In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science. I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty. Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance. Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller. Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject. Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.
When I first started teaching college writing, I did so as a former high school teacher. I was told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I should not identify myself as a secondary teacher. College teaching was more intellectual and exacting; in fact, high school teaching wasn’t even respected enough to be called teaching, especially in university English departments. It was 1998; I was 27 years old and quite perplexed. I just couldn’t get my head around what people were telling me in comparison with what I was seeing at the college: the MOST horrible teaching and curriculum design I had ever encountered.
At the time, Amazon was still relatively new as well as online bookstores. We were, after all, still using dial-up internet and AOL! This means that college bookstores actually ordered all of the books for students and created what were then called “course packets”— the binder that the bookstore created with the photocopied readings that you would use in the semester. That’s probably why I knew my readings and weekly course plans before a semester started… you HAD to back then. There was no possibility of finding a photocopy machine, emailing students in advance of class (not all had email), or using smartboard/electronic lecterns to share a new departure from the syllabus. At that college where I was told to never mention the fact of my high school teaching, I did what I had done as a college student: I went into the bookstore and looked at what every professor at the college assigned for the semester. That’s how I chose my college courses as an undergraduate student— who seemed to actually offer real learning based on what we would read? I remember that day at my new college teaching post very well. There was one professor on the whole campus who assigned a Toni Morrison book. I was THAT professor, the adjunct and former high school teacher supposedly so intellectually challenged by the curricular requirements of college learning and teaching that she was the only one who included Toni Morrison. If the classroom teaching and curriculum was bad, then the “official” faculty professional development was even WORSE!
Thank you also to the Africana Studies Department’s willingness to embrace what Abdul Alkalimat, in his definition of eBlack Studies, has called “a new conception of mapping our existence in cyberspace.” We are proud of you, Andrene!
This is that time of year when I spend a great deal of time online watching videos and reading articles on how to moisturize my hair. Between the on-and-off again single-digit cold weather, my hair is dryyyyy. It’s the typical saga of natural hair for black women in cold winters. Because my hair has changed its length and texture since my no-heat commitment, it seems that what worked last year doesn’t work this year. This isn’t a lament about black hair though, because I actually like looking at these blogs, articles, and videos. The images are stunningly beautiful, the sistas are often funny as all get-out, and the advice is ON. POINT.
It’s the language of it all that fascinates me. It’s always in the language, like these phrasings and positioning:
Protective styling (and headwrapping)
Avoiding over-worked hair
Understanding and mixing shea butter
Letting the scalp heal (especially if newly non-relaxed)
Working and nurturing the roots
I’ll just go for broke and say it straight out: only black women could and would talk about HAIR— their bodies— this way… and digitally so AT THAT! It’s a discourse wrapped in notions of freedom from work and destruction.
It should not come as a surprise that my conversations with black women, from the compliments to the sharing of styles and product purchases, are qualitatively and quantitively different. Those conversations are so foreign to most white women around me that this may as well be a language other than English. In many ways, this IS another language. We are talking Afrikan experience. What other women would make the healing of roots, self-protection, and rejuvenation with shea butter the road to survival?
You can see then why I was so stunned by a recent blog article circling the internet about a young white woman expressing her turmoil when she realized, during yoga, that the “young, fairly heavy black woman” behind her must resent her thin, white body. Yeah. You can’t make this up! On top of living a racist delusion, she has co-opted a spiritual, non-western practice, YOGA (we seem to forget that yoga was not invented by middle class white women), to experience a false racial superiority.
Now, can sumbody please tell me why women who invent and design practices and languages just to maintain non-white alternatives to their HAIR—with digital tools to educate and sustain one another about it— would be pining away at white women’s bodies? If that weren’t enough, this white woman also configures herself as an advanced yoga practitioner, but if this is where her mind is during the process, what the hell kinda yogi is this? I enjoyed Kristin Iversen’s discussion who critiques the commercial white feminism of the journal alongside white colonization of yoga. I also value Tressiemc.com’s review of research on black girls who also have a critique of white standards of beauty at a young age. That’s why I am confused by the black women who perceive this moment as a possibility for good dialogue. Good for whom? Black women? This moment replicates nothing more than Sylvia Wynter’s now longstanding critique of white femininity in her analysis of the Tempest in its depiction of Miranda: the only woman in the New World/Island, the “mode of physiognomic being” that gets canonized as the only “rational object of desire” and “genitrix of a superior mode of human life.”
