Published November 30, 2021
Episode 23 features Devonya Havis, PhD, a 2021-2022 UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Scholar, and, associate professor in Philosophy at Canisius College. Dr. Havis discusses her research examining the nature of truth and the importance of broadening the field of philosophy to include the ways in which people encountering struggle engage in critical engagement about their condition. Havis specifically explores community practices, black ancestral practices, as an archive or guide for practice on how to push back.
Keywords: critical philosophy, black ancestral practices, inclusion, disability studies.
…things that are celebratory, that are affirming, can also be forms of resistance. If we think about the Freedom Wall and how it evolved in Buffalo across from Bethel AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church. If we think about what that represents, when you stand in front of Buffalo's Freedom Wall, and that amazing artwork, it is an act of resistance, but it's also an act of celebration."
—Devonya Havis, PhD (2021 Baldy Center Podcast)
The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy
Podcast Season 3, Episode 23
Podcast recording date: November 1, 2021
Host-producer: Edgar Girtain
Speaker: Devonya Havis, PhD
Podcast transcript begins.
Edgar: Greetings, thank you for listening to The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy podcast produced by the University at Buffalo. I’m Edgar Girtain and today it is my pleasure to bring you a recent conversation I had with Dr. Devonya Havis. Devonya is a brilliant thinker with a unique and compelling perspective on Western philosophy. And in our conversation, she shares fascinating insights on resistance, black vernacular philosophy, and the role of the university in its surrounding community. Being that she is a professor at Canisius College here in Buffalo, I found her comments to be particularly relevant, and I hope you will too. Now, about Dr. Havis.
Dr. Devonya N. Havis is a 2021 to 22 UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Scholar and Associate Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College here in Buffalo, New York. She earned her PhD in philosophy from Boston College and her BA in religion from Williams College. Her scholarly engagements utilize insights from Michel Foucault, as a means of exploring issues in critical philosophy of race, critical disability studies, and phenomenology. Titles of some of her publications include: “‘Now, How You Sound’: Considering a Different Philosophical Praxis”; “Blackness Beyond Witness”; “Black Vernacular Phenomenon and Auditory Identity”; and “‘Seeing Black’ through Michel Foucault’s Eyes: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws as An Anchorage Point for State-Sponsored Racism,. These can be found in publications, such as Hypatia and Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Psychiatry. Her forthcoming book, Creating a Black Vernacular Philosophy will be available through Lexington books soon.
Without any further ado dear listeners here is Devonya Havis.
Edgar: I'm just glad that you were able to make it. I'm really happy that we can talk because I mean, reading your work and stuff, it's clear that there's so much that you have to say that is so important, and I'm really thrilled that you're here, I guess so the first question I have, you know, this is a very general kind of open-ended question, but I think it relates very specifically to the way in which you frame your work. What is philosophy and to whom does that definition apply?
Devonya: Oh, that's a nice big one. I think of philosophy as critical forms of theorizing and by critical, I mean, asking questions that push us to go beyond what is at the surface. Questions about how it is that we have come to a particular place or why it is that we take something to be what it is to be. If we think about something like truth, for example, on what basis do we deem something to be true, one, what basis do we deem something to be untrue? And how do we arrive at it? What are the social political and economic factors that lead us to those conclusions? And for me, that is the deep critical work that philosophy does. And I think that can be something that's very different than formal academic philosophy. And I'm not saying that formal academic philosophy doesn't do those things, but often there is much more gatekeeping about who can do them, in what tradition one is doing them, and whether or not one has had the education in a particular tradition. And therefore without that education, they might be excluded from engaging in that critical practice within that tradition. And I like the idea of broadening philosophy much more and having philosophy engage with a wider range of cross-disciplinary interests.
Edgar: How much have you found that idea has gained acceptance kind of in the wider community?
Devonya: In the wider community? Yes. And the formal community of philosophy, what I call philosophy proper, not so much. And I think to me that becomes an issue in terms of growing the discipline and expanding the discipline and having the discipline change in meaningful ways. It's also the case that when we think of what I'm going to call Western philosophy, our very construction of the west has excluded all kinds of people and excluded all kinds of influences on what we refer to in the discipline as Western philosophy. I mean, Greece was much more diverse, had much more influences from Africa than we would think. And you make me think about the philosophy honor society in the various continents represented in philosophy honor. society. Africa is not present, which seems to me a very glaring absence and granted these societies were often the larger national society that has branches was formed in the fifties. But the idea that you could exclude an an entire continent in terms of having an intellectual contribution, says a lot about the social and political formations of the discipline.
