Returning the public to the commons


 We went to the public hospital but it was private, but we went through the marked ‘private’ to the nurses’ coffee room, and it was public. We went to the public university but it was private, but we went to the barber shop on campus and it was public. We went into the hospital, into the university, into the library, into the park. We were offered credit for our debt. We were granted citizenship. We were given the credit of the state, the right to make private any public gone bad. Good citizens can match credit and debt. They get credit for knowing the difference, for knowing their place. Bad debt leads to bad publics, publics unmatched, unconsolidated, unprofitable. We were made honorary citizens. We honored our debt to the nation. We rated the service, scored the cleanliness, paid our fees.

Harney and Moten, The Undercommons



Take me to another place, take me to another land

Make me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan

Then outta nowhere you tell me to break

Outta the country and into more country

Aerlee Taree and Speech, Tennessee



I am a person who boasts about being a product of the public. As a child, I spent my weekdays in public schools and Saturdays in public libraries. In my teens and early adulthood, I frequented the one and only art museum in Omaha, matriculated to the state’s land grant public university, and joined a union in my first salaried job when I was 20. The subtext of the boast is that I am of the people, one who did not purchase her social positioning through selective schools with their precisely populated social networks and abutment to preferred cultural knowledge. While the boast can be interpreted as a facile flirtation with individual accomplishment and therefore meritocracy, it can also be seen as an affirmation of the power of the public. But as I transition back to working for a public university after 13 years laboring in/for the private sector and witnessing the steady degradation of the public, neither of these interpretations holds much sway for me. Instead, I wonder how to eschew the public in favor of the commons.


Public institutions, including hospitals, schools, and government, are the constructs of a “developed” society. Education codifies the preparation of society’s members through their ability to participate in that society’s civic, meaning public, institutions. In my public high school, civics was a required course for all seniors, and the last vestige where the tracking that marked every other curricular area, was to be discarded. In U.S. society, these institutions, particularly education and the law, is said to be the backbone of democracy, in which the ability to engage democratically, through dialogue and polling, is the manifestation of democracy itself. And yet, tellingly, in my high school civics course, it was a vestige, a hollow gesture, to cross-sector dialogue let alone collectivity. The tracks had been set long ago, and the young people had learned to seek shelter with who they knew.


Public institutions are society’s creations. As institutions, they institutionalize. Not to be confused with government or individuals who hold specific positions, institutions govern and create governance. Governance is the will, the impulse, and the preference of a nation-state. A student can attend a university and may well learn but not without being touched by the state’s desired shape of a student. The student enters into a debt relationship with the institution of higher education, and not just financially. The institution, by relegating the student to a number, a one of many, also hones the student as a person in a queue, the object of rubrics and tyrannies of score averages. She may write for courses but also becomes the writer of a series of emails pleading for overrides to enroll in a course, release of work-study monies, a second chance when the first was squelched in still and always segregated schools. She is in debt. The university is her creditor.


The institution of higher education has also long been a slippery creditor of neighborhoods and communities. It began with land grant institutions, in which stolen Indigenous lands were bequeathed by the treaty-breaking federal government to ‘public’ institutions. The credit extends into the current boom of defense contracts to universities and urban “eds and meds,” the nickname for research one universities and their medical centers. The debt and credit relationship of higher education to land, neighborhoods, and communities has always been a complicated one. Higher education has become one of the largest private sector employers in Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston, to name just a few cities. Urban sites for universities and their medical centers were the first deep pocket entities to cross into government red-lined areas where Black Americans were meant to be restricted. In these same areas, as Davarian Baldwin wrote, urban pockets of skyrocketing rents and mortgages have edged out lower-income Black and brown residents to the peripheries. In a Gordian knot relationship, residents of Harlem, where the 1969 Gym Crow protests shut down Columbia University’s plans for a segregated recreational facility, now cautiously support the University’s plans to expand 17 acres of the neighborhood for the establishment of a $6 billion research center. Prior to proposing the plan for expansion, the university collaborated with the city’s planning departments and released a report about the “blighted” areas of West Harlem and Manhattanville. Creditors create debt to alleviate it.


In a 2008 press release about the expansion, Columbia stated:

A thriving system of higher education is essential to preserving New York’s historic role as a place that provides good middle-income jobs for a diversity of local citizens—and as a global center for attracting the great minds that make a difference in our society. What’s more, through the public amenities included in this state plan and other commitments, Columbia’s long-term growth will deliver a broad range of new civic benefits and University resources to those who live and work in our local community.


