship panels,” she said, “it remains illegible to them because it is not part of their narrow definitions of the field.”

We discussed the incident at length to clarify how Bonilla became the keynote speaker of PRSA 2019.  I informed him of the existence of emails and notes of the discussion backing my statements.  Simply put, Marisol invited Yarimar to be the keynote speaker of an event that normally does not have one but rather is features a presidential round table. The presidential table composition was in the works when Marisol announced that Yarimar would be the keynote speaker. And she did not have the authority to unilaterally invite her as keynote. When confronted with opposition to having Yarimar or any keynote speaker- Marisol responded that Yarimar was doing us a favor and that her institution was paying for the event and they wanted Yarimar- that is on record. Moreover, Marisol let us know that Yarimar would not come as part of the presidential table- only as a keynote speaker.  

I responded that no one who is in panel, presidential table, or is a keynote speaker in a PRSA event is doing the association or the field a favor, and that no institution has the right to think we could be hired for the day. Worse yet, I found completely unethical that Marisol would invite her close friend and co-editor of a book as the keynote speaker and basically turn PRSA 2019 into their big book talk. This seemed to me to be a blatant promotional strategy.

Marisol’s defense of her unilateral decision is also quite problematic. To me, PRSA events have never been perfunctory as Marisol is quoted in the article. Her comments about new “young energetic scholars” also show a nuanced disdain for scholars older than her.

And for that matter, it is poor form to include declarations from Tomás Urayoán Noel and Larry LaFountain-Stokes with respect to an atmosphere dominated by men in leadership positions “who did not seem sympathetic or open to different perspectives.” They served as senior members of the board. My first time as treasurer (2016-2018) coincided with what was their last year in PRSA- a year in which we didn’t meet a single time. And a year in which I was the most junior member along with a female colleague who calls me “brother”. We were both puzzled that after being elected to the Executive Committee we were never invited to a single meeting that year or the following despite our many emails and phone calls to the president.

When Noel and LaFountain-Stokes last served, I was a paper executive council member (because we never met as a council although I performed my duties as treasurer) and the leadership was not male. So, their statements fall flat in view that they were the male senior members along with Dr. Arlene Torres (president) and Willian Velez (VP).

I only accepted to run for treasurer again in 2018 (unopposed) because after several calls for nominations no one would do it. This new desire to remake the organization is quite ironic- and even more so considering that not one of the #PRSA5 volunteered to be in the nomination committee for the scheduled 2020 elections.

The narrow definition of Puerto Rican Studies doesn’t come from me or from Charles Venator Santiago, but from a close-knit group of scholars that position themselves as pioneers of a new generation in Puerto Rican studies. In this effort, they also have an insular network in which they peer-review each other, and block and backlist scholarship they can’t engage with and try to cancel scholars who may challenge their dogmatic views. I have called this “payola in Puerto Rican Studies”. This is the opposite of the inclusive and progressive platform that they espouse. Yet another point I called out during the exchange that led to this fabricated crisis. I had called it out before because there is no worse academic crime than to hijack the experience and history of a people for personal gain or to support ideologies. That is the worst kind of colonization.

And a fabricated crisis it was. They skipped two meetings planned to iron out our differences (in which I had planned to resign my position to save PRSA) and instead sent their letter of resignation before the final meeting. They made the letter public almost immediately, and before the Executive Committee had time to respond- their academic godparents released the Requiem letter. Moreover, if they wanted me out as they expressed in the letter- all they needed to do was to come to a meeting, call the motion, and vote on it. Neither the president nor the VP could unilaterally expel me as they demanded- because PRSA was an institution with bylaws, not a Treehouse Club. But they wouldn’t get much exposure if I resigned, or they voted to expel me from the E.C.

And for the record, I would never argue that transgender people aren’t the target of hate crimes or that they don’t disproportionately suffer from police interactions. What I said was that we could not state that Black trans people suffered the brunt of police extra judicial killings because there is no evidence to back that up. Mr. Kalderman attempts to misconstrue my comment, then refutes his own misconstruction with a 2013 study that in no way invalidates my actual position. As a responsible board member, and in this current climate of political and racialized divisiveness, I wouldn’t write or sign a statement that could be used to delegitimize and ridicule PRSA, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ communities.

I won’t stand for the appropriation of Black suffering. That is something that is problem within Puerto Rican and other area studies. And I’m not talking about Jessica “la Bombalera” Krug. Sure, she put on a minstrel show for the white liberal gaze, but her main audience was Puerto Rican scholars who engage in that type of performance themselves and thus never noticed her lies until young Black scholars investigated them. She performed for scholars who make pathological performances of victimhood, righteousness and wokeness. And those same scholars were singing her praises until recently. I have refused to be another clown, lion or gladiator in this circus- or to take seriously those who do it. Moreover, I refuse to appropriate other people’s suffering to pad my CV or grow my social media following.

It did not surprise me that Yarimar Bonilla, in yet another publicity stunt, called the five scholars who made their resignation public- the #PRSA5. This was just another example of the callous appropriation of the Black experience. In this case, five Black young men known as the Central Park Five unjustly accused, victimized by the police and the justice system, and vilified by the press and the bigot now occupying the White House. Quite the contrary of what the so-called #PRSA5 experienced.  These are the pathological displays and performances of victimhood. I refuse to be part of it.

If this is the future of Puerto Rican Studies- I’ll pass.

I refuse to put on the show of porno-misery; I refuse to present the Puerto Ricans as people without recourse, as little brown brothers in need of help; I refuse to put on that show that the white liberal gaze so eagerly consumes. I refuse to put on a minstrel show. I’m a scholar and I engage in academic debates and in the production and dissemination of knowledge.

The minstrel show is all theirs.

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