And so a lot of my work wants to push at those limitations and also talk about the ways that people who are encountering struggle, people who we might define as oppressed, the ways in which they actually engage in some very deep and meaningful, critical engagement about their condition.
Edgar: So what are the connections in your work between politics and philosophy? I noticed that Foucault is central to some of your ideas. Can you expand that a little bit?
Devonya: Sure. So Michel Foucault was a thinker that I came to in my undergraduate days, very early on. And he was a thinker that for me, gave expression to a lot of the kinds of questions I had been asking based on my life experience. And so Foucault really became a conduit for bringing to life some of the deeper questions I had, one of my big wins early on was how do we know normal? And on what basis are we judging people to be normal or not normal? And as anyone who's read, Foucault knows, these are some of the things that he takes on and madness and civilization and discipline and punish. This becomes an ongoing theme in the seventies for Foucault lectures on abnormal and so forth. As I began to read Foucault more and more, one of the things that emerged for me in his thinking was a way to talk about those things that were not given primacy in various traditions and disciplines, like madness. How does madness speak, how does the abnormal speak and what are the kinds of not traditional authority, but what is the power of acting through some of those alternative ways of viewing the world?
And that's really what got me into Foucault. I think also I'd like to say Foucault is for me a parallel with what I call community practices, what I've come to call in my work, black ancestral discourses, or black vernacular phenomena. So what I see Foucault making possible is an articulation within the academy of these practices that I have grown up with. Practices by people who find themselves in less than ideal material conditions or political conditions who nonetheless find ways to exercise various forms of power. And Foucault has an unconventional characterization of power as a network of force relations. And in that way, I think we can begin to talk about not only it powers that dominate and subjugate, but also the ways in which people who are under the pressure of those subjugating powers resist because for Foucault, whenever there is an exercise of power, there is also an exercise of resistance to that power.
Edgar: So how do black ancestral discourses factor into a power dynamic or not?
Devonya: Well, you know, people often say, well for Foucault there's always power and you can never get out of power. And I think that's true to some extent. I also think that there are always ways in which people will push back. And when I think about the notion of black ancestral discourses, I think of those as an epistemological repository for ways of pushing back. I mean, granted, there are other things, but when I'm thinking about them in a lot of ways, it is a record, an archive and a sort of guide for practice on how to push back that is collected among many generations that involves analysis of certain conditions. And it is a way of pushing back that you can't pre predict what action will be necessary or what action will be resistant, but you can certainly have a roadmap that helps you assess and guide, an index, how one might act. And I think of black ancestral discourses as that, but also, and more importantly for my work, it's also a characterization and a way of celebrating the life and experiences of black people writ large. And I'm sure other people have this, but I'm talking specifically about this cultural formation.
Edgar: So I know you've done some work, particularly in Buffalo, working with the community, putting into action, what you call, philosophical practice, right? What's some of the work that you've done, can you tell us about it?
Devonya: Sure, so at Canisius College and in the Jesuit tradition, there is a process of taking students, usually into communities where they can engage in solidarity with communities that have been marginalized. And often this work happens a long way from the United States. Maybe it's in El Salvador, Philippines, where else people go on Argentina. And so forth.
Edgar: I actually live in the south of Chile. And this whole area that I live in was originally colonized by Jesuit. There's a whole island here actually where Jesuit priests worked with the indigenous people and mixed the indigenous traditions with like a Spanish version of them. And they created this kind of like hybrid kind of society that continues to this day. It's, I mean it's interesting.
Devonya: I mean, there are valuable aspects of that also challenging and difficult aspects of that history. It is a history of going into places and being in solidarity, not always understanding those places, the way the people who live there understand those places and not always taking up the commitments that have been taken up by the people who live there. And so this was a tradition. It is still an ongoing way of doing one’s service and secondly, of being engaged with various communities. So I was on one of these trips in the Philippines, standing on a landfill where people in the Philippines who self-described as scavengers, make their living off of getting things out of the landfill, repurposing them, selling what's valuable. And a student came up to me and said, does this happen back at home? And I paused. And I said, no, it doesn't because garbage has privatized in the United States.
