(Un)bordered Emancipation of the Activist/Academic “divide”: A Different Type of Discipline

This piece was originally published on Sept 1, 2015 on the Critical Ethnic Studies Association blog. The theme for the series was Academia/Activism and Other (Unnecessary) Binaries. My role as a Futures Initiative Fellow deals with the revolutionizing of higher education so much so as it also relates to the unnecessary divide between the university and the greater public communit(ies)y. Ideally, the “university” as it corresponds to the notion of a “universe” should have logically, always incorporated all peoples and all communities. As our history and very present tells us, this has not and is not, unfortunately the case. The notion of education as a public good is at the core of the Futures Initiative’s values and we need to make sure that all of the barriers that prevent that are abolished in critical and revolutionary ways.



Before going back to college, I knew I didn’t want to be an intellectual, spending my life in books and libraries without knowing what the hell is going on in the streets. Theory without practice is just as incomplete as practice without theory. The two have to go together.  —Assata Shakur (1999),  Assata Shakur: an Autobiography.

While some epistemological traditions approach dualities as reciprocal, balancing and thus necessary (Ohsawa 1931; Wilson 2009), others constitute them as binaries that are conflicting, competing, production-driven or abrasive. The latter type of binarism acts as a place-making technology, predicated on the creation, mapping, and regeneration of opposites. This plays out in numerous sites that are actually interdependent and complex. Such complex sites include but are not limited to human subjectivity as well as the human’s role in capitalism. Specifically the activist/academic “divide” smudges and destroys relationships that should be understood as complementary, relational, reciprocal, and transformative.

Many of us feel effects of artificial binaries. They create limitations that ignore the benefits of uniting dissimilar energies that could otherwise bring forth collective balance, powerful completion and shared abundance. Particularly, the line drawn between academia and activism remains clearly marked by architecture, accessibility, exposure, exclusivity, resources and other demarcations that impede democratization or the mutual exchange of knowledge and action. It is this very imbalance that leads some of us to uncritically accept artificial divisions, instead of using our different aptitudes to construct contingent, co-conspired and complementary communities. While many people have created situations that foster activist/academic unity, in some spheres the tendency of brutal and marginalizing binarism persists. Unless we challenge and change the forces that keep us apart, we will stagnate.

Typically colonial, certain understandings of duality partition the world into simple oppositions. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking keeps too many of us chained, isolated and incomplete. Activists and academics, while they can be one-in-the-same, and often are, ideally should build and appreciate each other’s crafts and talents by being relational and complementary, engaging in radical change. The act of doing critical and revolutionary scholarship should enhance the work that is already being done on the ground and contrarily, what is happening on the ground must fuel libratory scholarship. That said, the two crafts should mirror each other’s spirit. The rigor, robustness and nuance of our scholarship are necessary for our activism and the fearless, confrontational creativity of our activism must also come forth in our academic work. Each facet of the work, directly relates to the abolition of oppression. Together, we are to be the complete one-two-punch.

Consider the quote from Assata Shakur above. Shakur teaches us that in skillfully combining our duality we can realize an (un)limited, (un)boxed human complexity and capacity to get free. Unfortunately, before making this truthful assertion, Shakur explains that she did not want to become a particular type of intellectual, specifically the type of intellectual that is stereotypically situated in a library, out of touch — one who might commonly be referred to as an inactive “armchair academic.” Consequently, by conjuring up this unbalanced and un(der)contextualized image of the intellectual, Shakur puts forward an anti-intellectual sentiment that neglects recognition that there is intellectual, creative work abounding across the so-called academic/activist “divide.”

While I am critical of Shakur’s contention, as any critical thinker should be, I raise this concern because of my deep admiration of Shakur’s life, work, love and sacrifice. In other words, I embrace Shakur’s reflection that collective completion results from merging energetic focuses. Shakur is helpful in making us see the negative effect of being static, (un)fluid and divided on the basis of our official roles. For Shakur an action-oriented process of “selection” and “re-selection,” of ancestors, (as well as skills and traits) (Williams 1977; Gilmore 2015) configure a sort of unity between the two crafts in order to bring forth strength and liberation for all.