In 2016, eight years after this statement was issued, and with only a few initial steps being taken for the expansion, the average rent for a one-bedroom in apartment in West Harlem was $2875 per month. In 1990, it was $650/month. When I wrote in a café on 137th street not too long ago, I was one of two nonwhite people in the crowded space next to a Harlem Children’s Zone school, a charter school in what used to be NYC PS 338. The same block was a central location for the Harlem Renaissance. While no neighborhood or place stands still, neither should we be forgiven the debt of knowing what came before.


As Harney and Moten theorize, in the neoliberal governance of the public, the end game is for the debtor to become a creditor. If the student is honed well enough by the processes and policies of the university, she may ascend from being in debt to becoming a creditor. This premise is splintered by an appreciation of the political economy of capitalism, but there is a bigger break than economics. The debt and creditor relationship also forsakes the idea of debt as relational, as gift and connection, as the potential for a commons.


To refuse the choice as offered

Whereas like a bird darting from an oncoming semi my mind races to the Apology’s assertion “While the establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place”

Layli Long Soldier


Public institutions have become suffocated with governance of debt, creating debt in order to be the creditor. Whereas Columbia University deemed the lands of West Harlem to be blighted, the institution received “enthusiastic approval” from the community to expand. Whereas the University of California’s enrollment of Black students has steadily decreased over the past ten years, the majority of its small Black student enrollment is made of up of full fee paying international students. What other choice did the residents of Harlem, with soaring rents and diminishing middle class employment opportunities, have other than to accept the proposal of “mixed-use development” that Columbia offered? What choice does a voter have between approving of government acknowledgment of normative gay marriage or else become Archie Bunker? There is another choice and that is to refuse the conditions of the choice.

In Layli Long Soldier’s poem, she uses the language of policy and legalese, “whereas” and simultaneously darts from it, skirts it, and confronts it. Specifically, she speaks back to and samples from the language that President Obama used to Native communities in an apology that was never announced or made accessible to Native peoples. She also uses and splices the language that President Lincoln used in justifying the murder of 38 Lakota men in 1865, days before he signed the emancipation proclamation. Long Soldier refuses both. Her poetry is an act of agency and a surge of survivance.

As with so many political uprisings, in fact all of the uprisings of the 20th century and so far into the 21st, upheaval comes not from despair, suffering, and anguish but from textured optimism. The Black radical imagination and maroon communities created a commons based on the collective will for a reality beyond the shards of present conditions.

The conditions, though, have to be shattered for the rise and always already declining of the otherwise. The shattering is part of the enactment of the commons. Rather than sequential or chronological, the otherwise, as Octavia Butler, Robin DG Kelley, Arundhati Roy, Ashon Crawley, and Harney and Moten have differentially sketched, is in the lateral, multiple and horizontal. Harney and Moten wrote:

There will be a jubilee when the Global South does not get credit for discounted contributions to world civilization and commerce but keeps its debts, changes them only for the debt of others, a swap among those who never intend to pay, who will never be allowed to pay, in a bar in Penang, in Port of Spain, in Bandung, where your credit is no good.


Paradoxically, it can be through education that the public is vanquished in the interest of the commons. Because education generates governing rubrics with the regularity of eyelid blinks, it also does its best to encircle and sequester learning. Put another way, precisely because it was formal education that engaged in the unintended yet rarified self-satire of creating a rubric for social justice, it might be exactly the public space to shatter to give way to the commons. Shattering does not mean occupying public education with private-interested innovation, such as Teach for America or hedge-fund investor-backed charter schools. Innovation is still governance, wrapped up individualistic newness and settler quests for the Next Big Thing. Re-imagining public education, and universities in particular, means disambiguating the hologram relation but acute material absence that learning has to universities. Learning is in the palm of a brown child as her parent spells out the alphabet with finger tracings. Learning is in the letting go of what one knows to reach for an unknown. It owes nothing to formal education and can do formal education its largest gift, the kindest and most respectful idea of debt, to refuse to be in a lease relation to formal education as its creditor.


Public education’s governing of debts can, in tatters, give rise to learning that feeds learning, not to be the best A++ learner but to be in collective, dynamic learning relationships. Learning that is answerable to the ones who came before and ones yet to come. Life that is promiscuous in its way of being, instead of honed in to laboring tasks that are assessed annually.


What I wonder about, as I make my way back to public education that has yet to be fully for the public, is how can we be and learn together as an act of love. A love so high that we are willing to go right to the end of this world that doesn’t have much of a place for love or learning. How can we be together as a love of learning so that we can see and refuse how both love and learning have been made into metrics and ballot initiatives that suffocate their essence in favor of governmental oversight?


I want that world, that commons, that refuses the choices as they are given. In that refusal, is the seedling of a place where study belongs to itself and to everyone.


Works cited

Harney, S. M., & Moten, F. (2013). The undercommons: Fugitive planning and black study.



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