And then I started to think, what does it mean in a world where even garbage is privatized, that people cannot eke a living out of garbage. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's fine to go thousands of miles away to do these kinds of trips and seminars. But the part that we really avoid is what's in our backyard, what's in our back door. And so I began to think about what it would mean for us to do an immersion in our own backyard and our own neighborhood in communities where we are to some extent complicit in their marginalization. And so what emerged was what we call immersion east side. And so we go into the east side of Buffalo with students not to do service. And this is a very important feature. We don't do service because in order to do service, we need to learn more.
Within the Jesuit tradition there is a saying by one of the priests whose last name is Hollenbach and he says, we need to develop a well-educated solidarity. And that has kind of been our rallying cry. That in order to be in solidarity with people, you really need to understand the history that has brought about their circumstance. You need to understand the circumstance and you need to sit with people to understand what is important for them. So helping seemed to me within that framework to be what I call colonial, if you're coming in and helping it presumes that, you know what the problem is that you understand what the stakes are and that you have the power and authority to do something, what does it then mean to work in partnership with people? And that's a lot of how this engagement began. And as I say to our students, we're not doing service, but if we arrive at a location and they want to put us in service, we will do what is asked of us.
If we need to weed a public garden, if we need to serve food, because we are in a location that is a food pantry or a food station for people, we will do that. But the goal is not to go in and do service. The goal is to understand and get some historical background. And I think that for me, this is also a parallel with the discipline of philosophy, right? Philosophy often wants to go in and explain what's going on in a community within a preexisting framework. What does it mean to be in partnership with a different tradition? What does it mean to allow it to alter the way in which you do your philosophy or you practice Western philosophy?
Edgar: So without naming any specific institutions, what are some of the ways that the university communities in Buffalo have participated in implicit marginalization of people that live in Buffalo?
Devonya: I'm going to take on service learning as a thing and talk about my experience in many courses that I have taught that have required service learning. So I'm not throwing anybody else under the bus, but I'm talking about my own experience of what happens when students often go out to do service learning. Often students who want to do this are very well intentioned. They are students who really want to make change. They're students who are concerned about injustice and inequity in our society. And they go into often community settings and the very biases that they have are reinforced rather than unsettled or complicated. And it strikes me that if we, as faculty, as teachers are having experiences where we're observing service learning not really broadening or altering how our students are seeing the world, but in fact, reinforcing some pernicious stereotypes and images, then we have to ask questions about what it is that we're doing when we do service learning.
And so I think in a lot of ways, we see things at the moment of the problem rather than understanding the complexity of how problems come into existence. And it also means that our attention is focused on resolving the problem, not simultaneously addressing the problem and figuring out how to keep this problem from happening. And part of that tension got us in this particular course to begin to talk about the distinction between upstream and downstream intervention. And so if you think about a downstream intervention, it is often what we're doing when we do service. So one of our mantras is we want to create a world in which service is not necessary in that sort of colonial way. To put it into shorthand, if you're downstream at a river and you see a baby floating in the river, your compassionate and empathetic impulse is going to be to rush into the river and pull the baby out and to save the baby.
And there's nothing wrong with that, but let's say you're standing there in that river and babies keep floating down and you're pulling babies out and you're constantly pulling babies out. After a while you're going to want to stop and go upstream to see how babies are getting into the river in the first place. And so a lot of our focus is thinking about this upstream problem and to understand the upstream problem, I think really requires a lot of work in partnership with people who are living in these conditions, who are experiencing the long term government, not being available to do certain things, be it red lining, be it disinvestment, be it just attitudes about the nature of the people who live in particular sections of the city. So I think that's a lot of how people in communities are marginalized. Not because people have ill intent, but because of the frameworks we are using to think about our engagement and interaction with those communities.
Edgar: So I should clarify the listeners that you're an invited distinguished scholar by the center for diversity innovation. So you're kind of in a very special position as both an insider and outsider in the UB community. And you also hold the very special position that a professor at Canisius College, so you're intimately familiar with Buffalo. And I just want to say on a personal note that I participated last year, I was part of the cohort of the mentorship circles with the center for diversity innovation. And it's a wonderful program. And any students or faculty who are listening and know about the program, I hope that they get involved, they send their students to get involved.