I won’t mention this woman’s name, because she is not worthy of that. Just trust that her own physical appearance in no way matches the admiration and awe that she thinks her body engenders. I ain’t sayin she ugly, but she sho ain’t cute. For black women out there who do aspire to whiteness, this ain’t the white woman they would be aesthetically mimicking (especially when she is sweaty and funky.) How does someone of such absolute visual mediocrity become convinced she is the center of physical attraction? As is so strikingly evident here, it is a pathologized, corporeal white-thinness alone that is supposed to mark aesthetic power and desire. Truth is, this little dumb blog post isn’t worth the attention it has received (and brought the writer into focus in ways she was perhaps too young to understand, though the journal surely did, with the intimacies of her personal life now publicly on display, i.e., drug abuse). For my part, I will keep moisturizing my natural hair and using a black woman’s language with black women to navigate the world. I won’t be standing behind any white woman any time soon with the desire of being that. I have my own self and black women’s language to sustain me.
I remain amazed that Black History Month oftentimes still celebrates decontextualized people and events. If the context were the substance, however, we would be promoting new thinking and radical action. Hardly seems a coincidence that we have one model and not the other. Today I find myself thinking about Sojourner Truth and the ways that my students have talked about learning from her. This is a post that I wrote last spring that reminds me today of what Black History compels us to really do and understand. _________________
In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two
flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.” It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist. The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair. I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration). I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new. The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.) That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess. Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now. I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.
As soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her
flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another. I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot. I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times. Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop). In fact, in these past nine years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators. When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me. It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was. Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues, especially those of color, who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late. In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch. You see, these are women who read men and nations.
These women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head is a RARITY! Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends. That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus. I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school. These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands). They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color.
I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly, those who will read the institution out loud with you, the sistafriends who read institutional racism AND patriarchy. Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of male rappers (these are easy targets). I am talking about the women who also criticize the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color. My sistafriends at my first college didn’t just co-sign misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, meeting with female students “after class”, texting/ calling/ closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence like the white women on campus did. Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years. You see, these were women who read men AND nations. They are the legacy of someone like Sojourner Truth.
”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations” are the famous words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit. I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mix throughout a semester— always noticing how the black women who we have studied were reading their social environments! “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are. I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it. Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is about the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men). I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity.
My students’ reverberating references to Sojourner Truth also compel me to be a different kind of teacher-researcher. Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions. This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree. However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved). At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their “prior knowledge” which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses. So I push myself to see recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’ get treated.
Today, when I celebrate, recognize, or honor someone like Sojourner Truth, I must remember to do more than study her life. We should all be pushing ourselves to analyze the world the way that she did. That would, indeed, be a different kind of Black History Month!
I have fond, childhood memories of this time: the kitchen of the aunt who helped raise me and the joy and laughter everywhere when we were stuck inside in the Ohio, winter months. I have memories of my cousins, the single mothers, who always talked to me like an adult even when I was really young, explaining how they planned and saved money for their children’s gifts beginning in July and August. They were all struggling in all kinds of ways but always saw to it that their children would smile every Christmas morning (it was only as an adult that I figured out that my mother was doing the same.) It wasn’t about the gifts ever, just surrounding their children with the kind of wonder and awe that poor people are not supposed to experience. The financial planning that working class/working poor single mothers did back then during the holidays (no one I knew had credit cards) represents a financial genius that could re-organize our collapsing economic system, if that was what we really wanted! A working class, single mother who is doing it all on her own, without the social imprint of needing male (sexual) attention or patriarchal protection, has a formidable skills-set, at this time of the year and every other time. So every year around now, I especially remember these women. I certainly see and appreciate all of the listings of suggested eco/cultural/conscious gifts to buy during the holidays, but I also remember an anti-capitalist analysis of the greatest ploy in the Western world to keep today’s working class in debt. It was young, working class black single mothers— my very own cousins who made me into the little sister who would carry their heart’s torch— who gave me this political lens.