Similarly, Joy James theorizing the spirits (or the feelings) of love and rage explains,

Love and rage initially seem paradoxical, coupled as oddities. They are assumed by some to appear in exclusive sites, as distinct and unrelated experiences and feelings. But they coexist, with a dynamic ability to metamorphose or shape shift, one into the other. Love and rage are the impetus for much reflection, agonizing, action, and risk taking… Much as love and rage can balance and converge, so, too, can academia and activism.  (Joy James (2003), Academia, Activism, and Imprisoned Intellectuals) 

Here we see another application of dichotomy that maps out the strength of merging activism and academia, rather than, the unnecessary opposition housed in simplistic binary formulations. Ruth Wilson Gilmore also has some words to offer on the in-betweenness of academia and activism. Noting the difference between a scholar activist whose scholarship is based on urgency Gilmore leaves us with some thoughts on the real existence of being both activist and scholar. She explains,

Activist scholarship attempts to intervene in a particular historical-geographical moment by changing not only what people do but also how all of us think about ourselves and our time and place, by opening the world we make. (Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2008), Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning).

Likewise, in an interview, Jasbir Puar says,

The binary or the finite distinctions between academic work and activist analysis is an impossible one for me to inhabit. Like many in my position, I could not tell you where my activist analysis ends and my academic work begins, or vice versa (Naomi Greyser (2012), Academic and Activist Assemblages: An Interview with Jasbir Puar)

Puar goes on to describe theory, commonly associated with the academy, and praxis, frequently linked to activism, as a “species divide” noting that it “push[es] the metaphor of the shelf-life of an idea or term or how language and discourse is a field of forces and creation of nonlinear, destabilizing unpredictability” (2012).

James Baldwin argued, “The impossible is the least that one can demand” (Baldwin, 1963). Failing to demand the elimination of partitions keeps us from understanding our prismatic human faculty and intricacy. Understanding and navigating both capacity and complexity are necessary skills in resisting, and winning against, complex and adaptive structures of oppression. So while the forces of global (racial) capitalism, patriarchy and revamped race ideologies and their tools of tyranny (i.e.: borders, walls, police) are continually inventive, as active resisters of these schemes, regardless of our day-job, we must supersede the violence by being wide, unlimited, unpredictable, adaptive and complete. The unpredictability and possibility inherent in deconstructing unnecessary binaries through abolition is what precisely allows for new forms of organizing to unfold. It’s a different kind of discipline.

I will end my thoughts as someone very new to the academy. As a young twenty-something year-old dauntless proletariat Black woman, in PhD student garb whom co-fills activist, academic and many other spaces, I maintain that by not actively troubling hierarchies and the unserviceably narrow practices in academic/activist geographic practice, we contribute to the continual chafing in our quest for liberation. I am actively stretching what it is to be young, Black, woman and a scholar under capitalism. In both praxis and theory, there is power in numbers, authority in complexity and solidarity. Unbalanced seclusion and two-fold hierarchies keep us stationary and contained.  Boundary crossing and rejecting casted limits are our collective responsibility, our promise, and our tools.

See my original blog post on the activist/academic “divide” as I highlight yet another unnecessary binary here.


Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage International.

James, J. (2003). Academia, Activism, and Imprisoned Intellectuals. Social Justice, 30(2), pp.3-7.

Ohsawa, G. (1973). The unique principle: the philosophy of macrobiotics. Chico, CA:        George Ohsawa Macrobiotic Foundation.

Puar, J. (2012). Academic and Activist Assemblages: An Interview with Jasbir Puar.

Shakur, A. (1987). Assata. Chicago, Ill.: L. Hill.

Williams, R. (1977). Structures of Feeling. In: Marxism and Literature, 1st ed. Oxford University Press, pp.129-135.

Wilson Gilmore, R. (2008). Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning. In: C. Hale, ed., Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, 1st ed. London: University of California Press, Ltd., pp.31-61.

Wilson Gilmore, R. (2015). Extraction: Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence.

Wilson, A. (1996). How We Find Ourselves: Identity Development and Two Spirit People. Harvard Educational Review, 66(2), pp.303-318.





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