Devonya: Yes, and even though applications have closed out, we are still open to people who want to participate. So deadlines are important, but don't allow them to divert you if you have a pressing desire to participate.
Edgar: From your point of view, do you have any ideas of ways that the UB School of Law can help address any of these issues?
Devonya: Let me go in, in a couple of different ways, because I do think UB School of Law has a unique relationship or sets of relationships with various groups that are offering legal services to help ameliorate certain conditions that arise because people are under-resourced because they are having specific kinds of legal problems that attach to that condition of being under-resourced, because people are dealing with housing issues and so forth. So I think UB law has been active in various ways, and I don't know a whole lot about it, but I understand that there's a kind of equity justice initiative through UB Law. So I don't think people lack the desire or are engaging in ignoring these issues. I think for me, the larger question is how do we enter into these spaces in ways that are respectful and conscious and in partnership with the ways that people think about themselves.
And as a concrete kind of example, I was at a virtual conference and someone was talking about people who are racialized as nonwhite in particular, black people as victims. And I'm sort of like I was sitting there turning my head because I identify as a black woman. And I'm like, well, I don't think of myself as a victim. I think that I experienced limitations and constraints that are frustrating and that put me at various disadvantages, but there's something disempowering about being framed only as a victim. And so it seems to me that a lot of the important work is around finding new language to talk about the kinds of constraints that people find themselves in while simultaneously allowing them to have agency despite those constraints. And when I talk about partnership or being in relationship with people, it seems to me that those are ways of beginning to shift how we think about power.
So in my work I've really been playing around with the idea of unfreedom. So am I oppressed or am I unfree? And I think I am unfree.
Edgar: What's the difference?
Devonya: The difference to me is making room for the ways in which people push back or refuse this condition of unfreedom. So I can engage in practices that push back against unfreedom, even if I can't entirely change the systems and structures that make me unfree. And when I'm oppressed, it's this blanket experience where all I can be is oppressed and then as an oppressed subject, one becomes a victim. One becomes immiserated, one becomes in need of saving by someone who has power. And it seems to me that that obscures the ways in which people that we may describe as oppressed actually understand critically and deeply their own condition. And they may even have strategies for pushing back against that position. They don't necessarily need other people to come in and tell them what this condition is. They need partners that allow them to exercise those strategies, that open up spaces that began to shift the constraints. And so I think for me, that's a huge distinction and it's taken me a while intellectually to begin to figure out how to articulate that. But I am struck by the extent to which we as academics myself included have these descriptors that are not necessarily from within a particular community. And that a lot of the work that I see that needs to be done is better understanding and better incorporating how people talk about themselves, how they shape their own community narratives and how those narratives also carry forms of resistance, ways of being empowered in an acting agency.
Edgar: What are some pushback strategies that you've seen in action that you think might fall outside of the common repertoire, something that you think that comes from downstream?
Devonya: If I think historically? And let's talk a little bit about Buffalo. So the union local, and I can't remember the number, but the colored musicians' club is a really prevalent historical anchor in Buffalo's east side community. And the colored musicians' club came about. If people don't know this history because even unions were segregated. And so this union was formed of colored musicians. They happened to buy their own building at the time. Among other things that unionization allowed for these musicians is that they get paid a scale wage. It meant that they could support their families in certain ways.
Edgar: Better than most musicians nowadays.
Devonya: Right? But it also meant that the union local could create their own financial systems. In other words, they could develop a credit union that could lend money, that could do a variety of things even under segregation. And so when we were looking at, they celebrated their hundredth anniversary a couple of years ago, and my students were like hurray and ultimately integrated. And I was sort of like, well, wait a minute. It was a forced kind of integration that the institutions that were developed under segregation, and I'm not here celebrating segregation. I'm just saying that some of the unanticipated effects of integration can be damaging to forms of resistance and institutions that build up under segregation to address specific needs. So what integration meant was that this historic union local was required to integrate with, and integration is always toward the white union local, which says something about what gets privileged despite our talk of integration. And if it weren't for the fact that they own this building, this institutional pillar would have kind of fallen into dust in ways that I think would be really tragic. And so when we talk about forms of resistance, they happened in localized ways to address localized problems, but they become possibility models for other ways of being engaged. And this is incredibly important, iconic institution in Buffalo that rather than being strengthened by integration could have been destroyed by integration. And that to me is the crux of what's what's at stake here.