At this time of year, I also turn my gaze to the Winter Solstice, thanks to the help of a college friend a few years back who has shared some of the most significant spiritual insights with me. Now, let me be clear. I am no Solstice Purist, Expert, or ardent Practitioner. There have been times when I try to get out of Solstice work by seeking an astrological reading. The results usually tell me that I’m stubborn, stank, and sometimes rather unyielding, things I already know. I don’t get much from this information other than, perhaps, a justification for why I have a tendency to yell at folk in the NYC subway: “get…YO… a$%… out… the… way!” (I mean, really, you canNOT stop and answer a text message on a subway stairway when 50 people are coming full force behind you!) I have, thus, figured that I can’t really replace the opportunities that the Winter Solstice provides with an “astrological reading.”
The Winter Solstice takes place this year for four days and four nights, December 21 to December 24 (according to nautical calendars), the time when the sun is at its southernmost position. This is that time when the sun rises at the latest in the day and sets at the earliest of the entire year. The day is shortest; the night is longest. For the Ancients in Kemet, enlightenment is literally written into the cosmos, in this very movement of the sun and stars. Light gradually increases in the winter sunrise, hence, offering a kind of spiritual rebirth. This means that you can use the time of the Winter Solstice to discover your purpose and realize true spiritual power, but only if you slow down and tap into it.
My ideas are shaped mostly from Ra Un Nefer Amen who makes a plea for intensive meditation during the Winter Solstice when the gates between the spiritual realm and the lived world are open (by spiritual realm, he means spirit, subconscious, or even what Jung called unconscious.) Though I am not following his prescriptive formula for meditation at the Solstice, Ra Un Nefer Amen’s teachings seem invaluable, namely that we often live out a toxic program that we intentionally create for ourselves. We are not passive onlookers of our own lives and instead invent and design our own programs of stunning self-destruction with the choices we make: how we spend our money, who we choose to have intimate relationships with, how we treat our bodies/our health, and how we approach or stall our work/career. Since spirit carries out the behavior that manifests these negative things in our lives, then spirit is what we need to work on. What makes ancient cultures important here (Amen’s focus is on Kemet) is that they believe the Winter Solstice was the time that the spirit could receive a new message and, therefore, discard old, toxic programming. Getting rid of a toxic program is not an easy thing, a feat few people ever really achieve (and spend a lot of money on therapy for), hence, the importance and weight of the intervention of the Winter Solstice. These are all, of course, very simplistic lenses into what Kemetic philosophers like Amen believe and say, but you see where I am going here.
My ruminations here on the Winter Solstice might seem strange or even offensive to friends who are, on one side, atheist or agnostic, and, on the other side, deeply committed to their specific church or religious doctrines. I myself have not been fully acculturated into these belief systems and do not go any deeper than what I have said here. I intend no disrespect to anybody, only the suggestion that the ways the Ancients saw these coming days, the axes of the sun, the value of deep meditation, and the general process where you slowwww down can’t be all that bad. I can’t see a more pressing need for exactly such a practice when all anyone seems to be doing now is spending money, accruing debt and interest on charge cards, running around frantically, or being angry at hyper-consumerism. This seems like the best time for me to be tapping into who I am and all that I can still become. Though I couldn’t articulate it back then, I now see the working class/working poor single mothers who cocooned my girlhood as women who must have been able to tap into a powerful site where their spirit resided. Yes, they used their youth, radical black female subjectivity and working class consciousness to read their political environments brilliantly, but they also lived their lives from a powerful center/spirit. There is just no other way that you can move the kinds of mountains they did without that. As I finish my last days grading and work towards the challenge of reconnecting with my own spirit, I’ll be thinking of them.