“You cannot erase me.”
In a dynamic Franklin & Marshall Common Hour lecture, author Felicia Rose Chavez laid bare the politics of privilege that historically silence writers of color.
Her Oct. 7 virtual talk featured readings and discussion centered around her book, “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop.”
“So often, people of color are erased from academia,” said Chavez, creativity and innovation scholar-in-residence at Colorado College.
Part memoir and part syllabus, “The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop” combines personal story and strategies for students to claim ownership of their learning journeys.
“This book is about institutions, more specifically institutional racism, the system of advantage based on race,” Chavez said, condemning the traditional writing workshop model of primarily white workshop leaders, white workshop participants and white author texts.
Reciting excerpts from her work, Chavez’s discussion centered on “a profound ubiquitous silence: the nearly complete omission of writers of color in person and in print. It is as though we do not exist.”
“When I speak of dominance and control, I'm really talking about silence,” she added.
A chilling excerpt titled “Completing the Canon” reveals the way this silence is upheld and even mandated:
Institutionalized literacy has always been a means to preserve white dominance, from anti-educational slave codes to Indian boarding schools, Jim Crow laws to English-only mandates, racially-motivated school zoning regulations to SAT and GRE testing. Those in power exploit the rules of reading and writing in an effort to dehumanize, pacify, assimilate and control people of color.
In another passage, Chavez observes the racism that followed her as a first-generation undergraduate student, a graduate fellowship student, and even now, as a visiting assistant professor of English at a private liberal arts college:
My family would tell me to hold my tongue and focus on writing. I was, after all, lucky to be in the workshop. That's the implicit imperative for people of color in MFA programs: To write, but not to exercise voice. Silencing writers is central to the traditional writing workshop model. The matrix of silence is so profound, it enlists writers of color to eradicate ourselves.
What can educators do to unravel years of systematic silence? To start, Chavez advised, create a safe space for creative concentration and exposure to the literary traditions of writers of color.
“Teach your students to listen to themselves, to one another, to use storytelling as a means to define what change sounds like,” she said.
"To call up our words is an act of justice. To honor our words on the page is an act of dignity. To read our words aloud is an act of self-love. Teach your students to listen to themselves, to one another, to use storytelling as a means to define what change sounds like."