Edgar: But resistance is also very tiring.
Edgar: I mean, wears out an individual to constantly have to resist against oppression or unfreedom. Right. So how can institutions model themselves for long-term success when they begin from a place of resistance and not get burnt out? Right?
Devonya: Yes. I think burnout is real. I think the ways in which younger folks and by younger folks, I mean, people who are a part of this new movement that is aligned with things like black lives matter. And just in general, I'm hearing many more young people who are focused on mental health in a way that I haven't heard the broader conversation about mental health, about wellbeing, about wellness practices. And I think that's important. I also think that things that are celebratory that are affirming can also be forms of resistance. If we think about the freedom wall and how it evolved in Buffalo, the freedom wall, which is across from Bethel AME church over on Michigan street. If we think about what that represents, when you go stand in front of the freedom wall and that amazing artwork, it is an act of resistance, but it's also an act of celebration. And I think those are rejuvenating forms. I think when we talk about art in musical forms like jazz or hip hop or the blues, they may come out of forms of active resistance, but they are also points of celebration and joy of embracing and recreating life. So I would say two things, yes actively resisting all the time is exhausting and not always sustainable, and two, there are forms of resistance that are world building and thereby rejuvenating. And so, a lot of it is focusing on how we create the world that we want to see. And how to we employ institutions to utilize the resources, to be in partnership with people who are doing that kind of building. And, really my model for that is critical disability studies that really talks to us about accessibility.
How do we make the world accessible rather than what one of my philosophy colleagues calls dismembering. In other words, if we are engaged in institutions that dismember us, how do we produce institutions that as my colleague Jen Scuro describes as enmembering. Maybe we need a prosthesis like glasses, or a notetaker, or someone who translates what the academic layout is to someone who is new is new to academia, who hasn’t had parents who have been to college before. Those are maybe artificial insertions but they’re necessary to make the architecture of the place accessible. And so, I think if we think more broadly about the ways in which accessibility is good for everyone not just something that we have to do to accommodate people who already don’t fit. That’s a way of realigning our institutional resources to be more accessible. And I say more accessible because when we talk about inclusion, we have to ask ourselves included in what? Sometimes the very model of what we’re describing is an exclusionary model and we’re merely making an accommodation to let someone in. So accessibility a way of thinking about broader design in ways that allow all to participate even before we understand the barriers that are preventing someone from even getting through the front door.
Edgar: That’s beautiful. I have so many more questions and so many more things that I’d love to hear your thoughts on. I hope that you’ll come back.
Edgar: Thank you very much for your time and have a wonderful day.
Devonya: Thank you for your interest. Bye bye.
Edgar: Take care.
That was Devonya Havis, UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Scholar and this has been The Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy Podcast produced by the University at Buffalo. Let us know what you thought about this conversation on our twitter @BaldyCenter. You can also learn more about the center on our website buffalo.edu/baldycenter. The theme music for this season was composed by University at Buffalo Department of Music PhD student Matias Homar. My name is Edgar Girtain, and on behalf of The Baldy Center, we appreciate you listening to our program. Thank you and take care.
End of transcript.
Devonya N. Havis, PhD, is a 2021-22 UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar. Her scholarly engagements utilize insights from US Black cultures and Michel Foucault to explore issues in Critical Philosophy of Race, Contemporary Continental Philosophy, and Critical Disability Studies. Havis has also been developing decolonial models for service and experiential learning.
Edgar Girtain is host/producer of the 2021-22 Edition of The Baldy Center Podcast. He is a PhD student in the music department at SUNY Buffalo, where he studies with David Felder. Girtain is a director of the Casa de Las Artes at the University of Southern Chile (UACh), and president of the Southern Chilean Composers Forum (FoCo Sur).He is an eminent composer, pianist, and writer of his own biographies. Girtain's diverse areas of work are often collaborative, cross-disciplinary, and international in ambition if not in practice.